Monday, February 15, 2021

"Around the World in 80 Minutes" with the Sinta Quartet: All Aboard!

The Sinta Quartet returns to Harrisburg 

Pandemic Travel Guide
Live concerts and the once seemingly ordinary idea one could attend them have not been the only social casualties during the Pandemic: travel, by and large at least safe travelhas been another. So, when many of us might be paging through Xavier de Maistre's Journey Round My Room for the umpteenth time, here comes a saxophone quartet with an offer to take us on a round-the-world trip in just 80 minutes (not days)! 

We'll go from Schubert's Vienna to Glazunov's Russia (by way of Paris), to Budapest with Ligéti's Bagatelles and Argentina with a Frenchman's Tango, from Ireland to Bulgaria and eventually into the Realm of Science with music inspired by machines and even (Sheldon Cooper would love this) physics.

And you can join us at Whitaker Center on Wednesday night, Feb. 17th, 2021, for the tour's departure at 7:30. Of course, some restrictions, per the usual Covid-19 protocols, apply check the website for details but at least the forecast is hopeful: Wednesday's the one day this week free of this latest round of unending snow, ice, and general wintry crap we've been dealing with lately...

While 2020 felt like an interminable year (and may not, to some, seem over even now), I can't believe it's been six years since the Sinta Saxophone Quartet made their first appearance on a Market Square Concerts program they called “No Strings Attached” (you can read about that, here).

As you can judge from that title, it was a program of transcriptions from the string repertoire: quartets by Shostakovich, Dvořák and Samuel Barber, the “Holberg Suite” of Edward Grieg. I admit I had been a bit dubious about the venture, given the fact a saxophonist – much less four of them traveling in a pack – has little to choose from when putting a concert program together. It is unfortunate that Beethoven died without ever hearing a saxophone (oh wait, never mind...), or that Mahler or Strauss, who might have, never called for one in their orchestras (though Mahler used a mandolin and cowbells; and Strauss tone poems often look like the musical equivalent of Noah's Ark).

Imagine if, being a saxophonist instead of a clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld's playing had inspired Johannes Brahms at the end of his career, what the Old Man might have added to the saxophone repertoire?

But it begs the point: what does a fairly new kind of ensemble (historically speaking) do to find music it can perform? Either it arranges already existing works, the players compose their own original works, or it creates a new and original repertoire by holding competitions for new works or commissioning composers (usually younger and more adventurous) to take up the challenge.

By now, the saxophone quartet is no longer a “new and adventurous” challenge, but still, as a college student writing a duet for friends playing the saxophone and the euphonium in 1970, I was told by more than my composition teacher it was a waste of time unless I could rework it for clarinet and cello! Needless to say, that was its one and only performance, but what the heck, it was fun.

So now the Sinta Quartet returns to Harrisburg with a program including several new works (some of whom might still be considered young; or at least younger than Glazunov), some commissions, some competition winners. At a time when most of us might be considering whether we should spend the evening in the living room or the den, they're giving us a vicarious chance to go beyond our bubble in a program called “Around the World in 80 Minutes.” 

(I am glad, however, given the weather we've been having and it is February, they did not choose to bring along Chris Evan Haas' Polar Vortex: you can listen to its 2nd movement, “Bloodthirsty Blizzard,” here.)

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Seattle-born David Kechley's Rush, a short five-minute curtain-raiser, gets us aboard with a quite literal bustle of adrenaline, as if sorting out tickets, luggage and figuring out where we should settle in for our trip.

David Kechley
Kechley, born in 1947, is Professor of Music Emeritus at Williams College (you can read the details of his performance and academic pedigree here) and his compositions have been commissioned and performed around the world. As Lucy Miller Murray describes the music for Rush in this concert's program notes, “Within its brevity are contrasting moods from the humorous to the ominous.”

There's a similar kind of bustle (and ominousness) in the opening of Franz Schubert's one-movement string quartet known as “Quartettsatz” (which, in basic English, means “Quartet Movement”). Since we'll hear the arrangement at the concert, I chose the original, performed here by the Daedalus Quartet (you might recognize cellist Tom Kraines from January's MSC program):

Having heard the Sinta Quartet's performance of Shostakovich's overly ominous 8th String Quartet the last time, the natural quality of the transcription and their musicality in bringing it off made me wonder if somewhere Shostakovich hadn't somehow written a saxophone quartet of his own. So I'd be looking forward to hearing how they handle Schubert's style this time.

Given there's a second movement Schubert started and then abandoned mid-phrase, technically that makes this the “Unfinished Quartet.” If you've ever wondered what it'd be like to ask long-dead composers some questions about the music that's so familiar to us, here is my “fantasy interview” with Franz Schubert (1797-1828) reposted from 2013:

(w/apologies to an unknown artist)
Dr. Dick: Good evening and welcome to Dr. Dick's Market Square Concerts Blog Live. I'm sitting here with Franz Schubert, one of the world's most favorite composers. Welcome to the blog, Mr. Schubert. Your Quartettsatz in C Minor is usually described these days as a one-movement string quartet – which isn't exactly the case, is it?

Franz Schubert: Well, no, not really. You see, I had this habit of leaving things incomplete for one reason or another. You know, my friends used to joke I was so lazy, if I dropped a page while I was writing, I'd just start composing the next piece I had on my mind.

Dr. Dick: They said you composed like an apple tree bears fruit. And yet we're so glad to have at least a few of the windfalls...

Schubert: (What's that supposed to mean...?)

Dr. Dick: Uhm, while your most popular symphony is undoubtedly your “Unfinished Symphony,” there are actually several symphonies you left incomplete, in one way or another – at least four others including one you were working on at the time of your death, not just the famous B Minor Symphony. 

Schubert: Yeah, dying is a pretty good reason for leaving something unfinished, but I'd started working on that B Minor Symphony in the fall of 1822.

Dr. Dick: The popular argument is you realized the work was superb enough to stand on its own as a two-movement piece...?

Schubert: Where do you come up with these things? I mean, that's a nice argument, thank you, except there's a sketch for the start of the 3rd movement, a scherzo – and I just suddenly stopped working on it. I don't know why, I just thought it was, you know... maybe not good enough, I guess. 

