Johann Sebastian Bach and Michael Hersch, Together Again

“Michael Hersch,” writes NOVA Artistic Director Jason Hardink, “is a composer we're going to be featuring over the coming seasons; the Gallery Series this season offers our first installments in this multi-year project.” After initial exposure at the Gallery Series concert in October, Utah audiences will have a second opportunity to hear Hersch’s work on April 10 & 17, at NOVA’s second and final Gallery Series program of the season. Hersch, a young American composer, has enjoyed astounding success. Winner of the Rome and Berlin Prizes, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, Hersch has had works commissioned and premiered by many of the world’s foremost symphonies, chamber groups, and soloists, including the Cleveland Symphony, Ensemble Klang, Thomas Hampson, Garrick Ohlsson, Béla Fleck, and Midori.

Composer Michael Hersch

As with NOVA’s Gallery Series last October, the upcoming concert will pair Hersch’s work (this time, the Sonata No. 2 for Unaccompanied Cello) with a selection of Johann Sebastian Bach’s two-part inventions, as well as Bach’s monumental Partita for Solo Violin in D Minor. “The juxtaposition of Bach’s dance movements, among the most beloved works in the repertoire, with Hersch’s music will offer a nice parallel for an audience seeking a way into his music,” explains Hardink, “since many of Hersch’s works are, like Bach’s dance suites, sets of miniatures.”

From 1717 to 1723, Bach worked at the court of Prince Leopold at Cöthen, a Calvinist court where music during religious ceremonies was forbidden, but secular music during courtly entertainments was embraced. It was while at Cöthen that he wrote many of his most famous instrumental works, including the suites of dances for unaccompanied cello, keyboard, and violin that now form such important parts of the repertoire for each of these instruments. The dance suite brought together stylized folk dances from a wide range of backgrounds, and in the seventeenth century composers and publishers in the German lands began combining these dances into small collections or “suites,” grouped by key. The standard form of this suite was Allemande-Courante-Sarabande-Gigue. According to this pattern, the dances would follow a slow-fast-slow-fast pattern, with the outer two movements in duple meter and the inner two in triple meter. The stately Allemande (“German dance”) would be followed by the quick-footed courante (from the Italian corrente, meaning “running”), while the grave Sarabande would be followed by the lively, hopping Gigue (from the Irish “jig”). By the time Bach inherited the suite, composers typically added an introductory prelude, meant to introduce the key of the work, and an impressive finale. (For more on the history of Bach’s stay at Cöthen, and on the history of the dance suite, see the NOVA Notes for the October 18 concert.)






Prince Leopold of Cöthen, Bach’s employer from
1717 to 1723

Yet in his second Partita (essentially, an Italian dance suite) for solo violin, Bach stripped away the by-now traditional prelude and finale, reducing the dance suite to its four fundamental dances. To these four movements, he then added a Chaconne, a compositional form in which a short “ground bass” melody is played on a loop while the composer builds variations above this recurring foundation. It is a fun quirk of music history that both the Sarabande and the Chaconne, now known for their expansive stateliness, are thought to have their origins in quick-footed, lubricious dances imported from South America in the sixteenth century. Bach’s Chaconne, on the other hand, is a monumental work of staggering proportions –– the four-bar ground bass is repeated no fewer than sixty-four times –– that has become one of the most famous works ever composed. A century and a half after the Chaconne’s composition, Johannes Brahms would write to Clara Schumann, in June 1877:

The Chaconne is, for me, one of the most unimaginably wonderful pieces of music. On a single string, for one small instrument, Bach writes an entire world of deepest thoughts and most profound feelings. If I could even imagine that I might create such a work, I am sure that the excess of excitement and shock would drive me mad.

A manuscript of Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, likely copied by Bach’s wife Anna Magdalena.

And, indeed, Brahms would be one of many composers –– Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Ferrucio Busoni among them –– to arrange the work; Brahms’ version is for the piano, for the left hand alone. On April 17, Bach’s tremendous second Partita will be performed for NOVA’s gallery audience by Alexander Woods on Baroque violin.

