Monday, March 20, 2023

Welcome to Spring with the Vesna Duo and Music for Piano & Percussion

Vesna Duo: pianist Liana Pailodze Harron & percussionist Ksenija Komljenovič

Two days into Spring (following the Winter That Wasn't, at least for Central PA), it's suitable an ensemble taking its name from Vesna, the ancient Slavic goddess of youth and springtime, will be playing Stravinsky's mythologically-inspired ballet, The Rite of Spring, one of the most iconic works of the 20th Century, at Whitaker Center as part of the Market Square Concerts season, Wednesday, March 22nd, at 7:30.

The Vesna Duo is not your traditional ensemble, either. A piano and percussion duo, you might wonder what they're going to play since, after all, neither Beethoven, Mozart, nor Brahms ever wrote sonatas for piano and marimba (though it's conceivable, had Brahms been inspired by a marimba-player the way he was by a clarinetist, he might have put his Piano Quintet, originally a string quintet, through another revision). While Bartók did write a sonata for two pianos and two percussionists, it didn't exactly spawn a whole wave of new pieces by other major composers for the combination. So the Vesna Duo relies on what ensembles who don't have centuries of masterpieces behind them like string quartets or piano and violin duos have: they either compose new works themselves – or arrange already existing repertoire.

It's fitting the centerpiece of their program is Stravinsky's Rite of Spring which essentially liberated percussion instruments from playing generations of tonic-and-dominant pitches in your average run-of-the-mill timpani parts or like the underworked cymbal and triangle players in Bruckner's 7th Symphony who get to play one note in an otherwise hour-long work (but what a moment).

Stravinsky's Rite also declared the independence of rhythm from being just something melodies and harmonies merely moved in, and by creating a whole new world with changing meters rather than the usual regular patterns telling us a piece was a march or a waltz or a tango in simple 4/4 or 3/4 time. Try tapping your foot to this!

If The Rite of Spring pulled up the curtain on the 20th Century at its premiere in 1913, setting the stage for a whole new perspective on what music could be, the first two composers on the program took full advantage of some of these possible influences. In George Gershwin's case, it was the harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary of jazz. For Astor Piazzolla, it was the sultry world of the Argentine tango.

Piazzolla's La Muerte del Ángel is a rare example of bringing a fugue to a knife-fight. Different sources may indicate it was composed in 1959 or originally intended as incidental music for a 1962 play “Tango of the Angel” before being turned into a suite for his tango quintet. The story behind “The Death of the Angel” describes the knife-fight in which the Angel is killed, complete with stabbing chords. But yes, it begins as a three-voice fugue just as the classically-trained Piazzolla, championed as a young man by Alberto Ginastera and studying composition and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, would have understood this centuries old symbol of intellectualized music.

Since most of Piazzolla's tango music was composed for one of his bands, particularly a tango quintet with bandoneon (not, really, just an accordion), violin, piano, percussion and bass, most of what American concert-goers hear when they hear Piazzolla in concert is going to be an arrangement for a more traditional classical combination, whether violin and piano, string quartet, or even full orchestra. Here is a live 1984 performance in Montreal of Piazzolla and his quintet performing La Muerte del Ángel:

But Piazzolla, who treated his own written scores loosely, leaving a lot of room for interpretation, was also a great improviser, his written scores more blueprints for some spontaneous on-stage live creativity. We usually associate this skill with jazz, but the thing any classically-trained performer must be aware (since they are rarely trained in improvisation) is that this must be done in Piazzolla's own language.

Here is percussionist Ksenija Komljenovič's arrangement for marimba and piano (performed live but not in a concert hall) of Piazzolla's fugue with knives:

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Gershwin shares a similar world with Piazzolla, not only in his love of improvisation and his popular music background, but also in his having met with Nadia Boulanger in 1926 in hopes of studying with her when he traveled to Paris. She refused to take him on (as did Ravel, and according to various stories, Stravinsky, Ibert, even Glazunov), but at least he got to come home with a souvenir called An American in Paris. His Three Preludes were originally written for solo piano that same year (1926) and while they themselves are a very familiar part of the repertoire, you may not be aware that initially he – like Chopin as well as many others before him – planned to write a set of 24 Preludes

Calling this proposed collection “The Melting Pot” from which we can assume each prelude would be in a different key and probably inspired by different types of popular music – jazz, mostly – akin to that favorite cliché about America (and New York City especially) as the great Melting Pot of so many different immigrant cultures, all mixed up to create a new American identity. However, he ended up with just seven preludes, then dropped one, arranged two more for violin and piano (he called them “Short Story”) and so here we have what's left: a Prelude in B-flat inspired by the rhythms of a Brazilian dance with a lot of flat-7th chords typical of jazz but not, at the time, of good old-fashioned classical music; a Prelude in C-sharp Minor which Gershwin referred to as “a blues lullaby”; and a lively Prelude in E-flat Minor he described as “Spanish.”

Imagine if – the ever-present “what if...?” – Gershwin had written and published 21 more preludes?!

Here's a recording made by Gershwin himself in 1928.

(Some listeners quibble the 3rd Prelude's tempo may be a bit rushed, even frantic, which could be the effects of time constraints on a 78rpm record (if they're not piano-roll recordings which have their own technological issues), but others who feel the 2nd Prelude is generally too fast forget the composer marked the tempo Andante con moto which is not a slow tempo but a “walking tempo with motion.”)

The transcription the Vesna Duo performs was made by the pianist of the ensemble, Liana Pailodze Harron.

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I've spent a lot of time writing about The Rite of Spring over the decades – you can read this post from ten years ago for a performance by the Harrisburg Symphony (sorry most of the video links are no longer active...) – and I don't mean to gloss over its historical significance since the work is more than just the music you hear on the surface: it's as much about the reaction to what had been going on for decades before it was composed (both in Stravinsky's own career and the number of different kinds of musical “experimentation” going on in places like Paris and Vienna), and the influences it had on literally everything, pro or con, that came afterwards. One can analyze it to death, trying to find out what Stravinsky was doing technically with his chords and rhythms, but even Stravinsky was fairly mysterious about where he found “the right notes” beyond saying “even though everybody else thought they were the wrong notes.” Every time I hear it – or, as I've had the chance several times, seeing the ballet live on-stage! – I am dumbfounded by the question “where did this come from?!” Nothing that Stravinsky wrote later ever came close to sounding like it again (aside from the standard stylistic fingerprints that make up any composer's individual musical voice) and anything anybody else composed “inspired” by it sounded like a pale imitation.

