Next Generation notes

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), arr. Wood :: Variations on Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman, K. 265/300e


Mozart was twenty-five years old, and very ambitious. It was 1781, and he had relocated to Vienna. In the city, culture and glittering entertainment were in high demand from the bourgeoning middle class to the aristocracy, who, in particular, viewed patronage of the newest young talent a key to social superiority (over the next two decades that fervor rose to fever pitch, forcing some over zealous benefactors deep into debt, teetering on bankruptcy). In order to survive, as well as validate his reputation beyond the child prodigy paraded around Europe, Mozart had to secure either a court position, or devise ways to make it on his own as a freelancer. There was another motivation: to emancipate himself from his domineering father, and prove he could manage his own affairs. After some experimenting, Mozart discovered a winning formula, one that would support him for at least several years before changing his creative direction: 1) produce his own concerts in unconventional venues (the formal concert halls were always solidly booked, the logistics of which prohibiting him from presenting enough concerts from which to earn an adequate living), and 2) present himself as soloist. If he could sell enough tickets, he could make this venture work. Additionally, he would teach to pad his income. 

Of course, if you’re a talented composer, you can write your own piano lesson curriculum, and that is exactly what Mozart did. During 1781 he wrote multiple works on well-known French melodies for his students, including his Variations on Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman (Ah! Would I Tell You, Mama?), a tune to which both romantic poetry and children’s song lyrics were set. For those of us in English speaking countries the tune has yet another set of lyrics by Jane Taylor, published in the early 1800s: Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) :: Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani

By the time Ustvolskaya died in 2006, her career spanned 70 years with an official catalog of just 21 pieces. She did not count the works she had to write for official Soviet pomp and circumstance. She only acknowledged the music she wrote for herself. 

This bit of information should provide a clue that Ustvolskaya was one of the most staunchly individual creative artists of the 20th century. But, of course, she started as a student—as a member of the next generation learning the craft of composition. Her school years were spent at the Leningrad Conservatory studying with Dmitri Shostakovich. He became both a champion and admirer of her work, going so far as to quote musical passages of her Trio in his String Quartet No. 5. In turn, the music of her earlier period, before 1950, owed much to Shostakovich and other teachers and predecessors, melding traditional forms with angular melodic material infused with the rhythms of folk music. The Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani was written in 1946 and comes at the end of this period of her style. Things would change dramatically in the years immediately following. 

On trait unfailingly noted about Ustvolskaya is the unique quality of the works from her mature period. After the show is over, spend some time listening to her compositions written after 1950, or head to YouTube and watch the documentary “Scream into Space,” which follows the composer on a trip to Amsterdam late in life (one of her only visits outside of Russia/Soviet Union in her lifetime) for a performance of her Second Symphony. What you will find are works of breathtaking intensity and conciseness that convey deeply personal emotions. Dynamics are extreme, between silence and fffff, and instrumentation is unorthodox—something perhaps previewed with her specific inclusion of timpani in this piano concerto. 

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) :: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10

Many of us have one or more very influential teachers or mentors – individuals who recognized potential and strove to encourage its ultimate expression within a student. For Benjamin Britten it was Frank Bridge. Britten – the only composition student Bridge ever taught – commenced his studies at age 13.  Of the teacher who impacted his development more than any other, Britten said, "He really taught me to take as much trouble as I possibly could over every passage, over every progression, over every line...I, who thought I was already on the verge of immortality, saw my illusions shattered." 

In 1937 Boyd Neel commissioned Britten to compose a work for his orchestra to perform at the Salzburg Festival. Britten fulfilled order in a matter of weeks – his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, the theme of which was culled from Bridge’s sublime Three Idylls for string quartet. After an arresting opening that grabs the listener, demanding attention, the lyrical theme emerges and travels through a breathtaking variety of iterations. 

Bridge sadly faded from public consciousness after his death – but thanks to his student, he was immortalized beautifully, faithfully, and fondly. 

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music and cultural critic, and freelance writer. A graduate of New England Conservatory, she writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.

Composer Profile: Galina Ustvolskaya

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
           

This is the opening of Seamus Heaney’s, “Digging,” one of his first published poems and a manifesto of sorts, naming the pen as his tool, his weapon.

A Far Cry’s program Next Generation (Friday, May 18 at Jordan Hall) includes two works that do very much the same thing: Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, ostensibly an homage to his teacher, but also an early creative masterpiece that put Britten’s name and compositional style on the map; and Galina Ustvolskaya’s Concerto for piano, strings, and timpani, the work she selected as her Opus 1 in her highly restricted, self-edited compositional catalog.

[The program’s third work, Ethan Wood’s take on Mozart’s “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman” variations is more of a Beethoven-Diabelli story; we asked him for an arrangement of a piano piece, and he came back with a virtuosic, complex, multi-layered thing that defies description. It's awesome.]

If Heaney’s pen was his shovel (his poem ends “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.”), then perhaps Ustvolskaya’s was her hammer. Critic Elmer Schoenberger once referred to her as “the lady with the hammer,” in part a reference to the intensity and directness of her music, but also perhaps to “the cube,” an instrument of her own devising, used in her Dies Irae and Symphony No. 5: a wooden box struck with large wooden mallets, normally used for orchestral chimes. [watch a few seconds of this to get an idea]

The cube is emblematic of the arresting quality of Ustvolskaya’s music, achieved not only through sheer sonic power and contrasting quieter moments, but through an intangible x-factor. Dmitri Shostakovich, her teacher, said of her "I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truth in music to be of paramount importance.” That quality of truth-in-music, a deep and brutal directness, is immediate and apparent in all her works, piercing both the performer and the listener.

