Some reflections on the process of tonight's concert, by Sarah Darling. Enjoy!
Enjoy a sneak peek into the program notes for "Memory," written by the inimitable Kathryn Bacasmot!
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) :: Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten
Arvo Pärt wrote of Benjamin Britten: “Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music – I had had the impression of the same kind of purity in the ballads of Guillaume de Machaut. And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally – and now it would not come to that.” In observation of that grief, his Cantus opens and closes with composed silence. Then, the bell tolls sending the divided strings into a sequences of descending A minor scales imitating at varying speeds, growing and swelling like ripples produced by a pebble dropping into a placid lake; the creative life of one person reaching outward, forever impacting others.
The Estonian Pärt had compositional beginnings in serialism, which earned him an official slap on the wrist from the Soviet government. Later, Pärt’s studies of J.S. Bach and Gregorian chant slowly evolved into a personal compositional style that continues to be at the heart of his oeuvre: tintinnabuli, the ringing sound of bells that alludes to a pitch’s sound wave being mathematically divided into the overtone series, the basis of Western music theory and its harmonic progressions. A single pitch is actually an entire sequence working together – the “fundamental” and its “partials,” to use the lingo (much like the “notes” of flavor that combine to produce a particular taste of wine). Thus, when you hear the fundamental A-natural you also hear the partials from the A scale sounding sympathetically in a pattern: A, E, A, C-sharp, E, etc. The musical universe orbiting a single note.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) :: Serenata Notturna
What do “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and “Serenata Notturna” have in common, other than they both allude to the night? [Insert Jeopardy theme music here] Answer: they are both serenades. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is a nickname for the Serenade No. 13 in G Major, K. 525. Fact: historically, serenades were pieces performed outside, usually in the evening. Thus, they are quite literally “a little night music.”
In the years surrounding the composition of the “Serenata Notturna,” the prolific teenager/twenty-something Mozart penned a list that reads like the lyrics to the holiday song “The 12 Days of Christmas”: sixteen minuets for orchestra, eight minuets for piano, six piano sonatas, five violin concertos, four symphonies, two church sonatas, two masses, and an opera. That’s not even half of his output during the decade, for included are a smattering of divertimentos and serenades – nearly one of each per year.
The real treat of hearing the Serenade No. 6 in D Major (“Serenata Notturna”), K. 239 is that is it not “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” (which was written a little over a decade later). With so much Mozart from which to choose, it’s rather astonishing that audiences are somehow always tuned into the same top 40 hits. What can sometimes come across as precious in “Eine Kleine” is elegantly precocious in “Serenata Notturna.”
In 1776, while the United States was declaring its independence, Mozart wrote this piece for strings divided into two groups and timpani. Serenades have a somewhat vague formal structure, but by the Classical era the genre settled in to a comfortable multi-movement form, often kicking off in sonata form and containing at least one movement that’s a minuet and trio (in this piece it’s the second movement). The addition of timpani in “Serenata Notturna” adds a kind of humorous gravity to the mostly light and frothy spirit of the string arrangements: it’s the dark to their light, the espresso to the milk foam. The contrast is particularly prevalent in the rondo of the third movement where the timpani has its own variation before the rondo theme glitteringly nudges back in before evaporating serenely into the evening air.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) :: Introduction and Allegro
If one wanted to supply Elgar’s career with a subtitle, a plausible choice could be, “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” Success did not come quickly or easily for the composer, and those doubts were exacerbated by insecurities of social class and lack of formal training (plans to attend the esteemed Leipzig Conservatory evaporated into nothing because he didn’t have the money). He felt these shortcomings so acutely he once responded to an invitation to attend a luncheon in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee by writing, “You would not wish your board to be disgraced by the presence of a piano-tuner’s son and his wife.” Elgar spent years dabbling in business, and teaching, cobbling together a living taking whatever musical engagement he could, all whilst struggling to maintain his own belief that he could “make it” as a composer.
