America: The Musical Melting Pot

In January 1938, Samuel Barber, a young American composer mailed a movement of his new string quartet, arranged for string orchestra, to conductor Arturo Toscanini. The score was returned without comment. Barber was furious. But Toscanini replied that Barber had no cause to be angry with him for the perceived slight. Quite the contrary: Toscanini he had liked the piece so well that he intended to perform it on national radio; he had returned it unmarked because he had already memorized it. And perform it he did, on November 2 of that year. So began the American public’s love affair with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a work which has enchanted audiences since Toscanini’s radio broadcast, and which Utah audiences will get to enjoy on NOVA’s May 22 concert.

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1910, Barber showed a prodigious talent at a young age. At ten, he composed an operetta, The Rose Tree, to a libretto by his family’s Irish cook. At fourteen, he began attending the recently-founded Curtis Institute of Music; this was followed by extended periods of study in Europe. Barber’s career reads like a “who’s-who” of the American artistic landscape at the time: his ballet Medea was composed for Martha Graham; his Piano Sonata, commissioned by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, was first performed by Vladimir Horowitz. He would receive two Pulitzer Prizes (for his opera Vanessa, and for his Piano Concerto), a Rome Prize, and numerous other honors and awards. Yet throughout it all, the Adagio for Strings has retained a special place in the hearts of music lovers in America and abroad.

The career of American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938) has been marked a voracious appetite for eclectic influences. His style imitates, merges, and parodies everything from Stravinsky and Berg, to Romantic symphonies, to cabaret songs, marches, folk tunes, foxtrots and rags. Bolcom’s career followed a trajectory shared by many American composers of his generation: although they studied at conservatories in America, their training was in a European style of arch-modernism, specifically the “serialism” developed by Arthur Schoenberg (featured on a NOVA concert last season), and, later, Pierre Boulez (featured on NOVA’s concert of April 3). Yet many of these composers soon grew disenchanted with this hyper-rationalized, extremely dissonant music, and turned toward alternate sources of inspiration; Bolcom stands a supreme example of composers who returned to their American roots in crafting new musical languages. This tendency is monumentally exemplified in Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, a three-hour setting of the entirety of William Blake’s collection. Bolcom’s Suite for Violin and Cello (1997), which will receive its Utah premiere on NOVA’s concert, offers a similar multitude of colors and sounds, on a much smaller scale.

Morris Rosenzweig, a professor of composition at the University of Utah, writes music that is often infused with the sounds of both his native New Orleans (where he “grew up among the tailors, merchants, and strong-willed women of an extended family which has lived in southern Louisiana since the mid 1890s”), and his adopted home of Utah. His 2010 composition 2005 and Counting, which will be featured on NOVA’s concert, offers a “rumination on the great damage” done to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and merges the live voice of a solo clarinet with recorded voices of New Orleans residents reflecting on their displacement after the storm. “This is a personal composition,” writes Rosenzweig. “I don't live in New Orleans anymore, but it remains the only place that makes sense to me.”

In this group of composers, then, it is Ludwig van Beethoven that seems the odd man out. The final work on NOVA’s concert will be Beethoven’s youthful, vivacious Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20. The year 1800 was, in certain regards, the zenith of young Beethoven’s career. He had traveled to Vienna in 1792 to study with Franz Joseph Haydn and, thanks to his remarkable skills as a pianist and improviser, had quickly become the darling of Viennese musical circles. On April 2, 1800, his first public concert featured, along with works by Haydn and Mozart, his First Symphony, First Piano Concerto, and the Septet for clarinet, horn, bassoon, and strings. The Septet was dedicated to Empress Maria Theresia, one of the most powerful rulers in Europe and a great patron of the arts. Local and foreign publishers were expressing interest in Beethoven’s compositions, his income was good, and his fame increased by the day. By the following year, Beethoven would have to admit to his friends that which he had suspected for some time: he was gradually losing his hearing. But in 1800, Beethoven could still enjoy the glittering musical life he had built for himself, and in the Septet NOVA audiences will have a chance to hear the young master at his creative, charming best.

