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Program Notes: Joyce DiDonato with Il Pomo d’Oro Chamber Orchestra ‘In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music’

WAR, PEACE and BAROQUE OPERA

The lust for war, the longing for peace: emotions such as these lie at the extremes of human experience. What better place to explore them than in the luridly violent, yet touchingly pathos- filled world of Baroque opera, where chaos reigns in the personal lives of kings and queens, stand- ins for our modern nation-states and their suffering populations?

Opera began at the dawn of the 17th century as an aesthetic experiment, an attempt to recover the poetic practices of the ancient world. By the time of Purcell in the 1680s it had become a dramatic genre capable of involving its spectators in the personal lives of its mythical or legendary protagonists. In the hands of Leonardo Leo, Niccolò Jommelli, and George Frideric Handel in the first half of the 18th century, opera developed into a display vehicle for the talents of an emerging class of professional opera singers—and this is where things got just a bit weird.

It was these singers—high-warbling, preening male castrati at the head of the pack—whose astonishing vocal performances began to drive the dramatic agenda in opera. The da capo aria format (A-B-A), in which the opening material returned at the end, was extremely popular as it allowed singers to “riff” on the melody line the second time round in order to show off their high register, their trills, their skill in ornamentation. Plots were often retro-engineered to provide a place for crowd-pleasing set pieces tailored to suit the vocal capacities of individual singers. In such an artistic climate, an opera might become a hot ticket for its thrilling “rage” aria, its tuneful tear-jerking lament, or for some particularly well characterized scene of worry, torment, or other extreme mental state, the more hair-raising the better. In a world still waiting for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, opera provided chills aplenty for its sensation-craving audiences.

All of these are represented in Joyce DiDonato’s curated selection of Baroque arias presented under the rubric In War and Peace.

 

WAR

Scenes of horror, scenes of woe (Handel, Jephtha, 1752)

First out of the gate is Storgè, wife of the Old Testament figure Jephtha who has rashly vowed that if the Almighty will grant him victory in battle he will kill the first person he meets on the road home—his own daughter, as it turns out. In Handel’s last oratorio, Storgè writhes in thrall to dire premonitions of impending doom, giving vent to her anxiety in a spooky recitative and an aria filled with hysterical leaps. The restless, roving orchestral accompaniment paints the wild thoughts ranging around her head.

Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro! (Leo, Andromaca, 1742)

After the Trojan war, Hector’s widow Andromache tries to save the life of her son by playing the “monster” card, daring Pyrrhus to slaughter the young boy on the spot—and her, too, for good measure.“Drink my blood while you’re at it,” she adds helpfully, by way of culinary encouragement. In an aria filled with frequent changes of mood, Andromache vacillates between blood-thirsty crazy talk and affectionate asides to her son.

Sinfonia (Cavalieri, 1600) and Chaconne in G minor (Purcell, ca. 1680)

Instrumental interludes in early opera served as sonic palate-cleansers, resetting an audience’s emotional register back to ‘neutral’ while at the same time allowing industrious stage-hands to shift furniture on stage. The Sinfonia concluding the first act of Cavalieri’s pioneering Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo repeats a descending scale figure in many guises in a layered orchestral texture featuring a slow, plodding foundation melody enlivened by ornamental chatter in the upper register. Purcell’s Chaconne uses a similar technique, repeating a bass line that prompts the upper instruments into dancelike hops or smooth-flowing descants.

Dido’s Lament (Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, 1689)

In Purcell’s retelling of the Dido story from Vergil’s Aeneid, the Queen of Carthage, having been abandoned by her warrior lover Aeneas, dies of a broken heart in the opera’s final scene. Her heart- rending plea “Remember me, but ah, forget my fate” rings out searingly against the implacable march of Fate symbolized by a chromatically descending bass line.

Pensieri, voi mi tormentate (Handel, Agrippina, 1709)

This scene in which Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, frets that her son Nero will never inherit the throne, is remarkable for the dramatic interplay between orchestra and singer. The orchestra seems to stalk this Lady-Macbeth-with-confidence-issues like a Hitchcockian evil-doer, echoing and paralleling her musical thoughts, with the oboe as voyeur-in-chief to her darkest imaginings.

