Hurry To The Light

Hurry To The Light

for Women's Voices and String Orchestra

A choral cycle of the women in The Odyssey of Homer, as translated by Emily Wilson

Homer's The Odyssey is a tale that I've read some half a dozen times over the years. Recently it provided part of the inspiration for my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea (the other source of inspiration was Melissa Fleming's book A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea, which tells the harrowing true story of another Mediterranean odyssey made by Syrian refugee Doaa al-Zamel). So when A Far Cry's Sarah Darling suggested Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey as a text source for our collaboration with the Lorelei Ensemble, I felt both the comfort of familiarity and some anxiety. The latter was caused by the daunting question of which of the twelve thousand lines of The Odyssey to set to music? Of the many characters who appear in The Odyssey, whose story should I tell? After much discussion with Sarah and Lorelei's artistic director Beth Willer, we decided to tell the story of the women in The Odyssey. I am very grateful to my friend and fellow composer, Thomas Stumpf, for his invaluable aid and advice in selecting the right text for this project.

As Emily Wilson tells us in her insightful introduction, "The Odyssey is a poem in which certain females have far more power than real women ever did in the society of archaic Greece. Most obviously, the goddess Athena, guides Odysseus through all his wanderings... only through female divine power can his patriarchal dominance over his household be regained." Odysseus' faithful wife Penelope, though trapped in her home by suitors and her husband's long absence, still has "the power to choose... to marry one of her suitors." Penelope's fidelity is an important point in the narrative, as Wilson points out, "if Penelope remarries, Odysseus will lose not only a person he loves, but also, perhaps more important, all his economic wealth and social status."  Other examples of the power of women in The Odyssey come through, for the first time perhaps, in Wilson's translation. In clearing the misogynistic dust left by previous English translations, primarily made by men, Wilson's careful and accurate word choice transforms the power of the Sirens from that of sexual magnetism to that of keepers of divine knowledge.  Previous translations of The Odyssey interpreted the archaic Greek word for 'mouth' as 'lips', thus giving a sexual connotation to the song that came from 'the lips of the sirens'. Wilson's translation, "All those who pass this way hear honeyed song, poured from our mouths", gives the sense that the Sirens are not tempting sailors with physical pleasures, but with a look behind the veil of the unknown:

The music brings them joy,

and they go on their way with greater knowledge,

since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans

suffered in Troy, by gods' will; and we know

whatever happens anywhere on earth.

It is with these subtleties in mind that I proceeded to set this text to music.  The women whose voices are brought front and center in this work all have influence, or agency, over Odysseus.  Even though we never hear his words in my setting, Odysseus is always there, listening. In movement I we learn about Penelope's deceptive tactics to keep the suitors at bay. Having convinced the suitors that she will choose a husband once she completes weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, she proceeds to unweave it at night thereby prolonging the completion of her weaving. Here I used the ancient Greek text from The Odyssey, much as it may have been heard by listeners hundreds of years ago.  In movement II Circe advises Odysseus as to the best way home and warns him of the many dangers he will face (even brave Odysseus must've thought twice about making the journey after hearing what Circe had to say about it!).  In movement III we return to Penelope's chambers where Athena has sent a Phantom to bring Penelope news of her son, Telemachus. In movement IV the Sirens tempt Odysseus and his crew with knowledge beyond the reach of mortals.  In movement V Odysseus' deceased mother, now a shade in Hades, continues to lovingly council her son on the cruel ways of the world. Movement VI, the only 'dialogue' between Odysseus and Penelope, is an instrumental interlude that emulates the verbal sparring in Book 23 between the long separated couple. Finally, in movement VII, Penelope accepts Odysseus and the two reconcile.  Though The Odyssey does not end here, this felt like a natural ending for my musical work.

In setting this text I sought to bring out as many colors, instrumental and emotional, as possible. The poetic rhythm of both the ancient Greek (the six beat Dactylic Hexameter) and that of Wilson's English translation (the five beat Iambic Pentameter) both supply much of the rhythmic underpinning of this work.  In the end, I strived to keep in mind that this story is an epic tale of adventure, both in its fantastical god like flourishes and its very humbly human emotions, and to imbue my work with these sensibilities.

This work is dedicated to the fabulous musicians of A Far Cry and Lorelei Ensemble to whom I am exceedingly grateful for this opportunity to collaborate.

