Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 5:30 pm
Colin Currie, percussion | David Danzmayr, conductor
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Now you hear me, now you don’t, Op. 102, Concerto for marimba and strings
Kurt Schwertsik was born in Vienna on June 25, 1935. He composed his concerto Now you hear me, now you don’t in 2008 for Colin Currie. The first performance took place on February 3, 2008, at Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. The score calls for marimbaphone and strings. Duration is about 15 minutes.
Like many young composers of his generation, Schwertsik began studying in the world of the mid-century avant-garde, including work with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne and at his summer sessions in Darmstadt, the center of European avant-garde composition in the 1950s. Ironically it was there that he encountered the music of John Cage, whose open-minded approach to sound and its presentation was diametrically opposed to such young leaders of the new as Boulez and Stockhausen, that encouraged him to move in a different direction.
In 1958 he joined with Otto Matthäus Zykan and Heinz Karl Gruber in a fresh approach to music which they called “MOB art & tone ART” (“mob” seems to suggest an approach to a wide audience, while “tone ART” plays with the German word “Tonart,” which simply means “music”). He also played horn in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and was professor of composition at Vienna’s Academy of Music from 1989 to 2004.
The composer’s comments on his work are drawn from a February 2009 interview with David Allenby, who observed that the title of this concerto “could be a metaphor for the elusive quality in much of your music,” and Schwertsik explained why he is so taken with the sounds, the music, that constantly surrounds us:
When I was searching for a basic strategy as an artist, John Cage was very important to me. He described how you can listen to everyday sounds—in the street, in nature, in conversations. I agree with Cage that we are people that live in the air, and this is the medium for transmitting the sound waves that we understand as music. At Darmstadt I liked his Zen-inspired spiritual view on life and he reinvigorated my interest in the Dada movement.
As for the relationship of solo and ensemble in this work, he lays out the basic character of the piece:
The marimba is often in the foreground as a concerto soloist but at other times is subsumed into a background role with the string instruments—hence the title of the concerto, Now you hear me, now you don’t. Only occasionally does the marimbist play chords with multiple sticks—in most of the movements the chords are spread horizontally and the melody creates the harmony as in my other works. I decided on the soloist only playing marimbaphone rather than lots of instruments as I don’t subscribe to the ‘kitchen sink’ school of percussion. I compose differently to Cage or Varèse, as I prefer the clarity when the percussion colors have definite pitches.
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra)
James MacMillan was born on July 16, 1959, at Kilwinning in Ayrshire, Scotland, and currently lives in Glasgow. He composed his percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel for Evelyn Glennie in 1992. The first performance took place on August 10, 1992, at a BBC Henry Wood Promenade Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall; the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste with Evelyn Glennie as the soloist. The orchestral part calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), two horns, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone, timpani, and strings. The solo percussion part requires two tam-tams (one large), vibraphone, two snare drums, two congas, six tom-toms, two timbales, pedal bass drum, six Chinese gongs, six temple blocks, log drum, two wood blocks, two cowbells, marimba (five-octave), mark tree, large cymbal, sizzle cymbal, and tubular bells. In addition, as the score notes, “The orchestral players all play bells (of any sort) or, alternatively, two pieces of loud clanging metal at the end of the concerto.” The work is approximately 26 minutes in length.
James MacMillan has become, in recent years, one of the most frequently performed of the generation of British composers now comfortably ensconced in middle age, and the work that has been heard most often by far is Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. One of the reasons it makes an excellent introduction to MacMillan’s work is that, in being based on a universally familiar melody, it gives audiences an immediate thread to follow in the unfolding of the piece. And, having been written for an extraordinary soloist—quite possibly the world’s only full-time percussion soloist—Evelyn Glennie, it rings with color in ways that immediately attract attention.
MacMillan was already composing as a child, and by the age of ten he had produced some small piano pieces and some orchestral music. From 1977 to 1981 he studied music at Edinburgh University, where the musicologist Rita McAllister introduced him to Stravinsky, Webern, Messiaen, and the Russian composers of this century, most notably Shostakovich. He undertook postgraduate studies in composition with John Casken at Durham University and then, in 1983, returned to his native Ayrshire as a teacher. At this time he started playing and singing Scottish and Irish folk music, which became a source for some of his later music. In 1986 he took up the post of lecturer at Manchester University, receiving the Ph.D. in composition from Durham the following year. Again he returned to Scotland, where, in addition to composing a considerable amount of music, he also became very much involved in educational work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, including projects in the schools and work in communities that had little opportunity to hear contemporary music.
