Monday, March 21, 2022

The 40th Anniversary Concert: Celebrating Art in Challenging Times


The 40th Anniversary Concert

Who: pianists Stuart Malina & Ya-Ting Chang; oboist Andreas Oeste; guitarist Jason Vieaux; violinists Peter Sirotin & Dawn Wohn; violist Timothy Deighton; cellist Fiona Thompson

What: Zev Malina (b.2002): From Jack's Notebook (world premiere); Robert Pound (b.1970): “The Dance of Death” for Piano Trio (2002); Jeremy Gill (b.1975): Oboe Quartet (2020); Avner Dorman (b.1975): Guitar Quintet, “How to Love” (2016)

When & Where: Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022, at 7:30 – Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg.

Three of the composers – Robert Pound, Jeremy Gill, and Avner Dorman – will be in attendance and offer a Q&A Session at the end of the program. (Zev Malina, attending Rice University in Houston, actually has a role in a play that is currently on-stage at school, and so he's unable to be here in person.) Imagine going to your typical Classical Music Concert and having Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms to meet and talk with after you've heard their latest music? What questions would you have had for them

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There are many ways of celebrating an anniversary. Looking back over the past 40 years and offering artists or repertoire that figured prominently in the history is one way. But another way is to look to the future. Now, if the organization is able to commission new works from young composers, an expensive and often risky (and uneven) venture, that's one thing, and not always possible. But some people, expecting the equivalent of the Great Works of the Past, would be disappointed because these are composers and works that have not yet had the chance to prove themselves over Time. I remember beginning my graduate studies at the Eastman School of Music during its 50th Anniversary when they commissioned a large number of works from some of the world's foremost composers: like many an investment, some of them proved inspiring to us students; others were not so amazing (none, alas, were the equivalent of a work by Beethoven).

So here we have a program of four composers “with Central Pennsylvania Ties.” Zev Malina and Jeremy Gill are Harrisburg natives. Robert Pound has been teaching at Dickinson College in Carlisle since 1998. Avner Dorman, a native of Israel, is currently associate professor of music theory and composition at the Sunderman Conservatory of Music, Gettysburg College.

There's an exceptional challenge to celebrating anything these days, given the Pandemic and the World News – who expected, knowing “history repeats itself,” that the whole of the 20th Century would recap itself in just two years? – and, as we watch Russia's Invasion of Ukraine on the evening news, I am reminded of a famous quote by Leonard Bernstein, himself not immune to a sense of history and of protest against man's inhumanity to man, whether it was War or Social Injustice:

And so, as it happens, composers turn to create new music to look toward the future and maintain the continuity that has kept what we call “Classical Music” fresh and vibrant over the centuries.

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Everything on this program has some inspiration from another medium: theater, literature; in the case of Jeremy Gill's Oboe Quartet, an earlier oboe quartet as a model, the one by Mozart (but with literary influences blended in with it from Gertrude Stein, among others). Let's begin with the first work on the program which found its inspiration... on a school bus!

First of all, Zev Malina's piano-duet, “From Jack's Notebook,” will be performed by his former piano teacher, Ya-Ting Chang, and Stuart Malina, the father of the composer (and also music director of the Harrisburg Symphony).

Now, a “piano-duet” or a piece for “piano four-hands” is a work for two pianists at one piano (rather than for two pianos). In the days before TV and even stereos (for those of us who remember sitting in our living rooms, listening to records), this was how people experienced music in their homes: making it live, themselves. Amateur pianists would pair up, one playing the upper part (primo), the other the lower (secondo) and the rest of the family or other guests would sit back as if attending an in-house concert. It was “social music-making,” an art that has been lost once recordings and things like radio came along and turned music into a passive activity. 