Dr. Dick: And the same is true of this “Quartettsatz” – you started a second movement, an Andante in A-flat Major of, what...? 41 measures, and it, too, just stops.

Schubert: Yeah, well, I had this problem with concentrating, I guess. (He takes a sip of beer.) By the way, these dumplings are really very good – could you get me the recipe? (He reaches for another one.)

Dr. Dick: So this single, brief quartet movement – the first movement of a most likely four-movement work in the traditional manner – was written in December of 1820 when you were a month or so short of turning 24... 

Schubert: Who are you calling “short”?

Dr. Dick: I mean, when Beethoven was 24, he hadn't written his first symphony or a published string quartet!

Schubert: That was Beethoven's problem, you know – he was too... uhm, what... methodical? Sketching and sketching... he'd spend months, years working on these ideas of his. Me? I'd rather knock off a few songs and then go out drinking with Schober and the guys...

Dr. Dick: But curiously enough, there's one of these “unfinished symphonies” you were working on at the same time as the “Quartettsatz” – along with another opera that also remained incomplete. This symphony's in D Major (given the Deutsch Catalog No. 708a, and it was only discovered in some Viennese library in the 1970s) – you started it in December of 1820 also and then abandoned it sometime after the New Year. And then, a few months after that, you began another one – also left incomplete – but that one would have been on a much grander scale, judging from you did write down of it.

Schubert: (Shrugs his shoulders) Like I said...

Dr. Dick: And then there was the matter of Teresa Grob's wedding on November 21st, 1820. You wrote some of your first songs for her when you were teenagers and were apparently, well... quite the item in the neighborhood. But her father thought you were an unlikely husband for her, being just a poor musician and teacher. So what happened?

Schubert: Oh, her father found her some master-baker and they finally got married – right there in the church where she first sang my music... 

Dr. Dick: And then a few weeks later, you wrote this “Quartettsatz,” right? It makes you wonder what was going through your mind at the time...

Schubert: Right. (Say, are you going to eat the rest of those dumplings...?) 

Dr. Dick: I'm sorry we're out of time, now, so thank you, Franz – may I call you Franz? – for stopping by to talk about your music. This has been Dick Strawser for Dr. Dick's Market Square Concerts Blog

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Gabriel Pierné

Gabriel Pierné may be a less familiar name than Schubert's – for most of my life, the only thing of his I think I'd ever heard was a trifle called “March of the Little Lead Soldiers” which is something that could color your attitude about anything else he might've written – but his “Introduction et Variations sur un Ronde Populaire,” written in 1936 for Marcel Mule's quartet, has survived to become a staple of the saxophone quartet repertoire. The introduction is interrupted by brief glimpses of the “ronde theme” which then becomes a full-out dance on which Pierné builds a series of delightful variations. 

Incidentally, a "ronde" (literally, something "round") is a Renaissance-era country dance, a "round-dance" as opposed to the neither French nor Renaissance thing called a "square-dance."

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From Vienna and Paris, we're off to Budapest and the music of György Ligéti (in Hungarian, that would be pronounced zhorzh LIH-geh-tee despite the accent mark). With his Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (arranged communally by the Sinta Quartet), it would seem, first of all, we're on closer ground, transcription-wise, than we'd be with the Schubert: at least it's wind instruments to wind instruments (it's also, interestingly, from a group of five down to a group of four). It would also seem to be another bit of “light music,” since the usual idea of a “bagatelle” is a miniature, some kind of trifle. But as often happens with music – like the Schubert – there is more here than meets the ear.

Ligeti in Middle-Age
Consider that Ligéti, a Hungarian Jew born in what is now the Romanian part of Transylvania, was called up for military service in 1944 by Hungary's Stalinist regime toward the end of World War II when he was 21. Shortly afterward, his 16-year-old brother was sent off to a Nazi concentration camp; both his parents were deported to Auschwitz. Only his mother survived.

After the war, Ligéti resumed his studies in Budapest and began a string quartet around the time he turned 30. Knowing it would be banned, he wrote it, as composers who write for themselves rather than popular appeal often say, “for the desk drawer.”

As Lucy Miller Murray notes, “It is this part of his life that caused Alex Ross, in his recent and brilliant TheRest is Noise, to group Ligéti with composers who produced 'artworks that answer horror by rejecting it or transcending it.' Despite the horrors of World War II, Ross said, Ligéti 'found it in him to write music of luminosity and wit.'

Writing these “bagatelles” just before the dark times of another historical calamity to haunt Hungarian history, the Revolution of 1956, Ligéti was now a professor of theory at the Budapest Conservatory where one of his own teachers had been Bartók's friend Zoltan Kodály. With these groundings, it's not surprising to hear bits of Hungarian folk song plus the stylistic stamp of Bartók and Stravinsky.

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We'll end the first half of our tour with a stop in Ireland and two “traditional tunes” arranged by Dan Graser, Green Groves of Erin/Flowers of Red Hill.

Without going into detail about the fascinating use of folk music as a source of inspiration to composers – it goes back to Medieval times when one could argue many Gregorian chants employed well-known tunes-of-the-day to bring a sense of familiarity to illiterate worshipers unused to this idea of liturgical music – so, if you're looking to expand your repertoire (say, for saxophone quartet), folk songs are as good a “source material” as anything and if nothing else are guaranteed to be copyright free.

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Glazunov in Paris
Alexander Glazunov is credited with composing the first quartet originally written for saxophones in 1932 (though you might want to check out Jean Baptitse Singelée's quartet of 1857, here, as far as historical accuracy is concerned). The Sinta Quartet will be playing just the 2nd Movement, a set of variations on a Russian Hymn (speaking of using “found material” as a starting point), but it gives us a chance to experience a visit to Russia by way of the Paris where Glazunov was living at the time (even though, like many emigrees after the Russian Revolution and its horrific Civil War, it is doubtful he ever considered it “home”). 

When Glazunov died in 1936, it was remarked this took many people by surprise since he had been out of the musical limelight so long and his music was so old-fashioned, most everyone thought he had died long ago. As if the Russian chant doesn't give it a sense of timelessness already, even here, in one of his last works, two variations are written specifically “in the style of” Schumann and Chopin.