Kamala Schelling,  April 5, 2016

Music by Matthias Pintscher

Three works by Matthias Pintscher are featured on NOVA’s February 28, 2016 concert. This gifted composer was born in 1971 in Marl, North Rhine-Westphalia, and currently resides in New York and Paris. He has emerged with unusual speed to become recognized as one of the most successful composers of the generation. He works also as conductor with renowned interpreters and orchestras. In June 2012 he was appointed Music Director of the Ensemble InterContemporain beginning in the 2013-2014 season. Last September it was announced that the Mr. Pintscher will serve as Principal Conductor German of the Lucerne Festival Academy, working closely with Artistic Director and composer Wolfgang Rihm. As stated by Stefana Sabin, “Sustained, shimmering, iridescent notes, nuanced instrumentation, and an idiosyncratic penchant for high registers comprise what has become the characteristic and recognizable Pintscher sound… The essential element in Pintscher’s compositions is not melody but their play with color sounds…”

The following notes offer background information on each of the intriguing pieces performed on NOVA this February.

Janusgesicht, for Viola and Cello
The following note is by esteemed scholar of modern music Paul Griffiths (guest lecturer for Salt Lake City’s Messiaen Festival in April of 2007; Mr. Griffiths introduced NOVA’s performance of the Quartet for the End of Time.)

In the case of Janusgesicht, instrumentation accelerates the fusion – and confusion – of the participants, who travel as images of each other through a typically Pintscheresque landscape of fragile yet intensely present sonorities, very often harmonics, traversed at the slow tempo of breathing. The source tone this time is B on the treble staff, sounded in different ways on the two instruments: as a natural or artificial harmonic, pizzicato or arco, away from or on the bridge, trilled or not. Vacillations of sound, at a generally low dynamic level, with notes often rising from silence as far as ppp and then shading back again, create an effect of unreality. The note is there; it is, to begin with, almost all that can be heard, shining and vanishing like the dim beam of a distant lighthouse. But at the same time it seems like the trace of something gone, a mark of absence. So the piece continues, through further echoes, coalescences, and near misses, through unisons and places where one instrument picks out a harmonic of the other’s note, and it is as if the site of aural intentness is rising, to a prolonged intersection on the F-sharp a fifth above the original B, and rising again, to a point super-high for both these instruments, the C-sharp another octave and a fifth higher. Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings and transitions – “The matter of new beginnings (“Départ”) and of the imaginary journey from the familiar to the unknown concerns me fundamentally” – is commonly depicted facing outwards in two directions, but here it is as if the two instruments, the two visages, are looking towards one another – listening to one another, of course, as in any piece of chamber music, but also, in their listening as in their playing, feeling for the space that lies between them, across the mirror.

Beyond (a system of passing)
Continuity and further development characterize Matthias Pintscher’s compositions. Concepts found in his flute concerto Transir are expanded anew, informing his recent composition Beyond (a system of passing) for Flute Solo, which was composed for the Salzburg Festival. "The flute is any sound attached to the breathing ' - no instrument is articulated as close to the air stream itself, the instrument vibrating in direct contact with the human breath as an extension of the breath and body, carrying within itself the archaic and proposing a communicative bridge up to the present time... " The composition is based on a work of art by Anselm Kiefer " AEIOU " and was premiered in 2013 by Emanuel Pahud in Salzburg. 

Kiefer’s work, titled “A.E.I.O.U.”, is a walk-in installation containing a large-format painting, a shelf of books made of lead, and a wall inscription. The house in Furtwänglerpark was built and furnished exactly to the artist’s stipulations. The shelf holds sixty lead volumes from which branches of Moroccan thornbushes seem to grow. These enter a dialogue with the painting opposite, “Awake in the Gypsy Camp.” The painting quotes a strophe from Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem “Das Spiel ist aus” (The Game is Over). It shows clay bricks set out to dry – an allusion to Sumerian cuneiform tablets – and is partially strung with NATO wire. The inscription translates: “Awake in the gypsy camp and awake in the desert tent, the sand runs out of our hair, your age and mine and the age of the world are not measured in years.” Gypsy camp and desert tent – words that evoke the nomadic character of our contemporary lives, between forms of existence and states of time, but also alluding to the fleetingness of time, something Kiefer finds especially relevant to the city of Salzburg.

