Program Notes

Triple Anniversary:
JOHN HARBISON’s 80th 

THEA MUSGRAVE’s 90th
JOAN TOWER’s 80th

Wednesday, November 28, 2018  8pm

Thea Musgrave, Sunrise (2009)

Sunrise was commissioned by Backshore Artists Project Inc. on the occasion of Carol Wincenc’s 40th anniversary on the concert stage and underwritten by a generous grant from Linda and Stuart Nelson.  The work is dedicated to Carol Wincenc.

 

It starts slowly with the alto flute leading a dark dream-like section with a theme that is marked rubato, seductive. The viola echoes this melody but tries to move it to another key. Eventually the tempo quickens as the harp adds a new theme which the others soon copy. 

 

A new section svegliato (awakening) follows where the harp and viola encourage the flute to join them in a sprightly scherzo which grows to a climax to herald the sunrise. Here the viola leads with a glowing theme. After the flute has echoed this melody the mood quietens and in a peaceful coda the flute ‘remembers’ the theme from the very opening: it is now bathed in sunlight and is marked luminous.

—Thea Musgrave, 2009

 

John Harbison, Songs America Loves to Sing (2004)

It is a distant, quaint vision: the family around the piano singing familiar songs, a Currier and Ives print, an album of sepia photographs. But I remember it well (or did I imagine it?). The album which our family sometimes used may have been called Songs America Loves to Sing. The present collection of solos and canons on some of these still familiar melodies is dedicated to my sister Meg (of five singers, now only two left). 

 

Ideally many of the tunes will still be recognizable. In the chorale preludes of the German baroque common melodies are embedded in the composer's invention (strict against free); if we know the tunes our enjoyment of the pieces is enhanced. It is my hope that choosing well-known musical material will make these settings transparent. 

 

  1. Solo: Amazing Grace.
    In 1972 I made a virtuoso set of variations for solo oboe on this tune. This simpler version is an exploration of the overtones of the primary chord. The accompanying strings offer a foretaste of the canonic principle, framing the soloist with slower versions of Amazing Grace. 

  2. Canon: Careless Love.
    The melody is presented as a ghostly backdrop in the accompanying piano. A series of pensive octave canons serves to introduce the ensemble, in pairs, to the listener. 

  3. Solo: Will the Circle be Unbroken? 
    The song has a visionary presence, and suggests very little harmonic change, a fact emphasized by the obsessive piano signal. The solo begins rhapsodically, then is pulled into the pulse. 

  4. Canon: Aura Lee.
    The piano ostinato is an abstract wallpaper of the tune which is presented at various speeds by the others. In the ‘50s a famous entertainer produced a hit record of a song that very much resembles Aura Lee. 

  5. Solo: What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
    We are at the heart of the cycle, two numbers touching upon the gospel and blues traditions. Here the piano offers increasingly fervent glosses on the tune. The accompanists are not drawn in, but cast a reverent shadow. 

  6. Canon: St. Louis Blues.
    The most elaborate of the canons, actually a double inversion canon over a free bass, with certain elements treated as "thickened lines" (a fine descriptive jazz theory term). 

  7. Solo: Poor Butterfly. 
    The pristine melody is first presented as a cadenza, filtering though only if the listener remembers it well. Then, as a reminder, it is played simply by the accompanists, while the soloist continues an embroidery derived from the tune. 

  8. Canon: We Shall Overcome.
    We enter a political sequence here, two songs that never lose currency. The early music vocabulary for We Shall Overcome says that the goals it furthered have not been achieved. The contentious diminution canons suggest that social struggles and disjunction continue, inevitably. 

  9. Solo: Ain't Goin' to Study War No More.
    I know no sturdier expression of the hope for peace than this spiritual. In the setting an undercurrent of unease is present in the fanfares heard during the second stanza. As the accompanists join the soloist in a collective jam session, the conflicts recede. (A parallel version of the piece was my contribution the Albany Symphony Spiritual Project.) 

  10. Canon: Anniversary Song.
    In a photograph of her fifth birthday party my sister Helen sits in front of her cake, surrounded by her friends, in a perfect party dress, weeping inconsolably. From that image of her indelibly melancholic temperament comes the initial canon; birthdays can be daunting. At the end a more hopeful version of this tune, similar to a (perhaps) still copyrighted melody takes over. 

 

Songs America Loves to Sing, for the so-called "Pierrot" combination, was commissioned jointly by the Da Capo Chamber Players, with an award from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University, and the Atlanta Chamber Players, with funding from Cherry Logan Emerson.  As in an earlier piece, Fourteen Fabled Folksongs (in which I invented all the tunes), the pattern is all-important—the key scheme, contrasts, pacing of the sequence—so pauses between movements must be minimal. Paradoxically I would permit separate performance of any part of the music with very different purposes in view. The entire piece lasts about twenty-five minutes. 

—John Harbison

 

Thea Musgrave, Chamber Concerto #2 (1966)

Chamber Concerto #2 is written in homage to Charles Ives to whom one or two ideas can easily be traced.  In the opening section two alternating ideas are the basis for the whole work: a series of five softly built up chords, and interweaving them, short (at first, very short) 'free', cadenza-like passages. In the latter, a method of writing is evolved which can give great rhythmic complexity, using relatively simple means.

The second section is a lively scherzo, interrupted by lyrical 'free' passages, and culminating in a virtuosic cadenza. One for the piano then leads to the slow third section where the alto flute and bass clarinet have important solos. 

The fourth section is mainly dominated by another piano cadenza, and it is at this point that the viola enters impersonating Rollo (a character invented by Ives to represent the typical Victorian conservative). Rollo is a disruptive element, for his particular association of ideas is hardly in keeping with the general style of the piece!  However the others interrupt him and introduce a Presto Misterioso (the fifth section). Again Rollo joins in. The others interrupt more vigorously, but this time Rollo's motive is not so easily forgotten. A cello cadenza leads to the sixth section where it is accompanied by tolling bell-like figures. Once more Rollo makes his comment. The others no longer interrupt, but during this last section obsessively repeat fragments from all of Rollo's themes; brief hints from the other sections are also woven into the texture making a wild climax. Then "like stepping from a crowded street into a quiet church" there is a sudden, soft, slow cadence.

—Thea Musgrave

 

Joan Tower, Très Lent (1994) – Hommage à Messiaen

Très Lent was written as an hommage to Oliver Messiaen, particularly to his Quartet for the End of Time, which had a special influence on my work.

When I was the pianist for the Da Capo Chamber Players, we frequently performed Messiaen’s quartet over a seven-year period. During this time, I grew to love the many risks Messiaen took — particularly the use of very slow “time,” both in tempo and in the flow of ideas and events. Trés lentis my attempt to make “slow” music work. It is affectionately dedicated to my longtime friend and colleague, who never stops growing as a musician and cellist, André Emelianoff. 

                                                                                                                                      —Joan Tower

 

Joan Tower, Looking Back (2018)

Looking Back is dedicated to cellist André Emelianoff who played with the Da Capo Chamber Players from 1976 to 2011. I was pianist for 13 of those years. The piece was commissioned by his longtime friend John Gidwitz, and Todd Gordon and Susan Feder (former vice president of the classical division of my publisher G. Schirmer). There is one solo for cello as a tribute to André.

                                                                                                                                      —Joan Tower

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