Program Notes

Two Rivers String Quartet “Contrasting Passions” Jan.13, 2108

Bedřich Smetana
(Born near Prague in 1824; died in Prague (Czech Republic) in 1884)

String Quartet No. 1 in E-minor, “Z mého, zivota” (“From My Life”), JB 1:105
1. Allegro vivo appassionato
2. Allegro moderato à la Polka
3. Largo sostenuto
4. Vivace

Smetana is revered as the Father of Nationalist Czech music (or Bohemian music, as it was called in his day). He dedicated his life to creating such music, beginning with operas whose themes were conspicuously nationalistic, and branching out into purely instrumental works with Bohemian folk roots.

Smetana’s life was filled with sadness and disappointments: his first wife died of tuberculosis, several of his children died in infancy, and his work was constantly harangued and harshly judged. But probably the cruelest blow of all came in 1874 when he began to lose his hearing because of syphilis and became completely deaf within just a few months.

Though he continued to compose after that – his later works included his seminal “Má Vlast” (“My Homeland”) with its wildly popular movement The Moldau – Smetana began turning inward in 1876 to fashion what was initially a purely private piece of music. This was his groundbreaking String Quartet No. 1, subtitled “From My Life.” It was eventually premiered in 1879 and published soon after.

Part of what was groundbreaking about this Quartet was Smetana’s autobiographical approach. This kind of approach was not only novel for the time but also highly influential on composers who followed. And because the Quartet gleams so brightly with Bohemian character and loveable melodies – the opening theme alone is one of the most dramatic musical sequences in the quartet genre – the work is a genuine masterpiece.

Smetana later wrote a description of this Quartet for a friend, describing its autobiographical background and its musical details as follows. The description is infused with a profound sense of sadness:

My intention was to paint a tone picture of my life. The first movement depicts my youthful leanings toward art, the Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning of my future misfortune . . . The long insistent note in the finale owes its origin to this. It is the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which in 1874 announced the beginning of my deafness. I permitted myself this little joke, because it was so disastrous to me. The second movement, a quasi- polka, brings to mind the joyful days of youth when I composed dance tunes and was known everywhere as a passionate lover of dancing. The third movement . . . reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my wife. The fourth movement describes the discovery that I could treat national elements in music and my joy in following this path until it was checked by the catastrophe of the onset of my deafness, the outlook into the sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery, but remembering all the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret.

Felix Mendelssohn
(Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1809; died in Leipzig, Germany in 1847)

String Quartet No 4 in E-minor, Op. 44, No. 2
1. Allegro assai appassionato
2. Scherzo: Allegro di molto
3. Andante
4. Presto agitato

Between 1837 and 1838 Mendelssohn wrote a set of three string quartets which he grouped as Opus 44 and then slightly revised in 1839. Only 28 years old when he began these works, Mendelssohn was already regarded as a great composer and virtuoso pianist and he was beginning to achieve further fame as a conductor and music historian. He had also just married Cécile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud, a charming French woman who delighted him. This was a period of great stability and happiness for Mendelssohn and these three string quartets eloquently reflect those grand and sweet times. The second of the three quartets (the E-minor quartet featured in tonight’s concert) pays particular homage to Mendelssohn’s love for Cécile as he wrote it during their honeymoon.

The E-minor quartet is also a magical testament to Mendelssohn’s unique ability to blend the Classical sensibilities of Mozart with the stormy undercurrents of the Romantic period. Combining fleet terseness and tenderness, the first movement’s initial theme is one of Mendelssohn’s finest achievements in this regard. It opens with a pulsing syncopation in the two middle strings, creating a disturbance of energy and furtiveness. The first violin then soars upwards in a simultaneously confident yet aching theme, the tempo continually pushing forward, setting the stage for the great music-making that follows.