Then, in 1899, it happened. His Enigma Variations became a hit, and changed his career from that point onward. The new fame eventually took him to New England where he was honored with an honorary doctorate from Yale University, thanks, in part, to a professor there, Samuel Sanford. Immediately after his return from the United States, Elgar started composing a new piece (that he dedicated to Sanford) for string quartet and string orchestra. The format is often seen as a throwback to the concertino and ripieno of the Baroque concerto grosso. Diana McVeagh notes that Elgar said he “learnt to write for strings from Handel” (perhaps a catalyst for the idea of a Baroque type of set-up), and “knew well that a single voice can be more flexible, more wayward, than a group.” The lyrical theme, introduced by a solo viola line, is said to have been derived from the memory of a Welsh tune the composer heard during a visit.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) :: Serenade for Strings
Tchaikovsky once wrote, “I don’t just like Mozart, I idolize him.” In an era predating recording devices, the only way one could become familiar with hearing the works of a composer was to either attend concerts where the music was being performed, or be wealthy enough to hire people to play it for you at home. So, to broaden public knowledge of his idol, in 1887 Tchaikovsky re-arranged four Mozart pieces into the Suite No. 4 in G Major, Op. 61, (“Mozartiana”). Seven years earlier he wrote the Serenade for Strings in C Major, the first movement of which was meant to be reflective of Mozart whom he thought was “devoid of self-satisfaction and boastfulness...a genius whose childlike innocence, gentleness of spirit...are scarcely of this earth.”
How appropriate that those sentiments found an outlet in a serenade, a genre richly cultivated by Mozart who transformed them from the musical toss-offs they historically were (often serenades were only performed once and enjoyed casually in the evening, like an audible amuse-bouche) into sublime concert works worthy of repeat performances.
The Serenade for Strings is distinctly Tchaikovsky, yet distilled. Here he leaves aside his occasionally bombastic sensibilities and overt desire for virtuosity in order to showcase his extraordinary gift for lyrical melody, which in this setting sparkles like a rare jewel catching and embracing rays of light. In a letter to his patroness and friend Nadezhada von Meck he wrote, “It is a heartfelt piece and so, I dare to think, is not lacking in real qualities.”
Observed as “string quintet in texture,” it begins with a lush descending homophonic motif commencing what will be a tense relationship between gravity and anti-gravity via long descending and ascending lines throughout the larger structure of the first three movements. The effect is a work that breathes with lines working in harmony of movement—which is perhaps why George Balanchine set the work to choreography. The charming Valse of the second movement glimmers all the more next to the noble melancholy of the Élégie, featuring melodies infused with signature Tchaikovsky yearning and striving. The Finale, at least temporarily, appears to break the tug between rising and descending in its suspended hovering like an autumn leaf fluttering in midair right before it is carried away in a flurry of an upward breeze—or, in this case, a whirlwind of Russian folk melodies, which are in turn abruptly brought to an end with the solemn return of the opening material. It returns only briefly, however, before it dissolves effortlessly in a seamless metamorphosis back into vivacity.
In advance of "Point of View", here are two sets of notes on the music for you to enjoy - some musings from the co-curators, and Kathryn Bacasmot's always enlightening program notes. See you this weekend!
A note from Karl and Liesl:
Steve Reich's "Clapping Music" is a pure experience-based humanistic approach to music and and world - no instruments, no music, just Criers clapping.
Haydn's Symphony no. 22 "The Philosopher" gives us the time and space to celebrate the value of the human intellect to ponder the questions of the universe.
Feel the overwhelming beauty of nature - close your eyes and be transported by Ayano Ninomiya's musical painting of "The Lark Ascending."
Norman Dello Joio’s "Meditations on Ecclesiastes" reminds us both to have a plan and have faith. Truth is everywhere and everything has a time.
Kip Jones' Long Distance Motorcycle Transit (LDMT) takes us on a journey, where human contact, contemplation, nature, faith, and celebration join together.
Whenever we can look with a different point of view we learn something - we're given new experiences.
