Chamber Music Houston Chamber Music Houston




    DATE: Tuesday, November 11, 2014

    TIME: 7:30 PM - 9:30 PM

    Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music
    Rice University


    Milhaud, Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 157b

    Introduction et Final

    Darius Milhaud was an incredibly prolific composer, with some 441 opus numbers to his credit. The son of well-to-do Jewish parents who lived in Aix-en-Provence, he began studies on the violin at the age of seven and started composing on his own soon afterward. He entered the Paris Conservatoire as a violin student but soon decided that composition would be his vocation. During his student years he began to travel extensively, and continued to do so for his entire life even though in his later years he became increasingly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis.

    Milhaud took his first significant trip in 1916, serving as secretary to the diplomat/poet Claudel who had been appointed as French minister to Brazil for two years. His exposure to the music of that country made a lasting impression on the young composer. Then on a trip to London in 1920 Milhaud first heard jazz being performed by Billy Arnold and his band. Upon his return to France, Milhaud proceeded to immerse himself in whatever American popular music he could find, including blues and ragtime. His interest culminated in a trip to the USA in 1922 where he heard his first black jazz in Harlem. In 1923 he composed perhaps his best-known work, The Creation of the World in which all of these influences are evident. His future travels took him to Israel, Russia, Syria, Sardinia and throughout Europe.

    A signature technique in much of Milhaud’s work is that of using diatonic scales – scales which consist of five whole tones and two semitones – for example, C major scales that are produced by playing only the white keys of the piano, or a corresponding configuration of whole and half steps in other keys. Often Milhaud used diatonic scales from two keys simultaneously which resulted in polytonality, sometimes mistaken for atonality.

    The Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, composed in 1936, poses an interesting problem for the composer due to the fact that the two upper instruments operate in an almost identical span of notes. The composer must work with their differing colors of sound rather than with differing ranges. Milhaud handles this in a delightful manner. The Ouverture is light and playful with hints of jazz and perhaps a Latin flavor. The violin and clarinet join each other in unisons, octaves, and runs while the piano is on its own. The second movement, Divertissement, has three distinct sections. The first section is merely a dialogue between the violin and the clarinet alone, based on a rising and falling motif. In the second section all three instruments contribute to the polyphonic structure. Finally the piano plays the melody and the other two instruments provide an accompaniment.

    The third movement, Jeu (French word for “play”), is based on a cheerful folk dance with a robust rhythm and obvious country fiddling effects on the violin. A middle lyrical section features the violin and clarinet alone. A short version of the original dance section returns and the movement ends with a syncopated coda. The fourth movement, Introduction et Finale, begins much like Milhaud’s popular work, The Creation of the World, with low heavy repeated chords in the piano. This is the only solemn passage in the entire work, and it serves merely as a foil to the lighthearted music that will follow. The predictable harmonic structure of this last section is periodically thrown askew by the insertion of Milhaud’s characteristic polytonality. The movement shows obvious jazz influence and is at times reminiscent of the work of George Gershwin.

    The Milhaud family left France for the USA in 1940 and Darius spent the war years teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California. Following the war, and despite his disability, he combined his position at Mills College with a post at the Paris Conservatory, spending many summers at the Aspen summer music festival. He also traveled to Israel and in 1952, composed the opera David (1952) in honor of the founding of the State of Israel. He was certainly a well-traveled and musically open-minded composer.

    Program note © Margaret Bragg, September 2014

    Bartók, Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano

    Verbunkos: Moderato, ben ritmato (Recruiting Dance)
    Pihenö: Lento (Relaxation)
    Sebes: Allegro vivace (Fast Dance)

    This trio, Bartók’s only chamber work to include a woodwind instrument, was the result of a unique commission in 1938 from the famous American jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. Goodman, a superb, classically-trained musician who had, as a teenager and over his father’s strong protests, been drawn away from the classics to jazz, becoming a name to this day universally admired, was approached by the famous Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti, who lived in the United States and seems to have known everybody. A fellow Hungarian and friend of Bartók, he understood the financial difficulties Bartók was about to experience by his flight to America in the wake of the Nazi advance in Europe. Benny Goodman was interested in helping. Szigeti sent Bartók some of Goodman’s wonderful jazz recordings; negotiations were made for a work in two movements as requested and in 1940 it toured in the United States in that form. Later that year Bartók settled in the United States. He added the middle movement and recorded it for Columbia Records with Benny Goodman playing the clarinet, Joseph Szigeti the violin, and himself on the piano – a wonderful recording which is still available.

    The trio is conceived in a relatively light-hearted vein; the opening movement, Verbunkos, is in a dance form emblematic of Hungarian music, the “recruiting dance” in 2/4 march time, played for centuries by military bands as they traveled around the countryside enticing young men to join the permanent army of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was much used by Bartók in many other compositions. You will notice the prominence of "hooked" rhythms (short-long, short-long), and lively, strong accents.