The second movement is a scherzo, quick-silvered to the extreme and absolutely crackling with electricity. The third movement is Mendelssohn’s love song to Cécile, with a gorgeous and simple tune in Mendelssohn’s beloved “song without words” style. But importantly, the theme’s accompaniment is continually undulating, creating a kind of lazy perpetual motion that never allows for full contentment (and Mendelssohn’s directions to the performers asks that they “never allow the tempo to drag”). The final movement is a remarkable musical reckoning of the former three movements, blending beautiful, romantic themes with forward thrust. Midway through the movement, in an unexpected bow to one of his musical heroes, J.S. Bach, Mendelssohn gives a lovely hymn tune to the first violin while the rest of the quartet’s players hand off restless musical fragments to each other. The finale then turns urgent as the quartet races toward its bracing, final chords, bringing one of Mendelssohn’s great works to a close.

––Program notes © Max Derrickson

Two Rivers Chamber Orchestra, Joyful Noise, Nov. 18, 2017

Robert Schumann
(Born in Zwickau, Germany in 1810; died in Endenich, Germany in 1856)

Traümerai, No. 7 from Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (Arranged for String Orchestra)

During Schumann’s life, the Romantic period in music was just coming into its own, creating music that favored expressiveness and emotion as the essence of Art. Schumann sometimes described it as making music out of pictures, by which he meant the pictures made by words as much as by paint. Indeed, those whom Schumann considered his artistic heroes included Lord Byron along with Beethoven. The son of a bookseller who had fostered a love of literature in his children, the young Schumann was as well versed in prose as he was music, and his love for words and thoughts deeply informed his composing.

Schumann began his musical career hoping to become a piano virtuoso, and thus much of his early works were composed for piano. This is also how he met the love of his life, Clara Wieck, whose father was Schumann’s renowned piano teacher. A virtuoso’s career never materialized for Schumann, but Clara became his artistic muse, and then in 1840, his wife.

The year 1838 was a particularly wonderful year for Schumann’s piano compositions and Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”), in particular, was inspired by Clara. Kinderszenen’s set of 13 pieces were meant to evoke the magic of childhood as remembered by an adult—a sublimely sophisticated approach—and each scene in the set bore a very deliberately chosen title. The intimacy of emotion that Schumann captures in these vignettes was something that he had an uncanny talent for and which can be found in much of his work. The scene titled “Traümerai” may be his greatest achievement in this regard, and it serves as the emotional anchor of the whole set of Kinderszenen.

Typically translated as “Dreaming” or “Reverie,” Traümerai captures a child’s dreaming with its innocence and naiveté, tinged with that bittersweetness of an adult reverie on a childhood long past. The work is in the form of a simple song, but what makes it uniquely beautiful is how Schumann manipulates the harmonies below its repeating, lovely melody. By simply changing a few notes, Schumann transforms sweet contentment into wistful yearning, shifting between innocent childhood and nostalgic adulthood. And like many masterpieces, Traümerai is as meltingly beautiful arranged for strings, or any instrument, as it is on piano.

The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz, later in his rich and long concertizing life, became extremely fond of playing Traümerai as one of his encores. Hardly a typical encore piece, Horowitz simply adored Traümerai and played it anyway—and it never failed to please. Probably no performer ever gave it more publicity than Horowitz, especially in what was likely one of the most famous recitals in modern times. After decades of being an ex-patriot in America during the Cold War, the native-Russian-turned-American-citizen Horowitz went back to Moscow in 1986 to give several recitals and “see his homeland one last time,” and to be, as he described it, an “ambassador of beauty.” Welcomed like a heroic Prodigal son, Horowitz was received with wide-open arms by his Soviet audience. His recital in Moscow was televised, of course, and received top billing in both Russia and the United States. Horowitz played Schumann’s lovely Traümerai as one of this recital’s encores, because, as he said, “It may look simple on the page, but it is a masterpiece.” The work’s simplicity and deep beauty spoke volumes on the world stage then, just as it does now, and just as it always has since Schumann first wrote it almost two-centuries ago.