Karl and Liesl Doty, co-curators
Steve Reich (b. 1936) :: Clapping Music
In the mid 1960s, after completing a degree in Philosophy at Cornell, and composition studies at Juilliard and Mills College, Steve Reich composed It’s Gonna Rain. The work is a recording of a street preacher, and features a technique Reich called “phasing,” a phenomenon he explored after realizing that two tape decks were moving in and out of sync with each other. Phasing became a cornerstone in Reich’s output, and one of the simplest expressions of it is Clapping Music, from 1972.
Clapping Music’s origin was at a nightclub in Brussels where Reich and some friends saw and heard a flamenco performance. At some point the performers added palmas, traditional flamenco clapping patterns, which caught the attention of the all the percussionists in the group. As Reich recalls, “We went out into the foggy Belgian night and started clapping at each other, and a light bulb just went on in my head—what if there’s a power failure in a gig, what if everything goes off? And that was it: ‘This is it, EUREKA!’ I got the inspiration to write Clapping Music.
There are two parts to Clapping Music, and both use the same rhythmic pattern. The piece evolves out of the phasing that occurs when one part shifts off one beat every eight repetitions. This shifting every eight bars continues until the two parts arrive back in unison, just as they started.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major, The Philosopher
We refer to Haydn as the “father” of the symphony, not because he invented the genre, but because he helped (along with Mozart, and Beethoven, his later contemporaries and successors) bring the form to its fullest potential and maturity. This was, in part, the privilege of being born at the right time in history. The widespread establishment of equal temperament in the 18th century—tuning instruments so all pitches were equally spaced—was leading to broader possibilities of modulation between tonal centers, and as a result the sonata form was blossoming. As a master of form and structure, Haydn saw the possibilities, and furthermore, had an excellent group of musicians at his constant disposal for experimentation. It was in 1761 he went to work for the Esterházy family at their private estate that boasted an orchestra with some of the best instrumentalists in the region. Haydn composed music at an astonishing rate for the Esterházy’s personal use, or private entertainment. His Symphony No. 22 was written in 1764. The first symphony he composed at the estate, just three years prior, was No. 6.
Charles Rosen notes in his book The Classical Style that “what is most exceptional, not what is most usual, has often the greatest claim on our interest.” What made Haydn remarkable, and why we remember him, was his ability to explore the exceptions to the “rules” of form and style that were prevalent during his lifetime. He was constantly finding a way to modulate to a key that was unexpected, for example, and a sense of drama, humor, and dialogue, seems to pervade his works even though the music is completely abstract. The nickname “The philosopher” seems to have been attached to the piece during Haydn’s lifetime, but was not selected by the composer. One theory is that the slow opening of the symphony suggested a kind of pensiveness, but the true origin is unknown.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) :: The Lark Ascending
For English poets, nature has long been a source of inspiration for poetry, but acquired a new significance in reaction to the increased mechanization and urbanization that was the result of the ongoing industrial revolution. To this day we are concerned with the effects on nature that those changes brought about. We still worry about working conditions in factories, and consider the industrial impact on the environment, and how technology and food influence our bodily health. Time and again when we are confronted with the implications of our inventions we turn to nature.
Ralph Vaughan Williams began orchestrating The Lark Ascending after he returned to England from serving in World War I in the Medical Corps. It isn’t hard to imagine that this project might have been a balm for the scars of war. He had begun the piece (originally for violin and piano) in 1914, as a response to George Meredith’s poem of the same name, written in 1881. An article by Edwin Evans in The Musical Times from April 1, 1920 observes that Vaughan Williams was “one of the very few composers of whom it may be truthfully said that he has never set a bad poem or even one that was merely innocuous.” Though there are no lyrics here—the work is more of a tone poem—the composer did include a few lines from the poem in the preface to the score. Interestingly, the text in the preface is not simply an excerpt from the poem. Instead, Vaughan Williams compiles portions of the opening stanza, the second stanza, and the conclusion.
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) :: Meditations on Ecclesiastes
Dello Joio was born into a musical family and went on to study music formally at The Juilliard School, and with the German composer Paul Hindemith.