The Shostakovich connection is a whole other tangent. Ustvolskaya was his student, but in the end, it would be Shostakovich who came to her for advice on his works in progress, and even quoted her music in his String Quartet No. 5 and Michelangelo Suite. There was possibly also a deeper personal connection as well; it is thought they may have been romantically involved, and even that he proposed marriage, but was rebuffed. Then, much later in her life, after Shostakovich’s death, Ustvolskaya fully repudiated him, his music, and any influence he might have had.

Her Piano Concerto, however, does bear some resemblance to Shostakovich’s style, in some ways mirroring his Piano Concerto No. 1 which is also for piano and strings plus one, in its case, a trumpet. But where the Shostakovich veers into romanticism and sardonic fun, the Ustvolskaya Concerto keeps its laser-focused gaze firmly fixed on its target, its truth. In the manner of a manifesto, the concerto also lays the foundation for her later, more avant garde, work; instead of a cube, there is a timpani, but used to much the same effect, commanding the listener’s attention. There is also the obsessive repetition of the concerto’s closing, driving its manifesto message home, as if Ustvolskaya is saying “you will listen to me.”

So that you might get a better sense of Ustvolskaya's work, here’s a brief sampling of her output, spanning her career. Feel free to taste a bit of each, or go down the rabbit hole.

A section of her Grand Duet for cello and piano, written for Mstislav Rostropovich.

Dona Nobis Pacem, written for the brilliantly conceived trio combo of piccolo, tuba, and piano.

And her last published work, the haunting Symphony No. 5, “Amen,” a setting of the Lord’s Prayer for violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba, cube, and speaker.

If you’d like a sneak peek of the piano concerto, check out this performance by the concerto’s dedicatee, Alexei Lubimov. And for more information on Galina Ustvolskaya, check out the documentary “Scream into Space,” and this very thorough website dedicated to her life and work.

Happy digging.

-Michael

Project STEP night!

Our season closer, Next Generation, is quite literally on board to highlight the next generation of musicians! We'll be sharing the night with our partner organization Project STEP, the amazing training program that highlights and supports young musicians that are racially and ethnically under-represented in the field. 

At 7:30, Project STEP's Honors Quartet will take the stage to play selections from Dvorak's "American" Quartet. You're going to want to be there to hear these musicians - last year, their performance of Haydn and Daniel Bernard Romain at an A Far Cry concert brought the house down. These players are also near to our hearts because, as part of our educational partnership with Project STEP, we've been coaching them all year long.

Watching/helping a piece of music take shape over time, watching/helping a quartet become a group, and watching/helping musicians step out ever more confidently into their own abilities - truly taking charge of their artistic destinies - this is all incredibly meaningful to us. Besides, these guys rock. 

Finally, we'll have one musician - violist Jehan Diaz - join us on stage during the show as well! We're thrilled to have Jehan in the mix, she's a thoughtful person and a killer player! Here's some more info about her: 

Jehan Diaz began playing violin at the age of four. At 11, she picked up the viola and has been playing both instruments ever since. Since 2015, she has been a committed member of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, having toured through Spain (2016) and South America (2017), and is currently preparing for a tour of five European countries. Jehan has been a member of Project STEP since 2014, the year that that program won the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, conferred by First Lady Michelle Obama. She has performed at Governor Baker’s Inauguration, the 2018 Martin Luther King Memorial Breakfast, and the Museum of Fine Arts as a member of the Honors Quartet. Jehan currently studies with Boston Symphony Orchestra violist Michael Zaretsky. 

See you on the 18th! 

Fresco notes

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)Sinfonia from La caduta de’ Decemviri


Like the Bach family, the Scarlattis consistently produced a number of talented, and prominent, musicians over a series of generations. Alessandro Scarlatti, along with four of his eight siblings, pursued the profession, like their father (a tenor in Palermo) before them, and Alessandro’s son, Domenico, would go on to become a notable contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, and George Frideric Handel. 

When Alessandro was just twelve years old, family circumstances forced the Scarlattis to uproot from Palermo to Rome, a move that provided the budding young musician an opportunity to engage with the lively and virtuosic performances in the city. It also allowed him the proximity to make important connections. At eighteen years old, and newly married, he made the fortunate acquaintance of sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Bernini’s son Filippo, would become godfather to Scarlatti’s first child). As his list of illustrious patrons grew, so did his status in the musical world of Rome, eventually catching the attention of Queen Christina of Sweden, who famously relinquished her throne in order to live a life of artistic patronage, religious piety, and fierce independence.
An appointment in Naples followed in 1684, and it was in this city that their son Domenico was born the following year. Scarlatti was engaged primarily in writing operas, a genre still morphing and taking shape since the premiere of Monteverdi’s L’orfeo in 1607. It would be in this genre, as well as cantatas, that Scarlatti would be most prolific, and contribute the most musically. During Scarlatti’s tenure in Naples, the level of opera in the city rose to eventually “rival Venice as the pre-eminent operatic city” by 1700. His reputation gained a commission from Ferdinando de’ Medici. Scarlatti had reached a pinnacle of fame and prestige within his profession. The family would move from Naples back to Rome, then Venice, and eventually back to Naples over the remainder of Scarlatti’s life. 

La caduta de’ Decemviri, the dramatic content of which is drawn from histories of Ancient Rome, was written in 1697. It was his first collaboration with librettist Silvio Stampiglia, and is often referred to as representing the transition between Scarlatti’s middle and late compositional styles. 

Luciano Berio (1925-2003)Selections from Duetti per due Violini
Many people have an awareness of the history of music, but Berio was keenly aware of his place within it. In 1968 he wrote Sinfonia for the New York Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary, which quotes numerous compositions from Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Mahler, to name a few. Rendering, which he wrote between 1989-1990 inserts newly composed music between the fragments of an unfinished Schubert symphony. The questions he seems to be asking here are both about influence, and the eternal apprenticeship to the past that each artist undergoes. 

