Thursday, February 26, 2015

Trio Solisti & Jon Manasse with Music for Anybody Ready for Spring

There's only a little over a week till Daylight Savings Time and, more importantly, just three weeks till the First Day of Spring. For many of us, that's a reason to celebrate.

And what better way to celebrate than hearing Trio Solisti play Astor Piazzolla's “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” this weekend at HACC's Rose Lehrman Arts Center?

Along with other “jazz-inspired” works by Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud, not to forget Joaquin Turina's rarely heard Piano Trio No. 2 – and a collection of songs from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Can “Summertime” be far behind?

Join us Saturday night at 8pm and keep thinking positive thoughts in this cold weather that the impending snow storm stays on course for later on Sunday...

The trio was formed in 2001 and has visited Market Square Concerts on a number of occasions, usually with programs that could be described as “innovative” or “eclectic.” One performance I remember especially was hearing them play Paul Moravec's recent “Tempest Fantasy,” written for them, which they played here with clarinetist David Krakauer. That work received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2004.

a spring-like pose
This time, the trio – now with pianist Adam Neiman – will be joined by clarinetist Jon Manasse who'll play the Clarinet Sonata by Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud's Suite for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano as well as the Gershwin song collection. In addition to being a soloist and recitalist, Manasse has been principal clarinetist for the Mostly Mozart Orchestra and the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York and also teaches at the Eastman School of Music and his alma mater, Juilliard.

The program opens with a work that's not heard that often, though it's one of Joaquín Turina's better-known works: the 2nd Piano Trio which he completed in 1933.

Turina left his native Seville when he was 20 and, after studying in Madrid, emigrated to Paris following his parents' deaths, where he studied at the famous Schola Cantorum, taking lessons with Vincent D'Indy who had been student of César Franck's. Turina's first published work was a Piano Quintet from 1907 which is full of the influences of Franck and his circle. Another influence at the time was the day's leading contemporary composer, Claude Debussy.

When Turina's Franckian piano quintet was premiered, his friend and fellow Spaniard Isaac Albéniz recommended he look for his voice in Spanish folk music, especially that of his native Andalusia. It was advice he decided to take.

Joaquin Turina
Along with his fellow ex-pat Manuel de Falla, Turina left Paris at the start of World War I and returned to Madrid where he would soon become one of the most highly regarded Spanish composers. His 1st Piano Trio (officially, his first published one) received the National Music Prize in 1926 and by 1930 he was a professor of composition at the Madrid Conservatory.

Earlier this season, I spoke about the concurrence of works heard on the first program of the season with the years leading up to the 1st World War whose centennial observance began last fall. The season concludes with works associated with the 2nd World War and the Holocaust.

Spanish history of Turina's time may be a little vague to many Americans who know the Civil War mainly through the works of American novelist, Ernest Hemingway. But in 1931, the Spanish king Alfonso XIII fled the country and a republic was declared. The Civil War didn't officially begin until 1936 and was viewed in hindsight as a “dress-rehearsal” for World War II. Though the political divide was increasingly complex, the socialists of the Spanish republic were backed by Stalin's Soviet Union and the opposing fascists under General Francisco Franco were backed by Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Perhaps the most famous statement of the political and moral struggle of the war came in Pablo Picasso's painting, Guernica, a response to the fascist bombing of a Basque village in 1937.

The war ended in 1939 with Franco taking power in April. The 2nd World War began five months later. Franco remained in power until his death in 1975.

During the years before the Civil War, Turina and his family were in “disfavor” with the Republic, a time when many Catholic churches across Spain were being torched by supporters of the Republic's constitution which was hostile to established religion. As it is rather blandly stated in Grove's Dictionary, Turina himself “was persecuted by the republicans during the civil war,” other sources indicate he was “protected” as a “worker of the British Consulate” in Madrid.

This was a period when thousands of Spanish citizens were executed by various military factions – estimates range from 37,843 to as high as 238,000 – including, most famously, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, whose death was forbidden to be mentioned during Franco's regime.

After the Civil War, Turina's prestige increased and he became a frequently honored figure, receiving the Grand Cross of Alfonso the Wise.

And yet, that once and future chaos seems far removed from the Three Nocturnes he began working on in the early-1930s which eventually became his Piano Trio No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 76.

