The Pines of Rome
Saturday, March 26, 2022 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
ZHOU LONG (born 1953)
THE RHYME OF TAIGU
PREMIERED: Singapore, 2003
“Tai-gu” (or “ta-gu”) is the Chinese pronunciation of the characters that are read in Japanese as “tai-ko.” The taiko is the thunderous bass drum of traditional Japanese music, familiar to a generation of movie fans as the foundation of the high-drama percussion/rhythm tracks of composers like Hans Zimmer. Outside of Hollywood, the taiko is best known in the West from its appearance in gagaku, the solemn and slightly terrifying court music of Japan’s early middle ages; outside the Court, it also appeared (and appears) in lively traditional folk dances. The same instrument spread to China during the Tang dynasty (7th-10th century CE) and became hugely popular. Unlike the gagaku, however, the Chinese musical tradition of that period died out in the turmoil of Chinese history. In this piece, Zhou Long evokes the Chinese percussion of a millennium ago with a daunting array of percussion instruments supplementing the Western Orchestra.
After an introductory section based on a slowly repeating rhythm hammered out on the tagu, the focus pulls to a vision of the Tang Chinese Imperial court and ancient Buddhist ritual, with solemn, keening wind solos evoking the Chinese guanzi and the sheer timelessness of the Middle Kingdom. The brass then pull the music into a frantic dance, showing that the mighty tagu has its lighter – or at least less intimidating – side.
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897)
DOUBLE CONCERTO in A Minor for Violin and Cello, Op. 102
PREMIERED: Cologne, Germany, 1887
III: Vivace non troppo
The great violinist Joseph Joachim and his wife, mezzo-soprano Amalie, were the Kanye and Kim of respectable nineteenth-century Austria; they named one of their six children Johannes, after their close friend Johannes Brahms. In 1884, however, Vienna was rocked by the huge scandal of their divorce; Joachim accused Amalie of an affair with his publisher. In court, Amalie produced a letter from Brahms defending her; after he won, Joachim declared that Brahms was dead to him, forever. Three years later, Brahms used their mutual friend, the cellist Robert Hausmann, as a go-between to mend the fence; the result was the Double Concerto. All three men performed at the very tense premiere.
Brahms largely bases his concerto on permutations of Joachim’s personal musical signature F-A-E, which he said stood for “frei aber einsam” – “free but lonely” (the irony is startling in the context); it’s the basis for the opening of the work. The opening is also – an in-joke with Joachim – a paraphrase of the opening of Viotti’s A minor concerto, a favorite of both Brahms and Joachim. Schumann had used Joachim’s motif in his Cello Concerto, also written for Joachim. After the initial announcement of Joachim’s slogan, the first movement begins with a rather glum cello solo that ushers in a series of exchanges with the violin – sometimes together, sometimes in obvious competition, sometimes (slightly – it’s Brahms) jocular. It is hard not to imagine two friends not quite getting on.
The slow movement turns the Joachim motif inside out and into the major (A-F#-E), clearly picked out in alternating notes in the soaring running eighth-note melody played by the two soloists in octaves. Clara Schumann called the concerto “reconciliation music,” probably with this movement in mind. The finale has Brahms hinting at the Gypsy music that he and Joachim had helped to popularize. The motif is still free and lonely, but it dances to cheer itself up in a frenzy of virtuosity.
OTTORINO RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
PINI DI ROMA (THE PINES OF ROME)
PREMIERED: Rome, Italy, 1924
In a sense, Ottorino Respighi was two composers; much of his music was actually written in collaboration with his wife Elsa, who completed a great deal of his music during his grim final illness and after his death. As far as can be told, however, Pines of Rome was all his own work, written during the turmoil of early Fascism (Mussolini came to power in 1922). The Rome of the Pines is not the swaggering Rome of the Duce, but the romantic past-that-never-was of the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Although Respighi’s postwar reputation was tainted simply by his having lived under Fascism, the advocacy of such ferocious anti-Fascists as Arturo Toscanini ensured that his music has always been hugely popular worldwide.
Respighi’s music had two overwhelming influences – the dazzling orchestration of his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and his interest in Gregorian chant and other “ancient” music. Both appear clearly in the Pines. The very famous opening of The Pines of the Villa Borghese is textbook Rimsky – and similar in telling ways to the opening of Petrushka, by another of Rimsky’s students, Igor Stravinsky; the Pines Near a Catacomb explicitly quotes Gregorian chant. The fact that Respighi could play all the instruments of the orchestra (he learned the harp in three weeks) allowed him to write virtuosic instrumental parts that never quite become the terrifying ordeal of Ravel’s; his sound is the musical equivalent of Technicolor.
The Pines of the Villa Borghese depict the home of the Borghese family, who rose to fame in the late Renaissance and remain influential to this day. The resident in Respighi’s time was Junio Valerio Borghese, a prominent officer in Mussolini’s navy and a notorious Fascist hardliner; the music’s jubilation has its dark side.
As in his personal life, Respighi retreats from the terrors of the present into the comforts – or, at least, certainties – of the past. The Pines Near a Catacomb sings parts of the Tenth Gregorian Mass to alleviate the gloom (and worser) of Rome’s famous underground tombs.
The Pines of the Janiculum is a nocturne set at the temple of Janus, the god who guarded the gates of the city. The darkness clears with the recorded song of a real nightingale; the score specifies not only the recording to be used but the make of the phonograph. The recording originally used was made by the students of the American Academy.
Evoking Imperial Rome was a loaded gesture in the Italy of 1924. Fortunately, The Pines of the Appian Way avoids – just – the alarming triumphalism of many of Respighi’s contemporaries. Like the end of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (written under a different kind of terror), there is something unnerving about the blazing major-key ending.
About the Concert
Rescheduled to March 26.
No one captures the spirit of Italy better than Respighi, and his tone poem -- filled with children at play, moonlit evenings, mysterious catacombs, and ancient warriors -- offers a kaleidoscope of thrilling orchestral colors. Chinese composer Zhou Long mines the ecstatic energy of Japanese Taiko drumming in a work featuring our own marvelous percussion section. And Brahms proves that two soloists are better than one with his stirring "Double Concerto."
Please note: Masks are required to be worn at all times, regardless of vaccination status. Patrons will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result obtained within 72 hours of the concert. All musicians, guest artists, staff, and volunteers are fully vaccinated. Click here for more information.