Bruce Quaglia on L'Acqua Alta (World Premiere)

Utah composer Bruce Quaglia has composed a new work for the NOVA Chamber Music Series to be premiered this Sunday. L'Aqcua Alta is a new chamber concerto for solo viola, solo piano, and an ensemble of winds and percussion. What follows are Bruce's notes on the new work as well as his remarks on two earlier pieces that will be performed on Sunday.


L'Acqua Alta is the name given to the periodic tidal surges of the Northern Adriatic that have, throughout history, caused Venice and other parts of the surrounding Veneto to become partially submerged for weeks at a time during the winters of some years. It is a fact of life in the region which stands in a direct relation to the quality of timelessness that has so often been remarked upon by visitors to La Serenissima. But my chamber concerto is not intended to be programmatic in the manner of, say, Debussy's piano prelude "The Sunken Cathedral," a piece about a mythic temple that emerges from the depths of the ocean every one hundred years. Instead, my title references only the impressions that I received while travelling for work during the period in which the piece was conceived and initially composed. It is therefore a manifestation of the creative diary that I always keep when travelling or composing.

I spent a month in Venice during the spring of 2012 (when there was no flooding), and then in the fall of that same year I visited post-Katrina New Orleans for the first time. In both cities I was struck by the profound beauty of the culture, of the people who lived there and the food, drink and music that made each place unique. And in each city I was also profoundly conscious of the high water, of the history of floods that marks life there. I fell deeply in love with both places during my relatively brief visits to them, and I have found that they now each occupy a place in the geography of my interior imaginative life. My dreams are often now set in relation to these places, and I often think about them in my waking life too. Only the red rock wilderness of Southern Utah has carved out a similarly deep impression within my internal creative imagination, and I have spent a much greater amount of my time in its canyons during the past twenty years by comparison.

So, while the piece is not really intended to evoke the specific locations of Venice or New Orleans, there are associated feelings and ideas from my travels that are present in the music. First, there is Time: the longer cycles of history and natural time and then the shorter increments of time with which we mark our individual lives. The former is dizzying to contemplate, the latter is fragile, it engages our emotions of love, fear and vulnerability, which then seem as nothing when compared to the larger cycles of time into which our lives disappear. The ensemble parts are mostly uncomplicated individually, but their relation to the ensemble is both fragile and delicate, the ensemble is a complex organism that develops various relationships to the soloists. In the third movement that organism evolves: it splits into two distinct units which then reorganize their relationships to one another and to the soloists.

The second idea is more technical, and so I will only explain it briefly and by analogy. The materials of L'Acqua Alta, specifically the pitch materials, conceptually engage the full range of possibilities that are present in chords and scales of different sizes, and most importantly, these are all thought of as cyclical, in accordance with the ideas about time and nature that I have described above. The most basic material of the piece is a 55 note chain that contains every possible six note chord type within it (there are 50 such hexachordal types in equal-tempered music). Naturally they overlap one another to fit into such a compact chain. The chains run in cycles that close larger loops and so they form a substrate out of which the details of the music then emerge. Everything is possible, but not everything is literally present as a musical detail. So it is with time and with nature.

L'Acqua Alta was commissioned by the Nova Chamber Music Series for soloists Jason Hardink (piano) and Brent Bayless (viola), each of whose artistry directly inspired the music that I composed. The piece is dedicated to my friend and mentor, the American composer Charles Wuorinen on the occasion of his 75th year.


Passaggio Scuro is a solo piano work that was commissioned by Jason Hardink of the Utah Symphony in 2005. The title of the work puns on that of another piece- Through the Dark Passage and the Canyon Below…, a chamber trio for which the composer received an Individual Artist’s Grant from the Utah Arts Council/NEA just a few weeks before the Hardink commission in the summer of 2005. The two pieces were thus conceived as “siblings” that share certain familial traits and generative materials. The family resemblance may or may not be immediately apparent to the listener. In each work I was concerned, although in different ways, with presenting a distinctive rhythmic character and a transparency of texture. These works, when taken together, form a snapshot of the midpoint of my twenty years in Utah as a composer. 

The shape of Passaggio Scuro was conceived as a recursive musical structure in which levels of the form mirror musical materials that are presented simultaneously at several levels of time and space. The listener need not be conscious of this compositional technique to enjoy the work however, because the resultant structure creates a sturdy container for the musical ideas of the piece to then be cast within. The intended effect is that of a compelling and dramatic shape presenting a sweeping expressive energy. Passaggio may have been planned with various formal processes to be enacted both openly and covertly, but it was mostly composed in response to the brilliant musicality of the pianist to whom it is dedicated: Jason Hardink.  It is offered as a point of expressive discourse between the composer and performer wherein the performer may subsequently bring the audience into that same dialogue.