To quote the artist: “I imagined the space as having fallen into a kind of Sleeping Beauty slumber. Each viewer can awaken the work back to life, like the knight in the fairy-tale kissed Sleeping Beauty awake.”

Kiefer’s contribution to the Salzburg Art Project is titled “A.E.I.O.U.” This vowel sequence was used by Emperor Frederick III as a reference to his secretly planned imperialistic claims. “Austriae Est Imperare Orbi Universo”. Originating in late-medieval emblematics, it has prompted over 300 interpretations to date. Viewers are challenged to contribute their own readings, and ideally to generate new meanings.

In Nomine
Matthias Pintscher’s solo viola work In Nomine was commissioned as a part of the vast project outlined below:

The In Nomine genre, characteristic of the late English Renaissance, took as its point of departure a section of the Benedictus from John Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. That section includes a complete statement of the chant cantus firmus for which the mass was named, and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, spawned an entire tradition of instrumental works in which composers tried to demonstrate their contrapuntal skills by devising new settings of the chant, or of Taverner's own setting, that would stand out from all the others. The subtitle "The Witten in Nomine Broken Consort Book" might lead the listener to expect a little-known collection of perhaps German offshoots from this tradition, but in fact the music is all contemporary. The impressively large collection of 42 pieces found in this collection grew from an initial group dedicated to one Harry Vogt, the director of a contemporary music festival in the city of Witten; the tradition, as mysteriously as the original one, has taken on a life of its own. It would be wrong to call the music varied. Composed between 1994 and 2002, it is far from representing the range of styles heard in Germany during that period. The examples of Webern and Wolfgang Rihm, who composed one of the pieces, loom large; most of the pieces are fragmentary, pointillistic, extreme in instrumental technique, unconnected with tonal centers, and absorbed in the intellectual preconditions of the post-World War II avant-garde, which by now is not avant anything. The settings range from less than a minute to about 11 minutes in length, and Freiburg's ensemble recherche does well at keeping a consistent thread going through music written for various forces. Several works are arrangements of In Nomine by Purcell, Byrd, and their contemporaries, but in most of the music the In Nomine references are fleeting and difficult to identify… Nevertheless, it provides a common reference point for an unusually large collection of German modernist music, and the production by the West German Radio of Cologne is top-notch. (James Manheim)


Kamala Schelling on Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach: History and Context
For a composer who now enjoys universal fame of staggering proportions, the life and career of Johann Sebastian Bach played out over a surprisingly small geographic triangle in eastern Germany. Born in Eisenach, in 1685, to a large extended family of professional musicians, and educated in a handful of towns in the German state of Thuringia, Bach’s employment would never take him more than 150 miles from his birthplace, and it would fall to the generations after his death to bring him the fame he now enjoys. Yet the variety and quality of music Bach would write within this tiny radius, in a provincial corner of Germany, continues to astound, and NOVA will offer a glimpse of this variety over the next two seasons.

Little is known about Bach’s early years: his childhood, his musical education, and his early employment remain lost to the mists of time. We do know that in 1703, at age 18, he accepted a position as church organist at Arnstadt, a small city in Thuringia, and in 1707 a position in the nearby city of Mühlhausen. His tenure in Mühlhausen lasted almost exactly one year, but during this brief period he wrote several cantatas, married his first wife (Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin), and attracted his first students. (In 1707, Bach had also been offered a job as organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, taking over the position of the recently deceased Dieterich Buxtehude. Bach had been a great admirer of Buxtehude’s, and it is an oft-repeated story that, in 1705, he had traveled to Lübeck on foot, a distance of some 200 miles, to see Buxtehude perform. Nevertheless, Bach turned down the position in Lübeck because Buxtehude had stipulated that his successor must marry his daughter, Anna Margreta –– a not uncommon condition at the time, as it guaranteed support for a musician’s children. Unfortunately, the young Miss Buxtehude, said to have been quite unattractive, was a price too high for the young Bach to bear.)

