Liszt & Tchaikovsky

November 2, 2019 | Michigan Theater

Behind the Music

We soar through the Rocky Mountains to the Garden of Gods and atop Pikes Peak in Wang Jie’s Symphonic Overture on “America the Beautiful.” From the orchestra comes a majestic fugue which traces the silhouette of this prominent peak with faint echos of the familiar patriotic song written atop the same mountain. Cascading crowns of notes continue through Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Your A2SO is joined by pianist, Anton Nel displaying the pinnacle of pianistic achievement. This evening of new heights concludes with the emotional summit of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 64. The vivid colors of his penultimate symphony present “fate” as the central character while casting a mysterious veil over the secrets of his personal life.


WANG JIE Symphonic Overture on “America the Beautiful”

LISZT Piano Concerto No. 2 

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 5

Anton Nel, piano
Morihiko Nakahara, guest conductor

Pikes Peak, El Paso County, Colorado

Anton Nel, Piano


Anton Nel, winner of the first prize in the 1987 Naumburg International Piano Competition at Carnegie Hall continues to enjoy a remarkable and multifaceted career that has taken him to North and South America, Europe, Asia, and South Africa. Following an auspicious debut at the age of twelve with Beethoven’s C Major Concerto after only two years of study, the Johannesburg native captured first prizes in all the major South African competitions while still in his teens, toured his native country extensively and became a well-known radio and television personality. A student of Adolph Hallis, he made his European debut in France in 1982, and in the same year graduated with highest distinction from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He came to the United States in 1983, attending the University of Cincinnati, where he pursued his Masters and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees under Bela Siki and Frank Weinstock. In addition to garnering many awards from his alma mater during this three-year period he was a prizewinner at the 1984 Leeds International Piano Competition in England and won several first prizes at the Joanna Hodges International Piano Competition in Palm Desert in 1986.

Highlights of Mr. Nel’s four decades of concertizing include performances with the Cleveland Orchestra, the symphonies of Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, and London, among many others. (He has an active repertoire of more than 100 works for piano and orchestra.) An acclaimed Beethoven interpreter, Anton Nel has performed the concerto cycle several times, most notably on two consecutive evenings with the Cape Philharmonic in 2005. Additionally he has performed all-Beethoven solo recitals, complete cycles of the violin and cello works, and most recently a highly successful run of the Diabelli Variations as part of Moises Kaufman’s play 33 Variations. He was also chosen to give the North American premiere of the newly discovered Piano Concerto No. 3 in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn in 1992. Two noteworthy world premieres of works by living composers include “Virtuoso Alice” by David Del Tredici (dedicated to, and performed by Mr. Nel at his Lincoln Center debut in 1988) as well as Stephen Paulus’s Piano Concerto also written for for Mr. Nel; the acclaimed world premiere took place in New York in 2003. 

As recitalist he has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection in New York, at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, Davies Hall in San Francisco, and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Internationally he has performed recitals in major concert halls in Canada, England (Queen Elizabeth and Wigmore Halls in London), France, Holland (Concertgebouw in Amsterdam), Japan (Suntory Hall in Tokyo), Korea, China, and South Africa.

Eager to pursue dual careers in teaching and performing he was appointed to the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin in his early twenties, followed by professorships at the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Michigan, where he was chairman of the piano department. In September 2000, Anton Nel was appointed as the Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents  Professor of Piano and Chamber music at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches an international class of students and heads the Division of Keyboard Studies. Since his return he has also been the recipient of two Austin-American Statesman Critics Circle Awards, as well as the University Cooperative Society/College of Fine Arts award for extra-curricular achievement.  In 2001 he was appointed Visiting “Extraordinary” Professor at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, and continues to teach master classes worldwide. In January 2010 he became the first holder of the new Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair in Piano at the University of Texas at Austin. Since 2015 he has been presenting an annual series of masterclasses in piano and chamber music at the Manhattan School of Music in New York as Visiting Professor, and also teaches regularly at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto.

Anton Nel became a citizen of the United States of America on September 11, 2003 and is a Steinway artist.

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Wang Jie, Composer


Part cartoon character, part virtuoso, musical whiz kid WANG JIE has spent the last decade nudging serious music and its concert audiences into spectacular frontiers. One day she spins a few notes into a large symphonic form, the next she conjures a malevolent musical rat onto the opera stage. Her “FROM NEW YORK, WITH LOVE” transformed a classic percussionist into a dervish-like rock star. Her chamber opera “FLOWN” dramatized the end of a rocky love affair by having the two pianists attack each other and their shared instrument. Despite having the worst title in the history of music, “OBOE CONCERTO FOR THE GENUINE HEART OF SADNESS” channeled the power of the League of Composers Orchestra into an orgiastic whirlwind. An unexpected collaboration with comedy writer Paul Simms inspired a song cycle about dying funny that coaxed belly laughs from an otherwise sedate Opera America audience. Last season, you might have heard about her pioneering opera “It Rained on Shakopee,” based on her experience as a mentor at a Minnesota state prison. A few months later, Jie pioneered again, a one-of-a-kind “composer-in-residence” performance in Paris, sharing her entire creative process with an audience over a four-day whirlwind of composition, paving new paths for greater public engagement with classical music.

