Friday, April 13, 2012

Program notes: April 28

The Vermont Symphony completes its 2011/2012 Masterworks series on Saturday, April 28 at the Flynn Center in Burlington. The program begins with a beautiful piece commissioned by a consortium of 35 American orchestras, and inspired by Galileo’s book, Sidereus Nuncius, (Starry Messenger). Another star, pianist Alon Goldstein, is back with us by popular demand. He solos in an evocative work based on the popular music of Andalusia—including a zarzuela melody from a street violinist in Madrid. The sounds of festivals and dances is evoked by effects peculiar to Spanish folk instruments. The 2011/2012 Masterworks season concludes with Shostakovich’s first symphony, which he wrote at the tender age of 19 as a final exam thesis at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Needless to say, he passed! And was catapulted into fame as his first masterpiece swept his reputation through the musical capitals of the world. Keep reading for the program notes.

Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)

“Without Paris I would have remained in Madrid submerged and forgotten,” said de Falla, who spent seven years in the French capital in the company of such composers as Debussy, Dukas, Albéniz, and Fauré. In 1909, he began a series of solo piano pieces titled Nocturnes. Albeniz and pianist Ricardo Vines persuaded him to score the music for piano and orchestra.
Returning to Spain in 1914, de Falla continued to revise what he now called Nights in the Gardens of Spain, first in Barcelona, and later at the home of Catalan painter Santiago Rusinol in the coastal fishing village of Sitges. Some say the music was inspired by Rusinol’s paintings of Spanish gardens. The first performance was given on April 9, 1916, by the Madrid Symphony Orchestra.

The influence of the impressionism of de Falla’s French friends—composers, poets, and artists—seems clear. Subtitled “Symphonic impressions for piano and orchestra,” the work has three movements, each bearing its own subtitle. The first, “In the Generalife,” refers to the jasmine-scented gardens surrounding the fourteenth century summer palace built by the Moors near the Alhambra in Granada. The opening seminal theme is virtually identical to a zarzuela melody by Amadeo Vives. Both musicians had lived in the same house in Madrid where an old blind violinist played the tune in the street below.

“The mere enumeration of the titles should be sufficient guide to the hearer,” said de Falla. “The music has no pretensions to being descriptive: it is merely expressive. But sometimes more than the sounds of festivals and dances has inspired these evocations in sound, for melancholy and mystery have their part also…. The composer has followed a definite design, regarding tonal, rhythmical and thematic material…. The end for which it was written is no other than to evoke places, sensations, and sentiments…. The themes employed are based on the rhythms, modes, cadences and ornamental figures which distinguish the popular music of Andalusia, though they are rarely used in their original forms. The orchestration frequently employs certain effects peculiar to the popular instruments used in those parts of Spain.”

Biographer Jaime Pahissa describes the three movements: “The first is pure atmosphere—all soft and languid orchestral sounds with pleasing chords and a short simple melodic theme like the primitive songs which are so deeply rooted in man’s daily life, in his prayers, street cries, lullabies, and childhood songs. The second (Distant Dance), which is distant and dreamlike at the outset, develops and grows more animated, passing without pause to the third (In the Gardens of the Sierra de Cordoba). This final movement is strongly rhythmical, but even so ends in a melancholy vein. All three movements contain two characteristic aspects of Andalusian music, alternating as they do between a vague nostalgic quality and brisk, exciting rhythms.”

Osvaldo Golijov (1960 - )

An interview with the composer...

How did you come to be chosen to compose a piece for the Henry Fogel Commissioning Consortium? When did you learn about it?

The League of American Orchestras put this project together back in 2008 to honor Henry Fogel. I learned, I think, through Linda Golding. I like and respect Henry Fogel, so I accepted the project.

What is your relationship to Henry Fogel?

I know the work he did in Chicago and the League, and was always impressed with his mind, his longterm thinking, his love for what orchestras represent in our society, and his wisdom in helping orchestras not only to survive but to thrive, through strategies that are specific to each of the orchestras’ communities and conditions. We did a public talk in Chicago a few years ago, and I found his questions about my music thought provoking.

What does the title, Sidereus, refer to?

A book by Galileo: Sidereus Nuncius or "Sidereal Messenger.” (It’s more commonly translated as "Starry Messenger" but to me the word “sidereal” is more beautiful.) He wrote it after observing the moon for the first time with the telescope. He also discovered Jupiter's moons, and started to get into trouble with the Vatican because of the incontrovertible evidence of the intelligent observation.

What ideas are behind the piece? Is the celestial reference in the title reflected structurally or harmonically?

The realizations of Galileo referred to the new discoveries in the surface of the moon. With these discoveries, the moon was no longer the province of poets exclusively. It had also become an object of inquiry: Could there be water there? Life? If there was life, then the Vatican was scared, because, as Cardinal Bellarmino wrote to Galileo: How were the people there created? How would their souls be saved? What do we do about Adam? Wasn't he supposed to be the first man? How do we explain the origin of possible life elsewhere? What about his rib? It’s the duality: the moon is still good for love and lovers and poets, but a scientific observation can lead us to entirely new realizations.

I’d say it’s the same with Van Gogh's self-portraits; they are both incredibly expressive and pure in pattern. You see that those same brushstrokes that delve into the depths of human experience and questions also reflect the patterns of galaxies, nebulae, and exploding supernovae.

