Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Program Notes: May 2

The 2008/2009 Masterworks series at the Flynn Center in Burlington concludes this Saturday with its finale concert featuring Jaime Laredo, violist Cynthia Phelps playing a concerto by composer Joan Tower, and other great pieces representing "Music of Our Time." Keep reading for program notes. Find out even more about the program by attending Musically Speaking, our pre-concert discussions featuring guest artists chatting about the music, the composers, and themselves. The discussion begins at 7 p.m., the concert begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are available through FlynnTix online or by calling (802) 86-FLYNN.

Soirées Musicales
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

A musician of great invention, technical mastery, and charm, Britten was undoubtedly the leading English composer of his generation. The son of a dentist, he showed his musical gifts early on. He studied with Frank Bridge and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and attended the Royal College of Music. Essentially a lyricist, Britten drew his imagery and melodic line from that most personal of instruments, the human voice. His life partner and musical collaborator was tenor Peter Pears, and many would say the fullest expression of Britten’s genius came in his vocal works, particularly his second opera, Peter Grimes, completed in 1945. (Britten was a conscientious objector, so he was exempted from active service, and spent the war years playing piano recitals all over England and composing.)

But before his international reputation was secured by that premiere, he put in a lot of hard work. A prolific juvenile composer, Britten had already written some 800 works and fragments by the time he published his first piece. His set of choral variations, “A Boy Was Born,” composed for the BBC Singers in 1934, attracted significant attention, and in 1935 Britten landed a position scoring films for a small documentary company. “The company I was working for had very little money. Many times I had to write scores not for large ensembles but for six or seven instruments, and these few had to make all the effects that each film demanded.” A valuable apprenticeship indeed! A year later, he was asked to supply the music for a film called Men of the Alps. For this assignment he chose to orchestrate five piano pieces written by Gioacchino Rossini, and later adapted the selections into this “Musical Evenings” suite. In combination with the 1941 Matinées Musicales (another group of Rossini tunes), the two suites make up the music for George Balanchine’s wonderful ballet, Divertimento.

Purple Rhapsody
Joan Tower (1938- )

Purple Rhapsody was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras which included the Omaha Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Virginia Symphony, the Kansas City Symphony, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, Peninsula Music Festival Orchestra and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra with a grant from the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress. The composer says: “The work is dedicated with affection to the wonderful violist Paul Neubauer, who made it all possible.” This is the second solo piece Tower has written for Neubauer. The first is called Wild Purple. A colorful explanation is clearly in order! And here it is: “The sound of the viola has always reminded me of the color purple—a deep kind of luscious purple. The word ‘wild’ in Wild Purple refers to the high energy and virtuosity of that work. In Purple Rhapsody, I try to make the solo instrument sing—trying to take advantage on occasion (not always) of the viola’s inherent melodic abilities. This is not an easy task, since the viola is one of the tougher instruments to pit against an orchestra. In fact, for my orchestration of this work, I omitted horns and oboes to thin out the background and allow the viola to come forward with a little more leverage. My hope is that at the climaxes of some of these rhapsodic and energetic lines the orchestra does not overwhelm the soloist.”

After the Columbus (OH) premiere, Barbara Zuck from the Columbus Dispatch had this to say about Purple Rhapsody: “It is an astonishing work—if you can just live through it. It assaults the senses and the emotions over and over, climbing scales in loud, jabbing, dissonant chords, ratcheting up intensity by layering agitated sounds on top of one another….Tower and Neubauer have made it impossible for the viola to ever again be dismissed as that nondescript entity somewhere between the violin and the cello. Purple Rhapsody is extreme music for extreme times.”

Joan Tower, composer

Even as she prepares for her 70th birthday in 2008, Joan Tower is looking forward as much as she is looking back on a career that already spans over five decades.

Hailed as "one of the most successful woman composers of all time" in The New Yorker magazine, Joan Tower was the first woman ever to receive the Grawemeyer Award in Composition in 1990. She was inducted in 1998 into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters, and into the Academy of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University in the fall of 2004.

In January 2004, Carnegie Hall's Making Music series featured a retrospective of Tower's work. This special event showcased numerous artists who regularly perform her music, including the Tokyo String Quartet, pianists Melvin Chen and Ursula Oppens, violist Paul Neubauer, oboist Richard Woodhams, and the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble. Most of these works were then recorded for August 2005 release on the NAXOS recording label.

