Program Notes

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.

 

Composer's Notes: Noam Elkies' "Allegro Troppo"

“Allegro Troppo” Op.39 (1995), written for and premiered by Scott Yoo and the Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble, is a one-movement work for string orchestra in an unapologetically Classical idiom.  The music of the First Viennese School (Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn) always a fertile source of wonder and inspiration, can still call forth new music in a similar vein; it need not matter whether a piece was composed in 1995 or in 1795, so long as it delights, moves or astounds on its own terms. “Allegro Troppo”, though at times intricate, is never cryptic, and a capable and committed performance should make lengthy program notes redundant if not distracting.

The title of course plays off the admonition of the familiar tempo marking "allegro ma non troppo" [allegro, but not too much]: for once we abandon this restraint.  Naturally, the piece is not meant to be played literally "too fast" --- the actual tempo marking is "Presto" --- but its near-*perpetuum mobile* contrapuntal writing in asymmetric 5/4 meter should at times convey the off-balance headlong rush suggested by the title.

This piece doubles as the final movement of a string quartet, provisionally titled the "Consonant Quartet", whose other three movements are in various stages of partial completion.

—Noam Elkies

Noam D. Elkies is professor of mathematics at Harvard and the youngest person ever tenured at the University.  His work on elliptic curves, lattices, and other aspects of the theory of numbers has been recognized by such prizes and awards as the Presidential Young Investigator Award of the National Science Foundation and the Prix Peccot of the College de France.

Alongside his mathematical career, Elkies has been playing the piano and composing since the age of three.  Born in New York, he studied piano with A.Vardi in Israel, and with J.Carlson at the Juilliard Pre-College after returning to the States in 1978; his composition teachers have included Sadai, Davidovsky and Kirchner. His solo performances include Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #5 with the Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble and Elkies' own “Rondo Concertante” with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras' Repertory Orchestra in Boston's Symphony Hall.  His compositions include the abovementioned “Rondo Concertante”; the "Brandenburg Concerto #7", commissioned and premiered by the Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble; Three Steganographic Etudes, which he premiered in Hungary at the Bridges 2010 conference; and the opera “Yossele Solovey”, staged at Harvard in 1999.

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Old School Program Notes

This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in. 


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) :: Adagio & Fugue, K. 546

When Mozart reached his mid-twenties, he effectively made a break for it—to Vienna, one of the great cultural capitals on the European continent. His father, Leopold, though perhaps well meaning, was often an overbearingly dominant figure in his son’s life. Seemingly, he also sent somewhat mixed messages by parading Wolfgang around Europe during his childhood as a prodigy, and then coercing him to remain in Salzburg, a bit of a backwater in comparison with the glittering cities with which Mozart the son was well acquainted. 

To prove to his father he could manage his career independently, Mozart set to work immediately finding creative ways to make ends meet, and quickly securing a position as one of the “must see” acts around town (perhaps building on his reputation from childhood, and playing to the crowd curiosity of seeing what the child prodigy had become). Sometime in those early Vienna years, Mozart penned a fugue for piano duet, which he revisited five years later by transcribing it for strings. Even in the eighteenth century the fugue was considered an old musical form (Bach, who died just six years before Mozart’s birth, was considered a bit antiquated for continuing to dwell on them). Among serious pupils of music, however, it was much revered and admired as a distinguished tradition in which to make one’s own contribution, and Mozart and his colleagues admired and studied the old master Bach with diligence—hence, perhaps, the fugue. In order to round out the work in the transcription (and perhaps harkening back to the pairing of prelude and fugue), Mozart prefaced the counterpoint a grand, somber, adagio.


Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960) :: Three Songs (2002)

Within a generation filled with minimalism, Golijov’s compositional voice stands apart as deeply personal in a very audibly translatable way. In his songs and instrumental music are the mixes and influences of his experience of the world, from Klezmer to Piazzolla, gypsy music and the standard Western classical canon. They are the sounds of life, unfettered by compositional techniques that, while beautiful or interesting in their own way, mitigate or hide the element of the personal behind structures. 

These three songs were freestanding or part of other projects (though Golijov’s frequent collaborator, the American soprano, Dawn Upshaw, premiered all three) before Golijov was commissioned by the Minneapolis Symphony to orchestrate them as a set for their 100th anniversary celebration. 

Night of the Flying Horses, was carved out of the soundtrack Golijov did for Sally Potter’s film The Man who Cried, about love, ethnicity, and the terrible prices paid for both during World War II. It is a lullaby sung in Yiddish which, in the words of the composer, “metamorphoses into a dense and dark doina (a slow, gypsy, rubato genre) featuring the lowest string of the violas. The piece ends in a fast gallop boasting a theme that I stole from my friends of the wild gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks. The theme is presented here in a canonical chase between two orchestral groups.”