Here is a recording of its first movement with the Damocles Trio:

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Les Six is a label given to a band of composers writing in Paris during the heady years of the 1920s, their music primarily a reaction against the Impressionism of Debussy (who had recently died) and the overt seriousness of the Wagner-inspired late-19th Century world of Franck and D'Indy. Like the Russian Five (a.k.a. “The Mighty Handful”), they were an uneven bunch – most people would never know music of the fifth of the Five, Cesar Cui – and the French Six soon went their own ways, regardless of whatever one thinks they might have had in common.

In fact, Darius Milhaud explained that critic Henri Collet “chose six names absolutely arbitrarily, those of Auric, Durey, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and me simply because we knew each other and we were pals and appeared on the same musical programmes, no matter if our temperaments and personalities weren't at all the same! Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself, Mediterranean lyricism!”

While their leader seemed to be the iconoclast Jean Cocteau, it was more a “circle of friends” than a “school of thought.” Of the Six, we hardly know anything of Louis Durey, the first to break ranks. During World War II, he fought with the French Resistance. A communist, he later set texts by Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong to music. Yet it was his initial suggestion that he and five of his friends publish a collection of short piano pieces together in 1920 that gave rise to this whole Les Six Thing. In 1921, he had already refused to be involved in a similar collaborative effort, the ballet inspired by Cocteau called “The Wedding at the Eiffel Tower.”

If you've ever heard the famous torch song “Moulin rouge” (actually, “Where is your heart?” from the film score), you've heard at least something by Georges Auric. Germaine Taillefaire who should be better-known than she is, created a sensation not just with the music she composed but by the fact she was also a woman. Artur Honegger may be best known for his oratorio, Le roi David, which, considering it was written in 1921, or even the railway-inspired tone-poem, Pacific 231, have little to do with the sound of his colleagues.

But Les Deux might have remained with Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud who, however separately, kept the youthful vigor of their origins alive in much of what they would later compose.

Self-taught because his parents intended him for a career in business but then coming under the influence of that great Parisian iconoclast Erik Satie, Poulenc described himself as a “Vulgarian” who wrote in a light-hearted style to the end of his life. However, in 1936, following an unexpected religious awakening following the death of a friend in a violent car accident and his visit to a famous religious shrine shortly afterward, he began composing with a new-found seriousness that, following dramatic choral works during the Nazi occupation setting words of Resistance poets, culminated in his intensely dramatic opera, The Dialogue of the Carmelites of 1957.

Still, he never lost sight of the essence of what drove his music. He was always a “melodist” whether the tunes were jaunty, naughty, or deeply felt. He was satisfied to maintain a vocabulary of traditional harmonies that earned him the enmity of the younger generation following World War II who saw him as an old-fashioned and frivolous relic.

He might evoke the past or the new-fangled sound of jazz. His love of Mozart opens the slow movement of his Concerto for Two Pianos, written in 1932, but it quickly moves off into a style that is decidedly his own. There are, as well, tinges of jazz by way of Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto, premiered only a few months earlier, not to mention the appearance of the Balinese gamelan which he'd first heard the year before.

To hear his Clarinet Sonata, then, it's hard to imagine it was written 30 years later, in 1962, when he was 63. In fact, considering what we normally think of as “contemporary music” from the mid-20th Century, it doesn't sound possible.

Here's the complete sonata with clarinetist Martin Fröst and pianist Marc-André Hamelin:

As it turned out, it was one of his last completed works. It had been commissioned by Benny Goodman (perhaps you've heard of him?) who had planned to premiere it at Carnegie Hall with the composer at the piano. But Poulenc suffered a sudden heart attack on January 30th, 1963, and died. The premiere eventually took place with Leonard Bernstein at the piano.

Francis Poulenc
Of Poulenc's new sonata, New York Times critic Harold Schonberg (no relation to Arnold) wrote,

"Poulenc was not a 'big' composer, for his emotional range was too restricted. But what he did, he did perfectly, and his music shows remarkable finish, style and refinement.... The sonata... is typical Poulenc. In the first movement, skittish thematic elements are broken up by a broadly melodic middle section. The slow movement is one of those melting, long-phrased and unabashed sentimental affairs that nobody but Poulenc could carry off. Weakest of the three movements is the finale, which races along but has little immediacy. Here Poulenc's inspiration seems to have run out."

This last movement, considering the movement that preceded it, combines a jazzy element – perhaps suitable for jazz-great Goodman – with one of Poulenc's beloved clownish themes, the middle-aged smile of an old Vulgarian.

Though his last completed work was a companion oboe sonata, it might be good to realize that, during what turned out to be the last months, he had recently completed a large-scale work for chorus and orchestra of some 25 minutes' length, the “Seven Responses for Tenebrae,” composed specifically for the opening of New York City's Lincoln Center.

