Sunday, July 21, 2013

Summermusic #2: A Kind of a French Connection

The second concert of this summer's Market Square Concerts series takes place on Sunday at 4pm in the air-conditioned Market Square Church and features works by Claude Debussy, Richard Rodney Bennet and Johannes Brahms with Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina playing the Debussy Violin Sonata, and oboist Gerard Reuter and pianist Ya-Ting Chang joining violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Michael Stepniak and cellist Fiona Thompson for Bennet's oboe quartet, "Arethusa" and the Brahms Piano Quartet in C Minor . This post is about the first two composers.

Two of the works on this program are by familiar composers of the traditional classical pantheon; the third composer may not be that well known in this country though you may have heard his music without knowing it.

Richard Rodney Bennet (see below for photo credit)
Richard Rodney Bennett's Arethusa, written for oboe and strings in 1989, is inspired by the ancient legend of a nymph transformed into a fountain to escape from a pursuing river god. 

An English composer who spent much of his career living in New York City, Bennett was at home in various musical languages. You might have heard some of his film scores (like Four Weddings and a Funeral released in 1994 or Far from the Madding Crowd in 1967), several of which were nominated for Oscars. He is well-known as a jazz performer and singer. He studied privately with one of the most formidable presences in 20th Century music, Pierre Boulez, which might be where he began his mature musical life, though, like many composers, his style changed to take on a more lyrical quality without “dumbing down” or rejecting his earlier approach. His opera, The Mines of Sulphur, written in 1963, is one of the most riveting operas I've heard (it is often performed but not anywhere I've been able to see it since I first heard the recording when it came out in 2005 – you can hear samples here). He can write miniatures of exquisite beauty regardless of style and he has been influenced by many strands of the 20th Century – from Claude Debussy to jazz to the complex serialism of Boulez.

To celebrate his 75th birthday in 2011, you could've heard a double concert at London's Wigmore Hall which included one of his Debussy-inspired pieces, the Sonata after Syrinx on the first concert with Bennett and singer Claire Martin performing from “The Great American Songbook,” with his own arrangements of songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, among others, on the second concert.

Comfortable in any of these “musical dialects” he chooses, he rarely writes what we'd call “cross-over” pieces. Yet he composed a saxophone concerto for jazz giant Stan Getz which, according to Tom Service of the British newspaper The Guardian wrote in his excellent “Guide to Richard Rodney Bennett's Music,”

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...isn't about a Third-Stream kind of blend of improvisation and classical conventions; instead, as Susan Bradshaw wrote about the piece, it's about putting "jazz harmonies in conjunction with the composer's own free-flowing serial technique". It's a work whose tensile rigour and utterly compelling musical momentum couldn't have happened without Bennett's structural thinking, but that also sings and stomps with expressive and stylistic freedom.
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You can read Service's complete article, here: it was published in July of 2012. Bennett died on Christmas Eve, later that year.

Here are some examples of the different voices of Richard Rodney Bennett:
- from his Clarinet Quintet (1992) 
- his Five Impromptus for Guitar (1968) 
- from his 1995 Partita (you can hear sample clips, here)
- and music from his 1974 film score for Murder on the Orient Express one of those scores nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film Score

In this largely unedited interview, he talks primarily about writing a new piece for two pianos for the 2008 Dranoff Competition, but between 9:54 and 15:36, he talks about what it's like to be a composer, how he starts writing a new piece, dealing with things like writer's block and what his ideas are of success.

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Throughout his life, Bennett was inspired by the music of Claude Debussy. For instance, he wrote Dream Dancing in 1986. In a program note, the composer wrote:

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The late works of Claude Debussy have always been of the utmost importance to me. Dream Dancing is the fifth in a series of works based on Debussy's Syrinx for solo flute, the others [including] After Syrinx I for oboe and piano, [and] After Syrinx II for solo piano.

At the end of his life Debussy was planning a series of six sonatas, of which he only lived to complete three - the violin sonata, cello sonata and the sonata for flute, viola and harp. The fourth was to have been for oboe, horn and harpsichord, the fifth for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, piano and double bass, and the six for an ensemble made up of all the instruments used in the previous five sonatas. This is in fact the ensemble which I have used in Dream Dancing (with certain doublings) - flute, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harpsichord, piano/celesta, harp, violin, viola, cello and double bass.
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Which brings us, then, to the work that opens this Summermusic program, the Violin Sonata Claude Debussy composed in 1917. In the order of these proposed six sonatas, it was the third but, unfortunately, the last work he completed. It also marked his last public appearance – he was the pianist for its premiere in May, 1917. He died in March the following year, in the midst of the German bombardment of Paris which marked the eventual end of the First World War.

It is with the awareness of the war that Claude Debussy described himself on the cover of these sonatas as “un musicien fran├žais.”

Here is a compelling performance of Debussy's Violin Sonata – which will be played on the program by Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina – with Janine Jansen and Itamar Golan recorded in Paris's Salle Pleyel in 2011.

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1st Movement:

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2nd Movement:

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3rd Movement:

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You can read more about this sonata in a more detailed follow-up post on my other blog, Thoughts on a Train, here.

- Dick Strawser

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Photo credit: portrait photograph of Richard Rodney Bennett by Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian.

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