2010-2011 Program Notes

April 12, 2011
Mark Robson

This concert has less evident thematic underpinning than many of my previous recitals, but the listener may discern some connecting threads with an exploration of texture, an allusion to the elements (in particular, water and fire) and a navigation between the extroverted and the introverted. As for repertoire choices, Bartók’s Dirges have been on the back burner for some time, one can never do enough excerpts from Játékok, it’s great to support local composers and yes, we need some balance with a bit of New York uptown writing once in a while! May it be an evening that brings you into the present awareness of the unimagined, the unusual, the provocative, the beautiful and the astonishing.

Gesture, in this case decoration as gesture, is the generator of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Prélude at the top of the program. On one large and beautiful page of musical calligraphy we are offered as much visual delight as the audible. A series of signs and symbols without specified pitches is laid out on a grid of horizontal lines that represent the registers of the piano from the bottom line to the top. Standard ornamental symbols—those of the turn, trill and mordent—stand out against arrows signifying glissandi, which the interpreter realizes in an improvised performance. The texture is ever-shimmering and electric.

Pyro-Mani is one of several piano works (including a concerto) in a cycle that Anders Brødsgaard has come to call in girum imus nocte et consumimum igni. The Latin palindrome is translated as ‘we enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire’, and “Pyromania” is probably the most overtly fiery piece of the bunch. It takes its departure from an octatonic scale based on E, where harmonic and melodic elements are merged in the texture in a way reminiscent of late Scriabin. A constant flux of arpeggiation, beginning in the right hand, fans the flames as it were of a melody unfolding with an elusive pulse. About two-thirds of the way into the piece there is a climactic moment in which these two elements are given to the right hand while a new, rising figure in the left hand converges upon it. The musical discourse becomes calm again and the swirling patterns dwindle away.

With a view to mutual illumination, two Hungarian masters have been brought together in a dialogue on mourning and memorialization. Bartók’s Dirges were composed without a specified tribute; they are at once majestic, serene, tragic and by turns like an inexorable procession. (The second one of them has been orchestrated and its theme provided the contour for the opening motif of the composer’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle.) The pieces from Kurtág’s multivolume series Játékok (Games) were selected for their allusions to final moments, passings and remembrances. Though miniatures, they propose condensed expression which takes on much larger proportions as they project a few chords, a slip of melody or a jagged and frenzied scherzo of gestures. An interweaving of the two sets of pieces was planned to create an overall ritual that would be held together not only with the emotional content but with the shared elements of triadic harmonies, parallel or symmetrical chords, and a certain discursive tone.

Philippe Bodin, a composer of diverse talents both musical and otherwise, writes Pools is the third of three pieces in the set Inner Banners, which were written for Genevieve Feiwen Lee on a commission from the Barlow Endowment. It begins as a tentative melodic line which is eventually underscore by quartal harmonies. As the accompaniment gains in momentum the melody develops broader arching; a new, highly rhapsodic section unfolds in which the right hand has fused melodic and accompanimental elements while the left hand streams forth with an arpeggiated accompaniment in the grand romantic manner. The title of the piece could suggest an ever-widening influence of a gesture or movement or ‘reflection’ upon another. A final section invokes the opening material; the self-harmonized melody is now supported by an accompaniment of chords in steady quarter notes. Only in the last few bars does the pulse begin to disintegrate and take us back to the spare atmosphere of the opening lines.

In the notes provided by Vera Ivanova, she writes that “the word ‘aftertouch’ is a term used to describe the response of a key on electronic MIDI-keyboards to pressure. On an electronic keyboard with aftertouch, a performer can change the amplitude of the pitch after the attack by varying the pressure with which one holds the key. While this feature is not an option on a classical acoustic piano, the richness and variety of the piano timbre is far more superior and individual on every single instrument. Exploring the sensitivity of the piano keys to the different types of pressure (including the silent pressure of the keys with the sustaining pedal held) is my interpretation of the term aftertouch, if one can apply it to the acoustic piano. On the other hand, this title implies the composer’s intent to make the listener pay attention to the life and death of each sound with regard to the variety in attacks and decays. This variety and timbral richness of the instrument, along with the resonances of short and sustained sounds which produce quite different effects, were the main inspiration for this piece.”

I have been inspired by an expressive marking in the creation of dolcissimo, given here in its first performance. It aims to create a point of calm in which the ear is directed to the individuality of chords (whether struck simultaneously or unfolded note by note), melodic fragments and the shifting colors of a harmonic progression. A few overtones from the bass strings suggest a spirit beyond the instrument to which the harmonic constructs emanate or perhaps to which they aspire.

