Zoom In notes

Take an early peek at the notes for this weekend's "Zoom In" show, written as always by the fabulous Kathryn Bacasmot. 

Henri Dutilleux (1946-2009) :: Ainsi la Nuit

Interesting things happen when you ask someone to step outside their usual compositional formats. Primarily the producer of larger scale, orchestral, works, Dutilleux was commissioned by the Koussevitzy Foundation in the late 1970’s to write a string quartet. The result was a work of astounding complexity and scope, symphonic grandeur encapsulated and disseminated by four instruments.

Ainsi la Nuit (Thus the Night) is written in seven sections linked by four “parenthèses” placed between sections I (Nocturne) through V (Constellations). With no formal pauses between sections, it is experienced as a single expanse of sound. Structurally, it relies on layer upon layer of musical self-referencing. An opening hexachord (a chord of six notes) presents the palette of intervallic relationships (the space of one note to another) and tones upon which the rest of the piece elaborates. As the music progresses, small segments of ideas and patterns are introduced and used as building blocks. It is sometimes noted that Dutilleux was an admirer of Proust, and some theorists speculate that Ainsi la Nuit was the composer’s way of playing with the idea of embedded memories. We, the audience, hear bits of musical ideas that are introduced or recollected within the sections, or the parenthèses, and when we hear them again, in full or in allusion, our minds begin to perceive the overall impression and totality of the music. In other words, the morsels of music awaken memory in the sensory cup of our ears.

Something perhaps similar, albeit stranger, occurs in our dreams in the night. Our memories mix and mingle with far-flung fragments of information and imagination projected in the theater of our mind’s eye. Thus, the night comes when no shadows lengthen, time seems to suspend, and our longings and memories meld into one.

Anton Webern (1883-1945) :: Langsamer Satz
The feelings of romantic love are often described in terms of rooms disappearing, and all else fading in the light of the lover’s visage. Langsamer Satz is a “slow movement” without a sonata or a symphony. It stands alone, reveling in its own pleasurable and beautiful melodies. It is the work of a composer in love.

Webern is perhaps most often recalled as one of the two prominent disciples (the other being Alban Berg) of Arnold Schoenberg, the composer who gave to posterity 12-tone music, a philosophy of sound that challenged the presumptions of centuries of music theory. Like his mentor, however, Webern started his compositional career writing in a more lush, late Romantic style (Langsamer Satz is often compared to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht). Perhaps an overly simplistic observation, yet possibly true, would be to say that Webern’s expression of blissful romance needed to be expressed in a more “traditional” lyrical form. There would be time later for disillusionment with the state of art and music in the face of populism, and with a world torn apart by large-scale physical and ideological warfare. At this moment, in 1905, he had returned from a holiday with his beloved, Wilhelmine Mörtl. Nothing else mattered. She would become his wife.

Georg Muffat (1653-1704) :: Ciacona from Concerto Grosso No. XII, Propitia Sydera (To appease the stars)
The Italian violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli was at the center of a musical universe revolving around him, both in interest and influence. His renown stretched across the continent, and over to England, where the Italian music (especially of Corelli) was the rage. You either wanted to meet him, or did—and made sure to let everyone know about it.

Georg Muffat, a French composer of Scottish descent, was introduced to the concerti grossi of Corelli (his exact contemporary) during a sojourn to Rome, and subsequently wrote in the genre as well, completing twelve within his lifetime. An exciting instrumental format in the days prior to symphonies, the concerto grosso displayed the virtuosity of a smaller group of instrumentalists in conversation—at times perhaps argument—with a larger ensemble (the “concertino” and the “ripieno,” respectively). Movements of works were often imitative and inspired by dance. A popular one to riff on was the Ciaconna because of its repetitive base line upon which multiple variants of melodic material could be overlaid. Though traditionally a more fast-paced dance, as it became adapted for instrumental music it also was often slowed down to a more somber, or regal pace, as Muffat does here. Echoes of that earlier, jazzy, Ciaconna can still be found carefully embedded within Muffat’s composition; two contrasting versions of the same form, engaging in brilliant dialogue with each other.

