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.”

Ingvar Lidholm’s Music for Strings

Notes by TŌN violinist Yinglin Zhou

The Composer
Music for Strings is one of the most famous pieces composed by Ingvar Lidholm, who was a Swedish composer born in 1921. He started his music journey at an early age. By the time he was 19, in 1940, he went to a musical school in Stockholm to continue his advanced musical studies. There, he would gather with his friends Sven-Erik Bäck and Karl-Birger Blomdahl, who later also become important Swedish composers, to discuss and critique music. This activity drew a lot of attention from students and instructors. Lidholm’s composing teacher, Hilding Rosenberg, was also part of this gathering, and he would often lead the discussion into modern composers, such as Stravinsky and Hindemith. Because they always gathered on Mondays, people later came to know them as the Måndagsgrupp (the Monday Group).

The Music
Lidholm began working on this piece in 1945, the same year Shostakovich released his Symphony No. 9. It is interesting to hear almost opposite characters in these two pieces. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, different than his other symphonies, sounds more transparent and bright, whereas Lidholm’s Music for Strings sounds more tragic and intense. When I listen to the piece for the first time, the repetitive accented eighth-note patterns at the end of the last movement reminds me a lot of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Even though Lidholm never traveled nor studied in Hungary or Russia, based on what he discussed with the Monday Group, it is not hard to understand and to assume that modern composers of the time like Stravinsky and Bartók had a huge impact on Lidholm.

Andrés Gaos’ Impresión Nocturna

Notes by TŌN violinist Nicole Oswald

The Composer
Andrés Gaos was a violinist, composer, and conductor born into a family of Galician music merchants. He made his debut playing the violin at a young age and was recognized with a scholarship to take private lessons in Brussels with Eugene Yasÿe. In 1893, he traveled internationally to perform in Cuba, settled for a short period in Mexico City a year later, and landed in Buenos Aires in 1895. There, he met his wife, had five children, and worked at the Alberto Williams Conservatory and later the Public Administration of Argentina. Gaos and his wife, America Montenegro, formed the Gaos quartet alongside the string faculty of the Williams Conservatory. After they divorced in 1917, Gaos remarried a student with whom he had three children. He mostly taught music and worked for the government until retirement. His fourth son, Andrés Gaos Montenegro, was a cabaret singer and composer who had success recording several albums in the 1920s. His eighth son, Andrés Gaos Guillochon (1932–2018) published unlikely stories about his father’s life. Notably, Gaos gave the Latin American premiere of Camille Saint-Saëns’ famous Violin Concerto No. 3 under the baton of Saint-Saëns himself in 1904. Even though Gaos never became an internationally recognized violinist, he holds a place in time representing Galician composers through his compositions. His catalog of work includes a myriad of violin pieces written for himself and his first wife, as well as an opera, symphony, symphonic poem, four symphonic paintings, and two works for string orchestra.

The Music
Similar to Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings and Mahler’s Adagietto from the 5th Symphony, Impresión nocturna is not shy by comparison with its lush string orchestration. 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 the 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. The work begins in D major and, to end the 12-minute journey, Gaos concludes in a somber D minor.

Bruce Montgomery’s Concertino for String Orchestra

Notes by TŌN violinist Shaina Pan

The Writer/Composer
English composer Bruce Montgomery 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. Born in Buckinghamshire, England in 1921, he went on to study modern languages at Oxford while also an organ scholar and choirmaster. After graduating, he became a teacher at a boarding school, and it was during this time when he began writing his crime novels, as well as his first choral and concert works. It was not until almost a decade later that he would establish himself as a film composer.

The Intersection of Language and Music
Montgomery never strayed far from the intersection of language and music; in addition to scoring nearly 40 films, he was also known for writing novels with many musical references and backdrops. There were common elements between his life and his art; the protagonist of his famous Gervase Fen novels is a professor at an Oxford-like institution, and his novel Frequent Hearses is set in a film studio. His novel Swan Song is set during a production of a Wagner opera. Montgomery himself wrote a children’s ballad opera called John Barleycorn and two additional dramatic works which were never finished because he was preoccupied “writing filthy film scores and stinking stories for the popular press,” according to his friend and collaborator, Kingsley Amis.

His Sole Instrumental Work
Concertino for String Orchestra, completed in 1948, is Montgomery’s 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.” In particular, the second movement “moves the listener with its thoroughly English mixture of pensive nostalgia,” according to biographer David Whittle. Of Montgomery’s choral and concert works, the Concertino for String Orchestra is the only one that is widely available as a recording.