Kareem Roustom

© Layali Music Publishing, BMI

Lorelei Program Notes

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) :: Wassermusik, VII. The Tempest: The Stormy Aeolus

In 1722, Telemann applied for the newly vacant position of music director at St. Thomas (Thomaskantor) in Leipzig. He had long since established himself as one of the most prolific and talented musicians in the region, so it comes as no surprise that he was easily a top (if not the top) candidate. How much he actually wanted the job is another question. It seems more likely that he used it as leverage when bargaining for a raise (both in finances and respect) at his then current position in Hamburg. Having successfully settled with Hamburg, he declined Leipzig that November. His good friend, Johann Sebastian Bach (the 3rd choice for the job), got St. Thomas.

The following April, with the dust settled, Telemann was tasked with writing music to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Hamburg Admiralty. One piece was an orchestral suite, Wassermusik (or Hamburger Ebb und Fluth), and another was an oratorio, Hamburger Admiralitätsmusik. Following the French suite style that Telemann had perfected earlier in his career, each “movement” is based off a dance (Sarabande, Gavotte, etc.). Interspersed throughout are a handful of programmatically titled movements unconnected to a specific dance form, including The Stormy Aeolus, named for the Greek mythological character.

Kate Soper (b. 1981) :: Here Be Sirens, O Sailor

In 2013 Kate Soper premiered Here Be Sirens, an opera-meets-theater piece based on the ancient mythological figures whose mesmerizing songs lured sailors too close to the rocks, where peril would meet them. Soper’s take on the myth zooms out, focusing not on the part of the story we usually hear from the perspective of the sailors, but imagining the sirens’ quotidian existence as they “...kill time on their island,” awaiting “an endless procession of doomed sailors.” Rounding out the personalities of each siren, the audience learns that “Peitho revels in the luxurious sensuality of their rite; Phaino stonily enacts the ritual with no inner feeling; and Polyxo longs for escape into the world of the real, delving into centuries of scholarship and research on her species in an attempt to untwist their circumstances.”

In addition to her own text, Soper utilized the words of a wide range of authors including Plato, Homer, Dante, and Edna St. Vincent-Millay, amongst others. O Sailor represents an iconic moment of the myth—the sirens’ song, itself.

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) :: Les Sirènes

In Paris, 1913, the Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, shocked audiences with his music for the ballet The Rite of Spring. That same year, over at the Paris Conservatoire, Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger (always known simply as “Lili”) sent out shock waves of her own as the first female winner of the school’s prestigious composition award, the Prix de Rome.

If the name Boulanger sounds familiar to you, it’s most likely due to Lili’s older sister, Nadia, who always failed to win the Prix de Rome, but went on to have a brilliant career as a teacher with a studio list that read like a Who’s Who of 20th century music. Due to tragic circumstance, Lili never had the opportunity to fully build her musical life. She died heartbreakingly young, just shy of her 25th birthday, due to a lifetime battling chronic illness. But, if Lili’s life was brief, it was also brilliant. Her family (all musicians—her father had also won the Prix de Rome) recognized musicianship in Lili at the tender age of two, and by the time she was six, she was sight-reading alongside Gabriel Fauré at the piano.

Lili wrote Les Sirènes when she was eighteen years old, using text by Charles Grandmougin.

I’ll Fly Away/Wayfaring Stranger/Sinner Man

If you drive at dusk along the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can almost hear the mountains giving off the sound of a distinctly American vocal tradition called Sacred Harp, or Shape Note. These were simple gospel tunes and folk hymns sung in a full-throated, straightforward harmonic manner. Collected in various publications utilizing a method of music reading that helped singers learn more quickly through the use of differently shaped notes (hence the name), the tradition spread out from the Shenandoah Valley over to St. Louis, and down into the deep south.

One publisher of these songs was a man called E.M. Bartlett from Waynesville, Missouri. Bartlett went to work for the Central Music Company, a publisher of Shape Note songbooks, and eventually founded his own publishing company. Subsequently, he founded and opened a Shape Note school called the Hartford Music Institute. A graduate of that institute was Albert Brumley who went on to write, I’ll Fly Away in 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression. About eighty years later, composer Caroline Shaw reimagined this song as part of a suite for string quartet and singer. She wrote the following about her arrangement:

“I wrote this set of songs to play with some very good friends of mine one spring. They're settings of lyrics from traditional gospel and bluegrass songs, but with a new melody (except for the occasional hint of the original) that follows conventions of both old time singing and medieval plainchant.” — C.S.

While we can trace the heritage of some songs, perhaps the greatest significance of the most enduring folk songs is in their anonymity. They belong to no one and everyone as part of the true public domain. Wayfaring Stranger and Sinner Man fall into this category. Their origins are unknown (though Les Baxter and Will Holt are credited for cementing a pressing of the latter in a 1956 recording).

