Category Archives: New Music and Contemporary Composers

The Intimate and the Cosmic

La Jolla Symphony and Chorus’ December 2019 concert is comprised of three pieces that seem disparate at first glance: the premiere of Celeste Oram’s “a loose affiliation of alleluias,” Robert Schumann’s “Violin Concerto in D Minor,” and John Adams’ “Harmonium.” As LJS&C’s Music Director and Conductor Steven Schick points out, however different these compositions are stylistically – and they are very much so – they nevertheless share key thematic interests. Chief among these is an examination of how and where mystical introspection intersects with shared public experience.

Nee Commission recipient Celeste Oram’s piece blends the orchestra with improvising violin soloist Keir GoGwilt and three offstage singers dubbed “Teen Angels” in an inventive mélange of Renaissance-derived styles, popular song, postmodern modalities and other sources. “a loose affiliation…” also employs elements of theatre. What emerges is a contemplative work that simultaneously embraces both the intimate and the cosmic.

This examination of the mystical and metaphysical continues (albeit in a different form) in Robert Schumann’s concerto. Schumann’s music often expresses his concern with spirituality and how one reconciles its demands with mundane daily life, something with which the composer himself struggled. His approach to this question became increasingly elliptical as his career progressed; indeed, the “Violin Concerto in D Minor” has been dubbed “enigmatic” and “mysterious.” Seemingly conventional in style, the concerto leads the listener through intricate layers of sound meant to engage the curious mind in spiritual inquiry while appealing to more casual listeners. Virtuoso violinist Keir GoGwilt returns to the stage as the featured soloist.

Upon the 1981 premiere of John Adams’ choral work “Harmonium” one prescient critic noted that “a major new talent has arrived.” Like Oram’s piece this work experiments with form by mixing styles, and like Schumann’s concerto it expresses a concern with spirituality, in this case by setting poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson to music. In each section Adams’ subtle modulations gradually gather energy, resulting in near-celebratory climaxes; in the final movement, based on Dickinson’s sensual “Wild Nights,” following this exultation the music subsides into a long, quiet coda as it fades from our hearing. In its original usage this piece’s title, derived via French from the Latin “harmonia,” simply means “harmony,” and the composer uses constantly shifting tonal patterns to evoke what he called “always moving forward over vast stretches of imaginary terrain.” It’s not too great a leap to dub this a metaphysical journey, or to apply that term to the concert selections as a whole.

Watch — Oram, Schumann, Adams – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Pivotal Events

In the early hours of April 20, 1989, 28-year-old jogger Trisha Meili was assaulted and left for dead in Central Park. The ensuing media frenzy instigated a public outcry for swift justice. Within days of the attack five African-American teenagers implicated themselves, after hours of psychological pressure and aggressive interrogation. The teens were tried as adults and convicted despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, DNA evidence that excluded them, and no eyewitness accounts connecting them to the victim. The convictions were vacated in 2002 after incarcerated serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and DNA tests confirmed his guilt. The men subsequently filed civil lawsuits against the City of New York, the police officers, and the prosecutors involved in their case. A settlement was reached in 2014 for $41 million.

The story of the Central Park Five has remained in the public consciousness, in part due to acclaimed documentaries on the subject and recent reminders of Donald Trump’s role in fanning public hysteria, and is an ideal subject for composer Anthony Davis. Davis has created several operas that address social and political issues in both a historical and contemporary context, with particular focus on events and figures in American history involving issues of race and social justice.

Davis’ first opera, “X,” examined the struggle of Malcolm X to redefine his identity in accordance with his spiritual beliefs. Subsequent operas included such diverse topics as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst (“Tania”), the 1870s trial of Standing Bear (“Wakonda’s Dream”), a rebellion aboard a slave ship and the trial that followed (“Amistad”), and the story of Adam’s apocryphal first wife as emblematic of the eternal conflict between the sexes (“Lilith”). Given his concern with America’s continuing racial and political struggles, his latest opera, “The Central Park Five,” is of a piece with Davis’ earlier works.

