Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bloggo Symphonico: Northern Voyages with the GSO

My first encounter with the music of Benjamin Britten was his War Requiem, written in the early 1960s to commemorate the new Coventry Cathedral, the old one having been bombed in World War II. I was still in high school and I’m not sure how I first heard of it, though it might have been in chorus class (I was quite the singer back in the day, and was chosen for the Maryland All-State Chorus in my senior year), but more probably by my musically
 sophisticated friend Alan Hart, who played piano and went to Oberlin to study. We lost touch after that, as I did with almost all of my high school friends, until Facebook reared its strange and sometimes but not always ugly head. Just months after graduating from high school in 1965 our family moved from Maryland to Florida, and soon after that I joined the Air Force and became a Russian linguist, far from any of the fighting in another horrific war, that fought in Vietnam. I seem to remember writing Alan while I was in the service, but then we lost touch – so it goes. Nice to think of him now after all these many years.

The War Requiem is a version of the requiem mass, with the traditional parts written by Britten to be sung in Latin by chorus and soloists. But in this case the two soloists, a tenor and a baritone, also sang Britten’s renditions of nine poems by Wilfred Owen, the British poet who died just one week before the end of the GREAT War, as it used to be known, better known now as World War I.  

Yesterday, the same day I was in attendance at the concert, I also finished reading a fine book, recommended by my former colleague, the excellent British educator Tim Kidd, called Now All Roads Lead to France
about Edward Thomas, an author who wrote primarily as a critic until he met Robert Frost. The two became great friends and one of the fruits of the friendship consisted of Thomas reinventing himself as a poet – one of the first order. Alas, like Owen and Rupert Brooke and other poets, along with thousands upon thousands of other men and women, Thomas was killed in the Great War, in this manner, quoting the book’s author, the excellent Matthew Hollis: “A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.”

The War Requiem, which I owned in the form of a vinyl LP and nearly wore out, builds in intensity to the penultimate piece of music written for it, a duet based on Owen’s poem, “Strange Meeting,” between two soldiers. Late in the poem, and late in the requiem (all that remains after it is the “Requiem Aeternum and Requiescant in Pace”) one of the two men reveals his identity in this devastating if simple line that I remember perfectly: “I am the enemy that you killed my friend…” The last line of the poem is another very simple sentence, “Let us sleep now,” which in Britten’s music becomes an extended fugue-like duet, soaring as if heaven bound, probably the most beautiful part of a powerful work of art.

How fitting that the requiem was first performed in a cathedral that had been destroyed by war. On my first trip to England, in 1986, I stopped in Coventry on my way to Stratford-Upon-Avon simply to see the cathedral.
Coventry Cathedral, old and new
 I should say the cathedrals, because what is left of the old remains standing just next to the new. I must have been reaching back to musical experience with the War Requiem when I stopped at Coventry. The requiem and the visit to Coventry came back to me once more when I visited in Berlin in 1999. There too an old, bombed out church stands next to its modern counterpart. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster reminded us in Howard’s End. And I have been connecting and re-connecting here. But then Dottore Gianni likes connections!
Berlin, 1999, near the Zoo Station
a bombed out church and its replacement
However, I digress! Hmmm – is it possible for one to begin an essay with a digression? From what is one digressing when one is only just beginning to write? Digression or not, I confess to starting this post oddly, not even invoking my alter-ego Dottore Gianni (only threw him in just above as an after-thought), but in first-person singular. I became caught up in memories that seemed appropriate here, but, friends and readers, the music by Benjamin Britten in the concert yesterday was NOT the War Requiem!

In fact it couldn’t have been farther from the requiem and still be the music of Benjamin Britten. It is called Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, but it is better known as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This delightful piece features every section of the orchestra, interrupted by narration that explains the function of each of the sections. The musicians were in good form, but the music director of the Greenville Symphony (GSO) Maestro Tchivzhel, who acted as narrator, was truly in his element.

