Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Notes by TŌN violinist Bram Margoles

Overcoming Doubt
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s life was a journey to international stardom as a composer, pianist, and conductor. His career began in Russia, where he grew up in a somewhat wealthy family and was trained at the Moscow conservatory. He wrote the Second Symphony at a time when his success and popularity was growing. He had just moved from Russia to Dresden to escape the brewing political unrest in his home country. The symphony was not only a huge career success, but also a huge psychological success for Rachmaninoff, who suffered from crippling self-doubt about his compositional abilities. The catastrophic 1897 premier of his First Symphony left him so depressed that he could not compose for three years. He wrote the Second Symphony in secret in 1906, and it wasn’t until 1908 that it was premiered in St. Petersburg to rave reviews.

The Music
The first movement starts our journey with a slow introduction full of brooding and darkness. It then begins to dance, catching periodic waves of turbulent excitement reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, perhaps Rachmaninoff’s greatest compositional idol. The movement is full of unbridled romanticism, painful longing, and nostalgia. The second movement contains even harsher emotional extremes than the first, taking us from dance, to weeping lyricism, to the furious and difficult contrapuntal middle section, and back again to where it began. The third movement is perhaps the most iconic in the piece, a pinnacle of late romanticism. The turmoil of the first movement comes back, with the familiar themes now recast in a new context that echoes the romantic operas that were so popular at the time. The movement ends in a place of peaceful resolution for the first time in the symphony. The fourth movement is a triumphant celebration. The opening theme keeps coming back, gaining excitement and intensity each time. Little bits from the previous movements are sprinkled throughout, allowing us to look back and see how far we’ve come.

Take the Time to Feel
Relax and enjoy being washed over by every emotionally indulgent minute of this expansive symphony. Rachmaninoff often felt that he was meant to live in a past world of emotion and romanticism while those around him in the present were obsessed with reason and analysis. While listening today, I think he would want us to take a break from our information-filled modern world, and take the time to feel, not think.

Felix Slatkin’s Fisher’s Hornpipe, Wistful Haven, and Carmen’s Hoedown

Notes by TŌN timpanist Jacob Lipham

The Composer
The opening half of our concert concludes with three pieces by Felix Slatkin, Maestro Slatkin’s father, who as a teenager studied violin with Efrem Zimbalist as well as conducting with Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute of Music. At the age of seventeen he became a member of the St. Louis Symphony and later moved to Los Angeles, where he became concertmaster of the Twentieth Century Fox Studio Orchestra. While in Los Angeles in 1939, he met and married the exceptionally talented cellist Eleanor Aller, the principal cellist of the Warner Brothers Studio Orchestra. Together they formed the Hollywood String Quartet, which made numerous milestone recordings.

The Music
Felix Slatkin made a series of recordings for Liberty Records: Fantastic Percussion, Fantastic Fiddles, and Fantastic Brass of Felix Slatkin. The scores of the majority of his ensemble arrangements no longer exist, so Cindy McTee transcribed many of them from recordings. One of Felix’s arrangements she transcribed was the animated Fisher’s Hornpipe from his 1962 Grammy-nominated recording, Hoedown. The quick and giddy reel gives the strings a feast of notes to navigate and the audience a lively few minutes of good-humored song. McTee also transcribed the beautiful Wistful Haven, from his 1962 Fantastic Strings Play Fantastic Themes recording. It revolves around an arrangement of themes from Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and is filled out for full orchestra. Felix Slatkin’s stirring Carmen’s Hoedown utilizes famous themes from Bizet’s Carmen into a country-western style dance. Listen for my favorite moments in the piece featuring wonderfully virtuosic xylophone playing!

Leonard Slatkin’s Kinah

Notes by TŌN violist Katelyn Hoag

The Origin
Kinah is Leonard Slatkin’s musical tribute to the memory of his parents. His father, Felix Slatkin, was concertmaster of the Twentieth Century Fox Studio Orchestra and his mother, Eleanor Aller, was principal cellist of the Warner Brothers Studio Orchestra. Throughout Leonard Slatkin’s childhood, he would hear his parents rehearse Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello at home. They finally had the chance to perform the work with an orchestra in 1963 when, after the dress rehearsal, Felix Slatkin suddenly died of a heart attack at age 47. Kinah is based on four notes that formed the opening theme of the slow movement of the Brahms Double Concerto.

