Color and Light program notes

Tuesday, August 11, 2020 , 6:30 PM

Debussy: Arabesque No. 1, L. 66

Schumann: Romance for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94, No. 2

Gershwin: Three Preludes

Mazzoli: Vespers for Violin

Tchaikovsky: Allegro molto vivace from Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74

Some pieces from this concert will be introduced during the performance rather than with program notes.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Arabesque No. 1, L. 66 (ca. 1890), arr. for harp

The term “arabesque” originated in France to describe the intricate, geometric ornamental patterns often found in Islamic art and architecture. This type of almost rhythmic filigree has a natural counterpart in music. But the term had not been widely applied to musical works when Debussy wrote his two early piano pieces with this designation. (Robert Schumann’s Op. 18 Arabeske for piano is a notable exception). However, Debussy seems to have had quite specific ideas about how the term applied to music generally, and associated it with earlier composers who never used the word themselves. Debussy wrote:

The primitives—Palestrina, Vittoria, Orlando di Lasso—made use of that divine “arabesque.” They discovered the principle in Gregorian chant and supported its delicate intertwinings with firm counterpoint. When Bach took over the arabesque he made it more supple and fluid and, despite the severe discipline that great master imposed on Beauty, it was able to move with that free, ever fresh fantasy which still amazes us today.

Indeed, Debussy even applied the term to intricate Javanese gamelan music that so enraptured him at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Scholar Caroline Potter notes that Debussy “associated arabesque with continuously evolving melodic lines and with music that grows organically rather than being divided into periodic phrases.” The rippling, free form of the melodic flow of Arabesque No. 1 certainly fits this description, as well as the ornamental “intertwinings” that harken back to the term’s Islamic roots.

Arabesque No. 1 is among Debussy’s best known and loved piano works. In ABA form, the undulating accompaniment and rising cascades of melody are breezily evocative. The piece has been arranged and adapted numerous times (Alicia Keys’ sampling of the piece in her 2009 “Like the Sea” is a recent example). The piece works particularly well on harp. Ms. Coronelli plays the 1904 adaption by Henriette Renié, who was a renowned French harpist and composer in her own right.


Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980)

Vespers for Violin (2014)

American composer and pianist Missy Mazzoli is among the most innovative and successful composers of her young generation. Mazzoli represents the cohort fittingly with her openness to finding musical inspiration in music across the spectrum of genres and without regard to national boundaries. She began her music studies at Boston University, studying with Charles Fussell and John Harbison among others, and went on to Yale, where she further developed her craft with Aaron Jay Kernis and David Lang. Her works, often integrating acoustic and electronic instruments to create startling soundscapes, have been performed by major artists and organizations around the globe, including the Kronos Quartet, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and the BBC Symphony. Her 2016 opera, Breaking the Waves, commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and based on the 1996 film, was widely hailed as among the greatest operas of the 21st century, with the Wall Street Journal calling it “savage, heartbreaking, and thoroughly original.” Mazzoli is currently serving as Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

This season, the Festival had originally programmed Mazzoli’s early orchestral piece, These Worlds In Us, a meditation on spiritual human connection transcending individual distinct memories. Vespers, written for amplified violin and electronics, is a mesmerizing modern take on the traditional evening prayer service in Christian liturgy. The electronic sounds are sampled from a larger piece of Mazzoli’s, Vespers for a New Dark Age, audio that she “drenched…in delay and distortion.” Ms. Sedukh’s violin part is processed through a kind of echo delay, creating an expansive atmospheric effect. (To fully experience this, you might consider listening through headphones.) Mazzoli carefully exploits this effect by using long, sustained tones (some with glissandi) alternating with quick, percussive figures in the violin that seem to land with emphasis and then fade into the ether. Joshua Kosman described Ms. Sedukh’s February 2020 San Francisco performance of the piece as “music that swoops and surges in dark cantorial phrases, providing a cogent counter-argument to existential angst rather than a refuge from it.” Vespers earned Mazzoli a Grammy nomination in 2019.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Allegro molto vivace from Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (1892-93)

Premiered just nine days before Tchaikovsky’s death, the Symphony No. 6 has become inextricably linked to the composer’s untimely passing. The dark and at times funereal mood of the outer movements supports this connection. However, the notion that Tchaikovsky wrote the symphony as a kind of autobiographical premonition of his own death is unfounded. Piecing together the final year of Tchaikovsky’s life, we find him to be at the pinnacle of his artistic power, a composer whose international reputation had made him sought after worldwide. In February 1893, Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew, Vladimir Davidov (the eventual dedicatee of the Pathétique), about a new symphony:

I must tell you how happy I am about my work. …It will be novel in form; the finale for example not a loud Allegro but an Adagio of considerable dimensions. You cannot imagine the joy I feel in the conviction that my time is not yet over and that I may still accomplish a great deal.

In a later letter to Davidov, Tchaikovsky revealed that his regard for his new work only continued to grow:

To me, it will seem quite natural, and not in the least astonishing, if this Symphony meets with abuse, or scant appreciation at first. I certainly regard it as quite the best—and especially the ‘most since’—of all my works. I love it as I never loved any one of my musical offspring before.

As he predicted, there was a lackluster response to the work upon its premiere on October 28 in St. Petersburg.  Tchaikovsky seemed unfazed, though, attending a play on November 1 and celebrating afterwards with a friend in the cast, assuring him that they both had long lives ahead of them. Five days later, Tchaikovsky would be dead, likely due to a cholera epidemic ravaging St. Petersburg at the time (and not by suicide, an unfounded hypothesis that most musicologists now discredit).

The symphony’s moniker came from the composer himself, suggested to him by his brother, Modeste. The word “pathetic” here is taken to mean “emotional,” “passionate,” or “with great feeling,” without the overtones of inadequacy which its current English usage suggests.

As dark as the outer movements are, there is carefree cheeriness and even jubilation in the symphony, amply found in the third movement. Opening with a flittering motum perpetuum, the movement coalesces into a lighthearted march led by the winds. Later, the winds provide ornamental episodes for repeated chordal declarations in the strings. The recapitulation of the themes builds with triumphant brass to a dramatic finish. Extracting the third movement, as done in this concert, has some musical justification: the exuberance of the movement’s finish has fooled many an audience member into applauding, thinking that the end has been reached.

—Program notes by Jon Kochavi