That said – and without getting into the programmatic details of the story that unfolds on stage in this ballet about an ancient pre-Russian village ritually choosing a young maiden who will dance herself to death in order to propitiate the gods for a bountiful spring – here is percussionist Knsenija Komljenovič's arrangement of Igor Stravinsky's ballet, The Rite of Spring, or, in French, Le sacre du printemps but which the composer originally called, in Russian, Весна священная (Vesna svyashchennaya, or “Sacred Spring”) as performed by the Vesna Duo:

Now, this is not the last work on their program. “What,” you may be thinking, “do you do to follow that?!” Enter Israeli composer and jazz bassist Avishai Cohen (born in 1970, not to be confused with the Israeli-born jazz trumpet player Avishai Cohen, born in 1978) and something he called The Ever-Evolving Etude, written in 2008.

So let me begin with a quote from music blogger Bob Ben who recalls his first encounter with Avishai Cohen:

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My cousin, also a music geek, offered me a challenge one day. He played me a 20-second sample of bassist (not to be confused with the jazz trumpeter of the same name) Avishai Cohen’s Ever-Evolving Etude from his 2008 album Gently Disturbed, although I didn’t know the title at the time, nor would I have remembered the name. I wasn’t into jazz back then, much less what I was hearing here. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It was unconventional, complex, difficult to parse. The bass and piano threw forth a fury of notes that seemed, to my untrained ear, to have the rhythmic logic and constancy of a person trying to kill a particularly evasive mosquito.

It was chaotic, furious and wonderful.

What kept it grounded for me were the pitches, satisfyingly tonal, and the timbre, new to my ear at the time, of bass and piano playing in unison, to which I am now much more accustomed.

He asked what the time signature was. When I couldn’t figure it out, he said he’d be better off not knowing anyway; how can you enjoy it if you’re counting?

Flash forward six or seven years. I’m in the final year of my music degree and the great New York drummer John Riley is making an appearance at our school. During a large portion of his lecture, Riley deconstructs the very excerpt my cousin had showed me years earlier.

And so, I learned the answer.

I gained a lot from that lecture, but to this day I cannot count the pulse of the Ever-Evolving Etude and certainly couldn’t notate it. Not on my life. And it really is better like that.

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In the early-'60s, somebody played Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" for me which was then setting feet tapping all over the country to its consistent 5/4 pulse. I liked it but, being a snotty 12-year-old, snidely added "yeah, Tchaikovsky did that with the 2nd movement of his Pathetique Symphony..." More interesting was Brubeck's "Blue Rondo à la Turk" with its more complex metric pattern:

This was still a novelty compared to what most of us were used to at the time, even though Bela Bartok had used similar rhythms many years earlier (I just hadn't become aware of them yet).

Of course, the flexibility of a jazz performer's improvisation is not usually tolerated in the standard Classical Music World – imagine if a string quartet would start riffing on Beethoven's Quartet Op.131: there would be rioting in the streets! – but, as with Piazzolla and, to an extent with Gershwin (not in his Classical “cross-over” pieces, however), improvisation is often at the heart of the creative process, hence the idea, perhaps, of “ever-evolving.” It could become, as far as the composer-as-performer is concerned, the “never-ending” creative process (I am reminded, in this year of Marcel Proust and the 100th Anniversary of his death, how, having sent his novel off to the printers, Proust continued adding new material and making extensive revisions while reading the proofs, leaving behind an editorial nightmare in a work he had said was “complete” but apparently not quite “finished” at the time of his death).

Here's a live performance of Cohen and his trio with “The Ever-Evolving Etude” at the Tokyo Jazz Festival in 2019:

(note the pianist's left hand starting around 1:35, if you want to imagine what it's like tapping out the beats)

Compare this to the original recording, from Cohen's 2008 album “Gently Disturbed”:

Note, at least, the album recording is 6 minutes long; the live performance is 9½ minutes long. If we're timing a classical piece and comparing performances, something that's 3½ minutes longer than another might be the difference in tempos or whether one “takes a repeat” or not; in jazz, it usually means, “hey, man, let's take this baby for a spin...”

So be prepared for however the Vesna Duo's performance of their arrangement of Cohen's The Ever-Evolving Etude evolves!

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For anyone interested in extra-credit:

Thinking about first coming to terms with complex rhythms like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or Cohen's jazz etude reminded me of the time I played some Bulgarian folk-music – actually arranged for a folk-instrument band but fully notated – for a rock-drummer friend and asked him simply “so, what meter is this in?”

Of course, for a more than proficient percussionist and recently graduated music student, this sounded like a piece of cake, especially when he knew my own musical tastes in “traditional Classical music” would hardly challenge his wider experience in rock and jazz.

So I played him something like this:

(this is actually a much simpler dance than the recording I had, but I can't find that specific cut on-line nor do I have any idea, 45 years later, which box in the basement my old Bulgarian folk dance recordings are hidden in...).

I can still see him, writhing on the floor, madly tapping his hands (and then feet) trying to sort out the patterns, thinking “okay, it's repetitive, I can figure this out...” but by the time he's almost there, the phrase changes to a new pattern and he has to start all over again. 

The trick with these irregular patterns of changing meters, a conductor told me about The Rite of Spring, "everything can be broken down into either 2 notes or 3." (Yeah, like that makes it easy...)

If you have 5 minutes, I recommend this cardio workout as an antidote to those old-fashioned straight-forward ballroom dances like the waltz or the tango. Probably also good for staving off symptoms of cognitive decline, if you can remember these rhythms and those steps (eat your heart out, Irish step-dancers).