(in this video, they play only three variations, including “Chopin” but not “Schumann”.)

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Thierry Escaich
French composer and organist Thierry Escaich, born in 1965, was a student at that bastion of conservatism, the Paris Conservatoire, and succeeded the great Maurice Duruflé as organist at one of the great churches of Paris. Four years before that prestigious appointment, he composed his Tango Virtuoso, a brief five-minute work he described as a “pedagogical work” (which, I suspect, means it was written for a performance competition). It's far from a student piece!

Whatever Duruflé might have thought of it, it's not the first work a Frenchman has composed inspired by things Spanish or Latin-American.

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One of the things composers have learned from Bela Bartók was not only how to use folk music in a classical format, but how to use folk music's basic fingerprints to create your own completely original material, what he referred to (when he used it in his own string quartets, for instance) as “imaginary folk music.”

Annika Socolofsky (photo by Emory Hensley)

In this case, composer and vocalist
Annika Socolofsky, the youngest composer on the program (born in 1990), says of her brief (but for all its brevity, intense) work for saxophone quartet, “Bulgarity”:

“Inspired by the rhythmic ferocity of Bulgarian dance music and the Bulgarian saxophone legend Yuri Yunakov, Bulgarity is energetic explosion of virtuosity. Pulsating meters, dense ornamentation, and wandering modes make this piece distinctly Balkan in character. Although passages are reminiscent of the folk idiom, all material is original.” It is also the winner of the 2013 Sinta Quartet Composition Competition.

An American composer born in Edinburgh, Scotland, her interest in classical and folk music as a teacher at Boulder's University of Colorado campus goes beyond the traditional boundaries of both worlds: her research encompasses “country music” as well.

“For me in particular,” she says, “Dolly Parton is a master of combining text with vocal sensitivity in her songwriting. I learn something new every time I listen to her. Folk music isn't always looked at in the same regard as classical music, but I've never felt that way. When I'm writing or performing my pieces, I'm thinking of them in the same way I experience country music: how can I tell this story most directly, most personally so that it will touch real people out there in the world?"

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And what can be more “out there in the world” today than technology? While the pun on “ex machina” goes back to the theatrical world of Ancient Greece, machines have ruled modern imaginations for... well, long before the days of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of things like the loom, ever since Man dreamed of finding ways of lessening his workload. More recently, especially with the advent of robots and computers, we might think about machines “taking over” the world and not just in the world of science fiction.

In the mid-1920s, Soviet composer Alexander Mosolov wrote a mercifully brief piece called “The Iron Foundry,” which you can check out,here (if you think that's loud, you should be sitting in front of the brass and percussion sections), a style often referred to as “futuristic brutalism,” taking Beethoven's descriptive “Pleasant Impressions upon arriving in the Countryside” from his Pastoral Symphony into a whole new world barely 120 years later. As another example, consider Gunther Schuller's delightfully chaotic “TwitteringMachine” from his seven pieces inspired by Paul Klee (it even winds down).

Marc Mellits on a balcony
No ear-plugs will be needed for Baltimore-born, Chicago-based Marc Mellits' set of seven machines for saxophone quartet he calls “Ex Machina.” They'll be performing four of them; this video by the Sinta Quartet includes two you can hear on their Whitaker Center concert, the 1st and last (“funky” – nothing like a funky machine, right?). 

In them, you can hear some of the same musical traits you could hear in those works by Mosolov and Schuller: steady ostinatos and patterns (relentless in the Mosolov but going a bit awry in Schuller's account of the Twittering Machine) and periodic but sometimes subtle shifts and contrasts but not the standard sense of “development” or even necessarily the “digression and return” we would expect in more traditional Classical Music. These sounds, not surprisingly, are also part of the modern landscape in the musical style usually referred to as “minimalism” (but I will digress). Commentators have described Mellits' music as “an eclectic combination of driving rhythms, soaring lyricism, and colorful orchestration.”

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So, as we began with a rush to get on board, let's end with the briefest bit of the fastest way to travel today – well, if you were a molecule working at the Hadron Collider. And in this case, specifically, the sub-atomic particle known affectionately as Z(4430). If you can't understand that, don't worry: you don't need to to enjoy this piece of music by Roger Zare. In fact, it will probably take longer for you to read that Wikipedia entry, to say nothing of understanding it, than it would be to listen to the entire piece. The music, despite the physics behind its inspiration, is nothing so nearly scientific as that, even for Wikipedia. Just think of it as the 21st Century answer to "The Flight of the Bumblebee"...

Roger Zare
As the Quartet's website describes it, this was “originally written as an encore to Zare's larger work for saxophone quartet, LHC. Z(4430) is just over a minute long. It depicts the short life of the subatomic particle named Z(4430), discovered in 2014 by the LHCb experiment at CERN, as it explodes into existence, moves around unpredictably at extremely high frequencies (clearly heard in the soprano part), and explodes back out of existence.”

The composer uses the motive E-E-D#-C as the main motive for this briefest of pieces depicting the short life and intense velocity of this particle. By applying numbers to the pitches of a chromatic scale starting on C with C as 0, you will find the D is 2, E is 4 and so on up to B as 11. In that sense, the numbers of the particle, 4430, become E, E, D#, and C – hence the motive that brings our little particle to life and sends it on its existential way.

And which, then, brings us maybe not back to our point of departure “by a commodius vicus of recirculation,” but to the end of our tour (and concert) all the same.

– Dick Strawser

Monday, January 11, 2021

A Musical Journey into a New Year: Music for Violin & Cello

Juliette Kang & Thomas Kraines (at home), 2020

As we turn the corner on a year few of us can ever imagine invoking as “The Good Old Days,” Market Square Concerts first program of 2021 – Wednesday, January 13th at 7:30 at Harrisburg's Whitaker Center – will feature violinist Juliette Kang and her husband, cellist Thomas Kraines. They'll be performing a wide range of music from the Baroque of Bach and Handel (by way of late-19th Century Halvorsen), to the early-20th Century of the well-known Maurice Ravel and less-well-known Ernst Toch to 21st Century composers like Anna Weesner, Nansi Carroll, and Thomas Kraines. If that last name looks familiar, reread the caption of the photograph above.

