When you hear the phrase “music for strings,” you’d be forgiven for conjuring up the aural image of something sweet, even cloying, in the manner of Montevani or the sappiest elevator music. We hope you’ll find this afternoon’s concert more adventuresome that that. Yes, it is framed by two works of heart-stopping melodic allure; but neither of them is “easy,” and the program as a whole moves in many different directions.
We open with the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), surely his most famous and most achingly beautiful work. It was originally written in 1936 as the second movement of a string quartet—but even before Barber could finish polishing up the parent work, he broke through his typical modesty, calling the Adagio a “knockout” and arranging it for string orchestra. It was immediately picked up by Toscanini, and has remained a classic ever since. Although it was not originally composed in response to bereavement, it has—especially since it was played to memorialize Franklin Delano Roosevelt after his death—often served as our national work of mourning. Yet for all its poignance, it is not funereal music, and its depth of emotion suits many occasions.
While the Adagio legitimately stands as quintessential Barber, our next work, Ancient Airs and Dances (1931), does not have the same status for Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), who, for better or worse, is most famous for his splashy Rome trilogy (Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals). Yet Respighi was multifaceted, and his long-standing interest in old music is manifested in his editorial work, his compositions based on Gregorian chant and medieval modes, and his numerous transcriptions. He published three collections of Ancient Airs and Dances, based on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian songs and dance tunes, many originally written for lute. Conductor Larry Loh particularly appreciates the way Respighi has given his own compositional specificity to works that originally left performers a lot more leeway—with “electrifying” results that make the music more immediate for modern listeners. The first set was featured on the very first concert that the orchestra gave under the name Symphoria, which was also Larry’s first appearance here. Today, we’re offering the sterner third set, composed in 1931. Calling for strings only, it consists of four movements, although the second is, itself, a series of dances and the finale is a passacaglia—a set of variations on a repeated pattern.
Respighi gave performers an option of performing the third set with a string orchestra or a string quartet—and we have chosen the former version this afternoon. Caroline Shaw (born 1982) gave performers the same options for her 2011 Entr’acte. In this case, we’ve chosen to include the quartet version, played by the Symphoria String Quartet. (Symphoria also played the string-orchestra version on its Suffrage celebrations over the summer). In a way, Entr’acte serves as an echo of Melinda Wagner’s Little Moonhead, heard on our January Casual. Like Wagner, Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize winner. More important, this work, like Wagner’s, finds the composer inspired by, but not mimicking, an earlier piece—in Shaw’s case, the Minuet and Trio from the Quartet Op. 77 No. 2 by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809). What Shaw likes most about the Haydn is the radical shift between the Minuet and the Trio: as she puts it, “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.” Technicolor may be a key word here. According to Arvilla Wendland, the quartet’s violist, what’s most enthralling is “all of the amazing, resonant sounds that she gets”—sounds that are especially suited to a string quartet. Arvilla also points to the mixture of traditional elements, even some hints of Renaissance music, with music that is definitely new, producing a constant sense of the unexpected. Just as we preceded Wagner’s piece with the Bach work that inspired it, so this afternoon we precede Shaw’s work with the Haydn.
Having included works for string orchestra and works for string quartet, it’s appropriate to close the concert with a work for string orchestra and string quartet, offering, in Arvilla’s view, a work that combines the best of both mediums: the 1905 Introduction and Allegro by Edward Elgar (1857–1934). And having opened our concert with a work that features one of classical music’s most gorgeous melodies, it’s appropriate to close with a work that includes one that’s equally breath-taking. Like the Respighi and the Shaw, it too has its roots in earlier music—in this case, the baroque concerto grosso (a work for multiple soloists and orchestra) in general and Bach more specifically.
The Introduction and Allegro begins by introducing the primary sonic contrast—a stern series of statements by the full forces, which leads to a more tender answer by the string quartet—and by setting out the main thematic material that informs everything that is to come. Of special note is that heart-stopping melody, which is first sung out by the quartet’s violist, about a minute into the piece. It’s sometimes said that it is based on a Welsh folk tune, but it’s possible that that was one of Elgar’s typical red herrings. As the piece continues, those initial themes are played with in dazzling fashion. So is the relationship between the soloists and the full strings. Sometimes they are in dialogue, sometimes they merge in and out of one another—but their interaction is key throughout. The Bach influence is perhaps heard most clearly about eight minutes in, where Elgar introduces a fugue. The opening material returns, and eventually the music builds to a climax on that viola tune, which still hangs in the air after the music’s closing flourish.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org