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Cellist Johannes Moser on 'Summer Nights with SHCS on WBJC' this Sat, Aug 1

Jul 30, 2020

German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser, hailed for his "radiant playing" (The Baltimore Sun) and pianist Anna Polonsky, known for her "appealing touch" (The New York Times) welcomed audiences back to Shriver Hall in March 2019 following its 18-month renovation. Hosted by Jonathan Palevsky, enjoy their performance this Saturday as part of Summer Nights with Shriver Hall Concert Series on WBJC!

PROKOFIEV Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 119
WEBERN Three Little Pieces for Cello & Piano, Op. 11
BEETHOVEN Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 102, No. 1
DEBUSSY Cello Sonata
WEBERN Three Little Pieces for Cello & Piano, Op. 11
BEETHOVEN Cello Sonata in D major, Op. 102, No. 2

**Recorded live at Shriver Hall on March 10, 2019.**

Tune in this Saturday, August 1, at 6pm to 91.5 FM or listen online at WBJC.com!

Artist Biographies 

Johannes Moser, cello 

Hailed by Gramophone Magazine as "one of the finest among the astonishing gallery of young virtuoso cellists", German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser has performed with the world’s leading orchestras such as the Berliner Philharmoniker, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, BBC Philharmonic at the Proms, London Symphony, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Tokyo NHK Symphony, Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras with conductors of the highest level including Riccardo Muti, Lorin Maazel, Mariss Jansons, Valery Gergiev, Zubin Mehta, Vladimir Jurowski, Franz Welser-Möst, Christian Thielemann, Pierre Boulez, Paavo Jarvi, Semyon Bychkov, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Gustavo Dudamel.

His recordings include the concertos by Dvo?ák, Lalo, Elgar, Lutos?awski, Dutilleux and Tchaikovsky, which have gained him the prestigious Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik and the Diapason d'Or and Gramophone commented “[Lutos?awski and Dutilleux Cello Concertos]…Anyone coming afresh to these masterly works… should now investigate this new release ahead of all others…”. In August 2019 his latest release featured the works of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn with Alasdair Beatson, Piano.

In the 2019-20 season, highlights include two world premieres of Cello Concertos by Andrew Norman with the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel and Bernd Richard Deutsch’s with the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich conducted by Yutaka Sado to include performances in Vienna (Musikverein), Grafenegg Festival, the Festspielhaus St. Polten and additional performances with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. Johannes will also return to the London Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic, BBC Scottish Symphony and Boston Symphony Orchestras as well as to the George Enescu Festival with the Oslo Philharmonic. He will also perform at the season opening concerts of both the Ulster Orchestra (Elgar’s Cello Concerto conducted by Daniele Rustioni) and the Orquesta Sinfonica de Galacia with (Saints-Saens Cello Concerto Conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk). European touring will include with the Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen, Württembergische Kammerorchester Heilbronn (Play-direct) and Metamorphosen Berlin. 

A dedicated chamber musician, Johannes has performed with Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Jonathan Biss, James Ehnes, Vadim Gluzman, Leonidas Kavakos, Midori, Menahem Pressler and Yevgeny Sudbin. Johannes is also a regular at festivals including the Verbier, Schleswig-Holstein, Gstaad and Kissinger festivals, the Mehta Chamber Music Festival, and the Colorado, Seattle and Brevard music festivals.

Renowned for his efforts to expand the reach of the classical genre, as well as his passionate focus on new music, Johannes has recently been heavily involved in commissioning works by Julia Wolfe, Ellen Reid, Thomas Agerfeld Olesen, Johannes Kalitzke, Jelena Firsowa and Andrew Norman. In 2011 he premiered Magnetar for electric cello by Enrico Chapela with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and in the following season he continued this relationship with the orchestra performing Michel van der Aa's cello concerto Up-close. Throughout his career, Johannes has been committed to reaching out to all audiences, from kindergarten to college and beyond. He combines most of his concert engagements with masterclasses, school visits and preconcert lectures.