Tristis est anima mea (Gesualdo, 1611)

Carlo Gesualdo was the Caravaggio of sound-painting, mixing dark and light colours to create startlingly emotional portraits of his subject matter. His spiritual madrigal Sorrowful is my soul is set in the garden of Gethsemane. Drooping sigh motives and searing dissonances evoke the pathos of the scene and an animated middle section describes the bustling crowds that have come to witness the arrest of Jesus.

Lascia ch’io pianga (Handel, Rinaldo, 1711)

During the First Crusade (1095-1099 AD) Almirena, love interest of the warrior Rinaldo, has been abducted by the sorceress Armida and sits down to bemoan her downcast fate. This lilting sarabande, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar, imitates perfectly the halting, sighing resignation of this dramatic character.

 

PEACE

They tell us that you mighty powers (Purcell, The Indian Queen, 1695)

Purcell’s The Indian Queen varies the classic star-crossed-lovers theme by setting its story in the New World, with the Aztec warrior Montezuma as Romeo and the Inca heroine Orazia as Juliet. A distinctly anti-war sentiment runs through the work, rendered emotionally appealing by this simple song sung by Orazia to Montezuma as they are sitting together in prison awaiting execution.

Crystal streams in murmurs flowing (Handel, Susanna, 1749)

Handel’s oratorio Susanna tells the Biblical story of how a virtuous woman is lusted after and spied on by lecherous elders of her community—an ancient prefiguring of Donald Trump in the dressing rooms of his beauty contestants. The set-up to said ogling is a lush garden complete with rippling stream to bathe in (and ample shrubberies for old men to hide in) where Susanna goes for an innocent little skinny-dip. Handel’s powers of musical description are here at their height, with the gently wafting breezes and softly burbling stream deftly imitated in the orchestral accompaniment.

Da tempeste il legno infranto (Handel, Giulio Cesare, 1724)

The simile aria, which Rossini was to send up to hilarious effect in his comic opera finales, was still alive and well in the Baroque age, principally used as a pretext for the most brazen displays of vocal acrobatics on the part of the great divas of the period. Here Cleopatra compares her rescue by Julius Caesar to the safe arrival of a boat through stormy seas. As over-the-top as the opening section is, expect even more vocal acrobatics in the reprise.

Da pacem Domine (Pärt, 2004/2008)

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has been compared to the old masters of Renaissance polyphony: Josquin, Palestrina, Lasso. His minimalist style, much influenced by Gregorian chant, stresses diatonic (scale-based) melodies harmonized without the use of chromaticism or modulation. He uses a compositional technique called tintinnabuli (from the Latin for “bell”) which is based on the overlap of fundamental tones and overtones, typical of the sound-decay patterns of large church bells. His choral work Da pacem Domine (Grant us peace, o Lord) evokes the meditative stillness of 16th-century cathedrals, and the presence of a larger spiritual frame of reference, implied but unspoken.

Augelletti, che cantate (Handel, Rinaldo, 1711)

Meanwhile back in the Holy Land during the First Crusade, Almirena is thinking about her tender feelings for her warrior beau Rinaldo, happy to find herself in yet another lush garden where the birds are chirping merrily on every bough and branch. She eagerly joins in with the sopranino recorder in a picturesque birdsong duet.

Par che di giubilo (Jommelli, Attilio Regolo, 1753)

The Roman consul and military leader Marcus Atilius Regulus, a hero of the First Punic War (264- 241 BC), has returned home from captivity in Carthage to a joyous welcome from his daughter Attilia, who greets him with an aria expressing her elation at this turn of events. British musicologist Simon Heighes, who wrote the liner notes for Joyce DiDonato’s In War and Peace CD, tells us that this aria revels in the “boundless coloratura” that the Neapolitan school of opera-writing was famous for, supported by an attentive and vibrant orchestral backdrop that points towards the new transparent textures of the coming Classical period.

