When Sir Andrew Davis was engaged as guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this season, already fixed on his program were two Beethoven piano concertos featuring esteemed interpreter Paul Lewis. “I’m really excited about this pairing, because we have not worked together before,” said Davis, music director and principal conductor of Lyric Opera of Chicago. “I’m a great fan of his.”
The concertos – No. 1 and No. 4 – are part of the CSO’s seasonlong celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, a salute that includes performances of all nine of his symphonies with Music Director Riccardo Muti.
The question for Davis was what to pair with the Beethoven concertos on his CSO program, running Jan. 30 to Feb. 4. The two options, as he saw it, were one longer piece between the two concertos or a shorter piece before each. He opted for the latter possibility and turned to Michael Tippett, one of Great Britain’s leading composers in the 20th century.
“As you probably know, I’m a great Tippett fan,” Davis said. “I knew him extremely well — first met him when I was about 15 years old. And I’ve done a lot of his pieces over the years. I did the European premiere of the The Mask of Time, for instance. So then, it was just a question of finding two relatively short pieces, which there are not many.”
The concert will begin with the CSO’s debut of Tippett’s Little Music for String Orchestra, which premiered in 1946. “Obviously, his great early masterpiece was the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, which is one of the classic masterpieces of the string orchestra repertoire,” he said. “But Little Music is quite short, something like nine minutes. It has four little short movements, and it starts in a little kind of a Purcellian way, and it has a very witty little finale, which I’m very fond of. So that would be a nice way to open the concert.”
To begin the second half, Davis wanted a work from later in Tippett’s output that would show a different facet of the composer. The conductor chose the Praeludium for Brass, Bells and Percussion from 1962, a work composed after Tippett’s opera, King Priam (1958-61), and around the same time as the Concerto for Orchestra (1962-63).
“His style at that time was what you might call a mosaic style, where you have different musical ideas that then would be juxtaposed to each other in different orders and different combinations,” he said. “And this is an example of that. You have a particular idea that belongs to the horn. So then you have a particular idea that belongs to the two trumpets, and the trombone idea and then the bells of the percussion. So it’s a sort of hypnotic piece, actually.”
Reinforcing Davis’ decision to pair Tippett with Beethoven was the former’s passion for his celebrated predecessor. Tippett’s Third Symphony quotes the opening of Beethoven’s famed Symphony No. 9, and his Piano Concerto (1953-55) is based on Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, which is featured on this program.
“I don’t think, listening to the two Tippet pieces for the first time, that you would say, ‘Oh, boy, he got that from Beethoven,’” Davis said. “It’s just there was something sort of in the back of Tippett’s creative world, some part of it was, was very much inspired by Beethoven.”
At the same time, the two composers shared a belief in spiritual enlightenment and the ability of music to elevate the human condition. “I think the composers have that very much in common,” Davis said. “I suppose we could say that about most creative artists, but I think in their different periods they were both looking to really show us the same thing: a way forward that would enrich us and make us better.”