The Reception
The piece was premiered by Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in December 2015 to great acclaim. Critics have said, “This was a wholly sincere effort that left many audience members genuinely shaken and moved,” and “The piece finds Slatkin spreading his wings as a composer.” Slatkin has conducted Kinah several times since its premiere, with orchestras such as the Pittsburgh Symphony, Louisville Orchestra, RTÉ National Symphony, and the Polish National Radio Symphony. Today’s performance of Kinah marks its New York City premiere.

What to Listen For
Kinah is based on Brahms’ Double Concerto, but the music never quite manages to finish a musical phrase from the piece. This serves as a reminder that Slatkin’s parents never had the chance to perform the work. The most apparent tribute to Brahms can be heard at the end of the piece in the offstage violin and cello parts. One can hear Slatkin’s strong compositional voice in the dramatic dialogue between the various orchestra sections and diversity of sounds. Kinah manages to pack an incredible range of emotions into only thirteen minutes.

Cindy McTee’s Double Play

Notes by TŌN violist Sean Flynn

Complementing Musical Elements
Cindy McTee’s Double Play, according to the composer herself, reflects her attraction to “the idea that disparate musical elements—tonal and atonal, placid and frenetic—can not only coexist but also illuminate and complement one another.” These disparate elements can be heard in the heavy contrasts between the moods and stylings of the work’s two movements.

A Contemplative Atmosphere
The first movement, The Unquestioned Answer, pays homage to fellow American composer Charles Ives’ work The Unanswered Question. In Ives’ piece, a solo trumpet poses “The Perennial Question of Existence” against a delicate bed of strings and a dissonant woodwind quartet. The Unquestioned Answer presents a similarly ethereal aesthetic, using a variant on Ives’ “Perennial Question” theme that is heard here in a number of iterations by various instruments. The theme is heard both forward and backward, often over a soft bed of strings that move slowly in and out of dissonant harmonies. The contemplative atmosphere makes for a thought-provoking and sonically varied introduction to the piece.

Time Flies
Immediately after, Tempus Fugit (Latin for “time flies”) aims to evoke the fast-paced nature of our current American society, reminding me of the similar hustle and bustle heard in Edgar Varèse’s Amériques, written a century before. The movement opens with a number of percussion instruments that represent the ticking of clocks, which creates a number of complex rhythms before catapulting into the work proper. Listeners will notice a prominent jazz influence in this movement, and may even be reminded of some of the dance numbers of Bernstein’s West Side Story. The movement is quite repetitive in nature, with the groove only stopping to reminisce briefly on the ghostly atmosphere that was heard in the first movement. However, the ticking of the clocks soon puts this reminiscing to a halt, and the quick pace abruptly returns to take us to the end of the movement. Perhaps this implies that the pace of our current age does not often allow us time for reflection or introspection, as we cannot help but be aware of the clock always ticking in the background of our lives.

Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra

Notes by TŌN violinist Stuart McDonald

A World of Their Own
In the world of post-Romantic music, one is often met by a large amount of works that go to extremes in terms of orchestration and length. From Mahler’s symphonies to Strauss’ symphonic poems, we consistently see pieces calling for extremely large orchestras, and sometimes it can feel difficult to find a piece that doesn’t last for more than an hour. Mahler once said that he wanted each of his symphonies to be “a universe in itself.” Webern also wanted to create this sense of his works being a world of their own, but on a more microscopic level and through fewer compositions; so few that you could probably fit his entire catalog (31 opuses) onto three CDs. Although his compositions were few, he consistently created a feeling of completeness in his works, and his 6 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 is no exception.

A Riotous Premiere
Written in 1909 and dedicated to his father, this work was first premiered in 1913, conducted by his friend and fellow composer Arnold Schoenberg, in a concert that would feature works by Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg, and Schoenberg himself. Unfortunately, the piece did not go down how the composers had hoped, and the concert was aborted after a the audience began to riot, similarly to what would later occur at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

The Music
This piece is predominantly atonal, and shows an early use of Klangfarbenmelodie (timbre-color melody), where melodies are often split between several instruments. Webern concentrates on using two very basic components. The first is silence, sometimes partial with only a very small number of musicians playing, and sometimes complete, with no sound coming from the orchestra whatsoever. The second is the way he manipulates sound by his use of extended techniques. If you look closely, you can often see the strings playing sul ponticello and using artificial harmonics, and the winds being required to flutter tongue at certain points during the work. Webern’s use of dynamics also play with the listeners’ emotions. Rapid crescendos suddenly alternate with forte pianos just seconds after the piece begins and you suddenly find yourself transitioning between very sparse sections of music to expressive sections similar to the development of a sonata.

