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).