Reinvention Program Notes

Concert info:

The past is always with us. Whether counted in centuries, years, or minutes, making sense of the time that has gone before us is essential to understanding the present. The arts exist at the intersection of past, present, and future, and music, in particular, rests on the relationship of these. When composers create a new work, they are standing on the shoulders of composers that have gone before them, yet attempt to breathe new possibilities into the ways one can manipulate melody, harmony, instrumental combinations, and time itself, which is music’s soul. The first concert in Philharmonia Northwest’s 22/23 season explores this notion through the idea of Reinvention as each of the three pieces on the program take inspiration from music of the past.

Caroline Shaw: Entr’acte

Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte engages us in a sound world that is firmly planted in the contemporary language of modern music, while hinting at the sound world of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 77, No. 2 in F major, which gave Shaw the initial inspiration for her 2011 work. Born in 1982, Shaw is an American composer, violinist, and vocalist who received the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2013 for her composition Partita for 8 Voices, becoming the youngest composer to receive the award.

Originally composed for string quartet but presented here in a version for chamber ensemble, Entr’acte engages in both subtle and overt references to classical styles and forms, while never giving into nostalgia. It is Shaw’s ability to carefully balance the past and the present that creates the charm of this work, in which we experience both simultaneously, as if looking at a photograph using a double exposure technique. Each time we are offered a clear Haydn reference, we are next reminded that this is a work fully influenced by modernity, as stability gives way to an unexpected dissonance, an obtuse string technique, or a solo passage that Haydn could never have imagined though would likely find delightful. Like Haydn, who famously wrote sonic jokes into his music, Shaw does not shy away from a sense of whimsy in Entr’acte. Alluding to the work’s ability to transport the listener to a new experience of reality, she writes:

I love the way some music (like the minuets of Op. 77) suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.

Arnold Schoenberg: Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in B-flat major (after Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 7)

In the early days of Nazi Germany, Handel was championd as the “purest representative of the Nordic race.” By 1933, the year of Hitler’s election as Chancellor, there was such a fascination with Handel that nearly every concert offered that season in Berlin programmed some work from him. That same year, Arnold Schoenberg, who made no secret of his antipathy toward Handel’s music (“bare and simple, really inferior”), escaped Nazi Germany for Paris with his wife and 1-year old daughter in fear of the rampant hostilities aimed at his Jewishness. With all this as a background and somewhat paradoxically, Schoenberg worked throughout 1933 on composing the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in B-flat major, a reinvention of Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 7.

In a different way than Shaw, Schoenberg dissects his source material, even “correcting” it to his ear and mind. In fact, a copy of the Handel score found in Schoenberg’s archives looks like what you might encounter in a college music composition seminar, with passages crossed out and suggestions for better counterpoint and orchestration. In his Concerto, Schoenberg takes motivic ideas and rhythmic phrases directly from the source material, but quickly reimagines them, drawing out the marrow of what he deems to be their best features, sometimes respectfully, other times radically. There are truly elegant moments, when nothing of the tumult of Schoenberg’s personal life is present in his compositional choices, and there are moments, while not dissonant in the ways we often think of in Schoenberg’s serial compositions, that appear to be rebuking Handel and the “purity” the Nazi’s claimed his music represented. However we choose to factor in the context of the times in which this work was created, Schoenberg’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra displays a control of orchestration and formal structure that places the work on the same plane as the Handel, while the reinvention brings it up to date and situates it within the complexity of 1930s Europe.

Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible.”  Igor Stravinsky

When a composer rests part of their musical vocabulary on a particular piece, listeners should take note. In this case, we are deep in our theme of reinvention as Stravinsky, at the behest of famed Parisian dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev, used several pieces attributed to the Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Pergolesi as source material for the ballet Pulcinella, first staged in 1920 with choreography by Léonide Massine and costumes by Pablo Picasso. By 1922, Stravinsky created the 11 movement concert version we have here, retaining many of the original score’s themes, with additional material added to make it more suited for the concert hall. In this suite we have much that we’ve come to identify with Stravinsky: firey and intricate rhythms, harmonies that push at the boundaries of tonality, and orchestration that makes use of winds and brass in ways that are colorful, playful, and virtuosic. Though the allusions to Pergolesi may be fleeting, they imbue the work with melodic and contrapuntal shapes that feel Baroque in essence.

All of this is wrapped up in the sonic presence of Pulcinella, the whimsical, shapeshifting character found throughout Italian literature, theater, and puppetry of the 17th and 18th Centuries and beyond. It is not hard to hear this character in the music, dancing about in an oboe duet, poking fun through a trombone glissando, putting on the charm in a violin solo, or guffawing through a double bass outburst. With Pulcinella as our guide, Stravinsky, like Shaw and Schoenberg earlier, reinvents the past for us, bridging what has gone before with our experience of the present.

James Falzone
Dean and Professor of Music
Cornish College of the Arts