Dmitri Shostakovich : Piano Trio #1
Kevin Puts : Living Frescoes
Angel Lam : Fragrance of the Sea (California Premiere)
Gabriel Fauré : Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 120
BEFORE THE CONCERT
Learn about this concert’s composers and their works. Gain deeper insights into the music with Kai Christiansen, noted San Francisco musicologist and founder of earsense.org an online chamber music exploratorium.
Lecture starts at 6:45 PM in the Sunset Center concert hall, and is free-of-charge.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 8 (1923)
Shostakovich composed his mature, second piano trio in 1944 at the age of 38 and it is a stunning and potent masterwork firmly in the repertoire. Likely less well known is his compelling first piano trio, an early work Shostakovich wrote in 1923 at the tender age of 16. Such was his precocity that he had already been a student at the Petrograd Conservatory for three years. A bout of tuberculosis sent him to a sanatorium to convalesce where, according to his sister Mariya, “he got a suntan and fell in love.” The object of his affections was girl named Tatyana Glivenko to whom Shostakovich eventually dedicated the piano trio. One can imagine his amorous intent from the original title Poème.
Though sometimes regarded as “student work,” this single movement trio is a great piece by several standards but particularly because it shows that even at the age of 16, Shostakovich was a gifted, skillful and original composer with strong evocations of his mature sensibilities summarized aptly by writer Robert Philips with “lyrical melodies colored by acerbic harmonies, sudden contrasts of pace and energy, insistent rhythms, and spare textures giving way to unashamedly romantic passages and powerful climaxes.” A key trait in this early musical snapshot is what one of his professors criticized as an “obsession with the grotesque.” On the surface, it is an evocative rhapsody with several recurrent themes (or motifs) featuring abrupt transitions where chromatically colored driving momentum gives way to shimmering, lyrical repose. It has been suggested that its episodic theatricality reflects the fact that Shostakovich was then making money by playing live music for silent films where he and some friends rehearsed the trio in public. Beautifully constructed and vividly expressed, the trio is complex, passionate and, with its wild contrasts, compellingly ambiguous. As with the mature Shostakovich, sincerity mingles with irony, hope with despair, the lovely with the grotesque, the real with the surreal.
Kevin Puts (born 1972)
Living Frescoes (2012)
Living Frescoes was inspired Bill Viola’s 2002 art installation Going Forth by Day, a series of five looped digital “frescoes” which explore themes of human existence: individuality, society, death, rebirth. The title of the work derives from a literal translation of the title of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, “The Book of Going Forth by Day”, a guide for the soul once it is freed from the darkness of the body to finally “go forth by the light of day.” Viola acknowledges the influence of Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, a Renaissance work that, like Viola’s installation, occupies an architectural space through which the viewer may physically pass. Commissioned by the Deutsch Guggenheim in Berlin, the work was also on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in the fall of 2002.
The piece is scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the combination of instruments made famous by Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. It is comprised of five movements corresponding to each of Viola’s five projections: Fire Birth, The Path, The Deluge, The Voyage, First Light. A rather ghostly, transitional music, which I call Going Forth, is interwoven throughout these movements and also serves as an introduction. This music functions in a way similar that of the returning Promenade from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
While in many ways my musical “take” on the five projections closely mirrors the expressive intent Viola likely had in mind, I often find my own meanings. For example, I saw The Path simply as “the journey of life”, which may not reflect Viola’s intent. In general, the demands of a piece of music, in which the audience must remain bound to their seats from beginning to end, differ from those of an art installation, in which one can move at one’s own pace from image to image. Rather than attempt to write music that exactly corresponded to the narrative of the projection, I let the music go where it needed to and, in the broadest sense, to tell a story of its own. Living Frescoes was commissioned by Chamber Music Monterey Bay as part of a larger commissioning project entitled The Arc of Life, an idea conceived by CMMB Artistic Director Amy Anderson who commissioned composers Christopher Theofanidis, Joan Tower, George Tsontakis and myself to create works related in some way by Mr. Viola’s Going Forth by Day. It was premiered on October 12, 2012 by Trio Solisti, (Maria Bachmann, violin; Alexis Pia Gerlach, cello; Jon Klibonoff, piano) joined by clarinetist Jon Manasse.
