Orchestra Roster and Program Notes for
October 24, 2004 Musica Bella Concert
Concert No. 14
Conductor: Phillip Gaskill
Guest Conductor: David Avshalomov
Sunday, May 2, 2004
Church of the Blessed Sacrament
AVSHALOMOV WORLD PREMIERE
Wagner: Rienzi Overture
Avshalomov: Elegy for Strings
Avshalomov: Songs of Life/Songs of Death
David Avshalomov, bass/baritone
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”)
David Avshalomov, guest conductor
Michelle Des Roches,
principal second violin
Catherine Y. Koh
Uli Speth, concertmaster
Jill Thompson, principal
James Mark Pedersen
Toshio Mara, principal
Shoji Mizumoto, section leader
Thomas Crane, section leader
Christine Todd, section leader
Phil Fedora, section leader
Jo Ann Lamolino
Jenny L. Ruzow,
Ron Hay, alto,
Darrell Hendricks, bass
Manager Anahit Harutyunyan-Gaskill
Assistant Manager Thomas Crane
Music Director/Conductor Phillip Gaskill
|ABOUT OUR GUEST
A distinguished classical composer and orchestral conductor based in Santa Monica (but originally from New York), David Avshalomov has also been an accomplished vocalist since his early years. His father Jacob is a renowned composer-conductor (now retired), and his mother Doris a poet and teacher who studied operatic voice at Eastman. As a student, David sang in school choirs, studied piano, music theory and percussion, and learned the joys of madrigal singing at home. At Harvard college, where he majored in music, he was a professional chorister and a frequent oratorio and motet soloist and madrigalist. He served a tour of duty as a bass vocalist in the Singing Sergeants of the USAF Band (where he and Maestro Gaskill first became friends), also as occasional soloist and arranger, and since moving to Los Angeles has performed both part music and as a soloist with such groups as Madrigalia, Cantori di Mezzogiorno, Soffio di Viento, and Santa Monica Chamber Orchestra (with Mary Rawcliffe and Robert Winter).
As a singer, he brings an artist’s sensibilities, interpretation, and expression to his performances of both his own and others’ music. He is noted for his powerful and highly nuanced baritone voice and emotional renditions.
As a composer, he crafts works in an accessible modern neo-tonal style that balances a lyric gift with a characteristic rhythmic vitality. The forms he crafts are conservative and developmental. His influences include the great 20th-century European and American tonal composers (plus his father and his paternal grandfather, Aaron Avshalomoff). In his words, “Melody is the thread of my daily life. I still find new paths through old musical forms, and fresh expression based in folk idioms and drawing on old melodic and harmonic roots.” He has composed music for a wide variety of forces from solo instruments through chamber ensembles to full orchestra, band, and choir, in forms ranging in scale from songs and incidental pieces to full-length oratorio. Recently he has been writing predominantly vocal music, including songs (many of them for his own use) and choral settings, and receiving an increasing number of commissions. His compositions have been performed professionally across the U.S., in Europe, and in Russia, and have been recorded on the Albany and Marco Polo labels.
He earned a D.M.A. in conducting from the University of Washington. For over 20 years, he worked professionally as a conductor of orchestras, choruses, bands, and opera. In 1980 he founded the Santa Monica Chamber Orchestra, which he led for a decade. He has toured in the Far East and Europe, and recorded his own music and that of his grandfather in Russia. His conducting work has garnered listings in Who’s Who in Music and Who’s Who in the West.
By the age of twenty-four, Richard Wagner had already composed two operas in addition to several concert overtures, piano pieces and a symphony. The careers of these operas were hardly auspicious. Die Feen (The Fairies) of 1833 was not performed until 1888, five years after Wagner’s death; Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), an 1836 comedy based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, was dismissed by critics as “second-rate Donizetti.” The young composer was not discouraged. He had already put into print his theories on musical drama, praising the Italian composers for their emphasis on melodic line while damning them for unimaginative use of the orchestra, simplistic plots, and adherence to the traditional format of set musical numbers separated by recitatives. At the same time he excoriated German composers for being unmelodic, turgid and overly intellectual Ð and, as a consequence, far less popular than the Italians. Wagner not only advocated development of a “new wave” of German opera, but also (along with many of his contemporaries) envisioned a synthesis of melody, poetry, dramatic action, philosophy and visual arts in a “total art work,” or Gesamtkunstwerk.
