Danzón No. 2

Danzón No. 2

Born into a musical family, Márquez has become one of Mexico’s best-known composers.

Danzon No. 2 was commissioned in 1994; like his other “Danzon” compositions, it is based on Cuban and Mexican dance motifs. It caught the musical world’s attention in 2007 when it was performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth orchestra; it is now one of the most popular and frequently performed works by Mexican composers.

It starts off with a wistful clarinet melody against a soft percussion background; is joined by oboe and strings; and then transforms into a percussive frenzy with full orchestra, interrupted with a sweet passage in the piccolo. A calmer interlude features solo violin and winds, morphing into a romantic statement of the theme by the strings. A sharp attack by the strings brings back the piece’s percussive frenzy, which hurtles to a rousing climax.

 

Le Roi S’Amuse

Le Roi S’Amuse

Victor Hugo wrote the play “Le Roi S’Amuse” (The King Amuses Himself) in 1832. Loosely based on historical figures, the plot involves a court jester to the king who schemes to help the king obtain a new mistress. The jester’s daughter is seduced by the king; upon discovering a plot to murder the king, she sacrifices her life for him. The play was banned in 1832 after just one performance (government censors believed that the play insulted the current king of France). Some 20 years later, the plot of “Le Roi S’Amuse” became the basis for Verdi’s Opera Rigoletto.

When the play was finally revived in 1882, the noted composer Léo Delibes wrote a ballet sequence of six charming dances and antique airs to be included as incidental music. They consist of a grand opening Gaillarde; a stately Pavane; a melodic Scène du Bouquet; Lesquercarde, a spritely tune; a sweet Madrigal; a wistful Passepied; and a final reprise of the Gaillarde.

Haydn Variations

Haydn Variations

The third of the “Three B’s” (along with Bach and Beethoven), Brahms adhered to the use of classical forms in his works but dramatically altered the musical landscape in terms of harmony and expressiveness. Included among Brahms’s masterpieces are four symphonies, two orchestral serenades and two overtures, much great chamber music and many pieces for piano, assorted concertos, the Hungarian Dances, the German Requiem and other choral works.

Given the preeminence that Brahms holds today as an orchestral composer, it is somewhat surprising to find that he did not have a single work in the orchestral repertory until he was nearly 40, and it was the brilliantly crafted “Haydn Variations” that helped secure his reputation as a symphonist. Brahms produced two separate versions of the work: the present one for orchestra and a second one for two pianos. Although the pieces are effectively identical, Brahms considered them two independent works rather than viewing one or the other as a transcription. Brahms himself premiered the piano composition in August 1873 with Clara Schumann. The orchestral composition had its premiere in November of the same year.

Notes by GHR

Ride of the Valkyries

Ride of the Valkyries

Instantly recognizable, this work is taken from Wagner’s opera “The Valkyries,” his second opera in the Ring cycle. The “Ride” is a musical tone poem in which the Valkyries – warrior daughters of Wotan, king of the gods – ride through the air bringing back the souls of dead heroes to Valhalla, the home of the gods. The scenery is foreboding – towering, craggy mountains, a stormy thundering sky. All of this is brought to life in Wagner’s electrifying and dramatic orchestration.

Entrance of the Queen of Sheba

Entrance of the Queen of Sheba

This short well-known work is actually an instrumental interlude contained in the oratorio Solomon, which Handel composed in 1749. The sinfonia contains vigorous running passages in the violins with contrasting oboe solos.

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

This work is considered by many to be among Vaughan William’s finest compositions.

Its theme is taken from a tune composed by Thomas Tallis, a 16th-century English renaissance composer. Vaughan Williams came across the tune when editing the English hymnal in 1906. When Vaughan Williams edited the hymnal, he assigned a later text to it (John Addison’s “When rising from the bed of death”), and made it the basis for the Fantasia.

The orchestration is unusual. There are two string orchestras – a first “large” orchestra, and a second small “shadow” orchestra, physically separate from each other; a string quartet; and violin and viola soloists.

The Tallis theme is initially foreshadowed by plucked lower strings, before its full exposition, first in a calm mode by middle voices, then in an impassioned mode by the first violins. An introspective viola solo leads to a rich development, in which the large orchestra’s lush sound is echoed by the “shadow” orchestra, with interplay between the string quartet and both orchestras. After a climax (based largely on the second part of the Tallis tune), the work ends with a wistful repetition of the main theme, a soaring solo violin line, one last climax, and a slow fade away.

