Friday, July 06, 2012

The Knights at the Naumburg Band Shell

The Knights at the Naumburg Band Shell
Central Park, New York, NY
July 10, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.

Eric Jacobsen, Conductor
Julia MacLaine, Cello

Wagner Siegfried Idyll
Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor, op. 129
Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Adès Three Studies from Couperin
Jacobsen/Aghaei Ascending Bird: Introduction and Dance for Orchestra

Thoughts on the program by James Roe.

Program Overview

“I must try for something else.”  --- Robert Schumann
“new inspiration on every page”  --- Thomas Adès

The incredible alchemy of an orchestra concert is achieved through its array of collaborative elements.  Composers—whether living or from the past—endeavor to represent the musical sounds they hear in their imaginations with written notation.  Performers, in turn, use the decidedly physical act of playing musical instruments to reach through the printed notation for the composer’s voice.

In each of the works on tonight’s program there is an additional collaborative element, an inspiration outside the composer through which he reaches to us.  For Wagner, it was a private musical gift to his wife.  Schumann’s was the voice of the cello, an instrument he briefly attempted to learn after an injury prevented him from playing the piano.  Debussy created a musical “impression” of Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist poetry.  Thomas Adès’ inspiration was the keyboard music of François Couperin.  Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei based “Ascending Bird” on a traditional Persian folk song.

Richard Wagner
(b Leipzig, May 22, 1813; d Venice, February 13, 1883)

Siegfried Idyll

Composed: 1870, Tribschen
Premiere: privately, December 25, 1870, in the home of Cosima and Richard Wagner
Instrumentation: flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, strings
Duration: 17 minutes

Siegfried Idyll offers a glimpse into the intimate world of Richard Wagner.  Never intended for public performance, the work was written as a birthday gift for his wife Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt and former wife of conductor and champion of Wagner’s music, Hans von Bülow.  Cosima bore Wagner three children while still married to Bülow, daughters Isolde (1865) and Eva (1867), and their son Siegfried (1869).  Cosima and Bülow were divorced in July of 1870 and she married Wagner a month later in Lucerne.

On the morning after Cosima’s 33rd birthday, December 25, 1870, Wagner assembled a chamber orchestra on the stairs leading to her bedroom.  She awoke to the premiere of a work written for her alone, based on musical themes important to the couple, now at long last, husband and wife.

She wrote in her diary:

“A sound awoke me which grew ever stronger; I knew I was no longer dreaming, there was music, and what music! When it had died away, R. came into my room with the five children and gave me the score of his ‘Symphonic Birthday Greeting’ - I was in tears, so was everybody in the house. R. had placed his orchestra on the staircase, and thus our Tribschen is consecrated for all time.”

The work opens with a gentle, arching melody that Wagner originally conceived for a string quartet dedicated to Cosima.  In the Idyll, he gives us a sense of how that unrealized work might have sounded, as the strings play alone for a full two minutes before the woodwinds enter.  The appearance of the fresh orchestral color, first the flute, and then oboe and clarinet, is magic.  One can imagine Wagner painting a musical picture of Cosima’s first stirrings on the morning of the premiere.

The work is disarmingly tender and personal.  British music scholar and Wagner specialist, Ernest Newman, referred to it as “a series of domestic confidences.” It can come as no surprise that Cosima cried when it was sold for publication to help raise needed funds.  This, the most private of Wagner’s musical creations, has become his most performed instrumental work.

Robert Schumann
(b Zwickau, Saxony, June 8, 1810; d Endenich, near Bonn, July 29, 1856 )

Cello Concerto in A Minor, op. 129

Composed: October 10-24, 1850, Düsseldorf
Premiere: posthumously, April 23, 1860, Oldenburg, Ludwig Ebert, soloist, Großherzolighen Hofkapelle, Karl Franzen, conductor
Instrumentation: solo cello, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings
Duration: 25 minutes
In 1850, Robert Schumann moved from Dresden to Düsseldorf to become the municipal music director.  Though it would soon become apparent that he was ill-suited for this position, the move initially ushered the composer into a brief but truly happy period.  His Cello Concerto in A Minor was written in a two-week burst of creativity soon after his arrival in the new city.  It is one of the major works to emerge from his final years of mental decline, and the last he saw all the way from composition to publication.