Even if you don’t know classical music you’d recognize instantly the main theme of the Britten. Tchivzhel, in an ironic apology at the beginning of his narration, told us that of course we sophisticated ones did not need a guide to the orchestra, but that the piece was more enjoyable and made more sense with the narration than without it. And he immediately jumped in, speaking in his strongly accented English that made some of his witty rejoinders unintelligible to his audience. At one point while remarking on the role of the double bass versus the cello he looked up and said, “You don’t get it do you? Murmers from the audience. He then repeated the comment as we strained our ears, and paused after…a little forced laughter from the audience. Tchivzhel again, shaking his head: “You don’t get it.”  And immediately after he charged happily ahead, not at all flustered.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is one of the most important 20th century British composers. Another musical child prodigy, Britten has written, 
Benjamin Britten
in addition to the War Requiem and Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, several operas, the most famous of them Peter Grimes, but also Billy Budd, Death in Venice, The Turn of the Screw and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first of these propelled him into the ranks of the finest composers of twentieth century opera in the world, and the others secured his reputation. In addition to opera he wrote much sacred music, including the Hymn to St Cecelia and A Ceremony of Carols. He composed song cycles, many of them for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears; he wrote works for the cello particularly for the great Rostropovich, and a variety of other kinds of music. He and his partner were conscientious objectors, something that would certainly be clear upon hearing the War Requiem. Together with Pears Britten created the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, which remains an important festival of mostly classical music. In addition to his composing Britten was an excellent pianist and a frequent conductor of his own and other people’s music.

The second composition chosen for the concert was also by an Englishman, Edward Elgar (1857-1934). A “concert overture,”  Cockaigne, Opus 40 (In London Town) lasts about fifteen minutes and is said to be a portrait of Londoners, particularly Cockneys (Cockaigne). First preformed in 1901, it is a spirited piece, described in Wikipedia as beginning with “a quiet but bustling theme which leads into an unbroken sequence of snapshots: the cockneys, the church bells, the romantic couples, a slightly ragged brass band… and a contrastingly grand and imperious military band.” It ends, continues the Wikipedia article, “in a characteristically Elgarian blaze of orchestral sound.” The article goes on to quote George Bernard Shaw, who compared the piece favorably to Wagner’s prelude to Die Meistersinger. Shaw, with characteristic wit, wrote that while it might seem sacrilege to make such a comparison with the famed German composer, “Personally, I am prepared to take the risk. What do I care for my grandson? Give me Cockaigne!” Shaw, in case you didn’t know it and shame on you if you didn’t, was a frequent critic of music and the theatre before he became one of the great modern playwrights. You can pick up a volume of his critiques of music or of the theatre at a good used book store if you care to read it. Shaw always makes for good reading, as well as good watching, in my book.

In the GSO’s program notes, local arts reporter and critic Paul Hyde also talks about the “string of snapshots” mentioned above, and good for him for hearing all that in the piece. I must confess that, whether it’s the piece itself or whether the orchestra did not acquit itself well, Dottore Gianni failed to hear anything particularly “London” about it, and received no impression of cockneys whatever from the piece. Perhaps the good doctor has a tin ear (quite likely in fact), but musical portraits such as this one frequently strike him as suspicious and of dubious quality. Indeed, of all the work I’ve heard by the GSO this one was…”fine” (he wrote, damning it with faint praise), but while I have enjoyed several pieces I came in prepared not to during their current season, this music was a slight disappointment to me.

But who is Dottore Gianni, Dr. Jack, or just plain old Jack Hatrack, or Jack Carcrash as some of my colleagues of younger days used to call me (there are other such teasings not fit for print in this highbrow blog), to say?