    Next comes, Pihenö (Relaxation), the evocative “night” or “fog” music that Bartok invented for slow movements and which was imitated by other composers who followed him. The final movement, Sebes, is another dance form, opening with the violin playing that ominous augmented fourth double-stop (forbidden in church music) with which Saint-Saëns begins his Dance Macabre. This sets the tone for the mischievous jauntiness and even occasional jazziness of this final movement, with its musical jokes and cadenzas for both the violinist and the clarinetist who commissioned the work. Pity this isn’t played more often!

    Program note © Nora Avins Klein, 2014

    Stravinsky, Suite from L'Histoire du Soldat

    Marche du Soldat
    Le violon du Soldat
    Petit concert
    The Princess' Dances (Tango–Waltz–Ragtime)
    Danse du Diable

    In 1918, Igor Stravinsky was living frugally in Switzerland because he had been cut off from his family’s estates in Russia by World War I. At this point he decided to compose a musical drama, something small and simple, which could be easily and inexpensively transported and staged around Switzerland as well as accommodated by any small theater. He chose a tale from Alexander Afanasiev’s collection of Russian folk tales. The work was completed in 1918 but the tour never took place because one after another of the chosen participants contracted the Spanish flu. Though an extracted Suite was performed in 1920, the staged version was not presented again until 1924.

    L’Histoire du Soldat was originally meant to be staged as a drama/dance with four actors/dancers – the Devil, the Soldier, the Princess, and a narrator, and seven instrumentalists. The story is based on a dark tale with a Faustian theme about a soldier who sells his old violin to the Devil in exchange for a promise of future wealth and knowledge. The Soldier later becomes disillusioned, entices the Devil to become inebriated and then beats him in a card game, thereby regaining possession of his violin. In the meantime the Soldier falls in love with an ailing Princess. He cures her of her illness by playing dances for her (a tango, waltz, and ragtime), and ultimately marries her. All goes well until the Soldier decides to leave his newly adopted town to return to his old hometown. As soon as he enters the land where he first dealt with the Devil, he is once more accosted and the Devil reclaims the violin and leads him away.

    The libretto was written in French by C.F. Ramuz and mixes dialogue with music, dance, and drama. The seven instruments for which it was originally scored were clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, double bass, and percussion. Clustered into nine movements it is most often heard today as an exclusively instrumental suite. Though Stravinsky based his work on a Russian tale, he tried to transcend national limitations. There are Spanish influences heard in the marches and tango, as well as hints of contemporary American jazz and ragtime. The violin is featured throughout the piece and as usual with Stravinsky’s work, the color of each instrument is most important. The harmonic texture is generally contrapuntal and the rhythms are highly complex. When the original work is performed, there is often need for a conductor to help lead the group.

    An amateur clarinetist, Werner Reinhard, financed the premier of L’Histoire. In return for his services Stravinsky later adapted the work for violin, clarinet and piano alone. The piano was a new addition and in a way seems out of character in that all instruments of the original suite were melodic instruments. Five numbers were selected for this smaller suite: The Soldier’s March, The Soldiers Violin, The Little Concert, The Princess’ Dances – Tango, Waltz, and Ragtime, and The Devil’s Dance. These five movements essentially became character studies of the participants in the original story.

    The small suite which is the one that we will hear tonight, was performed for the first time in Lausanne in November 1919, with Reinhard playing the clarinet.

    Program note © Margaret Bragg, September, 2014

    Bolcom, Afternoon Cakewalk

    Rag Suite of Joplin, Lamb, Scott and Bolcom

    It is difficult to know where to begin when describing William Bolcom. Should it be for his glorious pianism, including the stunning recording of his arrangement of Gershwin songs, or for his partnership with his wife, singer Joan Morris, with whom he reintroduced America to the luminous glories of turn-of-the-century popular American songs, or for his many compositions – chamber music, symphonies, opera, music for film, and works for voice and for solo piano – in which the lines between serious and popular music tend to disappear? He won a Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1988 for 12 New Etudes for Piano, three Grammy awards in 2005 for a setting of Songs of Innocence and of Experience and 46 poems by William Blake. In 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He was named Composer of the year in 2007 by Musical America. There is much, much more.

    Bolcom took his first composition lessons when he was eleven years old; he went on to study composition with Leland Smith at Stanford University, with Darius Milhaud at Mill College and again at the Paris Conservatoire, where he also studied with Olivier Messiaen. He has had, in addition to his life as a composer, a long career both as a performing musician and a university professor. He is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan School of Music.

    About tonight’s work, Bolcom had this to say: “The Murray Louis Dance Company commissioned a rag suite, Afternoon Cakewalk, for their 1979 season. In it were included rags by Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Scott and myself; played by the violinist Sergiu Luca, the clarinetist David Schifrin, and me, the dance-piece Cakewalk was premiered by the Dance Company at the City Center in New York that fall. One of my rags in the suite was an arrangement of 1970’s Graceful Ghost; a few years later Sergiu and the pianist Anne Epperson received a reworked ‘Concert Variation’ of that rag as a wedding present.”

    Program note © Nora Avins Klein, 2014

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