 

– Donald G. Gislason, 2016

PROGRAM NOTES: YO-YO MA & KATHRYN STOTT


Igor Stravinsky

Suite Italienne

At the end of the Great War Igor Stravinsky underwent a radical shift in his compositional techniques and aesthetic aims. Gone were the gargantuan orchestras that had performed the lush, colorful scores of his pre-War ballets Firebird and Petrushka. Gone, as well, the dense chord structures and revolutionary rhythmic tumult that brought international critical attention—and volleys of projectile produce—hurtling to the Paris stage where Rite of Spring had premiered a scant few years before.

Stravinsky’s new neoclassical style featured leaner chamber ensembles, more transparent textures, astringent harmonies, and a new respect for music of the past, qualities perfectly reflected in his ballet Pulcinella, which premiered in May 1920 at the Paris Opera. With a cast of rascally characters from commedia dell’ arte, and music largely based on the gracious scores of Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), this ballet soon became one of the composer’s most popular works, spawning a host of arrangements, including this Suite Italienne, which Stravinsky assembled in collaboration with cellist Gregor Piatagorsky in 1932.

In arranging the music of Pergolesi and his contemporaries, Stravinsky preserved the clear phrasing, courtly cadential patterns, and ornamental trills of the Baroque Neapolitan style, but laced the score with spikey accents on weak notes of the bar, while stomping on the toes of the harmony by means of exaggerated passing and neighbour notes in the bass—a crafty way of maximizing sonic resonance without thickening the texture.

The suite begins with the ballet’s overture, called Introduzione. Clearly audible, even in this chamber version, is the Baroque ritornello style of the original orchestral scoring, with alternating sections played by the whole orchestra (ripieni) and a small group of soloists (concertino).

The Serenata derives from the tenor canzonetta Mentre l’erbetta pasce l’agnella (While the little lamb grazes), from Pergolesi’s opera Il Flaminio (1735). The gentle lilt of its dotted rhythm identifies it as a sicilienne, but its pastoral tranquility is tinged with a hint of melancholy.

A characteristic feature of Neapolitan opera buffa was the prominent role it gave to the bass voice, exploited largely for its humorous potential in arias studded with large leaps and other comic effects. In the opening section of the Air, the cello plays the role of Bastiano from Il Flaminio, a stropping, galumphing man-servant who awkwardly pleads the case of his pining heart to the love of his life. All is not well, though, as the following lyrical love lament from Pergolesi’s Lo frate ’nnamurato (1732) makes pathetically clear. Our swaggering swain is left alone by the end, humming a sad refrain from the preceding Serenata.

The mood picks up noticeably in the Tarantella which with its whirlwind pace and sustained use of the cello’s high register is the virtuoso showpiece of the suite.

The Minuetto e finale is one of the great musical transformation scenes in the Stravinsky canon. Opening at a measured pace in a mood somewhere between sustained elegy and proud strutting march, it builds and builds until exploding in an exuberant fanfare of excitement worthy of an eighteenth-century comic opera finale. As the work races off to its final bars, it looks in the rearview mirror to savour once again a simple melodic phrase from the overture that must surely qualify as among the most hummable-in-the-shower tunes in the orchestral repertoire.


Heitor Villa-Lobos

Alma Brasileira (arr. Jorge Calandrelli)

The chôro, a type of urban street music arising in the nineteenth century out of a mix of European dance forms and homegrown Brazilian musical styles, inspired Villa- Lobos to compose a series of works in this popular vein during the 1920s. The composer writes into the score the lazy, languorous rubato performing style typical of street bands of the time, as well as the wide range of emotions that characterize the genre. The fifth in this series, subtitled Alma Brasileira (Brazilian soul), travels from a mood of brooding fatalism on to heights of lyrical ecstasy, and back again.


Astor Piazzolla

Oblivion (arr. Kyoko Yamamoto)

The Argentinian composer and performer Astor Piazzolla is credited with moving his country’s most famous musical genre from the dance hall into the concert hall, creating the nuevo tango by incorporating elements of jazz, classical and folk idioms, and by composing for smaller chamber ensembles instead of the large dance orchestras traditionally used.

