NOVA NOTES

NOVA Podcast 4.3.16: Music of Debussy, Ravel, Boulez, & Miguel Chuaqui

Utah Symphony Associate Flute Lisa Byrnes, NOVA Artistic Director Jason Hardink, and host Scot Singpiel discuss works on the upcoming NOVA concert, a program comprised of music by French composers as well as a recent piece by Utah composer Miguel Chuaqui.

Enfants terribles

When the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez died this January, at the age of 90, his career had encompassed, guided, and reflected the course of music in the second half of the twentieth century to an extent that would be hard to match. On April 3, NOVA performs Boulez's early Sonatina for Flute and Piano, along with his 1985 Dialogue de l'ombre double ("Dialogue of a double shadow"), offering an opportunity to reflect on, or to become acquainted with, the music of this twentieth-century titan.  

Boulez's oeuvre in particular, and the music of the twentieth century in general, astonish with their eclecticism. Throughout the century, composers adopted, adapted, and appropriated sounds, styles, and forms from around the world, and pushed the capabilities of performers and instruments (and, at times, listeners) to the breaking point––all in the name of new modes of musical expression. NOVA's upcoming concert brings together several of these trends, matching Boulez with Claude Debussy Maurice Ravel, and Utah-based composer Miguel Chuaqui.

Despite his enduring reputation as one of the fathers of musical modernism, Debussy's roots (both educational and professional) lay in the conservative training system of the Paris Conservatoire. Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, to the owner of a china shop and a seamstress, Debussy's musical talent was apparent early, and he was accepted to the Conservatoire at the age of 10. In 1909, he was appointed to the Conservatoire's Board of Directors; one of his first tasks was to compose a work for the annual Clarinet examinations, and the resulting work, the Première rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano, will appear on NOVA’s upcoming concert. This will be paired with a performance of Claire de lune, one of Debussy’s most famous works.

Maurice Ravel was born to a Basque mother and French father in the Pyrenees; he would always consider himself to have strong ties to his Basque heritage, and music infused with "Spanish" flare and motifs would appear throughout his life. He trained at the Conservatoire, and distinguished himself as a good student, but his penchant for dissonances soon led to public scandal: in 1905, for the sixth consecutive year, he failed to win the Prix de Rome (the Conservatoire's highest honor), and the public took umbrage at the slight to one of their favorite composers. The public scandal that constituted this "affaire Ravel" was matched only by the jury's scandal when they viewed Ravel's entry in the semi-final round, a fugue that included parallel fifths and ended on the interval of a major seventh. Although Ravel would always consider himself a proponent and inheritor of earlier traditions of music (he called counterpoint the most important element in his compositional toolbox, and declared that Mozart was his favorite composer), this fugue was already marked by the idiosyncratic, dissonance-infused tonal language that he would employ throughout his life. Ravel's Chansons madécasses, written in 1925-26 and on NOVA’s upcoming program, sets to music three poems by the French poet Évariste de Parny (1753-1814) which were published in 1787 and which Parny claimed were translations of Madagascan songs.

Like both Debussy and Ravel, Pierre Boulez (who was born in 1925 in the Loire town of Montbrison) was trained at the Paris Conservatoire. From a young age, he showed a strong aptitude for music –– but he showed an equally strong aptitude for mathematics, which his father (an industrialist) found far more useful. In his teens, Boulez prepared for the entrance examinations in math at the École polytechnique in Paris but, upon his arrival in the capital city in 1942, enrolled instead at the Conservatoire. Yet the rebellious streak that had landed him at the Conservatoire in the first place would soon rear its head again, and, taking umbrage at the conservative methods of the school, he began to look elsewhere for additional instruction, including studies with pupils of Arnold Schoenberg in dodecaphonic writing. His mathematical inclinations, too, would return in his musical studies: he showed great skill as an analyst of music, and prized most highly music that he found to be rigorous and “logical.”

The Sonatina for flute and piano, one of Boulez’s earliest works, is a testament both to his studies in twelve-tone music, and to his interest in rigorously composed music. In twelve-tone music (otherwise known as “dodecaphonic music” or “serial music”), an entire piece is based on a “row” or “series,” which orders the appearance of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale; the various manipulations of this row (played upside-down and/or backwards) provide the musical material for the work. Boulez, never one to settle for doing anything half-way, applied the principle not only to the pitches of a piece, but to dynamics and instrumentation as well, creating a pre-determined matrix that would dictate every single note of a work. Although not as obsessive as later works, the Sonatine is an early example of Boulez’s serial music.

While composers such as Debussy and Ravel expanded their musical languages through the adoption of exotic elements, composers in the second half of the twentieth century had another option: electronics. The use of microphones, speakers, and various electronic techniques for manipulating sounds allowed composers to expand their musical palette from within, adding effects such as echoes during the performance itself, and Boulez was an early pioneer in these techniques. Such electronic manipulations will be on display when NOVA performs Boulez's Dialogue de l'ombre double ("Dialogue of a double shadow") of 1985.

