PROGRAM NOTES: Premieres & Reprises
Bells Ring Summer
AUGUSTA READ THOMAS
Born 1964, Glen Cove, New York
Bells Ring Summer is a short fanfare for solo cello. The music starts with bold and relentless ringing tones, like a carillon blowing in the wind. The same pitches are played on adjacent strings, celebrating the vast color fields of the cello itself. Little by little, the bells climb higher in register, while athletic and dramatic lower register events interrupt their flow. Finally, as if only a fragile echo remains, the bells ring off into silence with battuto, col legno, pizzicato, in the highest register of the instrument. Dedicated with admiration and gratitude to David Finckel. The work was made with David’s powerful, musical and exquisite sound in my ear. – Augusta Read Thomas
String Quartet No. 2
Born 1979, Reno, Nevada
The string quartet, as composers love to say, is a heavy medium. Sturdy; imposing. Daunting. Going back to Haydn, it’s been a realm and repository of big, serious ideas. For some, it served as the proving ground for their most radical (or depending on one’s perspective, poetic) thoughts [Beethoven, Bartók, Dutilleux]. For some, it was a playground for refining techniques and a place to assert one’s aesthetic priorities [Brahms, Schoenberg]. For some [Debussy, Ravel], their music for string quartet is simply the perfect, distilled essence of the full breadth and depth of their work, nothing more and nothing less.
For my (well, now: First) string quartet, written exactly ten years ago, in 2005, this was my chance to dump everything I’d ever thought or known about music into one sprawling piece. 32 minutes of lots and lots of stuff. Sadly(?), the young group I wrote it for disbanded the week before the scheduled premiere, and I was left feeling as though I’d poured my heart into the bottom of a bucket. I never heard the piece performed live, and always felt that I really missed out on a big chance to experience it and to learn from what I did. But as the years passed, I realized that growth was in the stretching, and that I had actually applied those lessons to other works with much better acumen and result. I also learned that setting out to say something important can be presumptuous once one realizes that the artist is often not the best judge of what’s really important in their work. I’m now glad I missed hearing that piece; it made it much easier to cut the wild hedges back to the one movement, the eleven minutes that I’ve let remain.
For my second quartet, I decided to take a different tack. My head was full of ideas from the start, but I aimed very directly toward design, toward abstraction, toward the notions of absolute music that, for many, is the essence of the medium of the quartet. I’ve taken this part of the namesake of the piece, the number two, and used it in broad and simple ways to plan the arc and structure: two movements; two sections in each: slow/fast, then fast/slow. – Sean Shepherd
Born 1951, Astoria, New York
The inspiration for the title of my work, Stimulus Package might seem more than obvious now, but I am hoping that in a short time, the phrase will have but an anachronistic if not nostalgic ring to some and the universal meaning to others. While I don’t think that this piece for Real Quiet will in any way allay the world’s current economic woes, it’s fun to be a part of current events creatively, if only in title. I must report however that the commission for this work, for the La Jolla and Santa Fe music festivals, has certainly stimulated my own package and I have all the commissioning principals (not Congress nor even the president) to thank for it.
As one might imagine, I am often asked what kinds of music have influenced my composing style. Among the many idioms I could point to, the music of Crete – which I grew up hearing as a Cretan (Greek) American – stands out among the most vivid and most powerful. It is also, instrumentally, the most economical, as it is formed, in almost all cases, by two instruments – the Lyra (Lyre) and the Lauto (Lute, or Oud) – with vocals, as sung by one or the of the other players.
Traditionally played by two men dressed in Cretan garb – black outfits which include baggy pantaloons and a headband of tassels – the music is driving and incessantly repetitive, surging in short, looping melodic fragments which reoccur in myriad fragments. The lauto creates the fanciful dance rhythms, similar to a rhythm guitar while the lyra (played on the knee with a bow, similar to a viola da gamba but with a much brighter tone and a “whine” which reminds me of a folk clarinet as much as it does a violin) prances with the vocal line, a seemingly strophic setting of text on the surface, but with most intriguing rhythmic inventions, following the text faithfully and poetically in a kind of chant-song. There is no other music I have heard quite like it.
While this music has always informed an aspect of my music, in Stimulus Package, it comes to the forefront, especially in Part One. When I was asked to write for Real Quiet, the idea of their unique trio combination of cello, piano and percussion had me thinking immediately of “them” as an abstraction of the Cretan essential duo. I “heard” the cello as a rather oversized lyra and the piano as the lauto. The percussion jockeys back and forth between the two, adding at once, the bright lyra-like overtones to the cello and then, coloring the piano attacks with a glint or ping here and there. And of course, the piano gets to strum a bit and the musicians get to chant.
In “What Papou Heard,” I might be trying to imagine what my very Cretan, old world grandfather and namesake “really heard” when he listened to me improvising my earlier, more abstract and modernist music on the piano; that some would call angular, atonal and a-rhythmical. Glancing backward, I might catch him strangely involved in a Zorba-like Greek dance while holding high a shot of Metaxa. It begins with an “Ison” (a sustained-pedal “chant tone”) over which the cello floats a “melismatic” melody in the tradition of a moaning “tahimi.” With the super-wide vibrato I’ve called for (as well as a tuning down an interval to loosen the tension of the A string) the result might be more like the sound of the “yiali-tambour” than the lyra, another bowed instrument sounding in the violin family.
In “Cheer Me Up.” and for this section I indulged myself, writing something that would do me just that – although I think my papou would like it just as well.
The temperament shifts in the second part, “Odyssey.” A less Cretan, but essentially “eastern” ambience remains. Rhythms broaden, time coasts in a harmonic liquid but swell up in undulating waves of arpeggios and tremolos. Verging on eastern “new age,” perhaps, but hopefully steering clear of it (this is not Yianni) the movement features a middle section of a more active and quixotic nature before it returns to its aquatic voyage, ending with a hint of Cretan music.
Stimulus Package was co-commissioned by Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and La Jolla Music Society SummerFest for Real Quiet and I am ever grateful for the opportunity to write the work. – George Tsontakis
Clarinet Quintet “The Last Jew in Hamadan”
Born 1956, New York City, New York
My father was born in the city of Hamadan, a city northwest of Teheran in Iran which for years had a rather large Jewish population, in what was then and is now considered an essentially Islamic country. My maternal grandfather was also born in the same city – the city in which Esther, the Jewish queen in ancient Persia, is buried. While I had never visited Hamadan myself, I lived in Teheran as a child, for nearly a year when I was 7½ years old.
The memories are still very vivid, and while I was there with my family for only 11 months, I saw a city that, while seeming far more primitive than the United States, was a place of great vitality and had among its people a deep enthusiasm for art, music, literature, and film. It had also become a country of great excess among the rich, which probably contributed in a large part to the revolution that followed.
In the immediate years following the revolution of 1979, I remembered stories about one of my uncles being executed by the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini, another uncle who escaped from the Evin prison, and a third family member who escaped to Turkey disguised as a mullah. A few years ago I was reading in the New York Times that there were at the time 13 Jews left in the city of Hamadan; I realized that one day there would be no more Jewish people living in the biblical city of Esther.
The first movement of my Clarinet Quintet was composed with the memory that I had as a child of Iran as it was then. The second movement is a reflection of my sense of what it has become now.
The work, which was written in the first three months of 2015, is dedicated to David Shifrin. – Richard Danielpour