While the patterns are repetitive, they may also frequently change with each group of phrases: “The [Bulgarian version of the] horo may vary between three and seven or eight steps forward and one to five or six steps back, depending on the specific type.” Not that there'll be anyone out in the lobby signing people up for Bulgarian Dance Classes – could this become the next big dance craze? – but note the children getting involved, here, not to mention the number of women dancing this in heels...)

- Dick Strawser

Monday, February 13, 2023

Make Them Hear You: A Spiritual Journey with tenor Limmie Pulliam & pianist Mark Markham

Limmie Pulliam, Verdi's Otello: Esultate! (w/Springfield Opera, Christopher Koch, 2017)
When a friend posted this clip on Facebook a few years ago, I sat there wide-eyed listening to a mere one minute of music and thought “This voice!” If there was ever a time to say “This is a singer to watch” – or rather listen to – this was it. Otello's brief entrance at the opening of Verdi's masterpiece must be one of the most daunting walk-ons of all time, no chance to warm-up to it, just go out and let loose with it. 
And now, you'll get a chance to hear him in a recital at Market Square Church, 7:30pm on Wednesday, February 15th, 2023, here in Harrisburg with pianist Mark Markham in a program of Negro Spirituals called “Make Them Hear You.” After that brief introduction, you'll probably agree that shouldn't be a problem, even from the back pews of the church...
On January 20th, Pulliam made his Carnegie Hall debut in New York City, all part of a career that saw him debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the role of Radames in Verdi's Aïda back in mid-December. But this is not just the big break for a newly discovered voice: Limmie Pulliam is now 47. In the 1990s, dreaming of singing on major stages around the world, this Missouri-born tenor who most of his life had always dealt with “weight issues” quit singing in his early-20s “because of concerns about body-shaming in the music industry.” But now his renewed career is being called a “comeback” – what is the take-away when you hear his story and think what prejudices have caused us to miss out on, all those years in between?
There is no irony, perhaps, then, during this “Black History Month,” we are listening to a program called “Make Them Hear You: A Spiritual Journey” which includes a dozen familiar Negro Spirituals born of racial prejudice. Arising out of the world of Slavery, they gave comfort and inspiration to generations of those who'd created these songs but which continue to inspire everyone, regardless of race or culture, today.
Great Day!  -------------------- arr. Thomas Kerr (1915-1988)
Wade in the water  ------------ Improvisation
Take me to the water  --------  arr. Undine Moore (1904-1989)
His name so sweet  ----------  Hall Johnson (1888-1970)
There’s a man goin’ round -  arr. Moses Hogan (1957-2003)
Were you there?  ------------  Traditional
Deep River  ------------------  arr. Mark Markham
You can tell the world ------  arr. Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)
This little light of mine -----  arr. Margaret Bonds
Witness  ----------------------  arr. Hall Johnson
Give me Jesus   -------------   arr. Moses Hogan
Ride on, King Jesus!  ------   arr. Hall Johnson 
(There will be no intermission.)
Limmie Pulliam w/an orchestration of Hall Johnson's Ride On, King Jesus! (performed in 2015 with the Delta Symphony, Neale Bartee conducting, in Batesville AR)
Unlike a more traditional song recital with repertoire usually gathered into groups by composer or period, giving someone writing program notes or, say, a blog-post about the program's musical background, an opportunity to delve into a piece-by-piece analysis or historical commentary on each song (“Now, Schubert composed these next two songs on the same day...”).
Since no composer is otherwise associated with them, in many peoples' minds that makes them “folk songs” which evolved out of the culture rather than were specifically created by an individual. It might be more appropriate to think of them as “songs composed by Anonymous” that were passed down through the community's Oral Tradition. While somebody must have written it sometime, the composer's name is unknown: in other words, “provenance unknown.” But then, one can argue, “folk songs didn't just compose themselves.” As usual, terminology often confuses reality.

As Lucy Miller Murray mentions in her program notes, “Mark Markham has importantly pointed out this program is a collection of Negro Spirituals, not folk songs, but that they are at the level of American art songs which have been arranged by the composers listed in the program.”

Speaking of terminology, there is also a matter of identifying them as “Negro Spirituals,” “African-American Spirituals” (hyphenated or otherwise), or simply “Spirituals.” While the Wikipedia entry (itself labeled simply “Spirituals”) states the Grove Dictionary (1986 ed) defines “spiritual” as a “type of sacred song created by and for African Americans that originated in oral tradition. Although its exact provenance is unknown, spirituals were identifiable as a genre by the early 19th century,” noting they also did not use the “African American descriptor.” But when I checked my own copy of the Grove Dictionary (1980 ed), it's listed under “Spiritual” (singular, with no descriptor) as a “type of folk song which originated in American revivalist activity between 1740 and the close of the 19th Century,” specifically to distinguish it from “metrical psalms and hymns of traditional church usage.”

There were also “White Spirituals,” the 1980 Grove continues, also originating in the South which, from its own oral tradition, developed into the published form of “Shape-Note Hymnody” another fascinating rabbit-hole for those wishing to explore the difference between “spirituals” from one culture and another. These “shape-note” hymn books were designed to facilitate congregational and social singing, each “shape” representing a particular pitch in the major or minor scale. In New England, for instance, communities would gather, trained by a “singing master” in the tradition of William Billings (as well as Andrew Law and Supply Belcher, the “Handel of Maine”) where these old hymn tunes – and, eventually, their own original ones – would be arranged and harmonized as part of a social choral experience, whether in or outside the church itself.

Among slaves of the 1th and 19th Centuries, without access to publication and a wider community of activity, these texts and their melodies, based on Bible stories and lessons, originated from “work songs” on the plantation. In 1839, a plantation-owner's wife wrote in her diary, “how they all sing in unison, having never, it appears, attempted or heard anything like part-singing” (that three- or four-part harmonized style we associate with hymns). At a funeral, she continues, “the whole congregation uplifted their voices in a hymn, the first high wailing notes of which – sung all in unison – ...sent a thrill through all my nerves.”