Whatever I thought of the piece itself, Elgar deserves a brief bio, at least, as some of his music is much more pleasing to my ear, and I imagine would be familiar to your ears too! He began composing as a boy, influenced by his father, a piano tuner and owner of a music store by trade but also a good violinist, learned to play the violin and piano, worked in orchestras, 
Edward Elgar - is he wearing the mustache
or is the mustache wearing him?
played bassoon in a wind quintet, but was a bit of a starving musician in his early adulthood. At age 29 he married one of his pupils, a woman three years older than he and above his station…to parody the parodists Gilbert and Sullivan, “she was the very daughter of a modern major general” and daddy disinherited her for daring to marry, to quote the Wikipedia article, “an unknown musician who worked in a shop and was a Catholic.” They were a love-match however, and her death, many years later, crushed him. He wrote a short piece for violin and piano called Salut d’Amour as an engagement present for her, and dedicated the piece to her as well – good for him! He continued to struggle as a composer until his 42, when his Enigma Variations were premiered in London. He wrote of them: “The Variations have amused me because I've labelled them with the nicknames of my particular friends ... that is to say I've written the variations each one to represent the mood of the 'party' (the person) ... and have written what I think they would have written – if they were asses enough to compose.” The “enigma” lies not in guessing which friend Elgar was representing in each section, but an overarching theme which many have guessed at but of which there is no satisfactory conclusion to this day. Even Dottore Gianni is clueless! (A state of being he has become quite used to.) The German enigma code was broken during World War II, but the secret of the Enigma Variations is still intact.

But you will know Elgar most easily by the first of his five Pomp and Circumstance Marches, written between 1901 and 1930. The first was written in 1901, about the same time that Cockaigne was composed. A trio within that march was put to lyrics and became one of England’s best known national songs, “Land of Hope and Glory.” A real rouser, if you ask me. But in the U.S. we know that trio best as the “graduation march,” for it is standard at almost all high school and college graduations.
Dottore Gianni at his LAST graduation
Spring 2011
Of course Elgar wrote much more, a lot of chamber music, including a violin concerto commissioned by the brilliant Fritz Kreisler, a cello concerto written at the end of World War I, a piece that reflects the composer’s sorrow and despair over the great loss of life wreaked by that conflict. While his critical reputation has varied wildly since his death, certain of his pieces remain in the international repertoire, even if Dottore Gianni thinks Cockaigne should be consigned to the dustbin.


Whatever I felt for the first part of the concert, I looked forward mightily to the lights going down after intermission, as it signaled the start of Symphony No. 1 by the great Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Probably best known for the great musical tribute to his country, Finlandia, he was as well the prolific composer of seven symphonies, much chamber and choral music, the nationalistic, folk-based Karelia Suite, a beautiful and melancholy short work in waltz form called Valse Triste, a suite of music based upon the Finnish national epic the Kalevala (which Dottore Gianni has read and enjoyed thanks to his former student Jessica Martenson) called the Lemminkäinen Suite, the best known of which is The Swan of Tuonela, and late in his career a tone poem called Tapiola, which also uses the Kalevala as its source, as well as incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Sibelius was born to Swedish speaking parents and was called Janne as a child. He began using the French form of his name when he was a student,
Jean Sibelius
painted by fellow Finn
Akseli Gallén-Kallela
and is now generally known as Jean Sibelius. His first goal musically was to become a virtuoso violinist, but while he was adept at the instrument he would never attain fame of that kind. He began to study law in Helsinki but found himself much more interested in music, dropped the legal studies and continued with music. An early influence on his work was Richard Wagner, but Sibelius soon tired of that composer’s technique, considering it, according to Wikipedia, as “too deliberate and calculated.” Longer lasting influences were Busoni, Bruckner, and especially in Symphony No. 1, Tchaikovsky. But he developed a unique style that brought him to the forefront of composing in the late nineteenth century. His major rival musically was Gustav Mahler, though their styles contrasted starkly. Musically Sibelius remained his own man, and outside the mainstream, particularly when many were turning towards modernist tendencies in music. A quote attributed to him displays his attitude toward his contemporaries: “Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water.”

