Aniello Desiderio, guitar
David Danzmayr, conductor
The 2016-17 ProMusica season opens with three remarkable works by composers beset with physical limitations. The performance career of Cuban-born guitar virtuoso, Leo Brouwer, was cut short in 1980, the consequence of a tendon injury to his right hand, but not before he amassed a long list of works for his instrument, including the Tres Danzas performed tonight. Blind since the age of three, Rodrigo rose to become one of Spain’s most beloved composers. His Concierto de Aranjuez ranks among the most popular and engaging works of all time. Our program concludes with Beethoven’s homage to nature, his Pastoral Symphony, composed at the age of 39 when the composer was all but deaf yet in possession of seemingly limitless powers of invention. Few artists have left us a more accurate or joyous picture of life in the country.
Leo Brouwer (b. 1939): Tres Danzas Concertantes
Scored for guitar and strings. Duration is 15 minutes.
Among the most influential guitarists to come out of Cuba, Juan Leovigildo Brouwer was born in Havana to a doctor and amateur guitarist who initiated his son into the world of six strings. Sent to the U.S. for formal training at Juilliard and the Hartt College of Music, Leo returned and quickly became a major figure on the Cuban music scene. While his early compositions reflect the language of his native land, he subsequently began to look to the modernists, incorporating atonality and chance elements into his scores. But ultimately, Brouwer’s Cuban roots were not to be forsaken and his mature works strive for something more accessible, blending Afro-Cuban characteristics with tonality, programmatic ideas and traditional tonality. A composer of a diverse oeuvre, including in excess of thirty film scores, concertos and myriad solo guitar works, Brouwer, who ceased playing in 1980 as a consequence of an injury to the middle finger on his right hand, has immersed himself in the world of composition, conducting and arranging and remains a vibrant figure on the Cuban and international music scene.
The Tres Danzas Concertantes, his first foray into the world of the guitar concerto, represents Brouwer the modernist, consciously attempting to distance himself from the more traditional approach of Rodrigo’s Aranjuez. Among the techniques employed is that of quartal harmonies, that is, harmonies based on the interval of fourths, whether perfect (think of the first two pitches of “Here Comes the Bride”) or imperfect (slightly smaller or larger distances). Though certainly modern and relying on a variety of contemporary techniques (the slapping of the guitar in the first movement will not go unnoticed), the three dances are highly accessible. The first is a relentless movement that plays on exciting rhythmic interplay between the soloist and orchestra. Dominated by a short-long, short-long rhythm, the gentler Andantino displays the composer’s interest in modernist tonalities such as the opening string harmonics and, later in the soloist’s marked chords, the aforementioned interval of a fourth. At its center, a polyphonic string trio is featured, offset by cascading guitar passagework and followed with an extended solo cadenza. The riveting Toccata finale is underscored by a sinister winding line at the start, juxtaposed by explosive guitar writing. Fusing a number of Brouwer’s passions—the dramatic element of a film score, virtuoso guitar passagework and the flavor of Cuba—this tour de force caps off the set of dances with vigor.
Joachín Rodrigo (1901-1999): Concierto de Aranjuez
Scored for solo guitar, pairs of flutes (with piccolo), oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and strings. Duration is 21 minutes.
Born in Valencia and blinded at the age of three from diphtheria, Rodrigo as a child dedicated himself to music and grew to become one of his country’s shining stars, a composer, virtuoso pianist and guitarist. Though best known for his music for the latter, Rodrigo never actually mastered the instrument. He composed in Braille and his scores were subsequently transcribed for performance and publication. His most famous composition, the Concierto de Aranjuez (1939), which definitively established Rodrigo’s reputation, was actually not composed in Spain at all, but rather in Paris, where the composer was then living with his wife.
As with the Beethoven symphony to follow, Rodrigo’s concerto attempts to transport the listener to another place and time—the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, the 16th century resort palace of Phillip II. Indeed, coming as it did on the heels of the Spanish civil war, Rodrigo consciously sought to avoid a potential political or social program, knowing his latest work would be premiered at home. For years both Rodrigo and his wife remained silent about the context of the poignant second movement; though many regarded the movement as influenced by the 1937 bombing of Guernica, in her autobiography, Rodrigo’s wife Victoria eventually admitted that it was inspired both by their honeymoon and the composer’s grief over the miscarriage of their first child.
Throughout the concerto, Rodrigo takes great pains to avoid a direct confrontation between his guitar soloist and the orchestra, knowing only too well how easily the former could be overwhelmed.
This technique is evident at the very start, which features a series of guitar flourishes, alone. Only then does the orchestra enter, repeating the rhythmic pattern of the soloist, before ushering in a spirited violin melody. The movement gains interest by way of its colorful, off-beat rhythms, the sensual beauty of its Spanish melodic flair and the unique colors offered by Rodrigo’s instrumentation. The famous second movement, a lament, opens with a moving English horn solo set to a strumming guitar. The soloist’s true entrance, supported by sustained orchestral chords, is imbued with the full flavor of Spain and composed as a sort of written-out improvisation—we can almost see the ancient walls of the 16th century palace in front of us. Indeed, much of the movement is constructed of improvisatory-sounding passages, placing the soloist clearly in the limelight. An agitated middle section offers a short-lived contrast to the poignant writing at its borders. Alternating rapidly between 2/4 and 3/4, the Allegro gentile finale offers up a spirited if innocent dance, with rapid guitar passagework and bursts of orchestral color, yet closes with subtle humor.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68
Scored for pairs of winds (including piccolo), trumpets, horns, trombones, timpani and strings. Duration is 39 minutes.