The Duetti per due Violini were written between 1979-1983. There are thirty-four of them, each named for a different person, and linked to a personal memory, interaction, or lesson learned. Furthermore, they are structured for use as pedagogical tools with one part often a bit easier than the other. Berio wrote his own program note for the Duetti. A portion of it follows:

“It can happen that a violinist friend tells a composer, one night, that other than those of Bartók, there are not enough violin duets today. And it can happen that the composer immediately sets himself to writing duets that night until dawn...and then more duets in the moments of leisure, in different cities and hotels, between rehearsals, traveling, thinking of somebody, when looking for a present...this is what happened to me and I am grateful to that nocturnal violinist whose name is given to one of these Duetti. Thus behind every duet there are personal reasons and situations.” He continues, “These Duetti are for me what the vers de circonstance were for Mallarmé: that is, they are not necessarily based on deep musical motivations, but rather connected by the fragile thread of daily occasions.”
Aidan Ng (B. 2003)Solstice Festival (World Premiere)

The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year; its daylight lasts around only eight hours. During these cold winter days, I find myself stuck at home, while the snowstorms outside pound on my window. However, I realize that no matter where I am, music allows me to escape reality and bypass my limitations. Through music, a freezing winter solstice at home can turn into a vibrant solstice festival.-Aidan Ng

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)String Sonata No. 3 in C Major
When we think of Rossini, we think of him in his adulthood, the composer of thirty-nine operas, and some of the most beloved tunes in the classical repertoire. But the music of his childhood also deserves notice since he was just as precocious as Mozart or Mendelssohn. Six string sonatas were written over a summer spent with a wealthy patron, Agostino Triossi, in 1804. Rossini was twelve years old. In the sonatas, the rising popularity of the double bass, due to the popularity of its virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti, is evidenced with the omission of the viola in favor of the bass (Triosso was also an amateur double bass player, cementing the motivation for the instrumentation). 

Rossini said (with a touch of pride at his own young talent) when reminiscing about writing the sonatas: “First violin, second violin, violoncello, and contrabass parts for six horrendous sonatas composed by me at the country house (near Ravenna) of my friend and patron, Agostino Triossi, at the most youthful age, having not even had a lesson in thorough-bass. They were all composed and copied by me in three days and performed in a doggish way by Triossi, the Morini brothers, and the second violin by myself who was, to tell the truth, the least doggish.” 

Nicola Porpora (1686-1768)Calcante ed Achille
Born in Naples to a bookseller named Carlo and his wife Caterina, Nicola Porpora would become not only an important musician of the Italian Baroque, but also the teacher of some of the greatest composers and performers of all time, including the castrato vocalist Ferinelli, and Franz Joseph Haydn. 

In 1708, while in his early twenties, Porpora received his first opera commission and produced “L’Agrippina.” However, other opportunities to write music were limited until Alessandro Scarlatti, the preeminent figure in Naples at the time, moved away. Porpora then began to establish himself as a teacher, and opera composer, gaining a name for himself even in Rome (a sweet victory was the pronouncement that his opera Eumene was “superior’ to Scarlatti’s La Griselda). For a brief period of time he tried to create a career in Germany and Austria, but the effort was unsuccessful. After returning to Italy he collaborated with the famed librettist Metastasio on several operas. In 1733 opportunity took Porpora to London where he assisted with the development of an opera company that was meant to be in direct competition with Handel. When that dissolved, he returned to Italy. His oeuvre was enormous, including sonatas, sinfonias, and concertos, along with dozens of operas, serenatas, oratorios, motets, and various sacred works. Calcante ed Achille, a chamber duet for soprano and bass with strings, was one of the many secular cantatas he produced.   

Sadly the last years of Porpora’s life were spent in poverty, due to unfortunate circumstances. The musicians of Naples performed at his funeral for free, a testament to their respect for the native son. 

-Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music and cultural critic, and freelance writer. A graduate of New England Conservatory, she writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.

NEC Prep School Competition Winners

For our season finale, "Next Generation", we'll be joined by the three extraordinary young musicians who won our annual New England Conservatory Prep School Competition. It's always a joy to judge this competition, since the level of musicianship and commitment is inspiring across the board. We look forward to jamming with these three new friends in a few weeks! 

Sean Diehl: 

I am so honored to play with such an amazing group. I look forward to making some great music!

Sean Diehl, an eleventh grade student at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, currently studies violin with Soovin Kim (NEC) and Robyn Bollinger (NEC). He began his violin studies at the age of four and quickly became a regular participant in Suzuki festivals and summer institutes throughout the Northeast (Maine, Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire). Former teachers include Jason Horowitz (Boston Symphony Orchestra, NEC Prep) and Cate Howard (NEC Prep). 

Sean has been a student at the New England Conservatory Preparatory School (Boston) for the past ten years, where he is currently concertmaster of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of David Loebel. Sean has toured both Iceland (2015) and Norway (2017) with YPO. He was the winner of the 2013 NEC Preparatory School Concerto Competition (Category B) and performed Symphonie Espagnole, by Edouard Lalo, with the Youth Repertory Orchestra, under the direction of Jane Ezbicki, in NEC’s Jordan Hall. In addition, Sean is an avid chamber musician at Walnut Hill and NEC Prep, where his coaches have included Laura Blustein, Kyoko Horowitz, John Ziarko, Joshua Peckins, Laura Thielke, and Jennifer Elowitch. In 2017, as a member of the Dela Quartet, Sean participated in the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. During 2017-18, he has participated in the Boston Music Institute Artistic Performance Program. 

