PROGRAM NOTES | Thu June 25, 2020 | 7:30 pm
Fri June 26, 2020 | 7:30 pm
Copyright Susan Halperin
(Born February 15, 1947, in Worcester, Massachusetts)
John Adams spent his formative years in his native New England and Boston where both his clarinet teacher and the conductor of the orchestra he played in as a young musician were members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Young Adams became a proficient enough clarinetist to appear as soloist in a concerto written by his neighbor, the composer Walter Piston; he studied composition at Harvard with the successor to Piston’s faculty chair, Leon Kirchner.
Adams taught and conducted at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for ten years, and from 1979 to l985 was also composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony; in l988, he was named Creative Chair at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. One of Adams’ best known and most widely discussed works is the three-act opera Nixon in China, which he created in collaboration with poet Alice Goodman and director Peter Sellars.
In the music of his early maturity, Adams discovered a freer kind of advanced musical thought than he had studied, and he took up many of the techniques and much of the aesthetics of the minimalist composers. It was not long, however, before he admitted himself to be “a minimalist who is bored with minimalism,” and went on to develop the balanced mixture of sustained repetition with either subtle or bold variation that distinguishes his work from that of others.
Absolute Jest is a concerto for string quartet and orchestra, which was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony for the orchestra’s centennial. It made its world premiere at the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall on March 15, 2012, and was performed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. After the premiere, Adams heavily revised the work’s beginning; the new version of Absolute Jest premiered in Miami Beach on December 1, 2012, with the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the New World Symphony with Adams conducting.
It was through his collaboration with the St. Lawrence Quartet that the idea of combining a string quartet with orchestra occurred to Adams; he jokes that he thought of it as “a repertory black hole.” For this work, Adams takes material from Beethoven’s late string quartets, which some critics found entertaining “as long as you didn’t think too hard about it”; however, several were offended by the “jest” in which Adams quoted many of Beethoven’s most profound musical statements. When Adams reworked the score, he added a new beginning, altering the balance of the piece so that it consists much more of Adams and less of Beethoven, in effect making the work a serious commentary on Beethoven.
In the revised Absolute Jest, Adams borrows from his own music as a way into the concerto. When the quartet enters, the dotted Beethoven rhythms, which originate in the scherzos of Beethoven’s late quartets and symphonies, turn manic in feel without losing their original connotations. In terms of its form, Adams suggests that this piece is “the closest thing I’ve written to variations—although in this case there is no single tune as in a classic set of variations like Bach’s Goldberg Variations.”
Adams has explained the work’s genesis:
“The idea for Absolute Jest was suggested by a performance by Michael Tilson Thomas of Stravinsky’s ‘Pulcinella,’ a piece that I’d known all my life but had never much paid attention to until hearing MTT conduct it. Hearing this (and knowing that I was already committed to composing something for the San Francisco Symphony’s 100th anniversary) I was suddenly stimulated by the way Stravinsky had absorbed musical artifacts from the past and worked them into his own highly personal language. But there the comparison pretty much ends. Stravinsky was apparently unfamiliar with the Pergolesi and other Neapolitan tunes when Diaghilev brought them to him. I, on the other hand, had loved the Beethoven string quartets since I was a teenager, and crafting something out of fragments of Opus 131, Opus 135 and the Große Fuge (plus a few more familiar “tattoos” from his symphonic scherzos) was a totally spontaneous act for me.”
And Adams explains “. . .the act of composing the work (one that took nearly a year of work) was the most extended experience in pure ‘invention’ that I’ve ever undertaken. Its creation was for me a thrilling lesson in counterpoint, in thematic transformation and formal design. The ‘jest’ of the title should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, ‘gesta:’ doings, deeds, exploits. I like to think of ‘jest’ as indicating an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention.”
Adams finds that his own affinity for Beethoven stimulates his journey into new creative avenues. He explains why and how he used Beethoven, “There is nothing particularly new about one composer internalizing the music of another and ‘making it his own.’” Adams’ style incorporates an irresistibly powerful sense of momentum driven not only by energetic pulsation, but also by tonal gravitation, which he adapts from his reading of Beethoven. “I think probably more than any other piece of mine,” says Adams, “this one is about invention in the sense of taking material and doing all kinds of things with it.” Adams juxtaposes scherzo fragments from Quartets Op. 131 and 135 with others from the opening fugue of Opus 131, as well as a small fragment of the Grosse Fuge (“Great Fugue”), originally written as the finale to the Quartet in B-flat, Opus 130, with his own music. He also includes the rhythmic motif from Symphony No. 9.
Of the work’s beginning, Adams says, “The rolling 6/8 patterns recall the Ninth Symphony scherzo but also summon up other references—of the Hammerklavier Sonata, of the Eighth Symphony and other archetypal Beethoven motives that come and go like cameo appearances on a stage.” He incorporates a sizable number of Beethoven fragments, mostly from the late string quartets. Soon after the opening, Adams introduces his own sonority: what he calls his “tintinnabulation” of cowbells, harp, and piano, all tuned in a special way unlike the standard Western tuning the rest of the ensemble uses. Throughout, the trio of mean-tuned instruments constitutes what Adams calls a “consort in the medieval sense.”