Lúa Descolorida, is set to the poetry of María Rosalía Rita de Castro (1837-1885), and harkens back to the French Baroque, “The song is at once a slow motion ride in a cosmic horse, an homage to Couperin's melismas in his Lessons of Tenebrae.” Sung in the dialect of Gallego (found in Spain), it also functions as the “Peter’s Tears” aria in Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marco. 

How Slow the Wind, the final song in the group, was written after the sudden death of Golijov’s friend, Mariel Stubrin, and embodies the feeling of going through life in slow motion after a shocking emotional blow. Golijov has said of the piece, “'I had in mind one of those seconds in life that is frozen in the memory, forever-a sudden death, a single instant in which life turns upside down, different from the experience of death after a long agony.” The music, dark, low, with tolls and a pulsation that both drives the music forward and lends it a static quality is paired with the beautiful, sometimes soaring, lyricism of the soprano singing “How slow the wind/How slow the sea. Is it too late to touch you, dear? We this moment knew: Love marine and love terrene, love celestial too/Oh, how late their feathers be.” (Text, Emily Dickenson.) 


Michael Tippett (1905-1988) :: Fantasia Concertante on a theme by Corelli

In 1953, the Edinburgh Festival commissioned the English composer, Michael Tippett, to write a piece in commemoration and celebration of the three-hundredth anniversary Arcangelo Corelli’s birth. Italian domination of the arts during the Renaissance and much of the Baroque was felt across the continent, and carried over across the channel (Francesco Geminiani, thought to be a student of Corelli’s, capitalized on this popularity during his lifetime, immigrating to live out his life and career in England and Ireland). In particular, it was the art of the violin where the Italians excelled; even today, Stradivarius are the most coveted violins, and Paganini’s compositions are still amongst the most difficult in the repertoire. Corelli, though perhaps not as widely recognized today as Paganini, was another of the most renowned and skilled violinists/composers of his era, whose work had a profound influence upon his contemporaries and successors. 

For the Fantasia Concertante, which is a hybrid of a fantasy (where the music tends to just unfurl, relying less upon rigid form) and concerto (highlighting certain soloists or pairings within the larger ensemble), Tippett used the melody of the Adagio from Corelli’s Concerto Grosso op. 6, no. 2. Clearly stated in the opening bars, it then undergoes a distinctly twentieth century metamorphosis, fracturing off like broken shards of a mirror, showing us the Adagio from a variety of angles and perspectives: sometimes angular, sometimes sparkling, other times reflecting a singular moment of exquisite beauty. 


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) :: Symphony no. 29 in A major, K. 201

In 1774, Mozart was a teenager, and the number of symphonies pouring out of his pen outnumbered his age: eighteen years old, twenty-nine symphonies. While this is admirable from the simple perspective of workload, it is remarkable because the music is not just a collection of typical classical gestures (antecedent-consequent phrases, alberti bass, etc.) pulled together prettily and cleanly, but displays the distinct hallmarks of Mozart’s compositional voice. It is a space where light and shadow dance, where the play between bustling and dense musical content is paired with, or suddenly parts for, spaciousness (note the opening bars, where the shimmering upper registers play off the deeper, slower moving waters of the bass like sunlight off waves), and where serene beauty is balanced with drama, and the dance gives way to a frolic.

It has been noted by several observers that Mozart is unique in this sense, that he seems to find and know his compositional voice much earlier than others. Part of the reasoning for his distinct sound out of an era when many pieces sound, quite frankly, ubiquitous, was that he had an advantage through being taken all across Europe as a child prodigy. In an era long before recording, he was exposed to the variety of sounds from the Italians, French, Germans, English, and Scandinavians, and was able to then take snippets from all their traditions and layer his sound. In short, restless curiosity fed with extensive travel, and melded with emotional sensitivity (and just the right amount of Germanic practicality to keep any one element from becoming excessive), gives us something beyond the sound of a student work: it gives us the sound of Mozart.  

Tickets are still available for performances on Thursday, March 5th, at the Gardner and Friday, March 6th, at Jordan Hall.


by Kathryn 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. 

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.