While he may have offered his public water, I have heard that he himself indulged in stronger stuff. In an excellent article in The Economist (
Could this have been Sibelius's "poison?"
 Finnish vodka given me by Jessica Martenson
Julian Barnes writes that Sibelius “was a committed drinker who would often go missing for days (but could always be located in ‘the best restaurant serving oysters and champagne’). And though the drinking was lifelong, and his tastes remained luxurious…” Much as Dottore Gianni approves of this way of living, his lifestyle, along with other causes – he sold outright Valse Triste, for example, the popularity of which could have made him wealthy – left him deep in debt for much of his life.

That same article discusses the “silence of Ainola,” which refers to a stoppage of musical output for the last thirty years of his life. Barnes writes: “There is something heroic about those writers and artists who choose silence when it would be easier to supply profitable titbits to an adoring audience.” Barnes points out that only one other composer, Rossini, was silent musically longer, but that the Italian went back to composing. In contrast, “Sibelius was implacable. He fell silent, and remained silent.”

Sibelius married a woman of strong artistic tendencies named Aina, and in 1903 they moved out of Helsinki to an area about 40 kilometers distant, to a cabin-style house that he called Ainola, in honor of her. They had six
daughters, one of whom died young. Of the others several also became involved in the arts. Ainola was appropriate for a man who loved nature as much as Sibelius did. Wikipedia quotes his Finnish biographer, writing of an event that occurred at the very end of his long life: Sibelius “was returning from his customary morning walk. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. ‘There they come, the birds of my youth,’ he exclaimed. Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It then rejoined the flock to continue its journey. Two days afterwards Sibelius died of a brain hemorrhage at age 91…in Ainola, where he is buried in the garden.”

Dottore Gianni has left out much in the brief biography of Sibelius, as he could go on for a long time about the composer. Some of you may think he already HAS gone on for a long time…he tends to, for better or for worse. Read the Wikipedia article if you’d like more information, better yet read the Barnes piece in The Economist that I quoted from. There is also a nice site with many photos and biographical remarks located here:

Symphony No. 1 was written in 1899, while the Russians ruled the Finns, who were trying to throw off the Russian yoke. The work is a fervent piece of what is known as Romantic Nationalism (the Romantic Movement in arts and letters was fervently Nationalistic), one of many examples throughout a Europe that was controlled by reactionary, royalist forces. In the GSO’s program notes, Paul Hyde quotes conductor Simon Parmet about the symphony: “It is music of a young giant, full of fiery love for his country and flaming defiance against its oppressors. It is a song of praise to his beloved land in a time of distress.” I couldn’t describe it better. It’s written in four movements

1.   Andante ma non troppo. Allegro energico
         II.  Andante (ma non troppo lento)
         III. Scherzo, Allegro
         IV. Finale (quasi una fantasia)

To briefly characterize the symphony as best one who is not an expert can, the struggle between love of country and anger at those who oppress it is clear in the juxtaposition of beautiful melodic passages with darkly menacing sections, often led by the brass, which use a technique that Dottore Gianni believes is known as sforzando: an abrupt, strong note pulled back from but then slowly built back up; and another more familiar: the crescendo, used in the good doctor’s opinion to increase the oppression. In the finale it’s almost as if Sibelius is assaulting the tyrants with the power of the full orchestra, using music as literally as it can be used to defeat repression. The symphony ends in a gigantic wall of sound, pulled back from only at the last instant with a drumroll and two plucked chords.

It is an amazing piece of music, and the GSO played it wonderfully, especially that last movement. Aaaah!

One other small objection to a portion of the concert (you’ve already read the doctor on Cockaigne) – after this magnificent piece Tchivzhel offered a short bright encore (another piece by Elgar), which made most of the audience very happy I’m sure, but I wanted to leave the hall with Sibelius ringing vibrantly in my ear. A minority view, I’m certain, but…there you have it! 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Blaga Nadja: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg & the New Century Chamber Orchestra

It takes a lot to get Dottore Gianni out at night. Given his increasingly poor eyesight and his inclination towards cocktail hours, drives après dark and après drink are ill-advised. Even were he to leave the car in the garage and walk to his destination after dark, evening strolls après the above, particularly attempting to walk the straight and narrow, are not always wise.

