Northern Lights

Vadim Gluzman, violin & creative partner
Anthony Trionfo, flute
David Schrader, harpsichord


Northern Lights: January’s program is threaded together by composers from the Northern Hemisphere, who are, or were, accustomed to cold climates: the Russian-American Lera Auerbach (born on the border of Siberia), the Dane Carl Nielsen, Peteris Vasks, from Latvia and J.S. Bach, who never left his native Germany. Coming off the holidays, we also thought we would keep a touch of the season’s spiritualism alive, reflected particularly in the scores of Auerbach, Bach, and Vasks. We hope you enjoy our eclectic offering of some of the vastly different directions composers have taken string writing and the violin in particular.

Lera Auerbach (b. 1973): T’filah
Duration is approximately 4 minutes.

ProMusica audiences are by now no strangers to the music of Lera Auerbach, whose music has been performed by the orchestra on several occasions, including the premier of her Double Concerto here last season. Her solo violin work T’filah, or Prayer, was dedicated to Vadim Gluzman and is a response to the tragedy of the Holocaust. Its use of “Eastern” intervals imbues the work with a Jewish flavor, and is constructed of two sections, a gentle cantilena that expands from its tight opening intervals, perhaps reminiscent of the inflection common to cantorial chant, and a quicker-paced second section characterized by its chords and dance patterns. The opening motif intrudes continually, however, and will ultimately have the final say.


Carl Nielsen (1865-1931): Petite Suite, Op. 1
Duration is 16 minutes.
The music of Danish composer Carl Nielsen occupies a curious position in the annals of western music, particularly in America. Though a composer of considerable talent, with the exception of a few works, including the Flute Concerto (which indeed has been performed by ProMusica) and a few symphonic works, Nielsen’s vast output has never really found a strong following on our side of the pond. The Dane has certainly had his champions: in his book Lives of the Great Composers, critic Harold Schonberg proclaimed Nielsen as having “just as much sweep” as Sibelius, and “even more power, and a more universal message” and in 1962 Leonard Bernstein recorded his Fifth Symphony, a triumphant reading that helped kick start a greater appreciation for Nielsen’s music abroad. But unlike Sibelius, or even Grieg, composers indelibly linked to their native Nordic lands whose music has been embraced by American audiences, performances of Nielsen are far less frequent. To paraphrase Bernstein, his mature works possess rough charm, swing, drive, rhythmic surprise, a strange power of harmonic and tonal relationships and especially constant unpredictability. It is precisely these elements that draw his champions to his scores but the whole package appears a bit much for general concertgoers preferring the familiarity of Brahms or Mahler.

The youthful Petit Suite, by contrast, is charming, engaging and fresh, weighed down by none of the thornier elements common to Nielsen’s more mature scores. It received its premiere while Nielsen was still a student of the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen and garnered its composer (who played violin in the orchestra) immediate success: Nielsen was called back to the stage several times, its middle movement was repeated as an encore and the three-movement suite proved the composer’s first published opus. Cast in a style suggestive of Grieg or Sibelius, the Prelude opens with the doleful treading rhythm suggestive of a funeral march, over which the cellos enter with a plaintive four-bar melody. A few bars later, however, the music swings to the major mode, and thus we understand the sorrowful opening as youthful bluster, the composer’s attempt to infuse his score with sturm und drang. However brief the Prelude, we should take note of Nielsen’s scoring, as he artfully weaves each of the voices in and out of the fabric. Rarely do we hear simple accompaniments and even the counter lines heard in the inner voices—delicate pizzicatos, shimmering tremolos and chromatic scales—are worth listening out for. The charming Intermezzo, an extended waltz, aptly demonstrates one of Nielsen’s hallmark traits: a love of triple time. The finale opens with a variant of the Prelude’s elegy, the treading rhythmic accompaniment now replaced with a rocking gesture, here all but unnoticeable but whose larger significance will be gradually borne out. As with the Prelude, the solemn opening is soon replaced by something more uplifting, in this case a joyous sonata form Allegro with the violins leading the way. Listen for the development section, where Nielsen breaks down his Allegro’s material before incorporating his elegiac melody into the mix, now within a major-mode setting. The finale features a charming coda, marked più mosso, slipping the former Allegro into overdrive. The rocking gesture introduced at the start of the movement now becomes the focus of both melody and harmony (the later transformed into a relentless ostinato in the cello and bass), whisking the suite to its delightful conclusion.


J.S. Bach (1685-1750): Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050
Duration is 21 minutes.

Johann Sebastien Bach spent the majority of his life in three major German cities—at the ducal court of Weimar, as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold in Anhalt-Köthen, and as Cantor of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. It was during his years in Köthen, or Cöthen (1717-1723) when many of his most significant instrumental works were composed, among them the orchestral suites, the solo violin sonatas and partitas, the cello suites and the Brandenburg Concertos. Moreover, Bach enjoyed the opportunity of working for so sophisticated a musician—the Prince played the violin, gamba and harpsichord and possessed a lovely bass voice. According to Bach, his employer “loved music, was well acquainted with it, understood it.” But although the six Brandenburg Concertos were most likely written for Leopold, they have come down to us as belonging to another court entirely, that of Berlin’s Royal Palace, home to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. For in the winter of 1718-19 Bach traveled to Berlin to order a new harpsichord and while there performed for the Margrave. Also a lover of music, the Margrave requested some concertos of Bach and two years later received a set of beautifully autographed scores from the organist-composer, entitled Six Concertos for Diverse Instruments. It appears, however, that the so-called “Brandenburg Concertos,” were never actually performed at the Berlin court, nor even listed in the library catalogues (which otherwise contained entries for hundreds of other concertos). Instead, Bach’s manuscripts appear to have been ignored until 1734, when following Ludwig’s death, they were valued at four groschen apiece.