Cries Program Notes

Enjoy these lovely program notes for Cries, courtesy of Kathryn Bacasmot, Sarah Darling, and Caroline Shaw. Josquin Des Pres c.1450-1521 :: Nymphes des bois / La déploration sur la morte de Johannes Ockeghem

One hundred years prior to the birth of Johannes Ockeghem, the Ars Nova era dawned. Music notation became more complex, and styles became more expressive. Known as a technician, and a “man of canonic ingenuity,” Ockeghem produced some of the most sophisticated and beautiful music of his time, including contrapuntal masterpieces utilizing thirty-six voices, and works such as the Missa prolationum, in which the counterpoint was carved out of the sheer simplicity of changing note lengths. In “Nymphes des bois / La déploration sur la mort de Johannes Ock- eghem” Josquin Des Prez, who likely studied with Ockeghem in his youth, pays homage to the master with this serene and effective motet. (Curiously, Ockeghem had also written a memorial work to his teacher Binchois.) The text is by Jean Molinet, who melds references to antiquity (Atropos, the Greek deity whose shears cut the thread of every human life) to contemporary names who function as witnesses and mourners; Josquin is among them. As Ockeghem did before him, Josquin imitates some of the stylistic hallmarks of his teacher’s style in this tribute. The cantus firmus to the requiem mass grounds the work.

Nymphs of the woods, goddesses of the fountains, Expert singers from all nations, Turn your voices, so clear and high, To rending cries and lamentation. For Atropos, the terrible ruler, Has seized your Ockeghem in her trap. The true treasurer of music and its masterpiece Learned, elegant in body and in no way old-fashioned. It is a terrible loss that the earth covers him. Put on your mourning clothes Josquin, Pierson, Brumel, Compère, And weep great tears from your eyes Gone is your great father. May he rest in peace. Amen.

Cantus firmus: Eternal rest give them, Lord, And light perpetual shine on them. May he rest in peace. Amen.

Caroline Shaw b.1982 :: Music in Common Time

About five years ago, up in the Berkshires, in the first weeks of what would be a very hot summer, I wrote a bit of music for some new friends. The idea for the music started with a chord, plain old D-major with the third on top, emerging pristinely out of some gritty, wild, chaotic vocal rubble. But the chord, and the piece, soon began to morph into different colors and forms, full of little corners and passageways and histories and trajectories. That piece was called Passacaglia, which now closes out a piece that is very dear (and still a little mysterious) to me, Partita for 8 Voices. Those friends that summer were Roomful of Teeth, in our first weeks together.

This week is a very exciting combination of old and new friends, with Roomful of Teeth and A Far Cry. (To clarify, some of these old friends are among the wonderful players in A Far Cry — people I’ve known for many years — through school, chamber music festivals, Irish bars on the Upper West Side...) It’s a collaboration I’ve dreamt of, and thanks to many, here we all are.

So I decided to write some music in common time. Exploding that D-major chord of years ago, launching into something new and different. Finding some of those old corners and trajectories again, and venturing down some roads both familiar and less traveled. Thanks for joining us. -cs

Franz Schubert 1797-1828 :: Quartet in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’

A prodigious youth, like Mozart before him, Schubert was given the advantage of being selected by his teacher Antonio Salieri (famous for his supposed tussles with Mozart) to sing in the impe- rial Hofkapelle, and receive an education typically reserved for the Viennese aristocracy. His mu- sic education from the beginning consisted of playing chamber music with his family and singing in the choir. Though he would contribute larger works, the realms of song and quintets, quartets, and trios, would immortalize him.

When Schubert was twenty-seven, his health turned for the worse, likely as a result of syphilis setting in, and the misery of both the disease and the treatment began to weigh heavily on the composer. In a letter, he wrote:

I find myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair continually makes things worse and worse instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain at best, whom enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating variety) for all things beautiful threatens to forsake, and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being? ‘My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it nevermore’. I might as well sing every day now, for upon retiring to bed each night I hope that I may not wake again, and each morning only recalls yesterday’s grief.

Written during this dark time, the String Quartet in D minor expresses the composer’s preoccupation with the desire to be comforted by death. Its nickname, “Death and the Maiden,” comes from a set of variations in the second movement, which uses a song written by Schubert in 1817 of the same name for its theme. Based on a poem by Matthias Claudius, Death, personified, discourses with a girl on the brink of dying. Interestingly, the language given to Death is not just warm and reassuring, but has a rustic, simple, flavor. The words, straightforward and friendly, almost too colloquial for a poem, bring not just comfort but a familiar feeling; perhaps of the countryside, perhaps of home.

Fiddlers Program Notes

The old fiddler
The old fiddler

Program notes for this weekend's concert "Fiddlers" are here. Thanks, Kathryn!

Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) :: Pelimannit (“The Fiddlers”) A work from the student days of Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara, The Fiddlers is an ode to both the folk music, and also the stories of the musicians—the fiddlers—he found in a book, Album of Tunes, by Samuel Rinda-Nickola.