Schumann’s reasons for writing this piece are not known, but once it was completed, he was unable to interest cellists in performing the work.  After being rejected by the publishing houses, Friedrich Hofmeister and Carl Luckhardt, Breitkopf & Härtel finally agreed to publish the work in 1854.  Schumann even made a version for cello and string quartet, which was refused publication and is now unfortunately lost.  With no cellists willing to play the piece, Schumann rewrote it as a violin concerto and presented it to violinist, Joseph Joachim who accepted the score without ever performing it.  The violin version was only discovered in 1987.

Schumann once wrote, "I cannot write a concerto for the virtuosos. I must try for something else.”  With the Cello Concerto, he achieves that elusive “something else” by deftly wedding virtuosity to musical substance.  Originally titled, Concertstück für Violoncell mit Begleitung des Orchesters (“Concertpiece for Violoncello with Orchestral Accompaniment”), the work is three movements played without break.  In character with Schumann’s late style, themes are recalled throughout the work creating a distinctly narrative effect, with the soloist taking the role of storyteller.  In 1850, his wife, Clara wrote, “Robert composed a concerto for the violoncello that pleased me very much. It appears to be written in the true violoncello style. The romantic quality, the flight, the freshness and the humor, and also the highly interesting interweaving of cello and orchestra are, indeed, wholly ravishing — and what euphony and what sentiment are in all those melodic passages!”

When the publication of this work finally came, Schumann was entering the final phase of his mental illness.  Hallucinatory voices haunted him.  Seeking solace, he threw himself into proofreading the final drafts of the work.  Eventually, his mental torment led to a suicide attempt.  He leapt into the Rhine in February of 1854 and was subsequently moved to a sanatorium at Endenich near Bonn, where he lived out his remaining two years.  The Cello Concerto finally received its premiere four years later, just shy of what would have been Schumann’s 50th birthday.  As it happens, this evening’s performance is two days after the 202nd anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Claude Debussy
(b St Germain-en-Laye, August 22, 1862; d Paris, March 25, 1918 )

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [after the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé]

Composed: 1891-4, Paris
Premiere: Paris, December 22, 1894, at the Société Nationale, Gustave Doret, conductor
Instrumentation: three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two harps, crotales, strings
Duration: 10 minutes
Languid, sensual, exotic, and seemingly improvisatory, Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was his first major masterpiece and introduced the world to a new musical language.  In the 1890s, Debussy became a regular at the Tuesday salons hosted by symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, who invited the young composer to write a musical component to a theater piece based on his poem L’après midi d’un faune.

The work famously opens with an unaccompanied flute, representing the flute of Pan.  The melody begins on a sustained c-sharp, a note played on the flute with all the fingers raised, no keys depressed. Debussy, the musical colorist, knew the gauzy diffuseness the flute could produce on this note and used it to great effect, subtly blending the beginning of the piece with the silence preceding it.  The flute’s melodic arabesque defines no key, only mood.  Winds and harp answer with diaphanous harmonic clouds.  Then, just moments after the music begins, Debussy writes a long measure of six slow beats with no sound; only the music of silence is heard.  (Wagner, whose music was a strong influence on the young Debussy, had used a similar device in his Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.)  In Debussy’s music, the relationship of sound to silence is imbued with new possibilities.  Silence seems to belong to Debussy’s music like that of no other composer until John Cage.  When the music resumes after the six beats of rest, it is a wash of harmonies yearning for resolution but finding only suspension.  The pleasure of this music is in the delay of resolutions, and the pleasure is palpable.