Open Your Ears
So open your ears and be alert to every little sound the orchestra makes, understanding it quickly before it moves to the next one. Pieces such as this one have so many dimensions, and all of them are essential if you want to be immersed in the world of sound Webern has created.

Written for the concert Abstraction in Music & Art, performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sun, May 19, 2019. 

Morton Feldman’s “Orchestra”

Notes by TŌN violinist Jacques Gadway

On the surface, Morton Feldman’s Orchestra looks like it may be a traditional symphonic work. However, after hearing the first few measures, one can be sure it is anything but traditional. While the orchestration calls for a relatively standard instrumental setting, Feldman effectively expresses his disconnection to conventional western harmony and structure. Orchestra is a journey through the sounds of the orchestra. It is easy to feel his attraction to visual art when listening to the piece. In 1950, Feldman met John Cage at a concert in Carnegie Hall. The two were both leaving early from the concert as neither of them were interested in the second piece on the program. They both went to hear Webern’s 12-tone symphony and bonded over their mutual appreciation for the piece. They became quick friends, and Feldman became one of the many artists in John Cage’s circle. Out of all of them, Feldman loved the visual artists: the painters. He even went on to develop graphic notation in an inspired effort to eliminate some of the machine-like components of music making. While Orchestra does not utilize graphic notation and is written in traditional western notation, it is clear that he does not abandon the concepts he developed in his notation innovations. It is almost like a painting, however instead of writing the music graphically, he treats the orchestra like the canvas. With the symphony, he paints a world the listener can get lost within.

Written for the concert Abstraction in Music & Art, performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sun, May 19, 2019. 

Morton Feldman’s “Orchestra”

Notes by TŌN violinist Linda Duan

A Chance Meeting
In 1950, Morton Feldman attended a performance of Anton Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21 at Carnegie Hall. Upon witnessing the audience’s dispassionate response to the music, he left before the next work, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a work that Feldman considered regressive and undesirable in its indulgence of Romantic expressiveness. In the lobby he ran into John Cage, and introduced himself with the remark, “Wasn’t that beautiful?” Thus began a friendship that would greatly influence and shape Feldman’s work, perspective, and philosophy of composition. In his own words, Feldman said that “the main influence from Cage was a green light, it was permission, the freedom to do what I wanted.” They, along with several other composers, formed the New York School, a group of composers who rejected traditional forms and ideas of music composition, emphasizing instinctual individuality and free expression.

Inspiration from Painters
Feldman collected many works by American abstract expressionist painters, and was deeply ensconced in their aesthetic. The immediacy of their works as well as the freedom of assimilation in their materials further inspired Feldman to craft his own unique soundworld, utilizing the medium of sound as paint. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Feldman experimented with creating washes of sound through graphic notation and other various techniques. He also wrote several works centered on the works and lives of his artist friends, including Rothko Chapel (1971) and For Frank O’Hara (1973).

Between Categories
The music of Morton Feldman is characterized by a few distinct features: a dynamic range that rarely goes above piano, an emphasis on each sound as its own entity, a disconnect between musical patterns and events, and a slowly evolving pacing interspersed with recurring asymmetric patterns. In his later works, Feldman also experimented with musical length, composing String Quartet II in 1983, which spans over 6 hours! Feldman considered his compositions as “time canvasses,” which he primed with a hue of music, that existed between categories: “between time and space, between painting and music, between the music’s construction and its surface.” In this space between, Feldman sought to invoke an abstract experience on a sensory rather than philosophical level.

The Music
When Feldman composed Orchestra (1976), he was writing several works all focused on the orchestra as an ensemble, while also featuring certain instruments. This work, in particular, takes the listener on a walk through the musical landscape of the orchestra. The changing timbres, shifting patterns, dissonances resolving to surprising consonances, and tensions between sound and silence are all part of the composer’s style. However, instances of extremely loud dynamics provide a contrast to the usual quietness of Feldman’s music. As the music progresses, the two pianos trade chords back and forth as clusters occur in the strings and winds, resulting in a slow fade-away into silence.

Feldman, in his usual gifted way with words, had this to say about the music:

“One of the compositional quirks I’m most lucky about is the almost total state of amnesia immediately after completing a composition. There is not one of which I could sit down and recall a note of . . . Like Don Juan, whose involvement with women was only because he was on the run from them, my involvement with compositions comes about the same way: avenue of escape FROM it. As a friend used to say at a dull part, “Where’s the escape hatch?” Art is no different. It’s a boring party. The thing is to know when to leave and write something like . . . Orchestra.”

Written for the concert Abstraction in Music & Art, performed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sun, May 19, 2019.