Born into a musical family in 1979, Johannes began studying the cello at the age of eight and became a student of Professor David Geringas in 1997. He was the top prize winner at the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition, in addition to being awarded the Special Prize for his interpretation of the Rococo Variations. In 2014 he was awarded with the prestigious Brahms prize. 

A voracious reader of everything from Kafka to Collins, and an avid outdoorsman, Johannes Moser is a keen hiker and mountain biker in what little spare time he has. Johannes Moser plays on an Andrea Guarneri Cello from 1694 from a private collection.

Anna Polonksy, piano 

Anna Polonsky is widely in demand as a soloist and chamber musician. She has appeared with the Moscow Virtuosi, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Memphis Symphony, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, and many others. Ms. Polonsky has collaborated with the Guarneri, Orion, Daedalus, and Shanghai Quartets, and with such musicians as Mitsuko Uchida, Yo-Yo Ma, David Shifrin, Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax, Arnold Steinhardt, Peter Wiley, and Jaime Laredo. She has performed chamber music at festivals such as Marlboro, Chamber Music Northwest, Seattle, Music@Menlo, Cartagena, Bard, and Caramoor, as well as at Bargemusic in New York City. Ms. Polonsky has given concerts in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Vienna Konzerthaus, the Alice Tully Hall, and Carnegie Hall’s Stern, Weill, and Zankel Halls, and has toured extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. A frequent guest at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, she was a member of the Chamber Music Society Two during 2002-2004. In 2006 she took a part in the European Broadcasting Union's project to record and broadcast all of Mozart's keyboard sonatas, and in the spring of 2007 she performed a solo recital at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium to inaugurate the Emerson Quartet’s Perspectives Series. She is a recipient of a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship and the Andrew Wolf Chamber Music Award.

Anna Polonsky made her solo piano debut at the age of seven at the Special Central Music School in Moscow, Russia. She emigrated to the United States in 1990, and attended high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. She received her Bachelor of Music diploma from The Curtis Institute of Music under the tutelage of the renowned pianist Peter Serkin, and continued her studies with Jerome Lowenthal, earning her Master's Degree from the Juilliard School. In addition to performing, she serves on the piano faculty of Vassar College, and in the summer at the Marlboro and Kneisel Hall chamber music festivals.

Beginning in 2018, Polonsky performs in a trio with clarinetist David Shifrin and cellist Peter Wiley. Ms. Polonsky is a Steinway Artist.

Program Notes 

Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 119
Composed in 1949

Prokofiev spent much of his life precariously balanced between two stools, his music being regarded as too conservative by some and as too avant-garde by others. Upon returning to Moscow in 1936 after a self-imposed exile of nearly two decades in the West, he did his patriotic duty by turning out a stream of uplifting cantatas, songs, symphonic works, and operas on Russian themes. In 1947, he traveled to Leningrad for the well-received premiere of his Sixth Symphony and won his fifth Stalin Prize for the Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano. Behind the scenes, however, the dictator’s thought police were relentlessly ratcheting up the pressure on the Soviet Union’s hapless artists. In 1948, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and several other prominent composers would be officially charged with trafficking in “formalist distortions and antidemocratic tendencies.” Meanwhile, the long awaited premiere of the second part of Prokofiev’s operatic epic War and Peace was abruptly canceled on spurious ideological grounds, foreshadowing his precipitous fall from grace.

The beleaguered composer, who had always been something of a political naïf, responded to these ominous portents by withdrawing into the private realm of chamber music. Among other works, he wrote the last of his nine piano sonatas, which Sviatoslav Richter characterized as “a radiant, simple, and even intimate work”; the unprepossessingly lyrical Sonata Op. 115 for Solo Violin; and the richly meditative Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 119. Dating from 1949, the Cello Sonata is the fruit of Prokofiev’s late-life friendship with the young Mstislav Rostropovich. The two men met in 1947, when the cellist was a 20-year-old student at the Moscow Conservatory. After hearing Rostropovich play the Cello Concerto he had written a decade earlier, Prokofiev excitedly rushed backstage and promised on the spot to rewrite the work especially for him. The upshot was the bravura Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 125. 