Mark O’Connor (b. 1961) :: Quartet No. 3, Old-Time

Violinist and composer Mark O’Connor has dedicated his career to the cultivation and preservation of American music, infusing his work with traditional folk music and styles. About the Quartet No. 3, O’Connor has noted the work was “composed on the occasion marking 400 years of history dating from the days of the first European settlements” in the Hudson Valley. He continues:

For the musical genesis of the Quartet, I initially created phrases from the fiddle that were molded out of old-time fiddling tradition. With technical twists and turns, the phrases became unique and new but all the while still connected to the tradition. It is these phrases that I used as material to create the String Quartet. Through the process of composing, techniques such as re-harmonization, development, canonic applications spill over each other like the Hudson tributaries in the Adirondacks. The counterpoint of the Quartet invigorates and establishes itself. The result is a wholly participating body emphasizing transitions from the traditional to the contemporary in sound and style. The music here is no longer fiddle music as the inventions of the quartet embark on a new story, a new way to play, and with a new musical idea to put forward.

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

My not so normal week with A Far Cry

Some powerful thoughts on the significance of our "Pau" concert cycle, by one of our NEC Fellows, Alyssa Wang. 

I’ve been a violinist for basically my whole life, so I’m familiar with a typical week in the life of a musician. We are experts at scheduling back-to-back rehearsals and showing up to at least one of them with a pencil. We’re used to forgetting a meal every now and then, and making up for it at the post-concert reception. We’re quite fast walkers when we want to be. This is a normal week. But I know my friends in A Far Cry and I can say that the week of preparation for November 11th’s Jordan Hall concert was anything but normal—because that week of preparation was also the week of America’s presidential election.

When I began to write this post, I did so with trepidation. The wrong words could make the retelling of my time with A Far Cry seem too politically opinionated or one-sided. It was also important that I somehow fit in some details of how amazing it was to experience the inner workings of a community like A Far Cry. And while I don’t wish to increase the divisiveness that has defined this election season, I must stand by my belief that the world of music cannot and should not be separated from current events—including politics. Our week of rehearsals was greatly affected by Tuesday’s Election Day, and we cannot pretend otherwise. I don’t think I could separate the two events even if I wanted to. But rather than describe the political views of the artistic community, I would like to explain what the combination of these two worlds did for me in the days following the election and beyond.

To start, I’m not actually a member of A Far Cry—I’m one of New England Conservatory’s student fellows. But I’ve been following A Far Cry for a few years, since before I moved to Boston to continue my studies in violin. What has always struck me about their playing is the magnitude of their energy, dedication, and innovation. You can see it through how they move, as a unit and with freedom. One of the ways they break tradition is by standing in concerts—in rehearsals, too, as my poor legs were about to find out. Walking into their rehearsal space in JP for the first time on Monday was surreal because the faces I saw were faces I already knew. (I kept it cool, though.) On the menu for Friday were a variety of works that are connected in some way to the Catalonian cello legend, Pablo Casals. There was the Schumann Cello Concerto, which he famously recorded, played by Casals’ own godson, Lluís Claret. Several pieces on the concert were composed and championed by Casals. The finale of the evening was the devilish Glosses by Ginastera, which overlaid Catalonian grooves with hair-raising, imaginative sound effects.

What began as a creative theme tying together a concert program became something much more relevant following Tuesday’s election. Pablo Casals was famous for using his music to speak out for justice. At one point he refused to perform in public as a statement of his fierce opposition to the rule of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. Our relationship with Casals would soon become more relevant than any of us could have predicted, and “music as a voice for justice” is a phrase that would echo through my mind for the rest of the week.

Monday was quite normal. We rehearsed all day in their cozy JP space located next-door to a shop that was so fond of incense that I could often smell it during rehearsals. The Criers, as they’re called, happily greeted each other in the early morning with coffee and tea in hand. A variety of stands were assembled amidst casual talk and laughter, and some sheet music was passed around. I noticed immediately how many of them took the time to welcome me. There was a lot more smiling than I expected. It couldn’t be more obvious: this was a community.

It turns out, it was a community made up of very cool people. There really isn’t another word for it. Everything from their Crier slang to how they played their instruments was just…cool. Playing with them involved lots of classical music head banging and jowl shaking. It was like being caught in an ocean wave. All I had to do to fit in was let myself get swept up in it all. Through the week I started picking up on little Crier colloquialisms. Instead of saying, “let’s run it,” when they wanted to play a piece from start to finish, they often said, “let’s lay it down.” “Open up the floor,” meant anyone in the ensemble could request specific spots to improve. They liked to endearingly call each other “chefs”, which alluded to everyone’s own imagined recipe for making a piece successful.

