Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Program Notes for The Arneis Ensemble Concert on 12/10/2009

Arnold Bax wrote the Quintet for Oboe and Strings in 1923 for renowned oboist, Leon Goossens. It was the first piece ever dedicated to the emerging soloist. The piece, no doubt, was meant to showcase his incredible facility on the oboe from a technical and expressive standpoint. In fact, the piece is a significant challenge for the entire ensemble. The string writing is virtuosic, atmospheric, and at times downright awkward.

The first movement begins with a few chords played by the strings in a grand swell of tonality followed by the statement of the theme in the oboe that becomes a ritornello through repetition over the course of the movement. Bax uses plenty of augmented seconds and “snap” rhythms to evoke the wailing sonority of Celtic keening. The movement follows a typical form of a slow rhapsodic introduction, followed by a fast section, and then a return to the opening material at the end.

The second movement features each member of the ensemble with significant melodic solo lines. In the opening, the strings play an extended introduction stating the theme of the movement that is punctuated by virtuosic cadenzas in the oboe part. In the “B” section, the oboe takes a backseat commenting only between phrases while the string play chorale-like material. Afterward, the music from the opening returns but stated more rhythmically straightforward with the oboe joining in octaves above the rest of the strings. Ponticello string playing lends an eerie, mysterious nature perhaps reminiscent the morning mists so common in the Irish countryside.

Bax uses folk melodies to create a sort of upbeat, if not somewhat sarcastic dance suite in the third movement. In a time when many British composers were writing Nationalistic music, Bax was somewhat pressured by peers to conform so that his music would be played, however his Irish roots didn’t give him much sympathy for the war-torn British population. Though the movement feels light-hearted and used folk melodies in the vane of Nationalism, there are several points when he marks words like “coarsely” or “roughly blown” into the parts and score. He is indicating that the material not be played wistfully and sentimentally but rather with aggression and anger in a pointed and cynical manner. It remains, however, a rousing end with plenty of flourishes to a rather perfumed and listless piece of music. The hilarious tongue-in-cheek coda reminds all of us that even though we get upset about things sometimes, a little good humor goes a long way in feeling better about past disagreements.

The Ten Bagatelles by Donald Wheelock are a collection of short pieces, the longest lasting no more than a two minutes, and the shortest around twenty seconds. Each movement is densely packed with an incredible number of detailed dynamic, tempo, and articulation markings for the performers to execute. It’s the type of writing that’s often associated with composers like Gyorgy Ligeti, whose music was used by Stanley Kubrick, and Alban Berg, who revolutionized the way that we think about harmony today. Each movement, though brief, creates a unique atmospheric feel, and is a world unto itself of compositional thought.

Donald Wheelock teaches his last class at Smith College on the very day of this performance embarking on a life of retirement. I met him and his wife, Anne, about two years ago as his waiter at L’Espalier when they celebrated their anniversary. Mr. Wheelock was kind enough to send me the score and parts with a recording of the Ten Bagatelles with his compliments along with a hand-written letter thanking me for a lovely evening. The pieces have proved to be an exciting discovery for me in the limited realm of oboe repertoire. I have really fallen in love with them over the course of the month or so that we have been rehearsing.
Joan Tower’s “Island Prelude” is composed in the tradition of the tone poem popularized by such Romantic composers as Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius. Tower’s musical language, however, takes on a much more subtle and subdued tone in comparison. She names Barber’s Adagio for Strings as her main influence when composing the piece for oboist, Peter Bowman in 1988. It’s easy to hear Barber’s influence in the piece in the sustained song-like writing especially for the oboe.

The “A” section recalls the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tide with chorale textures and dovetailed entrances, the oboe weaving in and out of the texture all the time. A melismatic whole tone scale motif takes over in the “B” section eventually giving way to some very technically demanding writing for the two violins and the oboe. The shimmering trills and octave leaps create tension that might suggest the appearance of a mirage on the island. The “C” section features the solo oboe in cadenzas recalling, according to the composer, a lone bird swooping in and out of the clouds over the island. The coda ends the piece quickly and quietly from whence it came, the island vanishing into thin air in the distance.

The "Wedding" Cantata No. 202 by JS Bach, is one of the few secular Cantatas that Bach wrote. It is a celebration of love of all types: emotional, spiritual, and physical. Bach sets most of the arias in dance form, avoiding the usual chorales and terse counterpoint texture in favor of happy jigs, and gavottes. The mood of the various “dance-arias” runs the gambit from profoundly intimate to downright bawdy. The soprano role dominates the piece showcasing the singer's versatility through both long soaring melodies and tricky melismatic passages that seem without an end.

The piece opens with a Sinfonia for the entire group. Bach creates a placid feel with rising arpeggios played by the strings over which the soprano and oboe weave their duet of soaring lyrical lines. The second aria features the cello as soloist in a lively minuet or jig. The violin takes the lead in the third aria with a lugubrious obbligato line in the only movement composed in a minor key in the entire piece. In the fourth aria, the oboe takes its turn in the spotlight with the soprano in a raucous and silly jig, no doubt composed with some wedding guests in mind who might have been imbibing over the course of the evening. The final movement is a courtly Gavotte for the entire ensemble ending the Cantata on a proper and stately note.

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