As he prepared to take up his duties as conductor at the opera house in Riga, Wagner came across a translation of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes. Bulwer-Lytton, best known today for The Last Days of Pompeii, was a once-popular author of ponderous historical novels (one of which actually opened with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night”), but his work fired Wagner’s imagination. The story of Cola di Rienzi (1313-1354) was already the subject of many books, plays, and at least one opera. At the time of the Great Schism, with the Papal court in Avignon, Rome had become a lawless city, with two powerful noble families (essentially crime syndicates) battling for control and terrorizing the populace. Rienzi, who had risen from humble origins to become notary to Pope Clement VI, saw an opportunity to reestablish the greatness of ancient Rome under a republican government. His fiery speeches inspired the commoners to rise up and break the power of the nobles. Appointed “tribune,” Rienzi dreamed of uniting all of Italy under the Roman republic, and partly succeeded before his rule degenerated into luxury and nepotism. The Pope, who had once welcomed Rienzi’s defeat of the nobles, now turned to them for aid, while the commoners grew disillusioned with their leader. In the end a mob, denouncing Rienzi as a tyrant and traitor, murdered him.
The youthful Wagner, with his strong revolutionary impulses which would land him in hot water a decade later, saw in Rienzi both an inspirational figure and a tragic hero. (Perhaps anticipating the concluding scene of Götterdämmerung years later, he had his protagonist meet his end in the fiery collapse of a tower.) He began composition of the work in Riga in 1838, and completed it in Paris in 1840. Despite its unprecedented length (nearly six hours) and numerous setbacks, the opera had its premiere in Paris on October 20, 1842, to great acclaim. Wagner had established his creative future.
The overture is in traditional form, with a slow introduction giving way to an energetic faster section. It opens with a single sustained trumpet note, followed by a brooding passage for the cellos and basses; a second trumpet call leads to a serene, chorale-like passage in the woodwinds. After a third trumpet note, the dark character returns, evoking the sinister atmosphere of Rome; but ultimately a long, noble theme emerges: Rienzi’s prayer Du stärktest mich (“Thou didst give me strength”), from the opening scene of the fifth act. A sinister chromatic passage in the trombones interrupts this meditation; but the prayer returns forcefully in the full orchestra. The triumphal Allegro is follows is centered around the third act’s Schlachthymne (Battle Hymn), Rienzi’s stirring exhortation (“Santo spirito!”) to the Roman people to throw off their oppressors.
—Note by Thomas Crane
David Avshalomov’s Elegy for String Orchestra (1989) grew out of its soulful opening melody, arching up, gently falling down. It has five sections. The first (in the key of a minor) spins out the tune in the first violins (who carry the melodic thread for most of the piece), gradually adding accompaniment, cadencing on a “farewell” harmony, then repeating. The second is a solemn chorale in the lower strings, turning to A major. The third is a high sweet melody in first violins (memories and hope), becoming more impassioned in a second section, under a pulsing accompaniment. The fourth is an unexpected slow blues-y “stomp,” hitting deliberate “sour” notes and adding mildly jazzy harmonies in the plucked accompaniment, building, climaxing, relaxing. (This shift has been described by listeners as “Mahler meets Cab Calloway.”) The fifth re-works the opening, now more bitterly harmonized, reaching a “death” chord, then repeating the “farewell” cadence. It closes with several plangent phrases echoing the opening motif of the piece. The first violins are left hanging high above a deep bass note, then the inner parts complete a sweet harmony of acceptance, fading away.
Written shortly after Leonard Bernstein’s death, the piece is dedicated to the memory of this man whose career was such a beacon for young American conductors and composers. It has on specific occasions been performed in memory of others, including the composer’s paternal grandfather, Aaron Avshalomoff. This performance represents its East Coast premiere.
—Note by David Avshalomov
In 1892, five years after his Fifth Symphony, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky began composition of a sixth, in E-flat major. The work did not engage him fully, and he eventually put it aside, convinced that his powers of creativity were dead. The following February, however, he embarked on a work of quite different character, a “Program” symphony that he sensed would be unlike anything he had done before. He wrote to his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davydov: “This program is so intensely personal that as I was mentally composing it on my travels I frequently wept copiously. When I got home . . . I worked with such fervor and speed that in less than four days I had completely finished the first movement . . . . From the point of view of form there will be much that is new in this symphony.” In another letter to Bob, Tchaikovsky said, “It’s not turning out quite as I imagined it. It will be quite normal and unsurprising if this symphony is torn to pieces or not properly appreciated — it wouldn’t be the first time. But I definitely think it is by far the best and in particular by far the most sincere of all my pieces. I love it as I have never loved any other of my musical children.”
