AUDIO FLASHBACK: Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite

Our second Audio Flashback this week comes from our 2017 performance of Béla Bartók‘s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite at the Fisher Center at Bard with conductor Leon Botstein. Debuting as a pantomime ballet in 1926, this risqué story caused such a urproar that it was suspended from production after the first performance! The concert suite has proven to be much more popular, and was performed by TŌN again last December with conductor Tan Dun. You can read the concert notes from our initial performance, written by former TŌN oboist Zachary Boeding, by clicking here.

AUDIO FLASHBACK: Beethoven’s The Consecration of the House Overture

Beethoven‘s The Consecration of the House Overture premiered 198 years ago this Saturday, at the opening of the new Theater in der Josephstadt in Vienna. The premiere went so well that Beethoven used this overture to open another concert, when he premiered his ninth symphony. Listen back to our performance of this overture this past February, under the baton of Leon Botstein at the Fisher Center at Bard. You can read the concert notes, written by former TŌN violinist Tianpei Ai, by clicking here

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

Notes by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector of the Bard Music Festival

In the summer of 1936, the 55-year-old Béla Bartók, having by then achieved considerable international fame as a performer, composer, and ethnomusicologist, tackled a formidable array of compositional challenges in his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, a work of astonishing synthesis, organicism, and technical brilliance. The synthesis is to be found in Bartók’s ability to integrate his profound knowledge of Western musical tradition, immediately evident in the fugue that opens the piece, with his pathbreaking research of folk music, not limited to the region of his native Hungary but extending farther afield to North Africa. The organicism of Music for Strings comes from the way in which a four-movement piece grows out of, and is also unified by, the melody that begins the work.

The Swiss conductor and music patron Paul Sacher commissioned the piece for the 10th anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, which premiered it in January 1937. Unlike Bartók’s other most famous orchestral work, the Concerto for Orchestra (1943), which gives many instrumentalists a chance to shine, the orchestral means are much more limited in this instance. Aside from the full string orchestra, which is divided into two equal groups on either side of the conductor with the basses in the back, there is a battery of percussion instruments as well as piano, harp, and celesta. The celesta is a keyboard instrument—it looks like a miniature upright piano— invented in the mid-19th century. (Tchaikovsky was the first famous composer to use it, in his ballet The Nutcracker.) Its hammers hit not tightly wound strings, as they do in a piano, but rather metal plates, producing a bright, tinkling sound.

Bartók began his First String Quartet (1908–09) with a slow fugue—successive entries of each of the string instruments in complex imitation. This was a clear homage to Beethoven, who started his late String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, the 6 same way. Bartók returned to the idea in Music for Strings, but took it to a greater extreme by making the entire first movement (Andante tranquillo) a slowly unfolding exploration of the opening theme; he recycles elements of the same melody in the following three movements as well. Muted violas begin by stating the fugal “subject,” a serpentine melody that slithers up and then back down. The range from highest note to lowest is extremely limited, with most pitches next to one another. The melody is chromatic, not diatonic, meaning that if it were played on the piano in C major it would use both white and black keys, not just the white ones. “Chromatic” derives from the Greek word for color, and this movement, even though primarily for strings, is nonetheless particularly colorful because of the inflections of the melodies.

The other strings imitate the viola’s lead, first violins then cellos, with these higher and lower instruments alternating back and forth around the anchoring violas in the middle. Because Bartók has divided the string orchestra into two groups, twice as many entrances are possible, which produces some striking antiphonal effects. The strings build in volume and density before percussion instruments enter to mark the movement’s climax; here the strings also take off the mutes and produce a fuller, more resonant tone. Bartók now inverts the fugal subject—what previously had crept up now creeps down, and vice versa. Indeed, at one moment Bartók has the two versions happening simultaneously, both the original contour of the theme and its inversion. At this same point the celesta makes its first appearance with glittering arpeggiated chords. What Bartók slowly built up from the unaccompanied violas beginning on the pitch A, winds down eventually to the violins playing that same note to conclude.

The following Allegro is a lively contrast, prepared by the slow opening movement. (The entire four-movement piece might be considered two slow-fast pairs, each one of roughly equal length.) The rhythmic profile may remind one of Stravinsky’s music and the percussion instruments, piano, harp, and celesta all become more prominent. A single pitch, F, repeated on the xylophone begins the Adagio, an atmospheric movement that many commentators describe as nocturnal. Bartók uses his beloved arch form (ABCBA) with a cascading harp, piano, and celesta passage in the middle. The xylophone also closes the movement. The final Allegro molto is a dance-like movement that most obviously projects a folk character. Unlike the chromaticism of the first movement, this one has simple diatonic tunes that build to a mighty conclusion.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Symphonie concertante in G Major, Op. 13

Notes by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector of the Bard Music Festival

The illegitimate son of Nanon, a Senegalese slave, and George Bologne, a plantation owner in the South Caribbean, Joseph Bologne benefited from opportunities, experiences, and an elite education that allowed his multiple gifts, not limited to musical ones, to thrive. Among the many gaps in biographical information about him is when he was born, perhaps on Christmas Day in 1745, on a small island in the archipelago of Guadeloupe. After being falsely accused of murder, George fled to France with his family, taking along Nanon and their young son.

