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Fantastic Voyage

New concert program by Michael Arnowitt, pianist

Program notes by Michael Arnowitt

Schumann’s op. 12 Fantasy Pieces is considered a landmark work of early Romanticism. Inspired by the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, the composition is a brilliant exploration of the twin sides of Schumann’s personality: the passionate extrovert side, which he called Florestan, and the dreamy introvert side, which he called Eusebius. The set includes Schumann’s imaginative depiction of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare.

Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata is the centerpiece of his “War Trilogy” of three sonatas he wrote in Russia during World War II. It was premiered in January 1943 by my favorite pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, who claimed to have learned it in four days. Richter spoke of the music’s portrayal of “a world that has lost its balance ... but we continue to feel and love. We find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life-force.” The propulsive finale, marked Precipitato, is one of the most exciting, high-energy pieces of piano music ever written.

Chopin’s Ballade in F minor is the last and greatest of the four he composed. I first performed the piece as a teenager, and have subsequently relearned it three times at different points in my life, always finding new wonders in this masterpiece, an epic story expressed on a large canvas.

The beautiful “Cavatina” movement of Beethoven’s string quartet in B-flat major was composed near the end of Beethoven’s life and was honored to be chosen as the final selection on the “Golden Record” placed on the Voyager spacecraft sent into outer space in the 1970’s, a phonograph recording sampling Earth’s sounds, languages, and music.

Arthur Lourié has I think been well described as one of the most interesting forgotten composers of the 20th century. He grew up in Russia, where he became lovers with Anna Akhmatova, my favorite poet of all time. In the early 1920’s, he moved to Paris and became a colleague of Stravinsky, then eventually settled in America. I had never even heard of Lourié until a few years ago and really fell in love with his music. Unusually for a composer, each of his pieces sounds different from each other, and I’ve chosen three for this program that are just the tip of the iceberg of his enormous creativity. The title A Phoenix Park Nocturne refers to a section of James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake depicting the different behaviors of people, birds, and exotic animals in the park zoo as they settle down for the night. The Mazurka inhabits a dreamworld with tinkly out of tune resonances that remind me of the sound of a music box. Finally, the March, dedicated to Vladimir Horowitz, is full of humor and energetic good spirits. Lourié’s music strikes me as a deeper, more multi-dimensional version of some of the character traits of the eccentric French composer Erik Satie.

Lowell Liebermann’s 1989 set Gargoyles, recently performed by the great Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, brings the concert to an exciting close with its Prokofiev-like magical colors, spunk, and rambunctious hijinks. It has become one of the most talked about piano compositions of recent decades. The first selection can be interpreted a number of ways, to me it has a cosmic, aerial quality, the gargoyles high up on the cathedral roofs merging into the sky, or alternatively, one might hear the music as representing the play of water through and out the mouths of the gargoyle sculptures during a rain. Like Ravel’s famous Jeux d’eau (The fountain), most of the piece is in the upper half of the piano. The finale perhaps evokes the fiery, dragon element of these fantastical creatures whose ugly appearance turns into a positive, protecting us in our sanctuaries from external dangers.

First performances

Saturday, September 15, 2018, 7:30 pm
Barre Opera House, Barre, Vermont
sponsored by Capital City Concerts

Saturday, September 29, 7:30 pm
Baker-Tran Center for the Arts
226 Geary Ave., Toronto
Free concert - no tickets necessary


Robert Schumann - Fantasy Pieces, op. 12
Sergei Prokofiev - Sonata no. 7 in B-flat, op. 83
Frederic Chopin - Ballade no. 4 in F minor, op. 52
Ludwig van Beethoven - Cavatina, from Quartet op. 130, transcribed for piano by Michael Arnowitt
Arthur Lourié - A Phoenix Park Nocturne, Mazurka op. 7 no. 1, and Marche from Quatre pièces
Lowell Liebermann - no. 3 and 4 from Gargoyles, op. 29 (1989)

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