On Tuesday, November 8, we rehearsed as normal, although with a palpable buzz in the air that mirrored the whole country. We were nervous about Election Day, but busy enough to not notice too much. It was Wednesday that changed everything.

The morning after the election was surreal. I walked into the rehearsal space and no one smiled. Hardly anyone spoke, and when they did, it was with a kind of heaviness. I had trouble concentrating. What good was a little rehearsal when there were whole communities of people across the country now fearful of discrimination, deportation, and hate crimes? We assembled into our proper places. Lluís wanted to do a run through of Schumann Cello Concerto. We tuned, and no one talked, and we waited to start the piece. It took a while for the first violin to give us the cue because he was holding back tears. It might have been that moment when I understood how deeply this day would affect us. When it was time, he motioned his violin upwards in the tempo of the opening and the music began. I will never forget what happened next.

This wasn’t the first time we had played the concerto, but it was the only time it would feel like this. Lluís sang with his cello above the undulating harmonies of the opening. It felt as if something were compressing my chest. It hurt and the music seemed to understand that. Every change in harmony, every sorrowful slide in the cello, every exclamation—it all seemed so relevant. We were playing our grievances. And then, about half way through, the change began. The music started giving back to us. As we passed through the achingly beautiful second movement and angst-filled third movement, I could feel the grip that was clenching my insides begin to loosen. Hearing the pain in the music and expressing it with my own hands was therapeutic, like every stroke of my bow was somehow erasing a piece of that darkness. I felt as though I was being healed.

By the time we finished running the concerto I felt like an entirely different person. I was hopeful, grateful, humbled. Suddenly, it was easy to believe that everything was going to be all right. Anything that was going to come our way, we could take it. It was like our instruments had sucked up the sorrow straight through our fingers. It took me a few days to realize this, but I had never had an experience like this with music before in my life. Until then, I had never known what it felt like to need relief so badly and to be given it so viscerally by music.

It was from that moment on that A Far Cry carried on with different purpose. Our rehearsals weren’t just about making good quality music, they were about making our voices heard. We had something truly relevant to say now. As the concert date approached there were dramatic increases of hate crimes reported. Some of my own friends, minorities and women, were targets of verbal harassment on the streets by supporters of the winning candidate. So we practiced harder.

On Friday, we played a concert with different significance than any concert I had ever played up until that point. I remember walking out onto that stage and feeling like we had an extremely important job to do. The audience, too, was listening to us differently. I realized that we weren’t just a voice for us, but a voice for the people who came to see us. As we played that night, I remember being consciously aware at every moment that someone different from me was listening. Someone of a different race, a different religion, a different gender, different life experiences. And yet we were all listening to the same music. The concert went well, but perfection was not the number one priority that night. That night we were healers. We were orators. We were unifiers. We were exactly what so many of us needed.

I learned some important lessons during my not so normal week with A Far Cry. I learned that amidst times of uncertainty and anger there will be times of joy and purpose and togetherness. I was reminded again of the power of artistic voices in society. Our role in Boston that week became so much more than just entertainment because we had something to say and everything to give. I was reminded of how thankful I am to be a musician and how lucky we are to have music as a means of expression. We were able to provide our audience with something beautiful in a week filled with ugliness. Knowing that gives me purpose. My week with A Far Cry was exhilarating, painful, and unimaginably meaningful. I got to play music with genuinely good people and innovative artists. And through it all I was reminded that we all have music as a voice for justice, and we should use it to make something beautiful when people need it the most. 

On Casals and us

An introduction to tonight's program, from its curator Michael Unterman. Enjoy! 

This is not the first time we have played a concert that owes a debt to Pau Casals. When we play the music of Bach, or any of the works for cello or orchestra he recorded, his interpretations are felt, whether directly or indirectly. We also think of Casals when we think of Spain, of Catalunya, as one of the great heroes of that country and region. He left an indelible mark on the musical history of New England as well, through his 13 summers at the Marlboro Festival, teaching many of the musicians we admire today and with whom we have studied. Finally, he is there in our minds when we think of social justice and the struggle for peace as one of the great, principled, humanist statesmen. It would be difficult to plan a program that didn’t relate to Casals in some way: he is a giant.

