“The model of a modern musician” (Los Angeles Times) and winner of the 2016 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, Curtis alumna Karina Canellakis leads the emerging virtuosos of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. Metropolitan Opera star Amanda Majeski, also a Curtis alumna, joins them in Strauss’s poignant final songs, a perfect match for her “glowing” soprano (Opera News). Renowned African-American composer and Curtis alumnus George Walker wrote his pensive Lyric for Strings in memory of his grandmother. Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra offers an otherworldly counterpoint to Scriabin’s rarely heard Poem of Ecstasy, which provides the exhilarating close.
Alumna Karina Canellakis, part of a new generation of female conductors, returns to Curtis to lead this concert after conducting the Curtis Opera Theatre's Marriage of Figaro in 2016. Internationally acclaimed for her emotionally charged performances and interpretive depth, she recently won the prestigious Sir Georg Solti Award.
Metropolitan Opera star Amanda Majeski, also a Curtis alumna, features in Strauss’s poignant final songs, a perfect match for her “glowing” soprano (Opera News). Ms. Majeski’s’s career has skyrocketed since her dramatic last-minute substitution as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This spring she stars in a new production of Così fan tutte at the Met.
Carlos Ágreda is in his second year as a conducting fellow at Curtis, where he has worked closely with mentor conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and assisted in the preparation of multiple orchestra concerts and opera productions. He leads the Curtis Opera Theatre's double bill of Mahagonny: Ein Songspiel and The Medium at the Perelman Theater in May.
Few living composers can claim the length and breadth of experience of George Walker, who at 95 has refused to rest on the solid career he began establishing more than 75 years ago. Born in Washington, D.C., he is known for a series of musical “firsts”: He was one of the first African- Americans to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music, and he was the first black pianist to debut at New York’s Town Hall, to earn a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music, and to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra (in 1945). Another notable first came in 1996, when at 75 he became the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music—for his Lilacs. Today we thank the efforts of early pioneers such as Walker for bringing greater diversity to classical music, though much work remains. His legacy lives on also in the many students he taught at Smith College, the University of Colorado, the Peabody Institute, the University of Delaware and Rutgers University, where for many years he was department chair and distinguished professor.
Walker showed early promise on the piano as early as 5, and at age 14 he performed a recital at Howard University. He entered Oberlin College the following year, graduating at age 18. With a promising career in front of him, he continued piano studies with Rudolf Serkin at Curtis, where he was also a composition student of Rosario Scalero. Various factors, including racial barriers, hindered the flourishing of Walker’s concert career. He subsequently went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, also continuing his piano studies with Robert Casadesus. Walker later earned a doctorate from the Eastman School, where Howard Hanson was a mentor, after which he settled into a productive teaching career.
Walker has written a large volume of music, including orchestral, chamber, solo piano, and choral works—beginning in the mid-1940s and continuing almost up to the current day. In recent years he has produced prominent concertos for violin (written for his son, Gregory) and cello (Dialogus) and ample choral, chamber and orchestral works. His Sinfonia No. 5 employs narration, spirituals, and other elements to address the Charleston church massacre of 2015—the National Symphony will premiere it in the 2019–20 season.
Yet with 75 years of compositional output, Walker’s most oft-performed orchestral work remains the Lyric for Strings from 1946, which began its life as the slow movement of his first string quartet. This meditation on the lush tones of orchestral strings shows but a glimpse of the complexity, density, and dramatic sophistication of his later music, but it is a tender and effective youthful piece.
After a half-century as one of the world’s most famous composers, during late 1940s the octogenarian Strauss looked with sadness and bewilderment upon a post-war central Europe he hardly recognized. With Germany reduced to rubble, the era in which he had produced his beloved tone poems and operas was a distant memory. He and his wife, Pauline, spent the first post-war years in hotels in Switzerland, France, and Italy, where he directed his inner turmoil to music. He completed the extraordinary Oboe Concerto (1946), the Duet-Concertino (1947), and four heart-breakingly nostalgic songs that not only redefined the genre of the orchestral song but also seemed to sum up his final thoughts on life, love, and death.
The Four Last Songs, as they are known, were written mainly during the spring and summer of 1948—well after the musical shocks that Schoenberg, Bartók, and Stravinsky had brought to music of the first half of the 20th century. Strauss was determined to infuse these songs with the heady perfume of late Romanticism, to align them with the spirit of love, loss, and despair that had inspired the great song composers of the previous century—Schubert, Schumann, Brahms.
