Zellerbach Hall Series
Date/Times: October 3, 2013, 7 pm
Prices: $15–$74 | Location: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
The world premiere of Edmund Campion’s Ossicles (Tiny Bones) is guaranteed to wake up our ears and to remind us that we have been practicing our own personal in-the-ear musical instrument since birth. The season opener continues with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, composed as a birthday gift for his wife after the birth of their son Siegfried, and ends with Rachmaninoff’s haunting Second Piano Concerto. Classics Today wrote: “Rachmaninoff’s music fits Alessio Bax’s seemingly boundless technique hand in glove, along with his big, luscious, multi-colored sonority and ardent temperament.”
Conductor Gerard Schwarz will step in for Music Director Joana Carneiro at Berkeley Symphony’s season opening concert Thursday, October 3 at 7pm at Zellerbach Hall. Maestra Carneiro has had to cancel her appearance due to medical conditions that prevent air travel at this time. Gerard Schwarz is widely regarded for his tenure as Music Director of New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival, LA Chamber Orchestra, New York Chamber Symphony, Seattle Symphony, and most recently, the All-Star Orchestra. “It is a huge honor for Berkeley Symphony to welcome Gerard Schwarz,” said Executive Director René Mandel, “and we thank him for his willingness to step in at this last minute to open our Berkeley Symphony season in such an exciting manner.” The repertoire remains unchanged.
Edmund Campion: Ossicles (Tiny Bones) (world premiere co-commission with Cal Performances)
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Co-commissioned by Berkeley Symphony and Cal Performances
This piece is in three movements with an added lengthy coda, and is scored for strings, brass, percussion, and no woodwinds.
Ossicles means tiny bones and refers to the Auditory Ossicles, the three smallest bones in the human body. Attached to the eardrum is the Malleus (hammer), followed by the Incus (anvil), and the very tiny Stapes (stirrup). The three bones are fashioned into a mechanical lever that transmit soundwave energy into the inner-ear. This crude and ancient transmission system helps empower the cochlea where sound is dissected and relayed to the brain as nerve impulses. Starting even before we exit the womb, these three weird little bones vibrate in the center of our heads until the day of our death.
My piece is focused on the physical aspect of sound, both cooked and raw, noisy and clarified. There are always narrative references, maybe the sound of trains passing through the concert hall, but only as a reminder of the wonder of sound and the miracle of cognition. In Ossicles, you might recognize allusion to past music traditions. This is not quoting nor homage, just occurrences of unlikely musical apparitions that emerge from an explored set of materials that have lost a need for boundaries. This is a post-modern tendency, something strongly present in all my music. It has led me to a long relationship with ideas emerging from the history of the grotesque or grotto-esque. This word has a rich and deep history and does not just mean gross or horrifying, but also refers to the natural disillusionment of types. Dissolving boundaries does not mean abandoning discipline, and the results can be the beautiful emergence of unknown or hitherto forbidden combinations. New music.
To me, the sound of a musical note and the sound of a waterfall are both beautiful and complete, each occupying different regions of the spectrum of physical nature. Western classical music prioritized the note, and not surprisingly, the avant-garde prioritized noise and all the things “not the note”. When I compose for the orchestra, the subject is music, not theatre, but still my subject involves all things that are possible in sound, all sound. I value connection with the audience, and I hope my music can help reconnect the listener with both sides of this grand continuum — from a single frequency to broadband noise. Sometimes it is funny, apparently wrong, but this is OK, and it is OK as well to laugh at it or with it. With all tendencies occupying the same space, this music can be in the same moment very dark and very light. I try to let all things co-exist side by side, just as in our real world.
– Edmund Campion
The Siegfried Idyll represents one of the most tenderly personal impressions Wagner set out to make. On Christmas morning in 1870, it was with this music that he serenaded the woman he had finally been permitted to marry (or “aubaded,” if that verb existed, an aubade being the dawn counterpart of the evening serenade). The ceremony had taken place four months previously in one of the churches in nearby Lucerne. Cosima Wagner was the daughter of Wagner champion Franz Liszt and the former wife of Hans von Bülow, another Wagner champion who conducted the premieres of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger — even though the composer and Cosima had become lovers. Her birthday actually fell on December 24, but as her sense of messianic entitlement fully matched that of her new husband, Cosima (who actually turned 33 that year) had developed the habit of waiting a day so as to celebrate the grand event on Christmas.
The occasion was especially joyful in 1870. Wagner’s recent marriage at last legitimized a relationship that had caused widespread scandal and serious friction with his new patron, King Ludwig. What’s more, Wagner’s chaotic life had in the past few years attained a reasonable equilibrium. He had resettled the family into a beautiful lakeside villa in Tribschen in central Switzerland (nowadays a half hour walk from the KKL concert hall in Lucerne). With this tranquil setting as backdrop, Wagner succeeded in returning to his Ring project after a protracted delay and, in 1869, completed the third and final act of Siegfried. And Tribschen was where his only son with Cosima was born, also in the summer of 1869. The birth of Siegfried Wagner, named after the Ring’s young hero, heralded a new period of optimism and unwonted domestic contentment for his restless father.