Grieg’s Holberg Suite

Notes by TŌN violinist Misty Drake

The Backstory
While classical music’s top composers dished out symphonies and concertos to gain recognition, Edvard Grieg forged a slightly different compositional path to popularity. How did a Norwegian composer with a large compositional output of choral pieces and short lyric suites join the classical music cannon? Simple: Grieg drew inspiration from the traditional Norwegian folk songs of his homeland. Before long, his writings became adopted as the nationalistic style of Norway. That being said, it is no surprise that Grieg was asked to compose festival music for the 200th anniversary of prominent Norwegian-Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg. On Dec 3, 1884, From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the olden style was premiered, along with an assortment of pieces that were inspired by the popular music during Holberg’s lifetime. Grieg engages in various meters and rhythms to blend Norwegian folksongs with classic Baroque dances. Definitely written with twirling and toe-tapping in mind! A year later, the Holberg Suite was rewritten for a string orchestra. This was a clever move, in my opinion, because it showcases the wide range of color, techniques, and versatility of this lesser-known ensemble.

The Music
This five-movement suite begins with a Praelude, imitating the broken chord progressions found in 18th-century harpsichord preludes. The Sarabande spotlights a solo cello-turned-trio, while mordant trills add the flavor of folk ornamentation over bass pizzicatti. A cheerful lilt in the bow adds a buoyant spring to the Gavotte, accompanied by a leisure drone played by the first violins. After taking an unexpected detour in the form of a Musette, this drone inherits a bagpipe-like quality before returning back as an accompanimental role. The fourth movement, Air, showcases the rich sound of a large string orchestra, and 18th-century ornamentals add intensity by prolonging harmonic climaxes. The final movement is a lively Rigaudon. Solo violin and solo viola create an energetic momentum with rapid folk passages, while the Poco meno mosso recalls the lilting folk-like qualities of previous movements.

Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver

Notes by TŌN bassist Tristen Jarvis

The Composer and The Music
From recorder enthusiast-turned-violist to internationally renowned rockstar, guitarist/composer Jonny Greenwood, of the multi-platinum-selling rock outfit Radiohead, brings us his award-winning Popcorn Superhet Receiver for string orchestra, notably featured in the 2007 Oscar-nominated film There Will Be Blood. Deeply influenced by experimental 20th-century composers Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Arvo Pärt, Popcorn is dominated by dissonant, anxiety-provoking, microtonal clusters (evoking static from the shortwave radio catalog of an actual superheterodyne receiver), an infectious groove-based middle section, and familiar contemporary art-music atonality with occasional bursts of consonance for stability.

Creating Popcorn
Greenwood wrote the piece by playing many of its expansive tone clusters on the viola, then manipulating those notes using the industry standard audio-editing software Pro Tools, creating an orchestra of Jonny Greenwoods. Through the same process, he also multi-tracked an ondes Martenot (an early electronic keyboard from 1929 that sounds like a theremin) and transcribed his creation for string orchestra all by hand. “There’s nothing like sitting in a completely quiet room, and then the strings start up,” Greenwood comments. “It’s like when you go to the cinema— the first two or three minutes of any film are amazing because the scale of the screen is so big. Directors can pretty much do anything for those first few minutes. It doesn’t matter how many films you see, it’s still a big moment.”

A BBC Commission
Independently of his acclaimed work for Radiohead, Greenwood has established a growing reputation for himself as a composer of “classical” works, and as one of the most sought-after film composers working in Britain. In 2004, Greenwood was made composer-in-residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Popcorn Superhet Receiver was the first fruit of this association, premiered by the BBC Concert Orchestra and Robert Ziegler in April 2005. Greenwood’s own comments on the piece are as follows: “This was my first commission for the BBC Concert Orchestra—and a chance to try out a long-held ambition to write something using large, Penderecki-style microtonal clusters. I wanted to start from white noise, treating it like a big block to carve up and distort . . . You can just do things with the classical orchestra that unsettle you, that are sort of slightly wrong, that have some kind of undercurrent that’s slightly sinister.”

Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Notes by TŌN violinist Xinran Li

The Background
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, also known as the Tallis Fantasia, is a one-movement work for string orchestra by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was premiered by the composer and the London Symphony Orchestra in the Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. The Fantasia is constructed for double string orchestra with string quartet, and is inspired by both a theme by 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis, and John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, with which Vaughan Williams had a lifelong obsession. He adapted the tune from a hymn by English poet Joseph Addison:

When rising from the bed of death,
O’erwhelmed with guilt and fear,
I see my Maker face to face,
O how shall I appear?