The Haroun Piano Book is a reworking of material from Charles Wuorinen’s opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories, based on the fable by Salman Rushdie. The opera, composed by 2001, was produced only in 2004; in the interim the composer prepared this piano suite and a cycle entitled The Haroun Songbook for vocal quartet and piano which preserves the basic scheme of the story in a chamber version. In the succession of movements of the piano work, which is initiated by a reference to the magical world that will be embarked upon, we are introduced to three characters: Haroun, a clever boy who gets into a variety of adventures, his dad Rashid, a dreamer and renowned storyteller who’s suddenly off his game, and Mr. Sengupta, who has just run off with Rashid’s wife who has had enough of her husband’s dreamy ways. Rashid is portrayed in both his reflective and active guises; the Strophic Finale is mostly drawn from the song “It’s a party!” from the vocal quartet setting in which Haroun’s efforts to save the day have gotten Rashid out of a jam and everyone celebrates.

Sciarrino’s Anamorfosi is a post-modernist bon-bon in which two worlds of water collide, one as crooned by Gene Kelly and the other as spun out by Maurice Ravel.

– Notes by Mark Robson

Mark Robson has been hailed by the Los Angeles Times as a performer with a “monster technique”, “an inquiring mind” and a pianist for whom everything he “touched sparkled”; he continues to impress with his multi-faceted career as a soloist, chamber musician and teacher. Mr. Robson is equally comfortable in styles ranging from early music that he performs on the harpsichord and organ to the great Romantic repertoire and beyond to contemporary piano works demanding theatrical participation from the performer. He is also a highly respected collaborative artist with singers and instrumentalists.

As a founding member of the Los Angeles- based series Piano Spheres, he presents recitals devoted to new and rarely played music and has frequently played on the Jacaranda series in Santa Monica, CA. In his capacity as an organist he has played at Disney Hall on the Green Umbrella series and in the ‘Minimalist Jukebox’, as well as assuming the organ part for Mahler’s 8th Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl.

After completing conservatory and university training, Mr. Robson amplified his musical studies by studying in Paris where he was a pupil of Yvonne Loriod and subsequently Alain Motard. Additional musical evolution came through his work on the music staff of the Los Angeles Opera for fourteen years as an assistant conductor and assistant chorus master. During this time he collaborated with renowned international singers and conductors, gaining further insight into the vocal arts. He has also been a musical assistant at the Salzburg and Spoleto (Italy) festivals.

As a composer, Robson has been programmed on concerts in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Barcelona and Paris. Two of his orchestral works—Apollo Rising and Christmas Suite—were premiered by the Brentwood-Westwood Symphony. Soprano Patricia Prunty has recorded his song cycle A Child of Air, and the same piece was presented by Sari Gruber at the winter Ravinia Festival. Other compositions include a trio Dances and Dirges for piano, clarinet and cello, Södergran-Dagbok for baritone and piano, numerous songs, Trio Botanica for three bassoons, Ribono shel olam for tenor, cello and organ, and a set of 24 left-hand preludes for the piano.

The recipient of several scholarships and awards (including the Certificate of Excellence from the Corvina Cultural Circle for artistic contributions to Hungary), Mark Robson has received degrees from the University of Southern California and Oberlin College; included among his teachers are Lydia Frumkin, John Perry and James Bonn. He has worked as a vocal coach on the faculties of USC, Chapman University, the California Institute of the Arts and Cal State Fullerton. Two of his large-scale music projects have been the performance of the complete Beethoven sonatas and multiple performances of Messiaen’s great piano cycle Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus.

February 8, 2011
The LA Piano Duo: Liam Viney and Anna Grinberg

Some thoughts on two-piano music:

Throughout the 19th century the combination of two pianos was not considered particularly special. It had two main functions: light entertainment of the “dueling pianos” variety, and as a vehicle for orchestral arrangements. While a highly effective means of disseminating more serious repertoire in arrangements and transcriptions, original two-piano music was often only one step sideways from domestic four hand repertoire (notable contributions by Brahms, Schumann, Liszt and Mozart excluded of course). The combination has perhaps also suffered suspicion, representing a potentially odious doubling of a resource that can surely produce enough noise on its own.

The music on tonight’s program, however, suggests a wondrous development has occurred since the beginning of the 20th century. In the hands of these composers, two pianos merge and create a rich new instrument with its own distinct possibilities. Dutilleux, Davies and Naidoo each explore the ways in which new and unexpected sounds can be triggered by the symbiotic relationship of the pianos, especially in the nestled position. Boulez proves that groundbreaking new concepts of dazzling complexity can often best be explored with 2 keyboards and 20 fingers to work with. And Adams, Kurtág and Schumann/Debussy use the larger tonal palette to explore color and counterpoint – counterpoint of a strict variety in Kurtág and Schumann, and in the sense of independent but interlocking patterns in Adams. Two-piano repertoire clearly came into its own during the 20th century, and the medium continues to provide a compelling means of expression and exploration for composers.