In 1957 Dello Joio won the Pulitzer Prize in music for Meditations on Ecclesiastes, a set of variations on a theme inspired the third chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes, verses 1-8 (also used by Pete Seeger for his song, made famous by The Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn!”). Each portion of the music corresponds to a verse of the text:
To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven, [Introduction]
A time to be born, [Theme]
And a time to die; [Solenne]
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; [Soave, e leggiero]
A time to kill, And a time to heal; [Grave, con rividezza Larghetto, con leggerezza]
A time to break down, and a time to build up; [Animato]
A time to weep, and to mourn, [Adagio con intensità]
A time to dance, and to laugh; [Spumante]
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; [Adagio liberamente]
A time of hate, and of war, [Con brio, molto deciso]
A time to love, and a time of peace. [Semplice]
Kip Jones :: LDMT
Kip Jones is a violinist and composer from Duluth, Minnesota. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, he performs full-time in ETHEL, a modern string quartet based in New York City. He highly values community, challenge, and groove, viewing the music of the Aka tribes as the high-water mark of human musical endeavor. In performance, he aspires to a direct and facile style that displays clarity of form and breadth of variation, like Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande; in composition, he aspires to crystalline structures like those of Borges and Dante, lately experienced in the music of Steve Reich and the Branford Marsalis Quartet. An enthusiast of long-distance motorcycling, Jones speaks four languages with varying degrees of fluency following years of nomadic overland travel to 26 countries. His music, described by the New York Times as “buoyantly songful”, has been heard at BAM Harvey, Merkin Hall, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Grand Canyon Music Festival, Chom Ong Tai cave (Laos), Tsetserleg valley (Mongolia), and the Jordan Nisja school of music (Albania). He is married to an equally adventurous teacher/photographer; together they are currently renovating an old house two blocks from the Mississippi river in Minneapolis.
“LDMT (Long distance motorcycle transit) is a lane of pavement cut and pressed into the mountains: the fresh and oily stuff, the cracked and bumpy stuff, and especially the curvy stuff. LDMT was originally commissioned as a recording for a biker patron's trip to Sturgis. It's a jaunty and idiosyncratic machine, with more midrange pull than low end torque, but it delivers predictably, allowing the rider to roll on the throttle and focus on the road.
We peppered Anthony Marwood with a few questions about the Bernstein work he'll be performing tonight, "Serenade after Plato's Symposium." The piece features five movements, each one of which represents a speech given by a philosopher at Socrates's gathering on the nature of love. At the end of the night, a drunken party arrives, and one final speech is given, by a slightly inebriated lover of Socrates himself. An amazing work, which Anthony is playing for the first time with us - and we wanted to get his take on it and see if he had any favorite bits!
Yes, this piece was a discovery for me, but working on it has been a thrill. Its points of reference are so rich, both literary and musical : aside from Plato, Charles Ives, Kurt Weill, Mahler, Stravinsky are all encoded. But Bernstein is such a abundantly gifted composer and beguiling melodist that somehow it comes out sounding like him. There's passion and also restraint, and just in the last movement he lets rip - quite rightly as it depicts the rather inappropriate arrival of the revelers. The fourth movement (Agathon's speech) is especially heartfelt and touching.
How do you feel about being the sole British representatives on an all-American program?
Funny, it hadn't really occurred to me! Perhaps I feel at home making music here. I think the all-American theme is interesting and quite rarely explored, but in general we are lucky as artists to be able to play music from all over the world, and to travel, so to speak, easily between these musical lands - no visa required.
You've played with A Far Cry once before; what you brought you back? And for extra credit, has anything changed about the group?
Oh, I continued to take great interest even from afar! There's such an incredible work ethic here, a great commitment and an ability to play with razor-sharp chamber music skills, which makes it truly rewarding for a guest soloist like me. I like the inventiveness of their programming too. Over time all these skills have deepened, so it's great to be back making music with these inspiring friends...
Enjoy these program notes for "All-American," written by our fabulous musicologist-in-residence, Kathryn Bacasmot!
