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Program Notes - Percussion Sensation

The Unanswered Question,
Charles Ives

b. Danbury, Connecticut, USA / October 20, 1874 d. New York, New York, USA / May 19, 1954

It has only been since Ives’ death that this full-time, millionaire insurance executive/part-time composer has been widely recognized as the founder of a distinctively American school of music. His view, fostered by his bandmaster father, was that the hymn tunes and marches he heard during his youth were all the inspiration an American composer needed to create music of equal importance to what was being written in Europe.

His early works are relatively conventional. His mature creations, on the other hand, are like nothing else written before or during his lifetime. Many of them freely and joyfully intermingle wildly disparate elements. He often quotes from previously existing sources and treats space and time in ways reflecting real life situations in particular places. This often created textures of a density which can be as bewildering for performers to clarify as they may be for audiences to grasp. Yet in them may be heard, as in no other music, the energy, the warm heart and the quirky, humorous and life-loving spirit of Charles Ives’ America.

He sketched The Unanswered Question, originally sub-titled “a cosmic landscape,” during July 1906. Its relative simplicity has made it one of his most widely heard creations. Scored for trumpet, four flutes and muted strings, it contrasts three separate musical lines and combines them into a fascinating, philosophically intriguing whole.

When Ives revised the piece in the 1930s, he wrote the following introduction to it.

The strings play ppp throughout with no change in tempo. They are to represent “The Silences of the Druids – who Know, See and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet intones “The Perennial Question of Existence,” and states it in the same tone of voice each time. But the hunt for “The Invisible Answer” undertaken by the flutes and other human beings becomes gradually more active, faster and louder. But “The Fighting Answerers,” as the time goes on, and after a “secret conference,” seem to realize a futility, and begin to mock “The Question” – and the strife is over for the moment. After they disappear, “The Question” is asked for the last time, and the “Silences” are heard beyond in “Undisturbed Solitude.”

Percussion Concerto
Joseph Schwantner

b. Chicago, Illinois / March 22, 1943

The music of this Pulitzer Prize-winning composer receives regular, worldwide performances. He has been commissioned by such prestigious artists as the New York Philharmonic, the symphony orchestras of Boston, Saint Louis and Dallas, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. His orchestral works have been conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi and Leonard Slatkin, among many others, and his other compositions have been performed by such esteemed soloists as Emanuel Ax, Pinchas Zukerman and Dawn Upshaw. He received his academic training at the Chicago Conservatory and Northwestern University, completing a Ph.D in 1968. Previously he served on the Yale, Eastman and Julliard faculties and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

His Percussion Concerto was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in celebration of its 150th anniversary, which took place in 1992. At the end of that year, when Schwantner had barely begun work on the concerto, he was deeply saddened by the death of a good friend and fellow composer, Stephen Albert. He dedicated the concerto to him. At the premiere performance on January 6, 1995, Christopher Lamb was the solo percussionist and Leonard Slatkin conducted.

Following is the composer’s introduction.

The concerto, cast in three-movement arch-like design, opens with the soloist stationed near the other percussionists. A collaborative relationship develops between the soloist and his/her percussion colleagues in an extended percussion ensemble that also includes piano and harp. The soloist, forcefully and propulsively, articulates the primary musical materials with a battery of timbaletas, a pair of bongos, amplified marimba, xylophone and a two-octave set of crotales. The marimba and drums are most prominently featured in this movement.

Throughout the second movement, In Memoriam, a slow, dark-hued elegy, the soloist is placed centre stage while the other percussionists remain silent. The soloist employs a vibraphone (played both with mallets and a contrabass bow), a rack of nine Almglocken (pitched Alpine herd bells), a high-octave set of crotales (played with beaters and with bow), two triangles, two cymbals, a water gong (a tam-tam lowered into a large kettledrum filled with water), a concert bass drum and a tenor drum. Two principal ideas appear: a pair of recurrent ringing sonorities played on the vibraphone and an insistent “heartbeat” motif articulated on the bass drum.

The second movement leads directly into the fast and rhythmic third movement, which begins with an improvisatory section for the soloist. While continuing to improvise, the soloist walks back to his/her initial performance position of the first movement. As in that movement, the amplified marimba is again prominently featured, but here the soloist plays angular and strongly accented gestures in four-mallet block voicings. The final section, drawn from the drum motifs of Movement I, proceeds to a high-energy cadenza and conclusion.

 


Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Johannes Brahms

b. Hamburg, Germany / May 7, 1833;
d. Vienna, Austria / April 3, 1897

It was only after nearly 20 years’ work that Brahms felt that his first symphony was ready to be heard. Felix Dessoff conducted the premiere in Karlsruhe, Germany, on November 4, 1876. It won great success, confirming in Brahms’ mind that he possessed the necessary skills to follow in Beethoven’s footsteps as a great composer of symphonic music.

Eminent conductor Hans von Bülow grouped Brahms together with Bach and Beethoven as the “Three Great Bs of Music.” Others expanded upon this by referring to Brahms’ First Symphony as “Beethoven’s Tenth.” Although the composer may not have appreciated the comparison, in certain senses it is inescapable. The symphony’s ground-plan of victory through struggle, of a journey from darkness to light, for example, links it with Beethoven’s symphonic ideals, especially with those expressed in his Fifth (which is also set in the same key, C minor). Brahms’ use of a chorale melody in the finale calls Beethoven’s Ninth to mind as well.

As was to be the case with each of his four symphonies, in No. 1 Brahms sets forth the main weight of his arguments in the first and last movements. Here each is prefaced by an introduction in slow tempo. The one that begins the symphony sets the somber, dramatic mood which also characterizes the more vigorous but equally austere first movement proper. The following section offers a restful interlude, one with scarcely a moment of contrasting drama. Even though the third movement is hardly a scherzo, it provides a breath of fresh, lighter air to balance what has preceded it.

Brahms begins his finale with a prelude virtually as stark in tone as the one that opened the first movement, but its fatalistic grumblings are dispelled by the arrival of the heartfelt chorale melody that is the principal theme of the finale’s main body. Brahms builds this movement with vast architectural and emotional skill, as it unfolds towards its grand, affirmative conclusion.

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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