In the summer of 1708, Wilhelm Ernst, Duke of Weimar, heard Bach play organ, and promptly offered him a position directing both church and chamber music at the Weimar court. The position was a productive and comparatively lucrative one, and during this time Bach wrote several extant organ works and a number of cantatas, as well as siring his first six children. But after almost a decade spent at Weimar, the time had come to move on, and a new position offered itself at Cöthen.

Bach’s new employer, the young Prince Leopold of Cöthen was a great lover of music. He had studied music in both Berlin and Rome, and could sing as well as play violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord. In 1707, at the age of thirteen he had convinced his mother to hire three court musicians, a group which had, by the time of Bach’s arrival at the end of 1717, expanded to eighteen. Yet the Cöthen court was Calvinist, and the strict doctrinal teachings of this particular Protestant sect demanded that no music (except for psalm accompaniment on the organ) was to take place during religious services. Thus, with the exception of a few cantatas written for festival days (such as New Years and weddings), Bach turned his attention away from church music during this time.

Outside of the church, however, music was a constant form of entertainment at Leopold’s court, and Bach was regularly called upon for music to accompany dances, soirées, and other forms of entertainment –– which specifically meant secular music for various instruments. Thus, the six years spent at Cöthen saw an eflorescence of superb and duly famous instrumental pieces. The six suites for solo cello, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, the sonatas for viola da gamba, and the French suites, English suites, and Partitas for keyboard all date from this time. It is to this music that NOVA turns its sights on its October 18 concert.

Suite in C Major for Unaccompanied Cello
The dance suite as a set form had emerged several decades earlier, as a high-brow compositional form grown out of improvised lute dances. In the seventeenth century, the French court of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King, became the de facto gravitational center of art and music in Europe. Louis loved to dance, and his court absorbed a variety of orbiting dance forms from around the European continent. At the courts of Paris and Versailles, these dances were stylized, and developed into cultivated compositional forms. Soon the Germans, nursing their own artistic Francophilia, imported the newly stylized dance forms to their own courts, and gathered the dances together to form a multi-dance suites. The standard structure, especially in the early years, consisted of four dances, in two slow-fast pairs: the Allemande, the Courante, the Sarabande, and the Gigue. The structure was thus slow-fast-slow-fast, with the middle two movements in triple meter and the outer two in duple meter. To this basic format were then added an introductory movement, often a free-form piece to introduce the key of the following suite; and a lively finale. And it is this format that Bach’s various French and English suites adhere, along with the Partitas (essentially, Italian dance suites) and the six beloved suites for unaccompanied cello.

Each of the four central dances had its own particular style and flavor, which improvisers and composers could play with and decorate as they pleased. The Allemande, called such because of its supposed Germanic origin (Allemagne being the French term for Germany at the time), was a slow, stylized dance in duple meter. The earliest mention of the allemande occurs in a manuscript from London, dating to 1521, and by the mid-sixteenth century allemandes for lute, guitar, and keyboard had appeared across Europe. Already considered “antiquated” by the early seventeenth century, it was this very antiquity that lent it its charm at the French court, where everything was meant to be mannered, stylized, and polished to perfection. Renaissance dances tended to be performed in pairs, a slow dance followed by a fast and lively one, and the Allemande was no exception: it was typically followed by a quick, triple-meter dance –– in the four dance suite, it was always followed by the Courante, whose name (from the Italian “corrente”) means, literally, “running.”

The Sarabande, which enjoys the spiciest history of the lot, had its origins as a wild, bawdy dance in Latin America and Spain (commentators at the time suggested that the name came from Peru). Originally a dance with sung lyrics, accompanied by guitar, castanets, and other percussion instruments, in 1583 the sarabande was banned in Spain for its supposed obscenity. (Its tremendous popularity is attested to by references by Cervantes and Lope de Vega.) In the seventeenth century, the sarabande arrived in Italy as part of the Spanish guitar repertoire, and was soon exported to France. In France, however, its guise changed completely: the Sarabande came to denote an untexted, freely sectional work, which in France and Germany was in a slow triple meter, with a distinctive accent on the second beat of the bar.