Composer and bass player Jacob Rosenzweig

NOVA’s program additionally features two exciting young talents, both with roots in Salt Lake City, who are now major players on the national and international musical scenes. Jacob Rosenzweig, a bassist in Los Angeles and son of Morris, will be featured when NOVA performs a movement of his Music for Bass Quartet. Cellist Matthew Zalkind, another SLC native and currently a professor at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver, is performing on Sunday; his mother, Roberta Zalkind (Associate Principal Viola of the Utah Symphony), will also perform.

Cellist Matthew Zalkind

––Kamala Schelling

Program Notes on Beethoven & Rihm, Part IV

NOVA concerts on this weekend's Gallery Series represent the final installment in a cycle featuring all ten of Beethoven’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano, programmed alongside Wolfgang Rihm’s six solo Klavierstücke. The works performed at this event represent a culmination of each composer’s efforts in a given medium. Beethoven’s opus 96 violin sonata is the final work of his middle period; during the following three years, he sank into a depression and composed no music of consequence. Rihm’s Klavierstück No. 7 addresses the subject of finality as found in Beethoven’s opus 111 piano sonata and signifies the end of a process and a leave taking (Rihm has composed no further Klavierstücke in the intervening 35 years).

Each Beethoven sonata performed today was shaped largely by the artists they were written for. His famous opus 47 sonata, the “Kreutzer,” was composed for a performance by the flamboyant, young virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower with the composer at the piano. One of the few celebrated European virtuosi of the 19th century of mixed race (his mother was from Poland, his father from Barbados), Bridgetower arrived in Vienna in 1803 and quickly befriended Beethoven. The two hit it off and spent many a drunken evening together. The violinist asked for a sonata, and Beethoven obliged as fast as he could. He had discarded the original finale to an earlier sonata in A Major because its virtuosic and driving tone did not mesh with the other movements. Beethoven built the new sonata for Bridgetower around this pre-existing finale, preceding it with a stormy first movement and an Andante theme and variations. Beethoven spent much of his life pushing musicians beyond their perceived limits, but in this case he clearly met his match. The violin and piano take part in an exciting dialogue of poetic discourse and dazzling one-upmanship. (The original subtitle of the work included the phrase “in the style of a concerto.”) Shortly after the premiere in May of 1803, Bridgewater insulted the honor of a female friend of Beethoven, and the composer changed the dedication of the work to Rodolphe Kreutzer, a French violinist who disliked Beethoven’s music and found this sonata “ outrageously unintelligible.”

Beethoven tailored his opus 96 sonata to the taste of a violinist with a very different musical temperament, the French musician Pierre Rode. Beethoven had great admiration for the French school of violin playing, but he felt a bit hampered by the fact that Rode did not care for “fairly noisy passages” of virtuoso showmanship. Beethoven responded to this by writing a work pastoral and gentle in nature, almost approaching the transparent sound Schubert was to master in another ten years.

Rihm’s Klavierstücke Nos. 6 & 7, composed in 1978 and 1980 repsectively, offer a study in contrasts. No. 6 was written for the painter Kurt Kocherscheidt after his work “Klavierküste III,” a chalk image where the figure of a keyboard dissolves into a fluid chaos of sinuous lines. No. 6 is the longest and quietest of Rihm’s Klavierstücke, with the music delicately tracing out single melodic lines in a dynamic frequently notated “pppp.” No. 7, on the other hand, is manically obsessed with several figures from Mvt. 1 of Beethoven’s final piano sonata, opus 111. The recurring rhythmic motive of Rihm’s piece is a perversion of the very opening of Beethoven’s work; the anacrusis is heavily accented with the instruction “the second note always like a shadow of the first one.” A few direct quotes from the Beethoven are furtively heard, and the music culminates in an absurd pounding of “fff” E-flat major chords. An empty 5 bars is marked “Come una Aria,” and following a coda of terrifying descending bass trills, the music ends with a flippant send-off.

