One of Faulkner’s characters observed, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” The perennial influence of baroque music illustrates his point. Whatever the stylistic revolutions that followed (classicism, romanticism, modernism), composers continued to turn to the baroque for grounding and inspiration. This concert, like several previous Casuals, celebrates that influence by intermingling baroque music with later works that flaunt their baroque inspiration.
We open with a baroque masterpiece, the Concerto in C for Two Trumpets (composition date unknown) by Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741). Trumpet concertos are rare, double trumpet concertos doubly rare, so it’s no surprise that this is an anomaly in Vivaldi’s vast output. Yet it shows his ingenuity as clearly as does the more familiar Four Seasons. Because trumpets at the time had no valves to change pitch, the available notes were limited—and even those few required tremendous virtuosity in lip control. As Symphoria’s second trumpet Roy Smith puts it, Vivaldi had access to “just the seven notes of the scale. There are no crazy intervals, there’s no multiple tonguing; it’s just scales and arpeggios. But it works!” Indeed, you hardly notice the limitations, given how imaginatively Vivaldi plays with what he has, reveling in the instruments’ virtues rather than their limitations. The opening of the finale, for instance, “shows off what a baroque trumpet sound should be, what the instrument is designed for.”
To add to the pleasures, says Roy, it’s “a team piece, a sharing concerto. Normally, my role in the classical repertoire is to fill out the sound underneath John Raschella, to play a lower octave to his higher pitch, to put down a harmony to his melody.” The Vivaldi features “a much more direct copying back and forth. There is a lot of imitation and a lot of sharing lines.” It’s especially gratifying to play with someone he knows well: “I can pretty much guess without hearing how John is going to play it, where he’s going to be tonguing and slurring, the quality of the articulation, the dynamic shaping—even though that’s not in the printed music. That’s something you develop a sixth sense for when you’ve sat next to someone for years.”
John is just as excited about the work, which he first performed, at Northminster Presbyterian Church, as an eighth grader (!) with Bill Coble, brother of former Syracuse Symphony trumpeter George Coble. “Bill (who was in seventh grade at the time) took one of George’s trumpet albums, listened to it, and actually wrote out both parts”—even transposing them—“because we didn’t know how to order sheet music at the time!” All in all, a splendid way to show off the kind of interaction among players that gives the orchestra its character—as well as to remind us of the orchestra’s deep connections to the Syracuse community.
Jumping ahead, we turn to the 1977 Summa by Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), whose Fratres was such a hit on a Casual last season. Pärt’s music is often experienced as timeless, for many reasons. Rhythmically, its steady tread (no dotted figures or sixteenth notes), coupled with its metrical fluidity and its lack of strong accents, provides a sense of barely changing calm. Stylistically, its ties to both the distant past (the Renaissance perhaps more than the baroque) and the present (minimalism) make it hard to place historically. Emotionally, despite the complex structural system generating it, it has a meditative simplicity that transports you from the here and now. Summa was originally written as a choral Credo, but since Pärt is more concerned with the music’s spiritual quality than its material sound, he later recast for many other ensembles.
It’s hard to think of a greater contrast to Summa than the brief Fugal Concerto composed in 1922 by Gustav Holst (1874–1934). Where Pärt is inward, Holst is outgoing; where Pärt is otherworldly, Holst is earthy (he even brings the nursery tune “If All the World Were Paper” into the last movement); where Pärt is unconcerned with sonority, Holst appreciates the play of instrumental colors as the oboe and flute play off against each other. If you know Holst only from his modernist and large-scaled The Planets, you may be delightfully surprised by the modesty of this backward-looking morsel.
The first half of the concert ends with a return to the baroque, the 1694 overture to Céphale et Procris by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729). The opera, possibly the first by a woman to have been produced in France, is a darkly tangled, Ovid-inspired tale of passion, misunderstanding, and betrayal. Little of its heartbreak comes through in the overture, however, which is largely a bright, up-tempo affair, with delicious interplay among the musical lines.
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) might not seem to fit into this afternoon’s program, since he was an arch-romantic more likely to look to folklore than to the musical past for inspiration. But his Holberg Suite, composed in 1884 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of playwright Ludvig Holberg, uncharacteristically exploits 18th-century French dance templates of the sort that Jacquet de la Guerre used in her harpsichord suites. Originally for piano, it is best known in Grieg’s 1885 arrangement for strings. Conductor Larry Loh has a deep affection for the piece. It was one of the first neo-baroque works he encountered as a youngster, and it played off well against the baroque music he devoured as a beginning pianist.
Like many neo-baroque works, the Holberg Suite has an intoxicating double vision, as archaic conventions are reimagined in romantic garb, with a strong folk influence, although it’s heard in Grieg’s general inflections rather than in actual quotation. The suite was written in the wake of his reconciliation with his wife after a strained period—which may help explain the overall sunniness of the music and what Larry calls the “most beautiful harmonic and melodic moments” of the Bach-infused Air (his favorite movement). Grieg himself belittled the work as a “perruque” (powdered wig) piece, but he surely underestimated it, and it has become one of his most popular.
One baroque technique that Grieg does not employ is the fugue—so to compensate, as a kind of programmed encore, we offer the Fuga y misterio by Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992), whose music (including his popular Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) often merges the tango with the baroque. Originally from the expressionistic 1968 opera Maria de Buenos Aires, Fuga y misteria has taken on a life of its own, in a variety of arrangements. It reveals two sides of Piazzolla’s musical character: the conflicting syncopations provide high energy for the zippy Fugue; the Misterio reveals his nostalgic, even sentimental side.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have comments or questions? Contact me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org