The Gigue’s origins lie in the "jig" of the British Isles, where, already in the fifteenth century, it was like a fast and lively dance. (In Much Ado about Nothing, Act II scene 1, Willian Shakespeare would write that “Wooing is hot and hasty like a Scottish jigge.”) When it appeared on French soil in the sixteenth century, now called the “gigue,” the dance was still quick and lively, and formed a fine follow-up to the stately sarabande.

The Suite in C Major for unaccompanied cello, featured on NOVA’s program, includes all four of the dances listed above. But rather than ending with a free-form finale, Bach inserts a short Bourée (another dance form) between the Sarabande and Gigue. The Bourrée was originally a French country dance, and folk dances called “bourrée” are still danced in the countryside in certain parts of France. As a courtly dance, it was characterized by duple meter, a “gay” character (according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionaire de musique of 1786), and a step known as the “pas de bourrée” that consisted of a little dip in the knees, a rise to the toes, a step, and a small leap. The Gigue, then, in this suite must fulfil the duties of both lively dance and impressive finale, which it does, by offering a dignified dance full of melodic flourishes and impressive double-stops.

Sinfonias for String Trio
Besides music for church and court, a large portion of Bach’s musical career was dedicated to teaching. Bach had already begun to garner a few students by the end of his stay in Arnstadt, but it was in Cöthen that his work as a pedagogue really took hold. Not only was he attracting more and more students from the city and elsewhere, but his legendary powers as a progenitor (he would father no fewer than twenty children by the end of his life!) meant that he personally supplied a string of pupils in need of musical education. In 1720, he began compiling the pedagogical Clavierbüchlein (little keyboard book) for his son Wilhelm Friedemann, compiling not only short piano pieces but also pedagogical instructions on clefs and on how to play trills and ornaments. Tragically, Bach’s first wife died that same year, and two years later he would marry one Anna Magdalena, née Wilke. Bach’s similarly pedagogical “notebook for Anna Magdalena” made her a household name among piano students. Yet the pieces from Wilhelm Friedemann’s notebook have, on the whole, enjoyed greater fame than the short dances and arias in Anna Magdalena’s book, and it is from Wilhelm Friedemann’s notebook that the pieces on NOVA’s concert come.

Many of the pieces in little Wilhelm’s Clavierbüchlein are well known from their later inclusion in other collections, such as a number of the Preludes from the first Well-Tempered Clavier book, all fifteen of the Bach’s two-part Inventions (here called “Preambuli”), as well as the fifteen Sinfonias (here called “Fantasien”). Yet when you hear the Sinfonias on NOVA’s upcoming concert, they will be performed not on a keyboard, but in an arrange for violin, viola, and cello. This arrangement, besides offering a lovely addition to the string trio repertoire, offers an opportunity for listeners to hear the construction of the music.

Bach was one of the greatest composers of a structure of music called “counterpoint,” in which multiple lines or “voices” are performed simultaneously while retaining their individual identity. (Compare this to later musical structures, where a single melody is performed over a foundation of chords.) The fact that we call these individual lines “voices” should point to the origin of this structure in choral music, where each singer or voice-type would have a set melody. When a group of singers performed together, a complex unified texture would be produced. The extraordinary variety of intellectual treatments that this basic structure could undergo will be on display this season on February 28, when NOVA performs Bach’s stupendous A Musical Offering, and again next season, when NOVA performs his Art of the Fugue. Yet even in these tiny Sinfonias, Bach’s masterful treatment of counterpoint is on display. Each voice is taken on by a single instrument: enjoy hearing how the lines interact, overlap, and play off one another, in a charming dance of musical coordination.

-Kamala Schelling, 10.4.15

Concert Preview with Matthew Zalkind

Click on the link to listen to interviews with cellist Matthew Zalkind and Artistic Director Jason Hardink in anticipation of Sunday's NOVA concert featuring music by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Tcherepnin, and Utah composer Igor Iachimciuc.