Concert Preview with Eric Hopkins

Percussionist Eric Hopkins and Artistic Director Jason Hardink discuss NOVA's upcoming concert, featuring the Fry Street Quartet playing Beethoven's opus 127 and 6 Utah percussionists performing Michael Gordon's post-minimalist masterpiece, Timber.

Beethoven and Rihm: Part II

This weekend the NOVA Gallery Series presents the 2nd installment of our complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Piano and solo Klavierstücke of Wolfgang Rihm. While this pairing provides a great deal of musical contrast, the composers themselves each offer us a pair of diametrically opposed works on this concert.

Beethoven composed his opus 23 and 24 sonatas in late 1800 and early 1801 during an extremely prolific period of his career. On three occasions around this time, he wrote to friends, confessing both the symptoms of hearing loss and his resolve to “seize Fate by the throat- it will certainly not crush me completely.” Italianate sensibilities dominate the opus 23 sonata. The precipitous drama found in both the first-movement tarantella and the fiery finale finds respite in a comedic second movement reminiscent of Mozart’s operas. The opus 24 “Spring” sonata (a nickname bestowed long after Beethoven’s death) is a more lyrical work that prefigures a style of music Schubert would embrace 25 years later.

Rihm’s Klavierstücke Nos. 4 and 5 inhabit extremely different spiritual and emotional realms. No. 4 is an introspective and poetic work. Composed in 1974, this piece evokes a sense of mystery and religiosity. Cast as six short movements that run seamlessly together, Rihm’s preoccupation with resonance, bell tones, and repetition invites the listener to a contemplative state.

Rihm composed Klavierstück No. 5 the following year; the work was written for and dedicated to the great German pianist Herbert Henck. Just four years older than Rihm, Henck was responsible for bringing a great deal of American modern music, especially that of Charles Ives, before German audiences. The wild nature of Klavierstück No. 5 is quite possibly indebted to the improvisatory yet structured narrative found in Ives’ ‘Hawthorne’ movement of the Concord Sonata. Rihm adapts the stream-of-consciousness tone of Ives’ music to his own Germanic disposition. References to Schumann, Beethoven, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Messiaen, many of which will be unnoticeable on a first hearing, fly by in cascades of virtuosity. This work consists of three movements; a short and raucous opening that presents material that will later be reprised as a quiet chorale (mvt. 3). The second movement is a chaconne that implodes after six variations, dissolving into a free exploration of the materials heard thus far. A brutal climax in the bass register is followed by a chorale that resolves on “C”, the opening sonority of the work. The word “resolution” here describes a harmonic function that Rihm undermines with a disturbing realization: 7 sffffz iterations of octave “C’s” spaced over irregular intervals of time.

JH, 2.22.14

Late Beethoven and New Complexity Discussed

Jason Hardink discusses the selection of repertoire on our February 9, 2014 NOVA concert.

An Interview with Jason Eckardt

The NOVA Chamber Music Series will present a concert featuring music by Jason Eckardt alongside late works by Beethoven on February 9. Mr. Eckardt recently took the time to answer a few questions about his music and specifically address works heard on our program. This includes two solo piano pieces (Cuts and Echoes' White Veil) composed in the mid-1990s as well as a new work receiving its world premiere in Salt Lake City, pulse-echo (for piano and string quartet).

J.H.: When we first programmed the selection of Eckardt works to be performed on our February 2014 NOVA concert, you noticed that we'd be juxtaposing some of your earliest published compositions with your most recent work. In the (almost) 20 years since Echoes' White Veil, do you feel that the sound and intent of your music has transformed significantly?

J.E.: Since I began composing, some concerns have remained while others have evolved. One aspect of my music that is relatively new is a preoccupation with timbre. While it is fashionable in some circles to disregard pitch as compositional material, I reject this assertion. In pulse-echo, pitched and nonpitched sounds, some at the threshold of audibility, symbiotically coexist as structural (rather than ornamental) elements. Where melodic phrasing and harmonic motion are used in other works to shape the progression of events, here the timbral transformation of materials, often combined with registeral constraints, serves the same purpose. 