In conversation with UC San Diego Professor Emeritus Cecil Lytle, Davis recounts the origins of the opera, the challenges of writing for an ensemble, the use of jazz idioms in his work, his preference for smaller-scale intimate dramas, and the responsibilities an artist undertakes when dealing with historical events. He stresses that there will always be a place for socially-aware works that confront controversies head-on, and in this vein mentions his plan to create an opera focusing on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (depicted in the first episode of HBO’s “Watchmen” series). As Davis noted in an earlier interview, “These pivotal events in our history offer windows into understanding who we are today and how we arrived at our present situation. The slogan, “Black Lives Matter” is not only an important political statement but it is also the central focus of my work as an artist and composer.”

Watch — The Central Park Five with Anthony Davis

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

War and Reflection

June 2019 marks the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I after five years of brutal conflict. In recognition of this epochal event La Jolla Symphony & Chorus’ 64th season, “Lineage: A Memory Project,” draws to a fitting conclusion with a program built around the composers and soldiers of the Great War.

Like most French composers Maurice Ravel was suspicious of German music, with one exception: he was an unabashed fan of the waltz. In “La Valse” Ravel develops surprising themes and variations on the distinctive waltz rhythm, and the result is one of the best examples of Ravel’s keen ear for instrumental colors and textures.

Charles Ives’ “From Hanover Square North…” commemorates the sinking of the British liner Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915. That moment when Ives and his fellow commuters heard the news on a Manhattan subway platform became the inspiration for his composition, but in typically idiosyncratic fashion Ives didn’t render the scene realistically; rather, it was the starting point for a musical meditation in which Ives registered the emotional impact of what he had witnessed.

Originally written as the second (slow) movement of a string quartet, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” became one of the most popular symphonic works of the 20th century in its orchestral arrangement. The solemnity of the Adagio led to its frequent use as mourning music, much to Barber’s dismay since it was not his intention to write a requiem. Whatever its unintentional cultural accretions, Barber’s melody is still both beautiful and powerful after countless hearings.

Commissioned in 1936 to compose a large-scale piece for a choral society’s centenary celebration, Ralph Vaughan Williams instead wrote for them a cantata for soprano, baritone, chorus, and orchestra entitled “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Give Us Peace”) – and it was anything but a celebration piece. This cantata was a protest against war and a heartfelt cry for peace at a time of growing international tension. Sadly, three years later Vaughan Williams’ worst fears would be realized.

Like the Lake Poets, George Butterworth’s works grew directly out of his contact with the English countryside. This is exemplified by “The Banks of Green Willow” with its evocation of pastoral life in all its idealized simplicity and tranquility; indeed, the composer characterized it as an “idyll.” As was common in his music Butterworth based this piece on several old English folk melodies, creating a series of brief fantasias on each of the themes before drawing to a peaceful conclusion.

Watch — Remembrance of Things Past – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Contrast and Concordance

In his program notes for the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus concert entitled “Bernstein Centennial,” conductor Steven Schick notes that:

At first glance, this concert program seems like a straightforward juxtaposition of light and dark: we have Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent Kaddish —his prayer for the dead— and, on the other hand, Beethoven’s genial Eighth Symphony. Tying them together— metaphorically if not musically—is Laurie San Martin’s evocatively titled, nights bright days.

As is the case with other concerts in the Symphony’s 2018/2019 “Lineage” season, those juxtapositions are more complex than is evident at first encounter.

Leonard Bernstein’s Third Symphony takes its name, Kaddish, from the Jewish hymns of praise to God. Interestingly, though frequently associated in the popular imagination with Jewish mourning rituals the word and/or concept of death is never mentioned in the text; rather, the intention is to express a continued commitment to life (chayim) and faith in God in the face of overwhelming loss. Bernstein’s music moves metaphorically through the well-known stages of grief, at times lyrical and serene and at others discordant and tempestuous, reflecting the struggles of post-Holocaust Jews to maintain their core identity and beliefs while reaching an accommodation with an often-hostile world. Bernstein dedicated this piece to the memory of President John F. Kennedy, whom Bernstein had befriended at Harvard and who was assassinated three weeks before Kaddish’s premiere. The dedication bestowed a universal sense of sorrow, mingled with hope, upon a work rooted in Jewish tradition.