As late as the 1970s, researchers described the performance of these early spirituals: “The lead singer who would frequently improvise was generally supported by 'basers' who provided a vocal groundwork and interpolations. The singing... abounded in 'slides from one note to another [with] turns and cadences not in articulated notes'.” In their printed collection of spirituals, they regretted their inability to convey in notation 'the odd turns made in the throat and the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different, irregular intervals'.”

In time, during the course of the Civil War and following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 “altering mainly the nature (but not continuation) of slavery for many,” cultural awareness of the spiritual spread. And while the historical and cultural details and their implications are far beyond this simple introduction's scope, this often entailed arrangements of the melodies to suit society's musical concepts which would included harmonic accompaniment and a four-part hymn-like style, first with groups like The Fisk Jubilee Singers, students at Fisk University forming an a cappella choral ensemble in 1871 to tour and raise money for the college. Their repertoire consisted primarily of “arrangements of traditional spiritual songs and songs by Stephen Foster.” Their performances brought this music to even an international awareness.

Many of these songs reflected the tribulations of slave life, translated into biblical metaphors, like Go Down, Moses. Songs like He never said a mumblin' word or Nobody knows the trouble I've seen were often called “Sorrow Songs.” There was also the evangelical fervor in such joyous songs as Ride On, King Jesus, giving hope that there would be freedom in salvation beyond the present.

Frederic Douglass, an ex-slave and Black leader born around 1817, wrote about singing spirituals when still a slave: “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan something more than the hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North and the North was our Canaan,” the Promised Land. 
Several writers have described spirituals as “codified songs of protest,” especially with texts based on the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage or Daniel from the lions' den; or, like Steal Away, an inspiration to escape from their own bondage. And meanwhile the plantation owner's family living up in the big house, listened to their slaves' singing, unaware of the underlying significance of these texts. 

Marian Anderson, contralto: Crucifixion ("He Never Said a Mumblin' Word")

Henry T. Burleigh, a Black singer in New York City, studied composition with none other than Antonín Dvořák at the National Conservatory in the mid-1890s. Burleigh, an Erie PA native born in 1866, was taught a number of “spirituals and slave songs” by his grandfather. After winning a scholarship to the conservatory (with the help of the registrar, who was also Edward MacDowell's mother), he would later sing many of these songs for his composition teacher and Dvořák was fascinated by them.

One of the reasons the famous Dvořák had been brought to New York, of course, the prestige of having his name on their faculty aside, was to help young American composers study music without having to go to Europe. His own music had grown out of the folk songs of his native Bohemia but the real problem in America was “what was an American folk song?” The nation was made up of so many immigrant (and mostly European) cultures. Dvořák decided, after hearing Burleigh sing, that these songs of the American Negro constituted “the real” folk songs of the nation and he recommended his students study them and out of them, directly or indirectly, build their own musical voice.

Whether Dvořák's famous “New World” Symphony was intended to show his students and audiences how to do this or merely to be another European-style symphony inspired by his stay in America, it did not include any overt “Spiritual Themes.” One can argue the famous tune in the slow movement, the “Largo,” could've been inspired by one of Burleigh's songs, but it's never been proven, though it bears many of the hallmarks of a “spiritual theme” with its non-traditional scale, simple phrasing, and, with or without the soulful sound of the English Horn playing it, the emotions of a spiritual's ethos. Once the words for “Goin' Home” were attached to it in 1922, it became a popular song but regardless remains one of the most memorable themes in all of Classical Music.

The only problem was, given the racism inherent in White society, Dvořák's suggestion did not prove a popular avenue for something as “high-society” as Classical Music. One of Dvořák's contemporaries was the largely self-taught Amy Beach who decided to base the themes for her own symphony the year following Dvořák's “New World” on the folk songs of her Scots-Irish ancestors, so she called it the “Gaelic” Symphony (incidentally, the first symphony in America written by a woman, yet another rabbit-hole for the Google-eyed curious).

When Henry F. Gilbert, a Massachusetts-born composer (who was White interested in folk music, submitted his 1908 work, Dance in Place Congo, inspired by Creole dances from Congo Square in New Orleans, to the Boston Symphony, conductor Karl Muck dismissed it as “[N-word]-Music” and refused to play it. It wasn't performed until 1918 with appropriate choreography at the Metropolitan Opera House. It later became a success in Europe in the late-20s. While it may smack of “cultural appropriation” today by some, Gilbert's intent was little different than, say, Brahms, a North German composer, writing dances inspired by Vienna's Hungarian gypsy bands.

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Over the generations, the singing of these spirituals soon developed into the blues and gospel songs that became popular in the 1920s.

By the time the phonograph came along, companies only recorded these “spiritual” and gospel songs with White performers. In 1920, following her success as a blues singer, Mary Smith became the first African-American singer to make a commercial record, but they still recorded her with an all-White back-up band. The producer “had received threats from Northern and Southern pressure groups saying they would boycott the company if he recorded a Black singer. Despite these threats the record was a commercial success and opened the door for more Black musicians to record.”

Given how something like This Little Light of Mine could grow into a world of music shining far beyond its roots, pardon my metaphors, it is something else to think about when listening to them in a recital setting. Given arrangements to complement their original style, supplying simple harmonies, they also prove capable of more complex treatments just as many of the folksongs that inspired Dvořák or were imitated by composers as diverse as Brahms, Mussorgsky or Bartók (I will always remember a violinist friend listening to Bartók's 4th Quartet, how “this must be what 'down-home music' sounds like to a Hungarian”).

The arrangers of these songs, in their own ways, elevated their status to the level of Art Songs whether by Schubert or Rachmaninoff and made them available to a wider audience. Here are Lucy Miller Murray's biographical sketches for each of the arrangers, quoted from her program notes:

Baltimore-born Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) dreamed of attending the Peabody Conservatory but, since African American students were not admitted at that time, he attended Howard University and later continued his studies at the Eastman School of Music where he completed his Bachelor of Music degree in piano and his Master’s degree in music theory. He later returned to Howard University as a Professor of Piano and Chairman of the Piano Department. He composed more than one hundred works including those for piano, voice, organ, choir, and chamber ensembles and was awarded numerous prizes. Sadly, he died in a car accident at the age of seventy-three.