An ebulliently dissonant opening illustrates the arrival of the fiddlers. Kopsin Jonas, portrays the fiddler who preferred to practice out in the woods, alone. Klockar Samuel Dikström (“Bell-Ringer Samuel Dikström”) was not only a fiddler, but also an organist. Here, we find him practicing Bach. Pirun polska (“Devil's Schottische,” a dance like the polka) is both foreboding, and melancholic. Hypyt (“Jumps”) is a playful dance, brief but packed with vivacity.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) :: Concerto for Four Violins in B minor, RV 580 Vivaldi’s L'Estro Armonico (“Harmonic Inspiration”) op. 3, was one of the more influential collections of concerto form, and further elevated Vivaldi’s reputation from the music teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, a home for orphaned and abandoned girls. Johann Joachim Quantz, flute instructor and court composer for Frederick II of Prussia, “The Great,” reportedly praised the set with the statement, “as musical pieces of a kind that was then entirely new, they made no small impression on me. I was eager to accumulate a good number of them, and Vivaldi's splendid ritornelli served as good models for me in later days.” Johann Sebastian Bach, an admirer of Vivaldi’s work, transcribed six of the twelve Vivaldi’s L'Estro Armonico concertos for keyboard.

The Concerto in b minor for four violins is the tenth (no. 10) of the twelve concertos (all of which are written for numbers of soloists ranging from 1, 2, or 4). The Italian Baroque concerto grosso (“big concert”) form featured in a small group of soloists (concertino) pitted against the larger ensemble (ripieno). This brilliant gem of a piece sparkles in agile, elegant strands of melody that each soloist guides, weaving in and out between each other and the ensemble like ribbons around a maypole.

Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) :: Two Tangos (1952) Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla was born March 11 1921 to Italian parents living in Argentina. At age 3 he moved with his family to New York City where he experienced listening to all kinds of music including jazz and the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. At age 13 he acquired and began to master the bandoneón, an instrument related to the accordion (it features buttons rather than a keyboard), which is a standard, and prominent, instrument in a tango orchestra.

In the late 1930’s the Piazzollas returned to Buenos Aires. While there the pianist Artur Rubenstein suggested Ástor study music with Alberto Ginastera (who had studied with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood). Between going to observe orchestra rehearsals during the day and playing in tango clubs at night with his own newly formed Orquestra del 46, Piazzolla composed the score for the film Bólidos de acero (1950) a romantic comedy revolving around tango, and eventually won a grant in 1954 to study composition in Paris with the renowned Nadia Boulanger. She encouraged him to develop his compositional style incorporating his tango background. Piazzolla recalls:

…She kept asking: “You say that you are not pianist. What instrument do you play, then?” And I didn't want to tell her that I was a bandoneon player, because I thought, “Then she will throw me from the fourth floor.” Finally, I confessed and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own. She suddenly opened her eyes, took my hand and told me: “You idiot, that's Piazzolla!” And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945) :: Romanian Folk Dances One of the greatest contributions Bartók made to the music world, besides his own array of works, was the magnitude of field recordings of traditional folk music he gathered, collected, and organized over the course of his life. His discovery of their tonal world also was reflected in the scope of his output: “The outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys. The greater part of the collected treasure, and the more valuable part, was in the old ecclesiastical or old Greek modes, or based on more primitive (pentatonic) scales, and the melodies were full of the freest and most varied rhythmic phrases and changes of tempi. It became clear to me that the old modes, which had been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigour. Their new employment made new rhythmic combinations possible.”

Realizing that much of the folk music that had found its way into the Romantic music of Liszt, for example, had little to do with the original songs, Bartók set out to write simple accompaniment for the songs, altering the original tunes as little as possible. Thus, rather than dismantling them and repurposing the parts, he simply provided frames in which to showcase the content. Originally written as a work for piano in 1915, he arranged it for string orchestra in 1917.

William Walton (1902-1983) :: Sonata for Strings The Sonata for Strings was written as an expanded version of Walton’s second string quartet, at the suggestion of the conductor Sir Neville Marriner.

The work is a study in concentration and diffusion, portrayed through Walton’s unique musical language (a result of his own endless curiosity toward genre and style), which here blends lush, English pastoral sonorities with Wagnerian tension/resolution, and injects it all with sharply modern gestures. It opens like sheets of organza, billowing, aligning, entangling, sometimes transparent, other times thick with rich tonal color. Then, the reveries crystallize into a ferociously urgent journey through passion, jabbing, and angular—suddenly evaporating, disappearing like an apparition back into the opening material. The work then tumbles forward on a wave of energy over a pedal tone of anxious, obsessive staccato. Following is a melancholic third movement. Elegant, and dark, like a Black orchid, or porcelain the shade of deepest night, undulating with a force field tension of magnets held at a minor distance. It concludes in a frenetic haze out of which occasionally emerge gorgeous threads of melody pulled out from the fabric.