Angel Lam (born 1978)
Fragrance of the Sea (2017)
Using the imagery of river and sea, this piece traces my family’s migration from a village town in southern China to the Shanghai of 1940s, and my growing up in contemporary Hong Kong and finally arriving in New York City. Like Aaron Copland’s colorfully multifaceted palette, I begin with the pentatonic scale used in classical China, and an ancient Tang dynasty poem. I compose music to the poem—the thousand-year-old language shares similarity with my native tongue, Cantonese. The poem describes a poet, who sees a setting sun and a river running east in the distance. He hints at the departure and farewell of a close friend.
Tracing the river eastward one would arrive at the ancient sea, where earlier people feared. It was a place of no return. The poem continues, “If one wishes to see further, one must go higher, up the steps to the next level to see greater horizon.” What great courage one must have to reach a higher and greater distance, risking their lives across oceans.
Through the sea routes, my family arrived at the vibrantly colorful, international Shanghai, adding one more note to our classical scale. It’s a six-note scale against an upbeat, luring and feminine Shanghai. It was Chinese, French, and international, all at once.
The dance-like extravagant life of Shanghai ended. My family fled the revolution, and arrived at the safe southeast harbor of Hong Kong. Here it is still the Chinese melody that we once knew, but we now have a seven-note scale. When I arrived New York, I hear a chromatic scale as the backdrop of Manhattan’s carefree and optimistic ocean.
These four movements are nostalgic memories of diversely different seas. Even though the locations and times have changed, the tastes, sentiments and human instincts have not.”
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 120 (1922-23)
A central figure in 19th and 20th century French music, Fauré has consistently been highly regarded as a composer particularly for his Requiem, his catalog of unsurpassable French art songs, and his substantial chamber music. Fauré composed chamber music throughout his life where an affinity for intimate ensemble remained central to his aesthetic. His chamber music includes the magnificent piano quartets and quintets and a number of excellent duo sonatas. Fauré’s final years yielded the single Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 120 and the very last composition, his only string quartet, both unquestionable master works in a late, personal style.
The first movement follows the contours of a dramatic sonata form with rich and constant variation eluding such simple ideas as development and recapitulation. Like a flowing river in which one can never step twice, ideas recur but always in fresh treatments. The notion of water is more than mere metaphor: the music begins with a gently rippled piano figuration and a long, swaying melody from the cello that evokes the barcarolle style that Fauré frequently used. The melodies build seamlessly from small rhythmic motifs that form chains, sequences and long lines as well as creating a mosaic of tiny fragments echoed throughout the ensemble. The strings predominate the first theme; the piano calmly introduces the second. In what might be regarded as a recapitulation, the instrumentation is reversed infusing each of these themes with a whole new sense of color. Comparing the beginning with analogous musical rhymes toward the end, one sees just how far the music has evolved though a process of steady permutation.
Fauré’s gift for melody is especially evident in the charming, gentle repose of the central Andantino. A particularly French character pervades this tender duet for violin and cello with piano eavesdropper. But the mood intensifies as the music gives way to a darker hued introspection that stretches into the longest movement of the trio. It is here that Fauré deploys an unusual texture at length: the violin and cello in octave doublings for a single, thick line of melody to a piano accompaniment like an art song. Once habituated to this somewhat spare and haunting sound, the ear is especially prepared for the transition of unison lines into divergent counterpoint, a graceful and precious flowering. Here again is the distinctive process of slow, meditative transformation of minimal material with a subtlety that borders on austerity.
The finale is a marvel of color, energy and contrast. It begins with the same peculiar octave doublings of the strings in a slow articulated melody that seems like an overflow from the previous movement. This is immediately interrupted by a dazzling flourish from the piano announcing the energetic rhythm that, despite attempts to foil it, will animate the music throughout. Fauré seems to interleave and ultimately superimpose two different conceptions of time in this movement, each with its own recurring theme. Despite the spirited playfulness and the luminous, exotic modalities throughout the trio, the predominating key of D Minor lends the music a certain dark cast.
-Kai Christiansen Earsense.org