Sean attended Kinhaven Summer Music School (VT, 2011-2012) and Greenwood Summer Music School (MA, 2013-2015).  He attended Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI), in Lenox, MA, in 2016 and 2017, as a member of the Young Artists Orchestra. In 2017 he earned the honor of performing as concertmaster, under the direction of Ken-David Masur, for the last concert of the summer (Lutoslawski - Concerto for Orchestra). This summer Sean will return to BUTI and will also participate in the Conservatory Audition Workshop (VT). 

Sean enjoys tennis, creative writing, history, reading, nature, and cooking.

Keina Satoh: 

I’m very excited to perform with A Far Cry  because I always thought about the joy that comes when playing chamber music in a large string ensemble. I cannot wait to be inspired by the members of A Far Cry and I’m sure that this opportunity of performing with the professional musicians will give me a life-long experience.

Keina Satoh, cello (Aichi, Japan), began playing the cello at the age of 3 through the Suzuki Academy. She won first place at various competitions including the Classical Music Competition, the Kariya International Music Competition and the Gifu International Music Competition in Japan. She made her debut in 2015 with the Japan Classical Music Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra. She also performed with the Chamber Orchestra of Nagoya, and the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra, a concert which was aired on television in 2016. Last spring, she also collaborated with the world famous violinist Kyoko Takezawa in Aichi, Japan. She has attended several summer music programs including the Mozarteum Summer Academy, Curtis Summerfest and the Summer Seminar at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. Keina currently attends the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and New England Conservatory’s Preparatory School, studying with Emmanuel Feldman.

Julide San: 

I am so honored to perform with A Far Cry as I hope to inspire other bassists who may be in the audience!

Julide San is a 17 year old Turkish-Singaporean double bassist. In 2017, Julide won second prize in the New England Conservatory Concerto Competition. She has performed in concert halls such as Carnegie Hall, New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall, Oslo Konserthus, Grieghallen, and Stavanger Konserthus. 

Julide was born in Singapore, and lived there for 8 years. She started music at the age of 6 with the piano, and then progressed to playing drums after she moved to Japan at the age of 8. Her interest in the double bass came after she moved to Victoria, Canada, where she began to play at the age of 11. Under the tutelage of Mary Rannie, the principal of the Victoria Symphony and Gary Karr, world famous double bassist, Julide discovered her love for the double bass. In 2014, she joined Gary Karr's Karr Kamp as the youngest student ever to attend, and returned to the camp again in 2016. In 2015, Julide was accepted to the prestigious Walnut Hill School For the Arts and moved to Natick, MA, from Toronto. She began her studies in the U.S. with Pascale Delache-Feldman at the New England Conservatory (NEC) Preparatory Program and currently studies with Lawrence Wolfe, NEC Studio Faculty and Assistant Principal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Principal of the Boston Pops. Julide has been a part of the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra, Toronto Youth Wind Orchestra, and has been the principal bassist of New England Conservatory's Youth Philharmonic Orchestra since she was 15 years old. Julide will be attending the Perlman Music Program this summer. 

Young Composers Competition Winner

Our first Young Composers Competition was won by New York highschooler Aidan Ng! His energetic work "Solstice Festival" will be performed on our April 28/29 concert "Fresco." 

Ng writes:

"Solstice Festival," was inspired by the film score composed by Hans Zimmer. I especially liked how Hans Zimmer was able to take one melody, and portray great emotion. Inside my composition, I tried to create a prominent melody that would capture the feeling of joy and festivities. Additionally, I added a wide range of dynamics in order to further dramatize the piece.

Aidan Ng is a fourteen year old composer who has been composing for four years. He has worked with various different groups of professionals and student orchestras, such as the Staten-Island Borough-wide Orchestra. Throughout middle school, he has composed a dozen unique pieces that have been played during concerts and composition workshops. He currently attends Stuyvesant High School as a freshman, where he continues to compose new pieces.

We're delighted to be performing this work, and had a great time reading through the entries from all the young composers who participated! 

In House: Notes from Crier composers

In House challenged the Criers to take on a completely new project: find an inspiration in the Gardner Museum and write a piece! From scratch! Many drafts, workshops, and cups of coffee later, we're proud to present this program that relates and reacts to the extraordinary collection in a deeply personal way. Here are the notes that each Crier composer has chosen to share: 

 

Les Fleurs

Philibert Delavigne (1690-1750)

Curated by Jason Fisher

Inspiration: Isabella’s courtyard and the museum’s greenhouse

Bringing Isabella's colorful courtyard into Calderwood Hall, we will feature curious combinations of Criers in a peppering of eponymous duets from Philibert Delavigne's early 18-century work, Les Fleurs.

 

Glass Portal

Alex Fortes

Inspiration: The glass corridor connecting the museum’s New Wing and historic Palace

Walking through the glass corridor that connects the Renzo Piano–designed New Wing to the original structure provides glimpses within seconds of Persephone, queen of the underworld, looming over the courtyard, blooming flowers, the John Hancock Tower peeking over the grove arranged to give the glass corridor a semblance of nature, and the sleek postmodern staircase up to Calderwood Hall. This piece imagines traversing this corridor in emotional and subconscious space.

 

Books of Isabella

Zenas Hsu

Inspiration: Pages of Book of Hours (early 16th century), Moore’s A Book of Day-Dreams (1883), Lear’s A Book of Nonsense (1846), Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea (1906)

Isabella Gardner was more than an art appreciator and artifact collector. Her literary interests are evident from her collection of letters from the world's poets, musicians, and public figures, and books from different cultures and eras. The latter are indeed on display at the museum, many collected in bookshelves framing doorways, complimenting sublime paintings, and even hidden behind velvet curtains in the Long Gallery.