Then again, this program in particular owes near everything to him, with all the pieces being either the subject of his recordings (as cellist and conductor), his own compositions and arrangements, and the Ginastera, which is dedicated to him. The Brandenburg Concerto that opens is a nod to his lifelong championing of Bach’s music, most notably of the Suites for Solo Cello, but also his interpretations of Bach’s orchestral works which he recorded twice. Our performance will be based on these recordings, to be played in more of an “old school” style, rather than our usual practice of borrowing elements from historically informed practices; most notably that means using a grand piano for continuo, rather than a harpsichord.

The next set of works for cello and orchestra features pieces that are the subject of celebrated Casals recordings. First, his arrangement of “El cant dels ocells” (“The Song of the Birds”), a Catalan folksong that, through Casals performances, became known as a song of protest against the Franco regime, of solidarity with the oppressed Catalan people, and as a plea for peace. Then, rounding out the first half, Schumann’s Cello Concerto. For these two works, we are honored to be joined by Lluis Claret, a cellist whom we adore, and also one who shares a deep family connection to Pau Casals, who was his godfather, and studied music with Pau’s brother, Enric.

The second half celebrates Casals the composer. First through his “Sardana de l’exili,” Sant Martí del Canigó, one of his many compositions, little known outside Spain; then in Ginastera’s brilliant Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals, a work dedicated to Casals on his centenary. And now, this year, we also celebrate Ginastera’s 100th.

Pau notes

Program notes for our Casals concert - written by the fabulous Kathryn Bacasmot. Enjoy! 

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) :: Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046

The six Concerts avec plusieurs instruments (Concerts with several instruments) derive their nickname, the “Brandenburg Concertos,” from the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg. Presumably, Bach met the Margrave in Berlin while he was in town checking on a new harpsichord for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, for whom he was serving as Kapellmeister. It’s also assumed that Margrave took the opportunity to commission Bach for some music. As an employee of Prince Leopold, it would have been inappropriate for Bach to accept a commission for new music from the Margrave. Three years later, however, Bach sent the concertos to Margrave, leading to the hypothesis they were sent as a kind of résumé. During those three years devastating change swept through Bach’s household: out of town on duty with musicians and the Prince, Bach returned to find his wife had died several days before and was already buried. Not only was he heartbroken, he was left to care for their several children alone. Perhaps he remembered meeting the Margrave and saw him as a ticket out of town. Whatever his motivation, they were sent and the met with silence. No reply. The Margrave never even had them performed.

Each of the six concertos stands out for its own reasons, with different instrument combinations used in the “concerto grosso,” (“big concert”) structure made popular by the Italians, where a smaller group (“concertino”) functions as soloist in conversation with the whole (“ripieno”). But the Brandenburg No. 1 has a very modern distinction: it was one of the pieces included on the so-called Voyager Golden Record that was included on board the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 as a testament to any entity that may find it of the intelligence and culture of our earthly civilization.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) :: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129

Schumann spent his life wandering in and out of shadows. Like many artists, reality was the pin threatening to burst the comfort of the creative bubble. Joy and misery were winnowed so thoroughly in the mind of Schumann that the distance between the two seemed impassable by the time he thrust his body into the icy Rhine in February of 1854. Or perhaps it was the opposite; each emotion faded into the other until the edges wore down into a single, indecipherable, dulling numbness that clouded over his mind.

It had been just four years before, in 1850 that he and his family enjoyed a happy and promising time marked by his appointment as music director of the Allgemeiner Musikverein in Düsseldorf. For Schumann, a man always placed a little off to the edges of popularity, the festivities, dinners, performances of his compositions, and general pomp greeting him must have ruffled a refreshing breeze of confidence his direction. Within two weeks of the move he had begun and completed the luminous Cello Concerto in A Minor.

Emerging from the shadow of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the symphonic/sonata form revolutionary, meant a generation of composers had performance anxiety about following in his footsteps. As such, Schumann (though he wrote wonderful symphonies) focused on a genre largely untouched by Beethoven: smaller sets and collections, and charming miniatures. When Schumann returns to the larger, more traditional, forms he brings with him the same method of distillation resulting in pieces – like the Cello Concerto – that are incredibly potent. In one long continuous sequence of gestures the three movements never break character or mood with the addition of space to delineate their divisions. Nicht zu schnell (not too fast) relaxes with the reminiscence of a waltz into Langsam (slowly), the short melancholic path leading to the effusive Sehr lebhaft (very lively).

The parties and dinners were long gone by the time Schumann was pulled from the Rhine. He had been unceremoniously replaced as conductor in Düsseldorf following a disastrous string of erratic behavior toward his musicians. He would pass away in 1856 after two years in an asylum. His beautiful Cello Concerto of 1850 would not be brought to life by performance until its premiere in 1860.