However! After a light cocktail hour and a healthy salad last night, shortly after 7 pm out stepped Dottore Gianni into a crisp, cold, clear evening for a short walk to the Peace Center in order to attend a concert offered by a group called The New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO). This ensemble was formed in the San Francisco Bay area in 1992 and since 2008 has boasted Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as its musical director and concertmaster.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
No one stands on a podium, baton in hand, to guide this ensemble. Instead, like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and precious few others, the NCCO is a conductor-less group. Instead, as its bio in the program from last night notes: “Musical decisions are made collaboratively by the 19-member string ensemble, resulting in an enhanced level of commitment on the part of the musicians to concerts of remarkable precision, passion and power.” Regarding the addition of Salerno-Sonnenberg, the bio continues in a quote from Gramophone Magazine, has brought “a new sense of vitality and determination as well as an audacious swagger that is an unmistakable fingerprint of its leader.”
The New Century Chamber Orchestra
I knew nothing of the orchestra before reading that it would be part of the Peace Center’s season, and I might well have passed the concert by except that I DID know the name of Nadja! I’m going to pass on typing her full name each time I remark upon her. Don’t worry, readers, you won’t be confused as she is the only Nadja noted in this post. Whatever they were before, with the arrival of Nadja the NCCO would certainly have gained in precision, passion and power, because that pithy and alliterative phrase describes her perfectly, the “audacious swagger” completing the portrait. 

Dottore Gianni had only vague memories of a prodigy who quickly became known as the “bad girl” of classical music because of her distinctly un-classical gyrations and emotive facial expressions while playing, which revealed a more stormily Romantic than rationally Classical temperament. (See August Wilhelm Schlegel’s differentiation between the two forms – he coined the term “Romanticism” – look for the difference in the music of Chopin for example versus that of Mozart, in the paintings of Delacroix compared to David, in the wild-eyed acting style of Edmund Kean as opposed to the teapot-school style of John Philip Kemble, if you’d care to reach back into musical, art and theatre history for meaning.) 
Kean, in a fiery Romantic pose
The Neoclassical Kemble as the mosst
contained Hotspur on record
Given this, and having seen clips of her performances I decided to jump at the chance to see her in person. Tickets went for as little as $10 but the top price, $35, seemed more than worth paying if I could sit fairly close and see her at work. So after my brisk stroll to the Center yesterday I found myself in the very center of row G in the orchestra of an auditorium that seats well over 2,000. Not a bad vantage point.

In order to further understand this unique artist named Nadja I also watched the Academy Award nominated documentary film, Speaking in Strings, which chronicles her meteoric rise to fame at the same time as she struggled deeply with depression. Now, Dottore Gianni is not generally known for depth of research in his blog posts, but he did a bit more than usual before the concert, as the film is handily available on Hulu Plus, and whether you ever seen Nadja in a concert, it is well worth watching. 
It depicts vividly her childhood as an outsider, her careless approach to music lessons which turned into obsessive, lengthy practice sessions, her acceptance to Juilliard, her insistence on auditioning for a major international violin competition against her teacher’s advice, and then winning it, after which she debuted as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall to great acclaim. It continues looking at her career as a soloist and her increasing inability to handle her fame; to a kitchen accident which nearly caused her to lose her little finger on her fingering hand, which would have meant the death of her career; her subsequent suicide attempt (which obviously would have meant the death of HER); and her triumph in the concert hall only weeks after the attempt. Nadja’s is a dramatic life. I don’t think she’s a woman I’d love to have coffee with, but she is an artist that, particularly after last night’s concert, I would always want to hear play.

Given all I’ve just written, one might wonder how an iconoclast such as Nadja fits into a chamber music ensemble, particularly a conductor-less ensemble. Well, I had a good hint from the film, which showed her at Aspen at a reunion with several of her fellow Juilliard students playing in a tiny ensemble. She seemed to get just as much joy, admittedly of a slightly different kind, playing with them as when she stands (and often prances and dances) as a soloist with a world-famous orchestra. She has not stopped showing emotion and unorthodox movements while playing, but she has toned them to fit this fine ensemble, which features a few other players given to emotive performances as well. In fact her active nature, I would think, makes it easier for the ensemble to take cues from her during performances. So the incorporation of Nadja into this particular ensemble seems a unique and beautiful fit. More practically it has also put the NCCO on the map, which is a good thing, as they are fine group of musicians.