Undine Moore (1904-1989) was considered the “Dean of Black Women Composers” and a distinguished classical pianist and teacher. She wrote numerous vocal works many of which were inspired by Black spirituals and folk music. She attended Fisk, an historically Black college, and received a scholarship to Juilliard and later studied at Columbia, the Manhattan School of Music, and Eastman. She was the recipient of many distinguished awards. Her numerous works include twenty-one art songs for solo voice and accompaniment.

[Born in Athens GA], Francis Hall Johnson (1888-1970) achieved fame for his arrangements of African-American spiritual music as well as for his performances as a violinist and violist. [As a child, he was inspired to play the violin after hearing a recital by the grandson of Frederick Douglass.] He was also noted for his music [conducting the choirs] for such films as The Green Pastures [with its all-Black cast], Lost Horizon, and Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Among the singers he coached were Marian Anderson and Robert McFerrin Sr.

Moses Hogan (1957-2003) is yet another American composer and arranger best-known for his settings of spirituals. He is considered to have revitalized the Negro spiritual tradition. Along with Deep River that we hear on this program, his many works also include such famous ones as Abide With Me and Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Mark Markham has importantly pointed out that this program is a collection Negro Spirituals, not folk songs, but that they are at the level of American art songs which have been arranged by the composers listed in the program. Of special note is Mr. Markham’s arrangement of Deep River that we hear on this program. He played the work at Jessye Norman’s funeral:

Chicago-born Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was one of the first Black composers to gain recognition in the US and is best remembered today for her arrangements of African-American spirituals. She studied with Florence Price and later at Northwestern University and the Juilliard School and with Nadia Boulanger. Her father was an active force in the civil rights movement as was Bonds herself and her musician mother. Bonds worked closely with Langston Hughes and set much of his work to music.

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Dick Strawser

Monday, January 9, 2023

A New Year with the Dalí Quartet, Part 2: Piazzolla & Ginastera

The previous post for the Dalí Quartet's concert focused on the first two works on the program: the 3rd Quartet by Arriaga and the 2nd Quartet by Silvestre Revueltas. This post covers the second half of the program, with Piazzolla's "Tango Ballet" and Ginastera's 2nd Quartet. 

The concert is Tuesday, January 10th (7:30), at Whitaker Center on Market Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets in downtown Harrisburg. Tickets will be available at the door. 

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Due to technical difficulties with the WiFi connection here at Dr. Dick Plaza (a.k.a. La Casa de Mercurio en retrógrada perpetua), combined with the effects of Whatever Variant of Post-Holiday Crud is going around resulting in, among other things, near-constant headaches of 5.2 on the Sviatoslav Richter Scale, I have been unable to finish work on these posts in a timely fashion. If you do not have time to read them before the concert, you can always read them after-the-fact and still gain some understanding of the music's background you'd heard live. 

Dick Strawser

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Astor Piazzolla with Nadia Boulanger in 1955

There is a famous anecdote that almost sounds apocryphal (given the number of variations on its details) but the end result is the same. The advice speaks volumes of truth for many composers, not just a 33-year-old Argentinian named Astor Piazzolla. In 1954, he had left Buenos Aires – at the urging of Argentina's leading “classical music” composer of the day, Alberto Ginastera (see below) – to study with one of the most influential teachers in Paris, Nadia Boulanger. However it happened, many young composers, especially from the United States, were drawn to Paris to study with her, ranging from Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, and Elliott Carter to Burt Bacharach and Joe Raposo (more famous for the songs he wrote for Sesame Street). 

In the early-1940s, Piazzolla – his childhood is complicated, as a boy moving to New York City before returning to his native Argentina – grew up in the world of tango bars and became a bandoneon player in various dance bands in the capital city. He met the pianist Artur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who urged him to study with Ginastera, studying the scores of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, listening to orchestra rehearsals by day and playing the dance clubs by night. By 1950, he gave up his own band to concentrate on composing “serious” music and in 1953 his “Buenos Aires Symphony” won a competition and was given its premiere. Despite a fight breaking out in the audience between those who supported the “newness” of combining classical and popular influences and those who found this insidious and degrading (really, using not one but two bandoneons?), Piazzolla won a scholarship which allowed him to travel to Paris to study with Boulanger (see photo, above).

Piazzolla played through a number of his “classically-inspired” pieces for his new teacher with little response. It wasn't till he started playing one of his tangos – Triunfal – that she reacted: “This,” she said, “is the real Piazzolla!” Dismissing the pile of “serious” works, she said “this” was what he should focus his efforts on. And you could say, he never looked back. (By the way, imagine if Mozart had waited till he was 33 before “finding his voice”?) 

Primarily, he studied counterpoint with her – it was, according to Carter, what she was most brilliant at – and it would, in fact, become a major feature in the development of his “New Tango” style. It was the synthesis of the “serious” which he'd started to learn with Ginastera, with the “popular” element he'd grown up with and which was suc h an important aspect of his environment.

So here we have another great “What If...?” game: if Piazzolla had stayed with his “serious” side, would as many people today know the name and hum his music if he instead wrote symphonies and operas and string quartets like his mentor Alberto Ginastera? Would his “serious” music have had the same sincerity his tangos have?

Following his stay in Paris, Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires in 1955 and formed another band, expanding the traditional tango ensemble of two bandoneóns, two violins, bass and piano, by adding a cello and electric guitar. For his Octeto he composed his “Tango Ballet” in 1956 which was later transcribed for full orchestra as well as for string quartet.

Whether intended to be danced or not – and of course, who could resist dancing mentally while listening to a tango? – the program behind the music was meant to evoke six scenes, from an introduction leading to an encounter in the street – then “forgetfulness” – cabaret – solitude – before ending up back in the street.

Considering when it was composed, “Tango Ballet” then is one of the earliest works Piazzolla wrote after studying in Paris, clearly taking Boulanger's advice to heart.

It's always intrigued me how naturally so many of Piazzolla's compositions work for string quartet and yet they were not originally written for a string quartet: they're transcriptions (at least, in most cases) of works he originally composed for one or another of his tango bands!