In March 2004, Tower attended the premiere of her new piece, For Daniel, written for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio at the Tucson Winter Festival, and the New York premiere at the 92nd Street Y. She performed the piano part with members of the Muir Quartet and the KLR Trio has gone on to performing this work around the world. Tambor was performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony at the American Symphony Orchestra League Convention in Pittsburgh in 2004 and recorded on NAXOS along with Made in America and Concerto for Orchestra (Leonard Slatkin conducting the Nashville Symphony). Purple Rhapsody, a new viola concerto for Paul Neubauer, has so far been performed be eight orchestras including the Omaha Symphony, who premiered it. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra commissioned and premiered Chamber Dance at Carnegie Hall in May of 2006.

Joan Tower is the first composer chosen for the ambitious new "Ford Made in America" commissioning program, a collaboration of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet the Composer. In October 2005, the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra presented the world premiere of Tower's 15 minute orchestral piece Made in America. The work went on for performances by orchestras in every state in the Union during the 2005-07 season. This is the first project of its kind to involve smaller budget orchestras as commissioning agents of a new work by a major composer.

Tower has added "conductor" to her list of accomplishments, with engagements at the American Symphony, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, the Scotia Festival Orchestra, the Anchorage Symphony, Kalisto Chamber Orchestra and another eight of the Made in America orchestras, among others.

Since 1972, Tower has taught at Bard College, where she is Asher Edelman Professor of Music. She has served as composer-in-residence with the Orchestra of St. Luke's since 1997 and at the Deer Valley Festival in Utah since 1998, a title she also held for eight years at the Yale/Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. Other accolades include the 1998 Delaware Symphony's Alfred I. DuPont Award for Distinguished American Composer, the 2002 Annual Composer's Award from the Lancaster (PA) Symphony, and an Honorary Degree from the New England Conservatory (2006). "Tower has truly earned a place among the most original and forceful voices in modern American music" (The Detroit News).

Tower's 2003-04 season featured two significant world premieres: DNA, a percussion quintet commissioned for Frank Epstein and his New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble; and her third string quartet, Incandescent, for the Emerson String Quartet, performed at the opening of the new Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center at Bard College. The Emerson Quartet has embraced Incandescent and is touring it throughout the world. The success of Tower's second string quartet, In Memory, premiered by the Tokyo String Quartet in 2002 at the 92nd Street Y, was a highlight of their tour of three continents. Her percussion concerto, Strike Zones, was performed at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center by Evelyn Glennie with the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin and is featured at Tanglewood in 2007.

Other compositions have crossed many genres: Can I (2007) for youth chorus and two percussionists; Copperwave (2006), written for the American Brass Quintet and commissioned by the Juilliard School of Music; Fascinating Ribbons (2001), her foray into the world of band music, premiered at the annual conference of College Band Directors; Vast Antique Cubes/Throbbing Still (2000), a solo piano piece for John Browning; Big Sky (2000), a piano trio premiered by David Finckel, Wu Han, and Chee-Yun; Tambor (1998), for the Pittsburgh Symphony and Mariss Jansons; and Wild Purple (1998) for violist Paul Neubauer. Tower's 1990 Grawemeyer Award-winning Silver Ladders was written during her 1985-88 St. Louis Symphony residency, and was subsequently choreographed in 1998 by Helgi Tomasson and the San Francisco Ballet. Her 1993 ballet Stepping Stones was commissioned by choreographer Kathryn Posin for the Milwaukee Ballet.

Joan Tower's bold and energetic music, with its striking imagery and novel structural forms, has won large, enthusiastic audiences. From 1969 to 1984, she was pianist and founding member of the Naumburg Award-winning Da Capo Chamber Players, which commissioned and premiered many of her most popular works. Her first orchestral work, Sequoia, quickly entered the repertory, with performances by orchestras including St. Louis, New York, San Francisco, Minnesota, Tokyo NHK, Toronto, the National Symphony and London Philharmonia. A choreographed version by The Royal Winnipeg Ballet toured throughout Canada, Europe, and Russia. Tower's tremendously popular five Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman have been played by over 500 different ensembles.

In addition to her two NAXOS recordings, Tower has had her Petroushskates open the new first recording by the innovative group, eighth blackbird, on the Cedille label. Fanfares Nos. 1-5, Duets, and Concerto for Orchestra with the Colorado Symphony (Marin Alsop) may be heard on Koch; and Tower's Four Concertos—with Elmar Oliveira, Ursula Oppens, David Shifrin, Carol Wincenc and the Louisville Orchestra—are available on d'Note Records. Turning Points (1995), a clarinet quintet for David Shifrin and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, is on Delos. A New World Records disc features her chamber music, including her first string quartet Night Fields. First Edition celebrates her legacy with the St. Louis and Louisville Symphonies with an all-Tower orchestral disc, which includes Sequoia, Silver Ladders, Music for Cello and Orchestra, and Island Prelude for oboe and strings, featuring soloists Lynn Harrell and Peter Bowman.