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If Albéniz suggested Turina should study the folk music of Spain, and Erik Satie opened up a whole new world to young Poulenc, Darius Milhaud discovered a major influence during his travels.

Growing up in Provence, Milhaud spent most of World War I working as a secretary for the French poet Paul Claudel who was also the French Ambassador to Brazil. Returning to France after the war, Milhaud composed a series of piano pieces, Saudades do Brasil, based on Brazilian popular music, and the surrealist and jazzy ballet, Le boeuf sur le toit (“The Ox on the Roof”), inspired by a Brazilian Carnaval tune.

In 1922, after hearing “American jazz” which was then all the rage in Paris, Milhaud made a special trip to the United States to hear it live in its natural habitat – the streets of Harlem. This initial impact of this experience was his most famous work, the ballet Le creation du monde premiered in 1923, which, in addition to outright jazz rhythms and harmonies, even replaces the viola of the orchestra's string section with a saxophone! It is usually called the first example of “symphonic jazz.”

Professor Milhaud
Another work usually given that title – George Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue” – was premiered on February 12, 1924.

The “Suite for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano” bears the seemingly high opus number of 157b (he was in his mid-40s) and was composed in 1936 – again, that year: the start of the Spanish Civil War, three years after Turina composed his piano trio; the year of Poulenc's religious awakening; and, as we'll soon find out, a year after Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess. Milhaud's suite was originally composed as incidental music for a play by Jean Anouihl, “The Traveler without Baggage,” about a veteran of World War I who suffers from amnesia.

Jean-Marc Fessard (clarinet), Frédéric Pélassy (violin), Eliane Reyes (piano) play Milhaud's suite in this YouTube video with accompanying score:

It opens with what can only be called a sassy Overture, reminiscent of Stravinsky's take on the classical past. The middle movements bring to mind other stylistic reminiscences, while the longer final movement, after a somber introduction, includes a reference to “For He's a Jolly Good Fellow” with a contrasting theme that no doubt had its origins somewhere in Brazil.

Not only was Milhaud influenced by jazz and popular music – as a teacher, he influenced jazz and popular music through his students Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach. In fact, Brubeck named one of his sons Darius, after his teacher. Bachrach said Milhaud told him, "Don't be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle. Don't ever feel discomfited by a melody."

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Piazzolla with bandoneon
1935 was a major year in the life of Argentine composer, Astor Piazzolla, only if at the time his father thought the teenager was too young to go on tour with the legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel and his orchestra. A good thing, it turned out: Gardel was killed in a tragic plane crash that wiped out his entire orchestra. As Piazzolla would joke later, if his father had not objected, he would be playing the harp, now, not the bandoneon.

The bandoneon is an accordion-like instrument that is primarily associated with the Argentine tango and Piazzolla, listening to his parents recordings of tangos, began playing one when he was 8 after his father spotted one in a pawn shop. At the time, they were living in Greenwich Village, having left Argentina when the boy was 4. Later, he would study with a pianist who'd studied with Rachmaninoff who taught Piazzolla to play Bach on his bandoneon. In 1934, he met Gardel who invited him to join his band – the following year, his father didn't allow him to go on that ill-fated tour.

The following year, the family returned to Argentina when Piazzolla began finding jobs playing in various tango orchestras, moving to Buenos Aires to follow his dream, soon making enough money he could follow the pianist Arthur Rubinstein's advice – he had heard him in one of the clubs – to study with the composer Alberto Ginastera. Soon, he was studying scores of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, studying and listening to classical music by day and playing in the tango clubs by night.

In 1953, Ginastera convinced Piazzolla to submit an orchestral work for a competition – several people in the audience objected to the orchestra having not one but two bandoneons in it – and he won a scholarship from the French embassy to go to Paris and study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger who had been a teacher and major influence on many American composers from Aaron Copland to Elliott Carter - and briefly, George Gershwin. While there, he played a number of his “serious” compositions for her but only reluctantly played her one of his tangos.

Suddenly, she became very excited. “There,” she said, “there is the real Piazzolla!” Or something to that effect. At any rate, she encouraged him to focus more on writing tangos than trying to write symphonic works inspired by Bach.

And so Astor Piazzolla became known as the King of the Tango.

While he learned valuable technique from his studies of classical music – including counterpoint with Boulanger – I don't think he wrote anything that wasn't a tango after he left Paris.