-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.

Take another look: Imagining a collaboration

Take another look. Zoom in. Zoom out. Reverse the frame. Let it sit. Poke it a little. Reimagine the context. Add a dimension. Ask a question. What am I not seeing yet? What more is there to see? What possibilities are still out there, requiring only our willingness to imagine to bring them into reality? 

A Far Cry exists because of questions like these. So does a whole lot of my favorite art. And the first time I heard the Lorelei Ensemble, I felt that same thrill of recognition. I’d never imagined that sound - both fortunately, others had, and here I was, listening to their work like a kid in a candy store and bearing witness to a wonderful new reality. 

This collaborative program came out of a series of conversations between Beth Willer and myself that kept touching on these thoughts. What does it mean to look at an iconic work or art and then look more deeply and discover something unseen? When Beth and I found our way to Emily Wilson’s magnificent new translation of the Odyssey, we knew that we’d come across an intensely compelling piece that did exactly that. Wilson’s clear-eyed scholarship references dozens of other Odyssey translations, and in the process, tracks conventions that have calcified over time. When those conventions that enable each other stray from the original, Wilson discards them without regret. The results can sound new, but they are ancient; the living story that did not survive our centuries-long translation process, but which can be revived. 

We found a wonderful creative partner in Kareem Roustom, who had already thought deeply about the Odyssey and who approached this project and the translation in a spirit of open-hearted curiosity. The story that he pulled from the pages flips the tradition of focusing on Odysseus and instead allows us to gaze through a variety of other eyes, each of which shows us something new. 

As we thought about how the first half of the concert might support these themes - and lead us to this piece - we found ourselves drawn to two underlying concepts; music that speaks to the Odyssey, and a more timeless search for home. The many different pieces on the first half act as a sort of narrative mosaic to bring us to that spot. 

We begin as sailors often do, with the chaos of a storm at sea, depicted by Telemann. Our ship - I guess that’s Jordan Hall - then finds its way to the Sirens. We present two different takes on these endlessly fascinating musical beings, contrasting the boldness of Kate Soper’s vision with the extreme loveliness of Lili Boulanger’s. Jessica Meyer’s Sappho setting takes one step further into this world, allowing us to see through the eyes of the poet and experience longing in an even purer form. 

With that turn, the program shifts - away from antiquity and towards the same themes in our own American history. The last three works on the first half are still very much about an Odyssean journey, now taking place on our own soil. I’ll Fly Away, gorgeously re-wrought by Caroline Shaw, Wayfaring Stranger, conjured up by Jonathan Woody, and Sinner Man, brought to life by Adam Simon, each struggle with questions of traveling and finding home. What is the place that you dream of flying away from? What does it mean to be a long way from home? Where will you run to now? 

Can a journey show you where home is? 

To me and to Beth, that question is essentially the same as the one we began with: What more is there to see? What is invisible to the eye, until a little unconventional work - a different way of looking - makes it appear? That question always has something new to reveal. We hope it brings you a very interesting evening. 

- Sarah Darling and Beth Willer 

Gravity program notes

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) :: Silouans Song

The Estonian Pärt had compositional beginnings in serialism and atonality, which earned him an official slap on the wrist from the Soviet government. That, however, was not the catalyst for his change of style. After taking time to reevaluate his compositional methods in the late 1970s, along with studying Bach, Gregorian chant, and Russian Orthodox sacred music, Pärt arrived at a new compositional philosophy that he called “tintinnabulation” (“bells”). He explained: “Tintinnabulation is like this. Here, I am alone in silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played...I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

Tintinnabuli, the ringing/sound of bells, alludes to the mathematical division of a note’s sound wave into the overtone series - the basis of Western music theory and its harmonic progressions - which is heard in the chaotic timbre of a ringing bell. Essentially, if you strike a single note, you are not just hearing that note but an entire sequence working together. Thus, when you hear A-natural you also sympathetically hear other tones from the A scale in a sequence of 5ths, 4ths, 3rds, and so on: A, E, A, C-sharp, E, etc.—a musical universe orbiting a single note.

Silouan’s Song is named for the monk St. Silouan, reflecting Pärt’s personal devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the music, you hear aspects of tintinnabulation, the simple revolution and contemplation of a select sequence of notes, buffered intermittently by silence, and a subtext of yearning for spiritual renewal.