Joan Tower has been the subject of television documentaries on PBS's WGBH television station in Boston, on the CBS network program, Sunday Morning, and MJW Productions in England. Her music is published exclusively by Associated Music Publishers, a division of The Music Sales Group.

Cynthia Phelps, viola

"Not only does Cynthia Phelps produce one of the richest, deepest viola timbres in the world, she is a superb musician" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Principal Violist of the New York Philharmonic, Ms. Phelps has distinguished herself both here and abroad as one of the leading instrumentalists of our time. The recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the 1988 Pro Musicis International Award and first prize at both the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition and the Washington International String Competition, she has captivated audiences with her compelling solo and chamber music performances. She is "a performer of top rank...the sounds she drew were not only completely unproblematical --technically faultless, generously nuanced-- but sensuously breathtaking" (The Boston Globe).

Ms. Phelps performs throughout the world as soloist with orchestras, including the Minnesota Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Diego Symphony, Orquesta Sinfonica de Bilbao, and Hong Kong Philharmonic. She has appeared in recital in Paris, Rome, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington, and at New York's Alice Tully Hall, London's Wigmore Hall, and St. David's Hall in Cardiff, Wales. She has also been heard on National Public Radio's St. Paul Sunday Morning, Radio France, and RAI in Italy, and has been featured on The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, and CBS Sunday Morning.

Ms. Phelps has performed internationally as a collaborator with such artists as Isaac Stern, Itzak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Yo-Yo Ma, Lynn Harrell, and Yefim Bronfman, among many others. A much sought-after chamber musician, she performs regularly with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Boston Chamber Music Society, and at the 92nd Street Y. Ms. Phelps has performed with the Guarneri, American, Brentano, St. Lawrence and Prague String Quartets, as well as the Kalichstein-Robinson-Laredo Trio. She has appeared at the Mostly Mozart, Marlboro, Bridgehampton, La Jolla, Steamboat Springs, Vail, Music at Menlo, Santa Fe, Seattle, as well as in Europe at at the Naples, Cremona, and Schleswig-Holstein Festivals. She is a founding member of the chamber group Les Amies, a flute-harp-viola ensemble recently formed with harpist Nancy Allen and flutist Carol Wincenc.

Ms. Phelps regularly receives enthusiastic reviews for her performances as soloist with the New York Philharmonic; works she has performed include Berlioz's Harold in Italy, the Bartok Viola Concerto and Strauss's Don Quixote, the Benjamin Lees Concerto for String Quartet, and the premiere of a concerto written for her by Sofia Gubaidulina. Performances have included a New York Philharmonic International tour featuring the Gubaidulina, a work written for her by composer Steven Paulus (commissioned by the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival), and return solo engagements with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the San Diego Symphony and numerous other orchestras.

Her solo debut recording is on Cala Records, and can also be heard on the Marlboro Recording Society, Polyvideo, Nuova Era, Virgin Classics, and Covenant labels. Ms. Phelps and her husband, cellist Ronald Thomas, reside in New Jersey and have three children, Lili, Christinia, and Caitlin.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

Paul Hindemith was born near Frankfurt, Germany. His father was a painter who had attempted a musical career, but was never able to provide an adequate income for his family. Determined that his three children would be professional musicians, he forced them to take lessons from early childhood. The Frankfurt Children’s Trio, as they were called, added to the family coffers by playing at all sorts of public functions. Hindemith attended the Hoch Conservatory, where he studied violin and composition. In 1914, he joined the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra and was shortly appointed concertmaster. In this position, he met the great conductors of the day, many of whom would later promote his music. By 1923, he was successful enough as a composer to leave the Opera Orchestra.

The dominant philosophy behind most, if not all, of Hindemith’s music, was that music should serve a purpose; that the circumstances of performance should have a determining effect on the style and character of a piece. In the 1920s, this philosophy was known as “Neue Sachlichkeit,” or “New Objectivity.” Hindemith wrote a great deal of music intended for amateurs with limited technical demands, and throughout his life he was critical of avant-gardism for its own sake. Despite the practical nature of his music, he was persecuted by Hitler’s National Socialist Party for cultural Bolshevism. Many of his works were banned, and he finally emigrated to Switzerland in 1938. In 1940, he moved to the U.S. to teach at Yale University, where he founded the Collegium Musicum, one of the first American ensembles devoted to early music performance practice. In 1949 he returned to Switzerland to accept a teaching post at the University of Zürich. He passed away suddenly in Frankfurt in 1963, having retired from teaching six years earlier.

