The Nashville Symphony’s Aegis Sciences Classical Series returns on February 23-24 when British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor makes his Schermerhorn Symphony Center debut as the featured soloist on Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto. Guest conductor Christopher Seaman will lead the orchestra on a program that also includes Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5 and Andrzej Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra.
To follow are nine fun facts about the composers and repertoire featured in these two performances:
Andrzej Panufnik’s third symphony, Sinfonia Sacra, was written in 1963 to celebrate a millennium of Christianity in Poland. Ironically, he had fled the Communist regime in his homeland nearly a decade earlier and was living in London. He would not visit Poland again until 1990, a year before his death.
For the music, Panufnik incorporated Poland’s oldest known hymn, the Bogurodzica (“Mother of God”). “I wanted this composition to be very much Polish in character and also to emphasize the Catholic tradition so deeply rooted in the country of my birth,” he wrote.
The structure of the symphony consists of two main parts, Three Visions and Hymn. Each of the visions in the first section is contrasting in instrumentation and based on intervals from the Bogurodzica. Hymn uses a melody invoking prayer to the Virgin Mary. “Although I intended this symphony to be emotionally very highly charged,” the composer explained, “all of its component elements are contained within an extremely rigid design.”
Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto was actually the first he wrote for the instrument. He decided to publish his ensuing Piano Concerto in C major first because it was a more dynamic piece. By contrast, this work — in particular the Adagio second movement — conveys a sense of profound introspection.
The structure is based on the Classical model established by Mozart, and the origins of this piece can be traced to Beethoven’s teenage years in Bonn during the late 1780s, though he likely completed it roughly a decade later. The music shows the composer experimenting with the Classical concerto form and points the way toward his later innovations.
The work is scored for a small orchestra with flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns and strings accompanying the solo pianist. Beethoven was not particularly proud of this piece and later stated that it “does not rank among the best of my works in this form.”
Written in the early years of World War II, Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony has a pastoral feel largely in keeping with the composer’s reputation at the time. Though initially under the sway of Wagner when he was a young composer, he found his own voice by embracing the musical heritage of his native England — in particular the country’s folk and religious traditions. Those influences can be heard in this work.
Much of the music draws from another project Vaughan Williams worked on over the course of four decades — an opera based on The Pilgrim’s Progress, the allegory of Christian belief published by John Bunyan in the late 17th century.
With his aesthetically conservative style, Vaughan Williams felt a kinship with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who also weathered charges of being out of step with the modernist revolution. He dedicated his Fifth Symphony “without permission and with the sincerest flattery to Jean Sibelius, whose great example is worthy of all imitation.”
Great seats starting at $26 are still available for both performances, and the Symphony’s Soundcheck program offers $10 tickets to students in K-12, college, and grad school. Date night packages – which include two tickets, two glasses of wine and Goo Goo chocolates – are available starting at $68, and all February 23 ticket purchases include admittance to Happy Hour at the ’Horn, a pre-concert event with live music, discounts on select wine and beers, and more. Learn more at https://www.nashvillesymphony.org/beethovens2nd.