I wrote Books of Isabella in search of how a few of these works could have had a hand in shaping Isabella’s whimsy and view of the world. Pages of an illuminated 16th century book of hours reach back to a burgeoning middle class coveting these devotional books. Charles Leonard Moore’s Book of Day-Dreams (1883) collects earnestly written sonnets contemplating love, life, and spirituality.

The opening lines of one of Moore's sonnets: 

A voice! Is it a voice? A sense of ruth
Or joy too mighty to be understood,
The unintelligible cry of Truth,
O'erwhelms and drowns out every other mood;

Following that, limericks of non-sequitur and deflected punchlines are tossed around in A Book of Nonsense (1846) by champion of the limerick form, Edward Lear.

A limerick from Lear: 

There was an Old Man with an Owl, 
Who continued to bother and howl; 
He sat on a rail, and imbibed bitter ale,
Which refreshed that Old Man and his Owl.

The piece concludes in meditation and reflection, in The Book of Tea (1906), by Okakura Kakuzo.

Dear Isabella

Sarah Darling

Inspiration: Gentile Bellini’s Seated Scribe (1479-81)

The genesis of Dear Isabella came from an artwork I've enjoyed at the Gardner for most of my adult life; Gentile Bellini's Seated Scribe. In fact, I remember purchasing a postcard of this painting in high school, just to have it around; I was utterly taken with the look of intense, relaxed, concentration on the scribe's face. What was he writing? And why does writing create that meditative state? In creating this piece, those inquiries blended together with another fascination of mine: the trope, explored in a certain genre of martial arts movie, that calligraphy and swordsmanship are one and the same. I wanted to see if the bows of our instruments could do what swords and brushes did, and I wanted to re-create that special kind of concentration that writing produces. 

So, the musicians of A Far Cry are in a literal calligraphy lesson during the course of Dear Isabella; experimenting with what our bow-brushes are able to produce; we are actually tracing letters and other shapes on our instruments! We begin by getting familiar with the equipment, and then learn, together, how to write the first words of a letter to Isabella. At a certain point, each musician will then take that basic knowledge and write a brief personal message to her. It may sound like utter cacophony - the scratching of a dozen pens as we all write simultaneously - but I am optimistic that within it, that certain special concentration that I spied on the face of the seated scribe may also come to grace us for a moment or two.

 

PS 95

Megumi Lewis

Inspiration: 14th century choir book page in the museum’s chapel, two small Chinese frog sculptures, the feather in Rembrandt’s Self Portrait, Age 23 (1629)

This piece was inspired by 3 items in Isabella's collection: the feather in Rembrandt’s Self Portrait, Age 23 (1629), two small bronze Chinese bear sculptures, and a 15th century choir book page. The Rembrandt has always been incredibly moving for me. In this instance I was captivated by the parabolic shape of the feather in Rembrandt’s hat. It is an inviting shape, and one that has a beautiful sweeping motion. To me, this shape is echoed in the shape of the curve of the backs of the two bears. I am also intrigued by Isabella’s faith and her personal chapel, and as I thought about the shape, it felt like a voice reaching from darkness to light and vice versa, much the way that Rembrandt’s face and shoulder seem to be spotlighted, brought about by the fact that other parts of the painting are in shadow. This reaching feeling seems very vocal to me, and the most vocal piece I know of in the museum is the choir book page. This page seems to be waiting to be sung, but because it is in an old style of notation, people can’t actually sing it as they walk by. Many thanks go to Brother Matthew, who helped to translate both the words and the notation from this page. The middle stanza on the page is the Antiphon, what is sung right before the reading, for Psalm 95, which contains the verse "In whose hand are the depths of the earth, the peaks of the mountains are His also." Sweeping from the depths to the peaks has the same motion and reaching sensation that moved me in the Rembrandt and the bears.

 

Castles

Karl Doty

Inspiration: Dodge Macknight's Towering Castles, Grand Canyon (1914)

There's something special about bringing together elements of history with elements of something new. When I was a child, we went through several summers of heading out west as a family - to the Badlands, Yellowstone, Glacier, Black Hills. There's an element of the American west that sparks this sense of wonder even when it's a place we've been to many times. In a collection as refined as Isabella's to still come across a painting like Dodge Macknight's Towering Castles, Grand Canyon (1914) put a smile on my face. 

I wrote this tune after traveling to my home state of Minnesota for the first time with my son Pekka after his birth.

 

Empty Frames

Evan Premo

Inspiration: Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert

Empty Frames contains two musical responses to paintings stolen in 1990 from The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum.  The music represents not only the paintings themselves but also their eery absence.  It is almost as if we're not seeing the paintings but remembering them.   

In the first movement, after Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, we are dropped into the story of Mark 4:37-41 moments before the scene Rembrandt captured. The narrative of the music moves through Rembrandt's scene with the sun breaking through the storm clouds untill after Jesus commands the sea: "Peace. Be Still." Twice during the movement this narrative is interrupted so the listener is left alone in the museum's Dutch Room standing before an empty frame.

The second movement is inspired by Vermeer's intimate musical scene entitled The Concert. As its source material, the movement uses a song by Dutch composer Constantijn Huygens, a contemporary of Vermeer. We can imagine hearing the subjects in the painting realize this melody. This, however, is haunted by an unsettling simple motive in a foreign key representing the absence of the painting from its home in front of Ms. Gardener's desk.

 

Sargent’s Gypsy Dance

Annie Rabbat

Inspiration: John Singer Sargeant’s El Jaleo (1882)

I remember the first time I entered the Gardner Museum, when one of the first things I saw was John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo. It was so striking and lively, and reminded me strongly of trips to Spain in my early twenties. When selecting a source of inspiration from the museum, for me the choice was a no-brainer. 

