Program notes by Kathryn Bacasmot, Michael Atkinson, and Sufjan Stevens, for A Far Cry's program Guardians of the Groove, this Saturday, January 27, 4pm at St. John's Church in Jamaica Plain and Sunday, January 28, 1:30pm at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
JEAN-BAPTISTE LULLY (1632-1687) :: SUITE FROM ACIS ET GALATÉE
Lully lived a fortunate life until an unfortunate injury brought about his death at the age of fifty-five. Equipped with cleverness, humor, musical talent, physical gracefulness, and a keen sense of drama, he lifted himself from the common workman’s livelihood of his Italian childhood. He was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence, and would land in the home of a member of the French royal family when he was merely fourteen years old (as an Italian language tutor). He would not return, and would die a naturalized French citizen.
Every step of the way he charmed those around him, and drew their favor in the form of artistic educational opportunities—music lessons and dance lessons—that led to his talents being noticed and rewarded with increased responsibilities around the royal household. He would eventually encounter the young Louis XIV (six years his junior), and maneuver his way to becoming Louis’ favorite musician at court. Once Louis was crowned King, Lully secured the position of surintendant de la musique de la chambre du roi, overseeing musical activities at court, as well as the King’s famous string bands. He would enjoy the King’s encouragement and support almost his entire career.
With his talent and resources, Lully’s outstanding compositions set the bar for the French Baroque style with regal musical overtures and epic musical tragedies and comedies for the theater and the opera. One of his last operas, Acis et Galatée, a love triangle between gods and mortals, was written immediately following a falling out with Louis XIV over his disapproval of a court seduction that Lully pursued. It may, or may not, have ever been seen by the King. Its private premiere was for the entertainment of a hunting party at the château of Anet for the dauphin. It was later performed at the Paris Opéra on September 17, 1686, six months before Lully’s death.
—Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot
SUFJAN STEVENS (b. 1975) :: SUITE FROM RUN RABBIT RUN (ARR. MICHAEL ATKINSON)
Originally premiered by the Osso String Quartet, these four movements became a point of departure for many other projects, including an orchestration for Justin Peck and the New York City Ballet’s production of “Year of the Rabbit,” which premiered in 2012; and, in a mixed ensemble arrangement by yMusic. This expanded version is based on Atkinson’s original arrangements. In a program note for the premiere in 2007, Sufjan Stevens shared his thoughts:
“... this arrangement draws upon the material of the original suite, including colorful extended techniques and textural improvisations in tandem with more conventional sounding music. They are uncomplicated impressions of theme and variation that bring to light, through careful condensation, a project previously heavy laden with conceit… Atkinson’s scores do not, however, ignore the experiments of sound and improvisation that inspired many of the original recordings. His arrangements paint abstract sequences, odd shapes and angular arches on the staff, open to interpretation. The strings are forced to mimic gestures previously generated by the computer: sampled beats, digital glitches, and mechanical guffaws. At one point, for example, the players are cued for a few bars of shushing, imitating the sound of rain.
“These songs… have become, to my ears, more alive, more capable, more fully realized than their original recordings. It’s as if, in initially piecing them together, years ago, in the solitude of my computer, I was constructing Frankenstein’s monster, with the wit and wildness of a mad scientist. Atkinson’s arrangements distill these vulgarities in vinegar, pulling away all the ugly skin lesions, the moles, the gimmicks, the stitching, and the layers of gauze. What is revealed is a full-grown man, with consciousness, hair parted to the side, a track suit, running shoes, a baseball cap. It’s alive! It’s
alive! Of course this is where the analogy breaks down, for these songs are more animal than human.”
— Michael Atkinson and Sufjan Stevens
ANTONÍN DVORÁK (1841-1904) :: SERENADE FOR STRINGS, OP. 22
Dvořák found fame as a composer later in his life, spending the earlier portion of it making a living as a teacher and orchestral musician (he even played under the baton of Richard Wagner three times). It wasn’t until he was thirty-years-old that he openly revealed his true career ambition: to be a composer.
There were a few setbacks along the way toward this goal, including being denied the opportunity to meet and study with Franz Liszt, but eventually things began to come together. Often artists have their one big break, and Dvořák’s came in 1877. Since 1874 he had applied yearly to the Austrian State Stipendium, and consistently received the honor of a financial award. In 1875, Johannes Brahms, who was the prime of his career, stepped in to replace one of the jurors. This was Dvořák’s chance to impress, and two years later when Dvořák submitted his application that included the Serenade for Strings along with the Theme with Variations for piano, and Moravské dvojzpěvy (‘Moravian Duets’), Brahms wrote to his publisher, Fritz Simrock saying, “As for the state stipendium, for several years I have enjoyed works sent in by Antonín Dvořák (pronounced Dvorschak) of Prague… Dvořák has written all manner of things: operas (Czech), symphonies, quartets, piano pieces. In any case, he is a very talented man. Moreover, he is poor! I ask you to think about it!” Brahms also mentioned to his friend, the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, mentioning the only other serenade Dvořák wrote (this time, for winds): “Take a look at Dvorák's Serenade for Wind Instruments… I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do… It would be difficult to discover a finer, more refreshing impression of really abundant and charming creative talent. Have it played to you; I feel sure the players will enjoy doing it!”
The rest, as they say, is history. With these auspicious stamps of approval Dvořák rapidly gained an audience for his music. He became a rising star, and would eventually be one of the most respected Czech composers in history. It is no wonder that the Serenade for Strings, with its luminous lyricism would help launch his career, and still be one of the most beloved works in the repertoire well over one hundred years later.
—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.