By Scott MacClelland
Classical music, from the late 18th century to well into the 20th century, was overwhelmingly music about music. Program music that used orchestras to tell stories about non-musical subjects was the exception. (Exceptions that involved orchestras include opera, tone poems with literary or pictorial subjects, virtually everything by Berlioz, and the autobiographical emotional landscape of Mahler.)
Program music by definition subordinates the music to the ‘program,’ the story. Today, the Cabrillo Festival is about half one and half the other. Sunday afternoon, at Mission San Juan, Stacy Garrop’s Thunderwalker (1999) drew on her imaginings about a “huge god-like figure,” Clarice Assad’s Dreamscapes (2009) depicted her drifting in and out of consciousness after retiring to bed in search of peaceful sleep but with tormenting nightmares, and Michael Daugherty’s Fallingwater (2013) displayed four movements inspired by major architectural achievements by Frank Lloyd Wright. To be sure, all demonstrate major skills in their musical craftsmanship, but these three works began life with an extra-musical ‘program.’
By contrast, Three Songs Without Words (2009) by Detlev Glanert, at 27 minutes the longest on the program, was music about music. For that reason it was relieved of the burden of audience expectations that come with clever titles and programmatic stories. (Glanert’s title was homage to some 48 pieces for solo piano by Mendelssohn and was a commission from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra that Mendelssohn had conducted in the 19th century.)
The important message here is that program music inevitably distracts its audiences from hearing the music as it is while looking for clues to its extra-musical message. It’s a slippery slope. (Of course, if the audience doesn’t bother to read program notes in advance the issue is moot.)
Garrop (left, photo by Bill Billingham) titled the movements “Invoking the Gods,” “Ritual” and “Summoned,” does avail conventional music devices, including fugue, passacaglia and scherzo-trio. In other words, she could have easily and beneficially dispensed with her storyline: “I see a thunderwalker as a huge god-like figure who lives in the sky and whose footsteps fall loudly among the clouds.” (Makes me think of Carl Ruggles’ great Sun-Treader.) The 13-minute piece began with powerful striding on the full orchestra and tritone “interval patterns” that suddenly quieted down in its closing moments that featured a solo trumpet. (It was in the quiet bits that the sound of a piano emerged from the orchestra.) The second movement, overall darker and softer, pit keening high strings and winds against deep grumbling in the low strings, tracing a nine-note theme. The last movement opened with stentorian trombones to an eight-note octotonic (alternating minor and major intervals) modification of the preceding nine notes, and gave rise to a distinctive melody, while the winds chirped their asides.
The following two pieces for strings, by Assad (right) and Daugherty, were commissioned by and for violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (below) and her New Century Chamber Orchestra. In the Assad, Salerno-Sonnenberg represented conscious self-awareness while the orchestra stood for the unconscious mind. A new figure, solo cello, enters the dream in the slow middle section and ‘dances’ with the solo violin. The last part of the 12-minute work is visited by a nightmarish “sequence of horrific events.” In her notes, Assad explains that the self (the solo violin) represents peace, harmony and beauty while the unconscious “is always forcing negative scenarios.” The composer showed a deft hand with all the contrasting and conflicting impulses and Salerno-Sonnenberg was as riveting for her body language and facial expressions as for the fierce brilliance of her playing.
Daugherty explains that the inspiration for this, his second violin concerto, came during a visit to Wright’s Taliesen in Wisconsin. The work, therefore, falls in line behind his long string of American-themed pieces and, like most of them, displays a fine craftsmanship. (He’s currently working on a “Hemmingway” cello concerto.) He gives intriguing titles to the movements: “Night Rain,” a nocturne, shimmers with pizzicato strings and draws to a close with a brief not-quite solo cadenza; “On the Level,” a scherzo, uses rising and falling lines to celebrate the famous Wright house over a waterfall in Pennsylvania, with a bit of fugal imitation between solo violin and solo cello; “Prairie Psalm” is Daugherty’s “musical meditation” on Wright’s Unity Temple in Chicago and rises to a climax of passionate intensity, now with an expanded cello solo; “Ahead of the Curve” cheers on the spiral-ramped Guggenheim Museum in New York in which the solo violin stays one step ahead of the orchestra which is always trying to catch up, and includes a surprising double bass solo just before the end. This was the funnest piece of the concert and, once again, the ever-intense Salerno-Sonnenberg was spectacular.
As with each of the other pieces, composer Detlev Glanert was present to hear, in this case, the U.S. premiere of this major work. It wraps old-world conventions in vivacious contemporary attire. For example, he deployed the different choirs of the full orchestra in contrast with one another as often as he combined them for powerful effects. Moreover, the musical architecture was coherent and consequently easy to grasp into memory. (As Don Adkins, who covered the August 9 concert for us–SCROLL DOWN –noted, that program was not for those looking for melody.) This piece was loaded with melodies that don’t end (à la Wagner’s ‘endlos melodie’) but rather just stop at the terminus of the three movements.
An introductory solo viola opened the first movement that slowly swelled into the main melody, with commentary by the winds, a dialog of clarinet and violas, a cor anglais solo, then the full string body taking the melody to passionate heights before subsiding and relinquishing the lead back to the solo viola. The second movement, “unashamedly a dance song,” rotates in a carnival revelry that pauses briefly to allow melody once again to hold sway; its driving energy was flavored with some Latin American percussion. The movement ends in deflation which carries forward into the long adagio finale. By and by, the orchestra inflates then quiets down to allow the solo viola to begin a lifting motif that begins to expand again, which then pulls back to make space for the viola section to pick up the call. The orchestra then thins down until two violins are heard to whisper at the stratospheric top of their voices.