The fifth concerto calls for solo violin and flute, with modest accompanimental forces including, of course, the harpsichord, Bach’s instrument, which appears both as soloist among the concertino, or small solo group, and as accompanist among the ripieno, or larger group. Bach’s choice of a trio of soloists grew naturally from a common chamber ensemble of the day, that is, two “soprano” instruments with an obligato, or obligatory, accompaniment. As with all the Brandenburg’s, the music opens with the ripieno group before the soloists break off on their own. The spirited opening Allegro is filled with plenty of opportunity for the concertino members to shine but it is the harpsichord that literally takes center stage with an extended cadenza (a wholly unique enterprise in the Brandenburg Concerti), no doubt intended as a personal, virtuoso outlet for Bach and a means of incorporating the new harpsichord he encountered in Berlin. The intimate Affetuoso is scored for as a trio sonata for the soloists alone, and illustrates Bach’s inexhaustible ability to manipulate a motive—listen how he draws out the entire movement from his extended opening theme. The jaunty final Allegro commences as a fugue (you will hear the violin, flute and then harpsichord enter with the identical material, only at different pitch levels). Of course, as arguably the greatest “contrapuntists” of all time, Bach could have spun out his fugue for the duration. Instead, he breaks off his “learned counterpoint” by treating the fugue subject a ritornello, a returning idea that serves as an anchor, between which Bach’s genius is freed up for flights of melodic fantasy.

J.S. Bach: Adagio from Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001
Duration is 5 minutes.

The autograph (in Bach’s hand) to the six unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas dates from the composer’s period in Cöthen, though precisely when they were composed (or if they may have been reworked from pieces predating his Cöthen employment) remains open to debate. What is undeniable is that the genius and emotional breadth revealed in these six solo works has never been surpassed. The Adagio, the opening movement of the first sonata, remains among the most famous, and is a fitting example of Bach’s approach of structuring accompanimental chords and multiple “voices” for an instrument otherwise thought of as principally melodic.


Peteris Vasks (b. 1946): Distant Light
Duration is 26 minutes.

If there is something soothing and inviting about the language of contemporary Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, it is no doubt on account of his desire to harness his sounds for the good of humanity. This philosophy springs, at least in part, from the composer’s own background: his father was a Baptist pastor and Peteris experienced firsthand Soviet repression toward Baptists (indeed, Vasks left Latvia for neighboring Lithuania to continue his studies). Consequently, he sees his work as having a larger mission and has found inspiration in a host of factors relevant to contemporary life, including the relationship between man and nature and the beauty of life, but also darker themes—the suffering of the Latvian people, for instance, and moral and ecological destruction.

Most people today no longer possess beliefs, love and ideals. The spiritual dimension has been lost. My intention is to provide food for the soul and this is what I preach in my works.

Vasks is also clearly intent on meeting his audiences on their own terms and in their own place:

I have always dreamt that my music would be heard where people were unhappy: in hospitals and prisons, in crowded trains and buses. My music is intended for a large number of people, and not just the audiences at concert halls.

Vasks’ scores are also frequently born of autobiographical factors, as is the case with his single-movement violin concerto, Tālā Gaisma, or Distant Light. Written in 1996 for Latvian violin virtuoso Gidon Kremer, it sprang from Vasks’ realization that both men attended the same school but only really met later, as professional musicians. According to the composer, “Distant Light is nostalgia with a touch of tragedy. Childhood memories, but also the glittering stars millions of light years away.” The concerto certainly harbors universal appeal. It serves as a demanding vehicle for a virtuoso soloist yet involves the orchestra completely. And critically, general audiences can relate to the music’s tonal warmth and uncomplicated architecture, elements that went missing from much music composed toward the middle of the last century. Vasks also incorporates a variety of techniques, including the soloist sliding his or her hand over the fingerboard to generate quasi-improvisatory moments of chance that will vary from performance to performance. Distant Light, which garnered its composer one of his country’s foremost prizes, the Latvian Grand Music Award, places Vasks precisely between two major contemporary poles, the atmospheric and often violent nature of music as practiced by the late Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, and its peaceful, spiritual potential, as reflected by the music of Estonian Arvo Pärt.

Distant Light might best be considered as constructed of several large blocks or sections, separated by cadenzas (solo passages). The work opens atmospherically, with the soloist soon joined by the violins. Two overriding ideas dominate the music, both of which will be relied on throughout the work: static held pitches serving as accompanimental drones and a warm, tonal lament, as initially introduced by the soloist. The music builds in intensity until it gives way to the first of three cadenzas. The next orchestral block introduces a driving rhythm suggestive of a folk dance but it too is cut short by a cadenza. This, in turn, is swallowed up by the aggressive orchestral dance before the static strains of the work’s opening cut matters off in mid-stream. After once again building in intensity, the final cadenza, with its deliberately agitated passagework, is absorbed into equally ugly orchestral sounds, illustrating Vasks’ reliance on aleatoric, or chance, writing, or perhaps better yet, chaos. A diabolic orchestral waltz is quickly snuffed out, as more static tones and vestiges of the lament gently carry the concerto to its final rest.

© Marc Moskovitz