Masterworks 2: Bass & Beethoven

 

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Program Notes

Dark with Excessive Bright
Missy Mazzoli
Born 27 October 1980 in Lansdale, Pennsylvania

Approximate duration 13 minutes
This is the orchestra’s first performance of Dark with Excessive Bright.

Few composers can found a new music ensemble devoted to their own compositions.  Pianist and keyboardist Missy Mazzoli did precisely that when she founded Victoire in 2008.  Victoire’s debut CD, Cathedral City, was named one of 2010's best classical albums by Time Out New York.  The ensemble has since performed all over the world, including at festivals in Sweden and Germany, Chicago’s Millennium Park, Carnegie Hall, New York’s Bang on a Can New Music Marathon, and the trendy Le Poisson Rouge.  Just last month she was named Composer of the Year by Musical America.

Mazzoli rocketed onto New York’s music scene in the early years of the 21st century and has secured a commanding place among the younger generation of American composers.  In addition to Victoire, other prestigious new music ensembles and advocates are performing her music, including eighth blackbird, Roomful of Teeth, the Kronos Quartet, the Jasper Quartet and violinist Jennifer Koh.

Mazzoli attended the Yale School of Music, the Royal Conservatory of the Hague and Boston University, and has studied with an impressive list of veteran composers, including Louis Andriessen, John Harbison, Aaron Jay Kernis and David Lang.  Mazzoli’s third opera, Proving Up, premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in January 2018.

Dark with Excessive Bright was commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Aurora Orchestra.  Mazzoli’s composer’s note explains the genesis of the work and her connection to its first soloist.

While composing Dark with Excessive Bright for contrabass soloist Maxime Bibeau and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, I continuously listened to music from the Baroque and Renaissance eras.  I was inspired in no small part by Maxime’s double bass, a massive instrument built in 1580 that was stored in an Italian monastery for hundreds of years and even patched with pages from the Good Friday liturgy.  I imagined this instrument as a historian, an object that collected the music of the passing centuries in the twists of its neck and the fibers of its wood, finally emerging into the light at age 400 and singing it all into the world.  While loosely based in Baroque idioms, this piece slips between string techniques from several centuries, all while twisting a pattern of repeated chords beyond recognition.  “Dark with excessive bright,” a phrase from Milton’s Paradise Lost, is a surreal and evocative description of God, written by a blind man.  I love the impossibility of this phrase, and felt it was a strangely accurate way to describe the dark but heartrending sound of the double bass itself. Dark with Excessive Bright was commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Aurora Orchestra in London.  In 2019, I arranged the work for solo violin and string orchestra.

— Missy Mazzoli

Dark with Excessive Bright is scored for solo double bass and strings.

IN THE SOLOIST’S WORDS

Program annotator Laurie Shulman asked Principal Bass Peter Spaar about the Missy Mazzoli work that opens our November concerts.

Principal Bass Peter Spaar has been a member of the Charlottesville Symphony since 1993; however, it has been almost 20 years since the orchestra has featured him as a soloist.  This November’s classical subscription concerts remedy that gap with a performance of Missy Mazzoli’s Dark with Excessive Bright for solo double bass and string orchestra.

“The double bass doesn’t share the extensive repertoire enjoyed by the other members of the string family,” Spaar acknowledges.  “There are some 18th- and 19th-century concerti by Bottesini, Vanhal, and Dittersdorf, and 20th-century pieces by Serge Koussevitzky, Gordon Jacob, and Eduard Tubin, but none of those composers is a household name.”

Spaar was delighted when Music Director Benjamin Rous invited him to play a concerto and suggested Dark with Excessive Bright.  “I listened and really loved what I heard.  It doesn’t fit the traditional description of a concerto,” he observes.  “She’s cast it in one extended movement, which unfolds as a continuous stream of consciousness, rather than something in sonata form.”

Asked what attracted him to Mazzoli’s music, he explains, “It was the range of sounds she evokes.  She has a keen understanding of what the double bass does best, what makes it sound good.  For example, the opening on a low D and A double stopped is like a low-end explosion, almost an earthquake that then dissipates.  She has the instrument work its way upward to the high register, then subside.  It’s as if it soars, then comes back to earth, where the bass gets swallowed up by the accompanying orchestra.  It’s an innovative approach to the interaction between soloist and orchestra.

“Classic and Romantic era bass concertos have a bit of ‘dancing bear’ quality,” he continues, “as if trying to prove that the bass can do what the violin or cello can do.  Mazzoli’s piece is not the least bit apologetic.  Dark with Excessive Bright celebrates the double bass!”