Sergei Prokofiev
(Born in Sontskova, Ukraine in 1891; died in Moscow in 1953)

Violin Concerto No. 2 in G-minor, Op. 63
1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante assai
3. Allegro ben marcato

Prokofiev’s marvelous, somewhat quixotic, Violin Concerto No. 2 bears the tell-tale signs of a composer in transition, both ideologically and geographically. It was commissioned for the Belgian violin virtuoso Robert Soetens (1897-1997) by a group of the violinist’s admirers and the work was completed and premiered in 1935. At the time, Prokofiev had been gradually repatriating himself back to Moscow after more than two decades of building his career in the West as a composer, conductor and pianist. He was also evolving musically, shedding some of the ferocious modernism of his former years and actively embracing the new Soviet musical aesthetic of simplicity and lyricism. The Second Violin Concerto was composed in many places while Prokofiev wrapped up his touring life. As he recalled in his autobiography, the first theme of the first movement was written in Paris, the main theme of the second in Voronezh, the orchestration was completed in Baku, and then the premiere took place in Madrid. And the music itself is equally peripatetic, harboring multiple personalities: lyricism, anxiety, sarcasm, naiveté, and wildness, all alongside a hint that, given the right nudge, all hell might just break loose.

The Concerto is also incredibly important in Prokofiev’s evolution as a composer. Immediately after this piece was completed he set to work on two of his greatest achievements: the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and Symphony No. 5, which are also two of the 20th Century’s masterpieces. The lyricisms found in the ballet—those exotic, charming melodies—appear to have had the Violin Concerto as their drawing board. Certainly, the beautiful theme in the Concerto’s second movement Andante foretells those splendid love moments between the two star-cross’d lovers. Likewise, the massive sonic canvases that occasionally take over the Concerto seem to have gotten fully worked out in the Fifth Symphony. The percussive color that is so richly displayed in the Symphony is so indulged in the Concerto that the latter might rightly be considered a Concerto for Violin, Bass Drum and Orchestra during its first and third movements. In addition, the castanets that accompany the main violin theme in the Concerto’s third movement seem to have set the stage for the Fifth Symphony’s delicious percussion extravagance in its scherzo movement.

There are many curious and exciting moments in this Concerto, from the Concerto’s dark and longing opening theme, through the soaring and pure melody of the second movement, to the witty and sarcastically jangled dance-like third movement. It is the violinist who must give the Concerto’s many personalities their fair voice, and whose virtuosity must shine through in its splendidly challenging technical passages. We, as an audience, get to enjoy thereby one of the most original and fun masterpieces of Prokofiev’s great career.

Ludwig van Beethoven
(Born in Bonn in 1770; died in Vienna in 1827)

Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92
1. Poco sostenuto – Vivace
2. Allegretto
3. Presto – Assai meno Presto
4. Allegro con brio

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is undeniably one of the most beloved symphonies ever written, and its famous second movement is one of those rare creations that seem to appear once a century. That it is arguably Beethoven’s most skillfully realized symphony and composed at the height of his melodic abilities only partially explain what is so inspiring about this extraordinary work. What has truly enraptured listeners throughout two centuries is its infectious exuberance and joyful intensity.

The slow Introduction to the first movement, with its broad swashes of colorful chords and its strident woodwind lines descending between them, may seem to be a lovely reverie in luxuriant sonority. But in fact this Introduction establishes two important parameters that will define the entire symphony: mood and rhythm. While we are basking in a feeling of regality and gladness, the Introduction’s scalar patterns and lengthy sets of repeated notes are laying the groundwork for an extraordinary moment which will define the symphony’s rhythm. At the bridge between the Introduction and the Exposition (the fast, main section of the movement), harmony and melody quickly evaporate, leaving the winds and the strings trading notes. This leaves us in an absolutely static moment of simple rhythm, but one which inventively morphs into the new, delightful skipping rhythm of the Exposition’s first main theme. Though the rest of the movement spans a fairly vast amount of melodic and harmonic ground, this new morphed rhythm remains persistent throughout nearly every measure. Uninhibited by Beethoven’s usual struggle between Fate and triumph, this movement and its persistent, carefree rhythm evoke a mood of genuine ebullience. It allows, as well, for the energy to steadily intensify until the ending coda arrives, where, as the basses start welling up like sea surges, the horns proclaim the theme for the last time in a manner so glorious it sets nerves of joy ablaze.