Mark O’Connor (b. 1951) :: Elevations
At the end of the 19th century came to a close, Antonín Dvorák was invited to The National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City with the assignment to discover and reveal the answer to the question, “What is ‘American’ Music?” Upon his arrival, he began searching for clues within the various music styles of different people groups in the country. He heard spirituals and plantation songs from the South, and reviewed transcriptions of Native American melodies. As Klause Döge notes, “In many newspaper articles and interviews he expressed his belief that a national American style could be based on such traditional elements.”
Building on that idea, Mark O’Connor has a strong connection to the rhythmic, tonal, and stylistic idioms of our nation’s many “folk” sounds, and has successfully dedicated his career to promotion and preservation of an “American” sonic identity that reflects those distinct components blended with the concert music tradition of Western Europe.
About Elevations, O’Connor has said in an interview:
“Elevations is based on my composition Vistas that I composed originally for Yo-Yo Ma and our project Appalachian Journey. Ever since we recorded Vistas in 1999, I had imagined it for orchestra. When I received the commission to compose for the New Century Chamber Orchestra of San Francisco, I thought of an idea for how to extend Vistas to a 2nd movement. So in every sense, Elevations springs from Vistas. The original Vistas conceptual design was informed by the views from my then writing studio and balconies in Southern California that are quite sweeping. I had noticed one day that there are three very distinct views from the balcony, one to the east where the desert begins to reveal itself; one to the north where you can see the distant mountains; and then a view off to the west where the beautiful Pacific Ocean sparkles in the distance. The idea of differences (desert, mountain, ocean) juxtaposed with the application of peripheral vision superimposing differences and in the process becoming one big picture in a giant panoramic view, was principle in the design of the piece. Vistas was a standout on the Appalachian Journey album.
Since the original inspiration of Vistas was to take natural habitats and use them as metaphoric bridges to human conditions, pressing the point that differences are not that different at all. The concept of simply being on a “different page” of the same journey and in the end saying essentially the same thing all along is the thrust of the Vistas concept and the result of the canonic writing. This was key to the construction of the form. It became evident that the 2nd and final movement of Elevations could develop beyond the inspiration of three habitats, to three groups of people whose dynamic presence for the most part created American culture; Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans.
When I think about music and art, I feel there are three important bridges all artists seek to cross: In the end, we seek to elevate the spirit, stimulate the intellect and strengthen the heart. In America, certainly the beautiful contrasting landscapes as well as the hundreds of years of human cultures cross-pollinating to formulate new musical styles, helped to achieve these ideals.”
Philip Glass (b. 1937) :: Company
The so-called American “minimalists” (Reich, and perhaps most famously Glass, among them) composed music revolving around the idea of stasis, music that retained tonality but arranged it in very slowly shifting patterns with minimal harmonic movement. Glass, as Alex Ross puts it, “...focused with almost maddening thoroughness on the basic mechanism of repetition, addition, and subtraction.”
The String Quartet No. 2, titled Company, was originally written in 1983 as accompaniment to Samuel Beckett’s work of the same name, and was later premiered as a free-standing chamber music work.
Derek Bermel (b. 1967) :: Murmurations
When I listen to and watch a string orchestra play, I'm reminded of a flock of birds. Visually and aurally, the performers seek unity on many levels -- attention to tuning, tone, clarity of rhythm, consistency and pressure of bowing. They glide and dive in formation, soaring together or splitting into layers of counterpoint before regrouping into a single unit. During my year living in Rome, I was often treated to the graceful spectacle of a starling murmuration. Theirstunning, geometrical displays of aviation prior to settling down for the night are a humbling sight to behold. In fact, starlings' mass motion suggests "emergence", a concept in Game Theory that explains how simple interactions can engender complex systems.
In "Murmurations" I attempted to map onto a musical structure some of the behavior I observed in the starlings' flight. Their collective push and pull, swoop, and parallel movement manifests in the opening movement "Gathering near Gretna Green", titled for the Scottish village where starlings frequently assemble. The music hovers and swoops, culminating in a cadenza – the lone concertmaster briefly separates from the flock for a rare individual moment, and is again swallowed up into the mass motion. In the middle movement "Soaring over Algiers", the melodic line glides alone, then in double, and finally triple layers of counterpoint, over arpeggios in the lower strings. I was inspired to write the third movement, "Swarming Rome", upon learning that starlings signal and sense subtle directional intent to and from their neighboors seven birds distant. Here the notes travel in loose clusters, darting and fluttering, far enough from each other to maneuver through the air, yet close enough to respond to sudden shifts in the murmuration's rhythm and cadence.
