Friday, May 10, 2013

Notes for Humboldt Symphony concerts of May 10, 12 by Paul Cummings, conductor

These notes are edited from interviews. 

 La Creation Du Monde (The Creation of the World) by Darius Milhaud 

 This piece is very similar in style and musical materials to George Gershwin’s work. Both Milhaud and Gershwin were greatly influenced by jazz. Jazz was the hot new style in the 1920s, not only in the U.S. but in Europe. Milhaud heard jazz in Paris, where a number of American jazz artists toured, and in London. He made a trip to New York to hear jazz in Harlem clubs.

 You hear right away that Milhaud is not going to restrict himself to a traditionally classical approach because you hear a saxophone in the opening measures. Saxophone in a classical piece was unusual in the 1920s.

 It’s called “The Creation of the World” because Milhaud read a book in Paris that summarized many of the African folk legends surrounding that topic. He’s not directly quoting any of the literary material but loosely basing each of the six sections on a part of the creation story.

 This is a fascinating piece and an important work that doesn’t get performed very often, first of all because it calls for an odd combination of instruments—4 string players, a piano, percussion and wind instruments. So symphonic bands can’t do it because they don’t have strings. Orchestras don’t do it if they don’t have all the wind players. It so happens that this semester we had the perfect combination of advanced players on all the required instruments, which we don’t necessarily have in a typical year. The other reason this isn’t performed very often is that it is just difficult to play. But we’ve worked hard on it all semester. We played part of it in our last Humboldt Symphony concert, and this time we’re performing the entire piece.

Tocatta and Ritornelli from the opera Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi

This is a suite, basically portions of the opera Orfeo, based on the Orpheus legend, that have been culled by an arranger (Maurice Perez.)

 Orfeo has the distinction of being the first full blown opera in western music. Monteverdi established a musical genre almost singlehandedly. I agree with other scholars that if Monteverdi had lived 200 years later, he’d be of the same stature as Beethoven and Mozart. He was that accomplished a composer. But when he was writing, in the early 17th century, we’re just coming out of the Renaissance, which was dominated by vocal music, and even more than that, by the Church and vocal music written for sacred occasions. Monteverdi did as much as he could given the period. Monteverdi is also sometimes considered to be the founder of the Baroque era.

This piece also has the distinction of being one of the first works ever written where there is some indication of what instruments should play each part. Previous to this work, instrumental pieces were composed, but composers did not indicate specific instrumentation, so they might say “recorder consort” or label each part soprano alto tenor bass, and said voices can be doubled by instruments. Those were the kinds of indications written in the Renaissance. But Monteverdi actually indicates this part is to be played by a clarino.

 Of course we’re using modern instruments on a work that’s composed for early 17th century instruments—we use trombones for what was originally played on sackbuts, we use oboes for shawms, valved brass instruments for valveless brass, and so on. But even if we can’t capture the 1607 sound exactly, we come as close as possible. It’s such great music we’re not going to deprive ourselves of it because we don’t have those Renaissance or early Baroque instruments. Singers get to do music that’s 400 years old. Instrumentalists usually don’t, so this is our way of performing some of this literature that is normally associated with voices.

Capriccio Espagnol by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff

One of the great orchestral masterworks, written for full symphony orchestra. We teach this piece for the same reason that English teachers teach Hamlet: it’s music by a great Russian composer, and it’s one of his best works.

 It’s similar in many ways to his great work, Scheherazade, but that piece is quite a bit longer, it requires more players and it’s quite a bit more difficult—so this is sort of Scheherazade lite. As with many Europeans in the second half the 19th century, Rimsky-Korsakoff was fascinated by what for him would be considered exotica—so anything not from your own country was appealing. This music is his conception of Spanish music, even though he is a Russian he seems to have captured it very well.

 This is especially a tour de force for woodwind players, clarinet in particular. It contains probably the most famous clarinet solos in the orchestral literature. But there’s also a beautiful movement that showcases the French horn section. The strings have their work cut out for them as well. In addition to the clarinet solos, there are solos for our first violin, performed by concertmaster Karen Davie.

 Molly On The Shore by Percy Grainger and the Big Surprise Fiddle Ensemble

 This is a string piece, based on Irish folk music. We pair this with a surprise. Some of our students have organized their own fiddle group. They’re fiddle enthusiasts and several are on the fiddle camp circuit. I encouraged them to form their own group, and I gave them rehearsal time to put together their own medley of fiddle tunes. It's an opportunity for them to perform music that they love.

Fiddle tunes are basically folk tunes for string instruments in many different styles, such as bluegrass, Irish, western-style and so on. Fiddle is another name for violin. This medley is for an ensemble, probably including cello and bass. I don’t actually know, because they’re doing this all on their own. I’m looking forward to being surprised. Every concert ought to have an adventure, something unexpected. This is it.

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