Press Kit

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Media contact:
Sharan Leventhal


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Sample Program Notes

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) is considered by many to be the greatest Russian composer after Shostakovich. He grew up in the German Volga Republic region of the Soviet Union, in a household that could be described as a microcosm of multiculturalism. His father was of German Jewish descent, his mother a Volga German. Both were atheists and communists. His maternal grandmother, who was a pious Catholic, also lived with the family. At home, three languages were spoken interchangeably: an archaic, almost 18th century form of German (Volga German), High German, and Russian. All things considered, it is not surprising that Schnittke developed such an eclectic compositional style, one that he called ”polystylism.”

During the majority of his career, Schnittke’s music was frowned upon by the Communist Party, but he found a reasonable measure of artistic freedom writing for film, a medium in which there was much less censorship. The film community also offered Schnittke great moral support, recognizing his genius during his many years of “official” obscurity. Interestingly, the episodic nature of film, with its sharp juxtapositions of brief contrasting scenes, paralleled the logic of his musical development. Schnittke’s compositional attitude might be described as one in which any and all stylistic techniques were fair game no matter how chronologically or socially disparate. The results are strikingly expressive.

For Schnittke, music needed to reflect life with all its irrationalities and incongruities. He dealt with broad paradigms: the individual vs. the collective, good vs. evil. These were driving forces that, in his view, were bound together. Schnittke believed that, in the greater scheme of things, evil was incorporated into the good to reach a beautiful, if uneasy, harmony. (He often used contrasting major and minor tonalities to portray this process.)

During the repressive Soviet regime, Schnittke’s music had special meaning for Russian audiences, as metaphysical ideas, spirituality, and artistic freedom were dangerous notions to express in public life. Such was Schnittke’s elemental appeal, that in the 1970’s a group of students broke down the door of the Leningrad Composers’ Union Hall just to hear a closed playing of a recording of his First Symphony. After that, the doors stayed open. Concerts of his music were wildly popular sold out affairs, akin to a major sporting event or pop concert in the US today.

Tonight’s piano trio was originally written as a string trio, premiered in June of 1985. This was a difficult time for Schnittke, who, always fragile, suffered a massive stroke at the end of the following month. Although pronounced dead three times, and in a coma for an extended period, the composer made a miraculous recovery, only to suffer a second stroke in 1991. When Schnittke reworked the string piece into the piano trio, he dedicated it to his physician, Alexander Potapov, “who twice saved my life.”

The score employs limited melodic material, a choice that both highlights and unites Schnittke’s diverse musical language. Throughout, the simple is made obscure. Phrases made up of flowing chromatic scales are made jagged by octave displacement. A simple choral (played five times throughout the piece) becomes emotionally unsettling by the simultaneous juxtaposition of major and minor tonalities and through the use of special effects, such as ponticello and quartertone trills. In the end, the music simply melts away, never resolving its ambiguities.

— Sharan Leventhal

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