"Murmurations" was co-commissioned by the New Century Chamber Orchestra, the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and partner A Far Cry. For inspiration, violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Steve Copes, Jae Young Cosmos Lee, and Cho-Liang Lin; writer Siobhan Roberts and Noah Strycker; mathematician Helmut Hofer; and photographer Richard Barnes. Special thanks to Alecia Lawyer, Parker Monroe, Kyu-Young Kim, Todd Vunderink, Anthony Cornicello, and Elizabeth Dworkin.
- Derek Bermel
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) :: Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium
Written in 1954, when Bernstein was thirty-six years old, the Serenade took its inspiration from Plato’s Symposium. The work wasn’t intended as program music, per se, but does attempt to capture the rhythm and spirit of the dialogue as it unfolds.
Bernstein provided his own annotation to the work, explaining the overall concept, as well as the individual movements:
“There is not literal program for this serenade, despite the fact that it resulted from a rereading of Plato’s charming dialogue, The Symposium. The music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet. The “relatedness” of the movements does not depend on common thematic material, but rather on a system whereby each movement evolves out of elements in the preceding one.
For the benefit of those interested in literary allusion, I might suggest the following points as guideposts:
I. Phaedrus—Pausanias (Lento—Allegro): Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin.) Pausanias continues by describing the duality of lover and beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato.
II. Aristophanes (Allegretto): Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love.
III. Erixymachus (Presto): The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.
IV. Agathon (Adagio): Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms, and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.
V. Socrates—Alcibiades (Molto tenuto—Allegro molto vivace): Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata form. The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jiglike dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party music, but rather the national expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party.”
Sarah Darling, one of the Goldberg arrangers and the instigator of this week's program, wrote this post about the process of working with the piece. Enjoy!
Two score and seventy-five years ago, a guy whose name translates to John Brook sat down and wrote a tune.
Was it the best tune? Possibly it was, indeed, the best tune.
What we know for sure is that the guy loved the tune. And love makes everything it touches more beautiful.
After he wrote the tune, the guy thought about it for a while. The more he thought about it, the more awesome it became. Some days it was really silly and cute. Other days it was radiant and still. Other days, it got really dramatic and sometimes, it must be said, the tune really made quite a fuss. Occasionally it got sad, and then everything became very quiet. But it would always perk up again, sometimes with a jolt, sometimes with a slow secret smile. No matter where the tune went, no matter what shape it took, even on that one crazy day when it decided to flirt with several other tunes simultaneously (!) at the end of the day, the guy always knew that it was still his beloved tune. He could still hear every note, every suspension, the supple curve of every ornament, the dappled light-and-shadow of major and minor, in the silence when the other music died away.
This is a story that begins with a happy ending.
LIkely the next person to fall in love with the Aria from the Goldberg Variations was Bach's wife, Anna Magdalena. And the beautiful writing-out of the tune at the top of this email is actually hers - inserted into two blank pages of a book of keyboard works that was a present from JS. ("Hey, he forgot my favorite one! Let me just add it in...")
There is something so magical about this piece. I feel as though nearly everyone I know has some kind of intimate relationship with it. When you listen to the Variations, and you watch the Aria undergo those amazing transformations from one movement to the next, each shift feels real, active, engaged. You believe in it all. Your mind turns into a cathedral full of notes and geometric shapes. And sometimes, as many folks have done over the years, you even think "Oh! I see it! That's what Bach was implying in that one! Wait... wait... I really want to write that down!"
It's amazing how the desire to arrange the Goldbergs almost feels like a tradition at this point. And it's a funny thing. Each arrangement is unique, and yet I swear, the process is not creative. I really mean that. It's one thousand percent interpretive. It's staring at something and asking the question "What are you?" It's not really all that different, perhaps, from playing them. The boldest creative act is the moment when you begin, when you say "I want to do this." So I did that last year, in a programming pitch for A Far Cry, and the group, amazingly, said "OK, let's go for it!"
