Tango in Paris

Victoria Moreira, violin
Ilya Shterenberg, clarinet
Joel Becktell, cello
Ryan Behan, piano

Program notes

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974): Suite pour violin, clarinet et piano
The musical talent of Frenchman Darius Milhaud served the composer like a sponge, allowing him to absorb and incorporate a diverse palette of musical languages. Beyond the native influences passed on to him at the Paris Conservatory where he trained, Milhaud spent time in Brazil, where that country’s popular music left an indelible impression on his style, and in Harlem, where he first encountered jazz, another non-classical idiom that left its mark. All of these characteristics thread their way through his many, many scores, the sheer volume of which also attests to his musical appetite (among the most prolific composers of the twentieth century, Milhaud’s compositions run the gamut, from dozens and dozens of orchestral works, operas, ballets, chamber music for an extremely wide variety of instrumentation, organ and piano music, etc. etc.). Milhaud’s composition students in America, who included pop artist Burt Bacharach and jazz pioneer Dave Brubeck, further testify to the eclectic musical nature of this French master.

The four-movement Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano is highly indicative of the various and varied qualities that set Milhaud’s music apart (the composer was among a group of French modernists known collectively as Les Six who sought a new and anti-Wagnerian musical language): a work based on a play, inspired by the Baroque suite and infused with stylistic variety. This twelve-minute work opens, fittingly, with a sparkling Overture, as if the curtain has just opened on a stage work. Here the Brazilian influences are the most pronounced, particularly evident in the jaunty, syncopated rhythms and Milhaud’s melodic flair. For bars at a time we might imagine ourselves at a Rio nightclub in the opening decades of the twentieth century. The Divertissement, as the title suggests, is of a lighter, almost flippant character, yet one should not overlook Milhaud’s ability to weave together a variety of ideas and textures with masterful ease. Jeu, or Games, is just that—a joke that dispenses with the keyboard entirely and provides the violinist and clarinetist ample opportunity to demonstrate their virtuosic and melodic wares. Milhaud’s quirky musical humor is plainly evident at this movement’s outer edges. The finale opens with unfamiliar seriousness and for a few minutes displays the progressive side of Milhaud’s nature. This cannot be sustained for long, however, and the music soon gives way to cheeky sweetness, evidence that Milhaud would not have wanted his little suite, however well crafted, to be taken too seriously.


Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Sonata for Violin and Cello
Though born a generation before Milhaud, there is ample musical evidence that the path Maurice Ravel cut was successively trod by his successor, particularly as regards the modernist and jazz influences. Like Milhaud, Ravel also sought to consciously avoid the looming shadow that Richard Wagner cast across the European continent toward the close of the 19th century. For Ravel, this meant introducing new harmonies and textures and even incorporating non-classical idioms, such as American jazz and even non-Western styles (Javanese gamelan music, for example, was introduced to Parisians at the World’s Fair). Unlike Milhaud, however, Ravel worked at a painstakingly slow pace and when all was said and done, his portfolio was a fraction the size of what Milhaud left behind. But Ravel was in no hurry; he worked and reworked until his scores were perfect specimens. By the time all was said and done, Ravel had molded himself into one of the greatest French composers of all time.

The Sonata for Violin and Cello, known affectionately amongst string players as the “Ravel Duo”, occupied the composer between the years 1920-22. In Ravel’s own words, “[t]his business for two instruments may not seem like much, but there’s close to a year and a half of work in it.” The gestation of the work speaks greatly to the thought that went into the composition, music that despite involving “only” two instruments was both inventive and truly inspired. Indeed, its genesis lay in the spirit of Claude Debussy, whose death in 1918 left an undeniable void on the country’s musical landscape. This Ravel fully understood, for although the two didn’t always see eye to eye, Ravel greatly admired the genius of his great French contemporary and with his Duo sought to acknowledge Debussy’s passing by dedicating the score to the latter’s memory.

The Sonata marked a critical junction in Ravel’s compositional approach, one that he admitted firsthand: “I think this sonata marks a turning-point in my career. The music is stripped down to the bone. The allure of harmony is rejected and increasingly there is a return to emphasis on the melody.” Of course, with “only” two instruments, Ravel had a challenging conundrum: how to craft a work for two, the whole of which is greater than the sum of its parts? Ravel came to regard the results as “…a truly symphonic work for two instruments, achieve[ing] new and interesting effects. Many of these will be clearly audible, such as the various harmonics (eerie, ultra-high pitches) dispatched at times by both instruments. In other cases, Ravel makes unusual and often less-than-natural demands on the techniques of both players, resulting in new and inventive chords, harmonies and figuration.