The talent that first brought the teenage Joseph attention was in athletics, most notably fencing, which proved an entrée into high society and led King Louis XV to name him the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. While not much is known of his musical training, by his mid-20s he was playing in the newly formed Concert des Amateurs. He soon became concertmaster, eventually music director, and helped elevate the orchestra to one of the continent’s best. In 1772 he was featured soloist with the ensemble performing his technically challenging violin concertos, Op. 2. The pace of his composing increased, primarily instrumental music, including string quartets, sonatas, violin concertos, and ten symphonies concertantes, a new Parisian genre. Pieces dedicated to him by prominent musicians of the time, including Antonio Lolli, François-Joseph Gossec, and Carl Stamitz, suggest the high esteem in which he was held. In a diary entry from May 1779, John Adams (the future American president, who had just completed duty as Envoy to France) called him “the most Accomplished man in Europe in riding, running, dancing, music.”

When Saint-Georges began to switch his energies to composing operas he faced obstacles in that arena due to racist singers who objected to having to “submit to the orders of a mulatto.” After the Concert des Amateurs folded for financial reasons, Saint-Georges joined the Concert de la Loge Olympique, the orchestra that commissioned Haydn’s six so-called Paris symphonies, of which he helped arrange the premieres. His career continued to mix athletics and music, and added military service amidst the French Revolution, joining the National Guard and for some 18 months being a prisoner during the Reign of Terror.

The designation symphonie concertante (or sinfonia concertante in Italian) gives a good idea of its form: a combination of symphony and concerto. The genre was popular in the late-18th and early-19th centuries and to some extent derived from the earlier Baroque concerto grosso. Part symphony, part concerto (more the latter), such pieces prominently offer two, three, four, or more soloists who relate to one 5 another to a greater degree than to the full ensemble. The prominence and independence of the soloists are central. In Saint-Georges’ two-movement Symphonie Concertante in G Major, Op. 13, there are two violin soloists. Mozart wrote several such pieces, the most famous being in E-flat major (K. 364) featuring violin and viola, which biographer Gabriel Banat believes owes a debt to Saint-Georges. The two composers lived in the same house in Paris in 1778 and must have known each other’s music.

AUDIO FLASHBACK: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich was born 114 years ago this Friday. Today we’re revisiting our 2019 performance of his Tenth Symphony, under the baton of Leon Botstein. This piece spans a wide range of emotions, from the brooding, searching quality of the opening of the first movement, to the drive of the second movement, and the ominous clock-ticking of the third movement. Read the concert notes, written by TŌN cellist Lucas Button, by clicking here.

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings

Notes by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector, Bard Music Festival

By the fall of 1880, when the 40-year-old Tchaikovsky wrote his Serenade for Strings, he was an internationally celebrated composer with symphonies, concertos, operas, and a great variety of other pieces to his credit. He was at work on two compositions that could hardly have been more different: the soothing Serenade and the showy “1812 Overture,” now beloved at Fourth of July concerts and other ceremonial occasions. Tchaikovsky wrote to his generous patron, Nadezhda von Meck, about the projects: “You can imagine, dear friend, that recently my muse has been benevolent, when I tell you I have written two long works very rapidly: a Festival Overture for the Exhibition [of Industry and the Arts to be held in Moscow] and a Serenade in four movements for string orchestra. The overture will be very noisy. I wrote it without much warmth or enthusiasm; therefore it has no great artistic value. The Serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from an inward impulse; I felt it, and venture to hope that this work is not without artistic qualities.”

Tchaikovsky was intensely self-critical, but the Serenade remained close to his heart. The first performance was a surprise mounted by students at the Moscow Conservatory, with the official premiere the following year in St. Petersburg. The second movement waltz was immediately encored and is sometimes performed independently. His mentor, Anton Rubinstein, who was often grudging in his support, said he thought it “was Tchaikovsky’s very best piece.” Tchaikovsky conducted the work across Europe, including in Prague, Paris, London, Geneva, and Berlin, as well as several times during his trip to America in 1891.

When he began sketching the piece in September 1880 Tchaikovsky thought it might be a symphony or string quartet, but diverted the project to a string serenade. A musical dictionary from 1732 defined a “serenade” as “an evening piece; because such works are usually performed on quiet and pleasant nights.” Initially such music was for entertainment, usually written for aristocrats, and meant to divert (hence the related genre of the “divertimento”). Mozart composed the most famous serenades of the 18th century, some for wind instruments, others for strings, like the famous Serenade in G Major, subtitled “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (A Little Night Music). Tchaikovsky revered Mozart above all other composers and wrote pieces inspired by his music. He told Madame von Meck that the first movement of the Serenade was his “homage to Mozart; it is intended to be an imitation of his style, and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my model.”