Another hallmark of the ensemble is, again according to last night’s notes, “innovative programming.” I’m guessing it might have got even more innovative after Nadja’s arrival on the scene, but however, whenever it began, innovation was evident last night. The first piece was the Sinfonia No. 10 in B minor by Mendelssohn, not particularly innovative, but a perfect introduction to an all string ensemble. I have covered Mendelssohn in an earlier post (Bloggo Orchestrale: Another Visit to the GSO 11 No 2012), 
so I won’t repeat his biography, but instead will focus briefly on the work itself, written early in his career, along with eleven others, when he was between the ripe young ages of twelve and fourteen! It is set in just one movement, marked in the program Adagio - Allegro, in Wikipedia Adagio – Allegro – Piu Presto. Which is correct? Who knows? Who cares really, as long as the music is played well, which this piece was, indubitably. And certainly it did increase in speed (piu presto) and intensity towards the end, driven by a seemingly possessed Nadja. A very exciting beginning to the concert.

So. The audience was introduced to the orchestra by a relatively familiar piece. The next composition was commissioned by and specifically written for Nadja, by a contemporary composer whose name, William Bolcolm, I know, but not his work – until now. Titled the Romanza for solo Violin and Orchestra, you will see without having heard it that it was written by a contemporary composer when you look at the movements:

I.               Romanza
II.             Valse Funebre
III.           Cakewalk

This rather bizarre combination of movements blended rather beautifully. Nadja was the soloist, this time standing at the center of the orchestra, as would a conductor, but facing the audience head on. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that I’m not a tremendous fan of contemporary “serious” music (hard to call it classical, right?) but once again as I have been when listening to the Greenville Symphony, I was won over by the playing. In this piece rather than blend into the chamber ensemble Nadja was allowed to shine, and shine she did! The mood shifts from movement to movement made more sense to this amateur in the first two – it’s easy to go from a romance to a funeral waltz – see Romeo and Juliet just for starters – but the leap into the cakewalk was peculiar at best. Enjoyable, however, and the piece ended on an upbeat and quirky note. I’m not going to race out and buy a cd (or mp3 these days) of Bolcom’s music, but the playing of it won me over, at least temporarily.

Born in 1938, longtime professor of composition at Michigan State (1973-2008), Bolcom is according to Wikipedia (and who am I to doubt it?) 
William Bolcolm
a very respected American composer. While perhaps not the prodigy that Mendelssohn or Mozart was, he began his university studies in compostion at the University of Washington at…wait for it…the age of 11! He continued his studies with some very famous composers, including Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 12 New Etudes for Piano in 1988 and in 2006 was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He set William Blake’s famous poems The Songs of Innocence and of Experience to music featuring soloists, chorus and orchestra. It was performed in Stuttgart, London and at several American venues including the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Carnegie Hall, and a recording of the work won three Grammies in 2006. He composed three major operas, McTeague, A View from the Bridge and A Wedding (the last based on Robert Altman’s film), eight symphonies, eleven string quartets, four violin sonatas, several piano “rags” – I could go on, but you can see that he is a serious contemporary composer. Read Wikipedia on him if you’d like to know more, as that’s where most of this is taken from.

