Program Notes - May 19 and 20, 2018
Roberto Sierra: Fandangos (2000) Roberto Sierra’s Fandangos enchants with splashy orchestral color and infectious Spanish dance rhythms, but lurking beneath the swirling energy lies a sinister twentieth-century twist. Loosely based on the eighteenth-century fandangos of Spanish composers Antonio Soler and Luigi Boccherini, Sierra’s orchestral fantasy revels in postmodern playfulness as it spikes the staid historical costume with disorienting twentieth-century accents. Such effects include the dissonant clashes of overlapping melodies and the outrageously extravagant orchestration of a Hollywood movie score on steroids. Throughout the piece’s twelve or so minutes, nearly every instrument attempts some sort of death-defying pyrotechnics. The resulting menagerie of eclectic oddities evokes a sort of phantasmagorical fandangocircus.
Though eminently charming, there is something threatening and almost terrifying about the swirling accumulation of musical activity as endangered melodic snatches tangle in a lawless fight for survival. As the triple-dance rhythms churns away, we witness the gradual devolution of an elegant dance into increasingly chaotic and contorted variations of itself, a primordial struggle between savagery and civility.
Fandangos’ descent into pandemonium sheds a late twentieth-century light on the grace and poise of eighteenth century Spanish dances by allowing their controlled kinetic energies to explode in the jungle of the turbulent twentieth century. The French composer Maurice Ravel corrupted the Viennese waltz to similar effect some 80 years earlier, though with far more devastating implications in La Valse, his post-war portrait of the great European disaster. Although Fandango carries a far more convivial and light-hearted atmosphere than the darkly satirical La Valse, hearing a sinister and destructive undercurrent in Sierra’s celebrated showpiece only adds to its subliminal irresistibility.
Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings (1936) Andromache's Farewell (1962)
In a century that often that often prioritized the satisfaction of the composer over the satisfaction of the listener, Samuel Barber’s music stuck out for its direct emotional appeal to the audience. The eminently successful American composer achieved this through potent harmonies and memorable melodies, both qualities that were shunned and stigmatized by the modernist revolt against the romantic aesthetic. By far the most representative example of his neo-romantic approach is his Adagio for Strings. Perhaps one of the most widely recognized pieces of classical music from the twentieth century, it is also one of the saddest.
Originally, the eight-minute piece was conceived as the second movement of his String Quartet. But it was the arrangement for string orchestra (performed here) that achieved prominence under the baton of the iconic conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini. His legendary performance resounded throughout depression-ravaged America in a high-profile radio broadcast. In the pre-television era, radio was a means of building a sense of shared identity and experience for the far-flung communities of an expanding America. Most importantly, Barber’s piece gave its listeners a space in which to mourn. Since its premiere, the piece has been used frequently at funerals (such as John .F Kennedy and Albert Einstein) and in the wake of horrific tragedies. Its wordless atmosphere of grieving communicates clearly and powerfully. Barber is able to achieve his effect in this piece by focusing on a few sparse musical ideas and intensifying them until they explode. It was the maximal simplicity of his approach that makes his piece a radical achievement of the twentieth century.
The music is very slow and there are not many notes. The notes that Barber does use often tug painfully at each other in a manner reminiscent of late Renaissance vocal music, which he studied zealously. As the pitch rises and the volume increases, we feel the swelling of the emotional fabric and the tension elicits a desperate need for resolution. Since there is so little movement in the music, every new note is a fresh twist of the knife. The piece is in arch form, which simply means that it starts quiet and low, builds to a loud and high climax, and then comes back down for a subdued ending.
A naked note in the first violins opens the piece before they are supported from below by a choir of strings with a ravishing chord. A simple melody emerges: a three-step climb up the scalar staircase. Always yearning upwards and hardly ever reaching its goal, the melody seems to be caught in a Sisyphean struggle. The glacial pace of the harmonic change ratchets up the tension with each new note. Frequent silences prolong the suspension. The dynamics swell and then quickly fall back down to an impassioned whisper. Soon, the growth becomes inexorable and the pressure seems as if it can no longer be contained. When the explosion does occur, the strings are all playing as high as they possibly can, as loud as they possibly can, and with as much expressive force as the musicians can muster. The listening experience is without parallel. The music works its way back down, a gradual exhale after such a cataclysmic release. In its last breaths, the piece sighs a chord that refuses to resolve, leaving a glaringly open ending. The lack of closure can be read many ways and how you interpret it may resonate powerfully with your own beliefs what lies beyond the earthbound boundaries of life.
