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Friday June 21, 7:30 pm • Opening Festival Concert  • Congregational Church

Gabriel Pierné Sonata da Camera, Op. 48 (1926)

Note by Tom Strini
Gabriel Pierné (1863–1937): Sonata da Camera, Opus 49 (1926):  Pierné and his musician parents moved to Paris from Metz in 1871, when Metz was among the territories ceded to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War.
That forced choice paid dividends. The Paris Conservatory immediately accepted the 8-year-old prodigy. Franck and Massenet were among his teachers. Pierné grew into a star student and won just about every prize the school offered, including the Prix de Rome. When Franck died in 1890, Pierné took his teacher’s post as the distinguished organist of the Sainte-Clotilde Basilica in Paris. In 1903, he became assistant conductor of the influential Concerts Colonne Orchestra, known for its dedication to new music. When Pierné became principal conductor in 1910, he championed contemporary music in general and French music – notably, Debussy, Ravel and the other Impressionists — in particular. He worked closely with Diaghilev’s ground-breaking Ballets Russes – for example, he conducted the premiere of the Fokine/Stravinsky Firebird.
Pierné’s endlessly charming, 15-minute Sonata da Camera displays a gift for good tunes and smart, tight forms. The five-minute first movement bubbles with a sprightly principal theme with spring-loaded rhythms that propel big dives and leaps in pitch. The sonata hearkens to Baroque practice in the lively counterpoint of the first movement; the stately Sarabande, which conjures the ghost of Couperin in the steady tread of its bass line and its wafting melodies; and in the antic finale, a nod to the gigues and hornpipes that ended so many Baroque dance suites.

Joan Tower Island Prelude

Note by Tom Strini
Joan Tower (b. 1938): Island Prelude (1988): The cello opens the prelude rocking between a long low A and low B, like a foghorn’s mournful tolling. The rest of the string quartet and then the oboe come in likewise, in sustained overlapping tones at close intervals. Tower thus crafts a pulseless, suspended, mysterious sonic presence; this is night music.
Of course it doesn’t just float all night. Tension rises with pitch and activity; dense counterpoint bubbles up. We start to feel meter and some momentum along with it. Such episodes alternate unpredictably with the calm melancholy of music related to the opening material. It’s like a peaceful sleep interrupted by vivid, intermittent dreams.
The Prelude rises to a climax at about the seventh of its 10 minutes, and an oboe cadenza carries us to a second climax. Dawn breaks at the end, in the form of a glowing major ninth chord, low A to high B.

William Grant Still Miniatures

Abi Sperling, flute; Lara Wickes, oboe, Rachelle McCabe, piano

Note by Tom Strini

William Grant Still (1895-1978): Miniatures (1948): Still had an astonishing musical career. He taught himself to play just about every orchestral instrument. He played in the pit for Eubie Blake’s landmark black musical, Shuffle Along. He was an arranger for the hugely popular Paul Whiteman. He was the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra (Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1936). He composed hundreds of works, including an opera, Troubled Island, staged by the New York City Opera in 1949. He arranged music for major films, including Pennies from Heaven. And this little rundown barely scratches the surface of his accomplishments.
He was so prolific and so busy that I suspect he dashed off Miniatures in a few stolen moments. Four of the five miniatures are truly minute, in both scale and ambition. Still did little but craft charming arrangements of “Adolorido,” a Mexican ballad; “Jesus is a rock in the weary land,” a bluesy spiritual; “Yaravi,” an Inca ballad of longing (actually, Yaravi is a genre of song, not the title of a song); and “Froggy Went a-Courtin.’” Together, those four songs occupy eight of the suite’s 13 minutes.
Still was more ambitious with the opener, “I Ride an Old Paint.” The familiar tune returns several times, separated by creative tangents. He made a five-minute cowboy rondo!

Schubert Quartet in A minor “Rosamunde”

note by Craig Leman
Allegro ma non troppo

February 1824 was truly a winter of desolation for Schubert, as he composed his A Minor Quartet. Relentless progression of syphilis he had acquired in 1822 gave him premonition of early death. Although his Octet, written at the same time, gives no hint of Schubert’s despair, this quartet suggests his travail in a number of ways.

In a letter to a friend Schubert quoted a song he had written years before, the words of Gretchen at her spinning wheel: “My peace is gone; my heart is sore; I find it never and never more.” Schubert goes on: “Every night that I go to sleep I hope nevermore to wake; and each morning yesterday’s sorrows greet me anew. So, joyless and friendless, I pass my days.”

Turning to the music, we find the theme of Gretchen’s song as the opening melody of this quartet. In the minuet, we find another poignant restatement of an earlier Schubert song. This one begins “Fair world, where art thou?” from Schiller’s “The Gods of Greece.” Since we can forgive, and even thank, a composer for cribbing from his own works, we can continue to appreciate the extended treatment Schubert gives in the slow movement to themes from incidental music he wrote for a play called Rosamunde . The finale breaks out of the sadness that pervades the first three movements, but an air of wistfulness remains. As one listens to this lovely music, it is difficult to imagine that its creator was writing: “…I feel myself the unhappiest, most miserable being on the earth. Consider a person whose health will never be right…Think of a man, I say, whose shining hopes have come to nothing, to whom the fortune of love and friendship offers nothing but pain.”

And yet, on March 31 Schubert could write a friend: “I have done little new in Lieder, but I’ve tried my hand at several instrumental things–2 quartets and an octet, and I want to write another quartet. In this way, I intend to prepare the way to the grand symphony.”