In this interview, TŌN violinist Joyce Lee talks to us about learning to play the violin at a very young age, how she enjoys meeting audience members at concerts, and why cupcakes are her second love.
In March, conductor Andrés Rivas led The Orchestra Now in a performance of Andrés Gaos‘ Impresion Nocturna, which premiered in Paris 84 years ago this week. TŌN violinist Nicole Oswald writes, “One would wonder if Gaos was inspired by the rich harmonic texture and endless melodic material in Mahler’s Adagietto, while keeping the sincere sentiment of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings. By comparison, Gaos’ orchestration has a dense harmonic texture at times with overlapping suspensions almost reminiscent of the old Hollywood sound we expect to hear from Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The sonorous quality of string orchestra coupled with the mild tempo and rich harmony creates a beautiful palate for any listener.” You can read Nicole’s full concert notes on the piece by clicking here.
In March, conductor Andrés Rivas led The Orchestra Now in a livestreamed, physically distanced performance of Bruce Montgomery‘s Concertino for String Orchestra at the Fisher Center at Bard. Former TŌN violinist Shaina Pan wrote that “[The] English composer wrote mostly choral and film music, but was also known for his classic crime novels and short stories which he wrote under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin. . . . Concertino for String Orchestra is [his] sole instrumental work. After its first performance, a review described the piece as ‘a graceful, flowing, three-movement work, well written, economical in notes and notable for a lyrical lento espressivo of imaginative warmth.’” You can read Shaina’s full notes on the piece by clicking here.
Notes by TŌN flutist Rebecca Tutunick
Inspiration From Grief
Grief has inspired some of the most monumental pieces across all art forms. For Modest Mussorgsky, loss spurred what is one of his most well-known pieces in the repertory. Following the young death of Victor Hartmann, an architect and artist, Vladimir Stasov organized a posthumous exhibition of Hartmann’s works in the spring of 1874. After attending the exhibition, Hartmann’s close friend Mussorgsky was quickly inspired to create a tribute to his departed friend, and by that June, Pictures at an Exhibition was complete.
An Array of Arrangements
Pictures at an Exhibition was composed as a piano suite, and though Mussorgsky never orchestrated his piece, many felt the music called for varied timbral colors. Pictures at an Exhibition has been transformed to fit most any setting. One of my own favorite musical memories was in my junior year of high school, performing Pictures at an Exhibition arranged for full marching band. Leonard Slatkin, whom we are honored to have here with us today, is among those who have reorchestrated this monumental work. He took Maurice Ravel’s famous orchestral arrangement, identified what Ravel changed or removed from Mussorgsky’s composition, and then altered the writing to better reflect the original piano score.
A Tour of the Exhibition
Mussorgsky places the listener in his own shoes as he walks through Stasov’s exhibition of Hartmann’s works, stopping at pictures that catch his attention, and at times, taking a moment to think back on his dear friend. The work begins with a Promenade, which leads Mussorgsky into the gallery. The themes heard within this introduction will return to reflect the movement as he walks from picture to picture. Mussorgsky takes the listener through eleven images, two of which are combined into one musical representation, ending with the movement that much of the audience will be anxiously waiting for! “The Great Gate of Kiev” is the most well-known excerpt of Pictures at an Exhibition, with its wonderfully majestic melodies and imitations of Russian reed organs and carillon bells. Though much of Hartmann’s artistic output did not survive, Mussorgsky brings his work to life musically, for us all to admire.
Notes by arranger Leonard Slatkin
The concept of the transcription has been around for almost as long as written music has existed. Numerous composers and arrangers have felt compelled to recast works, and several of these pieces were staples of the concert hall when I was growing up. Years went by before I realized that Bach-Stokowski were actually two different people.
Over the course of the pandemic, many of us have had the opportunity to reexamine aspects of our lives that had perhaps faded a bit. During one of my walks in my neighborhood, I had my iPhone on shuffle mode when the Andante from the Third Piano Quartet by Brahms, a piece of great sentimental value to me, popped into my headset. As I listened and reminisced, I started to think about other instruments that might take over certain melodic or accompaniment lines.
When I returned home, I sat down with the original and began to sketch out what an orchestral version might look and sound like. As completion of this project loomed, I started pondering other Brahms pieces that could undergo an orchestral treatment to form a suite.
There are compelling reasons to recast pieces of music, perhaps most importantly, to bring them to a broader public through performance by soloists and ensembles other than those for which they were first intended. This exposure might even encourage some people to listen to the original. Second, “re-composing” provides an opportunity for the transcriptionist to embrace music by a beloved composer while also asserting his or her own creative muse based on years of experience, for example, conducting an orchestra.
We will be performing these transcriptions as a set, in the order that makes the most sense to me musically. But others may choose to present them individually, or interspersed with other selections. The English horn and bass clarinet, neither of which Brahms had at his disposal, are included to give a new color to the existing ensemble. My intent was to emulate how these pieces might have sounded around the time of Brahms. There are no notes, rhythms, or harmonies other than those provided by the master.
Notes by TŌN violinist Misty Drake
A Fresh Approach
The 1970s–80s set America on a new trajectory of musical innovation. Steve Reich and Philip Glass were among the most influential names that charted a fresh approach to compositional techniques. Minimalism not only became a movement that pioneered new sounds of a modern America, but also influenced the upcoming generation of American composers. Cindy McTee is no exception. Her compositions embody the same Americana spirit, while incorporating avant-garde style from her time spent in Poland. Krzysztof Penderecki offered McTee compositional lessons in exchange for teaching his children the English Language—the ultimate dream for any young composer!