Usually, I write what has been written about a dead composer's work and quote lots of other (often dead) people to point out what's going on in the work's “biography” and how it relates to their lives. But with living composers, my job's a lot easier when they can write their own program notes. So here's what Zev Malina has to say about “From Jack's Notebook”: 

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On the bus ride back to high school following a class trip, my friend Jack asked me to give him prompts for characters and scenarios to draw into his sketchbook. I was so charmed by the resulting sketches that I practically felt compelled to compose my own miniatures based on them. In “From Jack’s Sketchbook,” I sought to evoke the scene, mood, and tone of each drawing and to expand the tiny worlds Jack created.” Zev Malina 

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These six vignettes are entitled “A creature escapes from a lightbulb” – “A contented potato” – “Spreading a shoe on toast like it’s butter” – “Waiting for a train that won’t arrive” – “A gnome under a watering can” – and “The last cashier in the world.”  

Zev Malina (c.) takes a bow 
Ya-Ting Chang wrote about working on this piece for Wednesday night's premiere:

Zev’s father, as well as his former piano teacher, are proud of playing a small part of Zev’s musical journey. For this particular composition, if we will do it justice, hopefully the audience will find it imaginative, sincere, sophisticated, and accessible. Peter [Sirotin] was at our last rehearsal turning pages and found it to be full of humor and charm. All three of us noticed some stylistic influences of Poulenc, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Gershwin, none of which are literal, just evidence of his unusually wide reference. It is clearly Zev’s own language!”

And this last bit is something important to make note of, when listening to something unfamiliar and latching on to bits that sound familiar: a young composer is always trying to find his (or her) voice, and that is not a process which occurs as soon a composition begins. I'll come back to this later, but think of Beethoven – whose 250th Birthday Anniversary we did not get to celebrate (as planned) during the 2020 Lockdown – whose Op. 1, a set of piano trios and clearly not his first compositions, were published two months before his 25th birthday. To most of us, much of Beethoven's early music “sounds like Haydn,” but to a contemporary, a lot of people thought the young man had gone far beyond the classical propriety of The Old Man (Haydn, after all, called his student “the Young Turk”). But compare that to music Beethoven wrote when he was, say, 41 – the age Avner Dorman was when he composed the Guitar Quintet that concludes this concert's program – like the 7th Symphony he began that year, and you'll realize how much a composer can “evolve” stylistically over a period of what is actually only 16 years!

So if Zev Malina is "borrowing" – paying tribute to or absorbing what other composers he likes (as Stravinsky once said, "good composers borrow; great composers steal") – this is all part of the process. A composition student's job, basically, is to be a sponge, and absorb everything he likes and even try some he doesn't: eventually, figuring out how to build on this foundation, some of these influences will fall by the wayside or become so absorbed into that elusive “own voice” as to be no longer recognizable. That's how a composer like Stravinsky may go from his most famous work, The Rite of Spring (written when he was 31), to those middle-period "Neo-Classical" pieces like the Symphony in Three Movements (when he was 63) that may sound like the 18th-Century-with-wrong-notes, to the austere serial pieces of his final years like The Flood (when he was 80) and yet still always "sound like Stravinsky."

You can listen to the Harrisburg Symphony's premiere performance of Zev Malina's "Suite for Orchestra" (with all its fully intended stylistic evocations), conducted by Stuart Malina and recorded in October, 2019.

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Speaking of evocations and influences. 

Robert Pound
Since Robert Pound's piano trio is entitled “The Dance of Death,” you may be forgiven if you're thinking, “ah, Franz Liszt wrote a set of variations on the Dies irae called Totentanz” (literally, the Dance of Death). But that's like reading the headline and skipping the article: in fact, it was not just inspired by August Strindberg's play, “The Dance of Death,” written “in the blackest pessimism” in 1900, but was intended to be the overture for a staged production of the play in 2002. 

You can listen to a performance's soundfile, here

The composer writes this for the program notes: 

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Strindberg’s play The Dance of Death depicts a husband (the Captain) and wife (Alice) locked in a loveless marriage. Alice’s cousin Kurt visits the couple. Horrified by the emotional malaise pervading their household, Kurt initially attempts to be an optimistic moderator for them. However, Alice and the Captain enlist Kurt in their ruthless scheming against one another and make him their battlefield.