Over a period of five years, Piazzolla composed four separate pieces, each one describing a different season as experienced in Buenos Aires, originally scored for violin (doubling on viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneon. Summer was composed in 1965 originally as incidental music for a play. Autumn was written in 1969 and Spring and Winter were both finalized in 1970. Though not intended as a suite, he performed them that way a few times.

Since then, they have been performed in a variety of arrangements for a variety of combinations. One, by Leonid Desyatnikov for violin and string orchestra, even adds bits of Vivaldi's “Four Seasons” to make an association that was not Piazzolla's intention.

Here are three of the “Four Seasons in Buenos Aires” from the Trio Solisti's earlier recording with pianist Jon Klibonoff on the Bridge label. For some reason, I was unable to locate their “Winter” movement on YouTube, so instead I included a recording of Piazzolla performing the piece himself with the original orchestration.


WINTER (with Piazzolla's recording):

SPRING (which can't come soon enough):


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If this is a program of classical composers who were inspired by jazz – for the most part – George Gershwin is a jazz composer inspired by classical music.

As a boy growing up in the Yiddish Theater District of the Lower East Side, Gershwin showed no interest in music till he was 10 and heard a friend's violin recital. When his parents had gotten a piano so older brother Ira could take lessons, it turned out to be George (much to Ira's relief) who was interested in playing it.

Coming up with his own tunes almost immediately, and mentored by Charles Hambitzer, the pianist in the “Beethoven Orchestra” in New York who also introduced him to classical music, George was then taken to Rubin Goldmark to study composition. Goldmark was not only the nephew of then famous European composer, Karl Goldmark, he had studied with Antonin Dvořák at the National Conservatory in the 1890s.

Gershwin began as a “Tin Pan Alley” song-plugger who wrote his own songs, then put together revues for New York's Broadway and then, one day, was approached by Paul Whiteman to write a “classical piece” for piano and jazz band for a concert of “symphonic jazz” he was giving in February of 1924. With everything else going on in his life at the time, Gershwin forgot all about it.

Then one night in early January, while George was playing billiard with some friends, his brother Ira noticed an article in the paper that mentioned Paul Whiteman's concert. “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto,” it read, and mentioned that other works were being contributed by Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert among others.

George Gershwin
Doing some serious woodshedding, Gershwin began his “jazz concerto,” outlining it on a train ride a few days later from New York to Boston, and gave it to Ferde Grofé to orchestrate it for him, since he'd never written for anything more than a standard jazz band. The work was completed on February 4th on premiered on February 12th with the composer as the soloist. In the original sketch it was called “American Rhapsody.” But after Ira visited an art gallery where several of Whistler's paintings had titles like “Nocturne in Black and Gold” or “Arrangement in Gray and Black” (the one we know better as “Whistler's Mother”), he suggested calling it... “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The next year, the now busier-and-more-popular-than-ever Gershwin was in Paris on tour where he took a few lessons with Nadia Boulanger and met, among others, Maurice Ravel a fan. There's the famous exchange about Gershwin wanting to study with Ravel: “Why would you want to become a second-class Ravel when you can be a first-class Gershwin?” There is also the quip, possibly apocryphal, that when Ravel asked Gershwin how much money he made in a year, Ravel responded “Perhaps I should study with you!”

And so, in the early-30s, Gershwin decided to write an opera. He and Ira chose the story of Porgy and Bess, set on Catfish Row in the port of Charleston, SC. When the work was premiered in 1935, no one quite knew what to make of this “folk opera,” as the composer called it: was it an opera or, given the popular sound of its “arias,” a Broadway musical? Yet it had a fugue in it, a passacaglia, it had polyrhythmic and polytonal passages, as well as atonal passages and even a tone-row. To our amazement, it was actually composed to a fairly rigid compositional system Gershwin studied created by Joseph Schillinger, a composer and theorist originally from Kharkiv, Russia (now Ukraine) – which is also the home of Market Square Concerts' artistic director Peter Sirotin.

Yet for all its fame today, Porgy and Bess was, in the midst of the Great Depression, a box-office flop. Two years later, the composer died following surgery for a previously undiagnosed brain tumor at the age of 38.

Trio Solisti and Jon Manasse will perform a “song-book” of tunes from Porgy and Bess to close this weekend's concert. Now, one hardly needs historical background or theoretical analysis of George Gershwin's music – regardless of Mr. Schillinger – to appreciate his music, but given the winter we've had, let's close with one of his most famous:

- Dick Strawser