Terminus

Terminus

This work explores issues of scale. I have always been fascinated by the very large, the very small, and most of all by the sensory experiences induced by juxtaposing myself in such situations. Standing in front of a mountain feels very different from standing in front of a bookcase. The experiences are different in kind; our kinesthetic, proprioceptive, and haptic senses are radically brought into play.

Scale has to do with the interrelation of parts, and is different from size. A work can be very large and at the same time of an intimate scale. Joyce’s “Ulysses” would be a classic example: it is a large book, but its component parts work together on a level commensurate with the whole. Conversely, Beckett’s “Imagination Dead Imagine” (a full novel of four pages) or Giacometti’s small-sized sculptures exhibit a tremendous scale. They impart a sense of vastness that borders on the vertiginous.

In music, the problem of scale is directly connected with the problems of sound, movement and, above all, time. Henri Michaux wrote, “Together, all these movements, actual or potential, occupy psychic space. Into this space you can enter.”

The title “Terminus” is that of a short story by the great Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006). Lem’s writings have given me much food for thought over the years, and “Terminus” in particular provided elements that are buried deep within the structure of this music.

My work is in no way an attempt to translate Lem’s text into music. (I don’t believe such a thing is possible, in any case.) However, certain aspects of the story provided generative elements that catalyzed the process of composition. If there are similarities, they are not intended to be explicit. The one exception is the end: the final two minutes of music contain references that will be apparent to any reader of Lem’s haunting tale.

4th Box of Maps

4th Box of Maps

The idea for 4th Box of Maps first occurred to me while in Venice. The Basilica of San Marco is the obvious Venetian destination for a musician, and indeed it was inspiring to stand where Willaert and Gabrieli made their polychoral music over four centuries ago. I’m sure that reawakened my interest in site-specific antiphonal music.

More important to me, however, were certain things I noticed while wandering in that great labyrinth of a city. First, all Venice city maps are necessarily incomplete: The maze of streets and canals is too dense. To preserve legibility, a map must leave things out – sometimes up to a third of the streets in the city. Each map omits different streets, however, so you often find yourself in a place that doesn’t seem to exist, until you check another map. The implication is that there is a Platonic ideal of Venice, of which you can only catch glimpses. In addition, the topological changes around each corner (wide streets to narrow alleys, open piazza to confined courtyard, stone to water) produce changes in the ambient sound of the city. This is yet another, more subtle map, invisible but audible. As a result of all this, I had a curious sense of being simultaneously in several cities, all very similar but no two identical. Also, I became intensely aware that I was creating my own map – the map of my own journey, my own experience as I turned left instead of right, looked here but not there, or retraced my steps at a different time of day.

Venice changed my sense of place. I realized that every space and every time implies many maps, some not at all obvious. When I began to explore the Sanctuary of the Broadway Presbyterian Church, I found the variety of visual and acoustic perspectives highly suggestive. Though a concert is a communal event, each concertgoer creates his or her own map of their journey, listening from different vantage points, concentrating on different elements, experiencing different parts of the physical space, directing their attention to different people in the audience or onstage, and letting their mind wander at different times to different places.

Finally, I took inspiration from a short poem by Erica Jablon. In just a few lines, she touches so many of these ideas:

Pillars of leaves circle the rustling garden
White, they remember the moon’s theater
Remember the white stones
And the dark pool

The imagery evokes a particular place and time. But below the surface, the poem’s rhythm, internal correspondences, repetitions and almost-repetitions open up a complex and ambiguous world: maps within maps.

Danse Macabre

According to an old French superstition, Death appears at a graveyard at midnight on Halloween, “tunes” his violin (a very peculiar type of tuning), and calls forth the skeletons from their graves to dance – to their own type of waltz!

Saint-Saëns, who first performed this work in 1874, uses all sorts of unusual instrumental effects, including the xylophone and having the strings hit the wood of their bows on the strings (col legno) to conjure up the skeleton images. A cock-crow by the oboe heralds the dawn, when all of the revels cease and the skeletons return to their graves for another year.