AUDIO FLASHBACK: Alvin Singleton’s After Choice

This week’s Audio Flashback is After Choice by Brooklyn-born composer Alvin Singleton. In his concert notes, Bard music professor Kyle Gann says, “After Choice is Singleton’s tribute to a fellow important African American composer, Leroy Jenkins. Jenkins was a consummate improvising violinist in the free jazz world. Singleton has appropriated “licks” from Jenkins’ nimble playing style and juxtaposed them among the strings with pizzicato against bowed lines, in quite tricky rhythmic assemblages of unison septuplets and quintuplets. No more than two lines are heard at once, often doubled in octaves, and the recurring pitch sets aptly convey the contours of Jenkins’ frenetic fiddling. When a second violin solo cadenza appears just before the end (against the first violins), it’s as though Jenkins’s spirit makes a momentary appearance.”

TŌN performed this work with conductor James Bagwell on September 12, 2020 as part of the “Out of the Silence” festival, presented with the Bard Music Festival and the Fisher Center at Bard. You can read Kyle Gann’s full concert notes by clicking here.

AUDIO FLASHBACK: Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta

This week’s Audio Flashback is Béla Bartók‘s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, which we performed on September 26, 2020 with conductor Leon Botstein as part of the “Out of the Silence” festival, presented with the Bard Music Festival (BMF) and the Fisher Center at Bard. In his concert notes, BMF Artistic Codirector Christopher H. Gibbs says the work “integrates Bartók’s 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.” You can read the full concert notes by clicking here.

Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite (after Bizet’s opera)

Notes by TŌN percussionist Luis Herrera Albertazzi

The Composer
Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin is a Russian composer and pianist. Born into a musical family, he was introduced to music from a very early age by his father, who was a composer and music theory teacher. Shchedrin attended the Moscow Choral School and the Moscow Conservatory as a composition and piano major. His early compositions are mostly tonal. Often, little excerpts of Russian folk music can be heard in his writings, a common musical choice of composers of his time, with Shostakovich being the best example of it. His later compositions explore the world of serialism and some aleatoric techniques. As a pianist, Shchedrin premiered the first three of his six piano concertos, including a recording with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. After the fall of the Soviet regime, Shchedrin took advantage of the new opportunities for international travel and musical collaboration, and now divides his time between Munich and Moscow.

The Ballet
Arranged for strings, timpani, and four percussionists, Shchedrin’s Carmen Ballet for strings & percussion (after Bizet’s opera) is his best-known work. He was approached by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso and was asked to write the music for a Carmen ballet. Shchedrin was hesitant about the idea, especially because according to him, Alonso was ignoring the fact that the story of Carmen had become inseparable from Bizet’s opera. In addition to this, Dimitri Shostakovich had already turned down the opportunity to write this ballet before the project was accepted by Shchedrin. Like the other four ballets composed by Shchedrin, Carmen was designed with his wife, Bolshoi prima ballerina Maya Pilsetskaya, in mind.

The Music
Shchedrin’s Carmen combines musical excerpts from three of Bizet’s works (Carmen, Incidental music for L’Arlésienne, and the opera La Jolie Fille de Perth) to form his suite of 13 separate numbers. Shchedrin described the work as “not simply a slavish obeisance to the genius of Bizet, but rather an attempt at a creative meeting of two minds.” The ballet was banned right after its first performance and called an insult to Bizet’s masterpiece, and for the sexualization of Carmen’s character. Percussionists, like myself, are quite familiar with Bizet’s Carmen, because there are a couple of excerpts for auxiliary instruments (tambourine, triangle) that we are regularly asked to perform in orchestral auditions.

Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten

Notes by TŌN violinist Sabrina Parry

The Composer
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is particularly well known today for his creation of the musical technique named “tintinnabuli.” Pärt began his piano studies at the age of three and went on to attend the Rakvere Music School and Tallinn Music School as a teenager. After a brief two years of mandatory military service for the Soviet Army he finished his schooling, with many compositions from this time still being acknowledged today.

In his 20s, Pärt worked as a sound engineer and found himself experimenting with many of the compositional techniques and styles that were in vogue at the time, but not lingering amongst them. In 1976, after many years of turmoil and self-discovery, as well as an obsession with early music such as Gregorian chant and Renaissance music, he birthed the musical technique “tintinnabuli.” From the Latin tintinnabulum, a bell, when used, this technique brings together both melody and triad to create a united ensemble. This distinct method has been used by Pärt in his compositions for nearly 40 years, with one of his earliest examples being the Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, which you will hear today.

In Memory of Benjamin Britten
Pärt learned of Benjamin Britten’s passing while listening to the radio one day in 1976. While the two had no personal connection, Pärt said, “Why should the date of Benjamin Britten’s death [December 4, 1976] touch such a chord in me? Evidently it was only in that moment that I matured enough to realize the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of duty, or even more than that, arose in me—I had just discovered Britten for myself. Not a very long time before his death, I recalled my impression of his music’s rare purity.”

The Music
Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, for string orchestra and bell, premiered in 1977 and was written using tintinnabuli, as well as canon. In this six-minute work, Pärt used the A-minor scale in a descending pattern that is repeated, beginning with the violins, after three tolls of the bell. Each subsequent entrance of this scale is an octave lower and half the tempo of the preceding line, creating five layers out of one simple scale. The culminating sound created by these techniques in the string orchestra juxtaposed with the bell create a lush and hypnotic melody, very pleasing to the ear and emanating a churchly atmosphere.