The composer’s own words seem at odds with the widely held view that the Sixth Symphony represents the final tragic statement of a deeply unhappy person, a summary of his life together with a fearful sense of approaching darkness. (One thinks in this context of Mozart’s Requiem, Brahms’s Four Scriptural Songs and Berg’s Violin Concerto.) Much of Tchaikovsky’s life was certainly charged with despair. Hypersensitive and emotional since early childhood, he struggled with self-doubt, depression and a morbid fear of death, often seeking solace in alcohol. His disastrous marriage to Antonina Milyukova, an impulsive attempt to conceal his homosexuality, drove him to attempt suicide; and for years he was kept from poverty through the largesse of his wealthy patroness Nadezhda von Meck, whom he never met in person despite their voluminous correspondence. Yet for all these obstacles, Tchaikovsky’s career flourished both in and outside Russia. In 1891, he conducted the first concert ever held at Carnegie Hall, and was astonished to learn that his music was even more renowned in America than in Europe. And in the summer of 1893, in the midst of his work on the Sixth Symphony, he traveled to Cambridge to receive an honorary doctorate.
Tchaikovsky completed the orchestration at his country house in Klin in August, dedicating the work to Bob, and set about preparing the premiere with great excitement. The “Program” title dissatisfied him, and he was delighted with his brother Modest’s suggestion of “Pathetique”; the term, echoing the title of Beethoven’s Op. 13 piano sonata, denotes an exploration of pathos rather than wretchedness and despair (as an English speaker might surmise).
The reaction to the first performance, given in St. Petersburg on October 16, was at best tentative. The audience was bewildered by the work’s unorthodox format (with the slow movement serving as the finale), the unusual quintuple meter of the second movement, and the overwhelming emotional energy of the piece as a whole. Disappointed but not devastated, Tchaikovsky hoped for a better response in Moscow in December. He did not live to see it: two days after the premiere he fell gravely ill, and died on October 25. The circumstances of his death are controversial even today. Modest and the composer’s friends stated that he had contracted cholera, then rife in St. Petersburg, by drinking unboiled water, either inadvertently or in a deliberate attempt at suicide; other sources have maintained that Tchaikovsky, fearing exposure of a homosexual liaison with one of his students, poisoned himself with arsenic.
Like the Fifth Symphony, the Sixth opens with a slow and somber march in the bottom of the orchestral register, which is soon transformed into a restless, nervous Allegro non troppo. The slow tempo returns with one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous themes, the expansive “Pathetique” melody with the falling phrases so characteristic of this composer. Once more the tempo changes to Allegro, but now the opening theme is at the core of a violent struggle, in which the orchestra is pushed to the astounding volume of ffff in a number of places. The great singing theme finally recurs, concluded by a slow march with a chorale-like passage in the winds.
The Allegro con grazia has the gentle swing of a waltz, its melody in fact reminiscent of the waltz in Tchaikovsky’s Op. 48 Serenade for Strings -- but in the unexpected meter of 5/4. Though common in eastern European folk music and known to Western composers since at the least the seventeenth century, quintuple meter was still so unusual as to baffle both performers and audience. (Even sixteen years later, when Maurice Ravel employed it in his ballet Daphnis and Chloe, the dancers kept time by chanting their impresario’s name: “Ser-gei Dia-ghi-lev!”)
The third movement, Allegro molto vivace, presents another of Tchaikovsky’s most instantly recognizable themes: a driving march (much too fast for actual military applications!) with a strong dotted rhythm and a distinctly Russian character deriving from the melody’s emphasis on the interval of the perfect fourth. To most listeners in 1893, a heroic epiphany of this nature might have served as the ideal finale for such a wide-ranging work, but Tchaikovsky had other plans. The march ends abruptly, and with scarcely a pause the actual Finale begins, marked Adagio lamentoso. The main theme echoes the sighing phrases of the first movement’s “Pathetique” melody, but with a harmonic restlessness and intensity that evokes deep grief; while a secondary theme in D major, though similarly built on a descending motif, suggests calm resignation. A somber chorale in the trombones leads to a funereal coda, with the second theme — now in minor — sounding over a pulsing B-natural in the basses, gradually fading to nothingness.
—Note by Thomas Crane