What has remained consistent in my music is a desire to create works that are multivalent, complex, severe, and open to multiple interpretations. But most of all, I wish for my works to be moving. My love of music was fostered early in life while listening to records. The emotions and sensations that I felt were so personal, so deep, that at the time I could never imagine how to communicate them. This world of inner thoughts and feelings is a place so special that it inspired me to create music that might have the same effect on someone else or perhaps even beneficially contribute to “the fate of mankind.”

So much of our existence is filled with instant gratification. We are often indifferent to or dismissive of anything contrary of our beliefs, politics, or personal worldview. If there is one thing that I believe art can achieve, it is to challenge us in ways that have positive outcomes. Violence, intolerance, and strife in the world are due to, at their foundations, a lack of imagination.

As far as intent is concerned, I believe that music — and by extension all art — lies purely in the perception of the person consuming it. While research in cognitive psychology has been useful in my compositional endeavors, I am not as presumptuous as to assume I can know how someone else is experiencing my music. As suggested, I may try and guide the listener in a certain direction, with regard to form and continuity, but ultimately any aesthetic perception or associations one might have, I leave to the listener. How could I do otherwise? If Debussy had titled Le Mer “Symphonic Suite” or “Les carottes” would we have any impression of the sea? The same could be said of so much programmatic music of the 19th century.

pulse-echo, my new work for NOVA, derives its title from a quote by Arnold Schoenberg: “Art is the cry of distress of those who personally experience the fate of mankind. Within themselves they carry the pulse of the world and only an echo reaches the outside. And that echo is the work of art.” I don’t believe that a listener needs to be aware of this quote in order to engage meaningfully with the piece. Nevertheless, perhaps the listener’s experience is somehow enriched by the quote, or is provided with something to consider while listening. Surely, listeners’ experiences will change, to some degree, if they know this information. But it is certainly not necessary to “understand” the piece. (And I don’t really know if anyone can “understand” any piece of art except on their own, proprietary terms.)

So, I do try and suggest certain ideas in the titles of my pieces or in the program notes but with the understanding that they are ultimately not necessary. Many of my titles are meant to be subtle or multifaceted. While some of my program notes are more overt (particularly in my political pieces), my intention is to provide a space where the listener can be provoked and react rather than batter them with an ideology or bore them with structural details.

J.H.: Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E Major, opus 109 precedes Echoes' White Veil on our program. One of the reasons I chose the Beethoven was because of the highly structured yet improvisatory nature of the first movement. Critics like to point out this idea in some of your works with references to jazz and Cecil Taylor- how does that strike you? Is there any compositional attempt to evoke expressive freedom and improvisation within a work like Echoes' White Veil (even while it is very specifically notated)?

J.E.: Having studied and performed jazz as a guitarist, the influence of the genre is very strong in my compositional thinking, even if it is not always obvious. Broadly, I am attempting to capture the spirit and excitement of an improvisation in notated music. There is either a sense of danger — as if everything could collapse at once but somehow manages to continue — or of intense, introspective emotion that I enjoy in the greatest improvisations. And there are some improvisations that transcend to what I can only describe as the spiritual. Of course, all types of music can reach these heights (I’m thinking at the moment of the conclusion of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a Gagaku Irite, and John Lennon’s God), but there is a kind of fragility in jazz improvisation that is unique. More specifically, I am fascinated by the way in which rhythm is conceptualized in jazz with respect to the way it pulls and pushes the tempo and plays “around” the beat. Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and John Scofield have been particularly instructive in this regard. In my own music, I try to articulate this temporal plasticity using precisely notated rhythms. While this may seem at odds with my intensions, I have found that only by using such methods can the micro-accelerations and –de-accelerations be achieved in performance. The result in Echoes’ While Veil is something akin to Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” or the pianism of Cecil Taylor. Echoes’ White Veil is also unique in my oeuvre as it has no meter and therefore, no barlines. All rhythms are to be performed as durations in an established tempo but not with respect to an underlying metric structure. This provides some rhythmic flexibility and allows me to render long strings of grace notes that do not compromise the durations of adjacent, measured rhythms.