Taking an entirely different tone than the Adagio, Barber grapples with similar themes of loss and painful goodbyes in Andromache’s Farewell, his setting of Euripides’s tragic poem, The Trojan Women. This time, the music accompanies the story of a violent separation of a mother from her child. The composer left this note to set the scene for his song for soprano and orchestra:
“Scene: an open space before Troy, which has just been captured by the Greeks. All Trojan men had been killed or have fled and the women and children are held captives. Each Trojan woman has been allotted to a Greek warrior and the ships are now ready to take them into exile. Andromache, widow of Hector, Prince of Troy, has been given as a slave-wife to the son of Achilles. She has just been told that she cannot take her little son with her in the ship. For it has been decreed by the Greeks that a hero’s son must not be allowed to live and that he is to be hurled over the battlement of Troy. She bids him farewell. In the background the city of slowly burning. It is just before dawn.”
Right away, the boisterous brass and crashing cymbal evoke the ravaged emotional landscape of war-torn Troy. The dissonance in the strings is searing and the violins scream expressionistically in sheer horror. Although formally a song, the piece is so dramatic and expressionistic as to draw comparison with the impassioned soprano soliloquies of Richard Strauss’s early operas, Salome and Elektra. The tortured strings seethe with Andromache’s psychological horror, the woodwinds - particularly the english horn - reflect her tenderness towards her son, and the percussion bang away with the savagery of the invading Greeks. Andromache’s music requires the wide range and bravado of a fully dramatic soprano. Dissonant, angular, and showcasing a quicksilver dynamic range, the part is an extraordinarily challenging and devastating portrayal of a mother desperate to protect her child. As the popularity of the film “A Quiet Place” shows, this deeply universal instinct to protect our offspring under any circumstances is still a powerfully resonant subject.
Osvaldo Golijov: How Slow the Wind (2001)
At once beautifully poised and desperately urgent, Osvaldo Golijov’s setting of two short Emily Dickinson poems captures the pain of sudden loss while portraying the unyielding, implacable texture of time. Like Dickinson’s poetry, the piece is startlingly direct, yet decidedly ambiguous. The composer explained that he found his inspiration for the song in “one of those seconds in life that is frozen in the memory, forever — a sudden death, a single instant in which life turns upside down.” Indeed, the piece is in constant tension between the emotional exigencies of the moment and the vast eternity of memory.
An Argentinian Jew born to Romanian emigrants, Golijov found musical inspiration in the souped-up tango of his fellow countryman Astor Piazzolla, the Jewish liturgical music of his religious upbringing, as well as the European modernism of his formal training. His indebtedness to Jewish cantorial music is especially apparent here, endowing the song with a significant sense of spiritual gravity.
The mechanically churning and guttural bass clarinet tugs out the unrelenting pulse as a reluctant basset horn emerges with the barest trace of a melody. A product of the minimalist reliance on simple, repetitive patterns, this bleak accompaniment provides a broad backdrop for the soprano, depicting the slowness and vastness of the sea and wind from Dickinson’s poem. A breeze rushes in as the harp strums away and high woodwinds soar above. When the pulsing clarinet returns, the wailing English horn descant sets the stage for the soprano’s entrance. Emotionally shattering yet serene, the soprano bares the soul of the individual, overwhelmed by grief and yearning for solace. The four-note descent of the bass line in the outlines the harmony of a lament, an ancient and enduring genre encompassing musicians as diverse as Henry Purcell and Led Zeppelin.