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001):: Aroura

Some artists bring to the world a very particular style of creative energy. They are skillful not only in producing works of art, but on a grander scale, fabricating entire parallel, metaphysical universes. Hieronymus Bosch and Franz Kafka are examples. Iannis Xenakis was amongst them.

Xenakis, however, had a unique perspective. He had experience building actual physical structures, too, as he went to work for famed French architect Le Corbusier whilst residing as a Greek refugee in Paris during World War II. The City of Light also gave him Olivier Messiaen as a composition teacher.

Trying to explain Xenakis briefly is difficult. The Readers Digest guide to Xenakis could be titled, Xenakis: Wagnerian Techniques on Steroids. Replace terminology like leitmotif with “set” and sliding chord transitions with “pitch time transformation” and off you go. The result might sound like total chaos on the surface, but the supporting theories on which the entire musical structure is built are exquisitely elegant. A newspaper article once aptly described the music of Xenakis as “craggily, joyously elemental music” that “turned collections of pitches and rhythms and instruments into a force of nature.” Music critic Alex Ross described Xenakis’ process as “looking at the orchestra as a scientist looks at a gas cloud.” In other words, what’s happening is far beyond the outer limits of traditional music theory. Architecture, mathematics, disregard of traditional tonal systems, and a consuming obsession with pitch time dimensions translated into music in the mind of Xenakis. His ideas emerge on paper as excruciatingly complex works, dense with layer after layer of scientific and philosophical properties.

Aroura (sometimes spelled Arura), composed in 1971, is preoccupied with “sonorous textures” of the earth, sound, and other scientific and natural phenomena. Throughout the music, these various textures are expressed through an assortment of traditional and extended instrumental techniques including a wide range of dynamics, pizzicato, ricochet, glissando and harmonic glissando, tremolo, and scratching, to name a few.

Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) :: Musica Celestis

Medieval music theorists believed the universe, in its mathematical purity, vibrated with a kind of “music.” There were three types, musica universalis, musica humana, and musica instrumentalis. They descended in levels of perfection.

The concept is beautiful. Followed through, its logical conclusion is that everything is music – including you and me. The act of composing music is then something like ripping open the fabric of our universe, grasping the edges with your hands and stepping through to participate in an ongoing concert. Musica Celestis (“heavenly music”) takes that principle as its inspiration, as well as the music of the 10th century German mystic, Hildegard von Bingen.

Kernis says the work “follows a simple, spacious melody and harmonic pattern through a number of variations (like a passacaglia) and modulations, and is framed by an introduction and codas.” Within the overarching harmonic progression of the piece there is tucked inside an implied harmonic progression that traverses the endless interlocking relationships of every key signature by the interval of a 5th. Using that circle, it tosses a lasso out into space, catching the infinite within the small confines of measures dotted with notes.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945) :: Divertimento for Strings (1939)

Bartók was in the twilight of his life when Paul Sacher (1906-1999), founder of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, approached him with the commission for a new work, which emerged in the space of just fifteen days as the Divertimento for Strings. By definition, divertimenti are meant to be somewhat casual in nature. To some degree, that holds true as a description for this piece, but just as the creeping shadow of war continued to haunt Europe, the “night music” (a term apparently approved of by Bartók as a descriptor for his compositions with a shaded quality) of the middle movement seeps under the door frames of the outer movements adding a jolting chill. Germany invaded Poland just after Bartók fulfilled this commission.

Contrasts abound. Dance-like qualities sit next to morose melodies; folk idioms and raw shifting meters are juxtaposed with the polish of a Baroque concerto grosso, pitting a small group (concertino) against the whole (ripieno). Multi-voiced fugues inject order into chaos. It’s music that’s trying to live up to its title, acting as a not-so-serious diversion from a world about to be turned upside down, injecting the hope of first light into threatening darkness. The intense whirling energy of the final movement seems to clench its fists and grit its teeth with determination toward that end.

In a poignant turn of events, the composer who put so much effort into documenting the folk music of his native Hungary and integrating it into his work was forced to leave for New York City, and watch from across the water as his homeland sided with Germany. The Divertimento for Strings was the last piece he wrote in Europe. He would die of leukemia in the United States.

Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960):: Tenebrae

Golijov explains: “I wrote Tenebrae as a consequence of witnessing two contrasting realities in a short period of time in September 2000. I was in Israel at the start of the new wave of violence that is still continuing today, and a week later I took my son to the new planetarium in New York, where we could see the Earth as a beautiful blue dot in space. I wanted to write a piece that could be listened to from different perspectives. That is, if one chooses to listen to it ‘from afar,’ the music would probably offer a ‘beautiful’ surface but, from a metaphorically closer distance, one could hear that, beneath that surface, the music is full of pain. I lifted some of the haunting melismas from Couperin’s Troisieme Leçon de Tenebrae, using them as sources for loops...The compositional challenge was to write music that would sound as an orbiting spaceship that never touches ground.”