Director Karen Kirkham commissioned this score, and our numerous and lengthy discussions helped shape it. The intimate nature of the play called for an intimate ensemble. We wanted the instrumentation and music to reflect the fin-de-siècle decadence of the play’s setting and tone. Obviously, the piano trio affords the possibility of linking each character with a musical instrument. I extended these connections to the music as well. Alice and the Captain are represented by the violin and cello respectively. Each part has its own intervallic and rhythmic qualities. The violin and cello melodies interlock in a waltz, but not comfortably because the typical waltz rhythm has been skewed differently for each instrument. Only when the piano enters does the music take on a more comfortable, steady lilt, and only temporarily. The present one-movement work served as the overture for the play in the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theatre production. Episodes were extracted from this overture to provide underscoring for the action.

As a whole, the overture depicts the play’s complete plot musically. The eerie beginning and end of the piece illustrates the alienation and frigidity of the couple; the violin-piano duo depicts the plot between Alice and Kurt against the Captain; and the extended cello solo portrays the pantomime in which the Captain, suspecting their alliance against him, dismantles various symbolic props of the home’s decor in alternating fits of rage and regret. By the end, little has changed between the unhappy couple.  – Robert Pound 

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Given the nature of a composer finding inspiration, exploring mostly literary influences in this program, how many pieces of music can you name inspired by economics (Beethoven's "Rage Over a Lost Penny," aside)? In 2005, Robert Pound wrote a 13-minute orchestral work for the Atlanta Symphony entitled "Irrational Exuberance," taking its inspiration from an expression by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan about the unbridled enthusiasm of Wall Street Investors! You can listen to his interview with NPR's Morning Edition, here.

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(photo/Regina DeLuise)
Jeremy Gill's music should not be unfamiliar to Harrisburg audiences, and this Oboe Quartet, not his latest work, will be the 12th of those compositions listed on his website which I have heard here, due in large part to laudable support from the Harrisburg Symphony and Market Square Concerts. An oboist himself, Gill wrote this, a work inspired by Mozart's Oboe Quartet (one of the jewels of the oboe repertoire), for oboist Erin Hannigan and her colleagues of the Dallas Symphony Chamber Players who premiered it there in November of 2020. 

Here is a video of that premiere performance, masks and all: 

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My Quartet for Oboe and Strings is modeled on Mozartʼs only oboe quartet, which he composed in 1781 for the virtuoso oboist Friedrich Ramm. Both works are in three movements totaling roughly 15 minutes of music in which the oboist plays a concertante role.

I am often inspired by literature when I compose. Novels are my go-to inspiration, but this piece references three works of non-fiction, made explicit by the title of each movement. “A Sense of Banditry,” my first movement, paraphrases a line from Anne Carsonʼs essay “On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni” from her 2005 collection Decreation. She writes how it is “exciting and dangerous” to “loot someone elseʼs life or sentences and make off with a point of view.” Of my three movements, this is the one most closely modeled on Mozartʼs, and sounds a bit as if Mozartʼs music were reflected in the aural equivalent of a broken mirror.

Exciting and Peaceful” is Gertrude Steinʼs assessment of Paris in her delightful autobiographical Paris, France. A kind of love letter to her adopted home town, it was published in 1940 on—this quotation notwithstanding—the day Paris succumbed to Nazi Germany. In the case of my second movement, “exciting and peaceful” evokes the expectant stillness of night and is reminiscent, in character though less in detail, of Mozartʼs slow movement, with its combination of baroque-inspired reserve and operatic pathos.

