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“Brahms, Bartók and Beyond”: Infused with the spirit of European folk music, Pacific Symphony’s final Café Ludwig chamber concert is an ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon

Orange County, Calif. — April 11, 2014

But especially Mother’s Day (May 11)!

Eastern European melodies inspire an evolution of music that ranges from the expansive Gypsy lines of Brahms to the intimate, cosmos-searching details of Ligeti in “Brahms, Bartók and Beyond,” the stirring final concert of Pacific Symphony’s 2013-14 Café Ludwig series. Steeped with the charm of traditional folk music, compositions by Bartók and Brahms—two masters of the genre—round out Ligeti’s innovative and probing “Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet,” which explores the very foundations of music theory. Piano sensation Orli Shaham returns in her seventh season to host Symphony principal musicians including Benjamin Smolen on flute, Jessica Pearlman on oboe, Benjamin Lulich on clarinet, Rose Corrigan on bassoon, Keith Popejoy on horn, Raymond Kobler on violin, Robert Becker on viola and Timothy Landauer on cello, in the Samueli Theater on Sunday, May 11 (Mother’s Day), at 3 p.m.

Audiences sip coffee or tea and sample sweet treats in the coffeehouse-style setting, while exploring the aural journey that also includes Bartók’s “Three Folksongs from Csik,” “Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes” and “Romanian Folk Dances for Clarinet and Piano”; and “Piano Quartet No. 1.” Tickets are $65 and $79; for more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 755-5799 or visit www.PacificSymphony.org.

“One of the enduring truths about music is that composers, no matter how ingenious and innovative, don’t work in a vacuum,” says Shaham. “Their work is always influenced by that of others around them, and in turn, influences others as well. I see a direct line from Brahms to Bartok to Ligeti.”

Known to audiences for his compositions featured in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Shining,” Ligeti “has infiltrated popular consciousness,” notes classical music commentator Tom Service in a 2012 edition of The Guardian. The intimate details and existentialist musing so well-known in his modern works begin to take form in “Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet,” an early composition strongly influenced by his countryman, Bartók.

“Ligeti’s Bagatelles are some of my favorite pieces in the world,” says Shaham. “The music is delicate, impassioned, soulful, spirited and deeply moving. I think many people are afraid to approach his music, but these Bagatelles are the perfect way to realize what an enjoyable voice Ligeti had as a composer. They are an excellent entree into his language.”

Ligeti originally composed the Bagatelles in 1953 as a series of 11 piano pieces that explore the nature of the scale, then later expanded it to include a quintet of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn—the deceptively challenging arrangement that Symphony musicians perform for the first piece of the afternoon.

Like Ligeti, Bartók similarly focused on exploring the nature of music, and is often credited as one of the founders of modern ethnomusicology for his work in intertwining folk melodies with classical music. In his early fieldwork, Bartók transcribed traditional village folk songs for the recorder and piano, inspiring the composition “Three Folksongs from Csik.” The piece features piano and oboe and succeeds in capturing the rustic charm of its origins.

Colorful and expressive, “Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes” expands on this theme and demonstrates the same deep fascination with folk sources, while also showcasing Shaham’s virtuosity on the piano—a solo Bartók created to highlight his own strengths on the instrument. Bartók’s final composition in the repertoire, “Romanian Folk Dances for Clarinet and Piano,” scarcely lasts five minutes from beginning to end, and yet is packed with six energetic movements inspired by folk dances. 

“Bartók was one of the first composers to openly research his (and other’s) folk music and draw on melodies from around his native Hungary,” says Shaham. “In an era of emerging national pride, he took ownership of local tunes by bringing them to the concert hall. As one Imagines, most of these melodies being sung in a small group, the intimacy of these arrangements seems particularly apt.”

Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor is the third of his 26 great chamber works and appeals to audiences largely for its “Gypsy rondo” that concludes the composition. With the piece’s expansive development in the first three movements, the fast and energetic rondo brings the concert to a climactic close as Shaham and Symphony musicians tackle one of the most technically challenging movements in all of Brahms’ chamber music.

“Brahms was heavily influenced by Hungarian music, having early in his career traveled with the Hungarian violinist Edward Remenyi, and having been a lifelong friend of the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim,” explains Shaham. “He took the gestures and spirit of the folk music of the area and incorporated them into his own language. Not only did he write (very successful!) sets of specifically ‘Hungarian Dances,’ but he also used Hungarian themes, rhythms and scales in his more traditional works, as in the fourth movement of the Piano Quartet in G Minor. At a time when the world seemed large and filled with foreigners, he gave legitimacy to using what others felt was still exotic music.”

Shaham has established an impressive international reputation as one of today’s most gifted pianists. The Guardian hailed her playing as “perfection” during her recent Proms debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Applauded by critics on four continents, Shaham has performed with illustrious orchestras and is a frequent guest at summer festivals. She has given recitals at renowned concert halls, including Carnegie Hall and The Kennedy Center, and has worked with many eminent conductors. Shaham received her first scholarship at 5 from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. At 7, she traveled to New York to study with Nancy Stessin, and at 8, she became a scholarship student of Herbert Stessin at The Juilliard School. Shaham was also the recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant and the Gilmore Young Artist Award, two highly coveted prizes awarded to enhance her musical abilities. She released a CD in 2013 of Hebrew melodies titled Nigunim (Canary Classics) recorded with her brother, acclaimed violinist Gil Shaham.