What’s most pertinent for this post is Bolcom on Nadja, which says a lot about him as well as about her, so I will quote at length:

I had already done a piece for her in the 1990s. It was the Third Sonata for Violin and Piano, and I think that she and I premiered it in Aspen in 1993. I’ve always liked her playing because it’s so gutsy. The minute you hear her sound on the radio you know it’s her. To have a unique sound is becoming a rarity among players. Many of them nowadays have a cookie-cutter sound, and that’s a lot different from the famous violinists of my youth. You could instantly recognize if the sound was Mischa Ellman’s or Jascha Heifetz or Zino Francescatti. They had different styles.
Nadja has her approach, which is quite bravura with intense lyricism. So I thought that I’d keep her style in mind when I wrote Romanza. Romanzas were a common form of music in the late 18th early 19th centuries…They are usually lyric and not as showy as a violin concerto. The center of Romanzas is usually dramatic and has an emotionally strong undercurrent or even overcurrent.
I love to write for a certain performer. That helps to give my piece a focus, which can, curiously enough, be picked up by someone else who can put his/her angle on the piece. I don’t like to write for generic violinist X, because there’s no focus…
In the commission that Nadja gave me, she didn’t request a special solo piece for her. I just wanted to do it that way. I sort of foisted it on her.

A very complimentary set of comments, and rightly so, regarding Nadja, but his words exemplify a very smart as well as talented musician in Bolcolm himself.

A short piece closed out the first part of the concert, composed by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a musician about whom Dottore Gianni knew nothing but his name until today. (actually he didn’t even get the name right as he thought his first name was Hector, not Heitor.) The good doctor will now share a little knowledge (which must, at least in this blog, go a long way) about him.

Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was not a Spaniard as I had assumed, but a Brazilian. He lived in times of turmoil and change in Brazil. 
When he was one year old slavery was abolished there, and when he was two, in 1889, the Empire of Brazil was overthrown. He grew up under the “republic,” a dictatorial rather than a democratic republic, that replaced it. During that time he traveled to Europe and planned to return until the Revolution of 1930 resulted in another dictatorship, that of Getulio Vargas. He was forced during the Vargas era to remain in Brazil, and during this time Villa-Lobos became a strong supporter of the nationalist agenda that Vargas pushed, composing music for it. When Vargas fell from power in 1945 Villa-Lobos began again to travel internationally and increased his reputation.

I know so little of the history of Brazil that I needed that paragraph to place the composer in a historical context, and I assume few of my readers could pass a test on Brazilian history and culture. The passage helped a bit for me – I hope it helped as well for thee!

As a musician Villa-Lobos was largely self-taught, and by the time he was ten he had learned the cello, the guitar and the clarinet! In 1889 his father died, and the future composer put his skills to work playing in cinema and theatre orchestras in Rio de Janeiro. Not long after he also played in street bands, explored the interior of the country where he became aware of native melodies and styles, and he became a cellist with a grand opera company in Rio. In his early 20s he married, began conducting, and also composing his unique style of music. This style was influenced to a point by European composition, but more so by the native melodies he had grown to know. He became friends with the composer Darius Milhaud (mentioned earlier in this post) who was with the French legation to Brazil, and while he learned the European style from Milhaud and the Ballets Russes which group visited Brazil in 1917, Villa-Lobos also introduced Milhaud to Brazilian street music. In 1918 it was the composer’s good fortune to meet the great pianist Artur Rubinstein who championed his music and also became a friend for life.

It was pretty clear that Brazilian music would trump European in two early symphonic tone poems, Amazonas and Uirapurú, which drew from native Brazilian legends and the use of "primitive" folk material. So when Rubinstein convinced Villa-Lobos to visit Paris in 1923, the composer decided to “exhibit his exotic sound world rather than to study” European forms. But he became bewitched by Paris, and returned, living there from 1027 to 1930. As noted above there was a revolution in Brazil in 1930. Villa-Lobos was in Brazil conducting when it occurred and could not leave the country, as the new dictator Vargas allowed no money to be taken out of Brazil. He embraced the new regime, writing patriotic and propagandist music, but he also composed some of his most unique works, called Bachianas-Brazileiras, that blended the style of Bach with Villa-Lobos’s own style.

It was one of these, Bachiana-Brazileiras No. 5, that ended the first part of last night’s concert. The piece originally called for solo soprano and eight cellos, but Nadja commissioned Clarice Assad to arrange it for chamber orchestra, and it worked beautifully in that context. If you want to know more about the composer, just check the reliable, in this case at least, Wikipedia, from which I’ve drawn most of the information on Villa-Lobos. Dottore Gianni would like to tell you more, but must move on to second half of the show, which consisted of one piece only.

