Saturday, October 15, 2022 - 7:30 p.m.
From dawn’s first light dancing on the waves, to the thrilling rush of salt air, Debussy’s impressionistic deep sea dive is one of music’s most immersive experiences! Virtuoso cellist Bo Li of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs Anna Clyne’s DANCE, a work “so beautiful, so heartfelt that it instantly drew tears on first hearing” (Gramophone). Meanwhile, Revueltas enlists a dozen drummers to conjure ancient Mayans, and Ravel’s lively aubade rounds out a colorful program the whole family can enjoy.
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PREMIERED: Santa Cruz, CA, 2019
Anna Clyne was born in London, but has made her career largely in the United States since her post-graduate study at the Manhattan School of Music. She has been composer in residence to several stellar US ensembles, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and, from 2017 to 2019, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
DANCE (the upper case is part of the title) was commissioned by the cellist Inbal Segev, and is Clyne's third string concerto, after the two-violin Prince of Clouds and the violin concerto The Seamstress. It was inspired by a loose translation of a poem by the 13th-century Persian mystic poet Rumi; each of its five movements has a title taken from the poem. The work is dedicated to the composer's Polish- Jewish father; there are occasional flickers of the Jewish string tradition in a work that somehow manages to pull together many parts of the broad English tradition, from Elgar to John Tavener and even back to the Elizabethans. It is no coincidence that DANCE was composed exactly a century after Elgar's concerto; for all the differences in the musical language, the two unmistakably share a mood.
The slow opening movement (which boasts five million listens on Spotify!) describes an arc of sorrow, mostly high in the cello's range, over slowly-shifting chords, as though Elgar's harmony had begun to melt. The fast, fierce second movement is far more "modern," with its motor rhythms (Clyne grew up in the age of Minimalism, after all) and Bartókian string effects. The third movement - the core of the work, surely - harks back unmistakably to the glorious string music of the late English Renaissance, turning the 21st-century orchestra into the surging consort of viols of Byrd and his generation. The fourth movement develops this further, beginning with a Renaissance-style subject statement that the great, incurably sad seventeenth-century genius William Lawes would have been proud of. But it's the finale, “Dance when you're perfectly free,” which surprises most. After a fiercely “modern” opening, we are suddenly thrown that rarest of creatures in the music of our time - a surging, yearning melody that rises out of the music like an unexpected super-heroine.
DANCE is already well on its way to not only a firm place in the repertoire, but to something far more elusive - it is rapidly becoming popular.
Premiered: Paris, France, 1905
La Mer is the closest that Debussy ever came to writing a symphony, but he called the work “Three Symphonic Sketches,” wishing to avoid the inevitable critical fallout from a declared attempt to follow in the footsteps of Beethoven. Like so many composers, Debussy had been interested in the sea and its lore since childhood. Once, when asked in a questionnaire what he would have liked to be if not a composer, he scrawled “SAILOR!!” in huge capitals and underlined it twice.
If La Mer is indeed an evocation of the sea, it uses an aquatic vocabulary quite unlike that of any composer before Debussy; this is not the world of Scheherazade, far less that of The Flying Dutchman. Debussy loathed the very concept of “impressionism,” considering it a label slapped on him by ignorant, lazy critics. There is not a windblown arpeggio or quoted sea-shanty in sight. Close analysis of the music reveals an unmistakable organic growth of the music from material heard in the first few bars, all held together within a mathematically-derived framework derived from the Golden Section. This elusive, emotionally vague music is constructed like a watch. There is as much Cubism as Impressionism here.
Composed: 1904-5, orchestrated 1919
Premiered: Paris, France, 1919
Alborado del Gracioso began life as one of Ravel's most technically terrifying piano works; one section has downright unreasonable double glissandi in the right hand that have made many pianists consider playing a different instrument. The title roughly translates as "The Clown's Morning Song." Ravel was half-Spanish - indeed, half Basque - and never considered himself the quintessential Frenchman his admirers took him for. A "gracioso" was a court jester who poked fun at the king – somewhere between Lear’s Fool and Figaro.
The opening imitates guitars, with pizzicato strings and harp alternating accents trying to decide whether they're in 3/4 and 6/8, before the music erupts in castanets and percussion in the grand Spanish style. A huge, loud chord ushers in the "song" of the title - a bassoon solo accompanied by an alarming 24-part string arrangement that uses every harmonic, pizzicato and back-of-the bow effect in the string-player's armory. Conventionally-bowed single strings are almost the exception. A series of woodwind tremolos leads the music back to what has been reliably described as the loudest passage in all of Ravel.
Premiered: in movie La Noche de los Mayas, 1939; Suite (arr. Jose Ives Limantour) Mexico City, 1961
There is a scene in the 1935 movie ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! in which the piano player in a very dubious saloon holds up a sign reading “Se suplica no tirarle al pianist” (“Please don’t shoot the pianist”) before taking a heroic pull on a bottle of Tequila and disappearing behind the piano as a firefight erupts around him. That pianist is Silvestre Revueltas, and – alas – the Tequila was real. Revueltas had to be carried off the set at the end of the day’s filming. This tiny cameo of excitement, humor and alcohol could stand as a short summation of the career of Mexico’s most flamboyant, most thoroughly Mexican and most self-destructive composer. He was dead at the age of 40, howling his last as his friends wondered why he wasn’t attending the premiere of his most recent ballet.
Revueltas has much in common with Modest Mussorgsky: ardent nationalism, superb orchestration, endless rhythmic invention – and a tendency not to finish works as the bottle beckoned. Noche de Encantamiento was written as part of the very extensive music for the movie La Noche de los Mayas. Although Revueltas completed the composition score, the orchestration had to be partly farmed out for the music to be ready in time for the film (the composer could not face the recording session); the version which made the work famous (which we hear this evening) was largely recomposed and orchestrated by Revueltas scholar Jose Ives Limantour many years later.
In his music, Revueltas takes the frantic percussive folk music of Mexico and applies Stravinsky’s methods, to give us a pre-Columbian Rite of Spring with enough energy and unlikely percussion instruments to make even the great Russian blench. And not only percussion: not even Stravinsky attempted a solo for conch shell - but here it is, in all its repeated-note, obsessive-rhythm glory. In lesser hands, this material would seem like particularly demented travelogue music, or naïve primitivism. It is neither. It is an astonishingly subtle composer taming extremely unsubtle material into music for the ages. Strictly speaking, the piece is a theme and variations, but by the end the theme has been not so much developed as demolished.
Within a few years of his death, Revueltas had become the hero of an entire generation of Mexican composers; if only they had listened a little earlier.
The subtitle of La Noche de los Mayas is “A Mexican tragedy.” The same could stand as the epitaph of Silvestre Revueltas.