Given the Virus we are forced to live with, those attending the concert will be able to practice social distancing due to the large size of the theater. Additional safety precautions stipulated by Gov. Tom Wolf’s guidelines will also be in place. If you prefer staying home out of caution, the option of purchasing access to high-quality video or audio recordings a week after the concert is also available.

Juliette Kang is an award-winning Canadian-born violinist who became first associate concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2005, having been a soloist with the San Francisco and Baltimore Symphonies and the Boston Pops, not to mention the Czech Philharmonic, the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. She won first prize at the 1994 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and was presented in recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall. She and Thomas Kraines were married in 2001.

Thomas Kraines graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School and, along with performing with Ms. Kang, plays with the Daedalus Quartet, as well as the Philadelphia-based Network for New Music, the Arcana Ensemble and the improvisatory ensemble Great Blue Heron. He has performed his own compositions in collaboration with, among others, Awadagin Pratt (in the locally produced “Next Generation Festivals”) and the English Symphony Orchestra.

"Passacaglia for Violin & Cello" by Johan Halvorsen (after George Frederic Handel)

The Classical Music World is full of “borrowed music” – Bach used Lutheran chorales as the basis of many of his otherwise highly original works; Mozart and Beethoven improvised keyboard variations on famous opera arias of the day just as Franz Liszt would turn them into virtuosic piano fantasies in another generation; 19th and 20th Century composers would “modernize” older music like Bach or even folk songs and dances, bringing them to a wider, more popular audience. Call it “cross-over,” if you want.

And so, a Norwegian violinist recently turned composer and conductor, and freshly returned to Norway after an international career as a soloist and concertmaster from Leipzig to St. Petersburg, took the last movement of George Frederic Handel's Keyboard Suite in G Minor (HWV 432) and turned it into a virtuoso duet for violin and viola.

Technically, it's more than a simple transcription since there's probably more Halvorsen in it than there is Handel. Calling it Handel/Halvorsen is a bit disingenuous, given its “explorative” (some say “exploitative”) nature, so it's often credited as “Halvorsen after Handel.” Whatever it is, it's become a popular show-stopper for string duos around the world.

Card Party at the Griegs (1888)
Written in 1893 for violin and viola, the same year he became principal conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, it is safe to assume it's the only piece the world knows by Johan Halvorsen. It may not credit his compositional talents, but he was also a son-in-law of Edvard Grieg (in the photo, taken five years earlier, he's in the center, playing cards with Nina and Edvard Grieg on the left, and fellow composers Frederic Delius and Christian Sinding to the right).

As violists are often forced by necessity to commandeer cello repertoire – all it takes, given the tunings of their strings, is to play it up an octave – so in this case, it's fair play for a cellist to take Halvorsen's viola part down an octave.

To begin, here is Handel's original, performed on the harpsichord and here is Halvorsen's adaptation of it, played in a classic performance as an encore following a concert with the Israel Philharmonic in 1997, with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman:

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Three Pieces for Violin and Cello by Thomas Kraines

Thomas Kraines, composer
These are the first pieces of his I'd heard at one of those “Next Generation Festivals,” a series of concerts produced by WITF and organized by Ellen Hughes, back in the day. Every time I hear a new work Tom's written, I keep hoping he'll find more time in his busy career to spend composing. While the Pandemic's lockdown may provide the time and the isolation, it also has its economic impact on the artists' world, which this past year has not been emotionally conducive to positive creative work. I'm just glad he and Juliette are able to bring their “domestic bubble” from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to be able to perform live for us.

The composer wrote these program notes about his “Three Pieces”:

These character pieces are among the first things I ever completed, since deciding, at the end of my 20’s, to start writing music. Of course there was a practical aspect to writing for the combination (I’m a cellist married to a violinist), but I also wanted to explore the obvious similarities and subtle differences between the timbres of the two instruments. In this, I looked mostly to Ravel’s unmatched Sonata for Violin and Cello. Depending on my mood, I sometimes hear my pieces as derivative of the Ravel, and sometimes as an homage.

The first movement is a gentle boat piece in an asymmetrical meter (so the boat rocks a little more to one direction than the other), structured as a simple A-B-A with the return to the A section slightly altered. I clearly remember the feeling of the accompaniment figure under my hand at the keyboard; it doesn’t lie as well on the string instruments, but still has a certain charm.

The second movement began life as a solo cello piece. I wrote the opening melancholy melody, then couldn’t figure out where it might go until it became clear that another voice was necessary. An impassioned melodic fragment which shows up later in the movement came from a setting I was considering making of the Randall Jarrell poem Well Water.

This movement is also notable for some daring, perhaps ill-advised experiments with left-hand pizzicato. The final movement was inspired by our dog at the time, Preston the terrier. Structurally the movement is similar to the first, but in character wildly different: manic, neurotic, and playful. Preston died at a ripe old age in 2014, and was a much slower (though still neurotic) dog for the last few years of his life, but this piece still reminds me of his adolescent personality.”

Thomas Kraines

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Divertimento for Violin and Cello, Op 37, No. 1 by Ernst Toch

Ernst Toch was a prolific composer born in Vienna who today is known largely for a “musical joke,” a pleasant diversion for speaking chorus from 1930 called The Geographical Fugue (I remember “singing” this in high school – it would be perfect for a flash-mob, btw).

Born in 1887 into a non-musical family, he was a child prodigy who was not surrounded by music from birth, unlike Mozart or Mendelssohn, and remained largely self-taught. In 1909, he won a prize that allowed him to study in Germany – his first-ever composition lesson went something like this: “his teacher stammered, 'you wanted to study with me? I was going to ask if I could study with you!'” (He was 21). Shortly afterward, he was appointed a Professor of Composition in Mannheim where he was interrupted by World War I, drafted into the Austrian army, serving at the Italian Alpine front. Afterward, he returned to Germany to teach, then went to Berlin in 1928.