Namesake to Golijov’s composition are the three Tenebrae (Latin for “darkness”) services, on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday of Holy Week in the Christian faith. Each night begins in light and ends in shadow as fifteen ceremonial candles are extinguished one by one following the reading of each Psalm. Eventually all candles in the church are put out and the congregation is engulfed in utter darkness – save for the light of one candle representing hope. The people then dismiss into the night.

The tension of the shadows sustain this haunting music in mid-air, caught between darkness and light, their metaphorical doubles of despair and hope in prolonged meditation.

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.

Reflections on Legacy

It’s not every day that you meet a new group of people and immediately feel a familial warmth and comfort as they invite you in, all smiles, to their cozy storefront home.

Sure enough, it happened on the first day I walked into rehearsal with A Far Cry for the Legacy program. I was nervous but excited about joining the Criers for this program, especially being invited to join the illustrious Pamela Frank as a soloist in Vivaldi’s concerto for four violins. But as soon as we tuned up and began reading Haydn’s “Trauer” Symphony, I knew it was going to be amazing.

Throughout the week, I got to know the Criers and their stories. Rehearsal breaks were always a lively opportunity to talk to someone new and try a homemade brownie. I observed the Criers seamlessly transition between productive rehearsal mode and relaxed social mode. I had a heartwarming conversation with Karen, who happens to be a Toronto native like myself!

I asked a lot of questions. I got to try some of the Criers’ instruments. I got a 20 minute consultation session with Howard about my posture, and did a spontaneous short video for the concert livestream. I learned how to express a musical idea in the most eloquent and positive tone of voice. I adopted Karl’s catchy way of saying ‘cool’ when the group agreed on something.  

What was perhaps most inspiring was simply hanging out with this dynamic and passionate group, not so much older than I am, doing incredible things in and outside of A Far Cry. Some members are baroque performance practice experts, others maintain active teaching studios, AND they have cool hobbies and beautiful families.

Being on the border of conservatory student and full time professional, I’m asking the ‘big’ questions about my profession and my contribution to the classical music community. (ex. Why did I choose to do this for life, and what unique values am I bringing into this industry? What makes my music worth listening to, and why should people be excited about classical music in 2019?) Getting to talk about the birth of AFC, of what it took to make them such a successful group both on and off-stage, gave me tons of bright ideas. Playing with the group gave me lots of answers.

It was truly a privilege to work with such thoughtful, respectful and uplifting personalities. From the get go, I felt like I could express myself through the music as freely and passionately as possible. The floor was open to individual ideas, which found their way to integrate into one cohesive musical interpretation. A Far Cry is a model of leadership, musical excellence and creativity, and I want to thank them once again for having me!

Sophia Szokolay

Sophia is an NEC Fellow for the 2018-2019 season

Arranging the Goldbergs

There’s a reason why the Goldberg Variations do what they do.

But what – exactly – is it?

I can’t say that that was the specific question on my mind when I first proposed this project to the members of A Far Cry. But it wasn’t far off, either.

The Variations are such an amazing study in creativity; in the power of mathematics, in the use of memory in music. They conjure up worlds, one by one. Big ones, small ones, profound ones, funny ones, cathartic, tragic, egotistical, jazzy, pastoral, you name it, JSB has it warmed up and waiting for you.

That’s why arranging them is such a pleasure. So many different things are possible – and the greater the forces at your disposal, the further down the rabbit hole you can go. The thing is: each variation is perfect for keyboard but also holds little clues within it that open up more possibilities. Is it evoking a trio sonata? A French overture? Or is it channeling a jazz bar with a perfectly swinging bass line? What about that Quodlibet?

But that sense of possibility also opens the door to a danger: in releasing – or evoking - the spirit inhabiting the variation by re-arranging it, you’ve now produced a perfectly nice… arrangement. Well, that’s great. But why not simply stick to the keyboard version and let the listeners create their own evocations for themselves? Why mess with it?

This is exactly why we knew that one of the most important things we’d have to do to make this meaningful would be to partner with an exquisite keyboardist who loved the Goldberg Variations as much as we did. I still can’t believe Simone Dinnerstein said yes to us when we approached her with this idea… but she did. And that made all the difference.