He sought solace in the Romantic poetry that had often inspired him in the past—poems of Goethe and Eichendorff that evoked musical expression. Eichendorff’s “Im Abendrot,” used for the last song of this set but composed first, describes an aging couple who, having reached the end of a life’s journey, look sadly to the sunset and wonder: Is this what death looks like? The more contemporary verse of Hermann Hesse inspired a more ambiguous nostalgia for the other songs, which were completed in the autumn of 1948. Strauss never heard any of the works in their final form, as he fell ill in the ensuing months and died in September 1949.
“Frühling” begins darkly, then bursts into an expanse of orchestral color, as “dusky caverns” give way to the sweet redolence and birdsong of spring. “September” evokes the natural world, with the density of divisi strings creating a dark melancholy, as “the garden mourns.” In “Beim Schlafengehn” an astonishing triplet filigree in the strings strives to match the poet’s ecstatic flight into the enchanted night sky. “Im Abendrot” (the translation “At Sunset” misses somewhat the “reddening” of evening sky implied in the German) begins with an orchestral prologue that seems to summarize the composer’s life and legacy, as he glances back at his earlier works. The singer “slips in,” almost unnoticed, and a solo violin alludes perhaps to the “Helpmate” movement of Ein Heldenleben (a portrait of Pauline). A final acknowledgment of death’s proximity evokes the main theme of Death and Transfiguration, composed more than a half-century earlier. Death is accepted, at last— transfigured, indeed, into the gentle trilling of larks.
We pay so much attention to the iconoclastic aspects of Schoenberg and his pupils that we sometimes forget that the very term Second Viennese School, the rubric with which Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern came to be identified, implies a debt to history. Schoenberg had the deepest reverence for the music of the past, from Bach to Brahms, and those who studied with him attest that his classes consisted chiefly of old-school contrapuntal exercises. His system of composing with twelve tones can be viewed as an extension of earlier mechanisms (fugue, canon, variation) that had governed music for centuries.
Schoenberg’s foremost pupils, Berg and Webern, inherited this respect for history. Webern began his career as a musicologist, with a doctorate on the Renaissance works of Isaac; he would continue to pay homage to the Western canon, but he moved quickly from the late-Romantic sounds of his early Im Sommerwind and the Passacaglia, Op. 1, to the concise, fantastically complex works of his maturity.
What remained in Webern’s works of the first two decades of the 20th century was an utmost command of orchestral color, which together with the composer’s analytical and intuitive feel for thematic material makes even his most difficult works fascinating to hear. He composed Op. 6 in 1909, and the original version for very large orchestra was performed in 1913 on a famous Skandal-Konzert in Vienna—conducted by Schoenberg and also including works of Zemlinsky, Mahler and Berg. The program was so polarizing that it resulted in fights breaking out among audience members, who had to be escorted out by police. Webern’s piece does not sound so shocking today, but it requires intensely concentrated listening: The six pieces range in length from 90 seconds to about four and a half minutes.
They are built on what Webern called “musical microorganisms,” fragmentary motifs that are developed through aggregation and variation. Not fully atonal in harmonic language, the work nevertheless gives a sense of tonality on the verge of collapsing—not unlike Schoenberg’s works from around this time (The Book of Hanging Gardens, 1908; the Five Pieces for Orchestra, 1909). Webern created a chamber version of Op. 6 in 1920, but in 1928 he subjected the lush, full-orchestra version to a thorough revision, stating that this was to be the definitive Op. 6. Though still for large orchestra, this version clarifies the texture by removing several wind and horn instruments and one of the harps.
The Moscow-born Scriabin began his life with a military career, as had many members of his family, but his increasing interest in the arts led him to study at the Moscow Conservatory. Among his teachers in composition were Arensky and Taneyev, though it was as a pianist that he earned a degree in 1892. Two years later he made his debut as pianist in St. Petersburg, performing his own works; his early music pays homage to Chopin, Liszt, and others, but it also hints at harmonic experiments that were to come. In time, his compositional designs became more heavily chromatic and even grandiose: Around 1909 he began work on a multi-media piece to be performed in the Himalayan mountains, “a religious synthesis of all arts,” as he wrote, “that would herald the birth of a new world.”
Yet his compositions at this time were relatively grounded, and by the time of his Poem of Ecstasy (completed in 1908) he had begun to employ what he called his “mystic chord,” essentially a whole-tone aggregate that subverted a sense of tonal “pull” (but which actually sounded somewhat like the expressionist, late-Romantic works of Schoenberg and others). Originally conceived as his Fourth Symphony, the 20-minute, one-movement Poem was inspired by a 300-line verse the composer penned initially, whose sentiments are so flowery as to be virtually impenetrable: “When the Spirit has attained the supreme culmination of its activity and has been torn away from the embraces of teleology and relativity,” he wrote, “when it has exhausted completely its substance and its liberated active energy, the Time of Ecstasy shall arrive.”
