Monday, February 23, 2009

A World Premiere in Harrisburg: Philip Glass's New Violin Sonata

This weekend, a new violin sonata by one of the major composers in the world today will receive its first performance anywhere in the world in Harrisburg, PA, a city not exactly known as a hot-bed of new music.

Philip Glass, who’s written numerous operas (like the ground-breaking “Einstein on the Beach”), chamber music and film scores (ranging from the equally ground-breaking “Koyaanisquatsi” to the Oscar-nominated score for “The Hours”), wrote his “Duo No. 1 for Violin & Piano” for violinist Maria Bachmann to perform on the stage of Whitaker Center this Saturday evening at 8pm as part of Market Square Concert’s 2008-2009 Season.

The work was commissioned by Martin Murray as a special birthday gift for his wife, Lucy Miller Murray, celebrating her 70th birthday and her 27 years as the founding director of Market Square Concerts. In addition to this concert’s celebration, there will be a special tribute following the last concert of the season with the legendary Guarneri Quartet (near the end of their final tour before the group officially retires) which I’ll be telling you about in a future post.

The whole program includes three other sonatas – one from the early-20th Century by Maurice Ravel (with its famous “Blues” movement) and one of the great sonatas of the repertoire which Johannes Brahms wrote less than 40 years earlier, though a world of difference away. Less well known is the music of Romanian-born George Enescu (often known in the French-form of his name, Georges Enesco) who was one of the great violinists of his day (he even premiered Ravel’s Sonata) but also composed a great deal of music, most of it overshadowed by his 1st Romanian Rhapsody. I’ll tell you more about these works in my next post (you know, they want me to keep these a little shorter than I usually write over at my own blog, Thoughts on a Train).

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We live in a time when musical styles are changing, similar to what happened in music history between the end of the 19th Century and the early decades of the 20th. What they will change to is still in our future, the same way someone living in 1909 who might be concerned about the state of music following Brahms’ death might have no clue that a few years later, two very important and very radical works would be composed: Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.”

Philip Glass is one of the few composers active today to be as well known internationally as some of the great composers of the last century, like Igor Stravinsky who was often described as “The Greatest Living Composer” in his time (when he died in 1971, there was no one standing in the wings to be automatically hailed as his successor). While Stravinsky was one composer who helped change the musical landscape, Glass was among a generation of composers born in the 1930s who have changed the landscape of American Classical Music and one who himself has had a major impact on music around the world.

In a nutshell, while the second half of the 20th Century’s university-centered, universal style-of-the-day followed the atonal and serial language of Arnold Schoenberg, Philip Glass and others developed a more direct, tonal style rooted (so to speak) in the simple triad. Adding that to the simplicity of its textures and harmonies, what set it off from other music being written in the ‘70s and ‘80s was its use of repetition, giving it the convenient term, “minimalism.” It must have sounded a lot like that new style of those Italian composers who invented opera around 1600, seeking to return to the simpler ideals of Ancient Greece (though no one knows, even today, what their music sounded like) compared to the highly intellectual and lavishly “maximal” music of the Late Renaissance.

Glass himself or at least his musical style is perhaps changing a bit, now that he has passed the 70-year-mark. From his earliest “reductive” works of the mid-1960s (inspired in part by meeting the Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar who also influenced the Beatles) to his most recent works – the “Songs and Poems for Solo Cello” premiered a year ago and now this new violin sonata – he may be looking at different ways to handle his own musical language. For many composers, new and different approaches to a musical voice, inspired by the “aging process” or more realistic events in life or history, may come naturally and often automatically (I’m thinking of those handy pigeon-holes “Early, Middle & Late” that can be applied to Beethoven or Stravinsky). It’s not that the music will sound radically different from one work to the next and it may only be evident to some listeners over a period of time. It’s more like subtle shadings or variations on those details we may think of like musical finger-prints.

That’s one of the exciting things about a world premiere: no one knows where this work will be in the composer’s development and no one knows where it will stand a decade or more from now. For all the works a composer writes during his or her lifetime, there are some pieces that will succeed and others that will not – and, you could add, not succeed now but perhaps be rediscovered later and find success in the future (Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is just one example of that). So there’s this sense of a gamble that adds to the excitement.

The “Duo No. 1 for Violin & Piano” (or “Violin Sonata” as the composer refers to it on his web-site) is a substantial piece lasting about 25 minutes. It’s in a standard-looking three-movement format – the outer movements are fast, the middle movement is slow – though the title and each movement indicate a fairly abstract piece, no emotional external suggestions with fanciful or picturesque descriptions. In fact, the movements are indicated not even in the traditional tempo indications (allegro or adagio) but merely with metronome markings (like the 1st movement’s “Quarter Note = 120"). And while you could describe Glass’s music in general as “classical” in its clarity of texture and design, it’s not without its emotional impact. Often, the hypnotic repetitions build to an emotional awareness you wouldn’t expect from looking at the music on the page, getting beyond the constant rhythmic pulse which many first-time listeners find annoying (I know: I was one of them). Even though I haven’t seen the score or heard the recent cello piece, what I’ve read about his latest music sounds like there’s a more emotional drive in the style, perhaps a synthesis of the old “minimalist” style with a more directly emotional Romanticism of traditional tonal music.

In her notes for the program, Lucy Miller Murray writes,

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“Yet repetition is only one facet of the Duo. Others are the inventive and daring harmony that marks the first movement and the moving melodic quality of the second movement. The third movement, with its soloistic passages for both instruments, is singular in its powerful effectiveness. Unexpectedly, Glass chooses to end the wonderful work with a simple and quiet chromatic statement only hinted at earlier in the movement.”
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You don’t get a chance to hear a brand new work by a major composer in your own back yard very often – unless you live in one of the major arts centers of the world – so this becomes very exciting. Not only do the performers not have any other performance or recording to go by in shaping their interpretation of the piece, the audience doesn’t have any idea what to expect. There is no review to read, no advance buzz about what other critics and listeners feel about it. In fact, WE become the first audience to react to this music. I wonder if that’s very different from how it worked in 1888, a little over 120 years ago, when people in Budapest sat down to hear Brahms’ 3rd Violin Sonata for the first time?

Ellen Hughes, the new Director of Market Square Concerts, told me several people are coming down from New York City to hear the premiere here, rather than wait for the inevitable, already scheduled New York performance. She also wrote, the concert will be “followed by a reception hosted by Martin Murray where you can meet the players. We expect an especially enthusiastic turnout for this concert, which is indeed an event of note for Harrisburg and for chamber music, as there are already plans for a second and third hearing of Glass's Sonata in Colorado and in New York City.”

I hope you’ll be able to join us on Saturday evening – 8pm at Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg – when Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff perform the World Premiere of the brand new Violin Sonata by Philip Glass.

- Dr. Dick

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