With Simone’s presence in these arrangements, we can actually combine what Bach wrote with what he implied. Sometimes, it’s as simple as having a variation played by the strings repeated by the piano, or vice versa. (Those repeats are really, really necessary – they make the piece three-dimensional! And we exploit most of them; it’s rare that we won’t explore new territory on a repeat.)

But really, that’s just the beginning. It can be just as fun to have the piano and strings intermingle, and there are a million ways to do that, tracing Bach’s different figures and pulling them apart, looking at them from every possible direction.

Fundamentally, what I love about arranging with these forces is that I never feel as though I’m arranging the Goldberg Variations “for” anything. Instead, I simply feel that I’m arranging the Goldberg Variations. It may seem like a small difference, but it puts you in a place defined by possibility and creativity, instead of restriction. If anything, as these variations continue to evolve and to grow, I hope that they move beyond anything I’ve imagined so far… into a new realm of creative purpose.

We’ll see how it goes!

- Sarah Darling

Introducing Zenas Hsu!

A new Crier! This might be our favorite part.

Zenas played with A Far Cry for years as a guest before joining the group in the way that every single new member does - by unanimous vote. And not just that; in the process, we also changed the number of violins in the group from 9 to 10! That’s like a thumbs-up that turns into an ice cream sundae that turns into a rainbow that turns into a Mozart melody.

And the truth of the matter is, Zenas was a Crier way before we ever voted. Last year when we were doing a program at the Gardner museum featuring Crier compositions, we extended an invitation to all the guests playing that set as well. Next thing we knew, we were playing a lovely piece by Zenas called “Books of Isabella.” On our most recent recording, Visions and Variations, Zenas doesn’t just play the violin - he’s also on the editing team. His curiosity, deep thinking, and joie de vivre have been making our rehearsals better since the very first time he played with us.

Also, his beautiful sound has DEFINITELY been making our rehearsals better. Most definitely.

Welcome on board; let’s see what we can create together!

The Goldberg Variations Program Notes

Within our musical vocabulary, there are a handful of pieces whose nicknames conjure up a wealth of emotional and intellectual wonder, visceral electricity, and pure, joyful adoration. “Tchaik 5” (or 6), “Hammerklavier,” or “Winter Wind,” for example, and “the Goldbergs.” Memorably, the Goldberg variations’ debut to modern society occurred in 1955, when a young, eccentric, Canadian pianist named Glenn Gould stepped into a recording studio. There, he made what has since become an iconic and legendary recording of the work (Pablo Casals did something similar for Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello in 1936). Since then, they have been recorded hundreds of times. Far from being redundant, each new rendition recaptures the imagination with seemingly endless nooks and crannies for exploration (aptly described in one NPR article as a “Rubik’s Cube of invention and architecture”). Like the dialogue of a fiercely witty movie, the interplay of relationships between the notes of the variations reveal themselves to the listener on a deeper level with every listen. There are even inside jokes, if you know them (and you will, by the end of this annotation).

Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen, “Aria with Diverse Variations,” was the original title for BWV 988. The nickname Goldberg comes from an account of events that has been revealed to be apocryphal due to lack of compelling evidence. That said, the compelling story has had such an impact on the music that it bears a brief re-telling. It originates in 1802 with Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, who related an anecdote about Johann Gottlieb Goldberg—reportedly one of Bach’s students: “The Count [Hermann Carl von Kaiserling of Dresden] was often sickly, and then had sleepless nights. At these times Goldberg, who lived in the house with him, had to pass the night in an adjoining room to play something when the Count could not sleep. The Count once said to Bach that he should like to have some clavier pieces for his Goldberg, which should be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights.” Thus, so the story goes, Bach wrote the Goldberg variations.

More likely, Bach wrote the variations as the culmination to his Clavier-Übung (“Keyboard Exercise”), a collection of harpsichord and organ works published in four parts from 1731-1741. Part I included the six Partitas, Part II consisted of the Italian Concerto and the Overture after the French Manner, Part III is a master compendium of organ works, and Part IV is the Goldberg variations. As a whole, the Clavier-Übung traverses every style and skill set a keyboardist would need to know.