The mood of wistful nostalgia that permeates his tangos is also heard in Oblivion, written in Rome in 1984 for the soundtrack to the film version of Luigi Pirandello’s 1922 stage play Enrico IV.


Camargo Guarnieri

Dansa Negra
(arr. Jorge Calandrelli)

With the surname of a celebrated family of violin-makers and a first name recognized even by chocolate-lovers, Mozart Camargo Guarnieri seemed destined to become a musician, and indeed pursued a successful career as a conductor and composer both in his native Brazil and in the United States.

This congenial and joyful piece arose out of the composer’s contact with Candomblé, the spiritualist religion of African origin practiced in Brazil in which worshippers use dance to promote contact with the divine presence. Its teasing rhythmic complexity gives an elegance and cosmopolitan polish to the deep folkloric traditions that inspired it.


Manuel de Falla

Siete Canciones Populares Españolas

De Falla’s most popular vocal work—already performed once before this VRS season by Avi Avital in an arrangement for mandolin—was composed in 1913 from authentic regional folk songs to which the composer added a piano part bristling with added-note chords, strumming rhythms and other effects richly suggestive of the sonorities of the Spanish guitar. The work represents a musical travelogue through the regions of Spain, each song offering a glimpse into the daily life and eternal concerns of the common people, beginning in Murcia from which the first two songs derive.

The first, El Paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth), gives a none- too-veiled warning to young girls to avoid the “stain” of an illicit love affair while the second, the Seguidilla murciana, is an intense argument of insistent taunts and bitter banter.

The mood changes to one of bewildered sadness in the Asturiana from Northern Spain, the hypnotic figures in the piano evoking the numbness of unfathomable grief. By contrast, nothing could be livelier than the Aragonese Jota that follows, a whirling piece in triple time danced to the rhythmic clicking of castanets.

The Andalusian Nana is a lullaby, said to be the one that De Falla’s mother sang to him when he was an infant. A rocking rhythm is created in the piano by a syncopated accompaniment over a soothing, sleepy pedal point in the bass.

The whimsy of love-sickness fills the Canción, a rollicking tune known all over Spain. The set ends in the deeply flamenco-inflected Andalusian gypsy music of Polo, with its rich build-up of guitar sonorities in the piano part supporting the dark fury of its melismatic solo line.


Olivier Messiaen

Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus

Few indeed are the great works of Western music written in a prisoner-of-war camp, but Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is one of them. Captured by the Germans in their sweep through France in 1940, Messiaen composed this 8-movement chamber work for clarinet, violin, cello and piano at the Stalag VIIIA camp in Görlitz, Silesia (present- day Poland) and premiered the work there with his fellow musician-inmates in January of 1941 before a ‘captive’ audience of understandably attentive listeners.

Inspiration for the work came from passages in the Book of Revelation in which an angel descends in glory from Heaven to announce the End of Time. Its fifth movement, Praise to the Eternity of Jesus, is a duo for cello and piano that evokes in broad majestic phrases the eternal quality of Jesus as “the Word,” “whose time never runs out.” With a tempo marking of Infiniment lent, extatique (infinitely slow, ecstatic) this movement seems to make time stand still, with its irregular groups of between three and six repeated piano chords behind a gentle but powerful overarching melody in the cello that provides a focus for this spiritual meditation.


César Franck

Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano

It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter covering breaking news in 19th-century Belgian music, is not wide of the mark in observing that

There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music – soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels.

The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, the Sonata in A major for violin (1886), a present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe in honour of the celebrated violinist’s marriage, and actually performed at the wedding by Ysaÿe himself.  This work also lies at the heart of the cello repertoire, in an adaptation made soon after by cellist Jules Desart and approved by the composer.

