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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.



Program notes: The Silk Road Ensemble


For nearly two thousand years (ending in the 14th century), the historical Silk Road, a series of land and sea trade routes, crisscrossed Eurasia, enabling the exchange of goods and innovations from Japan to the Mediterranean Sea. Over the centuries, many important scientific and technological innovations migrated to the West along the Silk Road, including the magnetic compass, the printing press, silk, gunpowder, mathematics, and ceramic and lacquer crafts. In this way, the Silk Road created an intercontinental think-tank of human ingenuity. Interactions among cultural groups spread knowledge, religious beliefs, artistic techniques, and musical traditions, so much so that long after its decline, the Silk Road remains a powerful metaphor for cultural exchange.

This historic trade network provides both a namesake and a metaphor for the Silk Road Project’s vision of connecting artists and audiences around the world. Yo-Yo Ma calls these routes, which resulted in the first global exchange of scientific and cultural traditions, the “Internet of antiquity.”

Both historic and symbolic elements are central to the work of the Silk Road Project, which takes inspiration from this age-old tradition of exchange between cultures and disciplines. The repertoire of the Silk Road Ensemble includes traditional music (both as an oral tradition—passed down from generation to generation—and in melodies arranged by and for members of the Ensemble) as well as newly commissioned works. Many of these compositions combine non-Western and Western instruments, creating a unique genre that transcends customary musical classification.

Tonight’s concert opens with a Silk Road Suite, a selection of pieces that offer a preview of the range of styles and influences that distinguish the work of the Silk Road Ensemble. The audience is greeted by Galician bagpipes, known as gaita, in a musical introduction by Spanish-born composer and performer Cristina Pato. Caronte was inspired by the Greek myth of Kharon, the boatman who transported the souls of the deceased across the river Acheron, which separates the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Next in the Suite is Saidi Swing, a piece by Ensemble percussionist and composer Shane Shanahan, inspired by the traditional Arabic rhythm known as Saidi. This rhythm is believed to have originated in Upper Egypt and commonly accompanies dance. Shanahan composed variations on this basic rhythm, featuring several types of hand drums used throughout the Middle East and Asia, such as the riq, an Egyptian tambourine; darbuka, a goblet-shaped drum; tabla, a pair of drums played extensively in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan; and the frame drum, the oldest and most widely used drum in the world.

The Suite concludes with the dramatic Arabian Waltz by Lebanese-born composer Rabih Abou-Khalil, classically trained on oud (middle-eastern lute) as well as flute. Compositionally, his works fuse the musical traditions of the Arabic world with jazz improvisation and European classical techniques. Arabian Waltz is a propulsive work, driven by complex additive rhythms and improvisatory melodic lines.

When Silk Road Ensemble members Nicholas Cords and Colin Jacobsen visited Kayhan Kalhor in Iran in the summer of 2004 on a cultural exchange grant made possible by the Silk Road Project, one of many sights that impressed them was an ancient fire temple, or atashgah, outside the city of Esfahan. Originally built as a holy site for the Zoroastrian religion in the Sassanid period of Iran’s history (third to sixth centuries CE), it felt to these travelers like a place of significant power – a place that makes one aware of the layers of history. For Jacobsen, the experience of listening to Kalhor play music can be “like watching a fire in a fireplace; it is mesmerizing, hypnotic, and yet constantly changing. His music comes from a deep inner creative fire.” Jacobsen caught a spark of that creative fire, and on returning from Iran that summer, was inspired by his experience to do something with what he had heard and experienced. He has been writing and arranging music ever since, and Atashgah, composed for kamancheh and Western strings, is one result of that inspiration. Atashgah appears on the latest album by the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma, A Playlist Without Borders, released in September 2013 by Sony Masterworks.

Next the audience is invited to journey from Persia to the westernmost tip of Europe where, as early as the sixth century BCE, Celtic tribes put down roots in what is now north-central Spain. With its own language (Celtiberian) and way of life, this group formed a deep and enduring culture whose influences can be discerned even today. In Celtíbera, created to premiere on this 2013 West Coast concert tour, Mike Block and Cristina Pato explore connections between traditions from the Celtic nations, the Iberian Peninsula and North America through the common personal experiences shared by the people of these far-flung regions. The experimental work, partially improvised, features gaita and cello, with other instruments joining an uncharted migration through a wide range of musical languages, from traditional to jazz and folk.

Angel Lam grew up in Hong Kong and Los Angeles and received her doctorate degree from Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University. A recipient of numerous and prestigious scholarships and awards, Lam’s compositions have been performed around the world. Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain was the first of three commissions for Carnegie Hall. Dedicating this piece “to a memory of my grandmother,” Lam provides the following personal note:

“Thirty minutes passed but Grandma still hadn’t arrived. My kindergarten sat on top of a hill, overlooking a narrow street with a muddy pedestrian pathway alongside traffic. It was another hot summer day; the aggressive sun seemed to slow my time but activated the scenery in front of me. Trees moved in the heat like monsters stretching their palms; pedestrians walked slowly, dragged by their long shadows.

Suddenly, it rained, but the sun still shone. I decided to run home. I was only five. I sprinted down that busy street, people were shouting behind me, like low-pitched murmurings of ancient emperors. The sounding of horns screamed sharply with long mystic tails . . .

When a distant temple bell drummed, I saw Grandma—her peaceful smile, and an air of gracefulness that is memorable to this day. This time she seemed bigger … when I reached out to touch her, she floated through me and I turned around, the sun shone directly into my eyes, and Grandma disappeared into the core of the afternoon sun. The evening sun suddenly closed, and rain stopped.

When I got home, everybody was crying, but I did not cry. I went to my little desk and started a letter:

Dear Grandma . . .”

Jugalbandi is the Sanskrit term for duet. In tonight’s duet, the audience will experience, along with Kayhan Kalhor (playing kamancheh, or Persian spike fiddle) and Sandeep Das (playing tabla, or Indian drums), a journey without notation, based on an improvisation that is crafted in the moment. Persian and Indian collaboration and influence can be traced back to the thirteenth century. In fact, according to Das, “at times the two musical traditions are so closely intertwined that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.” When Kalhor and Das first played together, Das reflects, it felt like “a meeting of two lost cousins.” Today, that journey of musical discovery and joy still permeates the soul of their music making.

Tonight’s concert closes with a Suite from Book of Angels made up of short pieces by the prolific and often avant-garde American composer John Zorn, whose distinctive music reflects lifelong influences ranging from jazz to cinema, and from classical to klezmer and rock. Zorn’s Book of Angels is the second in a series of collections that form his Masada project, an experiment in Jewish musical styles inspired by the composer’s own heritage. In exploring this collection, Ensemble members drew on their own respective musical interests from around the world to arrange individual songs from diverse and sometimes unexpected cultural perspectives. Arrangements by Mike Block, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, Johnny Gandelsman, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato and Shane Shanahan have so far contributed to this ongoing venture.


Isabelle Hunter, The Silk Road Project, 2013