He observes that Mazzoli uses scordatura, an intentionally altered tuning of a string instrument in order to facilitate unusual chords or tone color.  “The bass is normally tuned in fourths,” he explains.  “Mazzoli calls for tuning in two fifths, a fourth apart from each other.  It’s quite similar to standard old-time fiddle tuning, and it makes for a challenge with different fingerings.

“There’s a particularly interesting pizzicato passage in the middle of the piece that’s evocative of a jazz walking bass line.  Elsewhere, her bowed melodies are very lyrical.  They flow across bar lines as if they didn’t exist!”

Spaar hopes that Dark with Excessive Bright will give the Charlottesville audience a greater appreciation of what the bass can do.  “Most people have never heard the double bass in a solo context.  This piece shows off the instrument’s wide range and rich tonal palette.”

 

Lullaby for string orchestra
George Gershwin
Born 26 September, 1898 in Brooklyn, New York
Died 11 July, 1937 in Beverly Hills, California

Approximate duration 8 minutes
This is the orchestra’s first performance of Lullaby

Evaluating early Gershwin: differences of opinion

In 1956, the American writer David Ewen published the following assessment of Gershwin's Lullaby in A Journey to Greatness:  The Life and Music of George Gershwin:

The quartet provides evidence that Gershwin was already making notable progress in part writing, in tasteful harmonization, and in grateful writing for the four strings.

In the early 1990s, when Joan Peyser published The Memory of All That:  The Life of George Gershwin, her view was markedly different.

As early as 1919 Gershwin composed Lullaby, a string quartet.  It showed no evidence of contrapuntal technique or sophisticated writing for strings.  Lullaby was all substance and idea, a hauntingly beautiful, melancholy little piece.

Edward Jablonski, in his 1987 biography (Gershwin) glosses over the piece, alluding to it briefly as "a harmony study for string quartet."  Whom are we to believe?  How could they all write about the same work and produce such divergent descriptions?

Gershwin and the string quartet: a study in harmony

Lullaby, which we hear this evening in a transcription for string orchestra, was one of Gershwin's two essays in chamber music, and his only piece for string quartet.  The few compositions he left in a more traditional vein -- that is, outside the realm of the Broadway musical and popular songs -- are heavily weighted toward orchestra (Cuban Overture, An American in Paris) or orchestra with piano solo (Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F), plus a handful for piano solo.  Lullaby predates virtually all of them.

In 1919, the year he turned 21, Gershwin was already making a name for himself on Broadway.  His first full score, La La Lucille, opened that year and ran for more than 100 performances.  He had not yet ventured into the world of composing "long haired" music, despite a childhood interest in the musical classics.  When he wrote Lullaby, he was studying harmony with the Hungarian composer Edward Kilenyi in New York, which lends some credibility to Jablonski's assessment of the piece as a harmony study.  Certainly he had not yet undertaken formal study of counterpoint.

Rather than poking holes in this unassuming piece because of any purported lack of technical polish, we will do better to accept it at face value.  Lullaby is a simple ternary form. Its lilting, tango-like rhythm provides a gentle underpinning to the sultry, bluesy melodies of which it is principally constructed.  Utterly devoid of pretense, this lullaby is intended for adults:  less likely to put us to sleep than it is to help us unwind at the end of a stressful day.

Lullaby is scored for strings.

 

Quartet in C minor, Op. 18 No. 4, arranged for string orchestra
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born 16 December, 1770 in Bonn, Germany
Died 26 March, 1827 in Vienna, Austria

Approximate duration 26 minutes
This is the orchestra’s first performance of the C minor String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 4.

Beethoven moved from his native Bonn to Vienna in 1792, the year following Mozart's death.  Joseph Haydn was the most famous living composer, and Beethoven went dutifully to Haydn for musical instruction.  While honing his compositional skills, Beethoven supported himself by his enormous talent as a performing pianist, and his early works show a preponderance of solo piano compositions and chamber works including piano.  Not until 1798 did he attempt a string quartet, the chamber genre which Haydn had brought to such splendid heights, and in which Mozart had written some of his finest works.

The six quartets of Opus 18 were commissioned by the Bohemian Prince Joseph Lobkowitz (1772-1816), one of the young composer's early champions in the 1790s.  Though not published until 1801, the quartets were composed primarily during the years 1799 and 1800; some of the surviving sketches indicate that the germs of Beethoven's musical material may extend as far back as his Bonn days in the very early 1790s.