The Allegretto ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty.  It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if prompting the instrumentalist with his pitches. The cello then obliges by using these tones to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the cello over simple chords in the piano, gradually builds in urgency until a second theme emerges in the solo piano in an outpouring of melodramatic intensity, ending in a dark turn to the minor. The cello will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key.

Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the cello.  Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode.  A more sunny mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento.  The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.

The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the cello tries more than once to change the subject in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos.  The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata.  No major-mode ending here.

All tensions are eased, all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that features a simple tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically stable that it can be presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.

British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:

It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.

 

Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.

 

 

Murray Perahia…reminiscences

Murray Perahia first came onto my radar in 1972 when he won the Leeds International Piano Competition. I knew Murray’s playing through his recordings but didn’t have the opportunity to hear him live for the first time until 1983, when on a visit to London I was able to attend a recital he gave at the Royal Festival Hall. It was one of the most memorable concert experiences of my life. I was with a friend with whom I had studied music at university in South Africa, and the two of us left the hall speechless. We didn’t speak to one another until we had crossed the bridge over the Thames, to catch our Tube.

Two years later (the VRS was 5 years old) Murray Perahia played a recital in Portland on a small, but wonderful piano series. How envious was I when I found out that the only way the series was able to present Mr. Perahia was through the generosity of one of their subscribers who was a Murray Perahia fan, and was determined to get him to Portland at any cost.

Finally, three years later I plucked up the courage to engage Murray Perahia. Regrettably, he had to cancel as he came down with the flu in New York City. We found out only the afternoon before the concert, as we had been moving offices (pre cellphone days) and his manager couldn’t reach us as our telephone and fax lines hadn’t been installed. First call on the new phone number was “terribly sorry to have to tell you…”

He played his first performance for us the following year at the Orpheum and has returned to our series several times since. I have had the immense pleasure of having him practice in my home, and so has our sponsor, Martha Lou Henley. On one occasion he needed a break and went for a walk. I was panic stricken when he hadn’t returned after an hour and a quarter. Fortunately, back in those days the VRS office was located in the basement of my home, so I was able to leave the house to search for him. I did find him wandering around the side streets of Shaughnessy.

On another occasion he came to Vancouver for a concert at the time of the famous summit. We had booked him into the Four Seasons Hotel, which we then had to cancel as the Summit leaders had taken over the hotel. We re-located him to the Waterfront Hotel and let his management know. Somewhere between his management and his diary there was a ‘disconnect’. I waited at the airport for five hours, calling every hotel in town every 30 minutes to see if he had checked in. Bingo! Finally, the Wedgwood Hotel said that they had just found a room for a Mr. Perahia who hadn’t had a previous reservation but had been insistent that there had been! I asked them to send someone up to lock his door and not let him out until I arrived!

Each and every concert by Murray Perahia is a revelation and a deeply moving experience. I am so thankful that I have been a concert presenter at a time when Murray Perahia is at his prime.

Leila Getz, C.M., O.B.C., D.F.A.

Artistic Director

Audra Mcdonald Wows Audiences and Critics

AudraMcDonaldThe long-awaited American Repertory Theater production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess has opened and the reviews are coming in. The critics are unanimous in their praise for Audra McDonald, who has set a new standard for this iconic leading lady of American opera.

“Ms. McDonald is Bess (or to use the hyperbolic speech of movie ads, ‘Audra McDonald Is Bess’),” exclaims New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, “and she can claim rights to full possession of her role, the kind of ownership that transforms a classic character forever … Ms. McDonald’s performance is as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years. A four-time Tony winner for her work in both musicals and plays, Ms. McDonald combines the skills of a great actress and a great singer to stride right over any perceived gaps between the genres of musical and opera.”

The Boston Globe‘s Don Aucoin says that “in Audra McDonald, this production boasts a Bess for the ages,” citing, for example, her duet with Lewis on “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” which he calls “a thing of beauty to watch and to hear.”

“McDonald gives a stunning perf [sic].” Variety

Audra McDonald performs at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre on Tuesday, October 11. Avoid ticket surcharges when you book through Cory at the Vancouver Recital Society: 604-602-0363.

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