In honor of John Singer Sargent's beautiful canvas, Sargent's Gypsy Dance begins with a mysterious recitative-style solo in the double bass, which carries into a response in the solo viola. These opening phrases usher in the main dance theme: quiet yet brooding and charged in its minor key and 3/4 time, presented first by the cellos with viola counterpoint. The violins take up the dance in its second verse before introducing a more light-hearted dance, a playful scherzo section where nimble 16th notes pass around the orchestra. After all the scurrying and bustle comes a tranquil, spacious, balletic tune with ornamental violin flourishes, which leads back into the original dance theme. As the dance picks up steam, the lower strings of the orchestra imitate Spanish guitars. The dance whirls faster and faster until it comes to a sudden halt, where brief recollections of the opening return before one final dancing flourish.

Credo [to believe]

by Jae Cosmos Lee

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular quote by the potent, American Catholic writer and mystic, Thomas Merton:

Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.

It resonates so much, because it intuitively has the message of patience, firmly suggesting the suppression of rage and hate, and a straightforward promotion of altruism, all woven inside a few words. I often go back to it and read it out loud, also because I enjoy hearing the consonants of Peace, Perfect and Purity. 


A Far Cry was on tour performing in Palm Beach, Florida on Valentine’s day, which was precisely the day, when the Parkland shootings took place, only a mere 40 miles away. We were going about our day, without the knowledge of what had happened (at least for me) until after our concert was over that evening, also because we are usually pretty focused on making sure that we play and convey the best performance possible to an audience, especially if they’re a crowd we haven’t played for before, and at a short run out concert like this one, our schedule tends to be pretty jam packed.

I remember seeing the news reel on Twitter the next morning as we left early to travel back to Boston, and tears just kept running down my face as I watched the footage of the cries of the victims’ families, as we waited for lift off on the runway. Ironically, on our way to Florida from Boston two days before, I was reading on one of the news outlets that there had already been 40 mass shootings in the first 6 weeks of 2018, and being just flabbergasted by the statistics. And then those 17 students at Stoneman Douglas High School lost their lives on Valentine’s morning the next day, and things have not quite been the same since.


A Far Cry initially had a project of expanding Schubert’s monumental G Major string quartet for string orchestra (which we performed during our 9th season at Jordan Hall in 2015), and knowing that the Miró Quartet was performing the specific work that whole season, I got in touch with Will Fedkenheuer, the second violinist of the Miró Quartet (whom I had known when he was the second violinist of the Borromeo Quartet, when I first landed in Boston in 2004), to see if the Mirós would be available and interested in leading the work as a collaboration with us. Not enough lead time and scheduling conflicts sidelined that project but we took rain checks to try doing something in a later season. When we finally got on the phone the following summer, I suggested that we try programming Richard Strauss’ anti-war masterpiece for 23 solo strings, Metamorphosen, which A Far Cry hadn’t performed since our 3rd season. Will suggested a companion piece by the New York composer, Kevin Puts, a concerto for string quartet and orchestra, that the Mirós had commissioned and was performing a fair number in recent seasons, called How Wild the Sea, which the composer had written after seeing the images of a man on a rooftop, alone and being pulled out to sea during the horrible Tsunami that hit the Japanese coasts in 2011.At the end, Kevin’s busy schedule wouldn’t make it possible for How Wild the Sea to be re-orchestrated for a strings only accompaniment, so the next suggestion by Will and the Quartet members, was still a piece by Kevin, titled, Credo. Originally written for the Miró Quartet back in 2007, the composer said this about the piece in his program notes:

When Daniel Ching of the Miró Quartet asked me to write a quartet for a program he was planning exploring ‘the lighter side of America’, I wasn’t sure I could deliver. It was hard to find things to sing about. The government stubbornly and arrogantly continued to pour young lives and billions of dollars into a hopeless war, one to whose protest millions at home and abroad marched with what E.L Doctorow described as “the appalled understanding that America was ceding its role as the best of hope of mankind,” that “the classic archetype of democracy was morphing itself into a rogue nation.” Also around this time, a disturbed loner finally enacted his plan to gun down a record-breaking number of his fellow students at Virginia Tech and—amazingly—this failed to prompt any heightened talks over gun control by politicians who feared they might offend their gun-loving constituents before the next election. One day on my weekly commute from New York to teach at the Peabody Conservatory, I noticed as the train pulled into Baltimore the word believe emblazoned across a building. I later learned this was part of a campaign by the city of Baltimore to do something about the fact that ten percent of its population is addicted to either heroin or cocaine. As one who relies little if at all on blind faith, I found this to be a rather alarming approach. On the other hand, sometimes it seems all you can do is believe.

We decided that the Criers would make a new arrangement for A Far Cry and Mirós to join forces on Credo and additionally for the concert, Beethoven’s last quartet, the F Major, op. 135 would be the opener to fill out the program. And that was all in the summer of 2016.


Surprisingly enough, Kevin Puts’s Credo, is an extraordinarily hopeful piece of music. Beautiful in texture, virtuosic and adventurous in counterpoint among the four voices, engaged, but ultimately serene in his harmonic choices, from the first hearing of it (The Miró Quartet has a fantastic live recording of the piece recorded right after its premier), it really pulled me in. The composer, rather than dwelling on the tragedies that he talks about, goes onto write a quartet comprised of 3 different scenes and then finally a prayer, culminating in a 5 movement work that would be played without pause. 