Then, most “brief bios” will mention “in 1933, he left Germany for the United States.” This overlooks the fact Toch, born a Jew, escaped Germany during the early years of Hitler's emerging control when the Nazis were already persecuting Jewish artists. When he (and incidentally Richard Strauss) represented Germany at an International Conference in Florence, Italy, instead of returning to Berlin Toch fled first to Paris, where he sent his wife an “all-clear” telegram that read, simply, “I have my pencil.” She was able to join him and then, by way of London, they went to New York where he taught, and then to Hollywood in 1936 when his friend George Gershwin arranged for him to write music for a film (talk about good luck!). Given the “eeriness” of his “modern style,” he was soon typecast as a “specialist” in horror films and chase scenes...

But all of that postdates the music on our program: after writing a cello concerto and his 11th String Quartet, he composed two divertimenti for string duos in 1925. Op. 37/1 was for Violin and Cello and Op. 37/2 was for Violin and Viola. Ostensibly, I imagine, these short works could be played consecutively by members of a string quartet (had he been Darius Milhaud, he would have written them so they could also be played simultaneously). Shortly after them, he composed a piano concerto. Honing his craft writing a great deal of chamber music and more assured in his style, he was now beginning to branch out into larger-scale orchestral works. He did not begin the first of his seven symphonies until 1950.

The Divertimento for Violin & Cello (Op.37/1) is in three short movements with divertingly alliterative titles: Flott, Fliessend, and Frisch (or “Afloat,” “Flowing,” and “Fresh”).

Among Toch's students, in addition to André Previn, is Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Richard Wernick who later taught at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia between 1968 and 1996. The Network for New Music in Philadelphia held a concert this past Saturday (Jan. 9th) to celebrate Wernick's up-coming 87th birthday and the program began with his Suite for Unaccompanied Cello performed by Thomas Kraines.

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"Sudden, Unbidden" by Anna Weesner

Anna Weesner at work
Growing up in New Hampshire, Anna Weesner currently lives in Philadelphia, where she is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She'd studied flute as an undergraduate at Yale and composition there with Jonathan Berger and Michael Friedmann. She went on to complete a D.M.A. at Cornell University, studying with Steven Stucky, Roberto Sierra and Karel Husa and also with John Harbison and George Tsontakis. (Just to keep track, Stucky, Husa, and Harbison are also Pulitzer-Prize-winning composers.)

Written in 1998 originally for string quartet, Ms. Weesner's “Sudden, Unbidden” has been adapted for violin and cello. Juliette Kang and Thomas Kraines recorded it in their living room this past July:

Like a constantly unfolding quilt-like fabric, the piece is built up of a handful of contrasting and constantly juxtaposing elements, fragments that appear and reappear, often dramatic or suspended in nature – technically you could call it “moment form” or “cellular” – where gestures (rather than melodies or chord progressions) create their own psychological contexts that will, as they progress, remind the listener of previous moments or cells, reflections giving it an overall unity which the first-time listener might overlook.

In her program notes for this concert, Lucy Miller Murray writes, “a challenging work, it is a thoroughly modern piece bearing a certain darkness suggested in its title. Along with that darkness and modernity, however, is a rhythmic excitement and an emotional impact we associate with earlier music. Its virtuosic challenges are impressive.”

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"Spiritual" for cello solo by Nansi Carroll

Nansi Carroll on the cover
American composer Nansi Carroll is Music Director of St. Augustine Church in Gainesville, Florida, Artistic Co-Director of A Musical Offering, and a faculty member at the University of Florida, Stetson University, and The Walden School. Her brief “Spiritual for Cello Solo” might be described as a theme and variations because of its tempo and character changes throughout. One might also perceive it as a fantasy because of its freedom of form and improvisational nature.” – Lucy Miller Murray.

While I couldn't find anything on-line pertaining to the solo cello piece she wrote entitled “Spiritual,” several other works based on or arranging spirituals by her surfaced, and I'm quite taken with this one, a more substantial work that I recommend you “check out.” It's a duo for soprano saxophone and bassoon in three movements which also deals with many of the same compositional concerns explored in the violin and cello duets on this program. 

[Added later: As sometimes happens, I'll do a "search" for something and find nothing. And then, when you least expect it, that thing you were searching for shows up a couple weeks later completely out of the blue: and it had been posted in April, 2020. So here, even though it's technically "after-the-fact" as far as this recital is concerned, is Tom Kraines playing Nansi Carroll's "Spiritual for Solo Cello," based on Gonna Tell God All My Troubles.]

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Two Two-Part Inventions by Johann Sebastian Bach

It's hardly necessary to go into biographical detail about Bach or his music in general, especially with two short works that probably don't last more than 4 or 5 minutes, combined. Suffice it to say, speaking of exploring the challenges of writing two separate linear parts – in this case originally for a keyboard (the right hand versus the left hand) – Bach wrote his Inventions (the 3-Part ones are called Sinfonias) as teaching pieces for his two oldest sons who would grow up to become composers themselves: Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philip Emanuel – not just in how to play two independent parts like this but also how to compose them.

On this program as a kind of “palate cleanser” before the Ravel, we'll hear two of them played by violin and cello: here, in the keyboard original, is No. 8 with Andras Schiff or Glenn Gould; and No. 6 with Schiff or Gould. Take your pick or listen to both: they're very short – and very different interpretations of the same notes.

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Sonata for Violin and Cello by Maurice Ravel

You may be familiar with a lot of Ravel's music but this particular work may be a little different from what you'd expect – not just the leaner texture of two stringed instruments but also lacking the typical harmonic voluptuousness one usually associates with Ravel's earlier music.

Ravel (at home) 1921
This is clearly a neo-classical work, partly because of the nature of its medium – a violin and cello duet giving it a limited texture, considering what we're used to with Ravel's piano or orchestral music, even his string quartet writing. Plus the work belongs to the period immediately following his horrendous experiences on the battlefront of World War I, written between 1920 and 1922. The first movement initially appeared under the title “Duo: Tombeau de Debussy.” Dedicated to the older composer's memory – he'd died of cancer during the German bombardment of Paris in 1918 – Ravel then added three more movements.

Ravel's lean and, as one writer described it, “ruthlessly linear” style picked up the tone and economy of Debussy’s last works, particularly the cello sonata and the violin sonata, both with piano. Ravel wrote of his own tribute, a sonata without piano, “the music is stripped to the bone. Harmonic charm is renounced, and there is an increasing return of emphasis on melody.”