The opening Kurtág selection comes from Játékok, (Games), an ongoing collection of pedagogical pieces; 8 volumes exist as of late 2010. Kurtág wrote that “the idea of composing Játékok was suggested by children playing spontaneously, children for whom the piano still means a toy. They experiment with it, caress it, attack it and run their fingers over it. They pile up seemingly disconnected sounds, and if this happens to arouse their musical instinct they look consciously for some of the harmonies found by chance and keep repeating them.”

Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski wrote his Variations on a Theme of Paganini during the Second World War, and earned a living by performing this and other works in Warsaw’s underground musical cafes during the conflict (but not before serving in a military radio unit, being captured by the Nazis, narrowly escaping while on a prison camp march, and walking 400 km back home). Paganini’s famous 24th Violin Caprice is given a 20th century treatment here, (with due deference to Rachmaninov). This arrangement is just one of 200 similar works created by Lutoslawski during the second world war; transcriptions of music from Bach to Ravel.  All those works were tragically destroyed by fighting near the end of the war, with the sole exception of these Paganini variations.

Figures de résonances – Henri Dutilleux

This collection of four short pieces explores resonance and interactive sonority between two pianos. In his childhood, Dutilleux would sit at a piano and try to imitate sound of the town carillon in Douai; the completion of these pieces in his sixtieth year is perhaps an expression of that early interest in bell-like sonorities. Clearly influenced by Debussy, especially in terms of the generally modal language and ear for color, these pieces also owe something to the brevity of Webern and the general character of Eastern philosophies such as Zen Buddhism. Experimentally focusing on acoustic, timbral and harmonic parameters, they are based on a conception of piano sound that is fundamentally sensual. Dutilleux uses unusual pedal techniques and silently depressed chords and clusters to create sympathetic vibrations between the pianos. Subtle and beautiful relationships develop between the two instruments, as acoustic phenomena interact with recurring pitches, sonorities, and “mirror” structures.

Diamond Morning – Shaun Naidoo
I – Rite of Passage
II- Fear of the Moon
III- F-Sharp Wallah
IV- Diamond Morning

Wallah: usually in combination: person in charge of or employed at a particular thing; “a kitchen wallah”; “the book wallah”

Diamond Morning was commissioned by Liam Viney and Anna Grinberg and completed in early 2007. The first movement in a tightly-constructed set of four, Rite of Passage incisively establishes a groove-influenced musical language that splashes with dense outbursts of color. Madcap melodic material from the beginning is transformed by the end of the movement, reappearing as soft accompaniment to a laid-back tune. The second movement, Fear of the Moon is transitional; the melodic figure at the end of Rite of Passage is put under the microscope and is set within the rhythmic figure that defines the structure of the next movement. The “madcap” flourishes from the opening of Rite of Passage also present differently now, as quietly glittering gestures that become important here in a way they were not earlier. F-Sharp Wallah forms the compositional and virtuosic hub of the whole piece, featuring an obsessive focus on a single pitch. Repeatedly cycling though a pattern of 43 very fast eighth notes upon which increasingly complicated layers are built, the delirious climax of the movement encapsulates the broader structural intentions of the whole piece; flourish becoming foundation. Working in a spiral against gravity, the movement distinctively adds to the “motoric thrill” genre of Ligeti and Nancarrow. The fourth movement, Diamond Morning, is the work’s touchstone, compressing and commenting on the whole. Transfigured motivic material from earlier in the piece creates a compelling statement that resonates with its own memories. Haunting, floating fragments of suspended slow-motion sound hover below a bed of crystal in the top registers of the two pianos; a spectral emanation of lost music. Diamond Morning is dedicated to Alex Viney.

Born in South Africa in 1962, Shaun Naidoo composed extensively for cabaret, musical theater, and modern dance in the late 1980s. During that period a series of collaborations with Warrick Sony and the Kalahari Surfers culminated in the Found Opera Season of Violence, which received an Honorable Mention at the Prix Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria in 1990. His cabaret troupe, “Shaun Naidoo and the Panic Attacks” received the Fringe Award at the South African National Festival of the Arts in 1988 for the revue

Everything but the Shower Scene. Collaborations with the City Theater and Dance group as composer and musical director resulted in the acclaimed musicals Hotel Polana (1989) and Sunrise City (1988). The latter work incidentally became the last work to be banned by the apartheid regime in South Africa.

In 1990 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and settled in Los Angeles, where he received Masters and Doctoral degrees in composition at USC. His output during the 1990s include numerous electro-acoustic works, which can be heard on C.R.I., New World Records, Evander Music, and Capstone Records.