By contrast, Through the Dark Passage and the Canyon Below… is a more sectional work that incorporates some of the raw materials that were used in Passaggio, but to different ends. During the summer months that I wrote the trio, I was listening almost exclusively to the music of composer Allen Anderson, a former teacher whose music I greatly admire. His music does not receive nearly as much attention as it deserves and I was planning to write an article that focused on the ways that his compositional techniques reflected earlier traditions of his own teachers, particularly Seymour Shifrin. Unfortunately, I never finished writing that article but I later realized that the trio itself was a pithy essay on those features of Anderson’s music that most engaged me as a listener, its clarity and certainty of expression.

- Bruce Quaglia

An Interview with Composer Bruce Quaglia

Our season finale this Sunday features music by Mozart and Utah composer Bruce Quaglia. Listen to Bruce discuss his chamber concerto, L'Acqua Alta. This new piece is a NOVA commissioned work for viola and piano soloists with an ensemble of 12 wind players and 2 percussionists.

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.

Lyricism in Chopin's Chamber Music

Frédéric Chopin composed a great deal of music during his short life. Much of his creative energy was directed towards writing for solo piano; only on a few rare occasions did he compose for orchestra (always as accompaniment to a piano soloist) or chamber ensemble. On Sunday’s NOVA concert, we will hear two of Chopin’s chamber works (there exists only one other piece of chamber music by Chopin: the cello sonata of 1846). This program pairs these works with music of Chopin’s contemporaries along with a work by a gifted Polish composer of the early 20th century, Karol Szymanowski. (One could mention here that if you want follow up and hear a more recent Polish composer, the Utah Symphony is performing Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4 in Salt Lake City on March 7 & 8.)

Chopin composed the Polonaise of his opus 3 (the Introduction was written in Vienna several years later) and the Piano Trio, opus 8, during 1828-9 while he still lived in Poland. These works are among the few published compositions from Chopin’s Warsaw years; in 1830, he left for Vienna and then Paris, never to return home. Both the trio and polonaise suffer from a certain amount of ignominy. Biographers and critics, rather than marvel at the unique and beautiful qualities of these scores, tend to focus on what they perceive to be Chopin’s “mishandling” of sonata form, or his “inept” writing for the string instruments. The opus 3 Polonaise, for example, exists in various adaptions with the sole purpose of transferring virtuosity found in the piano part to that of the cellist. This treatment of the piece arises from the myth that Chopin wrote the piano part for himself and the cello part for an amateur cellist.  Chopin in fact wrote the piano part for the daughter of the intended cellist, Prince Radzwiłł. While she was in fact Chopin's student, there are no accounts of her playing being far superior to that of her father, which means that Chopin’s division of labor- melodic material played by the cello, ornamental virtuosity played by piano- is entirely intentional. Chopin’s unique approach to instrumental chamber music in this instance creates a beautifully vocal line for the cellist; the color achieved by the two instruments sounds unlike anything else in the chamber repertoire.

Chopin’s Piano Trio also treats the string instruments in a vocal manner. The melodic lines of the violin and cello are often heard in conversation with each other and/or with the piano. As in the Polonaise, little effort is made to give the strings virtuoso writing that competes with the piano. Rather, the violin and cello almost always present unadorned lyrical lines that encourage the players to impersonate the human voice. The dialogue between instruments found in the Adagio is particularly operatic. The instruments are treated like characters in a drama, with each voice presenting melodic material from a differing perspective.

 To further highlight the lyrical elements heard in Chopin’s chamber music, two important vocal repertoires of Chopin’s period, bel canto aria and German lied, are represented on this concert. Chopin’s approach to lyrical writing for the piano was largely shaped by his exposure to Bellini and the bel canto style of Italian opera. Simple accompaniment and extreme musical focus on the expressive qualities of melody were a hallmark of bel canto and are found in Chopin works like the Nocturnes. Also, a work such as the opus 3 Polonaise is indebted to the slow introduction/fast cabaletta form of many bel canto arias. Robert Schumann greatly admired Chopin’s music and was influenced by his highly personal approach to the piano. While it is clear that Chopin may not have reciprocated Schumann’s adulation, both composers were masters at delivering an intensely vivid portrayal of mood and affect in miniature.

 JH, 2.28.14

An Interview with Cellist Walter Haman

Utah Symphony cellist Walter Haman discusses his upcoming NOVA performance of Chopin's Introduction and Polonaise brillante, opus 3.

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