The second movement Allegretto is a work of such otherworldly mastery and beauty, it is impossible not to be swept into its realms. This movement, too, revolves much around a persistent and simple rhythmic motif: a two-bar phrase of a quarter note, followed by two eighth notes and then two quarter notes. But where the first movement’s rhythm acted as an engine, the rhythm here in the Allegretto performs as an emotional transporter. The effect is ingenious. The movement starts with a solitary, solemn chord which is then followed by a rather skeletal melody upon the simple rhythmic motif. From here, an extraordinary set of variations begin: the rhythm gently propelling us through increasingly more beautiful and mysterious layers, absorbing us into haunting contours of sublime beauty. And then, the rhythm calmly brings us back. As the musical layers peel away, the rhythm also begins to falter, until we find ourselves back to the solemn chord with which the movement began.

The third movement scherzo, Presto, begins in a blaze of animation and with a rhythmical pattern taken from the static metamorphosis in the first movement. The energetic intensity of this music is greater than most of Beethoven’s former scherzos, and its contrasting middle section, the Trio, also builds into a more powerful air than its usual relaxed role. Although the Trio’s theme is believed to be based on an old Austrian hymn, it is hardly treated as such. For example, the famous and powerful moment near the middle of the Trio when the horns begin a syncopated, half-step warbling, building up incredible tension, until the exalted phrase of the hymn is joyfully released by the strings, trumpets and timpani. The movement ends with the Presto firmly reestablishing its quick-stepped pace.

The Finale continues the breezy and frenetic nature of the Scherzo but at an astonishingly higher intensity and with extraordinary vitality. The first two short phrases provide much of what, again, will be a persistent rhythm throughout the movement, and then the first theme essentially begins a rollicking and steady descent into joyful lunacy. In a sense, the entire Finale serves as a coda to the entire symphony, finalizing the work’s joyful theme with a nearly uncontrollable elation. The conductor and musicologist Donald Francis Tovey called it a “triumph of bacchic fury,” and it is indeed one of the most wonderfully energetic utterances ever created, steeped in joyous vigor and triumphal gladness.

As enshrined as one of Western music’s greatest masterpieces as Beethoven’s Seventh has become, the circumstances of its first public performance makes for a wonderfully ironic historical footnote. The Seventh was premiered in December 1813, along with Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony and his curious “Wellington’s Victory” (“Battle Symphony”). The concert was held to benefit Austrian and Bavarian soldiers disabled at the Battle of Hanau against Napoleon. The affair was organized by Johannes Maelzel, inventor of the metronome and (among other peculiar devices) the panharmonicon, a humongous mechanical orchestra. Maelzel persuaded Beethoven to compose a symphonic work for his contraption for the concert, which resulted in “Wellington’s Victory” (which commemorated a recent Napoleonic defeat in Vitoria, Spain). Once the contraption inevitably broke, Beethoven hurriedly wrote the parts out for a real orchestra. Even more unique about the work, however, is that it also employed live cannon and musket fire in time with the music (long before Tchaikovsky’s own “1812 Overture”). Even more extraordinary, was that participating in its performance were such luminaries as the composers Hummel, Meyerbeer, Spohr, Moscheles and Salieri. The “Battle Symphony” was hands-down the unabashed hit of the evening, leaving the two other symphonies in the shadows. However, even in 1813, the Seventh’s ethereal Allegretto movement made an impression, as the audience demanded that it be encored.

 

Two Rivers Brass Quintet – Concert on the Lawn: June 25, 2017

Eric Ewazen

(Born in Cleveland, Ohio on March 1, 1954)

A Western Fanfare

Ewazen is one America’s finest living composers. He studied composition with a handful of the 20th Century’s most important composers (Samuel Adler, Milton Babbitt and Gunther Schuller, to name a few) at the Eastman School of Music and the Julliard School. He has remained an important figure in the New York City scene and teaches composition at Julliard.