Pau Casals (1876-1973) :: Sant Marti del Canigo

In 1890 when the cellist Pau (“Pablo”) Casals was on the verge of his fourteenth birthday, he visited a music shop in Barcelona. There, amongst the stacks of sheet music, he saw the six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. From our position in the early 21st century it’s difficult to imagine the cello suites being considered anything less than masterpieces, and yet in the not so distant past they were treated for the most part simply as exercises. They were pieces you would learn to bolster technique, or improve the agility and strength of the fingers. But Casals envisioned something else when he began to delve into the scores: music worthy of the stage. The rest, as they say, is history.

Casals can seem like such a modern presence in our lives that it’s hard to remember he was born in the late Victorian era—having actually played for Queen Victoria in 1899 at the age of twenty-three. By 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out Casals was famous, and used his notoriety to publically supported the Republic faction, opposing and drawing attention to what he viewed as a fascist government led by Francisco Franco. When Franco came to power Casals protested by refusing to set foot in Spain, or perform in any country that supported Franco’s regime.

In the early years of self-imposed exile from Spain, Casals composed Sant Marti del Canigo, named for a place in his native Catalonia—a region he was always extremely proud to be from, and to which he had a deep emotional attachment, all the more so when he felt it was under threat. The work is often described as an orchestral setting of a dance native to the region called the sardana, in which the participants move in the form a circle, grasping hands.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) :: Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals, Op. 46

In a preface to his score, Ginastera wrote:

“It was with great emotion that I composed Glosses to the memory of Pablo Casals. Many things drew me to Casals: his personality; his great qualities as an artist and as a man for whom freedom was the essential element in all of life...the enthusiasm he showed for my works; his interest in keeping abreast of events everywhere in the world of music, and finally my own Catalan origin—the ‘ginesta’ (‘broom flower’) being one of the symbols of Catalonia. I still have in my mind a very clear, almost photographic, recollection of Casals sitting on the beach of San Juan with his inseparable umbrella, looking at the sea beyond the horizon as if trying to reach with his eyes the ocean’s opposite shore. A distant smile—at once enigmatic and mischievous, somewhat poetic, somewhat bitter—lighted his face from time to time, and I knew that his thoughts were over there in his native Catalonia. And I have kept from that time certain mental images of Casals that I have tried to bring back to life with love and friendship through his own musical themes.”

Rather than default to theme and variations, Ginastera’s colorful tribute to Casals took form as “Commentaries on Themes of Pablo Casals,” as the title is often translated into English. It’s as if Ginastera is showing us a sonic photo album of those mental images of his friend he held so dear. We hear a clip of Casals, and Ginastera pauses to provide the context. We hear glimpses of, or allusions to, Casals’ music woven into Ginastera’s modernist tapestry, an ingenious way to paint a musical portrait.

Dive in

The ocean is different.

There's a reason that we think of the sea as a being. There's a reason that it has moods we come to know, sweet on some days, violent on others, nurturing life in some moments and fueling blind destruction in others. 

I'm not here to talk about that reason - that would take a lifetime. And anyway, a job like that is best left to the poets. And man, do they love it. 

A certain fascination with that other world, that world of absolute other, draws us in and we start creating things that we almost don't recognize...

Tonight, we're presenting a show at the Gardner Museum that explores this strange new territory. We've been working with a group of four composer-performers, The Oracle Hysterical, to present an evening of entirely new works, a multi-media song cycle that uses every page of the book to evoke the wonder and weirdness and lore and mystery and sensuousness and rage of the ocean. And here's where the metaphysical waves come rolling in: 

The composers in turn have been working with a series of texts from the literary magazine Lapham's Quarterly, which organizes its material for each issue around a theme. So in a way, all the creative energy sprang from the pages of a book, curated by someone who in turn was inspired by each of the works of literature that chronicles each author's relationship with the ocean. Got that quite straight? 

And yet, the liquid energy of the sea pulses through all of it, every stage of the creation, always something you can feel, like interacting with a wave. 

(Slight digression: If you have a couple minutes and want to see something nifty and wave-related and super-cool, I can absolutely recommend this video, that chronicles the scientific work of one of my friends. Just don't give up at 00:45!) 

But back to tonight... 

