Behind the Program: Joyce Yang Plays Prokofiev, November 8–10

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This program opens with a work by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Five years ago, the Madison Symphony Orchestra played his exuberant Too Hot Toccata. Kernis’s Newly Drawn Sky, heard in November, is a much broader and more introspective work filled with musical drama that leads to a quiet conclusion. The lyrical, reflective piece for orchestra is a reminiscence of the first summer night by the ocean spent with the composer’s young twins, and of the changing colors of the summer sky at dusk. While the work is not programmatic or specifically descriptive, it reflects a constancy of change and flux musically and personally.

We then welcome pianist Joyce Yang, who makes her first appearance at these concerts playing Prokofiev’s powerful third piano concerto. This piece was completed in 1921, during a summer vacation on the coast of Brittany. The work brought together several bits of sketch material from as early as 1911, but Prokofiev was able to fuse all of these ideas into an organic whole. He conceived the concerto as a solo showcase for himself, and the main focus is the piano writing, reflecting Prokofiev’s own style of playing — bold, incisive, and powerful.  In fact, a friend once remarked that, when Prokofiev played fortissimo, it was “…hard to bear in a small room.”

The program ends with Schumann’s great Symphony No.2, a revealing autobiographical work. Schumann referred to the two-year period leading up to the composition of his Symphony No.2 as his “dark days” — a time when he was depressed and deep in the grip of the mental illness that would eventually lead him to an asylum a decade later. Considering his mental state, the outwardly brilliant nature of the symphony seems a surprise. However, Schumann hinted at a deeper significance in writing about the symphony: “I might say that it was the resistance of my spirit that was at work here. The first movement is full of struggle and is capricious and refractory in nature.”

Learn more about these pieces from Michael Allsen, our program notes annotator.

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