In Sidereus, the melodies and the harmony are simple, so they can reveal more upon closer examination. For the “Moon” theme I used a melody with a beautiful, open nature, a magnified scale fragment that my good friend and longtime collaborator, accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman came up with some years ago when we both were trying to come up with ideas for a musical depiction of the sky in Patagonia. I then looked at that theme as if through the telescope and under the microscope, so that the textures, the patterns from which the melody emerges and into which it dissolves, point to a more molecular, atomic reality. Like Galileo with the telescope, or getting close to Van Gogh's brushstrokes.

While many of your earlier works draw from both your Jewish and Argentinean heritage, Azul marked an expansion for you compositionally. Does Sidereus follow this change of direction?

More or less. Actually, I’d say yes, but in a simpler way than Azul. Azul has the harmonic variety, contrast, and development of a full concerto. Sidereus is an overture.

Many of your works are written with specific musicians in mind—Dawn Upshaw, the Schola Cantorum de Caracas—or are custom scored to include non-traditional instruments. But in this case, you were commissioned to write a piece for chamber orchestra—actually 35 chamber orchestras. How did this affect the composition process? What does it mean to write one piece to suit 35 different orchestras?

It certainly felt more abstract, writing a piece to be interpreted by 35 or more ensembles with different expectations, different audiences, different personalities. The challenge was trying to create something that would serve them all.

Were you in touch with any of the orchestras or individual musicians through the process?

Not really during the process, just at the end with Mei-Ann Chen, the Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. I have to say, she’s a great musician. I revised the opening section between Thursday's rehearsal and the dress, and she and the orchestra totally nailed it, great attitude and musicianship.

Typically following a world premiere there is a significant period for revisions but in this case the piece begins touring immediately after the premiere. How will this affect the revision process?

Well, I will tinker a little more with a dark theme that opens the piece and reappears in the middle. It’s sort of an ominous question mark that tears the fabric of a piece that is essentially spacious and breathes with a strange mixture of melancholy and optimism. I hope to make all revisions very soon, so that the tour can continue. (And so I can start work on my next piece!)

It is rare for any composer to have a piece interpreted by 35 orchestras in a lifetime, let alone within one year. Will you be traveling to any of the performances?

I wish I could. Apart from the premiere in Memphis, I will be relying mostly on performance recordings. But yes, this is a rather unusual honor to have a piece of my music performed by so many orchestras in such a short time.

Osvaldo Golijov interviewed by Sarah Baird Knight, 2010.

Symphony No. 1 in f minor, Op. 10
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Shostakovich completed his First Symphony in the spring of 1925 as the thesis for his final examination at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Few symphonies by unknown students have so swiftly made their way to the musical capitals of the world, or have so quickly established the reputations of their composers. The young composer wrote this early masterpiece under the most depressing conditions. His family had been reduced to dire poverty by the Revolution, and Dmitri himself had to undergo two operations for an inflamed gland in his neck. On the plus side, during his convalescence in the Crimea, he fell in love for the first time!

During 1926, the year of the symphony’s premiere, Shostakovich did not write a single note. A decade later he wrote, “I sensed that music was not merely combinations of sounds, arranged in a particular order, but an art capable of expressing the most varied ideas and feelings.” It would seem that he knew this quite well enough in his First Symphony. Although it is not without academic overtones, the work broke away from the world of textbook traditionalism and entered its own artistic realm. Commentators have of course noticed certain derivative elements, especially other Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. What is striking is the way in which the young composer’s individual voice comes across with consistent clarity. His professors were so impressed with the finished score that they helped Shostakovich with the printing fees.

Allegretto; Allegro non troppo. A two-part theme is presented in the brief introduction by solo muted trumpet and solo bassoon. Above a pizzicato figure in the cellos, the clarinet delivers a sardonic version of the same angular figure. Following a pause, the motivic activity is assigned to the strings. The tempo then begins to hurry toward the main body of the movement. This section begins with a jaunty tune in the clarinet. A second almost Tchaikovskian theme is introduced by the flute over a pizzicato string accompaniment. The rather turbulent development of the themes is concluded by a forceful restatement of the introductory material in the trumpets. The movement ends quietly with reflective passages in clarinet and cellos.

Allegro. The mercurial second movement is the modern counterpart of the traditional Scherzo. After the main theme is announced by the violins, the composer adds a piano to the orchestral forces, which promptly takes up the melody. The mood becomes more subdued with the arrival of the Trio section, in which two flutes play their melody under a pedal high E in the second violins. The brilliance of the main section returns and builds to a climax in which the brass superimpose the Trio theme against the rest of the orchestra. A quiet coda follows.

Lento; Largo. A melancholy oboe solo, accompanied by string tremolo, opens the movement. Solo cello, then violins, prepare the way for a slower section that emphasizes the lower voices. The rhythmic pulse is ambiguous and the resulting cross-rhythms provide a subtle underpinning to this melancholy interlude. Rumination upon the thematic material continues until a drum roll leads directly into the finale.

Allegro molto; Lento; Allegro molto. An explosive single measure of Allegro molto is followed by 29 measures of introduction. The main body of the movement begins with an exuberant theme played by solo clarinet. This agitated and exciting movement progresses through many changes of mood and pace, and includes solos for violin, horn, timpani, and cello. The solo timpani, triple forte, pounds forth with terrifying menace the regimented martial rhythm (now inverted) of the slow movement’s fanfare. Thematic transformations abound as the upper strings attempt to revive their vibrant melody, but a brash martial motif dominates, and brings the symphony to a close.