The opening Allegro relies on two ideas: the rocking accompaniment heard at the outset and the melody that floats above it. Throughout the movement both ideas unfold, are woven together and juxtaposed brilliantly, while allowing neither player even a hair’s breadth of time to pause. The driving second movement, marked Très vif (very fast), displays a variety of effects, including pizzicato (plucking), sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge to create a steely sound), slides and chords of a violent nature. This is worlds away from the hyper-romanticism common to the century’s close and far more akin to the progressive scores of the Hungarian Bela Bartok, with whose music Ravel had become familiar by the time of this work’s composition. The Lent (slow) provides much needed relief, although Ravel’s tonalities are indeed challenging. Listen for the canon—the cello leads things off, then the violin imitates an octave higher with its entrance nine bars later (Ravel instructs the players to play this melody on a single string). The fourth movement, marked Vif, avec entrain (lively, with enthusiasm), is characterized by a springing opening theme and accompanied by unapologetic mad dashes back and forth between arco (with the bow) and pizzicato, rapid changes of texture that led Ravel to describe his Sonata as “orchestral.” He also described this finale as an imitation of a Mozart rondo, though we might easier grasp the folksy elements—jaunty ideas juxtaposed by the push and pull of a tight, dragging theme. When the cello ushers in the rondo theme for the last time, Ravel’s music careens forward to a joyful C major ending, bringing to a close a work whose musical breadth seems to belie its mere twenty minutes’ running time.


Nino Rota (1911-1979): Trio for clarinet, cello and piano
Nearly all of you are familiar with the music of Nino Rota, even if you have never heard the name. Recall the music from The Godfather? Rota composed that, along with more than three dozen other film scores, including the Zeffirelli classic, La Strada. But Rota was much more than a film composer. His output includes ten operas, five ballets, orchestral, choral and chamber music, including the work heard today, his Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano from 1973.

Rota’s trio is a sophisticated work of chamber music, not only written with a deep understanding of each instrument’s potential but crafted as a true dialogue, as evident in the active exchange of ideas of the opening Allegro. If this sonata-form movement breathes the spirit of two earlier masters, Prokofiev and Brahms, it nevertheless illustrates a master composer at the top of his game. Rota’s melodic flair is equally well suited to the Andante which opens with a yearning theme in the clarinet and is quickly absorbed by the cello. Again, the spirit of Brahms, or at least that of mid-19th century Vienna, is in the air of this lush and inviting movement, suggesting that Rota regarded that time and place as the chamber music ideal. Rota’s invented tempo indication for his finale, Allegrissimo, suggests both a very fast clip and a humorous character, evident in the frivolousness and dash of the festive opening theme. What follows is as virtuosic as a three-ring circus, deftly moving into unexpected harmonic directions and captivating us with its joie de vivre. For all its quirkiness, we should not minimize the talented hand of its composer, whose staggering ability allowed him to dispatch chamber music of the highest level of sophistication, even if his bread was buttered by the more lucrative royalties of his film scores.


Astor Piazzolla – The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, for violin, cello and piano (arr. by José Bragato)
ProMusica audiences are no strangers to the music of Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla, a consequence of our orchestra having performed several of his scores, as well as his violin concerto, The Four Seasons. In this afternoon’s version of this latter work, we hear a dazzling transcription by the Argentinian-born cellist and composer José Bragato. Of course, Piazzolla took his musical cue from Vivaldi’s original, yet this is much more than mere pastiche. Piazzolla, who trained with the famed French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, imbues the four seasons of the year with truly novel, if Argentinian, inspiration.

Piazzolla was the consummate musician, a performer (he played the bandoneon, a concertina similar in nature to the accordion) who wrote for himself and the various ensembles with which he worked. Having trained with various tango orchestras, Piazzolla eventually formed his own ensembles, with whom he revolutionized this beloved Argentinian dance form. By infusing tango with new ideas, abandoning the traditional singer and incorporating jazz-inspired improvisation and an atmosphere of true chamber music, nueve tango was born.

The first movement, Primavera, is characterized by the driving, syncopated rhythms at its borders and a suave, lyrical central section. The shortest movement of the four, this opener provides an ideal introduction into the world of nuevo tango but each of the seasons is vintage Piazzolla, featuring suave melodies, energetic rhythms and Argentinean flair. Just as impressive as Piazzolla’s score is the new life breathed into the work by Bragato, the work’s arranger, in whose hands Piazzolla’s original gains new life and proves a natural fit for an ensemble of three.


Miguel Del Aguila (b. 1957) – Tango Trio, Op. 71 C, for violin, clarinet and piano
Del Aguila’s Tango Trio provides the perfect dessert to today’s four-course musical meal. Taking a page from Piazzolla’s playbook, the Uruguayan-born American composer shows in this tight four-minute work why he has earned international accolades and Grammy nominations. The single movement Tango Trio, which moves deftly through a variety of characters, drips with the sultry essence of tango, a perfect vehicle allowing each member of the ensemble a chance to take a spin in the limelight.

© Marc Moskovitz