The contrasts most evident in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 are with that composer’s other symphonies and the fraught circumstances of his life. The Eighth is Beethoven’s shortest symphony and the one which most closely adheres to classical norms as established by Haydn and Mozart. In comparison to his better-known symphonies, most notably the Fifth and epochal Ninth, the Eighth (which Beethoven called “my little symphony in F”) is jovial, light on its feet, and even – dare I say it – humorous. This is all the more remarkable considering that at the time he wrote it Beethoven was grappling with deafness, his estrangement from his nephew, and unrequited love. Perhaps the composer was seeking solace in familiar forms, but whatever Beethoven’s motivations his Symphony No. 8 stands as a beacon of clarity in turbulent times, both Beethoven’s and ours.

Laurie San Martin’s nights bright days takes its title from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43:

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

San Martin notes that she wrote this piece in the middle of the night, and like Bernstein’s Kaddish, nights bright days contrasts light with dark, tranquility with anguish. The small hours of the morning are frequently a time for uncertainty mixed with reflection, with the approaching dawn promising the possibility of, if not resolution, perhaps a renewed sense of confidence.

Watch — Bernstein Centennial – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Past, Present and Future

For the La Jolla Symphony’s 2018/19 season, Music Director Steven Schick chose the title and theme of “Lineage.” Among other things this word suggests a continuum, an unbroken linkage between past, present and future, and this concept is central to both the season and the “Deep Roots” concert.

The past is invoked by Anton Bruckner’s much-revised Symphony No. 3 in D Minor. In his day Bruckner was known for his devotion to Richard Wagner, yet there is no discernible Wagnerian influence in this music. Rather, Brucker drew on other sources for inspiration – classical form, sacred music (Bruckner was a devout Catholic), and the folk tunes of his Austrian youth – and synthesized them into a style further influenced by Bruckner’s experience as a pipe organist and characterized by long melody lines and large-scale thematic shifts. Above all, the Symphony reflects Bruckner’s love of brass instruments. Though despised by contemporary critics, his work was admired by other composers, notably Franz Liszt and Gustav Mahler, and has enjoyed a popular resurgence since the 1950s.

For the present the La Jolla Symphony turns to contemporary American composer Philip Glass. Glass created the scores for each of the experimental documentaries comprising Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy, and the final film score, Naqoyqatsi (Hopi for “life at war”) provided the basis for his Cello Concerto No. 2. Glass dropped sections of the score and re-worked others to accommodate a more prominent (and difficult) role for solo cello. The music has all the hallmarks of Glass’s mature style, including insistent rhythms, rapid changes in meter, crystalline textures, and constantly-shifting tonal colors. Contrasted with the often-turbulent proceedings are reflective passages for the cello, either solo or with minimal accompaniment. Though derived from a film score this piece doesn’t attempt to tell a story; rather, it should be considered a purely musical experience.

Fittingly, the future is given voice here by the work of a young, up-and-coming composer, in this case Community Acoustics by LJ White. As White explains,

The phrase “community acoustics” is a name used by some scientists for the phenomenon of acoustic niche separation, in which sounds within an ecosystem organize themselves into distinct frequency layers and interlocking patterns, allowing for communication within species and overall ecosystem function.

In Community Acoustics White challenges the rigid structures of symphonic music and the customary classical concert format, providing an environment in which the music evolves along more egalitarian lines than is the norm. The players have greater control over their role in creating the sonic environment, and the audience are also encouraged to contribute at the end of the piece. “Community Acoustics” points out one possible path towards an active and immersive listening experience.

Watch Deep Roots – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

facebooktwittergoogle_plus