In this performance, we hear members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Yura Lee (who, contrary to the video's billing, is playing a violin) and cellist Jakob Koranyi.
It opens with quiet arpeggiations of alternating minor and major triads which becomes a recurring element throughout the entire piece: like a “theme,” it will be heard in various guises in each of the four movements. A secondary motive, consecutive sevenths (at 0:54 of the video) will also be featured prominently in all movements. In a Classical or Romantic sense, there might've been full-blown tunes, recognizable and even hummable, something a listener could easily recognize. But in the 20th Century, themes like this became less significant and the growth of a work – its form – could more often be built on a more cellular level with short motives that might not be “recognizable” but might be sensed as “something I've heard before” which then binds the work together, at least sub-consciously.

Wild pizzicatos and gnashing, sudden dissonances characterize the second movement; the slow third movement starts off with chant-like austerity in simple rhythms, a respite from the scherzo's frenzy.

In the last movement, the bustling energy returns, imitating a four-part fugue in the pile-up of entrances, even though it's only two instruments.

Given the times we're living in right now, inside another kind of war where we watch the death toll from the Pandemic mount steadily on the daily news – not to mention what we saw unfold on live TV, January 6th at the Capitol – remember what Ravel had witnessed during World War I as well as his having lived through the Pandemic of 1918-1919, the so-called “Spanish Flu.”

Because he was only 5'3” and already 40 years old, Ravel had not been found “suitable” for military service, rejected also as an aviator. Instead, he enlisted as an ambulance driver at the Battle of Verdun, one of the longest battles of World War I with an estimated 741,231 casualties on both sides and considered “one of the most horrific battles” in history.

Two years later, he began composing this music.

– Dick Strawser

Friday, November 13, 2020

A Weekend with Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Part 2: Two Composers from Mexico, Two More from Argentina

This Sunday at 4pm in Harrisburg's Whitaker Center, Cuarteto Latinoamericano will be performing a program of quartets by Latin American composers. Part 1 of this concert's post was about Heitor Villa-Lobos and his 5th String Quartet which opens the program. This one explores three shorter works by Manuel Ponce and Gabriela Ortiz from Mexico, and Astor Piazzolla from Argentina, along with the 1st String Quartet by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera.

Villa-Lobos met Ponce in Paris in the 1920s, and wrote “I remember asking him at that time if the composers of his country were as yet taking an interest in native music, as I had been doing [in Brazil] since 1912, and he answered he himself had been working in that direction. It gave me great joy to learn that in that distant part of my continent there was another artist who was arming himself with the resources of the folklore of his people in the struggle for the future musical independence of his country.”

Manuel Ponce was a year older than Villa-Lobos and, the twelfth child in the family, was considered a musical prodigy, sitting down at the piano after his sister's piano lesson and playing back the piece she had just been playing: he was 4 years old. At age 9, while recuperating from a common childhood disease, he wrote his first composition, called, appropriately, La Marcha del Sarampion or “The March of the Measles.”

Manuel Ponce in his studio, 1920

Though he composed three concertos and a handful of orchestral and chamber works, he was primarily a composer of pieces for solo piano, for guitar, and, his primary love it seems, songs. And if he wrote nothing else, he will remain world-famous for one little song he composed in 1912 at the age of 30. I suppose one could do worse than be famous for having written Estrellita (“Little Star”).

There are two schools of thought on this. One is that it was a song Ponce composed in the popular style and published it with a series of piano pieces, many of which were arrangements of actual folk or popular songs. The other is that Ponce merely arranged an already existing tune and therefore didn't really compose it, doing what a lot of composers in Europe were doing, transcribing folk songs from hearing them being sung by “the people.”

One thing is certain: Ponce sold the pieces outright so there was no copyright under his name, regardless. He didn't make a cent off the piece. He could have retired a very wealthy man on the royalties from Estrellita. But such is life...

When Jascha Heifetz was touring in Mexico in 1923 and realizing he had no music by a Mexican composer to put on his program, he heard someone sing Estrellita in a cafe that evening, jotted it down on a napkin, quickly wrote out an arrangement of it and played it at a concert the next night. It would become one of his favorite encores.

(This is cellist Álvaro Bitrán's arrangement of Heifetz's arrangement of what could well be Ponce's arrangement of the popular song, Estrellita...)

Ponce's Gavotte (or Gavota) was originally a piano piece published in 1913, a year after Estrellita. Rather than being inspired by Mexican popular music, it brings to mind the European salon music in an Italian style that was the preferred sound of classical music in Mexican social circles at the time.


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Gabriela Ortiz, one of the leading composers in Mexico today, was born in Mexico City in 1964. Her father was an architect and her mother was a psychoanalyst but they were also founders of one of Mexico's leading folk music ensembles. While folk music is "where it began" for her, her own musical style eventually incorporated traditional classical styles mixed with rock, African, and Afro-Cuban influences as well as the world of “electro-acoustics.”

As a teenager, her piano teacher introduced her to some of the Mikrokosmos of Bela Bartók"For me, it was a window open to the 20th century music. That definitely changed my mind in a completely new way," Ortiz says. "And then I decided: I want to be a composer."

The composer writes this about this particular work which is the last movement of Altar de Muertos (“Altar of the Dead”) which was commissioned and premiered by the Kronos Quartet in 1997:

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Gabriela Ortiz
“The tradition of the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico is the source of inspiration for the creation of Altar de Muertos, for string quartet, whose ideas could reflect the internal search between the real and the magic, a duality always present in Mexican culture, from the past to the present.

“Altar de Muertos is divided into four parts, each of these describes diverse moods, traditions, and the spiritual worlds which shape the concept of death in Mexico, plus my own personal concept of death.”

Of the last movement specifically, she adds, “Syncretism and the concept of death in modern Mexico, chaos and the richness of multiple symbols, where the duality of life is always present: sacred and profane; good and evil; night and day; joy and sorrow.

This movement reflects a musical world full of joy, vitality and a great expressive force.

At the end of La Calaca I decided to quote a melody of Huichol origin, which attracted me when I first heard it. That melody was sung by Familia de la Cruz. The Huichol culture lives in the State of Nayarit, Mexico. Their musical art is always found in ceremonial and ritual life. (Optional: Each musician can put a Mexican mask on.)”

