Eternal Light Program Notes

Concert info:

The program begins with the first of three versions of Lux Aeterna you will hear today, this one by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977). After pivoting away from a career in the military, Ešenvalds enrolled at the Latvian Academy of Music to further develop what would become an eclectic music style. Ešenvalds’ instinct for writing for voices came partly from a nine-year stint as a member of the Latvian State Choir, from 2002 to 2011. During this period, Ešenvalds began teaching composition at the Latvian Academy of Music. One breakthrough for Ešenvalds in the West was his designation as a New Composer of the Year discovery by The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2010. From 2011 to 2013, he served as Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge, England, where his work has been especially popular.

His simple and meditative setting of Lux Aeterna brings to life the serene moment when light passes through a stained glass window. Ešenvalds transforms the vision of glowing light to human voice in the choir in this beautiful and peaceful work. In the composer’s words: “Lux Aeterna is my harmonically-melodic painting of a moment when both, a choir’s singing and light-rays streaming through a stained-glass window resonate in the arches and vaults of a church.” – Eriks Esenvalds  

The second piece on today’s program is a rare gem of a violin concerto by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks (b. 1946). Vasks has published a multitude of orchestral, chamber, and choral pieces. A common theme throughout many of his pieces is the affirmation of Latvian history and Latvian spirit. His pieces from the 1980s-1990s reflect the harshness of the Soviet era and the tribulations faced by many Latvians. His symphony “Voices”, for example, chronicles Latvia’s struggle for independence and the hardships encountered in the process. His later works are primarily centered around universal themes – these include joy and despair, the beauty of nature, and hope for the future.

 Notes for Tala gaisma (Distant Light) for Violin and String Orchestra, written by the composer:

“In the years before writing “Tala gaisma” (Distant Lights), I had often thought about writing a large-scale work for violin, especially after completing my cello concerto.

In summer 1996 Gidon Kremer asked me to write a violin concerto for the newly founded youth orchestra for the Baltic countries “Kremerata Baltica”. During this time I was reading Gidon Kremer’s book “Moments from Childhood”. The moods of this book have been a major influence on this concerto. I started writing in autumn 1996 and finished the 30-minute-work in spring the following year.

The concerto is in one long movement, with contrasting episodes and three cadenzas for the soloist. The main theme comes from silence and returns to silence, full of idealism and love, sometimes melancholic and dramatic. The first notes grow slowly, without hurry; then, the light-sad cantilena sets in. After Cadenza I, an extensive theme starts with low bass chords gradually gaining strength and intensity. With a sudden change of tempo and character the following episode begins; in it, I used a musical language which is close to Latvian folk music. Cadenza II brings into the music a slight different character which disappears in an energetic tutti.

After this burst of energy, silence returns. The lyrical violin line leads to a second, dramatic episode. Cadenza III and the following aleatoric part form the centre of the concerto. The aleatoric chaos is interrupted by a robust, even aggressive waltz rhythm. In the recapitulation the musical ideas of the opening return. Although there is a sound of hurt for a second, the concerto dies away in bright sadness. Once again, the waltz sounds – now as a reflection of distant memories.” – Peteris Vasks

Interview with Mikhail Shmidt, violin soloist:

Q: Could you tell me something about what this piece means to you?  

A: “Distant Light” is already one of the rare contemporary violin concertos which has become part of the repertoire. So when Julia asked me, obviously I jumped at the chance to learn it. It’s kind of amazing that so many violinists gravitate to this piece. I think the reason is the pure beauty of it, and the perfect balance of being really heartfelt, but never sentimental or mockish. It’s a bit nostalgic—a kind of northern Baltic style. Also, there’s the legacy being very nationalistic and kind of reclaiming the music of his (Vasks’) country after being part of the Soviet Union. The piece is kind of a monologue or sermon, a reflection on what just happened, or what is about to happen in the music. The first section is somewhat brooding, slow, and sad. The middle section brings a break– starts with a sort of village band dance, fiddling, but somehow then it goes dark. That episode doesn’t bring relief or a solution, but a sense of a catastrophic meltdown. Then there’s the reaction–the last section is sad and gentle, perhaps tragic, but there’s a sense of consolation or hope. The piece has one of the quietest endings of any violin piece.