After a noble chorale-like introduction (Andante non troppo), the rest of the movement is marked “Pezzo in forma di sonatina” (Piece in the form of a sonatina) in a faster tempo (Allegro moderato) with a waltz-like first theme. The following movement is explicitly a waltz (Moderato: Tempo di Valse), reminding us of the dance impetus for so much of Tchaikovsky’s music, not limited to his great ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. The meditative Élégie (Larghetto elegiaco) unfolds in several sections. For the lively finale (Tema Russo) Tchaikovsky calls upon two Russian folk tunes that he had included in his earlier collection of arrangements, Fifty Russian Folk Songs (1869). The slow introduction uses “On the Green Meadow,” while the following Allegro con spirito uses “Under the Green Apple Tree.” Tchaikovsky concludes by bringing back a transformed version of the introduction that started the first movement, thus rounding out the entire composition.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Four Novelettes

Notes by Whitney Slaten, Assistant Professor of Music, Bard College

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor honored his pan-African heritage with ever-mellifluous compositions that increasingly embraced syncopation. African American elites of the Gilded Age cherished him. The chance to be among them was significant, as Coleridge-Taylor’s father was a descendant of enslaved African Americans who fought in the American Revolution. These Black Loyalists fought George Washington’s army in exchange for manumission and land ownership, primarily in Nova Scotia or Sierra Leone. Samuel’s father—Daniel Taylor, born in 1849 in Freetown, Sierra Leone—moved to England, where he became a physician. Samuel’s mother—Alice Marten of Castle Place, Dover—raised him in Croydon, as his father returned to Africa.

In 1890, Coleridge-Taylor matriculated at the Royal College of Music in London, studying composition with Charles Villiers Stanford. Sir Edward Elgar encouraged Coleridge-Taylor, and a friendship with the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar marked a turn in the composer’s life. Dunbar revealed for him the many ways to explore the beauty of his father’s race. Coleridge-Taylor attended the first Pan-African Congress in London in 1900, where he met noteworthy African Americans, including W. E. B. DuBois. In 1904, The Coleridge-Taylor Society invited him to Washington, D.C., to conduct his Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898). There, he met Theodore Roosevelt, and this initiated the first of three tours of the United States. These experiences encouraged him to emphasize musical sounds that would signal regard for his people. Rhythm—too frequently conjuring stereotypes of blackness—was one musical element that Coleridge-Taylor engaged with greater intentionality.

Four Novelettes, Op. 52, for string orchestra, tambourine, and triangle premiered in 1902 at the Croydon Conservatoire. Though Coleridge-Taylor has been called the “Black Mahler,” there are more apt musical analogies. One writer encounters in Four Novelettes a continuation of the “stylistic tradition of [Niels] Gade and Dvořák,” adding that it “excels in a great variety of motifs.” Another hears “touches of Brahms and the blues.” Similarly, one could listen to the dotted rhythms that introduce the first movement and find echoes of Handel, who used them to pronounce the regality in his oratorio Messiah. Coleridge-Taylor may have used them to foreground the mark of older and dignified musical expressions of time and the legacy of a noble people, out of the silence.

Roque Cordero’s Adagio trágico

Notes by Peter Laki, Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College

“When you read about me, you will find that I am the only composer from Panama, and because I am the only one, I am called the best,” Roque Cordero said, with typical self-deprecating irony, in an interview with noted Chicago radio host Bruce Duffie. Having moved to the United States as a young student, Cordero received a thoroughly European education, studying with Ernst Krenek at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and receiving advice, as well as financial support, from Dimitri Mitropoulos, then the music director of the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra). After completing his studies, Cordero went back to his native country, where he directed the National Conservatory of Music and led the National Symphony of Panama, eventually returning to the United States to accept appointments at Indiana and Illinois State Universities.

Despite its brevity, Adagio trágico had an unusually long gestation period. Cordero first started working on it in 1946 after the death of his mother. He then set it aside, completing it only in 1955 after another tragic event: the assassination of Panamanian President José Antonio Remón Cantera, whose wife, Cecilia Pinel de Remón, had been a benefactor of Cordero’s. The composer recalled that, after receiving a request for a musical tribute to the late president, he finished the piece “in five days, with all the emotional intensity accumulated over the years.”

The use of the 12-tone technique produces some highly chromatic melodic lines and harmonic progressions, creating an elegiac mood. The central portion of the work is taken up by a fugato culminating in a fortissimo climax and then subsiding into pianissimo. The cellos and basses, having opened the work, also conclude it all by themselves, on a single, haunting unison note.

TŌN IN: Sunset Serenade on Clarinet

As part of The Orchestra Now’s “Sunset Serenade” series, TŌN musician Matthew Griffith performed Erland von Koch‘s Monologue No. 3 for Clarinet for a physically distanced audience at Old Dutch Church in Kingston, NY on September 11, 2020. Watch the full concert by clicking here.

AUDIO FLASHBACK: Galina Ustvolskaya’s Symphonic Poem No. 1

Our second Audio Flashback today is Galina Ustvolskaya‘s Symphonic Poem No. 1, which we performed one year ago at the Fisher Center at Bard under the baton of Leon Bostein. Ustvolskaya learned composition from Shostakovich, and dedicated this piece to the workers who tilled the land of Kazakhstan. You can read the concert notes, written by former TŌN bassoonist Matthew Gregoire, by clicking here.