Debussy described the work as “a very free rendering of Stéphane Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. It does not purport to contain everything that is in the poem. It is rather a succession of scenes in which the desires and dreams of the faune pass through in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of chasing the frightened nymphs and naiads, he gives in to intoxicating sleep.”  Should we find any significance in the fact that the Prélude comprises the same number of bars as there are lines in Mallarmé’s poem?

Thomas Adés
(b London, March 1, 1971)

Three Studies from Couperin for Chamber Orchestra
Les Amusemens
Les Tours de Passe-passe
Composed: 2006
Premiere: April 21, 2006, Basel, Switzerland, Kammerorchester Basel, Thomas Adès, conductor
Instrumentation: two flutes (also playing alto and bass flutes), clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, percussion, two string orchestras
Duration: 13 minutes
“My ideal day would be staying at home and playing the harpsichord works of Couperin—new inspiration on every page.”  The Couperin to which Adès refers is François (1668-1733), known as “le grand” for his impressive keyboard prowess.  One of the most important French musicians of his day, Couperin assumed the post of organist at St. Gervais in Paris in 1685, and in 1693 was chosen by Louis XIV to be organist at the royal chapel.

Couperin produced four books of solo harpsichord music, comprising over 200 works, most of which carry charmingly descriptive titles, as evidenced by those Adès chose for his three studies.  Couperin’s titles could be enigmatic, even to his sophisticated court audiences.  He took some delight in this as he explained in the preface to his 1713 collection, “In composing these pieces, I have always had an object in view, furnished by various occasions. Thus the titles reflect my ideas; I may be forgiven for not explaining them all.”  The first movement of Adès’ Three Studies translates easily.  The second movement, Tours de Passe-passe, means “sleight of hand” and L’Âme-en-Peine is “the lost soul.”

In his Three Studies, Adès retains all the notes of Couperin’s keyboard works, colorizing them with great inventiveness and unalloyed affection.  That these versions sound so fresh speaks to the creative powers of Couperin himself.  Wanda Landowska said, “What is this elusive anguish that Couperin provokes in us?  He does not speak of love, sensuousness, or sorrow, in the same manner as does Bach or Handel.  Couperin’s music permeates our subconscious, agitating its levels.  It burrows into the depth of our inner life.”

Colin Jacobsen (b 1978, New York City)
Siamak Aghaei (b 1973, Ahwaz, Iran)

Ascending Bird: Introduction and Dance for Orchestra

Composed: 2010
Premiere: September 26, 2010, Caramoor, Katonah, NY, The Knights, Eric Jacobsen, conductor
Instrumentation: flute, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, trombone, bass trombone, percussion, strings
Duration: 7 minutes
The Knights regularly perform works written by its members, and tonight’s program closes with Ascending Bird: Introduction and Dance for Orchestra, written by Knights co-founder and co-artistic director, Colin Jacobsen in collaboration with his friend, Iranian musician, Siamak Aghaei.  The piece is based on a Persian folk song that tells the story of a bird attempting to fly to the sun.  Twice the bird fails, but on the third flight the creature takes leave of its physical body, embracing the sun in state of spiritual transcendence.

Colin first encountered this folk song in 2004 while he and violist Nicholas Cords visited Siamak Aghaei in Tehran.  One afternoon, Siamak played a recording of the folk song that would become Ascending Bird.  Colin and Nick were captivated by the sound of the unusual instrument playing the melody.  When Siamak explained to them that it was constructed of fused bird bones only a few inches in length, it was as if myth took physical form through the act of music making.  The transcendent bird had no use for its skeleton; yet in the hands of the musician, the bones told the bird’s story.  It brings to mind the Latin phrase that Baroque instrument makers often inscribed on the wooden lids of their harpsichords: Dum vixi tacui, mortua dulce cano, “Living, I was silent; in death, I sweetly sing.”

The story has profound resonance for musicians.  In the finest performances, tools become secondary, like the bones of the mythical bird.  Each concert is another opportunity to fly into the sun.

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