Hindemith’s theoretical studies led him to assert that the dominance of the tonal system had a strong foundation in the natural world, based on the naturally occurring overtone series of a standing wave. Due to the preponderance of tonality in his music and his outspoken criticism of avant-garde practices, he had relatively little influence on compositional thought in the second half of the twentieth century. Younger composers dismissed him as reactionary; however, he has continued to be one of the most often performed twentieth-century composers. His sonatas for nearly every orchestral instrument are cornerstones of the repertoire.

Although Hindemith’s early performing career was on the violin, the viola emerged as his favorite instrument, and he was known as a first-rate violist. In 1936 he was engaged to perform his Schwanendreher Concerto in London, but his arrival unfortunately coincided with the death of King George V. The light, upbeat work was deemed inappropriate, and in six hours he replaced it with Trauermusik, unapologetically borrowing material from both Schwanendreher and Mathis der Maler. Hindemith was surprised to learn that the chorale he used at the end of the piece, known to him as “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit,” was known ubiquitously in Great Britain as “The Old Hundredth.”

--Gabriel Langfur

Firebird Suite No. 3
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Stravinsky's most popular work (which he himself sometimes referred to as “that great audience lollipop”), The Firebird was written for the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev. Despairing of receiving the work on time from the original recipient of the commission, Anatol Liadov--whose response to an inquiry on his progress was the less-than-encouraging “Fine, I've even bought some manuscript paper”--Diaghilev turned to an obscure young composer, Igor Stravinsky. It was a brilliant choice, and Diaghilev’s remark when he got the score (on time!) shows that he knew the student of Rimsky-Korsakov would be famous. He said, “Mark him well. He is a man on the eve of celebrity.”

Three concert suites were later extracted from the full ballet. The third suite, published in 1945, uses a substantial orchestra but is not as “wastefully large” (Stravinsky’s words) as the first suite. It includes more of the original ballet numbers than either of the first two suites. The music is remarkable for its lush Romanticism, striking melodies, and gorgeous orchestration. In general, the human participants in the story are depicted diatonically while the supernatural beings are given a magical chromaticism characteristic of oriental music. The traditional Russian legend is told as follows:

I. Introduction; Prelude and Dance of the Firebird; Variations. In the ogre Kastchei’s magic garden, the Tsarevich Ivan encounters the Firebird, a strange creature who is half bird and half woman. The composer paints a picture of the fluttering dips and curves of her flight as she dances around a tree that yields the golden apples which are the secret of eternal youth.

II. Pantomime I. A brief depiction of Ivan’s capture of the Firebird.

III. Pas de deux. Once captured, the Firebird becomes a gentle, tender, pleading creature, depicted in beautiful, sustained melodic lines for violas and woodwinds. In return for her release, she gives Ivan one of her fiery plumes as a pledge to come to his aid should he need it.

IV. Pantomime II. A brief orchestral passage depicting the entrance of the thirteen enchanted princesses.

V. Scherzo: Dance of the Princesses. The airy grace of the princesses as they play with the golden apples is portrayed by the quicksilver darting of woodwinds and delicate strings.

VI. Pantomime III. The music describes the sudden appearance of Ivan to the princesses. He immediately falls in love with one of them, named Tsarevna.

VII. Rondo. The princesses, who are prisoners under the spell of Kastchei’s magic, engage in a round dance, which uses melodies in the vein of Russian folk songs. Piccolo and flutes anticipate a theme that is later transformed with glittering pomp for the finale. At the end the music fades into silence like a dream.

VIII. Infernal Dance. A tremendous chord launches the ogre Kastchei and his demons into their final evil gyrations. (Syncopated rhythms and clashing harmonies seem at times to foreshadow the Rite of Spring!) The ogre plans to turn the intruder to stone, but Ivan summons the Firebird with his magic feather, and she drives the monsters into a frenzied dance, exhausting them.

IX. Lullaby. The Firebird sings a berceuse which sends Kastchei and his court into a deep sleep. The bassoon sings a beguiling melody, strings whisper tremolos, and a solo horn echoes the princesses’ flute melody heard earlier.

X. Final Hymn. The Firebird reveals to Ivan the magic egg that is the secret of Kastchei’s immortality and power. Ivan smashes it and Kastchei dies. As daylight returns, the princesses are freed and Ivan takes Tsarevna’s hand. The whole orchestra exults in a song of deliverance, and a mighty procession of brass chords ends the fairy tale.