Music by Rachmaninoff, Tcherepnin, & Stravinsky

Three of the works performed on this Sunday’s NOVA concert were written by Russian composers during the first two decades of the 20th century. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s reputation in the United States rests largely on the career he built for himself as a touring pianist in this country from 1918 until his death in 1943. Although he composed very little during this twenty-five year period, his major works of this time, like the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini and the Symphonic Dances, were composed for and premiered by the Philadelphia orchestra. His status among audiences rested upon compositions and performances that embodied an unabashed nostalgia for a lost era. These late works sound like they were composed in a cultural vacuum as they bear no relation to the developments in music seen throughout western music during the early 20th century.

The music Rachmaninoff composed before he left Russia also rested upon the achievements of an earlier time. To be fair, there was no musical upheaval occurring in Russian music until late in the first decade of the 20th century. Rachmaninoff’s music from this period is no more indulgent in late-Romantic excesses than late Rimsky-Korsakov and early Scriabin. He was surrounded by a musical culture that was not yet ready to leave the 19th century.

Rachmaninoff’s early career as a composer was rocky. Several scathing reviews deeply affected him to the point where he suffered from writer’s block. The magnificent breakthrough works he composed after overcoming his insecurities, through the help of a therapist, were the Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Sonata for Cello and Piano, both of 1901. Like Chopin’s works for cello and piano, the Rachmaninoff Sonata assigns very different roles to the two instruments. The piano part provides a virtuosic, almost orchestral backdrop against which the cellist pours out an abundance of tuneful themes. The composer premiered the work with the cellist Anatoly Brandukov, the dedicatee of the sonata and soon-to-be best man at his wedding.

Nikolai Tcherepnin, a Russian composer with a musical pedigree similar to Rachmaninoff, was a pianist and composer whose talents attracted the notice of Sergei Diaghilev. Tcherepnin became the house composer and conductor for the Ballets Russes and was slated to compose a ballet for the company based on the Russian fairy tale about a magical Firebird. Negotiations between Diaghilev and Tcherepnin fell through, and Diaghilev hired the young Igor Stravinsky to compose the score instead. (Incidentally, Tcherepnin was also slated to conduct the premiere of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. Stravinsky was so impressed with Pierre Monteux, who was only scheduled to prepare the orchestra prior to Tcherepnin’s arrival, that he asked the French conductor to see the production through and conduct the premiere.) Tcherepnin’s music is similar to Rachmaninoff’s in that it celebrates the sonorities of the previous century’s Russian giants, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. His gorgeous Six Pieces for Horn Quartet, composed in 1910, are evocative miniatures that conjure a variety of classic horn tropes, from hunting calls to the religious solemnity of the final chorale.

Stravinsky composed his Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet in 1919, following the premiere of his theatrical work A Soldier’s Tale  (recently performed on NOVA in the fall of 2013). These short pieces were intended as a thank-you present to Werner Reinhart, the wealthy amateur clarinetist who funded the first production of A Soldier’s Tale. The first movement evolved from earlier sketches Stravinsky had made of a song, while the third movement harkens back to the rollicking dance numbers of A Soldier’s Tale. The second movement provides a glimpse into Stravinsky’s creative process. The music contains instructions to play the rhythms strictly in a certain tempo, but the music has no barlines or meter. Early drafts of other pieces from this period show that Stravinsky often composed long melodies without meter, almost resembling plainchant in their melismatic contour. In large works like Symphonies of Wind Instruments, he would later add meters and barlines so that a group of musicians could coordinate the rhythmic structure with the help of a conductor. In the case of the solo clarinet pieces, there is no need to add metrical indications in order to facilitate rhythmic ensemble between players. Stravinsky left the unbarred second movement as a visual example of how he often conceived of melodies.

Chopin and Italian Opera

A discussion of Italian opera's influence on Chopin's style and the works on this weekend's NOVA concert.

Chopin's Chamber Music

NOVA Artistic Director Jason Hardink dicusses the works he chose to pair with chamber music by Chopin on this weekend's concert.