Another product of that propitious encounter was the Sonata for Cello and Piano, a work in which Rostropovich’s hand is so evident that it could almost be termed a collaboration. By the late 1940s, Prokofiev’s health had deteriorated to such an extent that he could only concentrate on his work for an hour or so each day. Holed up at his summer dacha outside Moscow, he and Rostropovich spent weeks exploring the cello’s technical and expressive capability, thrashing out ideas that Prokofiev would incorporate in the Sonata. The line from Maxim Gorky that he inscribed on the first page of his manuscript—“’Man’–that has a proud sound”—is a tribute both to Rostropovich’s powerhouse technique and to his life-affirming musicianship. The cello has the first few bars to itself, its languorous cantilena surging upward from the sonorous depths of the C string. A brittle, unsettling element is soon introduced in the piano’s throbbing eighth notes and the cello’s slashing pizzicato chords. Forsaking its somber bottom register, the cello soon launches into a luminous, high-flying melody in G major, and these contrasting lyrical and percussive strains intermingle throughout the rest of the movement. Prokofiev injects a note of whimsy in the Moderato, with its mincing staccato notes and ungainly jumps, while the character of the final Allegro is energetic and muscular, culminating in a kaleidoscopic blaze of fireworks and a final burst of pure C-major sunlight. 

In his memoirs, Richter recalled the fraught circumstances of the Sonata’s premiere. “Before playing it in concert,” the pianist wrote, he and Rostropovich “had to perform it at the Composers’ Union, where these gentlemen decided the fate of new works. During this period more than any other, they needed to work out whether Prokofiev had produced a new masterpiece or, conversely, a piece that was ‘hostile to the spirit of the people.’ Three months later, we had to play it again at a plenary session of all the composers who sat on the Radio Committee, and it wasn’t until the following year that we were able to perform it in public, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on March 1, 1950.” Prokofiev was too ill to attend the concert, and although both his health and his relations with the country’s cultural apparatchiks slowly improved, his last years were far from happy. In a final irony that the composer would have appreciated, he died on the same day in 1953 as Stalin, his chief patron and persecutor. 


Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11
Composed in 1914

Of the triumvirate of Austrian modernist composers who comprised the so-called Second Viennese School—Arnold Schoenberg and his prize pupils, Anton Webern and Alban Berg—Webern was the most single-minded in his pursuit of a radically stripped-down musical language, purged of the lushness and longwindedness associated with 19th-century Romanticism. The definitive break with the past came in 1908, the year Webern’s formal studies with Schoenberg ended. For the next six years he concentrated on refining his style in a series of spare, highly compressed works that are minimalist in dimensions but not in musical content. 

In the spring of 1914, Webern’s father suggested that he switch gears and write “a major piece for cello and piano.” He dutifully started work on a full-length sonata, but broke off after completing the first movement to compose the Three Little Pieces (or Drei kleine Stücke). As the title suggests, Op. 11 is one of Webern’s most aphoristic and ethereal works. To Schoenberg, who like his father had been urging him to try his hand at longer forms, he sheepishly apologized for once again producing “something so short.” But he explained that the urge to write the Three Little Pieces had been overpowering, adding that “rarely have I felt so certain that something good has come into being.” 

The compression of musical thought in Op. 11 is extreme even by Webern’s standards: the entire work consists of a mere 32 bars and takes only about two minutes to play. (Accordingly, it will be heard twice on today’s concert, once after the Stravinsky and again after the Debussy Sonata.) Although Webern followed Schoenberg’s lead in using all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, the fully developed 12-tone technique for which the older composer is known lay some years in the future. Instead, short melodic motifs and chords are the building blocks of the Three Little Pieces, whose distinctive characters are accurately described by the German tempo markings: mässige(moderate), sehr bewegt(very lively), and äusserst ruhig (extremely calm). 

Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 102, No. 1
Composed in 1815

Although Beethoven wrote only half as many sonatas for the cello as for the violin, they are no less central to the instrument’s repertory. String sonatas were a novelty at the turn of the 19th century, in part because composers were still wrestling with the problem of combining the often brittle brilliance of the contemporary fortepiano with the mellower and more singing voices of the

cello and violin. Unlike the ten violin sonatas, all but one of which were written between 1797 and 1803, Beethoven spread his five cello sonatas over nearly two decades. The 26-year-old composer presented the two Op. 5 sonatas as a calling card to the cello-playing Prussian monarch, Friedrich Wilhelm II, in Berlin in 1796. The works’ understated exuberance played to Beethoven’s strengths as a pianist, and to the virtuosity of the exiled French cellist Jean-Louis Duport. By 1808, the composer of the “Eroica” and “Pastoral” symphonies, the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” piano sonatas, and the three “Razumovsky” string quartets had become a seminal force in the Romantic movement. The tuneful A-major Cello Sonata of that year is one Beethoven’s most intricately wrought pieces of chamber music, while the two boldly dramatic Op. 102 sonatas, both written in 1815, pushed the language of Viennese Classicism toward its limits. 

In 1809, a consortium of noble patrons awarded Beethoven a lifetime annuity. This welcome stipend at last freed him from the burden of catering, however grudgingly and erratically, to the conservative taste of the Viennese public. Many of the sonatas, string quartets, symphonies, and other works that he wrote in the last 18 years of his life have a quirky, somewhat otherworldly quality, often juxtaposing passages of great tenderness and lucidity with lacerating eruptions of raw energy and emotion. How, and how much, the composer’s increasing deafness may have affected his music and outlook on life is to some degree a matter of conjecture,but there is no mistaking the profound inwardness of these extraordinary late works, with their radical discontinuities, far-flung tonal relationships, and bold reconfigurations of musical time and space.

Flouting convention, Beethoven laid out the C-major Sonata in two very fast movements of contrasting characters, each preceded by a leisurely and somewhat meandering preamble. The tender 6/8 theme of the opening Andante is punctuated with tiny pauses and fluttering trills that create an aura of expectancy, a lull before the storm that erupts without warning in the first Allegro vivace in A minor. Listen for the rising four-note figure (long-short-short-long) that Beethoven inserts in the cello part just before the first-section repeat: it will return as an integral part of the main theme of the second Allegro vivace, the two instruments playfully batting it back and forth in a game of cat and mouse. In similar fashion, the brief Tempo d’andante that links the second slow-fast pair reprises the opening Andante. 

Sonata for Cello and Piano
Composed in 1915

At once radical and traditionalist, Debussy rebelled against the French Wagner cult and the ponderous academic style of establishment composers like Saint-Saëns and d’Indy. At the same time, he urged his compatriots to return to the “pure French tradition” as exemplified by the Baroque master Jean-Philippe Rameau. Debussy first made his mark in the early 1890s with a series of boldly unconventional and quintessentially Gallic masterpieces, such as the emotionally turbulent String Quartet; La damoiselle élue(The Blessed Damozel), a Wagnerian “lyric poem” for women’s voices and orchestra; and his revolutionary masterpiece Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun”). By the time Debussy published his first book of Images for solo piano in 1905, the composer and his aesthetic principles— loosely subsumed under the rubric “Debussyism”—had attracted praise and censure in equal measure. Together with the symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s great piano and orchestral pieces came to define musical impressionism in the popular mind. Although many critics associated him with painters like Manet and Whistler, he maintained that his music depicted not superficial impressions but essential “realities.” Musicians alone, he declared, enjoyed “the privilege of being able to convey all the poetry of the night and the day,” whereas painters could “recapture only one of her aspects at a time.”

