Outside Elements Programme Notes
Turnage Slide Stride
Bartók Romanian Folk Dances
Tsontakis Six Miniatures on Georgian Folk Tunes for Mandolin and Strings
Korngold Suite for 2 violins, cello & piano left hand, Op. 23
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Mark-Anthony Turnage (born 1960)
Slide Stride (2002)
The British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage first made his mark as a young man with an individual voice through works such as his opera Greek (an updating of Sophocles’s Oedipus rex to London’s East End in the 1980s) and the orchestral Three Screaming Popes, inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon. These are genres in which he has continued to grow and explore – in the case of opera with the tragi-comic Anna Nicole, based on the eponymous media personality, and, most recently, Coraline, the dark children’s tale; while Turnage’s orchestral works include such landmark pieces as Chicago Remains and Speranza. He has, in the past, admitted to finding chamber music more difficult to write. Yet, with a growing body of vastly varied pieces for a wide array of ensembles, that increasingly looks like false modesty.
Turnage composed Slide Stride for piano and string quartet in 2002 and it’s one of his most boisterously ebullient achievements. It unfolds in a single span lasting some 13 minutes, and is fired up by jazz: the clue’s in the title, for stride piano’s characteristic style – highly rhythmic with big leaps in the left hand (great exponents included Fats Waller and Duke Ellington) – are evident from the moment the keyboard joins in with the strings. Interestingly, Turnage’s upbringing didn’t particularly involve jazz or other non-classical genres – he only discovered these as a student in his late teens. But how much they flavour and colour his music. He has written of Slide Stride: ‘I don’t like virtuosity for the sake of it but … I thought I’d set myself a technical exercise and write a piece that’s technically hard to play as opposed to musically hard to grasp.’ Of course it’s so much more than a mere ‘technical exercise’ but there’s no doubting that it’s a thrilling listen!
Béla Bartók (1882-1945)
Romanian Folk Dances
Jocul cu Bâtă (Stick Dance)
Brâul (Sash Dance)
Buciumeana (Dance from Bucium)
Poarga Românească (Romanian Polka)
Măruntel (Quick Dance)
As a student, Bartók (1881-1945), and his friend Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), became very interested in the music of the ethnic groups in Hungary and the surrounding regions. Together they collected, recorded, studied, and edited songs and instrumental music from several central and eastern European countries. Many of the melodies and rhythm patterns they collected appear particularly in Bartók’s music, and were absorbed into his style.
Originally for piano, the Romanian Folk Dances were written in 1915 and published in 1918. They remain popular and have been arranged for a variety of instruments.
Jocul cu Bâtă (Stick Dance) opens with heavy chords before the melody, at first pitched in a low register, is repeated at a higher pitch. The music has two main sections.
Brâul (Sash Dance) is extremely brief, lasting less than half a minute. The music is light and dainty, again with a higher repetition of the melody.
The melody in harmonics gives Pe loc (Stamping Dance – ‘on the spot’) a static effect. Accompanied by sustained chords, the melody has a mysterious, eerie mood.
In Buciumeana (Dance from Bucium), the melodious theme is in a moderately slow tempo accompanied with tense harmonies. The melody is repeated more forcefully, with a thicker texture.
Poarga Românească (Romanian Polka) features alternating duple and tripe metres typical of some of the Balkan regions. The dance is again very brief, but with a brilliant, driving rhythm.
The last dance, Măruntel (Quick Dance), is a fitting finale. Beginning with a quick tempo, the speed increases even more to bring the music to a whirling close.
George Tsontakis (b. 1951)
Portraits by El Greco (2014) (Asian Premiere)
III Christ and the Money Changers
IV The Vision
V Christ Carrying the Cross/Entombment
George Tsontakis studied conducting with Jorge Mester and composition with Hugo Weisgall and Roger Sessions at Juilliard from 1974 to 1978. Later he worked with Franco Donatoni at the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. His successful career gained added prominence when he won both the prestigious Grawemeyer Award (in 2005) and the Charles Ives Living Award (in 2006) in close succession. Add to those distinctions the 2002 Berlin Prize, recognition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and two Grammy nominations, and Tsontakis has earned a reputation as one of the leading composers of his generation. Tsontakis has taught at Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music, Sarah Lawrence College, and is now on the faculty at Bard College. He was also the founding director of the Contemporary Ensemble at the Aspen Music School, where he teaches composition classes.
When Tsontakis he was awarded the Charles Ives Prize, his fellow-composer David Del Tredici (a member of the selection committee) described Tsontakis’s music as “full of heart, a quality that erases boundaries as it satisfies and enriches the soul.” The erasure of boundaries and the connection with Ives is instructive, giving some insight into Tsontakis’s style and technique. Like Ives, he frequently quotes from both the classical repertoire and other genres, not in the semiotically bland mode of postmodern quotation but out of a genuine respect for music of the past. In that regard he shares George Rochberg’s anti-modernist musical philosophy, celebrating musical history rather than attempting to erase it. He is also deeply involved with the traditional music of Greece, and especially Crete, his family’s original homeland. Greek melodies periodically find their way into Tsontakis’s music, and Greek terms into his titles.
Although Tsontakis excels in the large-scale orchestral forms of concertos and concertante works, he has also composed numerous solo, vocal, and chamber works. He wrote four numbered string quartets in the 1980s, for example, then returned to genre for a fifth quartet in 2006. During the 1990s, Tsontakis penned several piano quartets including his 1997 Bagatelles (the Piano Quartet No. 1) for a standard formation of piano, violin, viola, and cello; Eclipse (1995) for a Messiaen ensemble of piano, clarinet, violin, and cello; and Gemini (1996) which replaced the clarinet with a horn. In 2005 he wrote a second piano quartet for the standard instrumentation.