..in the workshop of a stringed instrument specialist in Katonah, New York, you can believe nothing in the world matters but the fragile art of violins and violas hanging serenely from the ceiling. He listens chin in hand as his clients play excerpts for him, then goes to work on their instruments with sage-like assuredness...
...on the jogging path along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, you encounter above and below you the steel girders, asphalt and railroad ties of infrastructure, an immovable network of towering bridges and highways engineered by some deific intelligence...
...from my apartment, I watched in a window across 106th Street a mother teaching her daughter how to dance.

I was convinced to do the arrangement myself for the expanded forces and as I started living with the piece, for weeks, months, and after a year, at some point, Credo started to remind me of the Thomas Merton quote, like a neon sign. In the days of endless protest songs, images and art works that portray the devastation and chaos, Kevin chooses to write a piece about finding solace, and inspiring hope, a prayer to believe that things will be okay. More than 10 years after the Mirós first premiered the piece in 2007, I wanted to reach out to Kevin to hear what he had to say, on the eve of us finally performing Credo together.

Jae: In the wake of our current mass protests happening thru everyone of the conscientious High School students all over this country after the Parkland shootings (without forgetting Sandy Hook or Las Vegas prior to this one and the gun control issue still in stalemate nationally), and how the Iraq war that you talk about in your program notes written back in 2007, having indirectly and eventually spawning the Islamic State, as that entity's warfare in Syria has turned an ancient kingdom into utter rubble, and never mind the millions of refugees and countless who've perished on those grounds in the last 8 years. And now in 2018, have things really changed?

Kevin: I would say things have not changed in the slightest. But we artists need to keep commenting on the sad state of affairs in the best and most convincing way we know, through the power of music and the possibility of hope which music can communicate. 

Jae: For me, Credo has this sort of "When they go low, we go high" type mantra to it, because in the face of despair, rather than writing something like the the war movement of Shostakovich's 3rd quartet, which vividly depicts the brutality of war, or a Penderecki like display of horror, instead you chose to write about the beauty and gestures that made you appreciate your surroundings. Obviously we all know that the underlying problems didn't go away, but admittedly for me, the kind of peace that you decided to find instead has a searingly a powerful message, and I feel its timeliness and hope resonates even clearer now. From the statement, "As one who relies little if at all on blind faith", I hope it's not presumptuous of me to guess that you're not a religious person, and if you're not, do you have a favorite author, thinker, a piece of literature, a favorite movie, a director, that have inspired you to find a common filament in your compositions?

Kevin: Music is a refuge for me. I do not dwell on feelings of anger of hopelessness. I escape into the solace of harmony and the music I love. And the music I write is naturally a reflection of the music I love. I could write angry music, and it could be somewhat cathartic for the listener to experience this, but this is not where I want to spend my energies. I am not religious in the slightest. I believe in the potential of humankind and I am as amazed by our achievements as I am horrified by our evils. I am inspired by many books, films, composers. I do not know where to start with that! My admiration for one just leads to another and another. We are all interconnected in our desire to understand ourselves and the universe. I was recently inspired by the film Interstellar in which love is explained in its likeness to gravity, which of is of course the most powerful governing force we know of in the universe. It's a beautiful idea.

Jae: Have you ever written a piece of music that conveys a political statement? Credo, in my opinion, is in no way a piece of music that protests our gun control issues nor our military spending, but by way of your words and giving the music its context, by letting us know why your beliefs and hopes mean what they do, it does make us, especially the musicians who play it, very conscious of why we're performing it. That is what we do as artists and curators right? We find the materials to share that are not only constructed intelligently and possess exquisite beauty, but to help our audience find joy and catharsis, giving a frame of reference to all of our lives and times.

Kevin: I have never meant to make political statements, the pieces I write come from the emotions I feel toward certain events. For example, my new oboe concerto which will premiere this summer was one of the hardest pieces I have ever had to write, because I had to work on it during and after the last presidential election. I felt utterly drained, hopeless and disillusioned in the wake of that madness (which continues). My feelings are clearly reflected in the music, and I will be quite clear about it in the program notes. There would have been no way for me to avoid writing about these feelings because they were so much a part of my daily life, especially in the year following the election.


As I walk past the numerous protesters at the Boston Common on an overcast Saturday afternoon, the last movement of Credo is playing in my head. Some 50,000 people are gathered here, to give credence to an international movement that a core of courageous and eloquent Stoneman Douglas High School students have emblazoned, they are people of all different sizes, generations, race and nationality. The plethora of protest signs are as unique as the faces themselves, but a united voice shouting, “Enough is Enough!”, is too powerful an energy to ignore, and I find myself joining in. The thousands of kids who are here remind us that they are the generation who will represent this change in this country and they’ll be the ones not too long from now, who will become the leaders, and I want to believe that day be one where a day like today was the catalyst to making it a reality. Although, I’d be lying, if I didn’t feel a tinge of sadness witnessing these precocious kids with worldly issues, because they’re forced into having to think about these all too dangerous and devastating problems of 2018, when they really should be trying out different flavors at the local Ice Cream store, and running around playing Dodgeball. A part of me hopes that they still get to on most weekends. But the collective spirit this afternoon is awe inspiring and the passion is infectious. We listen to a teacher who is on stage, who’s strong but shaking voice is raging out to the politicians and the NRA that she doesn’t need to be armed with a gun, but rather arm her with more books, art supplies and an instrument, which brings a thunderous ovation thru the crowd. I see a couple of teenagers in the distance wiping away their tears, and I’m reminded once again of those Thomas Merton words: Peace, Perfect, Purity.