Every variation takes you to a different place. Not just in the character of its music: also with what's implied. Some variations (why hello, French Overture) call out for massive, pompous forces. Others work so beautifully as a dance between two solo voices. Every single one was written for keyboard, though - and the thing that I don't understand about so many Goldberg arrangements is that they are always "for" something else. All you see are the implications, but you don't actually get to hear the beauty of the original source. So the idea behind this Goldberg arrangement pitch was to go all-out with a group that could do everything with its forces, both large and small - AND to invite a pianist to the party, because OF COURSE. (Our hearts collectively stopped when Simone Dinnerstein, one of the great Goldberg interpreters of any time, agreed to play with us)
Arranging it has been an intense process. I split the task with Alex Fortes, and we worked with a small "brain trust" of Criers - thinking through options, imagining the interplay of different lines. Is it more like a concerto grosso or a trio sonata? What about pizzicato for this one? How many voices? What are the basses doing? Can the soloists for that one canon be in the back? There's a small army of various movement charts in our Googledocs...
What has been truly fascinating has been the evolution of each idea. Very, very, little has stayed the same. Things that I thought were hugely significant turned out to be sort of minor; throwaway ideas were sometimes magical. I really can't say more without issuing a spoiler alert. Adding Simone to the creative process (she graciously committed a lot of time to being a really active part of this arrangement) gave it yet another layer of coherence and focus. And rehearsals this week have been an utter joy - well, mostly. 9 times out of 10 it's the euphoric feeling of watching a statue come to life, or a two-dimensional creation acquire a third dimension. Occasionally, though, you put your head in your hands and think "That just sounds boring. What was I thinking?"
And then you keep tweaking, experimenting, changing it up. Now it's the entire group that is taking control of the last stage of this creative/interpretive process. In a twist of fate, I'm not able to play the show this week, so I've been able to watch it grow from the outside and then gradually let go, knowing that it's in the best hands possible.
I feel as though a part of me is still there in the performance, but I will openly admit that I'm going to regret not being a part of the thing that will happen for the first time when we play it for you. The thing where you watch that little tune as it grows and redefines itself again, again, and again, changing shape, changing size, changing affect, but always keeping a kernel of itself, until finally, after thirty metamorphoses (and one hard-core flirtation with various theme buddies in the final Quodlibet) you see it again, whole and complete.
T.S. Eliot is so good at describing this moment. Here's something from the final pages of the Four Quartets that says it in the right way:
We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Enjoy the program notes for this weekend's concert, written by our fabulous musicologist-in-residence, Kathryn Bacasmot!
It’s easy to forget there was a time when the Goldberg Variations were not a part of the cornerstone collection of music to which we loved to listen. Their real debut into society occurred in 1955, when a young, eccentric, Canadian pianist named Glenn Gould stepped into a recording studio and made what has become an iconic recording of the work (Pablo Casals did a similar thing for the Six Suites for Solo Cello in 1936). Since then, they have captured our collective imagination with their seemingly endless nooks and crannies for exploration. Like the dialogue and scenes of an intricately shot and witty movie, the lines, jokes, and relationships between the notes of the variations reveal themselves to the listener on deeper levels with every listen.
Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen, “Aria with Diverse Variations,” was the original title for BWV 988. The nickname “Goldberg” comes from a story that has been acknowledge as likely apocryphal due to lack of concrete evidence (Goldberg would only have been fourteen years old, and no dedication page to the Count exists) —yet it has had such an impact on the music it bears a brief re-telling. The story originates in 1802 with Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, who related an anecdote about Johann Gottleib Goldberg—reportedly one of Bach’s students: “The Count [Hermann Carl von Kaiserling of Dresden] was often sickly, and then had sleepless nights. At these times Goldberg, who lived in the house with him, had to pass the night in an adjoining room to play something when the Count could not sleep. The Count once said to Bach that he should like to have some clavier pieces for his Goldberg, which should be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights.” Thus, so the story goes, did Bach write the Goldberg variations.
