Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Lahav Shani, chief conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano

ROTTERDAM PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Lahav Shani, chief conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano

The exceptional artistry of the Rotterdam Philharmonic comes to Washington, D.C., for the first time in more than two decades. Under the baton of Chief Conductor Lahav Shani, the orchestra fosters a truly immersive experience for newcomers and music lovers alike. Superstar pianist Daniil Trifonov joins the orchestra for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 “Jeunehomme,” in a dazzling display of talent that will leave audiences spellbound. Also on the program are excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and Arvo Pärt’s moving and contemplative Swansong, based on the final lines of one of Cardinal Newman’s renowned sermons, both hymn-like and prayerful.

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Program Details

Arvo Pärt – Swansong
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major
Sergei Prokofiev – Selections from Romeo and Juliet

“Intense…impressive…impossible to resist.” 

New York Times

Program Notes

Pärt – Swansong

Swansong
Arvo Pärt
Born September 11, 1935, Paide, Estonia

Though the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is now 88, as recently as thirty years ago he was almost unknown in the West. Trained in Tallinn, Pärt supported himself as a recording engineer for Estonian Radio as he tried to make his way as a composer in a society rigidly controlled by conservative Soviet tastes. Rebelling against the conformity and simplicity of that approach, Pärt began to experiment: first with serialism (at a time when that was forbidden in Soviet music), then with collage techniques, and later with the plainchant of early religious music. Without any knowledge of minimalism as it was then evolving in the United States, Pärt arrived at similar compositional procedures by himself, and his music is built on the same hypnotic repetition of simple materials, in his case often derived from early church music. Much of Pärt’s music has been inspired by his Orthodox faith. Pärt and his family emigrated to Germany in 1980, but they have since returned to Estonia.

The composer’s website has made available a program note for his Swansong:

Composed in 2013, Swansong was inspired by the commission of the Mozartwoche Festival in Salzburg, where Arvo Pärt was the festival composer in 2014. It is an orchestral version of Littlemore Tractus, initially written for choir and organ in celebration of the 200th anniversary of cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–1890). Cardinal Newman was a very important person in 19th century England – a minister, theologian, poet, and thinker who wished to bring Catholic liturgical traditions to the Anglican Church. In 1845, he converted to Catholicism, causing serious polemic in church circles. In 2010, Newman was declared ‘Blessed’ by Pope Benedict XVI.

The work is based on the final lines of one of Newman’s most famous sermons, “Wisdom and Innocence,” held on 19 February 1843 in Littlemore. Over time, this short poetic text has become an independent prayer, used also in Anglican funeral liturgy. The prayer for “a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last” has found a hymn-like expression in Pärt’s music.

Swansong was premiered in January 2014, with Mark Minkowski conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. The Estonian premiere took place in summer 2015 at the Pärnu Music Festival, performed by the festival orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.

Program note by Eric Bromberger

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 9

Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K.271 (“Jeunehomme”)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

In January 1777, a pianist from Paris visited Salzburg. Her name was Mademoiselle Jeunehomme, and Mozart must have been impressed by her playing, because for her visit he composed a piano concerto far beyond anything imagined before. Earlier keyboard concertos, including Mozart’s own, had descended from the baroque concerto, in which the solo instrument was essentially absorbed into the orchestral texture and allowed only brief moments when it broke free from that ensemble. With this concerto Mozart transforms–transcends! –that entire tradition: now soloist and orchestra are equals, they share the presentation and development of ideas, and the concerto suddenly evolves from a simple display piece into a form suited to the most serious musical expression. But what is equally remarkable is the new depth evident here. From a young man who had spent the previous year writing church music, serenades, and choral canons that–while technically accomplished–are unremarkable, suddenly comes music full of contrast, a sense of space and scope, and–in the slow movement–a new intensity of feeling. Alfred Einstein has called this concerto “Mozart’s Eroica,” suggesting that just as Beethoven suddenly expanded the whole conception of the symphony in the Eroica, Mozart here did the same for the piano concerto.

