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CELEBRATORY CHOPIN – Dayton Philharmonic salutes master pianist/composer Frederic Chopin

As you examine the works that the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will perform in its concert pair Friday, November 5 and Saturday, November 6, you’re probably thinking, “Chopin wrote a piano concerto? He wrote two of them? He wrote for the orchestra and not just for solo piano?” That, for most people, is about as likely as, say, the Texas Rangers reaching the World Series. Alas, it’s true: Chopin did write for the orchestra, effectively, and the Rangers, indeed, are headed to the Series.

Reading the list of pieces to be performed, you would also have noted that music director Neal Gittleman’s program is nontraditional. For 99 percent of any orchestra’s programs, they perform on Saturday what they perform on Thursday or Friday. This weekend is the exception. To honor the 200th birthday (March 1 of this year, although some records claim February 22) of Frederic Chopin, the DPO decided to perform a slightly wider variety of offerings from one of the 19th century’s brightest piano lights than usual, so each concert has its own music. Here is the schedule:

Friday, November 5

HECTOR BERLIOZ Waverley Overture | CHOPIN Solo Piano Works | ROBERT SCHUMANN Solo Piano Works | CHOPIN Piano Concerto No. 2

Saturday, November 6

FRANZ LISZT Les Préludes | CHOPIN Solo Piano Works | FELIX MENDELSSOHN Solo Piano Works | CHOPIN Piano Concerto No. 1

The other composers on these programs were contemporaries of Chopin’s, so the audiences will get a taste of what else was going on musically in Europe during Chopin’s life.

For all the admiration the world has for Chopin, there’s quite a bit of information that many don’t know about him. Looking at his name, one would never guess that he was Polish since Polish names are populated with a tangle of w’s, z’s and s’s. Chopin’s real name was Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, still not a traditional Polish name. The answer is that Frederic’s father, Mikolaj Chopin, was from Lorraine, in France. The name “Chopin” dates back to the early 13th century in France. Frederic was indeed Polish by birth, however, having been born in a village outside Warsaw. Frederic’s mother, Tekla Justyna Krzyzanowska, was, beyond a doubt, from Poland.

The stereotype of the starving artist did not apply to Chopin. He grew up, with three siblings, in a home that was at least middle class, with strong connections to money and power. Mikolaj and Tekla maintained an atmosphere of music and literature in their home, but even they were surprised at young Frederic’s early musical prowess. The Polish upper crust declared Frederic “a second Mozart.” Before his eighth birthday, Frederic performed before royalty and was a published composer. He was, in fact, more talented than the teachers anyone could find for him. Chopin, effectively, was self-taught both in performance and composition.

At age 26, Chopin met the legendary writer George Sand (a woman whose birth name was Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin). Two years later, he met her again and the two fell in love. Sand was Chopin’s significant other until his death at age 39.

The most fascinating aspect of these concerts is that they will be a combination of orchestral/concerti works with solo works. The Mead Theater, after each opening piece, will become a de-facto recital hall. The pianist is Janina Fialkowska and her workload is prodigious. Within a 24 hour span, she will play two different, full length concerti and several demanding solo pieces from three different composers.

Born in Montreal, Fialkowska is Canadian by way of a Polish father and Canadian mother. Specializing in Chopin and Liszt, Fialkowska has performed around the globe for more than a generation with the usual A-list of orchestras. She champions the music of contemporary composers, having been asked to perform in the world premieres of some. In 1986, she was singled out to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the death of Franz Liszt. The Canadian Broadcasting Company aired a special about her in 1992.

But all of that is not the most amazing aspect of Janina Fialkowska. Just after New Year’s Day in 2002, physicians found an aggressive cancerous growth near the top of her left arm. Radical surgery effectively gutted the surrounding tissue and that should have ended her career, if not her life. But experimental reconstructive surgery rebuilt her left arm. Incredibly, during her recovery, Fialkowska performed left-handed piano concerti that she transcribed for the right hand. By 2004, she was back on the stage, at full strength with both hands.

Friday evening opens with Berlioz’s Waverley Overture. Berlioz wrote the Waverley Overture in 1828 as a concert overture, an overture that does not introduce an opera. Chopin’s age at the time was 18. Waverley is all Berlioz: A slow, almost forbidding introduction, with a woodwind solo and sighing strings that Berlioz would put to grand effect in his Symphonie Fantastique two years later, is followed by a gorgeous melody in the low strings. At the overture’s mid-point, Berlioz picks up the pace and volume, again unveiling ideas for the Fantastique. The overture then turns playful, ending in a spirited swirl of brass and strings.

Robert Schumann has been heard from frequently in the Mead Theater, but this will be the first time his solo piano music will be front and center during a DPO concert. Schumann was born the same year as Chopin and only outlived him by seven years. Schumann wrote nearly four dozen works for solo piano, with an impressive range of muses. Two of his pieces were variations and fugues on names (Abegg and B-A-C-H). There were sonatas, fantasies, romances and studies. There were works based on a carnival, forests and a children’s social event. The conflict between introversion and overt expression existed within Schumann. Most of his piano music is brief, with hidden musical clues that refer to people buried in his notes and key signatures. But he could project a larger aura, as he did in his Toccata.

Janina Fialkowska will devote the Friday evening recital first to Chopin and then to Schumann. Given that they were contemporaries, audience members should listen for the differences in the styles of the normally inward Schumann and the forward-looking Chopin.