J.H.: I find it interesting that Echoes' White Veil and pulse-echo are works that address gestures/thoughts/sounds as they resonate and reverberate out into the world. While the ties between the titles of both works is most likely superficial and coincidental, would similarities or differences in the manner in which these two works address a musical or intellectual "echo" allow a unique perspective for an audience member hearing both works for the first time?

J.E.: While you are right that the connection is incidental, I do think that there can be connections made between the two pieces. Both works are preoccupied with resonance is particular ways. When writing for the piano I am very conscious of the fact that it is not a sustaining instrument: all sounds made are in a constant state of decay, sustained only by the resonant qualities of the wooden cabinet in which the strings of the piano vibrate. The second movement of Echoes’ White Veil explicitly explores the resonance of the piano with isolated events that “echo” through reverberation. In pulse-echo, this idea is extended to ways in which the strings behave, mimicking, amplifying, and sustaining music that originates in the piano. The new work is also constantly repeating self-similar materials that are often significantly transformed, and, like Echoes’ White Veil, literally repeats pitches to establish relatively stable elements in a volatile environment.

The broader idea of the echo is also important. I am constantly made aware of the fact that being is experienced in light of events and knowledge from the pastas well as future projection.As the W.S. Merwin wrote in the prose poem that inspired the title of Echoes’ White Veil, “Anyone can see that echoes move forward and backward in time, in rings.” One can naturally apply this compositionally, by alluding to or repeating things that have already occurred in the composition (or in the case of some works, in other compositions) and suggest possible trajectories by musical means. The sense of progression and pacing that I painstakingly try to achieve in my music is a direct manifestation of this “echo” concept.



The Music of Wolfgang Rihm in SLC

Last spring the NOVA Chamber Music Series presented the Utah premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s piano trio Fremde Szene II, a wild and memorable experience for many in the audience (and certainly for those on stage!). Over the course of this season and next, NOVA is dedicating a fair amount of time to this composer on the Gallery Series by presenting the first complete Utah cycle of his solo Klavierstücke. By the end of this cycle, the NOVA audience will have had serious exposure to this wonderfully creative mind.

It is no exaggeration to say that Wolfgang Rihm is the most important German composer alive today. His works are paired on NOVA this season with the complete Beethoven violin sonatas as a testament to the strength of his musical craftsmanship and creative spirit. Like Beethoven, Rihm absorbed the language and styles of his predecessors but railed against the confines suggested by this musical inheritance. One of the traits of his style is that he does not restrict himself to a “style” at all. His catalogue is very difficult to pin down into a convenient “ism,” leaving us to judge each of his works in a more singular fashion.

Paul Griffiths, modern music critic and historian (and guest speaker at NOVA during Salt Lake City’s Messiaen Festival of April 2007), addresses this very point:

The selfhood of a Beethoven sonata or a Lachenmann string quartet is made partly by how it relates, and does not relate, to the composer’s output. But with Rihm these relations lie dormant. His music remains, surely for most of us, a map with a few islands, a few strands of coastline, and large, large areas of white paper. A new Rihm piece comes to us, therefore, almost from out of nowhere. And there are gains in this: of anonymity, of an individuality in each piece that is self-created, not dependent on coordinates of linkage.

If you’re looking to read a little more about Wolfgang Rihm, two articles celebrating Thierry Fischer’s performances of Rihm’s music with the London Sinfonietta present a great introduction to his music. Tom Service wrote a fantastic preview article of the London events celebrating Rihm’s 60th birthday, while Ivan Hewett wrote a review of Fischer’s concerts for The Telegraph. 

JH, 10.11.13