Composed in the summer of 1915, the Sonata for Cello and Piano was the first of six projected sonatas for sundry instrumental ensembles, of which only two more—scored for flute, viola, and harp and for violin and piano—would come to fruition. It signaled Debussy’s emergence from a prolonged depression, exacerbated by the inexorable onslaught of cancer, during which he had felt incapable of producing any music of substance. “I’ve almost had to relearn” how to compose, he told the Italian conductor Bernardo Molinari. “It was like a rediscovery and it’s seemed to me more beautiful than ever! Is it because I was deprived of it for so long? 

I don’t know. What beauties there are in music ‘by itself,’ with no axe to grind or new inventions to amaze the so-called dilettanti.” The freshness and spontaneity of the D-minor Sonata may owe something as well to the therapeutic landscape of the Normandy coast, where Debussy had sought refuge from the tense, bellicose atmosphere of Paris. 

True to his nationalist credo, Debussy proudly signed himself “musicien français” on the title pages of his three wartime sonatas. The Cello Sonata, cast in three short movements of more or less equal length and weight, illustrates the “clarity of expression” and “precision and compactness of form” that he considered the hallmarks of the “pure” French style. Debussy’s music is predominantly spare and delicate, almost Neoclassical in its transparency. Despite the piano’s grandiloquent opening, it is the cello’s graceful arabesques and tenderly swooning melody that set the tone for the Prologue. The Sérénade is fantastical and rhapsodic in character, with crisp staccato accents, quirky, free-flowing rhythmic patterns, and subtle chromatic harmonies. The movement comes to rest on a quietly sustained A, then pivots without pausing for breath into the buoyant, lighthearted Finale. 

Sonata for Cello and Piano in D major, Op. 102, No. 2
Composed in 1815

Beethoven often seems to be feeling his way through this powerful and enigmatic companion to the C-major Sonata. The piano begins by making a couple of bold, exploratory leaps, each landing on a heavily accented dotted half-note, before quickly scampering back to home base— whereupon the cello picks up the ball and carries it into more lyrical territory. This start-and-stop pattern repeats itself throughout the Allegro con brio as Beethoven teases out the implications of his two main themes. A variation of the opening bars introduces a pulsating pianissimo interlude, charged with harmonic tension, which resolves magically into a final D-major cadence. The searing Adagio—the only full-scale slow movement to be found in any of Beethoven’s cello sonatas—is marked, somewhat redundantly, “with great emotional feeling.” Here, too, the composer seems to be searching for a new synthesis of expansive lyricism and dramatic compression. Formally, the movement is open-ended, the cello and piano alighting momentarily on a dominant A-major chord before launching into the final Allegro. Each plays a simple A-major scale reminiscent of the piano’s preliminary “warm-up” in the first movement. Then the cello leads the way in an energetic fugue characterized by jagged syncopations and contrary motion between the voices. Eventually, a deep, rumbling trill emerges in the piano, like a mighty pedal point, reaffirming the Sonata’s underlying D-major tonality.

In their blend of tenderness and abrasiveness, hesitancy and impetuosity, the two Op. 102 Sonatas offer a window into Beethoven’s creative soul. They stand on the threshold between the “heroic” style of his middle period and the more introspective, convoluted language of his later works. Beethoven presented the manuscripts as a parting gift to his longtime friend and patron Countess Erdödy, who moved away from Vienna with her family in 1815. Having made his final public appearance as a solo pianist the preceding year, the composer was increasingly isolated by his progressive loss of hearing. It was a fallow period for him compositionally as well, a time for taking stock and consolidating the lessons of the past few years before striking off in a new direction. “It is so original that no one can understand it on first hearing,” a contemporary remarked upon hearing one of the Op. 102 sonatas. A century later, the equally challenging music of Debussy, Webern, and Stravinsky would elicit similarly bemused reactions.