In 1989 he became composer-in-residence at the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney, where he was associated with Peter Maxwell Davies, also well known for his interest in education and music for young people. He taught a composer’s course with Max Davies on Hoy that year.
Despite his academic training, MacMillan distanced himself from the traditions of the academy (which mostly means from serial or twelve-tone techniques) and chose to write in a more direct and accessible style. Much of his music has reflected political interests—particularly Scottish nationalism—as well as the Roman Catholic religious background in which he was raised. His 1988 music-theater work, Busqueda, based on texts from the Latin Mass and poems by Argentine “mothers of the disappeared” (premiered in Edinburgh in 1988 with actress Diana Rigg as the speaker) is a case in point. Another (as the composer explains in his note below) is Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Since that time he has composed works for orchestra, a piano concerto, and pieces for many types of ensemble, for chorus, for solo piano, and for opera.
The following commentary on Veni, Veni, Emmanuel was written by the composer for the work’s recording on the Catalyst label:
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is in one continuous movement. Dedicated to my parents, it is based on the Advent plainsong of the same name and was started on the 1st Sunday in Advent 1991 and completed on Easter Sunday 1992. These two liturgical dates are important, as will be explained below. On one level the work is purely abstract, in that all the musical material is drawn from the 15th-century French Advent plainchant. On another level it is a musical exploration of the theology behind the Advent message.
In the work soloist and orchestra converse throughout as two equal partners, using a wide range of percussion instruments, covering tuned, untuned, skin, metal, and wood sounds. Much of the music is fast and, although seamless, can be divided into a five-sectioned arch. It begins with a bold, fanfare-like “overture” in which the soloist presents all the instrument types used throughout. When the soloist moves to gongs and unpitched metal and wood, the music melts into the main meat of the first section—music of a more brittle, knotty quality, propelled forward by various pulse rates evoking an ever-changing heartbeat.
Advanced by drums and carried through a metrical modulation, the music is thrown forward into the second section, which is characterized by fast “hocketing” of chords between one side of the orchestra and the other. Eventually the music winds down to a slow central section, which pits cadenza-like expressivity on the marimba against a floating tranquility in the orchestra and hardly ever rises above ppp. Over and over again the orchestra repeats the four chords that accompany the words “Gaude, gaude” [“rejoice, rejoice”] from the plainsong’s refrain. They are layered in different instrumental combinations and in different speeds, evoking a huge, distant congregation murmuring a calm prayer in many voices.
|A huge pedal crescendo in E-flat provides a transition to section four, in which material from the “hocket” section is reintroduced under a virtuoso vibraphone solo. Gradually one becomes aware of the original tune floating slowly behind all the surface activity. The climax of the work presents the plainsong as a chorale followed by the opening fanfares, providing a backdrop for an energetic drum cadenza. In the final coda, the all-pervasive heartbeats are emphatically pounded out on drums and timpani as the music reaches an unexpected conclusion.
The heartbeats that permeate the whole piece offer a clue to the human presence of Christ. Advent texts proclaim the promised day of liberation from fear, anguish, and oppression, and this work is an attempt to mirror this in music, finding its initial inspiration in Luke 21:
There will be signs in the sun and in the mood and among the stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamor of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the worlds, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.
At the very end of the piece the music takes a liturgical detour from Advent to Easter—right into the Gloria of the Easter Vigil in fact—as if the proclamation of liberation finds embodiment in the Risen Christ.
- James MacMillan
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D.759, Unfinished (Finished Version by Brian Newbould and Mario Venzago)
Franz Peter Schubert was born in Liechtental, a suburb of Vienna, on January 31, 1797, and died in Vienna on November 19, 1828. The score of the two movements of his unfinished B-minor symphony is dated October 30, 1822. A scherzo exists in fairly complete piano sketch, and the first nine measures of the scherzo, fully scored, are on the reverse of the last page of the second movement. An additional page of score, containing eleven measures, recently turned up in Vienna. The first performance of the Unfinished was given under the direction of Johann von Herbeck in Vienna on December 17, 1865, with the last movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 in D, D.200, appended as an incongruous finale. The two completed movements call for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in pairs, three trombones, timpani, and strings. With regard to this “complete” version, see the explanation below. Duration is about 43 minutes.
Schubert’s most popular symphony is also the most mysterious—and it was the very last of his eight symphonies to reach performance. The fact of its incompleteness, combined with the expressiveness of the two movements that were finished, gave rise to endless speculation: Why would a composer abandon a work after so splendid a beginning? Schubert finished the two complete movements in 1822 and sketched a third, even to the point of orchestrating the first twenty bars. But then he gave it up. And by the time he died in 1828, the manuscript was no longer in his possession; it remained concealed for more than thirty five years. The rediscovery and first performance of the Unfinished in 1865 was a revelation to all present—and it has never lacked for performances since that day.
