Musica Nova – You’ve done it again!
Warren Cohen, conductor
Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, violist
Nicholas Landrum, Gaslight (Premier)
(Musica Nova Composition Fellow)
Edward Elgar “Viola” Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
arr and transcribed from the original cello concerto
by Lionel Teritsand Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt
Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, violist
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Orchestral Suite No. 2 in C major, Op. 53
Another evening of glorious music played in the very acoustically-live Central United Methodist Church in Phoenix. And now in their 12th year of performing “…new works, neglected works that should be heard, and new interpretations of the classics.” http://musicanovaaz.com/
And true to form, pushing the frontier of concert music, they kicked off the season with a premier of “Gaslight” by a young upcoming composer Nicholas Landrum. Here’s what Nicholas has to say about his composition:
” “Gaslight” came from a very long chain of ideas. I started out with the concept of Deus Ex Machina, and well, that’s a very pretentious title, but I liked the idea of the orchestra, and the process of writing for it being so akin to the ancient play writing technique.
In addition, the work has some incredibly mechanical sounds, and the moto continuo nature of the beginning and the end is quite machine-like. When I come up with titles, I like to think of concepts and all of their facets and components. A Gaslight is luminous, but also flares up, and combusts the fuel that it takes its name from.
The idea of the constant flaring up in the opening and ending, and the sort of placid glow of the middle are the aspects that give it the name “Gaslight.” Additionally, it ties back to the mechanical idea, as it the gaslight originated during the industrial revolution.
Interestingly enough, the first private use of a gaslight happened in my native Philadelphia at 2nd and Lombard, not terribly far from where I grew up.
In short, it’s more about the mechanical nature, as if examining every small aspect of a device in great detail.”
I have not studied Landrum’s score, (I’d like to…) so I was hearing it for the first time, and scribbled down a few notes as the music went by. Here’s what I got:
Percussive opening; a landscape of cold objectivity with a whiff of tragedy as the mechanisms of mindless law march over innocent souls; all witnessed from a safe distance by a detached observer. A tritone figure. Timpani repeats. Slow, monotonic strings; a string drone…something sinister could be going on beneath this placid string pad; Trumpet solo – excellent intonation/entrance on a high note, nice. Conversation between percussion and depending on the time, just about everyone else; return to opening theme; will we get a tutti? Yes. Ends with tutti, no coda, no moral of the story, just ends. Clean.
Unquestionably a “modern” piece in the sense of tonality, sound texture, and setting. A theme, brief and essentially abandoned, followed by powerful suspense, and unity brought to bear by repetition with the heavy lifting sustained by excellent work in the percussion section. And no drawn out end – just bam! Done. Not a old brick building and a Cinderella carriage on cobble stones; a concrete tower and a sports car on asphalt. But cold. Not cool.
I liked it. Warren mentioned, briefly, before downbeat that “Gaslight” brought to mind film noir images. I’ll buy that.
“Viola” Concerto, Elgar
I need to make a full disclosure here before continuing in the interest of revealing my personal biases and prejudice with regard to Edward Elgar, and his cello concerto. I, Alan Olee humble cowboy poet, consider Edward Elgar to be one of the greatest composers. Ever. Period. I have had Elgar experiences.
Further, his cello concerto approaches perfection. Period. To be clear, these are my unstated assumptions, now stated.
So it wasn’t like I had bloated expectations of a viola version of the cello concerto it was more like, “wow the Elgar on viola – this could be good.” And it was good. Again I jotted down a few notes on my trusty 3 x 5 cards:
I LOVE HER SOUND! It’s so…sweet compared to cello. Low brass sound great. Extended phrases…(could use more contrast – more super quiets…). Next mvt: see, they can play super quiet; her command and execution is unearthly perfection. She plays technical passages like a championship fiddler; no effort, natural, like someone innocent of technique not knowing, or acknowledging that what she is doing is impossibly difficult to do to the required level of perfection. But I, the listener, I need to hear perfection – just to get there – to get to the Elgar Experience. Very charming when she used her forearm to wipe off the strings of her viola between movements. Just a flash of a movement. A wonderfully human instant. Enough of my nonsense. She was brilliant. A living musical miracle. Standing ovation – Bravo!
Intermission. Let’s take a from concertizing and talk a little about the hall. Central Methodist is a very live hall. No, its live! Really live! And live halls are great, but if you ask me they are great the way fire is great. Careful! Or you’ll get burned.
Yes, you can get a warm sound. Yes, you get a deep sound. And yes, just about everything “sounds” good. But is it good? Warm, big halls are a lot of fun, but the sound of the ensemble has to compensate for the built-in lag. It can burn you!
I played for decades in military bands, and once did a concert in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. We were treated to a schooling by those in the know how to deal with the delays built into the acoustics of the hall by way of describing how the choir is directed in their diction.
I remember vividly the first year hearing Musica Nova at Central Methodist. I had to almost calibrate my ear to the sound – and I’ll tell you I wasn’t the only one to notice this! I distinctly remember having more than a few conversations along the lines of “it sounds great but…”. “You have to sort of recalibrate your ears…and once you get used to it, it sounds great!” These are simple acoustical, not aesthetic facts. A group has to acclimatize to a hall; and that process is, from what I can see (hear) largely unconscious.
No, hear me out. It has to be unconscious or something below the command and control level. Because this concert, this time, there was no aural adjustment needed or noted. The players just got it. And if any composer knew how to exploit a live hall, it was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Orchestral Suite No. 2 in C major, Op. 53, Tchaikovsky
There’s no question in my mind the man was a genius. Actually, he was somewhere beyond genius – he was musically wise, and wise in a wonderfully intimate way – just see how children love his music. His music is elemental and somehow the snotty connoisseurs of classical music, our self-appointed betters look down on him! But if you ever need to convert someone to loving classical music; start with Tchaikovsky. I’ve done it a number of times.
Just about everyone acknowledges he was a master of melody – and he wrote a great book on harmony; its right here in front of me! And his orchestral cross rhythms also noted by many are wonderful. But personally, I love the conversations he sets up within the orchestra. He has a masterful command of stating a strongly melodic theme perfectly harmonized, then inserting a pause, and bringing in a response. It’s like he sets up a miniature society within the orchestra, then breathes life into the characters, and sets them to communicating to each other. We witness it in passionate awe and transcend to the level of pure musical communion. He was really something. What a soul.
I am amazed that this particular piece is not more well known. I think the second movement is played as a separate piece because I recognized it. The rest, I recognized as Tchaikovsky, but was new to me.
And yes, the hall was both a blessing to this piece, and a kind of a curse. Phrase endings needed to be brought down, way down, to avoid collisions with the introduction of the next phrase/theme and with Tchaikovsky using the quick dovetails typical of his writing style, there were ambiguities between entrances. Not wrong mind you. Just missed opportunities.
But overall the melodies were lovely and soaring, the harmonies were inevitable, his counterpoint intricate yet immediate. Musica Nova brought everything home.
Thank you Warren, Nicholas, Milena, and players. A wonderful evening.