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

NOVA Podcast 2.28.16: Music of Bach and Pintscher

Utah Symphony violinist Karen Wyatt, NOVA Artistic Director Jason Hardink, and host Scot Singpiel discuss music on the upcoming NOVA concert by J.S. Bach and Matthias Pintscher.

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)


NOVA Podcast: 11.29.15, Mozart and Nico Muhly

Host Scot Singpiel discusses works by Mozart and Nico Muhly with flutist Mercedes smith and harpist Matthew Tutsky, two musicians prominently featured on the upcoming NOVA concert.

Flute, Harp, and Drones: New Mixtures of Old Sounds

On November 1, NOVA presented a series of works by composers treading new paths during the early stages of their careers. On November 29, NOVA will present two works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that point to his own efforts to blaze new trails, as well as three works by Nico Muhly, a young composer with a distinctive and passionate musical voice all his own. 

The years immediately before and after 1780 mark a slow but decisive turning point in the life and career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Little Wolfgang was born in Salzburg, a provincial town on the far Western edge of Austria, to the court and cathedral composer Leopold Mozart and his wife Anna Maria. The child’s prodigious talent was already apparent by the time he turned three, and Mozart’s early years were spent touring Europe. Under the managerial gaze of Leopold, Wolfgang and his sister, Anna Maria (“Nannerl”) were displayed and feted in dozens of cities, at all of the most important courts of the day. Part “gift of God,” part circus attraction, the little boy was asked to sight-read, improvise, and play at the keyboard with his hands covered by a cloth; in return for his efforts, he and his family were showered with money, clothes, and bejeweled snuffboxes. Indeed, the anecdotes from this period are as remarkable as any of Mozart’s childhood compositions: at seven, it is said, he proposed marriage to the future Marie Antoinette, whom he met at Empress Maria Theresa’s court in Vienna. At eight, he chatted with and kissed the hand of Marie, queen consort of Louis XV, at Versailles. In London, King George III hired a doctor to examine and study the now nine-year-old prodigy and prepare a report on the boy’s genius. And at fourteen, during his 1770 visit to Rome, Wolfgang was invited to the Sistine Chapel to hear Gregorio Allegri’s Misere, a choral piece composed in 1638 and, for almost a cenruty and a half, performed exclusively in the Sistine Chapel itself; written copies of the work were strictly forbidden. Upon leaving the chapel, Wolfgang promptly transcribed the entire twelve-minute work from memory. (The Pope forgave the transgression.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aged 7, wearing livery presented to him by
Empress Maria Theresa

In 1773, the Mozarts’ final tour of Italy came to an end, and Wolfgang, now seventeen, returned to Salzburg, where he would spend most of the 1770s in the employ of Prince-Archbishop Hieronymous von Colloredo. The work was decent, but Wolfgang had experienced the great cultural centers of Europe and was chafing at the bit, and the financial remuneration was nothing compared to the gifts he had received during his days as a traveling prodigy. In 1777, Leopold sent Wolfgang on a tour of Mannheim and Paris, evidently to find new employment; unlike the previous tours, Wolfgang would not travel with his father, but with his mother instead. Despite several successes in Mannheim, Wolfgang failed to find a new employer, and Leopold ordered him on to Paris in early 1778.

Paris was likely one of the unhappiest periods of Mozart’s life. He disliked the French, hated French music, and in his (not always fully trustworthy) epistolary communication with his father claimed to have been offered, only to have summarily rejected, the position of court organist at Versailles. He received commissions, failed to fill them, and thereby incurred the wrath not only of his financial supporters but also of the ever-domineering Leopold. And, on at least one occasion, he filled a commission only to receive no payment at all: the Concerto for Flute and Harp, K. 299, written in April 1778 for the Court of Guines, and featured on NOVA’s November 29 concert. To make matters infinitely worse, his beloved mother died in Paris, and Leopold’s accusations that Wolfgang’s recalcitrant behavior had caused his mother’s death contributed to a growing rift between father and son.

Despite the embittered tone of Mozart’s correspondence from this time, the compositions he wrote while in Paris are, without fail, charming and lovely, and the Concerto for Flute and Harp is no exception. Mozart would write over forty concertos in his short lifetime, including twenty-seven for the piano; the final seventeen piano concertos (all written during the final decade of his life) would establish the norms of the genre for generations to come. Yet the earlier concertos, for a wide variety of solo instruments, beautifully display Mozart’s creativity and wit across an array of instrumental timbres. The Concerto for Flute and Harp is scored for two oboes, two horns, and strings, in addition to the two solo instruments; NOVA’s concert will feature Mercedes Smith and Matthew Tutsky as soloists. Although this group seems small to us today, it was the ensemble typically employed by Mozart in his concertos (at least until the final works from Vienna), and the small, chamber music-sized forces employed by NOVA will offer an exciting opportunity not only to hear this piece in an intimate setting, but also to hear the concerto with an ensemble size more in line with Mozart’s own.

Hieronymous von Colloredo, Archbishop of Salzburg and Mozart’s employer

The relationship between Wolfgang and Leopold, and between Wolfgang and Archbishop Colloredo, continued to deteriorate. Matters finally came to head in June 1781, when, in Mozart’s own words, he was dismissed from Colloredo’s employment with “a kick in the ass.” Mozart now turned his sights to Vienna, the seat of the mighty Hapsburg Empire and one of the bustling cultural hubs of Europe. The list of compositions from the Vienna period, from 1781 until Mozart’s death in 1791, is simply astonishing: it includes the aforementioned seventeen piano concertos; the most famous of the symphonies; the three operas with Lorenzo da Ponte, along with Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte; the C Minor Mass and the Requiem; and a large number of chamber compositions, including the Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major, K. 423, and the Twelve Horn Duos, K. 487, also featured on NOVA’s upcoming concert. The duo was written in 1783, after the move to Vienna, and Mozart’s rocky history in Salzburg renders the provenance of the duo all the more surprising. Hieronymus von Colloredo, archbishop of Salzburg and the man behind the kick (metaphorical or not) that swiftly severed Mozart’s ties with that city, had commissioned six duos for violin and viola –– from Michael Haydn. Yet Haydn, Salzburg court composer and brother of Franz Joseph, fell ill before completing the full set, and asked Mozart to write the last two; it is said that Colloredo never noticed the difference. On November 29, NOVA audiences will get to judge for themselves just how “Mozartian” this lively duo really is.

One of the more charming aspects of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp is the way that Mozart weaves together the strikingly different timbres of the solo instruments. The combination of soaring wind melody and murmuring plucked strings offers a range of possibilities for experimentation and expression. On the November 29 concert, alongside the two works by Mozart, NOVA will perform three works by the young composer Nico Muhly, all of which present unusual combinations of instruments: Clear Music, for Cello, Harp, and Celesta; Duet No.1––Chorale Pointing Downwards for Viola and Cello; and Radiant Music, for Flute and Pre-recorded CD, in which a single flutist plays alongside a “tape part … made up of several episodes of shimmering music for electric flutes, dulcimers, organs, baroque strings, trumpet, and choir.” All three will be Utah premiere performances, and NOVA’s presentation of Muhly’s work occurs in conjunction with the Utah Symphony’s own performance of a new work by Muhly on December 4 and 5.

––Kamala Schelling