Utah-based composer Miguel Chuaqui also experiments with electronic sounds in his work. Chuaqui, who was born in Berkeley, California before growing up and receiving his early musical education in Chile, often utilizes foreign musics for inspiration in his work. Such is the case with Trance, Chuaqui’s work appearing on NOVA’s concert, which was "written during a time when [he] was listening to a lot of classical Indian music […] All the electronic sounds in the piece are live transformations of these and other sounds produced by the cello during the course of the performance.  Eventually the electronics take up these bent notes and extend them into longer and wilder gestures that quickly lead the music away from its original source of inspiration in Indian music, and towards a more abstract electroacoustic environment.”

-Kamala Schelling, 3.25.16

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.

Interview with Igor Iachimciuc

NOVA is presenting a work by Utah composer Igor Iachimciuc this Sunday. An award-winning artist with recent performances of his works all over the United States, Mr. Iachimciuc is originally from Moldova, a small country nestled between Romania and the Ukraine. Moldova was a part of the former Soviet Union until it achieved independence in 1991. Igor began composing at the age of 15 and has a PhD from the University of Utah. He is a virtuoso cimbalom player and teaches a number of composition courses at the University of Utah School of Music.

We recently conducted the following interview with Mr. Iachimciuc. NOVA will present a performance of his dynamic Sonata for Clarinet and Piano on Sunday December 14th, 2014.

NOVA: Most people at Sunday's concert will probably know very little about Moldova. What can you tell us about the country where you were born and raised as it affected your musical tastes and education?

II: Indeed, few people have heard about Moldova, not only because it is a small country but also because it became independent only recently after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before its inclusion in the Soviet Union, Moldova was part of Romania. A part of historical Moldova, a state that existed before the formation of Romania, is in modern Romania. So, it is possible to compare the separation of Moldova with separation of Germany.

Both Romanian and Slavic cultures have influenced my musical composition. I am equally close to the folk traditions of Central, and Eastern Europe, and equally attracted to music of Bartók and Stravinsky, Vieru and Denisov, Dinescu and Gubaidulina, etc. The same is true about my musical education. All of my teachers in Moldova had ties with both Romanian and Russian schools.

NOVA: Are there regional traits to the folk music of Moldova that you are drawn to as a composer?

II: My first love of music came through folk traditions because I start playing cimbalom (string percussion folk instrument) at the age of 10. The folk tradition is especially strong in the North of Moldova were I was born. Perhaps, my first influence is the music of lautars (folk musicians who came from musician family) from Edinet, my birth place. But quickly I have mastered many Romanian folk styles, which eventually I explored in my compositions. Only later, in my twenties, I discovered classical and modern music. My first attraction towards composition came after listening the music of Bartók and Stravinsky. It was only after hearing music by these composers that I understood the full potential of folk music. At that time, the application of folk music by other composers seemed artificial, simplistic, and populist.

NOVA: How long have you been in Utah, and how did your education at the University of Utah shape you as a composer? 

II: I have been in Utah for about 8 years. Studying composition abroad definitely expanded my musical vocabulary. I discovered a world I couldn't possibly have imagined previously. First, I became familiar with the music outside of Moldova. Many modern composers were virtually unknown to me due to both the Iron Curtain and the financial situation in Moldova. Second, studies in America made me realize the tight connection between seemingly different approaches to compositional techniques regardless of geographical and historical factors.

NOVA: You mentioned that your Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is indebted to your study of Bartók. What characteristics of Bartók's music might a chamber music aficionado expect to encounter in your sonata?

II: Yes, Bartok influenced me directly. The rhythm, like in many of Bartok pieces, dominates over the melody. I also made some timbral adjustments by muting some lower strings of piano in order to obtain a timpani-like sound. The frequent use of polyphonic textures also resembles Bartok.

NOVA: Was your Sonata for Clarinet and Piano composed for anyone specifically? The attitude and character of the piece is so direct and outgoing, I can't help but wonder if you had certain players in mind when you wrote it.

II: No, I did not have a specific clarinetist in mind, but I imagined that the player must have a special feel for rhythm and be capable to quickly switch between contrasting musical characters. Needless to say, this musician should be a virtuoso with a rather powerful sound. The same things I demand from the pianist. This is a very tight composition which does not allow rhythmic freedom. All of the rhythmic interactions can only be heard in a perfect ensemble. I am really excited and looking forward to hear this Sonata on Sunday!

Audio Preview of Igor Iachimciuc's Sonata for Clarinet & Piano

On Sunday December 14th, 2014, NOVA will present a performance of Utah composer Igor Iachimciuc's dynamic Sonata for Clarinet & Piano, featuring Erin Svoboda (clarinet) and Jason Hardink (piano). Click below to preview this work in its entirety.