Q: How do you feel about the process of learning the concerto? 

A: When life gives you this opportunity, well sure, I’ll learn it!  I’m very glad I did! I think a reason that so many violinists like to play this piece is that it gives you opportunities—the composer leaves quite a lot of things to the soloist. He gives dynamic and metronome marks, but how do you phrase it?  How do you make it your own speech, or kind of monologue, or sermon?   

After intermission you will hear Laura Sgroi’s Lux Aeterna. Sgroi is a young, up-and-coming composer, DJ and pianist in Toronto and holds a Doctorate in Music Composition from the University of Toronto. A classically trained musician with a passion for popular and electronic music, Laura’s unique style explores popular music idioms adapted to the sonic and structural complexity of traditional classical ensembles. Laura also combines contemporary classical orchestral composition with popular and electronic music genres to create a unique personal artistic expression that captivates music lovers of all ages. Her electrically riveting performances feature her own contemporary classical music, DJ turntables, and piano improvisation with and without the presence of electronic media. From the composer: “My music is a unique blend of classical and electronica – two different genres together as one voice. I hope to bring contemporary classical music to a younger and more diverse audience by combining it with popular electronic styles.” –Laura Sgroi

Notes for Sgroi’s Lux Aeterna, written by Dr. Glenn R. Gregg:

Ms. Sgroi’s setting of Lux Aeterna received its world premiere performance in December 2012 by the Cantabile Chamber Singers at Trinity College Chapel; University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It was published in 2014 by Renforth Music. The work is scored for solo soprano, solo countertenor, SATB chorus, and cello. Today will be its US Premiere.

After an ethereal opening section featuring the countertenor soloist, a fast middle section features short, playful rhythmic bursts that explores the sounds of the Latin words “domine,” “lux” and “aeterna.” The cello employs special effects (harmonics, and portamento—imitating an Erhu) and also joins in the rhythmic play of the B section, as does a soaring soprano solo. After a short, homophonic section for chorus, the ethereal countertenor solo returns and brings the work to peaceful conclusion.

Today’s final setting of Lux Aeterna comes to us from Pacific Northwest native, Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943). The music of Lauridsen occupies a permanent place in the standard vocal repertoire of the Twenty-First Century. His eight vocal cycles (Lux Aeterna, Les Chansons des Roses, Madrigali: Six ‘FireSongs’ on Italian Renaissance Poems, A Winter Come, Cuatro Canciones, A Backyard Universe, Nocturnes and Mid-Winter Songs on Poems by Robert Graves), instrumental works, art songs and series of motets (including O Magnum Mysterium) are performed throughout the world and have been recorded on over two hundred CDs, including several that received Grammy nominations. In 2006, Morten Lauridsen was named an “American Choral Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2007 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest artistic award in the United States, by the President in a White House ceremony “for his composition of radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power, and spiritual depth.” 

Notes for Lux Aeterna, written by the composer, Morten Lauridsen:

“Each of the five connected movements in this choral cycle contains references to “Light,” assembled from various sacred Latin texts. I composed Lux Aeterna in response to my mother’s final illness and found great personal comfort and solace in setting to music these timeless and wondrous words about Light, a universal symbol of illumination at all levels – spiritual, artistic, and intellectual.

The work opens and closes with the beginning and ending of the Requiem Mass, with the central three movements drawn respectively from the Te Deum, O Nata Lux, and Veni, Sancte Spiritus. The instrumental introduction to the Introitus softly recalls motivic fragments from two pieces especially close to my heart (my settings of Rilke’s Contre Qui, Rose and O Magnum Mysterium) which recur throughout the work in various forms. Several new themes in the lntroitus are then introduced by the chorus, including an extended canon on et lux perpetua.

In Te, Domine, Speravi contains, among other musical elements, the cantus firmus “Herzliebster Jesu” (from the Nuremburg Songbook, 1677) and a lengthy inverted canon on “fiat misericordia.” O Nata Lux and Veni, Sancte Spiritus are paired songs, the former an a cappella motet at the  center of the work and the latter a spirited, jubilant canticle. A quiet  setting  of  the Agnus Dei precedes the final Lux Aeterna, which reprises the opening section of the Introitus and concludes with a joyful celebratory Alleluia.”