Tonight’s program features two very new works with varied influences, which are counter-balanced by Classical masterpieces of Mozart and Haydn. The striking juxtaposition of two 21st-century works with two pieces from the late 18th century illuminates the ongoing development of music forms and traditions, but also the ways in which music from all times can touch and inspire us.
We begin with the West Coast premiere of Timo Andres’ Word of Mouth. The central inspiration for this work is Sacred Harp singing, an American musical tradition in which people gather together to sing four-part songs. The term “sacred harp” has multiple meanings, referring in a philosophical sense to the human voice, but also to a collection of repertoire. The first edition of The Sacred Harp appeared in 1844 with tunes collected and compiled by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King. The distinctive method of notation has large note-heads of different shapes than is typical for music notation. The songs come from both sacred and secular sources, and the “performances” are community-oriented, with no audience, conductor or instruments, and with the singers facing inwards in a circle. Sacred Harp, originally with religious undertones, is a living tradition, and continues to be sung and enjoyed by communities in both religious and secular contexts.
Andres chose the title Word of Mouth as a nod to a specific Sacred Harp group called the Word of Mouth Chorus. He first experienced this repertoire through the recordings this group made in the 1970s. Although Word of Mouth is not a choral or vocal piece, it draws upon a responsorial song from The Sacred Harp called “Weeping Mary.” Andres takes elements of this tune and develops them over the course of a five-part chamber symphony. The opening, “Much Fanfare,” has two main lines, with the upper line sounding notes in a typical tonal idiom and the lower voice leaping around unpredictably. The resulting dissonances and resolutions—which grow ever more insistent—lead into the second movement. Like the piece as a whole, it is entitled “Word of Mouth” and is a dance-like treatment of an excerpt from the “Weeping Mary” tune. The central movement of the work, “Fata Morgana,” elongates the two-note dyads of the opening into very long crescendos. Andres calls this part “a kind of atmospheric optical illusion.” In the course of this gradual strengthening of the sound, the two lines diverge, with the bass stepping downward and the upper voice climbing higher. The fourth section, “Little Fanfare,” acts as a brief “scherzo” of clashing meters and melodic fragments. The piece ends with a final movement, which doesn’t have a name; it is marked teneramente, or “tenderly.” Andres describes this section as “not so much thematically related to the previous four as it is a reconciliation of their more extreme tendencies.” Musically, it is built on many two-note phrases that begin in a series, but then eventually pile up. After they reach their inevitable climax, the phrases begin to fade into echoes, suggesting the passionate intonations of the Sacred Harp tune used in the second movement.
When Mozart arrived in Vienna in 1781 after finally being released from the service of Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg, he was eager to make a name for himself in what had become the musical center of Europe. In pursuit of this aim, Mozart leaned heavily on his considerable skills as a pianist. From the beginning of 1784 to the very end of 1786, Mozart composed a dozen piano concertos meant to show off both his creativity and his virtuosity. These works—classics in the genre—have inspired composers who followed in Mozart’s footsteps. Showcasing his own talent, Mozart performed the premieres of most of these works, although he might have composed Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major as a commission for blind pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis. Mozart’s first performance of this work was in February of 1785, and it was well received by the audience, which included a very enthusiastic Emperor Joseph II.
The Concerto has three movements, beginning with an Allegro vivace. It is a beautiful model of Classical balance and symmetry. The woodwinds lend a wonderful sense of color to the orchestral sections, and the piano solo is pleasant, if not overly showy. The heart of this work is the set of theme and variations in the slow movement. Mozart, who excelled at this form, spins ever more insistent and complex variations on this emotional theme. The minor mode of the theme provides a great contrast to the sunny first movement. In the final movement, Mozart does something interesting, which is to include an excursion in a remote minor key and to vary the meter. The straightforward 2/4 meter seems to vie with the swinging 6/8 meter for prominence, but in the end it is the soloist who breaks the stalemate, ending the work in the latter meter, with a lilting and dance-like finale.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 is a perfect example of the Classical piano concerto. The concerto as a genre experienced some changes in the intervening centuries, and tonight we have a stellar example of a 21st-century concerto. Emmanuel Séjourné’s Concerto for Marimba and Strings is a two-movement work, with a slow opening movement and a lively second part. One of the wonderful features of this work is the emphasis on the expressive qualities of the instrument. The opening movement, Arpeggione, starts with a pensive statement from the orchestra. The soloist then begins with a cadenza-like passage, a rather remarkable and virtuosic statement. This section seems to draw upon lush Romantic harmonies and phrasing. The marimbist must be skillful enough to bring out the phrases on what is a percussive instrument. The strings offer a lush bed of sound as a counterpoint to the soloist’s lines. The second movement, Rhythmique énergique, takes inspiration from rock-infused jazz and the flamenco tradition. The driving rhythms of the marimba, pizzicato of the strings and the energetic accompanimental figures of the orchestra give this piece an inevitable forward motion that concludes with a breathless finish.
We return to the Classical period with our finale, Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G major, which, despite not having a catchy nickname like “The Drumroll” or “The Clock,” has always been one of the composer’s most popular works. It is a typical Classical symphony in many ways, but it features two quirks that Haydn was known for: a slow introduction at the beginning, and a first movement with only one main theme, not two as was common. The work was written in the short time period between Haydn’s famous “Paris” Symphonies (Nos. 82–87) and the “London” Symphonies (Nos. 93–104). The slow introduction sets up the main theme of this exceedingly enchanting movement, which features a notable passage by the solo flute in the recapitulation.
The second movement provides a contrast with a languid opening theme played by the oboe and cello. This theme returns again and again, with embellishments by the strings. Occasional strong chords by the orchestra punctuate the quiet of the movement. The appearance of the trumpet and timpani in these chords was a first for Haydn in a slow movement. The third movement, a Minuet, is just the kind of dance we have come to expect from the composer. It displays the elements of a true peasant dance, but also features Haydn’s reliable ability to surprise us. A drone in the trio section brings to mind bagpipes.
The final movement is full of surprises as well. The form of the movement was something new for Haydn, a hybrid of the sonata form structure (found in the first movement) and rondo form. The most obvious feature of a rondo is a musical theme that returns again and again, interspersed with contrasting material. The musical theme Haydn presents in this rondo is in two distinct parts. That allows Haydn to return sometimes with only one, or the other, part of the theme. Some have called the concluding section of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 a “perpetual motion finale” because of its continuous movement. The arrival of the stately fanfare, at last, brings this charming Symphony to a striking conclusion.