He goes on to explain the rest: “The high-spirited triple-time scherzo to the F major Opus 135 (Beethoven’s final work in that medium) enters about a third of the way through Absolute Jest and becomes the dominant motivic material for the remainder of the piece, interrupted only by a brief slow section that interweaves fragments of the Große Fuge with the opening fugue theme of the C# minor quartet.” In the final furious and dramatic coda featuring the solo string quartet moving speedily over an extended orchestral pedal, Adams uses the famous Waldstein Sonata’s opening harmonic progressions. In Adams’ hands, this music appears somewhat as if in a dream, in an atmosphere combining soft string chords with cowbells and a strangely tuned piano and harp. Near the end, Adams brings in monumental brass, but he leaves us as he found us, drifting off into microtonal harp and piano reverie.
Hannah Lash (world premiere)
(Born November 22, 1981, in Alfred, NY)
Notes from the composer:
“My piece, Forestallings, takes just the opening gesture from Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 as a point of departure. From that rather stark D – an anacrusis, my slow introduction unfolds in its own direction, quickly parting ways from Beethoven’s. I explore a constellation of harmonies which then lead to a faster music, which derives from the same material I used in my slow introduction, but now reimagined in a more urgent character. The slow music and the fast music form a sort of dialectic and a dialogue, and a sense of conflict is produced by the harmonic constellation whose hierarchies shift throughout the length of the piece. It ends uncertain of which tonal center leans upon which, asking a question rather than offering a resolution.”
Symphony No. 7, in A Major, Op. 92
Ludwig van Beethoven
(Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn; died March 26, 1827, in Vienna)
Although Beethoven wrote his first six symphonies in the first eight years of the new century, he stopped writing symphonies altogether for four years after that. Unlike many of his other major works, Symphony No. 7 did not occupy Beethoven’s attention for years before it took its final shape. It was completely written in early 1812. In the four years that intervened between the composing of the 6th and the 7th Symphonies, Beethoven had consolidated new styles and techniques: he had enlarged his harmonic scope and intensified the technique of his subjective expression.
In April 1813, Symphony No. 7 was performed privately at the residence of Beethoven’s pupil, the Archduke Rudolph, and on December 8th, the composer conducted the first public performance of the work. Its premiere was a benefit concert for soldiers wounded in the battle that had failed to stop Napoleon at Hanau earlier that year. Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, Beethoven’s friend and a good musician as well as a mechanical genius, who invented the metronome, organized the fundraiser.
Over the course of time, the musical intensity of Symphony No. 7 has been described as transcendent, astonishing, and universal. Critics and other composers have variously tried to explain the movements programmatically, teetering on the edge of absurdity with their analyses. What does bind all of their comments together is finding that many parts of this symphony embody dance and march rhythms, and rhythm itself seems to be the driving force of the work. Each of the movements grows out of a rhythmic figure that characterizes the whole movement in much the same way that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is dominated by its well-known opening rhythmic four-note motto. In emphasizing these aspects, Beethoven seems to have limited the use of melody; some of the rhythmic figures are defined by one note while others are understated, allowing the listeners to concentrate on the rhythmic force.
The structures of the movements follow traditional sonata form or sonata-imbued forms, extended in Beethoven’s use with long development sections as well as codas and heroic interpolations. The colorful orchestration of the work strongly emphasizes the use of solo woodwinds, especially flute and oboe.
After a long, slow introduction, Poco sostenuto, with a sense of hearkening back to Haydn in its form, the charming melody of the first movement, with its mounting rhythmic tension, evolves into the dancing Vivace that led Wagner to call this symphony the very apotheosis of the dance. The second movement, Allegretto, mostly in minor, is a lovely, varied processional, both peaceful and solemn. It includes languid woodwind-dominated trios. During the 19th century, this movement was very popular; it was also played frequently on occasions of mourning. The movement can be divided into five sections, with the first, third, and fifth encompassing one set of themes and the other sections presenting another theme. What Berlioz labeled a “profound sigh” begins the movement. The second section relieves the tension of the first. From the first trio, a glorious fugue built on the main theme emerges. After the second trio, the movement relaxes into the sigh with which it began.
The third movement, in which the winds have a prominent place, is an expanded scherzo, Presto, with extra measures added from time to time that tend to surprise the listener. The contrasting slower trio section repeats. The French composer d’Indy, perhaps correctly, traced its thematic origins to an Austrian pilgrims’ hymn.
The finale, Allegro con brio, heavily and often irregularly accented, is a movement of enormous vigor and energy; critics have often labeled it bacchanalian because of its wild and surging rhythmic motion. The theme is embellished with sixteenth-note passagework, which has a feeling of urgency. The coda grows out of two repeated bass notes, again rhythmically defined.
The symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.