Since the Dalí Quartet is the 2021 Silver Medalist at the inaugural Piazzolla Music Competition, here they are, playing the first and last movements of the “Tango Ballet.”

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While I had difficulty finding an on-line video matching their vitality, here's one that, if nothing else, will show you how Argentinian fire translates to a quartet from Iceland – the Kordo Quartet recorded in Rekjavik in 2021 playing the entire "Tango Ballet":

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Piazzolla, Bandoneon, & Cigarette
The tango itself – as internationally identifiable as “the Viennese Waltz,” once considered a lascivious form of social expression parents should protect their children from – was the product of an urban immigrant culture, mixing European influences with black, native, and Creole elements like Andalucían flamenco, melodies from southern Italy, the Cuban habañera, candombé (especially with its percussion) from African slaves, along with Eastern-European polkas and mazurkas, the Spanish contradanse, and the milónga, the rural song of the Argentine gaucho or cowboy. Into this melting pot, Piazzolla tossed the complexity of European classical traditions and American jazz. He called it nuevo tango.

Reading through a few brief on-line biographical summaries (mostly quoting material from the Wikipedia post), none of them mention the historical backdrop of the Argentina Piazzolla was living in at the time this piece was written, regardless of any direct effect on the music. But while Piazzolla was studying in Paris, the regime of dictator Juan Peron was under siege, ending with a coup in mid-September, 1955, three months after planes of the national air force and navy massacred hundreds of protesters on the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential Casa rosada, images that may resonate following the 2nd Anniversary of the January 6th Riot (or Insurrection) at the Washington Capitol and today's news as protesters attack government buildings for similar reasons in the capital of Brazil.

Peron's ouster ushered in years of political unrest and frequent coups and counter-coups, lasting for decades. Perhaps Piazzolla's return to New York City in 1958 was prompted as much by the conditions in his homeland as it was the search for artistic possibilities. While his music began gaining acceptance in Europe and the United States, at home he had become a controversial figure, not just for his “tampering” with a traditional icon like The Tango: liberal segments of Argentine society embraced his musical revolution as a parallel to their own political agenda. Given the government's attitude toward attacking and arresting (and sometimes torturing or killing) protesters, perhaps even a musician was not safe? 

Whether or not we hear this social turmoil in his music – it would be difficult for those of us outside its cultural awareness – it should remind us that, however we may feel about art and toss around terms like “beauty” and “entertainment,” artists do not create in a vacuum, whether they choose to work within their realities or in spite of them. In the long run – regardless of culture and history, whether its catastrophic events like the Napoleonic Wars, two World Wars, or periods of endless unrest in countries like Mexico and Argentina – art somehow manages to survive and transcend the reality it was born into.

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Ginastera, c.1960
Born in Buenos Aires in 1916 of a Spanish father from Catalonia and an Italian mother – incidentally, to clear the record, the composer always preferred the Catalan soft g for his name (g as in George) rather than the Spanish j (as in Juan) – Alberto Ginastera premiered a suite from his folkloric ballet, Panambi, which earned him national recognition at the age of 21. He became involved with a touring American dance company which commissioned a new ballet but the company folded before it could be produced. The Four Dances from Estancia, premiered in 1943 (the ballet, not until ten years later) only solidified his reputation. Unfortunately, a proposed trip to study in America had to be postponed because of World War II. 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. When Juan Perón rose to power in 1945, Ginastera was dismissed from his post for political reasons. Then he and his family moved to the United States where he studied with Copland and some of his music was performed.

It was during this period his music began to undergo a change, from the folk-influenced melodies and rhythms of his earlier works, a style he later called “objective nationalism” creating a nationalist Argentine musical voice, to an increasingly more abstract influence from the “classical music” of modern Europe.

Ginastera began to explore this world outside Argentina in 1948 with his 1st String Quartet. He found inspiration particularly in the works of Bela Bartók (who had died in America in 1945), and now applied these elements into his previous style to create a “Middle Period” style he now called “subjective nationalism.” Simply put, he was creating an internationally recognized style with an Argentinian accent, much as Bartók had gone from quoting folk music to incorporating elements of folk style into the fabric of his original music, in what Bartók called “imaginary folk-music,” particularly in his 3rd, 4th, and 5th String Quartets.

During this period, he'd returned to Argentina and became involved in promoting Argentine composers both at home and abroad with frequent trips to Europe as a musical representative of Argentina. But because of political tensions, he was dismissed again from the directorship at the La Plata Conservatory in 1952 only to be reinstated after Peron's fall from power in 1955 (see above). In 1958, he attended a music festival in Washington DC to hear his 2nd String Quartet premiered to great acclaim by the Juilliard Quartet: his international reputation was now assured.

While Piazzolla left Argentina for New York City in 1958 amidst the social and political deterioration following the coup against Peron, Ginastera, because he spent more time outside the country, was perhaps less affected by these events. But after his opera Bomarzo was premiered with extraordinary success in Washington in 1967, but subsequently banned by the Mayor of Buenos Aires on moral grounds, Ginastera decided to settle elsewhere, first teaching at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1968 before moving to Geneva in 1970 where he remained until his death in 1983.

Ginastera (not so serious) in July, 1968

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.

Like Bartók's 4th and 5th Quartets, Ginastera built his 2nd Quartet – almost as if it were an homage – on a similar arch form. Many of the rhythmic motives and the sense of contrast also bear the stamp of Bartók. Opening with a wild and violently rhythmic opening movement, followed by a lyrical slow movement with prominent solos from each instrument, the middle of this arch is a fantastical “night-piece” also in the manner of Bartók's “night-music” movements, but rather than whispering winds, insect noises and sometimes even the frogs of Bartók's uncle's farm, all background to the imagination's response to night's uncertainty, Ginastera's builds more on the darker side of fantasy, dealing perhaps with magical incantations and folkloric rituals.