Ewazen began writing more and more for brass instruments from the 1990’s onwards, and many of his commissions feature brass. “A Western Fanfare” is one such commission. It was requested by the Music Academy of the West (Santa Barbara, California) in 1997 for their 50th Anniversary. Ewazen responded with a fanfare for a brass orchestra and percussion, which he soon afterwards arranged for brass quintet. It’s meant to be celebratory, and it bursts with energy and pride. It’s also extremely fun and a bit devilish to perform.

Surprisingly, perhaps, for a 20th to 21st Century composer, Ewazen is unregretful in his tonal approach to music because, as he says, it’s “the language that speaks to me.” But tonality also speaks wonderfully to audiences and performers, and he believes that when a performer gets excited about a piece of music, he or she will really “sell” it to the audience. “A Western Fanfare” is one of those kinds of pieces: exciting, lyrical and tonal, wonderfully “brassy” and fresh. This concert’s performers will have no trouble “selling” it and listeners will want to hear more of Ewazen’s great pieces.


Anonymous

Sonata from “Die Bankelsangerlieder” (c. 1684, Germany)

As composer Eric Ewazen pointed out in a 1994 interview, the Renaissance period witnessed the flourishing of works composed for brass instruments. Most notable was the antiphonal music of Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1553-6 – 1612) in Italy, and as the Renaissance spread throughout Europe, so did its musical designs. Near the end of this epoch in the late 17th Century, Germany was at its own Renaissance height and a group of unattributed vocal works called “Die Bankelsangerlieder” was published. At the very end of the collection was this “Sonata” scored for five brass instruments.

The Renaissance term “bankelsanger” referred to a travelling singer, otherwise known as a “troubadour” in Renaissance France, who made his living by standing on a bench in taverns and singing for his supper. The term “Sonata” came from the Italian word “sonare” which simply meant “to sound” or “play” – a precursor form to what became the fugue and later the classical sonata form we know from Mozart and Haydn. The anonymous Sonata that’s included in today’s program is a remarkable piece because of its energy and brass sonorities. Notable also is its within-group antiphonal playing that sounds like a “Call and Response” – a technique that clearly prefigures the fugues soon to come in the Baroque era. This Sonata is timeless, too, in its beauty. Indeed, it has remained so popular that most listeners have probably heard it before without knowing its title, and yet it never grows old for performers or listeners alike.


Leonard Bernstein

(Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1918; died in New York City in 1990)

Selections from West Side Story/arranged by Jack Gale

1. Prologue

2. Something’s Comin’

3. Maria

4. Tonight

5. America

6. I Feel Pretty

7. Somewhere

Like many composers before him – Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Gounod and Berlioz, just to name some of the more famous – the American composer Leonard Bernstein was attracted to Shakespeare’s tale of tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.  Bernstein’s first musical vision for this tragedy of “star-cross’d lovers” began by imagining the feuding parties as Catholics and Jews in the lower East side of New York’s Manhattan during Passover and Easter. It then eventually morphed into a musical focused on Puerto Rican and Anglo street gangs in the city’s upper West Side. This contemporary scenario was perfectly suited for Shakespeare’s tale of woe, and Bernstein hoped it would awaken the public’s awareness to what some called New York City’s “War zone” of the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

But even without the “story,” the music to West Side Story is undeniably Bernstein’s masterpiece. In the honored tradition of classical composing from Mozart to Mahler, motives and just a few themes are the driving force for the whole work, and they give the music an extraordinary cohesiveness. That and Bernstein’s uncanny ability to absorb musical genres, which is heard in the jazz and Latin-feel that pervades the score, make the work both contemporary and ageless, from the swinging coolness in the “Prologue” to the popping, ethnic cross-rhythms in “America.” Bernstein’s greatest strdength, though, was his understanding that a beautiful tune always wins the day, and in this work he magically created some of America’s most cherished songs. Many of these songs are heard in our program’s excellent brass quintet arrangement: “Maria,” “Tonight” and a wonderful brass-chorale rendition of “Somewhere.”


