A Night of Folk Songs & Dances

Victoria Moreira, violin
Joel Becktell, cello
Renee Keller, marimba & percussion

Program notes

The Jon Mac Anderson Program Notes underwritten by Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur, LLP

Music, like language or dance, has the potential to evoke the character of the country in which it was composed. And such music can take many forms. Sometimes a composer will imbue a composition with the rhythmic or natural accents of his or her language, particularly if such patterns are unique to that culture. In other cases, the unmistakable rhythmic patterns or melodic or gestures of a national dance, such as flamenco, provide folk flavor or local color. We are all familiar with composers who have re-created the feel of another’s land or culture—Bizet, a Frenchman, creating the Spanish feel in his opera Carmen, is but one of many such examples. But tonight, our performers have chosen a group of “home grown” composers, whose unique and unmistakable styles are so deeply rooted in their respective homelands as to have influenced nearly everything they wrote. (Note: our own Renee Keller has adapted the Piazzolla, Granados and Bartók for marimba and vibes, works previously arranged for other instrumentation). 

ProMusica audiences are no strangers to the sounds of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), the late Argentenian composer who reinvented the tango for our time, imbuing it with features from jazz and classical music. Known as neuvo tango, Piazzolla composed largely for himself—he was a virtuoso of the bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument—and various ensembles ranging in size from quintet to orchestra. 

Piazzolla’s musical knowledge was vast, having studied tango with his countrymen and the scores of Bach, Stravinsky and Ravel with Ginastera, his country’s foremost classically-trained composer. All of it comes through in his scores, which have been arranged for a seemingly infinite number of instrumental combinations. Over the course of the evening, you will hear four Piazzolla selections—Fugata, Mumuki, Milonga del Angel and Lo que vendrá—a microcosm of the tremendous portfolio of work the composer left behind. Each piece is a gem, strongly reflecting the romantic passion and intellectual power of this giant.

We will also hear music tonight of a contemporary Argentine, Ezequiel Diz’s Poema Bachiano, for violin and marimba. Like Piazzolla, Diz is also drawn to the world of tango and Bach, though it is the latter whose music, specifically the D minor Piano Concerto—performed by ProMusica this past December with pianist Simone Dinnerstein—that informs this seven-minute rhapsody.

The remainder of tonight’s program is drawn from European-born composers, including two of Hungary’s greatest composers, Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967) and Bela Bartók (1881-1945). Both men shared a love of the folk music of their native land and in the early years of the 20th century traveled to remote villages with phonograph cylinders, recording the songs and instrumental performances of the peasants. Kodály’s and Bartók’s subsequent collections form some of the most vital ethnographical sources of 20th century folk music. 

Kodály’s own music remained under the radar until 1923, at which time he scored a huge success with his orchestral work, Psalmus Hungaricus, the title alone which provides ample evidence of his passion for the music of his people. His Duo, Op. 7, for Violin and Cello, composed on the eve of WWI, remains one of his best-known chamber works and ranks among the most formidable compositions of the duo repertoire. The work is constructed of three movements: a conventional sonata-form first movement (Allegro serioso non troppo) comprised of two main themes, a muscular idea introduced by the cello and a more plaintive melody, marked tranquillo, non espressivo—tranquil but inexpressive—and which Kodály sets to a skipping pizzicato accompaniment. The expressive Adagio, with its long-hewn themes and eventual air of turbulence, suggests an atmosphere of premonition, perhaps reflecting Kodály’s personal despair about world events. The third movement opens slowly and rhapsodically (Maestoso e largamente) but eventually gives way to a virtuosic Presto. In sum, Kodaly’s brilliant score, infused with pentatonic (five-note) scales and folk-inspired pizzicato gestures, chordal patterns and ornamentation, makes for a truly unique experience that often belies the mere presence of two performers.

Bartók’s Hungarian Folk Melodies provide us with a strong sense of the range of emotion Bartók encountered traveling around the Hungarian countryside (he subsequently widened his travels, journeying into Transylvania, Bulgaria, Moldavia and Algeria) and we can only imagine the looks of curiosity and perhaps even fear, as he set up his “modern” equipment to capture the musical souls of the folk, many of whom had probably never set foot outside their village. Beyond its ethnomusical importance, such work also proved seminal to Bartók’s own composing, as he himself later discussed:
     “The outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys. The greater part of the collected treasure, and the more valuable part, was in old ecclesiastical or old Greek modes, or based on more primitive (pentatonic) scales, and the melodies were full of most free and varied rhythmic phrases and changes of tempi, played both rubato and giusto.”

In the Kraeuter’s version for violin and cello of some of these folk songs, we can fully appreciate the other-worldly sounds Bartók experienced, along with the pride and love he discovered for the music of his people, a passion no doubt fueled by the nationalistic sentiment that sprang from The Great War.

Last but not least we have Danza Espagnol No. 2 “Orientale” of Enrique Granados (1867-1916), among the greatest classical composers to come out of Spain. The son of a Spanish army captain, Granados was Spanish through and through, so it seems only fitting that his Goya-inspired composition Goyescas provided his real breakthrough. He expanded this piano work into an opera and after the outbreak of war forced the opera’s cancellation, Granados traveled to America for its premiere (while here he also performed for President Woodrow Wilson). Upon his return, the ship upon which he and his wife were traveling was torpedoed and though accounts vary as to what happened next, both perished as a consequence
of the attack.

Granados composed his 12 Danzas españolas for piano but as with the music of Piazzolla, their popularity has spawned arrangements for nearly every conceivable ensemble, including a version for four accordions and double bass! Tonight, you will hear the Orientale, No. 2 in an arrangement made by the great Russian cellist Gregor Piatagorsky. Granados’ wistful melody and eastern-inspired turns of phrase make it clear why cellists have claimed this piece as one of their own.

(C) Marc Moskovitz