The third movement of Mozartʼs quartet features a famous and curious passage in which the oboist plays in 4/4 while the strings persist in the movementʼs general time signature of 6/8. This rare occurrence of polymeter in a classical work lasts only 13 bars, but in my third movement I make polymeter its raison dʼêtre. Throughout, the strings play in 5/8 while the oboist, most often notated in 2/4, dallies with measure divisions of 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and even 16. My title, “Slide,” is taken from a musical game that Kyra Gaunt describes in her musicological study The Games Black Girls Play. Gaunt says that Slide (the game) trains girls “to perform at least two different rhythmic orientations at once,” and that such games “are as much a social and phenomenological formula as they are motor-rhythmic formulas that contribute to musical events.” Although my “Slide” is only vaguely related to the specifics of the game, Gauntʼs description feels like a lovely summation of what we do as musicians in general—play (often) complex “games” that encourage social adhesion as well as provide aesthetic pleasure.  - Jeremy Gill 

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While I mentioned Stravinsky's quip about borrowing versus stealing earlier, the idea something can sound like something else – was Brahms' using a passage from Schumann's Rhenish Symphony in his own 3rd Symphony a conscious tribute to his mentor or is it just that there are only so many notes to go around? – delves into the creative psyche that can prove a fascinating and ultimately inconclusive adventure, whether it's revealing or (depending on your viewpoint) a waste of time. But inspiration, conscious or not, often leads to intriguing potential: and in one sense of New Music looking ahead into the future, we often find inspiration from the past a not uncommon “jumping-off place” for a composer's creativity.

It's perfectly logical for a composer whose instrument was the oboe (in addition to the piano) to look at Mozart's gem of a masterpiece to see what he can see (or hear, in this case). It's not a measure-by-measure imitation of the piece – “doing it my way” – and it's certainly no arbitrary coincidence (again, thinking of Brahms' response to someone pointing out the “similarity” between the Big Theme in the finale of his 1st Symphony and the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven's 9th: “any ass can see that!”). I like how the composer describes the effect, refracting Mozart into his own music, so it “sounds a bit as if Mozartʼs music were reflected in the aural equivalent of a broken mirror.” And of course, to highlight the obvious, the first movement is entitled “A Sense of Banditry.” 

It's not just a quotation for some nostalgic effect – there was a big craze for “quotation” in new music back in the 1970s and '80s which often sounded more gratuitous than generative – and of course the idea is not entirely recent: if folks like Poulenc and Respighi could hornswoggle lute pieces from the 1600s into their music in the 1920s as a way to counterbalance the lush influences of 19th Century Romanticism, earlier composers (waaaay earlier) would use fragments of Gregorian Chant as the basis (if not the bass) of a new style called Polyphony as far as back as Leonin and Perotin in 12th Century Paris.

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Ah, that elusive word: Inspiration.

A composer, I have found from listening to and talking with so many of them over the decades, is always looking for inspiration but it usually works best when you're not waiting for it. We think of Beethoven walking in the fields, or Brahms pacing around his room, waiting for inspiration to strike: how do they come up with those beautiful melodies?

Elliott Carter, known for his complex musical style, composing right up to a few weeks before his death just shy of his 104th birthday, once said in a live-concert's Q&A (and I'm paraphrasing), “If you set yourself a challenge or a question – the instrumentation for a particular piece, or 'how do I want this to take shape?' – inspiration will come as you try to solve it.”

And inspiration can come from any number of possible sources. We've seen how a work by Mozart from almost 240 years earlier inspired Jeremy Gill to write his own Oboe Quartet. Robert Pound took a tragic plot that is tragically still compelling today, in this case a direct commission for incidental music for a production of the play. And Zev Malina had a happier inspiration in his friend Jack's suggestion for some ideas for a few quick sketches while sitting in a school bus which he then decided should be set to music (with or without a wink - I suspect with - toward Mussorgsky and his "Pictures at an Exhibition"). 

Which brings us to the last work on the program, a guitar quintet by Avner Dorman, inspired by a book entitled “How to Love.” 