Mozart shatters precedent in the first moments of the Allegro. The orchestra opens with a one-measure figure, and the piano leaps in to complete the phrase itself. The orchestra repeats its opening gesture, and once again the piano takes over to complete the phrase. This opening establishes the most unusual feature of the first movement–the equality of piano and orchestra and their mutual development of ideas. When the piano later makes its main entrance, it further declares its independence by introducing completely new material. But first the orchestra lays out a wealth of ideas, and when the piano eventually enters, it arrives imaginatively on a long trill. Mozart’s development, largely motivic, is focused and brief, and the recapitulation is enlivened by the new sonorities he generates as familiar themes return in new instrumental colors.

The Andantino, in C minor, is the first movement in any Mozart concerto in a minor key. Often compared to an aria from a tragic opera because of its intense and expressive lyric lines, this movement opens with a pulsing, dark theme from muted violins in their lowest register, a theme that sets the mood for the entire movement (and it is a mark of the new sophistication of this concerto that the two violin sections are in canon here). Though the Andantino later moves into radiant E-flat major, it remains deeply affecting throughout, prefiguring the great slow movements of Mozart’s late piano concertos. The concluding movement is a propulsive rondo, though even here Mozart introduces an original touch. Midway through, he brings the music to a halt and inserts a lengthy minuet (marked Cantabile), which he then treats to four elaborate variations. If the dark expressiveness of the slow movement suggested opera seria, the decorative elegance of these variations takes us into the world of opera buffa. This extended interlude stands in pleasing contrast to the energy of the rondo theme, and Mozart makes the transition back to the rondo with great skill–when that Allegro finally arrives, we feel that we have suddenly stepped back onto a speeding train.

The Concerto in E-flat Major is in all ways an original piece of music, one of those rare works that in one stroke expand the possibilities of a form. Mozart must have felt a continuing affection for this music because he performed it in Vienna after his move from Salzburg in 1781. Coming from the month of the composer’s twenty-first birthday, the Concerto in E-flat Major marks Mozart’s coming of age in more ways than one. Mademoiselle Jeunehomme, meanwhile, has passed into the shadows of history. Even her first name has not survived, and she is remembered today only as the inspiration for this impressive music.

Program note by Eric Bromberger

Prokofiev – Selections from Romeo and Juliet

Selections from Romeo and Juliet, op. 64
Sergei Prokofiev
Born April 23, 1891, Sontsovka
Died March 5, 1953, Moscow

Late in 1934 the Kirov Theater in Leningrad proposed to Sergei Prokofiev that they collaborate on a ballet based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Prokofiev accepted the commission and completed the massive score by the end of the summer of 1935, but the project came to seem nearly as star-crossed as Shakespeare’s young lovers. The Kirov Ballet backed out, and the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow took over the project. Prokofiev’s first plan had been to give the story a happy ending in which Romeo would rescue Juliet before her suicide, and he composed that version, explaining that “The reasons for this piece of barbarism were purely choreographic: living people can dance, the dying cannot.” Fortunately, this idea was scrapped, but when the Bolshoi finally saw Prokofiev’s score, they called it “undanceable” and refused to produce it.

While Romeo and Juliet languished in limbo, Prokofiev transformed excerpts from the ballet’s 52 numbers into a series of instrumental suites. He made a suite for piano of Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet and assembled two orchestral suites of seven movements each (a third orchestral suite followed in 1946). Prokofiev took some movements for these suites directly from the ballet, but others he created by combining excerpts from different scenes. The first two suites were premiered in 1936 and 1937, and Prokofiev himself conducted their American premieres in Boston and Chicago. Wide performances of these suites meant that the music from the ballet was familiar to audiences long before it was produced on the stage.