That piece was written by Richard Strauss, a composer also discussed in an earlier post (see Bloggo Sehr Schnell und Wild, 24 October 2012 for info on the composer). The Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings is a unique piece featuring all of the players in the ensemble, scored for ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses. (Wikipedia)

Nadja chose the piece because it is perfect musically for her own ensemble, and as you see in the above paragraph, gives everyone a chance to shine. She spoke about that aspect of the music, but not the complicated reasons that caused Strauss to compose it.

If you read my earlier blog you may remember that Strauss had a very complicated relationship with Hitler and the Third Reich. 
Richard Strauss, painted by
Max Lieberman
Metamorphosen explores this in the last days of World War II. It is generally thought that Strauss wrote the piece in mourning of Germany’s destruction in the war, and specifically for the bombing of Munich, in which targets included the National Theatre. Strauss plays on themes from the funeral march in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, called the Eroica, and very near the end of the work quotes the march exactly. The Eroica was written to honor Napoleon, dedicated to him, in fact, but as Beethoven grew disillusioned by the havoc that the Emperor was wreaking throughout Europe he rejected Napoleon and re-dedicated the symphony to “the memory of a great man.” As Beethoven had turned away from Napoleon so Strauss turned away from Hitler, who as we know wreaked his own share of havoc throughout the continent. What better way to voice it than to reference and quote a composer who had made a similar error in the past? After all, composers “speak” most clearly through their music.

If anyone is interested in more details, have a look at Wikipedia, which also presents alternate theories as to why Metaphorsen was written, and what “metamorphosis” it represents. I also found interesting notes from a 2006 performance by the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center:

In fact I want to quote from these notes extensively as they describe a complicated piece musically in a rather succinct and clear fashion:

“The work is essentially a grand Adagio with a dramatically contrasting middle section marked Agitato. The lower strings initiate the sequence with a sort of germinal rumination, giving way to two violas for a statement of the theme which is to be subjected to the various metamorphoses—not variations in the conventional sense, but extensions and elaborations in which the resemblance and allusions cited above are brought into focus. When the Adagio temp returns following the Agitato episode, the Beethoven theme, implicit from the outset, is presented boldly and directly. Lest there be any question about his intent, Strauss headed this section of his score “In memoriam.” It is with musings on this motif that the work comes to rest.”

Not that Dottore Gianni could not have been as eloquent, but he’s a lazy fellow and prefers his work done for him. And admittedly he could never have been so concise!

William C. White’s written notes in addition to those he gave at a pre-concert talk on the piece, played by the Chicago Symphony in 2010, might also prove interesting, especially as he inserts audio tracks so that you can hear the themes and the similarity to Beethoven:

The NCCO and the excellent Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg rendered the Metamorphosen beautifully. I found myself closing my eyes at times and becoming transported by the performance, looking up at the ceiling as if to thank whatever powers assisted in the powerful music and the wonderful performance of it.

The group received not only a standing ovation (I’ve noted before that the Greenville audiences seem incapable of not giving such an ovation, but in this case it was deserved), but they also played two encores! The first was the Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Brahms, a VERY familiar melody, offered at high speed and with a great sense of joy. Their second was very “pops” oriented, but perfect for the occasion, as the performers are from the Bay Area. Nadja teasingly told the audience that another audience at an earlier tour stop didn’t know what it was, and asked if they wanted to know the title beforehand or if they thought they could guess it. The audience was emphatic that they could guess, and of course it was easy, as the orchestra broke into a lush and lovely interpretation of “I Left my Heart in San Francisco.”

What an enchanting evening! All I’d hoped for from the star and the ensemble…and then some! A GSO concert is on my agenda for this coming Sunday afternoon, the highlight for me a Sibelius symphony, on which I’ll report early next week. Till then…