More likely is that Bach wrote the variations as the culmination to his Clavier-Übung (“Keyboard Exercise”), a collection of harpsichord and organ works published in four parts from 1731-1741. Part I included the six Partitas, Part II consisted of the Italian Concerto and the Overture after the French Manner, Part III is a master compendium of organ works, and Part IV is the Goldberg variations. As a whole, the Clavier-Übung traverses every style and skill set a keyboardist would need to know.
The opening theme in the Aria owes its harmonic structure to one of Bach’s contemporaries, whom he admired greatly: George Frideric Handel. A side-by-side comparison of Handel’s Chaconne avec 62 variations (HWV 442) reveals an identical base in the first eight bars between the two works. One of the marvels of the Goldberg variations is the beautiful symmetry of the entire work. The thirty variations are divided into two “sections” of fifteen: Nos. 1-15, and Nos. 16-30. Including the Aria that appears both at the outset and at the conclusion, Goldberg consists of thirty-two parts total. This macro piece structure is reflected in the micro structure each variation, most of which are either 16 or 32 measures in length. There are only three minor key variations, and the first is No. 15—the last variation of the first part. Variation No. 16 is marked “Overture” to herald the beginning of the second half. Every third variation is a canon at an increasing interval (i.e. No. 3 is a canon at the unison, No. 6 a canon at the second, No. 9 a canon at the third, etc.) up to the ninth, and culminates at No. 30 with a quodlibet—a combination of counterpoint and popular song. Here is where Bach’s sense of humor shows most prominently, since the quodlibet includes popular melodies in his day, the words of which translate to “I have been away so long from you” and “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away (had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay).” After such a long journey through all the possibilities of the theme almost entirely in the major mode of its key of G (perhaps comically referred to as the “cabbage and turnips” redundancy of musical diet), the variations have come to an end, and returned home to the Aria, once again.
Friday's concert will have 21 (!) separate "tracks" on it! So in lieu of program notes, Miki wrote up a beautiful introduction explaining why we love the Mix Tape concept - and urging everyone to set their programs aside and just enjoy. (No worries, we've printed everything at the back of the program book in case you want to refer to it later.)
See you on Friday for this wild ride!
"A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do." The words are from Rob Fleming -- the sullenly romantic record store-owner of Nick Hornby's 1996 novel High Fidelity -- but we couldn't have said it better.
It's been over four years since we started discussing the idea of a Mix Tape concert, and there's a reason for that. Over the past twelve months, we've wracked our brains, lobbied passionately for our faves, had a few major and minor skirmishes, and narrowed it down to 21 "tracks" from our past nine seasons of performing together (plus a few new surprises to keep things fresh). It hasn't been easy. AFC has never had a dearth of passion or opinions. Ultimately though, the concept was too intriguing to pass up.
You see, most of us came of age around the heyday of the mix tape, and know that a good mix tape is more than just a collection of catchy songs. A good mix tape tells a story. A good mix tape juxtaposes and elides and frames music in a way that makes us wonder, laugh, question and sometimes forget to breathe. That's a tall order, but our love for this music inspires us to take risks. We couldn't pass up this chance for Prokofiev to cool down a hot Biber, for Andrew Norman to volley with fiddling Swedes, or Mozart to wink at Daft Punk.
Lastly and most importantly, any mix tape worth its salt is a very personal communication to a very specific audience. And as we begin to see the edge of our tenth season on the horizon, we felt compelled to make this mix for you. For those of you who have been with us for the long haul, who came to our concerts even when you didn't recognize a single composer's name on the program - this mix is for you. For those of you who are here for the first time, maybe something you hear tonight will plant a seed that we can grow together over the next decade. And so, this mix is also for you.
The full program is printed on the back page of your program book, but do us a favor, and put it away when the music begins. You can go to town figuring out what you just heard at intermission. For now though, these are our choicest, juiciest bits of hand-picked ear candy, laid out for you. Sit back, get comfy, and prepare to take a bite.
- Miki-Sophia Cloud, on behalf of the Criers