TransAmericana!

Our season-opening TransAmericana is just around the corner! Curated by Omar, this program imagines a wild road trip that starts in New York and heads south, with memorable stops in Brazil, Peru, and Argentina. Enjoy a sneak peek at Kathryn Bacasmot's fabulous program notes below: 

Philip Glass (1937) :: Symphony No. 3

Classical and Romantic era symphonies relied on the momentum of key change—the harmonic propulsion that comes from the tension and release of dissonance to consonance. What one finds in the Symphony no. 3 of Philip Glass, a chamber work written originally for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, is more of a reliance on variations of rhythm and pace. As with many works in the “minimalist” vein, there are many bars where specific patterns are repeated numerous times. The ear of the listener becomes accustomed to the pattern (ideally to the point of being lost within it), so that even a slight change can play a significant role.

In a brilliant gesture of tying this idea to the past, Glass employs the ancient repetitive chaconne structure in the third movement of the symphony; in the chaconne, a harmonic sequence and/or bass line is recast over and over again, creating a foundation for a series of variations built “on top.” The composer elaborates a bit on this, and the surrounding three movements in a previous set of liner notes from a recording of the work:

“The opening movement, a quiet, moderately paced piece, functions as a prelude to movements two and three, which are the main body of the symphony. The second movement mode of fast-moving compound meters explores the textures from unison to mult-harmonic writing for the whole ensemble. It ends when it moves without transition to a new closing theme, mixing a melody and pizzicato [plucked strings as opposed to being bowed] writing. The third movement is in the form of a chaconne, a repeated harmony sequence. It begins with all three celli and four violas, and with each repetition new voices are added until, in the final variation, all nineteen players have been woven into the music. The fourth movement, a short finale, returns to the closing theme of the second movement, which quickly re-integrates the compound meters from earlier in that movement. A new closing theme is introduced to bring the Symphony to its conclusion.”

Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) :: Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

Frank paints a picture vivid with Andean legends (“leyendas”). Walking about, following the Andes (the longest continental mountain range on this earth) would take you across several borders, those of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. But the borders Frank is concerned with are much more complex to navigate: those between cultures and races.

She has said of her work: “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout draws inspiration from the idea of mestizaje [those of mixed race] as envisioned by Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, where cultures can coexist without the subjugation of one by the other. As such, this piece mixes elements from the western classical and Andean folk music traditions.” Frank is the product of mixed elements: a Chinese/Peruvian mother and a Lithuanian/Jewish father. Her tapestry of sound, woven together from far-flung threads and patterns, speaks with a foreign – and yet familiar – accent.

“Toyos” and “Tarqueda” represent two traditional Andean wind instruments, the panpipes and tarka, respectively. “Himno de Zampoñas” is described by the composer as featuring another type of panpipe, the zampoña that sounds with “a fundamental tone blown fatly so that overtones ring out on top.” The zampoña ensembles often play using a technique of bouncing the melody from one player to anther to create the melodic line (a kind of pointillist surround sound), known as “hocket” in medieval European music. The following two movements introduce legendary figures, the “Chasqui,” a sprinter that would run across the mountains to deliver messages from village to village, and the “Canto de Velorio,” a woman who was hired to cry at funerals. Frank notes her quotation of the traditional European Requiem service sequence, the Dies Irae, as “a reflection of the comfortable mix of Quechua Indian religious rites with those from Catholicism.” The final movement, “Coqueteos,” depicts a love song.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) :: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9     
In 1945 Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote to the Bach Society of São Paulo saying:

The music of Bach is without question the most sacred gift to the world of art…Since Bach expressed his thoughts of God and the universe through his musical creations originating from his own country, he gave the most spiritual expression of human solidarity, we should also understand, love and cultivate the music that is born and lives, directly or indirectly, from our own land, and make it also universal with faith and good conscience.

The nine pieces known as Bachianas brasileiras were written between 1930-1945 in an attempt to both pay homage to Bach (Villa-Lobos conducted the Brazilian premiere of Bach’s B Minor Mass in 1932) but also show common ties Villa-Lobos believe existed between music of the Baroque and the improvisations in the popular music of Brazil. Furthermore, as David P. Appleby notes “He [Villa-Lobos] once said that the Bachianas brasileiras were the kind of music the Leipzig master might have written had he been born a twentieth-century Brazilian composer”.

The pieces in nearly all nine feature traditional Baroque form titles, such as Preludio, or Fuga integrally paired with a Portuguese word for a subtitle further establishing a connection between the two composers and cultures. An example would be from Bachianas brasileiras no. 1 where the word Fuga is paired with Conversa. Each of the nine suites feature different and widely varied instrumentation. Some are for chamber orchestra, one features a piano concerto structure, and another is for flute and bassoon. Bachianas brasileiras no. 5 is the most well known of the nine and is certainly one of the best-known pieces by Villa-Lobos in general. Bachianas brasileiras no. 9 was originally conceived for chorus, and re-written for string orchestra.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) :: Concerto per Corde, op. 33

Ginastera composed his String Quartet No. 2 in 1958. Seven years later in 1965 he produced Concerto per Corde, op. 33 (“Concerto for Strings”), an adaptation of the quartet for full string orchestra that was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy in Caracas, Venezuela, the following year. In revising the work, Ginastera eliminated the original first movement and reversed the order of the remaining movements.

Ginastera was known for his flair for the dramatic, skinning off emotion, showing every tendon, and exposing rawness to the air. In the first movement, Variazioni Per I Solisti, each principal of the orchestra plays a cadenza bracketed by punctuations from the ensemble that echo the soloist in mournfulness or ferocity. Therefore a micro world of slightly lunatic theme and variations is created. The second movement, Scherzo Fantastico: Presto, is a nervous landscape where dreams wreak havoc on reality. Porcelain scraping on glass. Hysteric. Manic. Breathless. Like push pins on a magnetic pincushion, the sounds splay every which way by force of field and yet allude to controlled chaos. In the Adagio Angoscioso we leave the landscape and walk into a Piranesi-like “prison of the imagination” with the sounds of ancient hinges squeaking slowly and methodically. As the movement intensifies, coming unhinged altogether seems like a distinct possibility. The Finale Furioso is breathlessly kinetic, interjected with folk idioms and extremely defined rhythms juxtaposed against constantly changing time signatures where the melodic cells emerge like clear thoughts in a troubled mind. The effect is structured disorientation.

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.