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