All of these joyful associations – Wagner’s love of Cosima, Siegfried the opera and a fresh lease on life for the Ring, and Siegfried the baby boy – blend together in the single-movement Siegfried Idyll. That’s the reigning image, at least. With a bit of gleeful malice, the controversial German biographer, Joachim Köhler, typically throws water on this picture of domestic bliss and suggests a secret hidden within the secret: Wagner’s love here may also be directed at the young “sphinx” Judith Gautier (to whose father Baudelaire had dedicated Fleurs du mal), a recent visitor to Tribschen.
The composer’s initial title, inscribed on the autograph score, was “Tribschen Idyll with Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, presented as a symphonic birthday greeting to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870.” The boy’s nickname was Fidi, and the couple privately marveled at the brilliantly glowing sunrise as it reflected off the orange wallpaper of their bedroom.
In her diary, Cosima reported awakening to the strains of music she believed to be coming from a dream. What she was hearing was the chamber ensemble her husband had put together to play on the staircase. (Christmas proceeded with two more performances of what they sometimes referred to as “The Staircase Music.”) Created as a kind of site-specific occasional composition, the piece also served as a private love letter. But in 1878, overshadowed by the crushing debts accumulated during the debut of the Ring, Wagner was forced to publish the score to generate income, and he renamed it Siegfried Idyll.
This “symphonic birthday greeting” recycles musical ideas that would become familiar from the third-act love duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the penultimate Ring opera. (At the time, of course, this had not yet been performed.) But in this context the epic is replaced by the intimate. Wagner, the archpriest of music associated with drama and characters, here pens a wordless, purely instrumental composition that even loosely follows sonata form, a relic of the old practice so beloved of Brahms and company but which had allegedly been superseded by the Music of the Future.
Against a lullaby-like atmosphere, the strings intone the main theme, a warm melody in E major which Wagner had earlier associated with Cosima and subsequently immortalized in the section of the Siegfried duet that starts with Brünnhilde’s “Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich” (“I was, I am, eternally [yours]”). Also part of the motivic fabric are a folk lullaby and other Siegfried motifs, such as the birdsong from the Forest Murmurs scene in the second act, where Siegfried communes with nature, and the hypnotic sleep motif signaling Brünnhilde in her slumber, encircled by protecting fire.
© Thomas May
Rachmaninoff wrote his Second Piano Concerto between 1900 and 1901. The composition of this concerto marked an important turning point for Rachmaninoff by restoring his creative confidence. A finely constructed score, the Second overflows with melodic richness and has become one of the best-loved piano concertos in the literature.
The first movement introduces some patterns that will be encountered in the other two movements as well, such as the use of a preludial gesture. Here it takes the form of a brief but atmospheric raising of the curtain by the soloist, who tolls eight chords. The shifting harmonies of those chords gravitate toward the home key of C minor, the piano a mock bell-ringer for this composer obsessed with the sonority of bells. A four-note tag at the end serves as a unifying motif, followed by the orchestra’s entry with the first of the opening movement’s two main themes. Surging and virtuosic, the keyboard’s figurations add an important component to the overall tonal picture even when the soloist is not commanding attention.
Curiously, the piano is never entrusted with the first theme in its entirety, though it does lay claim to the second theme — another wonderfully lyrical effusion — after an excited transition passage. Rachmaninoff made his name as one of the superstars of the golden age of pianism, yet a key feature of this concerto is his ability to combine the piano with other instrumental textures, blending them to form new colors. At the climactic reprise of the first theme by the orchestra, the soloist bursts into a rhythmically brittle sequence based on the four-note motif heard at the opening, now almost martial in its bravado. Against string tremolos and clarinet harmonies, the horn is given its say with the second theme (slowed down to magical effect).
In the first breaths of the Adagio, the orchestra gently changes gear toward E major (in the wake of the first movement’s C minor, the shift is enchanting). Rachmaninoff treats us to one of his most beguiling, heart-tugging melodies, sung by woodwinds; the soloist accompanies with a subtly syncopated pattern of triplets, eventually introducing its version of the melody. Tchaikovsky, one of Rachmaninoff’s idols (and another composer admired by Chekhov), devised a strategy for his First Piano Concerto that serves as the model here and, even more elaborately, in Rach Three: the interpolation of a scherzo-like central section, intruding like a dream, to contrast with the lyrical framework enveloping it. A brief solo for the piano serves as transition back to the nostalgic principal melody.
A short passage introduces the finale. This gives way to a splashy mini-cadenza before the main theme announces itself. Disregarding the precedent of the first movement, Rachmaninoff plays up the principle of contrast between themes. The first one is tightly confined, yet volatile, while the second encapsulates the concerto’s moody, elegiac lyricism, as if Rachmaninoff is smuggling the emotional directness of his beloved Tchaikovsky into a new century. A swooning earworm this tune almost begs to be detached – and was, as fans of Frank Sinatra know well. There follows a series of episodes, including a brief, fugue-like passage and a transformation of the moody second theme into a more grandiose garb for the entire ensemble, spiked with assertive piano chords. But its spell fades quickly and cedes to a fleet-fingered coda: Rachmaninoff brings home the joy of restored creativity, settles accounts in the major key, and seals it all with the rhythmic tag (long-short-short-long) that served as his signature.
© Thomas May