Frank Martin’s Petite symphonie concertante

Notes by TŌN harpist Taylor Ann Fleshman

The Composer
Born in 1890, Frank Martin was one of the leading Swiss composers of his time. He not only composed his music, but also performed many of his own works while on tour as a pianist and harpsichordist. His compositional style resembles that of Johann Sebastian Bach with a twist of early-20th-century French composers. He wrote many sacred vocal works, which may be due to the fact that his father was a priest, but he also composed on secular subjects. Though Martin’s output on vocal works is prominent, he was very prolific in instrumental compositions that are now staples in the international concert repertoire. His Petite symphonie concertante is by far his most widely respected work.

The Origin of the Work
The Petite symphonie concertante was composed in 1945 from a request made by Paul Sacher. Sacher did not micromanage how the piece was to be composed, but his one specific request was that plucked basso continuo instruments were to be employed along with standard string instruments. From here, Martin decided to use instruments that are still common today, which included harp, piano, and harpsichord. These three instruments are the soloists of the work while the remaining strings are split into two equally important groups.

The Music
Martin composed a second version of this piece that did not include solo instruments and was for full symphony orchestra. He believed that this work would not be performed often due to its uncommon orchestration; however, Martin’s belief turned out to be erroneous. The original version that you will be hearing today is the more frequently performed of the two versions. I find that its unusual combination of instruments makes this piece all the more intriguing. In addition to the exquisite pacing and shape, the atmosphere Martin sets in each section draws you into his world for the full 21 minutes. The opening resembles a concerto with the three solo instruments accompanying each other while the remaining strings are supporting them. In the next section, the music moves in a slow, improvisatory style, then turns into a spirited march ending the piece. While I enjoy the entire work, my favorite moment is around the 14-minute mark, after a slow chordal introduction in the harpsichord. Listen closely and you will hear why.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Strings in G minor, RV 156

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

The Composer
In the early 1700s, when most Italian composers were known for their operas, Vivaldi held a unique position, achieving fame as a creator of orchestral works. Despite his severe asthma, he went on several taxing journeys starting in 1718 which helped to cement his reputation as one of the preeminent musicians of baroque Europe. He was a prolific writer, having composed around 500 concertos in addition to a number of pieces for the church and the theater. His most famous concerto, The Four Seasons, forms part of the collection The Contest of Harmony and Invention, which is one of seven such collections published during his lifetime. He also composed concertos for cello, viola d’amore, flute, oboe, bassoon, and groups of solo instruments.

The Music
The fiery Concerto for Strings in G minor, RV 156, is a full concerto with no featured soloists. The outer Allegro movements are tumultuous and fiery, with a strutting syncopation and rushing melodies. The double bass plays a walking line in the central Adagio movement, with the upper strings sustaining tones. It makes for a fitting opening to this evening’s concert.

TŌN IN: Sunset Serenade on Bassoon

As part of The Orchestra Now’s “Sunset Serenade” series, TŌN bassoonist Philip McNaughton performed the first two movements of Susan Kander’s The Lunch Counter 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: William Grant Still’s Serenade

This week’s Audio Flashback is William Grant Still‘s Serenade. Still, often called the “Dean of African-American composers,” wrote this piece in 1957 on a commission by the Great Falls High School in Great Falls, Montana. The piece reflects his interest in American folk idioms, with conventional melodies and harmonies that nonetheless express a fresh and individual compositional voice. The Orchestra Now performed the work outdoors (hence the crickets you will hear in the background!) with conductor James Bagwell last September as part of the Out of the Silence festival, presented with the Bard Music Festival and the Fisher Center at Bard. 

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

This week’s Audio Flashback is the Symphonie concertante in G Major, Op. 13 of 18th-Century composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. TŌN performed the piece with violinists Cyrus Beroukhim and Philip Payton and conductor Leon Botstein on September 26, 2020 as part of the “Out of the Silence” festival, presented with the Bard Music Festival and the Fisher Center at Bard. The son of an enslaved woman and a plantation owner in the South Caribbean, Bologne led a fascinating life, excelling in both athletics and music. He was praised by future American president John Adams, and once lived in the same house as Mozart. You can read the concert notes, written by Christopher H. Gibbs, Artistic Codirector of the Bard Music Festival, by clicking here.

Victor Herbert’s Serenade for String Orchestra

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

The Composer
Irish-born American composer and cellist Victor Herbert, a founder of ASCAP, is primarily known for his many successful Broadway operettas, including Naughty Marietta, The Red Mill, and Babes in Toyland. But he was a prolific composer of many types of music, having completed two operas, a cantata, and numerous compositions for orchestra, chorus, piano, violin, and cello, among others. Composer Antonín Dvořák was so wowed at the premiere of Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 2 that he was inspired to write his own now-famous concerto for the instrument. Herbert and his wife, the soprano Therese Herbert-Förster, moved to New York City in 1886, where she sang with The Metropolitan Opera and he performed as a cellist in the company’s orchestra. He quickly became very active in the New York music scene and taught at the National Conservatory of Music.

The Music
The Romantic five-movement Serenade for String Orchestra was well received at its debut at Steinway Hall in New York City in December of 1888, where it shared a program with works by Vincent d’Indy and Peter Cornelius. The piece was published in the following year and was performed to great acclaim in concerts throughout the U.S. Of particular note is the passionate “Love Scene” movement, which was praised by The New York Times as “a particularly good piece of writing, being warm in theme and forceful in expression, and showing the results of careful study of Wagner’s wonderful treatment of strings.”