After intermission, Fialkowska and the DPO turn to Chopin’s Piano Concerto #2. This F-minor concerto, although numbered “2”, actually preceded the first concerto in E-minor, so Neal Gittleman is presenting the two concerti in their order of composition. Chopin debuted the F-minor concerto in 1830 in Warsaw. Out of the gate, in a movement titled Maestoso, Chopin wastes little time setting full sail, with a muscular and driven introduction. Fully two-and-a-half minutes pass before the piano’s entry, at which point the orchestra falls silent and the pianist echoes the orchestra’s introductory notes. This is post-Beethoven music that looks forward to Brahms. It is as full-blooded as anything Chopin’s legendary predecessor composed for keyboard and orchestra. It is florid and always in motion.

Chopin’s gift for beautiful melody was all over his solo piano music. But he showed what he could do with an orchestra and a memorable tune with the Larghetto. Chopin (yes, Chopin) was second to none in piano concerto slow movements. The tune that appears at about the 1:20 mark and what Chopin does with it, first on the keyboard and then in the orchestra, will stay with you for a very long time. Audience members should listen to how Chopin spins out multiple notes that sound like a collective whole tune: you can hear the dozens of notes, but they merge together into a single thread. Chopin keeps his orchestra as support, but their contribution seems at the forefront of your consciousness without intruding on the soloist. Neat trick, indeed. It is our loss that Chopin never wrote symphonies.

The final movement is marked Allegro vivace. It is that, but in fits and starts at the beginning. When the soloist enters, the orchestra recedes, but is never too far away. This movement sounds as if Chopin fitted an orchestra around one of his more showy solo works as the pianist’s contribution is much larger here than in the two earlier movements.

Saturday evening opens with one of music’s most recognizable showpieces: Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes. Premiered in 1854, the third (and most popular, by a wide margin) of Liszt’s 12 tone poems, is the very definition of classical music’s Romantic era: massive, tuneful, bombastic and written to bring people out of their seats at the end.

In 1853, Liszt invented the tone poem, originally a one-movement work of limited duration inspired by literary figures. “New wine demands new bottles,” Liszt declared when asked about his new-fangled musical device. If Berlioz invented the idée fixe, Liszt took the idea of orchestral reinvention another mile or so. Les Preludes was that new wine, supercharged.

Programming Les Preludes before a solo piano recital is a clever move. You hear a work that blasts your senses with surges of dopamine and then, knowing that you can’t top the sensory overload, you seek some way to come back to planet Earth. What you seek are Chopin and Mendelssohn.

Felix Mendelssohn was born one year before Chopin and died two years before Chopin, so they were nearly exact contemporaries. If Chopin’s solo piano music is rightfully admired, Mendelssohn’s suffers from too little appreciation and too little performance. In fact, Mendelssohn, to a degree, remains classical music’s Rodney Dangerfield, still looking for respect, or at least the respect that he should be accorded given his incredible ability to entertain. Quick quiz: Name the first major work for orchestra and chorus after Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Answer: Mendelssohn’s magnificent Second Symphony, Hymn of Praise, a symphony that should be on many more symphony schedules than it currently is. Quick fact: Johann Sebastian Bach’s music had fallen into obscurity until a conductor staged a performance of the Saint Matthew Passion. The conductor: Felix Mendelssohn, whose performance began a resurgence of interest in Bach’s music that remains unabated.

Mendelssohn was not a fan of much of the solo piano music written in his lifetime. He eschewed self-absorbed keyboard show-offs. In one of the funniest comments of the time, he declared the music and performance style of Friedrich Wilhelm Michael Kalkbrenner to be an “indigestible sausage.” He appreciated the talents of Chopin and Liszt, but found some of their works to be “mannered.” Mendelssohn had unbridled admiration for the counterpoint of Bach and this is evident in Mendelssohn’s early piano music. Ultimately, Beethoven and Weber were of more enduring influence.

Mendelssohn wrote more than five dozen works for solo piano and they are gems. If Friday night’s Schumann is a treat to anticipate, Mendelssohn on Saturday evening is an outright buffet. Together with Chopin, you have a banquet.

After intermission, the DPO returns, with Janina Fialkowska, for Chopin’s Piano Concerto #1 in E-minor. This concerto also dates from 1830, just before the F-minor concerto. At age 20, having demonstrated a prodigious talent for orchestral writing, Chopin bade farewell to writing concerti. He penned a few other orchestral works, but not on the scale of his concerti.

There is nothing tentative about Chopin’s first movement Allegro maestoso. As with the F-minor concerto, Chopin allows the orchestra to unspool a stern, commanding musical environment that gradually softens before the piano’s entry at nearly the four minute mark. Having entered the fray, the pianist stays busy to an unexpected and striking tune at the six minute mark, joined by a subtle French horn. The marriage of soloist and orchestra is a wonder to behold. Chopin ramps up the emotion and volume and then scales it back, unfurling big tune after big tune, all in this 20 minute movement.

The Romance-Larghetto is at once heart-melting, uplifting and a little melancholy. The main theme that emerges at the 45 second mark will have you reaching for a tissue: it’s that impossibly beautiful. One wonders why someone so gifted would abandon it. Surely, at just 20, Chopin had something else to say in the realm of the concerto. The last movement Rondo-Vivace is sprightly, stately and, if not quite up to the Allegro vivace of its sibling, certainly a sufficiently grand conclusion to two nights of unique and glorious programming.

The Dayton Philharmonic’s Chopin Circle concerts will be performed Friday, November 5 and Saturday, November 6 at 8 p.m. at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets. Tickets are $9-$59. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit here for Friday and here for Saturday

Reach DCP classical music critic Patrick Suarez here