Light & Air at The Madison
Notes on the Program

July 1, 2022

As we all know from recent events, the world can be a turbulent place. The need to find solace lives in all of us, and the music on this program provides welcome alternatives to whatever conflicts may be in our midst. This is not to say that the two works presented here are devoid of tension. Their anxieties often are understated, with ample space for stress and resolution. But these pieces also possess glistening and meditative qualities that keep us absorbed in the prismatic interplay of colors, textures, and moods. The program, “Light & Air at the Madison,” is a marriage of ethereal works and a venue with an atmosphere conducive to music that envelops us, sometimes without our even being aware of it.

With Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1915), ChamberFest concludes its survey of the three sonatas the French composer wrote in the last years of his life, when he was suffering from terminal cancer and appalled by the inhumanity of the First World War. The sonata’s complement of instruments has appealed to dozens of composers; Debussy’s piece is among the most glorious. Originally envisioned for flute, oboe, and harp, the composer transformed the work by removing the reed instrument and substituting viola, with its mellow timbre and ability to play vivid pizzicato passages. Debussy’s individual style — let’s avoid calling it impressionistic, a word he deplored — can be heard throughout the score’s three movements, which are so varied in ambience and expressive contour that the composer himself was challenged to pinpoint what the music signifies: “I can’t say whether one should laugh or cry. Perhaps both at the same time?”

Whatever they mean, the movements are hypnotic in the way Debussy takes the three instruments through evanescent materials that sigh, meet, intertwine, and depart with exquisite subtlety. In the opening Pastorale, the music imperceptibly changes meters as the players share lines, evoking scenes of tranquility and warmth. The dance of the second movement, Interlude: Lento, dolce rubato, is a fond tribute to the minuet of French Baroque, with striking contrasts of mood and effects. The last movement is marked Final: Allegro moderato ma risoluto, which hints at the extroverted gust of ideas that send the instruments through gestures animated by Debussy’s singular sonic imagination.

Another composer with keen ears for atmosphere and color is Anna Thorvaldsdottir, who wrote the tetrology In the Light of Air for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which gave the premiere at the Reykjavik Arts Festival in May 2014. The Icelandic composer (born 1977) has become admired for music that melds acoustic and electronic sounds in an almost seamless flow of themes, nuances, and textures. In the Light of Air is a mesmerizing example of Thorvaldsdottir’s art, a 40-minute tapestry for harp, piano, percussion, viola, cello, and fixed electronics, plus a light installation, if possible, reflecting the impulses unfolding in the ensemble.

The score of In the Light of Air includes pages of instrumental instructions and a performance note by Thorvaldsdottir that provides interpretive tips for the musicians. “As a composer,” she writes, “I have a tendency to write music in rather low dynamics. The lower levels of dynamics (in the p area) indicate my wish for an approach to pitches and sound materials with a sense of calm and carefulness rather than merely indicating an audio level. I do not intend the music to be too quiet — but rather projecting a sense of serenity. I would kindly ask that the dynamics be subtly dramatized, as appropriate in the progression of the music and with regards to the concert venue.”

What occurs during the work’s four movements (cast in nine sections, with transitions) is an evolution of lines and details over the occasional electronic drone. This low sound is nearly inaudible or ominously present to underline the hushed apprehensions being evoked through various instrumental techniques, interactions, and blends. At the start of the prologue, the musicians are asked to “breathe normally” into microphones, creating a distant wind effect, and their instruments are amplified to keep the delicate gradations clear.

The first movement, “Luminance,” receives its radiance through an array of instrumental effects (harp pizzicatos, plucked piano strings, glissandos, percussion rustlings) that hover in the air like whispers. “Serenity,” the second movement, alternates sustained and crackling sounds with melodic slivers, including downward harp and piano figures and passages with markings that remind the musicians to maintain the aura of tranquility. In “Existence,” the third movement, Thorvaldsdottir highlights the viola, with the expressive suggestion that the playing be “soloistic with calm & ease and subtle sense of brokeness.”

A new sphere of sounds arrives in the last movement, “Remembrance,” some produced on Klagabönd, as the composer describes, “a decorative metal object designed and made in Iceland. Klagabönd roughly translates in English as ‘A bind of ice’ and it is shaped as a circle of frost, somewhat like a snowball with an open center.” If the Icelandic object isn’t available, the score notes, a series of metal sheets can be substituted to produce the four gleaming pitches, which sound like tolling bells. The piano embarks on an extended solo, which leads to mournful viola lines and portentous rumblings throughout the ensemble, including tappings on two-by-fours and bass drum. The anxiety momentarily subsides in the Epilogue as harp and piano murmur in downward whisps. The piano and harp play emphatic chords over sustained tones on the other instruments, and then the music fades into the air.

© 2022 Donald Rosenberg

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