From Scriabin’s writings one can derive at least a broad structure of three main sections: 1) the soul in the orgy of love, 2) the realization of a fantastic dream, and 3) the glory of his (Scriabin’s) own art. Beginning with a languid flute theme, energized by violin and wind soloists, the first section culminates in an explosion of strings and trumpets (Presque en délire, almost to deliriousness), at which point the trumpet declares an emphatic, near-heroic “principal” theme that forms the basic building-block for the second section (and to some extent is the basis of the rest of the piece). A solo clarinet introduces a Lento section of galloping strings and twittering flutes. The final Scherzando also opens with a clarinet solo, marked avec volupté, et plus et plus extatique (language intended perhaps to make clear the music’s sensuous—or sensual—nature), and concludes with a final statement of the theme and a blaze of C major.
Winner of the 2016 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, Karina Canellakis first made headlines in 2014, filling in at the last minute for Jaap van Zweden with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where she held the position of assistant conductor for two seasons. She made her European conducting debut in 2015 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Graz, Austria, replacing the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Notable debuts in the 2017–18 season include l’Orchestre de Paris; the Bamberg, BBC, Berlin Radio, Seattle, and Vienna symphonies; and the Hallé Orchestra. She has also appeared with the Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Royal Stockholm philharmonics; the Swedish Radio Orchestra; the Danish and Royal Scottish national orchestras; the Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, San Diego, Toronto, Vancouver, and City of Birmingham symphony orchestras; Concentus Musicus Wien; and the Los Angeles and Scottish chamber orchestras.
This season Ms. Canellakis returns to the Zurich Opera to conduct Die Zauberflöte. Other appearances in opera have included the world premiere of David Lang’s The Loser at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Hogboon with the Luxembourg Philharmonic, and a fully staged performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Zurich Opera. In 2016 she conducted Le nozze di Figaro with the Curtis Opera Theatre. Ms. Canellakis is a 2004 violin graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music. She also holds a master’s degree in conducting from the Juilliard School.
Amanda Majeski has earned acclaim for a voice of “silvery beauty” (Musical America) that is “ample and expressive” (New York Times). In 2018 Ms. Majeski returned to the Metropolitan Opera as Fiordiligi in a new production of Così fan tutte. Also this season, she debuted at Paris Opera as Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito and with the Hong Kong Philharmonic as Gutrune in Götterdämmerung.
Ms. Majeski has appeared as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Glyndebourne Festival, Semperoper Dresden, and Washington National Opera; Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Teatro Real in Madrid, and Semperoper Dresden; Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires; the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at Oper Frankfurt; and Marguerite in Faust at Zürich Opera.
Ms. Majeski’s roles at the Lyric Opera of Chicago also include Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and as Marta in Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger. At Oper Frankfurt she has sung the title role in Dvořák’s Rusalka, the Goose-Girl in Humperdinck’s Königskinder, and Vreli in Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet. She has appeared at Opera Philadelphia as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, at Pittsburgh Opera as Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites, at Santa Fe Opera as Ottone in in Vivaldi’s Griselda, and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Ms. Majeski holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and Northwestern University.
Carlos Ágreda, from Bogotá, Colombia, entered the Curtis Institute of Music in 2016. As a conducting fellow, he works closely with Curtis mentor conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. All students at Curtis receive merit-based, full-tuition scholarships, and Mr. Ágreda is the Rita E. Hauser Conducting Fellow.
Mr. Ágreda has worked with numerous orchestras, including the BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, where he served as assistant conductor under Juanjo Mena, Vasily Petrenko, and Jac Van Steen. He has also conducted the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, the Manchester Camerata, the Colombia National Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Northern College of Music Concert Orchestra; and, as artistic director, the Orchestral Corporation of Colombia.
In 2017 Mr. Ágreda was a conducting fellow at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. In 2016 he conducted at the New Music North West Festival and led the conducting workshop at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, both in the U.K. In previous years, he won a competition for young Colombian conductors, allowing him to conduct the Colombia National Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Ágreda has worked with such esteemed conductors as Mark Elder, Stéphane Denève, Mark Stringer, and Benjamin Zander. Prior to entering Curtis, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Corpas University in Colombia and a master’s degree from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (U.K.). He began studying piano and composition at age 13 and conducting at age 17.
Orchestral concerts are supported by the Jack Wolgin Curtis Orchestral Concerts Endowment Fund.
Ms. Majeski’s appearance is made possible in part by a gift from Carol and Howard Lidz.