(photo: March For Our Lives, March 24, 2018, Boston Common) 

Loss and Resurrection Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) :: String Quartet op. 135

Last works of composers are often met with a sense of wonder and reverence mixed with curiosity. It is as if they as whispering to us from their death beds, and we desperately want to know what it is they mean to say. In the case of Beethoven’s op. 135—the last work—he “speaks” directly to us with two brief sentences written in the score, which are uttered extraordinarily clearly to the ears of the audience by the syllabic rhythm: Muss es sein? Es muss sein! (Must it be? It must be!)

Op. 135 has been described as “…a brilliant study in Classical nostalgia” by a man who had, in many ways, helped ushered in the Romantic era and tested the boundaries of all the forms (sonata, variation, fugue, etc.) by the time his life came to a close. Indeed, compared to the adventurous musical terrain covered by the (in)famous last quartets and piano sonatas, Op. 135 seems almost conservative while still punctuated with unmistakably defiant Beethovenian gestures (and the seemingly ever-present in the late works suggestion of a fugue). 

In his last decade the great composer was busy, focused on the Symphony No. 9, sketched a 6th piano concerto (unfinished), wrote the string quartets nos. 12-16, piano sonatas nos. 28-32, along with the Diabelli variations, and a smattering of songs, smaller piano works, cannons, and more. Amidst the triumph of his successes and fame, there was ample perpetual personal tragedy with dysfunctional and/or crumbling relationships. Then there was the hearing loss that threatened to catastrophically derail his livelihood and life’s passion. But, it didn’t. 

Young Ludwig, the son of a drunkard who physically abused him in alcoholic rages and ambitions for the next wunderkind had to confront the question “Must it be?” many times throughout his life. Each time, through his music, he answers, as he does in his last work, “It must be!” and carries on. 

 

Kevin Puts (b. 1927) :: Credo

Program note by the composer

[Credo (krÄ“’dÅ ) first person sing. of Latin credere, to believe]

When Daniel Ching of the Miró Quartet asked me to write a quartet for a program he was planning exploring ‘the lighter side of America,’ I wasn’t sure I could deliver. It was hard to find things to sing about. The government stubbornly and arrogantly continued to pour young lives and billions of dollars into a hopeless war, one to whose protest millions at home and abroad marched with what E.L Doctorow described as “the appalled understanding that America was ceding its role as the best of hope of mankind,” that “the classic archetype of democracy was morphing itself into a rogue nation.” Also around this time, a disturbed loner finally enacted his plan to gun down a record-breaking number of his fellow students at Virginia Tech and—amazingly—this failed to prompt any heightened talks over gun control by politicians who feared they might offend their gun-loving constituents before the next election.

One day on my weekly commute from New York to teach at the Peabody Conservatory, I noticed as the train pulled into Baltimore the word believe emblazoned across a building. I later learned this was part of a campaign by the city of Baltimore to do something about the fact that ten percent of its population is addicted to either heroin or cocaine. As one who relies little if at all on blind faith, I found this to be a rather alarming approach. On the other hand, sometimes it seems all you can do is believe. For example, many of us believe we’ll find our way out of the mess. In the meantime, I have found solace in the strangest places:

...in the workshop of a stringed instrument specialist in Katonah, New York, you can believe nothing in the world matters but the fragile art of violins and violas hanging serenely from the ceiling. He listens chin in hand as his clients play excerpts for him, then goes to work on their instruments with sage-like assuredness...

...on the jogging path along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, you encounter above and below you the steel girders, asphalt and railroad ties of infrastructure, an immovable network of towering bridges and highways engineered by some deific intelligence...

...from my apartment, I watched in a window across 106th Street a mother teaching her daughter how to dance.

Credo was commissioned by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, and premiered by the Miró Quartet in 2007.

 

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) :: Metamorphosen

In the early 1930s, Richard Strauss reached out to the author Stefan Zweig asking him to write the libretto to his new opera, Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman). It would be their first, and last, collaboration. The Nazis soon intervened to forbid Strauss, head of their Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music) institution, to continue collaborating with the Zweig, who was Jewish. It was one of the early blows. Soon they would accumulate and quite literally destroy Strauss’ world.

As World War II progressed, Strauss was in a precarious position between his professional aspirations and his personal life. Professionally, he worked within the restrictions imposed upon him by the Nazis, while personally he worked to secure the safety of his daughter-in-law and grandson, who were Jewish. Strauss’ refusal to protest by taking an overt political and ethical stance against the Nazis has tarnished his reputation to posterity, though it is widely agreed that he probably internally disagreed with the ideologies of the party, and remained silent in order to secure the ability to continue writing music in his homeland. Often quoted is Arturo Toscanini’s succinct appraisal: “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.”

Metamorphosen was written in the direct aftermath of the bombing of Munich—Strauss’ hometown. The opera house where his father, Franz, had performed as principal horn player was destroyed. Strauss mourned the loss tremendously, viewing it both as a personal loss, and a societal loss of hundreds of years of German culture. He wrote: “The burning of the Munich Court Theater, where Tristan and Die Meistersinger received their first performances, where I first heard Freischütz seventy-three years ago, where my father sat at the first horn desk for forty-nine years—it was the greatest catastrophe of my life; there is no possible consolation, and, at my age, no hope.” 

In Metamorphosen Strauss embedded a musical quote: the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica, Symphony no. 3. 

By the time Strauss completed the work, the war was over. Paul Sacher, who had commissioned the work, conducted its first performance on January 25, 1946 in Zürich to a very different world than they had all known as children. 

In his beautiful and touching autobiography, The World of Yesterday, written in South America where he had fled to avoid the war and persecution, Zweig writes: 

“Even from the abyss of horror in which we try to feel our way today, half-blind, our hearts distraught and shattered, I look up again and again to the ancient constellations that shone on my childhood, comforting myself with the inherited confidence that, some day, this relapse will appear only an interval in the eternal rhythm of progress onward and upward.”