Over the past twenty years or so he has written for ensembles and artists around the world, including the California E.A.R. Unit, the New World Symphony, FearNoMusic, Third Angle, Ecco (Freiburg, Germany), pianist Vicki Ray, clarinetists Marty Walker and Phil O’Connor, Australian/Israeli piano duo Liam Viney and Anna Grinberg, German saxophonist Christoph Kirschke, percussionists Nicholas Terry and Mark Goodenberger, and many others.

His music has been heard most recently at Carnegie Hall, Dartington Castle (England), Walt Disney Concert Hall, REDCAT Theater, the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, the Bang on a Can Festival at MassMoca in Massachussetts, and in Brisbane, Australia.

Naidoo is currently based in Los Angeles, where he is an Associate Professor of Composition at Chapman University.

Structures I – Pierre Boulez

Of Structures I, the most extensively serialized piece he ever composed, Boulez wrote:

“I wanted to eradicate from my vocabulary absolutely every trace of the conventional, whether it concerned figures and phrases, or development and form; I then wanted gradually, element after element, to win back the various stages of the compositional process, in such a manner that a perfectly new synthesis might arise, a synthesis that would not be corrupted from the very outset by foreign bodies’ stylistic reminiscences in particular.”

A granitic milestone in the history of music, Structures I emerged from the cultural ashes of post-WWII Europe. It encompasses themes of destruction and renewal, and could arguably (if poetically) be called the most guttural primal scream ever notated in music.

It is well-known that Boulez considered borrowing the title ‘At the end of fruitful lands…’, from a painting by Paul Klee, for the first movement. Yet he did not consider Structures an endpoint at the time of composition, rather a glimpse of the present and future. The piece is built on a foundation suggested by Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d’intensités; a work in which Messiaen assigned specific durations, dynamics and articulations to individual pitches within a series of pitches. Boulez imperiously quotes Messiaen’s “mode” triple fortissimo at the very beginning of chapter 1a, and proceeds inexorably toward total (or integral) serialism, in which essentially every musical parameter is governed by serial principles.

Kurtág’s Fog Canon, Schumann’s Etudes 1 and 2 and Davies’ Lesson 1 are tonight performed as a set.

These four short pieces represent a bridge between the “ends of fruitful lands” reached in Structures and the “new world” of minimalism. They each relate to the musical device of canon, to varying degrees. Seminal works in the development of minimalism, (such as Reich’s Piano Phase, also for two pianos) were essentially canons, a technique dating to Western musical antiquity. The principle of imitation in general certainly informs Hallelujah Junction’s interlocking whoops of jubilation.

Kurtág’s Fog Canon emerges from a haze of veiled clusters, shyly evaporating almost before it arrives, grasping to attain corporeality. It seemed like the only thing that could sensibly be played after Structures.

Schumann wrote these Etudes in the Form of a Canon at a time of deep involvement with Bach’s music, which was functioning as a kind of therapy for the composer during a difficult period. They are compositional studies, not technical etudes for the performer, each of which is a strict canon. Schumann wrote this music for the now-defunct pedal piano, which allowed for a “Romantic” counterpoint (big melodic lines) with the pedals taking responsibility for the bass line away from the hands. Debussy’s arrangement is sensitive and beautiful, and creates a triple handshake across musical history; the inspiration and influence of Bach’s counterpoint is re-created in the deeply Romantic language of Schumann, which is in turn re-imagined for two pianos by Debussy. The music is all by Schumann, but the homage is to Bach, and the sense of colour is from Debussy.

Paul Griffiths describes Davies’ Four Lessons for Two Keyboards as ‘lessons’ in the Purcellian sense: keyboard studies that are both substantial yet intimate works. In this sense the piece extends the musical echoes and inter-composer dialogue of the previous Schumann/Debussy/Bach. This first, enigmatic slow movement features freely unfolding canonic imitation in the second keyboard. The work was originally written for two clavichords, but can be played, according to the composer, by ‘two keyboard instruments of any kind, alike or contrasting’, so long as they create a reasonable balance of sound.

Hallelujah Junction – John Adams

Adams writes: “Hallelujah Junction is a tiny truck stop on Route 49 on the Nevada-California border, not far from where I own a small mountain cabin. One can only speculate on its beginnings in the era of prospectors and Gold Rush speculators (although a recent visit revealed that cappuccino is now available there). Here we have a case of a great title looking for a piece. So now the piece finally exists: the ‘junction’ being the interlocking style of two-piano writing which features short, highly rhythmicized motives bouncing back and forth between the two pianos in tightly phased sequences.”

Hallelujah Junction creates an irresistible sense of exultation and ecstasy. Even during more reflective passages there is a sense of movement and constant forward motion. Simon Rattle once said that Adams’ music makes him feel like he’s in a small aircraft, flying very fast and close to the ground. The use of a fragment from the Hallelujah chorus may not be obvious at first, but it provides the motivic DNA for most of the piece, and becomes quite clear by the end.

– Program Notes by Liam Viney