Tsontakis wrote a quintet, Portraits by El Greco, in 2014 to honor of the 400th anniversary of the death of the Greek artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos who, because he worked for much of his career in Spain, was known simply as “El Greco.” Tsontakis scored this work for a variant on a Messiaen ensemble, employing the same instruments as Messiaen’s seminal Quartet for the End of Time only with an added viola. (Alternatively, the scoring could be thought of as a standard piano quartet plus clarinet.)
Each of the six movements in this suite were inspired by a particular painting of El Greco, most of them religious, but beginning with his famous and unprecedented landscape of the Spanish city of Toledo, his adopted home town. The painting contrasts a dark, glowering sky with a rich green pasture in the foreground, that visual tension represented in music by a mysteriously repeated two-note interval throughout the movement.
The remaining five El Greco portraits all focus on aspects of Christ’s nativity, life, and legacy, but not in narrative order. The Pieta depicts the Holy Mother, Peter, and Mary Magdalene taking the gray, lifeless body of Christ down from the cross. The composer characterizes this moment with mournful chants, contrasted with a moment of frantic grief and anxiety. In El Greco’s Christ and the Money Changers, the artist presents a maelstrom of righteous indignation and disruption, paralleled in the rhythmic commotion and grotesqueries of Tsontakis’s music. The next section, The Vision, refers to El Greco’s painting of the vision of St. John, particularly the opening of the “Fifth Seal” (Revelation 6: 9-11) when white robes are distributed to the righteous martyrs. Here the music is both apocalyptic and ecstatic, and an allusive nod to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which is also based on a passage from St. John’s Book of Revelation.
The final two movements are bookends of Christ’s mortality, in reverse order. Christ Carrying the Cross is one of El Greco’s most poignant, sentimental, and moving paintings. Bell-like chanting and prayerful chorales capture the dual temperaments of tragedy and heaven-directed devotion. Just as Christ’s face in the painting looks upward from under the weight and pain of the cross, so does Tsontakis’s music weep, then rise. The last movement, Annunciation, is a mere wisp of a coda to the suite, as the Blessed Virgin feels the divine enlivening within her.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)
Suite for two violins, cello and piano (left hand), Op. 23 (1930)
Prelude and Fugue
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was one of the most remarkable child prodigies in musical history, composing in his own style by the age of 7 and fêted by figures such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. That style was one of rich Romanticism, and he had a natural gift for melody. These qualities were ultimately to prove his undoing, however, for his music was increasingly regarded as old fashioned. Circumstances also played a role: being Jewish, the rise of the Nazis forced him to leave Austria and relocate to the USA in the 1930s. Here, he found great success as a film composer, but ironically this hindered his career in the concert hall, as there was at that time a strict divide between ‘serious’ and ‘film’ composers. It’s only in more recent years that Korngold’s true genius has again begun to be appreciated.
Pianist Paul Wittgenstein turned the tragedy of losing his right arm in the First World War into an opportunity, commissioning concertos for the left hand from Ravel, Prokofiev, Britten, Schmidt and Korngold. The last of these also wrote a Suite for him and it’s a great injustice that it’s not better known, for it’s a masterpiece on a grand scale; it can only be the unorthodox scoring that has made it a relative rarity.
Korngold launches the Suite with a stern and stirring solo piano passage, to which the strings respond with a similar intensity. When the Fugue arrives, its sighing theme is given by solo cello, to which the piano replies, the cello now pizzicato. As the texture builds, we suddenly get a dreamy, poised passage, the two violins entwining to sonorous effect. This acts as a central section within the fugue, gradually growing in intensity. The piano reprises the cadenza-like opening, with a heartfelt response from the strings, and the movement ends in a mood of great fervour.
The gentle waltz seems to recall fragments of a Viennese dance that you might have heard in a grand 19th-century ballroom. But there’s nothing old fashioned about it, as Korngold colours it with his characteristic pungent harmonies. As the whole theme gradually emerges, it is full of sighs and a sense of pathos. And, as it gradually winds down once more, there’s a sense of hovering around just a single phrase, before dying away completely.
Contrast comes in the form of the Groteske, which is set in motion by the piano, then joined by cello, with pizzicato responses from the two violins. It has an unstoppable urgency to it, and a gnawing sense of unease, which comes in part from the unsettling harmonies. There are moments where the mood lightens a little, but they are quickly banished. After reaching a mighty climax, the piano introduces a much calmer section, slow-moving and chordal, the strings echoing the solemnity. But again it doesn’t last and the opening mood drives things to a dramatic close.
Calm is restored once more in the Lied, piano and cello setting the scene with touching gentleness, before the first violin enters with a soaring melody of great beauty. The movement is in fact a borrowing of a song that formed the first of Korngold’s Op. 22 Lieder, ‘Was du mir bist?’; it translates unerringly to a purely instrumental line-up. The variation-form finale is introduced by piano, playing in octaves, with the theme initially on cello, before the two violins take up the narrative, spiced with unpredictable harmonic touches. Then the tempo picks up and, in the course of the variations that follow, Korngold reworks the initial idea, now tinged with minor-key harmonies, offers a touch of fugal writing and indulges in some positively filmic effects that seem to be conjuring an entire orchestra in terms of colour. Just before the end we get a reminiscence of the Lied fourth movement, again presented by the cellist, before the music crescendos up into a dramatic sign-off.
Programme note by Harriet Smith
Harriet Smith is a writer, editor, and broadcaster. After studies in music and piano at Cambridge University, she worked as deputy editor of Gramophone magazine, editor of BBC Music Magazine and founder-editor of International Piano Quarterly and International Record Review. She is now based in an idyllic spot on the east Kent coast and when not at her desk can be found attempting to tame her garden and taking bracing seaside walks with Freya the dog.
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