Like Bartók, it is also full of unusual playing techniques, including fingernail pizzicatos, pizzicato glissandos, those loud “snap” pizzicatos (let's hope no strings are broken tonight) usually called “Bartók Pizzes,” as well as playing with the bow practically on the bridge to create that eerie hollow, almost metallic sound, and tapping the strings with the wooden back of the bow. As this night-music had been a standard part of Bartók's style, Ginastera's sense of magic was very much a part of his. From there, we work our way back out of the arch's keystone with a parallel slow movement that also employs solo passages before returning to the violent rhythmic, indeed frantic propulsion ending the piece with a huge, unfettered yelp.

Here is a performance by Cuarteto Latinoamericano of the 2nd String Quartet by Alberto Ginastera (complete with score):

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- Dick Strawser


Sunday, January 8, 2023

A New Year with the Dalí Quartet, Part 1: The Music of Arriaga & Revueltas

The Dalí Quartet (photo credit, Ryan Brandenberg)

: The Dalí Quartet
What: Arriaga's 3rd String Quartet, Revueltas' 2nd String Quartet, Piazzolla's "Tango Ballet," and Ginastera's 2nd String Quartet.
When: Tuesday, January 10th, 2023, at 7:30pm
Where: Whitaker Center on Market Street in Downtown Harrisburg

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The first half of the award-winning, Philadelphia-based Dalí Quartet's program consists of works by a Spanish and a Mexican composer; the second half, of works by two Argentinians. Silvestre Revueltas is considered one of the most important Mexican composers of the 20th Century (and born on the very last day of the 19th); Alberto Ginastera has long been recognized as Argentina's greatest composer while Astor Piazzolla is easily the most popular one.

Curiously, their program opens with a work from the Days of Beethoven (1823), then progresses chronologically through the 20th Century with Revueltas' 2nd quartet (1931) and, after intermission, two works from the 1950s, Piazzolla's “Tango Ballet” (1956) and Ginastera's 2nd Quartet, written two years later. So, for once, I can take you through the entire program in both Program and Chronological Order and, for that matter, move from Spain to the New World, going from Mexico south to Argentina.

The Dalí Quartet takes its name from the Spanish painter, Salvador Dalí, born in Catalonia on the northeast coast of Spain, near the French border. The first composer on this program was born almost a hundred years earlier on the northwest coast of Spain, near the French border.

Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga is not a name well-known to American audiences, or, if he is known, it's probably for having been one of the most short-lived composers to be recognized in a flock of short-lived composers like Mozart (who died at 35) and Schubert (31). A contemporary of Beethoven, Arriaga has been dubbed “The Spanish Mozart” for more, however, than being short-lived: born on the day Mozart would've turned 50 (imagine!), he was also something of a child-prodigy himself. Mozart may have written his first works when he was 6; Arriaga's earliest surviving work – an octet for an odd combination of string quartet, bass, trumpet, guitar and piano with the child-like title, Nada y mucho (“Nothing & Much”) – was written when he was 11, by comparison not so impressive on the Scale of Prodigiousness, but still, given there are three string quartets, at least one complete opera (with fragments of at least five other works that might've been projected if not completed operas), a symphony of almost 30 minutes' duration, and several shorter choral works and chamber pieces, there's enough to realize Arriaga could've become a composer to take note of had he not died ten days before his 20th birthday! Imagine, if you will, listening to this work of a teenager and wondering what Arriaga might have achieved had he lived to be 35, much less 70...

There are clips of some excerpts from the Dalí Quartet's performances available on-line – a gorgeous moment from the slow movement, and from the finale – but for reasons of completeness, I chose this recording by no less than the Guarneri Quartet, one of the few iconic quartets of an earlier generation to take this music seriously. It's in the traditional four movements and follows a standard Classical scheme with the “slow movement” a more leisurely pastorale.

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If the scherzo and finale bring to mind Mendelssohn, remember Arriaga would not have known the German's earliest quartets which were still four years in the future. And while there may be hints of Mozart and Haydn as well as Early-Beethoven, each of whom could have been influential in Arriaga's development, let's consider the fact, since 1821, the young Spaniard was studying at the Paris Conservatoire with a composer considered one of the greatest and most influential in Europe who was not named Beethoven, Luigi Cherubini – who, incidentally, was also a major influence on the young Mendelssohn in Berlin.

In 1823, when Cherubini heard a “Stabat mater” he thought exceptional, he asked simply, “Who wrote this?” and when told it was Arriaga's, said to the boy, so the story goes, “Amazing – you are music itself!” No small endorsement from the most influential composer in Paris!

His three string quartets were all written in that same year of 1823 when he was 17. It would be difficult to dismiss these works as “juvenalia” and though they lack the finesse of such great names as Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven (compare them, then, to works Haydn or Beethoven may have written at that age – excepting the likes of Mozart who wrote his dramatic “Little” G Minor Symphony when he was 17; and Mendelssohn, who wrote his Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream at the same age only a few years later), there is still a pretty astonishing level of accomplishment in these works. And the Symphony, though not on the level of Beethoven (who was?), is certainly as good if not better (or at least more promising) than many of those Contemporaries of Beethoven nobody plays any more.

Yes, for 1823, you might think this sounds “very classical” compared to what Beethoven was writing at the same time – the year of the Missa solemnis, a year before his 9th Symphony, the first of his “Late Quartets” to follow in 1825. But if you know what most of Beethoven's contemporaries were writing like, Arriaga's not so far off the Main Stream.

Given how I like to place composers in the context of their times, remember Arriaga was born in 1803 in Spain – technically, in the Basque region of northwestern Spain – months before the invasion by Napoleonic troops and the onset of near-continuous warfare until the French were driven out after the Battle of Vittoria (celebrated in Beethoven's “Wellington's Victory”) in 1814. A year later, post-Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena. In 1821, Arriaga's father was able to send his son to study in Paris, months after Napoleon's death, when Louis XVIII restored the dynasty interrupted by the French Revolution in 1789. In 1823, the year of Cherubini's resounding endorsement and the production of Arriaga's three quartets, the French army again invaded and occupied Spain in an attempt to restore a pro-French king who'd been ousted by rebellious liberals.