Actually, Schubert left a large number of works unfinished after February 1818 (when he completed his Symphony No. 6 in C major, D.589). These included two symphonies, the one in B minor that we know as the “Unfinished” and one in E minor/major that was more fragmentary, though several musicians have completed it.
It has been reasonably suggested that the mature Schubert (he had just turned 21 when he finished the Sixth Symphony) had begun to change his view of the expressive and technical requirements of a symphony. His earliest works were certainly inspired by Haydn and Mozart, whose symphonies he had performed in his school orchestra. Evidently, encounters with Beethoven’s music left him dissatisfied with the kind of work he had written earlier.
The whole function and point of the symphony as a musical form needed rethinking. The fact that a majority of the uncompleted works are in minor keys suggests, too, that Schubert had difficulty finding a suitable ending to such works—especially after the example of such symphonies as Beethoven’s Fifth, which seemed to struggle from C minor to its triumphant conclusion in C major. How many such solutions could there be? In this light, Schubert’s failure to finish even the scherzo of the B-minor symphony may have been a kind of despair: unable to conceive an appropriate finale for the symphonic structure he had started, he simply dropped the work totally when he realized that its completion was beyond him.
When he evidently gave up working on the piece, after October 30, 1822, Schubert gave his manuscript of the two surviving movements to his school friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner of Graz. It was no doubt at Anselm’s suggestion that the Styrian Musical Society of Graz awarded Schubert a Diploma of Honor—to which he responded with a letter of thanks and the promise to send “one of my symphonies in full score.” In the end, it was the two completed movements of the B-minor symphony he gave away.
After Schubert died, in 1828, his fame gradually grew as more and more of his music reached performance. By 1865 the existence of the unfinished symphony was an open secret. Admirers of his music scoured Vienna, looking for lost pieces and finding many. Eventually Anselm Hüttenbrenner was persuaded to part with the 40-year-old manuscript. At the premiere, the originality of the score, never heard except in its composer’s imagination, captured all hearers.
The two movements that Schubert left are rich in his characteristic melodic expressiveness, bold in harmonic adventure, warm in orchestral color. The first movement contained an idea of such pungency that no less a musician than Johannes Brahms, who edited Schubert’s symphonies for the Breitkopf edition of his complete works at the end of the nineteenth century, couldn’t believe that Schubert intended it; he edited it out of existence!
The movement opens with a mysterious whisper in the low strings, made still darker by the soft tremolo of the violins’ melody over the plucked ostinato in the basses. Soon oboe and clarinet sing a keening, lonely melody. At first the listener might take this for a slow, minor key introduction to a symphony, but eventually it becomes apparent that this is the very body of the work—an entirely new kind of symphonic mood. The opening ideas build to an emphatic climax and drop out, leaving bassoons and horns holding a single note, which suddenly melts into a chord that brings a second theme of ineffable yearning. There follow a series of dramatic outbursts and a dying away in the new key when suddenly oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns sing out a sustained unison B (over a plucked descending line in the strings) designed to lead back to the repeat of the exposition (the first time) or on to the development (the second time). The development is based largely on the dark opening theme, converted to a sighing lament and later to a powerful dramatic outburst. After so much attention in the development, Schubert dispenses with it at the beginning of the recapitulation, starting instead with the violins’ tremolo and the plucked bass notes.
The second movement brings in a bright E major, a key that is particularly striking after the darkness of B minor. Here, especially, the wonderful flexibility of Schubert’s harmony leads us on a poignant musical journey that ends in mystery, with a sudden final skewing to a distant harmonic horizon left unexplained (though if Schubert had found a way to complete the score, the harmonic adventure would certainly have been clarified before the end).
But that was not all he wrote. The reverse side of the score page that ends the second movement contained 20 measures in full score of the Scherzo, and Schubert’s piano sketch for the symphony contained still more (including a theme for the Trio). It was not the full movement, but it offered enough so that Brian Newbould and Mario Venzaga could reconstruct something very like what Schubert had in mind.
That leaves the problem of what Schubert might have done for a finale. With no hint as to his possible approach to a final movement, Newbould suggested using a movement in the home key, B minor, drawn from a work composed about the same time: the Entr’acte No. 1 from his incidental music to Rosamunde, D.797, as a closing movement.
When Schubert died so prematurely, the poet Grillparzer noted, “Music has here entombed a rich treasure, but still fairer hopes.” Schubert never achieved his fairer hopes with the B-minor symphony, but scarcely a richer treasure can be found anywhere.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)