Many consider Ms. Wang’s stylistic versatility a rare trait among today’s composers, but she comes by it naturally. Born across the globe in a metropolis bearing the reputation of the Eastern Paris, Jie was a January baby associated with a departing zodiac Sheep, high hope for the arriving Spring and the first year of Single Child Policy. There is a mile-long dossier on Jie’s outside-the-box incidents, beginning with a thrilling escape from a Chinese military-run kindergarten at the age of four. Jie’s parents decided that a dose of discipline was necessary to manage the 4-year-old’s oversized frontal lobe. They plopped their shrimpy child in front of renowned composer/pianist Yang Liqin. Jie was instantly drawn to the wooden cabinet with the black and white teeth. Eighteen months later, Jie climbed onto the piano bench and performed both volumes of Bach Inventions at her kindergarten graduation. “We sure tamed this kid, didn’t we?” approved by the Air Force General after the recital. Jie couldn’t read or write Chinese yet: music was her first language and first love.

As it happens, post-Cultural Revolution pre-schoolers who could perform Bach were a penny a bucket. Jie’s small hands soon put her at a disadvantage: unable to play an octave on the piano, she ran out of repertoire to play and was stuck revisiting music she’d already mastered. Then came the news that she was not eligible to audition as a pianist at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Thinking ahead, mom and dad added an advanced academic curriculum to their imp’s 4 hours of daily piano practice. This otherwise detrimental blow served to prepare Jie for the kind of intellectual fast track and in-depth music thinking that enabled her to let pencils and manuscript papers slowly overtake the piano.

After six years of hard study, the new teen crashed again at an audition for the Shanghai Conservatory: the school didn’t know quite what to do with this “not so orthodox” composer. Violent parental discussions about who was to blame for this weird kid got Jie shipped to a highly esteemed boarding school/prison for youngsters with special achievements in science. En route to incarceration, Jie sneaked three cassette tapes into her suitcase: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Considering Jie’s beginner’s luck of previous military escapes, the rest of the story pretty much tells itself. When you catch her saying “music is the difference between life and death”, believe her!

The delinquent student of science was repeatedly caught escaping College Physics courses for a few hours with the piano or reading Mozart biographies under a pile of calculus textbooks. Jie flabbergasted her teachers by winning a national science fair award with her “irrigation system for arid lands of China”. A major university offered her admission at their Physics department. “When it comes to a choice between life and death, the composer must always choose life!” said the reckless high school senior in front of the university officials.

Having burned all her bridges at the boarding school and the university, Jie reached a point of no return as she launched an underground solo operation to prepare her third attempt to audition the Shanghai Conservatory. Boy, was she in for a surprise! Now that you know all the mischief that earned Jie a passport to both United States and the Kingdom of Music, you might begin to understand where her mantra “Engage Explore Play” comes from.

Fifteen years and several world-class mentors later, Jie lives in New York’s Upper West Side with her little white dog Pilot who spends her day mopping Jie’s floor for a handful of food. As Jie puts it: “At any moment, my thoughts may wander from philosophy to a mouth-watering dinner recipe and can then come under attack from insistent muses who command me to publish their music. Much like throwing some bones to a dog, these muses place bits of music in my head and expect me to have at it! So if you find yourself elated by my music, the credit goes to the muses. If you hate it, well, it’s only 15 minutes long.”

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Fast facts


The Transformation Technique

For much of his early career, Franz Liszt was focused only on his development as a virtuosic pianist. With a strong desire to shift his focus towards composition, Liszt was appointed the music director at the Court of Weimar. With the position came a reduced travel schedule freeing up  time for his compositional pursuits. One idea that stood out during this period was the “transformation technique.” Liszt takes a single theme through a prolonged series of changes in tempo, timbre, rhythm, among other parameters. This technique is heard throughout both of his piano concertos giving them a greater sense of coherence as a substantive form is able to grow from a minimal amount of material. 

A Hidden Program?

In his second trilogy of symphonies, Tchaikovsky admits explorations of fate and death are fundamental to the musical ideas presented. During this time, the prodigious composer was facing a series of personal and psychological battles with depression, fear associated with his sexuality, and the early death of his mother. The composer had grown less fond of the idea of providing detailed and elaborate program notes such as those provided with his first trilogy of symphonies. The more minimal and obscure notes accompanying his later symphonies leave audiences searching for the intersections between Tchaikovsky’s grief-stricken personal life and his lush, expressive, and ambitious music.


By the numbers

Altitude of Pikes Peak (feet)

Liszt's years at Weimar

Musicians in Your A2SO