The Music
The harmonies in the piece have a continuous sweeping motion, and the work has a nonstop changing texture. With roots in improvisation by each of the solo players, the Fantasia builds up with its complicated, flowing layers with interesting tones. It is full, serene, and spiritual. It is covered by layers and layers of the string ensemble with its shimmering tones. Combining English folk and Renaissance stylings, the work blurs boundaries, switching between major and minor keys, creating an earthy, subtle chill. This piece brings me to a starry sky, and an oak forest. It sounds familiar but vague, something that is old but new, something that is so large but also so small. It is a rising swell, a wave that carries me away to a secret place of my own.

Sarah Hennies’ Falling Together

Notes by the composer

For many years I have been interested in labor as musical material. Labor is a necessity for human wellbeing—both economically and psychologically—despite being a source of weariness and stress. I often compose this “work music” using a series of unusual repeating patterns that represent the effort and repetition of labor.

Falling Together is inspired by the orchestral work of Iannis Xenakis, who composed individual parts for each member of the orchestra rather than grouping musicians by section that play in unison. The work’s utopian “society” of all members working differently but together gradually exhausts itself.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

Notes by TŌN cellist Jordan Gunn

The Story
Arnold Schoenberg based his famous Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) after a poem by Richard Dehmel. The poem depicts an evening stroll in the moonlit forest, where a woman admits to her partner that she is carrying a child belonging to another. Desperate to find happiness through motherhood, she had been with a man she did not love. Now, being with a man she does truly love, she feels incredible guilt and anxiety. As they walk on, the man reveals to her that he cares for her deeply and will treat her child as his own, that their love will transfigure this child into one that is theirs. They embrace and continue their walk with a new transfigured perspective on life. It is true that Verklärte Nacht depicts many variations of the night, which drove Schoenberg to create a dark and moody quality of sound, but it also more importantly depicts the transfiguration of people during their darkest times. The woman came into this walk embarrassed and afraid, and left as a comforted and confident mother-to-be.

The Music
The piece starts in D minor with slow and dark footsteps by the lower instruments, creating a certain heaviness with a still, uncertain quality. The piece rises and falls dramatically in the first three movements as the woman tells her story, but most excitingly, the fourth movement blossoms into D major. A wave of warmth and confidence is brought out with a singing cello melody that dances through the instruments. In my interpretation, this is the point of transfiguration, when she feels the warmth and confidence and love from her partner. The work ends with a sense of peace and exuberance produced through harmonics, creating the fresh feeling of the early morning, just before the sun rises.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3

Notes by TŌN violist Celia Daggy

The Composer
One thing I love about classical music is the blending of tradition with innovation. Johann Sebastian Bach, considered “The Master of Masters” by Beethoven, is indeed a master at combining the two. Born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685, Bach was mostly known throughout his career as an organist and Kapellmeister (music director) working in Leipzig, and much of his fame as a composer came posthumously. While many of his compositions are sacred, the Brandenburg Concertos are among his most popular secular works.

The Music
There are six Brandenburg Concertos total, each written for a different set of instruments. Today, we will perform Number 3, for strings in G major. Here, we find the tradition/innovation blend. A concerto is typically a soloist “versus” orchestra, but in Brandenburg 3, there is no individual soloist. Instead, each instrument is a soloist AND part of the orchestra. Another twist on convention is the instrumentation itself. While a typical string orchestra is made of 1st/2nd violins, violas, cellos, and basses, Brandenburg 3 features a first, second, and third part each of violins, violas, and cellos, accompanied by bass and harpsichord for a total of 11 unique parts. When listening to this piece I picture a machine in a factory; each part functions individually, yet seamlessly cooperates with the rest. Specific voices pop out of the texture like a concerto soloist, then happily fall back into the conglomerate while the next voice has their moment.

A Personal History
Personally, I have a lengthy history with and deep affection for Bach, and Brandenburg 3 in particular. My father is also an organist and Kapellmeister, so Bach was as much a part of my life growing up as my favorite snacks or cartoons. Having previously played violin before switching to viola, I have performed Brandenburg 3 a number of times, yet never played the same part twice! I guess in that way it feels like I get to blend my own tradition of knowing the piece with the innovation of learning new parts. That is the beauty of this work: no matter how many times I perform it there is always something new to be discovered, and I treasure that journey each and every time. I hope you enjoy one of my all-time favorites.