The opening theme in the Aria owes its harmonic structure to one of Bach’s contemporaries, whom he admired greatly: George Frideric Handel. A side-by-side comparison of Handel’s Chaconne avec 62 variations (HWV 442) reveals an identical base in the first eight bars between the two works. One of the marvels of the Goldberg variations is the beautiful symmetry of the entire work. The thirty variations are divided into two “sections” of fifteen: Nos. 1-15, and Nos. 16-30. Including the Aria that appears both at the outset and the conclusion, Goldberg consists of thirty-two parts total. This macro piece structure is reflected in the microstructure of each variation, most of which are either 16 or 32 measures in length. There are only three minor key variations, the first being No. 15—the last variation of the first part. Variation No. 16 is marked “Overture” to herald the beginning of the second half. Every third variation is a canon at an increasing interval (i.e. No. 3 is a canon at the unison, No. 6 a canon at the second, No. 9 a canon at the third, etc.) up to the ninth, and culminates at No. 30 with a quodlibet—a combination of counterpoint and popular song. Here, towards the end of this lengthy musical journey, is where Bach’s sense of humor shows most prominently. The quodlibet includes popular melodies from Bach’s day, the words of which translate to “I have been away so long from you” and “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away (had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay).” After meandering through all the musical possibilities, staying almost entirely in the major mode and home key of G, the variations come to an end, and return home to the Aria once again.

Legacy program notes

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) :: Andante cantabile

By the time Tchaikovsky died in November of 1893, he was a famous man, not only in his homeland, but internationally as well. Just two years before, in 1891, he had been invited to be the shining centerpiece in the grand festival of concerts kicking off the opening of America’s first major orchestral concert space, Carnegie Hall. With six symphonies completed, plus multiple instrumental works (Serenade for Strings, 1812 Overture, etc.), operas, chamber music, and ballets, Tchaikovsky had firmly cemented his spot in history as one of the greatest Russian romantics.

He came to music a little late, since his parents never imagined he would become a musician. Soon he realized that music was his true passion, and so he left to begin studying at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.

One characteristic that we appreciate and remember Tchaikovsky for is his great talent for melody. During his student days he became familiar with the works of Mozart—who is also remembered for his beautiful tunes—and would later exclaim, “I don’t just like Mozart, I idolize him.” Melody and emotion were Tchaikovsky’s hallmarks from the start, and that trait shone like a rare jewel catching and embracing the light in the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1, Andante cantabile, that would later become a freestanding work of its own.

Its beauty famously captivated one legendary personality—Leo Tolstoy. Tchaikovsky recorded the following in his dairy: “Probably never in my life have I been so moved by the pride of authorship as when Leo Tolstoy, sitting by me and listening to the Andante of my Quartet, burst into tears.”

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) :: Concerto No. 10 for 4 Violins in B minor, RV 580

Italy has been home to virtuoso string instruments, players, and composers for hundreds of years. Among them, Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762), and Antonio Vivaldi. Each of them had a profound influence on music of the Baroque, and on composers such as Handel and J.S. Bach.

Vivaldi has contributed a vast amount of literature in the concerto form (totaling around 500). Some of these were written for solo instruments, while most were written in the Baroque concerto grosso format of concertino (or a small group of soloists functioning together) contrasted against the ripieno (the whole large ensemble). His first collection of concertos entitled L'Estro Armonico, or “harmonic inspiration,” was written in 1711. Included in L'Estro Armonico were twelve concertos for various combinations of two to four solo violins (like No. 10) with some including solo cello. These were written during Vivaldi’s tenure as master of violin at the Ospedale della pieta, an orphanage in Venice. Therefore, amongst the first musicians to perform L'Estro Armonico would have been the exceptional girls who formed the ensembles at the Ospedale.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) :: Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218

In the years after Mozart’s tours of Europe as a child prodigy, he became a prolific teenager/twenty-something. Before moving to glittering Vienna to launch his adult career as a superstar, he was back in his hometown of Salzburg unhappily employed by the Archbishop, yet as productive as ever. During this time, he penned a list of compositions that reads like the lyrics to the holiday song, “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.

In his adulthood, Mozart primarily performed on the piano, but he was also exceptionally talented as a violinist (amazing his father at the ripe age of seven with his prowess on the instrument)—which is evident in the virtuosic demands of his concertos. In all, he wrote only five concertos for the violin. All of them were written in Salzburg, and all but one were written in 1775.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) :: Symphony No. 44, Trauer”

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 luck of being born at the right time in history. The widespread establishment of equal temperament (tuning instruments so all pitches were equally spaced) in the 18th century was leading to broader possibilities of modulation between tonal centers, and as a result sonata form (the main building block in a symphony) was blossoming. As a master of form and structure, Haydn foresaw the possibilities.