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(Given the Age of the Mask we're currently living in, I was wondering if the quartet will wear actual “Mexican Masks” for the Day of the Dead, or perhaps a Covid19 Mask with the grinning mouth of a traditionalMexican sugar skull?) 

While her "sound" is full of color, in this string quartet she uses Aztec percussion instruments called huesos de fraile or "friars' bones" that the musicians attach to their ankles.

"Every time they see an accent on the score, they have to step," Ortiz says. "It's a very energetic movement, very rhythmic and it has a lot of influence from the 'Danza de Concheros' ... one of the oldest dances that we know [from] when the Spanish came."

Last year, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, spoke with NPR about the recent premiere of Gabriela Ortiz's new choral work, Yenga. "Gabriela is one of the most talented composers in the world, not only in Mexico, not only in our continent — in the world. She has an ability to bring colors, to bring rhythm [and] harmonies that connect with you. That is something beautiful, something unique."

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And now, to Argentina!

Astor Piazzolla with Bandoneon

There's probably no name in Latin American music better known around the world than Astor Piazzolla's. And while he went to Paris in 1954 to study with Nadia Boulanger in hopes of becoming a great composer of “concert music” – whatever one calls “serious” classical music – he was disappointed when he played some of his compositions (trying to hide his “tango past”) which failed to impress her. It wasn't until he played his tango “Triunfal” that she congratulated him because that, she said, was where his true talent was, where his most natural voice was to be found
in the musical past he was trying to hide.

And so he gave up his dreams of becoming a “classical composer” writing symphonies and instead incorporated a lot of what he was learning in his compositional studies – the ideas of structure, development, even such an old-fashioned scholastic exercise like counterpoint, not to mention the use of color in how you write for instruments – and applied them to the world of the popular dance, especially the tango. This new style of his became, suitably enough, known as Nuevo Tango.

You've heard the expression “it takes two to tango”? In this case, it takes four, and this was composed in 1987. Piazzolla was in New York at the time and went backstage after a concert by the Kronos Quartet to congratulate them when David Harrington, Kronos' first violinist, asked if he could call him in a few days. When Harrington called, Piazzolla had already written "Four for Tango" for them. 

The road to fame is more complex than that famous anecdote about Boulanger: how did he become a good enough composer for Boulanger to accepted him as a student in the first place?

Meeting Artur Rubinstein (see previous post re:his meeting Villa-Lobos) in Buenos Aires in the 1940s, Piazzolla was inspired by his suggestions to study the music of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, and especially to study with Alberto Ginastera (see below). Both urged him to pursue studies in Paris, so when he won a scholarship following a performance of a symphonic work despite the fact a fight broke out in the audience between those for and against the presence of not one but two bandoneons, that traditional accordion-like instrument of the typical tango band, in a traditional orchestra!

Say what you want about Wikipedia, but I found this line very telling, wherever it came from: “In his musical professionalism and open-minded attitude to existing styles he held the mindset of an 18th-century composing performer such as Handel or Mozart, who were anxious to assimilate all national "flavors" of their day into their own compositions, and who always wrote with both first-hand performing experience and a sense of direct social relationship with their audiences.”

And I think that about sums up the divide between what classical music aficionados call “serious music” [sic – as if rock bands and jazz musicians are not “serious”!] and “music for entertainment” [as if Beethoven and Elliott Carter cannot entertain those who enjoy their most complex works!].

As Roger Sessions, himself usually regarded as a cerebral composer, once wrote, "Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart – as if the one could function without the other."

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This same sense of identity is at the heart of another Argentine composer's musical and spiritual identity, Alberto Ginastera, whose 1st String Quartet closes the program.

Before there was even the glimmer of a pandemic on the horizon, concerts have often had to weather the outrageous fortunes of, say, sudden snow storms like the one that canceled the appearance of the Enso Quartet in January, 2016, where they'd programmed Ginastera's String Quartet No. 1. However, for the time they were able to reschedule the concert, one player was unable to make it so a substitute was brought in (it happens) who had never played Ginastera's 1st but had played Ginastera's 2nd, and so they substituted one quartet for the other. It still fit in with 2016 being the year of the Ginastera Centennial.

This post, then, is merely a reworking of that 2016 introduction. Interestingly, the video I'd used for the performance was the one by Cuarteto Latinoamericano. And now – finally – we get to hear Ginastera's String Quartet No. 1 in Harrisburg and with Cuarteto Latinoamericano.


Alberto Ginastera
Just listening to the first few minutes of the opening, this is not your grandfather's collection of folksy dance tunes! Even the tempo indication – Allegro violento ed agitato (Violently Fast and Agitated) – lets you know he's aiming right between the eyes.

While the contrasts are between different types of violence and agitation in the first movement, mostly in the sense of rhythmic propulsion with a savage folkloric theme of limited scope over hammered, crunching chords, the second movement, beginning at 4:25, brings in an aspect of “magic” with its element of the supernatural (that old black magic), more than a Disney-style sense of fantasy, but with contrasts between the colors of playing close to the bridge (the glassy sounds at 4:35 and again at 7:00), the plucked strings against the hypnotically repeated perpetual motion on a single tone that expands at 6:00, which itself contrasts with the odd scurrying passages, not to forget the col legno passage at 7:18 where the players tap on the strings with the wooden backs of the bow rather than the bow-hairs! So much color and so much variety in just a few minutes.

The long slow movement, beginning at 8:00 – a contrast in length as well as tempo after two brief and concentrated fast movements (one violent, one eerily mysterious) – again brings Bartók to mind, his famous brand of “night music” where, rather than the romantic moonlit nocturnes of Chopin, we hear the sounds of nature complete with insects and other strange noises we're not sure of and, on occasion, even frogs (Bartók's son Peter, in his memoir, My Father, describes how the composer was fascinated by the sounds of the night at his uncle's farm, especially the frogs). The music slowly unfolds in simple intervals creating long sustained chords, full of silences and anticipation with fragments of melodies slow to evolve. These chords are based on (or comparable to) the tunings one might expect from a guitar. And the expansiveness is something one might experience alone under the stars of the great Pampas of rural Argentina.