A further side note: whatever influence this may have had on Arriaga's own character, much less his music – he was, after all, like the Italian-born Cherubini, a foreigner in Paris in the aftermath of a generation of Napoleonic wars – there were more direct impacts of the era on composers like Beethoven who lived through two French occupations of Vienna, and Haydn who died in the midst of the second one; of Schubert who, as a boy, saw a French bomb barely miss his school, exploding in the neighboring yard; and of Wagner, five months old when the Battle of Leipzig, the deadliest battle in history before World War I, raged around his home and his father died in the ensuing typhoid epidemic a month later.

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Revueltas in 1930
Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas was born on the last day of the last year of the 19th Century – in other words, on the 20th Century's New Year's Eve. In the early-1930s, he composed four quartets in quick succession along with other “musical postcards”. The 2nd, subtitled “Magueyes,” was dedicated to Aurora Maguira, but more of her association with the music later.

These quartets are, compared to standard string quartets, brief works, only about ten minutes each. The 2nd Quartet, in three movements, opens with an Allegro giocoso followed not by a slow movement but a Molto vivace – both consist of alternating contrasting sections, fast and slow, the vivace almost like a variation of the opening – before ending with a brief Allegro molto sostenuto, “very sustained” but more in the sense of “not staccato” like the first two movements. There are a handful of recognizable gestures treated motivically throughout, tying it together.

Here is a recording with the Cuarteto Latinoamericano (with score) of Silvestre Rivueltas' String Quartet No. 2, “Magueyes”:

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Sometimes, when a composer writes a piece, he dedicates it to someone for some reason, sometimes as a thank you for their support or commission (Beethoven dedicated three of his Late Quartets to a Russian prince who commissioned them; the Op. 131, to a general who helped secure a military commission for Beethoven's wayward nephew who'd recently attempted suicide), and sometimes for personal reasons. In Revueltas' case, the dedicatee of this quartet, Aurora Maguira, had been in a 4-year relationship with Revueltas and they'd broken up the year before the wrote this quartet.

While that may be enough to inspire “programmatic thoughts behind the music,” the subtitle “Magueyes” might be confusing, referring to the agave or Century Plant (in the plural) which flowers only once, then dies.

It is also the source of pulque, a fermented drink long produced in Mexico. For some reason, this reference has been interpreted as the composer's cultural attitude toward the Middle Classes' preference for imported European music (over their own home-grown music) or a reference to Revueltas' own rather prickly political philosophies as applied to the development of a nationalist voice in his music (or facing down the historical baggage of the European genre of the quartet).

Not that it might be understood by non-Mexican audiences, Revueltas quoted a folk-song in the opening movement with the lyrics: “I pray heaven dry up the magueys / because these agaves are the cause of my misfortune; / I am very drunk and nothing gives me satisfaction, / because the woman I loved so much does not love me.” (Enough said...)

Apparently, Revueltas was not long without consolation: in 1931, he composed an orchestral work, Ventanas (“Windows”) unofficially dedicated to Ángela Acevedo, whom he married the following year.

It's interesting to note that five of Revueltas' siblings also became acclaimed artists: two as painters, one as an actress and dancer, and another as a writer. His two daughters, in turn, achieved professional success as a dancer and teacher, the other as an essayist; while a nephew is well-known in Mexico as a violinist, journalist, and conductor.

While mentioning the role international politics played in the world of Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, however little if any influence it had on his music, Silvestre Revueltas' story is a bit more to-the-point. Growing up in the Mexican state of Durango, his world was deeply affected by the political unrest of what's generally called “The Mexican Revolution” which began in 1910, centered largely around Durango, and which eventually produced such memorable historical figures (whose names, if not their histories, are well known outside Mexico) like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata (whose first name was not “Viva”). In 1913, insurrectionists seized Durango and burnt many of the city's businesses.

In 1911, a young violin student named Silvestre Revueltas gave his first public recital. In 1917, the year the establishment of a new federal Constitution should have ended the conflict – a complicated business with considerable outside involvement, particularly from the United States – teenager Revueltas decided to leave Mexico and attend a music school in San Antonio, Texas; then, in 1919, the Chicago College of Music, after which he returned to Mexico to become involved in working with composer Carlos Chavez giving concerts to promote Mexican music, first as a violinist in the orchestra, then as a composer and conductor. It is from this period he began to combine elements of traditional Classical Music techniques with what he was hearing and learning from the folk and popular music of Mexico.

While an eventual fall-out with Chavez proved inevitable, Revueltas also began writing film-music in the 1930s. In 1935, in “Let's Go with Pancho Villa,” Revueltas not only composed the filmscore but also had a cameo as the piano-player in a saloon. When a gunfight erupted in the bar, Revueltas, while playing “La cucaracha” (a song which, incidentally, started becoming popular in 1910 during the Revolution), held up a sign that read, “Please don't shoot the pianist.”

Then, following his political inclinations, he went to Spain in 1937 to take part in the Spanish Civil War, another complicated business with considerable outside involvement, in this case from the German and Italian fascists. He returned to Mexico following Franco's victory in 1939.

The following year, now living in poverty and plagued by alcoholism, Revueltas died from complications of pneumonia the same day his ballet, El renacuajo paseador (originally completed in 1936 and which, apparently, translates to “The Walking Tadpole”), was premiered. He was 40 years old and would have no idea, given the few works he'd completed, his name would eventually be remembered as one of Mexico's most important composers!

His most famous piece, Sensemayá, originally written for chamber orchestra in 1937 but reworked for large orchestra the following year (apparently while he was in Spain), was inspired by a Cuban poet's description of “the ritual killing of a snake.” Here is the 2012 Ukrainian Premiere performed by the Odessa Philharmonic conducted by Hobart Earle (the music begins at 2:14, but the conductor's initial remarks might prove helpful to first-time listeners).

I'm not sure how a Mexican piece fits into their program, “An Evening in Caracas,” but, speaking of politics and the role of warfare on the shaping of a composer's life and music, let's think for a moment about the impact current events, playing out during the on-going Russian invasion, may have on future Ukrainian artists... 

– Dick Strawser

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You can read the second post for this concert's program, featuring music by Argentinian composers Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera, here (which will be posted, I hope, soon).