“I love a tree more than a man.” –Ludwig van Beethoven
One would be hard pressed to find a greater nature lover than Ludwig van Beethoven. As an artist who struggled with human relationships, the countryside offered much needed solace and was where his persistent loneliness and deafness found release. As he confessed in a letter to Teresa Malfatti, “How fortunate you are to be able to go into the country so soon…I look forward to it with childish excitement. How delighted I shall be to ramble for a while through bushes, woods, under trees, over grass and rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks give back the echo which man desires to hear.”
By 1810, the year this letter was composed, Beethoven’s hearing had been severely compromised and within a year, performing as a pianist in public was no longer truly possible (by 1814 he was almost certainly profoundly deaf). In addition to the burden his loss of hearing placed on his livelihood, it served to increase Beethoven’s sense of isolation and no doubt played into his insecurities and inability to find love or a suitable wife (Malfatti, the recipient of the above letter, was among those women unavailable to the composer). Just how much Beethoven could still hear in 1808, the year of his Sixth Symphony, remains open to debate, though certainly the subtle sounds of nature were by now lost to him. But as with many of his greatest scores, this acknowledged master did his “hearing” inside his head—he no longer needed his ears for the act of creation. Beethoven’s personal homage to nature was composed during the spring and summer months of 1808 and received its premiere just a few months later, on December 22, during a four-hour concert at the Theater an der Wien.
Beethoven’s intentions for the F major Symphony are to be found on the title page of the autograph: “more the expression of feelings than tone painting.” The stirring Sixth comes on the heels of the groundbreaking Fifth Symphony, an emotional juggernaut that blew the doors off what the symphony was understood to be: a four movement work designed to entertain, with little or no extra-musical associations (there were, of course, examples by Haydn and others that explored quasi-programmatic ideas, but these were more the exception than the rule). If the Fifth suggested, in musical tones, the movement from darkness to light or the triumph of good, the Sixth is imbued through and through with the sounds of the countryside—its birdcalls, streams, storms and peasant folk. Comprised of not four but of five (!) movements, the F major Symphony is constructed in three large divisions: a first movement (Cheerful Impressions Upon Arriving in the Country), second movement (Scene by the Brook), and a final section featuring three movements—Scherzo, Storm and Finale (The Joyous Gathering of Country Folk, The Storm, and The Shepherd’s Song)—that flow one into the other.
Even the opening of the “Pastoral” is about as far removed from the drama of the Fifth Symphony as is possible. No explosive motives, no shocking fortes, neither a grand, aristocratic introduction nor even a sense of expectation. Rather, we immediately find ourselves in the countryside where all is quiet, unhurried, gentle, where harmonies and phrases unfold slowly and simply, as if played by country folk. Listen for the opening drone in the bass line—the pitch F (the key in which the symphony as a whole is cast) is intended to create the sound of peasant music, such as the sustained drone of a bagpipe. Though sophisticated in form and worked out to the smallest detail, Beethoven’s intent was simply to convey the essence of nature—the tranquility and joy he experienced when surrounded by his beloved countryside.
The bucolic slow movement relies on two ideas: the lazy triplet motive at the outset, invoking the flowing brook (lower strings) and the bird calls, dispatched by the violins (trills) and winds, which become ever more distinct as the movement unfolds. (Beethoven scholars, incidentally, have spilled no shortage of ink debating the accuracy of his birdcalls). At the point of the coda, Beethoven names the birds specifically—the nightingale (flute), the quail (oboe) and cuckoos (clarinets)—and insisted that his copyists include the names in the score so as to be no mistaking them! As with the first movement, sonata form provided the composer with a logical, time-tested musical framework, but we need only be swept away by the tranquil impressions Beethoven sought to convey.
The third movement relies on two distinct ideas, a triple meter (3/4) peasant dance (the Scherzo), and a duple (2/4) dance, (the Trio, or middle section). The country folk veritably come alive, with all the foot stomping, beer toasting, fun and flirting one would imagine in such a setting. With the onset of The Storm, however, the villagers scatter and we are hurled into one of Beethoven’s most ingenious musical descriptions. Among the great maelstroms in the repertoire, we hear the storm approaching, its fury fully unleashed, and its subsequent dissipation, as the thunder clouds recede in the distance, as brilliantly portrayed by the timpani.
Beethoven closes with an idyll, which opens with a shepherd’s call intoned by the clarinet and horns. As Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood suggests, “Beethoven must have known about [Alp-horns] even if he never ventured to such heights himself.” This gentle rocking idea becomes the source of the movement as a whole, which is manipulated in its various reprises, again mimicking the simple beauty of the music of the countryside. The conclusion is among the most ebullient of Beethoven’s codas—first thrilling, then reflective, a joyous homecoming capped off by a distant horn call that brings the movement full circle. Again the words of Lockwood seem to sum up this sublime composition most succinctly: “The ending seems to confirm the peace of nature and the peace of the soul that the work had promised from the beginning, the feeling for which the composer had been longing all his life.”
© Marc Moskovitz