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Avner Dorman, at a rehearsal
Since writing Letters from Gettysburg in 2013 [setting letters written by a Union Soldier wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg who died a few days later], Avner Dorman has become increasingly alarmed at the gulf between the healing language of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the divisive political rhetoric voiced in today's United States. Contemporary political discourse, he observes, has been infected by sentiments rooted in pre-Civil War times that had remained dormant for many decades.

For me,” [he] concludes, “the central lesson that can be learned from Letters from Gettysburg, is that, ultimately, conflict and disagreement hurts people and families. It’s much easier to fight over an ideology when we forget that the people who suffer by it are individuals and families - people we can all identify with. It’s so easy to cast a whole group of people as “the enemy.” But we must remember that every person has thoughts, feelings, and loved ones. If we could only remember that, our political discourse today would become much more compassionate and empathetic.”  Gettysburg College News 

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So it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that he found inspiration in Thích Nhất Hạnh's How to Love (published in 1945) which became the Guitar Quintet he composed a few years later, in 2016. There are four movements: (I.) I am here for you; (II.) I know you are there, and I am happy; (III.) This is a happy moment; and (IV.) You are partly right.

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The title of this work is taken from the book of the same name, written by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and peace activist from Vietnam. Each movement is titled after one of the six mantras that he outlines at the end of the book. The movements are repetitive in a variety of forms — chaconne, theme and variations, passacaglia — reflecting the repeating nature of a traditional mantra. The first movement, "I am here for you," begins with a open, flowing gesture in the guitar that calls to mind a sense of presence that continues, as the gesture transforms throughout the movement. The second movement, "I know you are there, and I am happy," celebrates that happiness of being with the one you love. The third movement, "This is a happy moment," is an aria, a love song celebrating the joys present in everyday life. The final movement, "You are partly right," is the most conflict-driven of the piece, and therefore the most dramatic. As the author of the text explains, we can say "You are partly right," both in response to praise and admiration as well as in criticism or disagreement. The movement progresses through conflict to the recognition and reconciliation that we must embrace imperfection in order to love each other fully. — Avner Dorman

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Given the times we live in, not just this past month, this message may be more apt than ever (considering the book was initially published in 1945).  

Unable to find a video of the Guitar Quintet for this post, I'll post something with a slightly different inspiration by Avner Dorman, the Presto that concludes his 2011 Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano, Nigunim:

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When the 92nd Street Y and Orli and Gil Shaham approached me to write a new piece for their Jewish Melodies program, my first thought was to write a piece that would explore the music of the ten lost tribes... I decided to explore the music of various Jewish traditions from different parts of the world and how they relate to larger local musical traditions.

To my surprise..., I found that there are some common musical elements to North African Jewish cantillations, Central Asian Jewish wedding songs, Klezmer music, and Ashkenazy prayers. Though I did not use any existing Jewish melodies for Nigunim, the main modes and melodic gestures of the piece are drawn from these common elements... [In addition to other influences,] the fourth [movement] is [also] inspired by Macedonian dances.

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Here is that fourth movement, recorded at its premiere in 2011: 

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Given these times we've been living through for the past few years, it will be interesting to see what new works these composers will provide for future audiences. Just think: if you attend Wednesday's concert, you can ask three of them questions not only about how their inspirations turned into the music you've just heard but also what future plans they may have and how, given composers interacting with society and being influenced by the world-at-large, the events of these years might (or might not) engage their creativity in the near future. 

You may hear critics saying things like "Classical Music Is Dying," a tiring old mantra I've been listening to since I was 13 and attending my first Harrisburg Symphony concert. The Pandemic has made "live concerts" something of a challenge lately and "live concerts" in the future may be very different from what we were experiencing only a few years ago. But people will experience live music somehow, musicians will continue to perform it somehow, and composers will continue to write for them somehow. That hope, certainly, is worth celebrating.

Dick Strawser