In 1990, Cindy McTee composed the concert overture titled Circuits. This piece highlights the simplistic, yet versatile role of repetition. Persistent 16th notes mimic the industrial clangs of modern machines, and are reinstated by ostinato motifs throughout the piece. Circuits is dedicated to her husband and conductor, Leonard Slatkin.
From the Composer
In the score, the composer notes “Circuits was written in 1990 for the Denton Chamber Orchestra of Denton, Texas. The title is meant to characterize several important aspects of the work’s musical language: a strong reliance upon circuitous structures such as ostinatos; the use of a formal design incorporating numerous, recurring short sections; and the presence of an unrelenting, kinetic energy achieved through the use of 16th notes at a constant tempo of 152 beats per minute. The inclusion of jazz elements and the playful manipulation of musical materials using syncopation, sudden transposition, and juxtaposition are also characteristic of the work.”
In March, conductor Zachary Schwartzman led The Orchestra Now and soloists Renée Anne Louprette on harpsichord, Frank Corliss on piano, and Taylor Ann Fleshman TŌN ’22 on harp in a performance of the Petite symphonie concertante by composer Frank Martin, who was born 131 years ago this week. Taylor Ann Fleshman writes that “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.” You can read Taylor’s full concert notes on the piece by clicking here.
Last November, conductor Leon Botstein led The Orchestra Now in a livestreamed, physically distanced performance of the Chamber Symphony No. 1 of composer Arnold Schoenberg, who was born 147 years ago this week. TŌN clarinetist Matthew Griffith writes that “the Chamber Symphony No. 1 is a landmark at a distinctly pivotal moment in the history of classical music. . . . There are only 15 players on the stage, but the expressive range and intensity still sounds remarkably like a full orchestra.” You can read Matthew’s full concert notes on the work by clicking here.
Notes by TŌN violist Celia Daggy
The Dichotomy of Fame and Rebellion
Dmitri Shostakovich was himself both a distributor and victim of Soviet propaganda. For most of his professional life, he had to toe the line between pleasing the state with his music, and remaining true to himself and his people. Some of his works won accolades from Stalin’s regime and others were swiftly banned. Seeing his own image be tossed back and forth was undoubtedly a source of extreme anxiety for our dear Dmitri. Despite being the most famous Russian composer of his day, he allegedly kept a packed suitcase at his front door at all times in case he were to be taken away by the state in the middle of the night, so as to not disturb his sleeping family. This dichotomy of fame and rebellion is easily heard in Shostakovich’s music.
Tyranny and Totalitarianism
The Seventh Symphony, nicknamed the Leningrad (something of a propaganda piece itself), received great praise from the Soviet government. It is a narrative work; you will hear in the first movement the theme and drums of the Nazi soldiers marching into the city, and by the end of the symphony, the Russians eventual victory in capturing Leningrad back. The work is greatly, almost grotesquely nationalist, and reportedly had the entire audience weeping at its premiere. However, there is an underlying message about the horrors of fascism – and not just the Nazis. Shostakovich privately revealed that the symphony “[is] not only about fascism but about our country . . . tyranny and totalitarianism.”
Many of us can swiftly identify propaganda as it appears in history books—posters with cartoonish political figures and some sort of obvious state-sponsored message, many of which seem exaggerated and absurd. We, as enlightened members of the 21st century, wonder how such messages could control a society so strongly. Yet we may not be as attuned to identifying propaganda when it is under our own noses. It is not as obvious as those characterized posters from the days of old. Think about those questionable news stories we all hear on TV or the internet, where facts may be distorted and altered to fit a certain agenda, or cherry-picked to only show part of the whole story. Are these not themselves forms of propaganda?
Notes by TŌN bassist Tristen Jarvis
A Distinctly American Work
William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony is a luminous, sophisticated, and very distinctly “American” work that bridges the language of post-slavery Negro spirituals with the timbres and aesthetics of the European symphony orchestra. Already celebrated for his popular choral arrangements of these spirituals, Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony catapulted his reputation after its wildly successful world premiere at Carnegie Hall by the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski. The New York World-Telegram praised the piece for its “imagination, warmth, drama – (and) sumptuous orchestration.” After visiting seven countries in West Africa to study indigenous African music in 1952, Dawson revised the Negro Folk Symphony into the version that you will hear today, which is more infused with a rhythmic foundation inspired by those African influences from his sabbatical; he wanted those who heard it to know that it was “unmistakably not the work of a white man.”
The Bond of Africa
The opening thirty seconds of the piece contain a soaring blues gesture by a solo French horn, quickly morphing into a brief declaration by the woodwinds and trombones that evokes moody, Cotton Club-era undertones of an Ellington big-band ballad fused with Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Not even a minute in, the strings interrupt with a tender, cinematic excerpt out of a Hollywood film score that launches into an opera overture-like formal structure for the remainder of the movement, alluding to classic orchestral themes such as the opening to Bizet’s Carmen and Smetana’s Bartered Bride.
Hope in the Night
In my opinion, the most rewarding part of the Negro Folk Symphony is this second movement. Lush and brightly sophisticated, imagine the opening to Stravinsky’s “Berceuse (Lullaby)” from The Firebird fused with the minor-blues language of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Dawson described this movement as an “atmosphere of the humdrum life of a people whose bodies were baked by the sun and lashed with the whip for two hundred and fifty years; whose lives were proscribed before they were born.”
O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!
A dazzling, high-paced finale punctuates this remarkable work in a style that draws upon mid-nineteenth century European romanticism while foreshadowing the writing styles of American composers such as Leonard Bernstein and George Walker.