A central orchestral interludes gives the listener space for reflection. Colored only by the melodic musings of a throaty bass clarinet, the chimes strike the hour, abetting the (paradoxical) sense of timeless urgency. As she returns, the soprano’s lines become increasingly melismatic, leaving the text in suspension as she dwells on one syllable for measures at a time in an emulation of the Jewish cantorial style. As the poems present forces larger and older than ourselves, the undulating accompaniment of the orchestra threatens to swallow up the individual expressions of the soprano. Indeed, she seems to lose her clarity of communication in the last minute of the song as her vocalization of the line, “Oh, how late the feathers be,” slips out of control and is absorbed into the background of the orchestra. Her nasal inflections begin to merge with the timbre of the woodwinds as her protests against time fade. The soprano’s last phrases contain no text at all. Her breath is swept up in the breeze, her sighs sink into the sea, and the song closes unendingly with an unresolved harmony.
Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront (1955)
Like much of Leonard Bernstein’s dramatic output, his score to the 1954 film On the Waterfront comments on our age-old national conflict: the bright optimism of American promise against the threatening savagery of American carnage. The film tells the gritty story of Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando), a humble worker on the rough and dilapidated docks of Hoboken, New Jersey. Browbeaten but resilient, Terry maintains his noble commitment to decency and doing the right thing, despite the prevailing environment of greed, dirty politics, and corruption. When he is coerced into silence over the ruthless murder of his friend by the racketeering union boss, Johnny Friendly, Terry decides to take a stand and bring justice to the docks of Hoboken. He ends the cycle of mob violence by testifying to the Waterfront Crime Commission, though not without enduring brutal beatings and the subsequent murders of his friends. It is a story about doing what is right in the face of group oppression — reminding us of the power and moral imperative of the individual to take a stand against the pressures of the corrupt leadership.
Although Bernstein’s music accompanies nearly 45 minutes of the film, he later assembled the most salient parts into a cohesive suite (performed here). Indeed, the composer chafed at the idea of cutting sections of the music for the dramatic needs of the film, or the audibility of the dialogue. This film score is Bernstein’s only contribution to the genre, and his frustration with the editing process may explain his reluctance to compose in it again. Although he was excited by the opportunity to work on a film, he was initially hesitant to collaborate with the film’s director Elias Kazan. Kazan had gained notoriety among creative types for “naming names” to the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) a few years earlier. Bernstein himself had been a target of HUAC’s inquisition of the postwar years and did not take kindly to Kazan’s willingness to cooperate with the abettors of McCarthyism. Indeed, many actors at the time interpreted the Terry Malloy’s deference to the Waterfront Crime Commission as an allegory for the director’s own testimony to HUAC. Regardless of all that, Bernstein overcame his suspicion of the director and took the job, as he grew to appreciate Kazan’s thoughtful approach to issues such as racism and anti-Semitism in his films.
Terry Malloy’s decency is symbolized by the humble horn melody in the opening chapter of the piece — broad, pained, but strong in the face of adversity. A coarse saxophone introduces the next section, where the violence of the union bosses and the hostile atmosphere of life on the docks is cast by a punishing battery of percussion, shrieking woodwinds, and braying brass. The music showcases Bernstein’s unique combination of European modernist elements such as spiky rhythmic accents and dissonance (a la Stravinsky) with the syncopated swagger and big-city bustling of American big band jazz (a la Ellington). Soon, the beating ceases and a broad expanse of Coplandesque Americana emerges. The sympathy of the strings unseats the percussive attacks of the previous section before transitioning into the lovers’ rooftop scene. In the piece’s emotional apex, unabashed strings sing heartily and soar with romantic tenderness. A sustained bass note arouses harmonic tension, imparting a sublime Wagnerian eroticism on the scene. But such happy moments cannot last long in Terry’s world. A brief and nasty reprise of the violent, percussion-driven music punctures the flourishing passion of the strings. After a pair of somber bassoons eulogize quietly amidst the rubble, a funeral dirge variation of Terry’s theme closes the suite with sweeping panache. The doleful two-step in the timpani paces out the sepulchral march and the cavernous tam-tam adds funereal flair. In the piece’s last breaths, Bernstein frustrates our expectation for resolution with a gorgeously unresolved chord, frozen in its yearning. Terry’s triumph over oppression required great sacrifices and though his nobility survives intact, the scars of trauma remain.