The fourth quartet of Opus 18 is the only one of the six in a minor key.  The significance of its tonality is apparent to listeners who know Beethoven's powerful and stormy compositions in the same key, most notably the Fifth Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto and the Pathétique Sonata.  Less well known but perhaps more noteworthy in the context of this quartet are the Piano Trio Opus 1 No. 3, and the splendid Piano Sonata, Opus 10 No. 1, both also in C minor.  In all these works, Beethoven displays the powerful drama which is his musical hallmark.  He reserved C minor for explosive, emotionally charged music throughout his career.  This quartet is consistent with that pattern.

The work distinguishes itself by its curious absence of a slow movement.  Instead, Beethoven has written both a scherzo and a minuet.  Apparently, he recognized that some dramatic relief was necessary to alleviate the high tension in the weighty outer movements.  Beethoven modifies the title of the second movement as Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto.  It is as if he were denying any scherzo-like character, and yet this is certainly the lightest music within this quartet.  Perhaps that is Beethoven's joke on us.

Music Director Benjamin Rous conducts the quartet in a version for full string orchestra.

by Laurie Shulman © 2021

 

Benjamin Rous, Music Director

Admired for his dynamism on the podium, Benjamin Rous was named Music Director of the Charlottesville Symphony in the spring of 2017, and simultaneously joined the University of Virginia faculty as Associate Professor of Music.  In 2018, he concluded an eight-year tenure as Resident Conductor of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra where he conducted a broad range of Classics, Pops and ballet performances, and created the new multimedia VSO@Roper series.
Click here to read more about Ben.

 

Peter Spaar, Principal Bass

Peter Spaar has served as principal bass of the Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia since 1993.  He serves on the music performance faculty at the University of Virginia where he teaches classical and jazz bass and is a member of the Free Bridge Quintet.  He has performed with the Fort Worth and Roanoke Symphonies and is currently a member of the Richmond Symphony.  He has extensive freelance experience as both a jazz and classical bassist, including performances with Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Mose Allison and Emily Remler.

Mr. Spaar holds a Bachelor of Music degree from James Madison University and a Master of Music degree from University of North Texas.  He has studied with Thomas Lederer, principal bassist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

 

NEW PRINCIPAL FACES

Among the 34 new members of the orchestra this season are three substitute and Interim Principal musicians. While Daniel Sender spends the fall semester in Hungary on a Fulbright Fellowship, Jeannette Jang occupies the Mary Dean Scott Concertmaster Chair. Principal Trumpet Arthur Zanin is on an educational leave from the University until January, and will be temporarily replaced by John Nye in the Lucille and Kennerly H. Digges Chair. Cody Halquist is the Interim Principal Horn in the Johanna and Derwood Chase & Chase Investment Counsel Corporation Chair for the entire 2021-22 season. Each of these three musicians brings a wealth of performing and teaching experience to their new roles. We welcome Jeannette Jang to the stage on October 2nd and 3rd, and look forward to introducing Cody Halquist and John Nye to our audiences as soon as woodwind and brass players are permitted to return.

 

Annual Fund Contributors

Please click here to view the list of donors who have made gifts since November 5, 2020 in support of the orchestra’s musicians, performances, and education and outreach programs.  We thank them for their generosity and confidence in our mission!

Charlottesville Symphony Society

2021-22 Board of Directors

William H. vonReichbauer, President
Mary Buckle Searle, Vice President
Robert M. Conroy, Treasurer
Linda Smith, Secretary
Signe G. Bowling
J. Thomas Brown
Scott Colley
Charles M. Grisham
Janet Kaltenbach, ex-officio
Karl Hagstrom Miller, ex-officio
Kay C. Parker
Rosalyn Preston
Benjamin Rous, ex-officio
Missy Shenkir
Cary Turner
Richard Will

Emeritus Directors

Robin D. Baliles
Johanna Chase
Patricia F. Davis
Jason I. Eckford (in memoriam 2016)
Robert L. Elliott
Thomas C. MacAvoy (in memoriam 2015)

Orchestra Administration

Janet Kaltenbach, Executive Director
Ryan MacPherson, Director of Development
Elizabeth Roberts, Director of Youth Education
Keith Perry, Administrative Manager
Ilon Weeldreyer, Production Manager
Michael Ozment, Music Librarian
Edwina Herring, MLKPAC House Manager
Carly Cuje, Stagehand
Ali Shama, Stagehand

 

McIntire Department of Music

Karl Hagstrom Miller, Chair

Department Administration

Marcy Day, Director of Promotions
Joel Jacobus, Director of Music Production
Tina Knight, Assistant to the Chair and Academic Program Coordinator
Kim Turner, Finance and Administration Manager
Leslie Walker, Administrative Assistant