John Cheetham

(Born in Taos, New Mexico in 1939)

Scherzo

Cheetham was born and raised in America’s Midwest, and he has essentially remained there all of his life, save for PhD studies at the University of Washington. He served as Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the University of Missouri (Columbia) from 1969 – 2000. Because of this background, he might be even more “American” than Aaron Copland (Copeland was long considered the Dean of American composers until his death but he was actually more of a “New York city boy” than Cheetham).  And Cheetham’s music reflects his middle-America sentiments – libertarian, unapologetically conservative, singable melodies and bracing rhythms. Such is his Scherzo for brass quintet.

Like composer Eric Ewazen, Cheetham writes equally for the performer as well as the listener. His Scherzo is quick-paced and catchy, and is thorny to play with its changing meters and rhythms. However, the musical delights are very much worth the performers’ effort. The main tune is something you’ll find yourself humming or whistling on the way home from the concert; as Cheetam says, “a good tune goes a long way.” In a recent e-mail exchange with Cheetham, he described his Scherzo as follows:

“[The Scherzo] was written in 1962 during my senior year at the University of New Mexico for a faculty quintet teaching at a UNM summer music camp. Through no fault of my own, it immediately became popular and was published and recorded by 1964. Its simple ternary design and tuneful melodies make it easily accessible.”


Johann Sebastian Bach

(Born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685; died in Leipzig, Germany in 1750)

Contrapunctus IX, “alla duodecima,”
from The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080

As Bach entered the last decade of his life, he renewed his interest in keyboard music and especially counterpoint, or the way in which fugues are made and how musical themes can be manipulated. In this decade, he began his ultimate offering to musical counterpoint – a series of fugues and canons all derived out a single musical theme – The Art of the Fugue. He worked on this series for 10 years but never finished it. His son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, gathered, titled and published it in 1751 just after his father’s death.

The Art of the Fugue may well be Bach’s seminal work. It contains 14 fugues and four canons, all in D-minor, arranged in increasing difficulty. These pieces are, as Bach historian Christoph Wolff has observed, “an exploration … of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.” That “single subject” is disarming in its simplicity but it is nevertheless rich seed material for Bach’s fugal explorations that follow. Instead of calling them “counterpoint(s),” Bach preferred the Latin word “Contrapunctus.” Number IX (9) is a study of turning that simple subject into a new derivation and into a double fugue (two themes treated as a fugue at the interval of a twelfth, thus the subtitle “alla duodecima”). Bach then adds the original “single subject” fugue theme into the mix as an additional subject. Always a masterpiece, this Contrapunctus becomes especially spirited and extremely powerful when performed by a brass quintet.


Victor Ewald

(Born in St. Petersburg in 1860; died in Leningrad in 1935)

Brass Quintet No.1 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 5 

1. Moderato – Più mosso

2. Adagio non troppo lento – Allegro vivace – Tempo I – Adagio

3. Allegro moderato

Brass ensembles of every imaginable sort were a big part of Russia’s musical history, but it was Victor Ewald who established the nation’s first works for brass quintet with four exceptional works written between 1888 and 1912. Quintet No. 1 was published in 1890 and since then has remained in the genre’s performing repertoire as a huge favorite with performers and audiences.

Ewald was a civil engineer by trade but a serious musician by avocation. He wasn’t one of the “Russian Five” (Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, etc.), the Russian Nationalist musicians, but he was very close in their orbit. He often played chamber music with them, in sessions that came to be known as “Friday Evenings,” and he was an integral part of their musical discussions. He wrote his four quintets essentially for these chamber music gatherings and he himself played the bass part which was equivalent to the tuba part you will hear in our performance.

Ewald’s Quintet No. 1 is challenging to play, packed with fantastic melodies, and has a wonderful “Russian-ness” – that indescribable sound, dark and rich and melancholic.  And fittingly, for the performer/composer Ewald, the opening theme played on the tuba exemplifies that very special sound. Later in the third movement, a lovely Russian-folksong theme emerges that would have made his Nationalist musician friends proud.  Although Ewald never tackled the larger orchestral genres, he could well have been considered the “Russian Sixth” based on the wealth of lyricism and inventiveness filling his delightful Quintet No. 1.

Program Notes ©Max Derrickson