Improvisation Program Notes

For Improvisation on January 9, 2015. This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.

Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) :: Concerto Grosso in E Minor, op. 3 no. 3

By the time Geminiani was born, the Italians had clinched domination of the early Baroque era with Monteverdi ushering in both the seconda prattica and the age of opera, and Italian instruments (Stradivari), along with some of the most astonishing violin virtuosos the world has ever seen. One very well known of these virtuosos was Arcangelo Corelli. Another was Francesco Geminiani. The former was remembered, the latter, thought to be a student of Corelli’s, was largely forgotten.

Just as the Georgian age dawned in England with the great migration of the House of Hanover, Geminiani exported himself from the continent to the island, and took full advantage of the English enthusiasm for Italian music (highlighting his personal connection to Corelli to make the most of it, along the way). His quick rise to popularity apparently earned him an appearance performing on the violin before the new King George I with none other than Handel accompanying. Geminiani enjoyed immense popularity in Britain throughout his life, and never moved back to Italy. He would die in Dublin, Ireland.

Unfortunately for Geminiani, the ability to record was still a long way off, and so the only resources by which posterity could assess him were his compositions, treatises on instrumental performance practice, and other people’s written accounts of his violin playing (though flattering, less thrillingly direct than audio documentation). His slew of original concerti grossi, and sonatas were praised, but his quantity of obvious dual-purpose compositions that both honor his teacher Corelli and milk the connection for publicity earned him a historical reputation for not being innovative enough (the ultimate modern insult). However, in context, Geminiani the virtuoso/composer/writer was a triple threat, and the sum of his achievements is greater than the individual parts. Recent revivals of his works in live performance are well deserved, and offer a broader glimpse back to the Baroque, which all too often can be pitifully narrow, encompassing all of only a few names in the public mind.

“Concerto” comes from the Latin word “concertare,” and means, along with Italian, to contend or dispute/ to reach an agreement. In the concerti grossi, a smaller group of players is juxtaposed against the larger ensemble, creating an aural texture of delicacy and density in continuous interplay. Within the op. 3 no. 3, there is also a remarkable range of sentiments from the austerity of the slow opening, to the elegance of the second movement, and the vigor and virtuosity of the conclusion.

Ljova (b. 1978) :: Throw The Book

Notes from the composer:

"Of all the ways to make music, the one I love most is improvisation. It is within this realm of interacting with and responding to the unknown, skipping stones over a river of silence, that language is born; phrases, melodies, textures reveal themselves through dialogue between sound and stillness. Many of my happiest musical experiences have come this way, whether as a listener, composer or performer.

When A Far Cry commissioned me to write something for a concert focusing on “Improvisation”, I decided to try something new for me — to design a guided improvisation for ensemble. In a sense, I wanted to place the musicians in a similar space where I find myself most inspired — listening, responding, developing a vocabulary. There are no notes, rhythms or harmonies to work from — there is no “music” to read - rather, the piece is a large-scale framework from text-based instructions, comprised of 16 sections (cells). Some of the cells are pretty open while others are very specific. It is my hope — and here I feel as one of the “Three Little Pigs” — that the structure of the piece will stand. Only the wolf knows."

Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) :: Les Moutons de Panurge (Panurge’s Sheep)

In the 16th century satirical novel about a giant and his son (also a giant) La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel (The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel) by François Rabelais, there is a scene where a character called Panurge throws a ram overboard into the sea, and a flock of sheep, also on the ship, follow suit into the water. This provides the inspiration for the title of Rzewski’s work, which, instructs any performers who lose their way and go overboard during the process of counting in the performance: “If you get lost, stay lost.”

Les Moutons de Panurge is for “any number of musicians playing melody instruments” in addition with “any number or non-musicians playing anything” utilizes a 65-note melody that unfolds in a series of additions (1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, etc.) followed by subtractions (“play the whole melody again and then begin subtracting notes from the beginning: 2-...-65, 3-...65, 4-...65, ..., 62-63-64-65, 63-64-65, 64-65. 65.”) At the conclusion of the progression through the melody everyone improvises.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) :: Piano Concerto in E-flat major, K. 449

Mozart was twenty-eight years old, and very ambitious. It was 1884, and he had relocated to Vienna just about three years prior. 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 as a key to social superiority (in Beethoven’s time, the aristocracy’s fervor rose to fever pitch, forcing some over zealous benefactors into deep 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.

In order to showcase his virtuosity as a pianist, and create a show with enough splash and dash to merit a large space in which to entertain a large audience (i.e. make the most financial profit), Mozart set to work composing dozens and dozens of keyboard concertos. The solo concerto of the Classical era had grown out of the Baroque concerto grosso, a form that featured a dialogue between a small grouping of players and a larger ensemble. Now the dialogue was one against the many, and was meant to highlight the virtuosity of the soloist. To cement this, the crucial moment came in the form of a cadenza when the orchestra would cadence to a pause, and the performer would improvise a fantasy on the main themes presented in a given movement, much as we in the twenty-first century still expect our jazz performers to do. It’s magical watching the fleeting display of genius in an improvisation. Sadly, since the late nineteenth century the expectation the soloist would improvise has almost entirely disappeared, and now is considered a rarity rather than a given—with a few, delightful, exceptions.

Mozart’s concerto scheme worked. In a letter he wrote, “The first concert on March 17 went off very well. The hall was full to overflowing; and the new concerto [Maynard Solomon notes that Mozart likely refers to K. 449 here] I played won extraordinary applause. Everywhere I go I hear praises of that concert.” What Mozart capitalized upon was his own bottomless capacity for musical ideas mixed with a particular savvy when it came to knowing what people wanted to hear (subtle, complexities for the musically sophisticated, and a beautiful, catchy, tune for those seeking a fun night out), tied together with a no-fail appeal to the public’s appetite for witnessing a good show. Come see Mozart, the child prodigy you’ve seen or heard about, now all grown up—does he still have it? One way to find out. It only costs the price of a ticket.

Taraf de Haïdouks :: Turceasca, arr. Ljova

Taraf de Haïdouks’ Turceasca (“Turkish song”) brings full circle the 19th-20th century “isms” of nationalism and primitivism as well as the efforts of Bartók who went into the woods and saved folk idioms from extinction. As anthropological studies grew more commonplace so has scholarly and popular interest in the field of ethnomusicology. Whereas 200 years ago “classical” audiences’ exposure to non-Western traditions were relegated to musical spice (a little “alla turka” here, a little bohemian there) within sonata forms and rhapsodies, concert halls now present performances of Mozart and Brahms one night and the music of just about every country in the world the next. Additionally, “classical” soloists and ensembles release an increasingly diverse collection of recordings, such as Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble “Silk Road Journeys” and the Kronos Quartet’s “Caravan.” The latter disc features a performance of the quartet with the Romanian band Taraf de Haïdouks’ signature piece, Turceasca.

Taraf de Haïdouks were discovered in their hometown Clejani, about an hour Southwest of Bucharest, by Swiss and Belgian ethnomusicologists/musicians in 1989 who saw and heard the group doing street performances, preserving the music of their ancestors. After the Romanian Revolution ended the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, the musicians were brought to Belgium to record their first album and bring their traditional sounds to living rooms everywhere – or car stereos.

Members of A Far Cry heard the Taraf de Haïdouks and Kronos’ Turceasca track during a road trip and decided to pursue an arrangement of the work. In the process they discovered two AFC members had worked with the composer/arranger Lev Zhurbin, “Ljova” during separate times in their lives. It’s a small world after all.

by Katherine J Allwine Bacasmot

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot 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.