This evening’s concert is an emotional affair, featuring the talents of baritone Brian Mulligan and conductor Carlos Kalmar. We begin with Musique Funèbre, Witold Lutosławski’s tribute to fellow composer Béla Bartók. Mulligan sings John Adams’ setting of Walt Whitman’s text in the elegiac piece, The Wound-Dresser. Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 provides a palate cleanser before Rossini’s stirring Overture to the opera The Italian Girl in Algiers.
Witold Lutosławski’s Musique Funèbre is a heartfelt commemoration of composer Béla Bartók. As a student, Lutosławski studied Bartok’s music extensively, which left a distinct impression in the young composer’s style. With Musique Funèbre, Lutosławski seems to reference Bartók’s oeuvre, but not overtly. The scoring of the piece is rather specific: the violins are divided into four groups, and the violas, cellos and basses are divided in into two groups each.
Musique Funèbre does not rely on the language of tonality for its expression—it does not have a “home key”—but its emotional impact is potent regardless. Lutosławski veering away from the tonal system was something different, and he called it the “first word” in a language that was new to him. This one-movement work has four sections, titled Prologue, Metamorphoses, Apogee and Epilogue. The first and last of these are both canons, and they share a similar tempo. The Prologue begins in the low strings and builds slowly, expressing great intensity as it climbs upwards and adding voices as it goes. This intensity eventually recedes, and the section ends quietly with the notes traveling in a downward trajectory. Metamorphoses is an apt title for the next section, which features new material in addition to musical ideas from the first section, as Lutosławski subjects both to developing transformations. These begin almost as tremors that sound like primitive first steps. As the music continues, however, the metamorphoses become more complex. Apogee, a mere dozen measures, is true to its name as the apex of this journey.
Celebrated poet Walt Whitman was forever changed by what he saw during the American Civil War. As men returned wounded from the battlefield, he sat with them, listened to them, wrote letters for them and cared for them in their suffering. In The Wound-Dresser, composer John Adams sets Whitman’s eponymous poem. Its text, inspired by Whitman’s visit to a Civil War hospital, details both the mundane duties of wound-dressing and the spiritual experience of witnessing death. Adams notes that the text itself is “astonishingly free of any kind of hyperbole or amplified emotion,” as well as the absolute precision of the speaker’s observations. Despite the businesslike manner in which the wound-dresser approaches his work, he is nevertheless touched by the sights around him. He dresses the soldiers’ wounds “with impassive hand, (yet deep in [his] breast a fire, a burning flame.)”
A composer of innovative and affecting operas, Adams demonstrates his sensitivity to Whitman’s text, allowing these two moods—the mundane and the spiritual—to coexist musically as well as textually. The piece opens with a musical gesture in the strings that suggests the ghosts of the past, but the solo violin soon cuts through the mist, followed by the solo voice. The opening stanza evokes a sense of endlessness, with a progression in the strings that seems itself never-ending. A solo trumpet emerges as well, a reminder of the horn calls of the battlefield, and as the work progresses the rhythm stumbles forward, the narrator singing about cleaning a gangrenous wound. After this impassioned crisis, the voice falls silent for a moment as the solo violin rises out of the orchestra. When the voice returns, it is to affirm that the wound-dresser remains “faithful” and will “not give out.” Adams’ musical setting highlights the wound-dresser’s care, his compassion and his hope.
We visit the Classical period with Haydn’s Symphony No. 98, 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 are somewhat unusual for Haydn: a slow introduction, and a first movement with only one main theme, as opposed to two, as was common. Throughout the movement, all of the musical material draws in some way on the main theme, appearing at both transitions and arrival points. The movement is exceedingly charming in its courtly grace. A notable passage by the solo flute appears in the recapitulation.
The second movement provides a change of pace with its languid opening theme played by the oboe and cello. This theme returns frequently, each time with embellishments in the strings. The orchestra punctuates the quiet texture of the movement with the occasional forte chord, including an appearance by the trumpet and timpani, a first for Haydn in a slow movement. The third movement, a minuet, is just the kind of dance we’ve come to expect from the composer. The elements of peasant dances are present, but Haydn surprises his listener with an unexpected harmonic shift here or a dynamic jolt there.
The final movement is full of surprises as well. At the time of its composition, its form was something new for Haydn, a hybrid of the sonata form (found in the first movement) and the rondo form (whose musical theme returns in between passages of other material). The theme Haydn presents in this movement comes in two parts, allowing Haydn to return with either one part of the theme, without repeats, or with a new harmonic interpretation. However, one barely has time to notice as the movement never stops moving (some have called it a perpetual motion finale). All too quickly, a stately fanfare brings Haydn’s enchanting Symphony to a firm and unambiguous ending.
Gioachino Rossini was one of the most successful opera composers of the nineteenth century, with thirty-nine operas in both French and Italian to his name. At the age of 21, he composed L’Italiana in Algeri, or The Italian Girl in Algiers, a two-act drama giocoso—an opera that features a mix of serious and comedic elements. Rossini completed it in a very short time; his own account says it took less than three weeks, though it may have actually taken almost four. The opera premiered in spring of 1813 and wowed audiences with its beautiful melodies, Rossini’s specialty. The Overture is often performed on its own, and it packs a surprise with a quiet opening and a sudden forte, not dissimilar to Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony. This was likely no accident as Rossini was a great admirer of Haydn. The overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers is effervescent and bubbles with energy and many musical delights. It bears some of Rossini’s signature gambits such as memorable melodies, surprising developments and exciting build-ups. It’s a perfect finale for a program filled with many dramatic turns, and luckily, it offers us a joyful ending to the evening’s program.
– Christine Lee Gengaro PhD © LACO