The premiere of the ballet itself took place not in Russia but in Brno in 1938, without Prokofiev’s participation. Preparations for the Russian premiere brought more trouble, including a fight between Prokofiev and the choreographer, disputes with the dancers (who at first found the music alien), and a threatened walk-out by the orchestra. When the premiere finally took place in Leningrad on January 11, 1940, it was a triumph for all involved, though Soviet ballerina Galina Ulanova, who danced the part of Juliet, touched on the ballet’s difficult birth when she paraphrased the play’s final lines in her toast to the composer after the opening performance:

Never was a tale of greater woe,

Than Prokofiev’s music to Romeo.

The irony, of course, is that Romeo and Juliet has become Prokofiev’s most famous stage work and one of the most popular creations of his Soviet period: both Ulanova and Dame Margot Fonteyn achieved particular success with the role of Juliet.

The movements in Prokofiev’s orchestral suites from Romeo and Juliet are not in chronological sequence–that is, he created these suites by arranging movements in sequences he felt would be effective in the concert hall, without regard to their order in the ballet. Conductors have felt free to prepare their own selection of movements from these suites, and at this concert the Rotterdam Philharmonic performs a selection of nine movements drawn from the first two suites.

Prokofiev piles dissonance on top of dissonance at the beginning of The Montagues and the Capulets, and then the music forges ahead brutally on the swagger of the rival families. There is some wonderful instrumental color throughout the ballet, and this movement features a striking saxophone solo as well as interludes for muted viola glissandos combined with the sound of solo flute. The sprightly Young Juliet captures the energy of the girl with racing violins; some wistful interludes along the way, one of them marked con eleganza, suggest a depth to her character.

The poised and perky The Street Awakens (sometimes known as Scene) is another of the ballet’s opening sequences, while the sparkling Dance is from the carnival in Act II. The witty Masks comes from the end of Act I when Mercutio and Benvolio talk Romeo into crashing the ball at the Capulets.

Romeo and Juliet accompany the balcony scene; here soaring love music alternates with ominous interludes marked Inquieto. Death of Tybalt depicts the terrific swordfight (a racing perpetual-motion for the violins), the fatal thrust, and a clod-hopping funeral march in which cellos and horns sing the funeral song above rolling drums. The lilting Dance of the Maids from the Antilles is danced by Juliet’s attendants as she falls asleep from Friar Laurence’s potion.

Romeo and Juliet Before Parting brings some of the finest music in the ballet. The tender flute solo at the beginning sets the mood of love, which Prokofiev underlines with a solo for viola d’amore (a part usually undertaken by the modern viola); a horn call leads to a mighty climax, and the music fades into delicate (if troubled) silence. Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet is marked Adagio funebre: grieving violins drive the music to a painful climax, and this falls away to stumble into numbed silence.

Program note by Eric Bromberger

Our Partners

This performance is made possible through the generous support of the following sponsors: Dallas Morse Coors Foundation for the Performing Arts, Dr. Mark Cinnamon and Ms. Doreen Kelly, Debbie Driesman and Frank F. Islam, and Galena-Yorktown Foundation, and Kenneth R. Feinberg and Diane Feinberg.

Washington Performing Arts’s classical music performances this season are made possible in part through the generous support of Betsy and Robert Feinberg.

Her Excellency Birgitta Tazelaar, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is the honorary patron of this engagement.

This is one of fourteen 2023-2024 season performances included in Washington Performing Arts’s The World in Our City  initiative, which promotes cross-cultural understanding and cultural diplomacy via the presentation of international visiting artists, globally inspired local programming, and the award-winning Embassy Adoption Program, a partnership with D.C. Public Schools. Support for The World in Our City is provided by The Boeing Company.

Special thanks to the following lead supporters of Washington Performing Arts’s mission-driven work: Jacqueline Badger Mars and Mars, Incorporated; D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs Program and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts; and The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation.

This performance is an external rental presented in coordination with the Kennedy Center Campus Rentals Office and is not produced by the Kennedy Center.

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