The final movement – a dance – begins at 16:25 and is marked allegramente rustico or “cheerfully rustic,” the closest thing Ginastera has created to an overt folk-dance in this quartet, especially in its contrasting 5/8 sections. And while four string players might “kill” to be able to create the kind of “louder/faster” frenzy a huge orchestra can bring to, say, the conclusion of Estancia, there are ways of building to a sonorous and rhythmically exciting end.

Alberto Ginastera's cat reacts to a particularly spicy chord

How many Argentine composers other than Alberto Ginastera and Astor Piazzolla can you name? Surely, they didn't spring up, like Minerva, fully formed from the beginning of musical time in that Latin American nation? And as we saw with Piazzolla's influences, Ginastera was a major inspiration. So where did he come from?

Born to a Catalan father and an Italian mother, Ginastera was already studying piano, theory and composition at the age of 12 in the “Williams Conservatory,” founded by the Argentine-born composer Alberto Williams in 1893 (he had studied with Cesar Franck in Paris). While a senior in 1937, Ginastera composed a ballet, Panambí, (which one reviewer in 1998 described as “a seductive work that sounds like Ravel on growth hormones”) that, after a suite was premiered at Argentina's major concert hall, Teatro Colón, established his national reputation. When the full ballet was staged for the first time in 1940, Ginastera won several national and local prizes for music.

The next year, the young composer met Aaron Copland, then on a Latin American tour with the American Ballet Caravan (they'd produced Copland's ballet, Billy the Kid). On the strength of Panambí, the company's director, Lincoln Kirstein, commissioned Ginastera to compose a ballet for them which would become Estancia. A suite of four dances from the ballet – about the life of the gauchos on a ranch in the Pampas (basically) – remains one of his most frequently performed works, and the “Danza final” (a malambo) remains his greatest hit.

Unfortunately, the American dance company folded and was unable to produce Estancia, so a collection of four dances from the ballet was premiered in 1943 (the ballet itself wasn't staged at the Teatro Colón until ten years later) but the composer received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to study in America, a trip that had to be postponed because of the war. In 1941, he had already been appointed a professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires and also the “chair of music” at the General San Martín Military School, a post he was dismissed from when Juan Perón came to power. That December (1945), he and his family moved to the United States where he studied with Copland and heard some of his music performed by the League of American Composers in New York City and by the Pan-American Union in Washington, DC.

Returning to Argentina as his international reputation grew, he helped establish a local league of composers that became the Argentine division of the International Society for Contemporary Music (known as ISCM) in 1948. He also became the director of the Conservatory in La Plata (just outside Buenos Aires), and from this year on, he would make frequent trips to Europe as a representative of Argentine music.

I mention these events in detail because it was in 1948 that he composed the 1st String Quartet that concludes our program.

It's important to realize that, looking back on his career, Ginastera himself would later say this quartet marked the dividing line between his early style and his “second” period. He was now 32 – think of Beethoven who, at 30, was moving into what is universally called his “Middle Period” following his first set of quartets and the 1st Symphony – and what Ginastera called his “objective nationalism” with its strong influence of “creole music” like Estancia, with its overt use of gaucho folk-songs and dance rhythms.

This new 2nd Period he called his “subjective nationalism,” where, while elements of folk music are still in evidence, it's not nearly so explicit and often more like what other composers had been doing internationally – think “Bartók” – but with an Argentine accent.

Bela Bartók had started quoting elements of folk music in his own music, having moved on from mere transcriptions, and then began absorbing it into his more abstract style, what he often called “imaginary folksong.” The fingerprints of the folk style were present but the melodic and rhythmic materials were original, significant building-blocks of many of his major works, especially the 3rd, 4th, and 5th String Quartets.

Ginastera w/Students

Other aspects of the international style were absorbed into Ginastera's evolving language: he would use serialism (which most composers were using in one way or another in the 1950s) but not in any especially doctrinaire manner, influenced more by Berg and the expressionist atonality of Schoenberg than the rigorous approach of Webern and, particularly, Boulez (who even worked with serializing rhythms and dynamics as well as pitch). He would use polytonality – the presence of different layers of tonality but each strand in a different key – and “micro-tonality” (the use of quarter-tones) as well as elements of chance (the “aleatoric” music of John Cage, for instance). Above all, even though he was still disposed to “traditional forms” like the sonata or variations, he would “revitalize” them in his own, often different ways.

His music always had a rhythmic drive – often ferocious as you can hear in the Final Dance from Estancia – and he was above all fascinated by instrumental color, preferring to find new colors from combinations of standard instruments rather than using electronics. It was not unusual for his music to move along like a kaleidoscope of "sound-images" though with an underlying core of what constituted Ginastera's own “voice” so a casual listener might not notice the diversity. In other words, subjectivity aside, despite its technical variety, it would sound entirely consistent.

Keeping in mind that “dissonance” is technically a sound that implies the need for resolution – as a Dominant 7th Chord in Haydn is still technically a dissonance needing to resolve to a tonic chord – Ginastera's use of dissonance is often more a matter of color or rhythm (in a sense) than just the idea of creating harsh sounds. You can hear this in the aggressive opening of the 1st Quartet - which in the process generates a lot of the music's drive.

In the end, Ginastera has created a string quartet – something so associated with European culture and its history of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms (and Bartók) – that is at home on any world stage and brings with it echoes of his homeland, letting everyone else know that, yes, there is music in Argentina – and it sounds like this.

There is much more to Ginastera's music in the 35 years he continued to compose – interestingly, in the last years of his life, he talked about how his music was becoming less aggressive, returning not so much to the folk music of his past but to the folk music before his past.

“This change is taking the form of a kind of reversion, a going back to the primitive America of the Mayas, the Aztecs, and the Incas. This influence in my music I feel as not folkloric, but – how to say it? – as a kind of metaphysical inspiration. In a way, what I have done is a reconstitution of the transcendental aspect of the ancient pre-Columbian world.”

So with his first quartet, we hear a composer, now in his 30s, reaching out to create a style that synthesizes the national and the personal – that will, by the time he is in his late-60s, return to find deeper roots to inspire him but to continue evolving an individual voice.

Dick Strawser