Spirited Away
Notes on the Program

June 17, 2022

Music is unparalleled for its ability to convey a range of emotions. Even works that claim no descriptive intent touch us for reasons that are often difficult to explain. How, after all, is it possible for notes and markings on a page to conjure so much joy, anguish, and all of the feelings that lie in between? Music does this in ways that mute the mundane aspects of daily life and take us to places where matters of mind and heart blend into something ineffable.

The magic extends from terra firma to regions beyond human understanding, as this program explores through an array of bold and poignant music. “Spirited Away” is a collection of varied pieces that pay tribute to the oppressed, the lost, the divine, and those fortunate souls who find at least temporary contentment on Earth. These works come from the imaginations of African-American, American, Armenian, and Czech composers, proving once again how universal the language of music can be.

Amid the concert works on this program, you will hear a cappella vocal pieces that address religious themes and issues of equality and liberation. They include Gregorian chant, spirituals, and contemporary songs reflective of African-American experience. The Dallas-based vocal quartet Kings Return has been hailed for its interpretation of this repertoire, not only in concert halls and churches, but also in stairwells. It will be intriguing to hear how the pieces these singers perform make connections to the program’s panoply of instrumental marvels; at least one of the songs, “Goin’ Home,” has roots in Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) and thus serves as a link to the Dvořák quartet that ends this concert.

The wonders include the second piece by George Walker highlighted during ChamberFest. Like his Curtis Institute of Music predecessor Samuel Barber, Walker wrote a string quartet with a central slow movement that would become his most famous creation. Barber composed his String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11, in 1935-36 in his mid-20s, the same age at which Walker penned his String Quartet No. 1 a decade later. Both slow movements, known best in their versions for string orchestra (Barber’s is the Adagio for Strings), are marked Molto adagio, and both claim a grave beauty summoned by strings stretching hushed and fervent statements. Walker dedicated Lyric for Strings, as the piece is called in its string-orchestra version, to his late grandmother, who had been a slave.

The plight of Blacks in 1920s South Carolina lies at the heart of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the 1935 folk opera he wrote with DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The composer, known mostly for Broadway scores and concert works, outdid himself with this amalgam of popular and classical elements, which would become a monument of American culture. In shaping his most ambitious work, Gershwin incorporated such African-American idioms as jazz and spirituals into the score.

Side Story No. 1: Artur Rodzinski tried to talk his friend George into allowing the Cleveland Orchestra to give the opera’s premiere, but the rights had already been purchased. Another Gershwin friend, violinist Jascha Heifetz, urged him to write a violin concerto, a project that might have happened if the composer hadn’t died in 1937 at the age of 38. (Side Story No. 2: Both Gershwin and Heifetz attended the Cleveland Orchestra’s New York performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mzensk in February 1935 led Rodzinski.) Heifetz went on to show his devotion to Gershwin by transcribing two sets of the composer’s pieces for violin and piano: the three piano preludes (1942) and six songs from Porgy and Bess (1944). They retain all of the originals’ pizazz and ardor while adding virtuosic flights for this most intrepid of fiddlers.

In stark contrast to Gershwin’s extroverted personality is the spiritual tranquility that pervades Tigran Mansurian’s Agnus Dei. The Armenian composer (born 1939) has written a large number of concert works and film scores, some influenced by Armenian folk and church traditions. The three-movement Agnus Dei, which Mansurian composed in 2006 for the 15th Oleg Kagan Festival in Wildbad Kreuth, Germany, only rarely ventures beyond quiet gestures. The three short movements reflect the messages in texts from the Latin Mass: “Agnus Dei,” “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” and “Miserere.” Clarinet, violin, cello, and piano — the same instrumentation as in Olivier Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time” — play melodic fragments, yearning phrases, and flurries of sound on cushions of comforting harmonies. Time often seems to be suspended as Mansurian raises the ensemble into ethereal space.

The American works before intermission have a friendly “American” counterpart on the second half of the program: Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96. The work has been called the “American” Quartet, though the Czech composer didn’t supply the subtitle, as he did for another piece he composed during his stay in the United States as director of the National Conservatory in New York City from 1892 to 1895 — his Symphony No. 9, which he dubbed “From the New World.” He called the quartet “the second composition written in America.” And both scores contain soundscapes hinting of the American experience, with open harmonies, sweeping themes tinged with folk-like shadings, and, especially in the case of the symphony, references to spirituals, which Dvořák heard for the first time upon arriving in the U.S.

The composer spent the summer of 1893 in a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, where, inspired by the atmosphere and people, he completed the F major Quartet in less than two weeks. It is among his most gracious and songful pieces, full of alluring thematic material and close-knit interplay of instrumental lines. The music has few complications, which Dvořák himself acknowledged when he noted that he “wanted to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward, and dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simply. And it’s good that it did.”

It isn’t quite as simple as Dvořák suggests, given the rhythmic challenges — the third movement doesn’t always sound the way it looks on the page — and contrapuntal textures that need precise balancing. But, yes, it is melodious, from the boisterous theme announced by the viola in the first movement and mournful first-violin entreaty that opens the slow movement to the rustic third movement’s vivacious activity and finale’s high spirits. American? Maybe. Maybe not. Irresistible it most certainly is.

© 2022 Donald Rosenberg

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