It was in 1761 he went to work for the Esterházy family at their private estate—a stroke of fortune and opportunity. Up until then he had made a living as a freelancer, and then briefly as Kapellmeister in another court. Most of Haydn’s musical education had come from years of training in a Vienna choir school (until his voice broke, apparently embarrassingly in front of Empress Maria Theresa, herself), then self-instruction through books, and some formal training. The Esterházy family kept an orchestra comprised of some of the best instrumentalists in the region, which was a tremendous gift to Haydn (the more talented your musicians, the more interesting and challenging music you can write). At its largest point, the orchestra included between 22-24 members. Haydn not only wrote for them and directed them, but also enjoyed a close relationship with his colleagues. James Webster notes, Haydn “had full authority over the musicians, both professionally and in terms of their behavior; but he was close to many of them personally as well, often serving as godfather to their children.”  

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.

Symphony No. 44, “Trauer” (“mourning”), which was completed in 1772, represents a work composed during Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” (often translated as “storm and stress”) period—a kind of precursor to the more fully romantic style symphonies to come along with the next generation (including Haydn’s pupil, Beethoven). The transcendently beautiful slow movement of the symphony was apparently a favorite of the composer. He requested that it be performed at his own funeral.

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.

Contemplating a Legacy

Some thoughts from Jesse Irons on the two mentors celebrated in this weekend’s concert - Pamela Frank and her teacher in turn, Shirley Givens. The following has been published by the Boston Musical Intelligencer here!

When I first met Pam I was a freshman violin student at Peabody Conservatory, and my dear teacher Shirley Givens was so excited that her star pupil Pamela Frank was coming to solo with the Baltimore Symphony. Miss Givens had her ways and she finagled the entire studio to come to a dress rehearsal where Pam performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto and then had a chat with us directly after. It was a stunning performance and Pam had a incredible ability to to weave in and out of the orchestra texture: to soar above when needed, and to almost embed and strengthen the orchestra when that's what the part called for. It was an entirely egoless performance all about Beethoven's intention and the music was just alive and moving. 

About a year after that I had my first lesson with Pam. Miss Givens was away for the week, and had arranged for a very special guest teacher for all of us in her studio. I was extremely nervous but pulled out the concerto I've been working on: Mozart's 4th Violin Concerto in D Major. I remember playing through the first movement and being out of breath. Pam with a smile asked "how do you feel?" I said I was tired. And Pam looked at me and said, "You better not be tired, you have two more movements to play!" I was instantly smitten. After the lesson I bought her recording of the Mozart violin concertos and I've probably listened to her recording of the fourth concerto 100 times. In fact I used to tune my violin to it!

Eventually I ended up studying directly with Pam for 3 years. It was a dream come true. Every week new delights, new laughter, new insights, and my entire musical personality was fostered and nurtured and blossomed with her help.

Since helping to start A Far Cry in 2007, I made a habit every few years of checking in with Pam to see if she would play a concerto with us. Many of the Criers have personal connections with Pam, and when, a year and a half ago, Pam said "Yes!" we immediately got to work.

When I asked Pam what she was most excited to play with A Far Cry she said, "Well I just can't wait to play with you guys! With my old students!" Approximately a year ago, Pam and my mutual teacher Shirley Givens passed away, and commiserating about that and continuing discussions about what to play together, the program gained a new depth and richness. We're calling it Legacy and dedicating it to Miss Givens, but unlike many A Far Cry programs, there's no profound insight behind this this collection of pieces. It's really a chance to celebrate our favorite people, our favorite music, and the bonds - indeed the legacy - of teachers through generations. Miss Givens's favorites composer by a mile was Mozart - she once kicked a student out of her studio when they insisted they did not like Mozart - so Mozart figures prominently. Miss Givens was the consummate performer, always putting the audience fully at ease through her own obvious joy at being on stage. This is perhaps the most important lesson I learned from her, and I believe it's part of her legacy that AFC audience members often comment after concerts, "it looks like you Criers are having so much fun."

At the end of each year in Pam's studio, we would have a final studio class that would end with a bunch of multi-violin concertos all played together for fun. This Vivaldi concerto for four violins in b-minor was one of the ones we played. The four violin soloists will be Pam, two Crier violinists who are her former students, myself & Omar Chen Guey, and a wonderful current New England Conservatory student named Sophia Szokolay. In fact we're featuring young people throughout the orchestra from not only New England Conservatory, but NEC Prep School, as well as Project STEP. One of the most important things we Criers can do is work to pass on her own legacy to the next generation of string players, one of which I was shocked to learn has been attending AFC concerts since she was 5 years old.

This video is a treasure - Shirley Givens appearance on Chance of a Lifetime!