We'll hear a work that takes us, foot by foot, from the surface all the way down to the deepest sections of the ocean's trenches. We'll hear a John Donne sermon, through the gauzy lens of the water. We'll hear the Book of Jonah, in swingin' recitativo accompagnato. We'll hear shimmering waves as they come crashing through the space once hosting a string quartet. We'll hear a Shakespearian soliloquy, and a digression into the truly fantastic life of the oyster. We'll hear Ulysses' take on his adventure with the Sirens, in an utterly out-there rap cantata that would only more absurdly, deliciously mad if it were accompanied by slides that were just as nuts - so fortunately, that's happening. 

There are more dimensions, more angles, more translations in this show than I can possibly keep track of. Everything is filtered, reflected, refracted. Light and water are everywhere. 

Come, if you can. Remember to keep breathing. 

- Sarah Darling

By heart

Some reflections on the process of tonight's concert, by Sarah Darling. Enjoy! 

Playing by heart... 

It's the best. It's the worst. It's relaxing, wonderful, and intimate, when it's not terrifying, horrifying, and isolating. It's gazing into the chasm of the unknown - but's also having the chance to look adoringly at the known. 

I love committing things to memory. I feel like there's no better way to cement your relationship with a work of art. Of course, as any performer knows, memorizing something in your "mind" happens late in the game; your body has been internalizing and preparing the performance since the first time you started to play that Mozart sonata or deliver that monologue. Still, being able to separate yourself from the page feels like casting a spell; you weave layers of context, feeling, cues, markers, around the now-invisible work until it is dressed in the finest duds your mind has to offer. 

Sometimes it's a feeling that pulls you through; the trajectory of a dance of key relationships in the development section. Sometimes it's a little map or recipe that pops up on command (when you get to that spot the second time, add in the two extra notes.) Sometimes, it's simply a matter of relaxing into the motions of your own body, tracking them as if you're running an obstacle course for the hundredth time. 

Whatever else it is, memorizing means one thing for certain; You're giving something up in order to reach into the void for the prospect of something else. And there's danger involved; the void is real. You never know when it'll explode into being right in front of you, swallowing up that impulse you had to play C-sharp instead of C and suddenly derailing your fingers, which suddenly crash into each other like cars on a runaway train. 

Want to hear what it sounds like? 

Yeah. That. 

Sigh. 

But when it works (which is really, really, most of the time) - when the spell holds, and all your safeties keep guiding you along the path of the piece - the most magical and amazing things start to happen. You're not just aware of that moment on the page; you're aware of everything, the whole universe of the work and exactly where you are inside it. A sort of wild playfulness takes hold, a devil-may-care. You realize that you could play the fifth instead of the third inside that one chord, and it would be OK, and in the same moment, you realize exactly why the composer wrote that note there in your part, and you're more eager than ever to play it as it is, with complete understanding and sympathy. 

So, A Far Cry decided to try this out as a group. And the results are on display tonight! Tchaikovsky Serenade in Jordan Hall, with nothing on stage except... us. 

To say that memorizing has altered the rehearsal process, or has changed the way that we interact in the piece, would be a massive understatement. Pulling all the stands off stage, allowing us to really know that we're connecting with each other (and with each others' intimate knowledge of the piece) has opened a million doors. At the beginning of the process it would mean relatively simple things - like looking across and seeing who's enjoying your supporting syncopations, or that wonderful diminished chord. As we started to zoom out, we began to share a common structural knowledge; where we are harmonically, how that changes over time. (In a way, we've always known these things, but when G major versus C major shows you where you are in the piece's "roadmap," the function hits home in a different way.

Yesterday, we took it one step further and, just to see (so to speak) what it would be like, we played the whole darn piece with our eyes closed.

Suddenly, we were tapping into each others' collective sense of sound, dynamic, and rubato without the "aid" of a visual (which is much like the "aid" of visual music.) Without it, we were forced to go deeper, to listen like we honestly never have had to do before. Trust and forgiveness are off the charts in a situation like that. But other things spring up into the void; the colors of tones, the feelings of dynamics. The sense of rhythm. The unbelievable feeling that everyone in the room is defined by one thing and one thing only: sound. 

We won't be playing quite that way tonight, but we're keeping that sensation with us.

And we hope - and trust - that playing this piece together by heart, will change everything about the experience. For us and for everyone who listens. 

The way I see it, the true challenge of "by heart" is to open up your heart just that little bit more. 

Memory notes

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. 

Point of View notes

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.