We are accustomed to listening to the compositions of a classical music concert in chronological order. A Baroque piece, if there is one, would typically be placed first, followed by classical period or early Romantic works, and finally later on the program the more complex harmonies, rhythms, and textures of late romantic, twentieth-century and contemporary music. This evening’s program is a mild experiment in breaking from this standard approach: in the first half of the program, we begin with a piece written in the 1980’s, and then go backwards in time until we hit intermission having just heard music composed in the 1580’s. The second half of the program mirrors the first, reversing course and proceeding forwards in time the same 400 years, ending with music written quite recently, in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Altogether, the chronological progression of the two halves of the concert thereby makes a shape of a narrow V like an old-fashioned ice cream cone. There are many connections between the pieces on the program, ranging from the symmetry of the placement of Byrd, Brahms, and Debussy pieces on both halves of the program, to some more subtle relationships. Here are a few of my own thoughts on the individual pieces on the program and their interconnections.
Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch, written in 1982, is full of water imagery, from raindrops, mist, and rivulets to a section whose circular motions remind me of a waterwheel. The concept of echoes permeates this piece, from the wakes of waves to echoes in the air and perhaps even of our memories. It should make a contemplative start to our program, allowing all of our ears to adjust to the acoustics and spatial feel of the room; one of the drawbacks of placing a busy baroque piece first on a program is that since our ears haven’t had a chance yet to acclimate to the room’s acoustics, it can sound muddier than it might at some other point in the program.
The Takemitsu and the Debussy that follows it on the program both have the word “sketch” in the title, and of course many twentieth century composers had a particularly strong interest in the visual arts. It is especially natural to pair these two composers on the program given Debussy’s affinity for Oriental art: he likened the look of some of his études to that of ornate, intricate Japanese prints.
Johannes Brahms’ theme and variation set on Haydn’s “St. Antony Chorale” begins with a tune evocative of a town woodwind band, and village bells make their appearance at various moments in the piece. One of the most beautiful aspects of the composition is how Brahms takes a detail at the end of one section of the piece and makes it the main focus of the next variation, where the detail is developed and magnified. In this way Brahms helps to “braid” together the disparate variations, giving the work as a whole more coherence. The first half closes with pieces by Scarlatti and Byrd, some of the first composers to think of musical space, all the little micro-climates of the keyboard high, medium, and low, each nook and cranny with its own color. The Byrd selections are from My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music.
J.S. Bach’s Partita no. 2 has long attracted me ever since I was a teenager. It is amazing to realize that much of this music is in the 2-part invention style, where each hand only plays one note at a time, but nevertheless creates through horizontal motion the impression of rich vertical harmony. The jazz chord near the end of the Rondeau and the “boom-chuck-boom-chuck” stride piano left-hand accompaniment at moments of the Capriccio are a bit of Twilight-Zone fare in a piece from the 1700’s.
The Brahms Intermezzo features a basic idea of an extremely long descending chain of thirds (also heard briefly in one of the variations on the first half). This chain idea, used also by Beethoven, can also be found in Ligeti’s music, most marvellously in his Étude no. 2 “Cordes vides” (not on this program), except there the interval of choice is the perfect fifth of a violin’s open strings. Debussy’s music opened the doors to Ligeti’s interest in music that develops “organically,” that is, music that grows in an irregular way as trees grow in nature, or waves come to a seashore or bank of a pond. Perhaps the Brahms technique of taking a small ending phrase and then generating a new section (also done by jazz players while improvising) is a bow in the direction of how nature reproduces itself. Ligeti himself mentioned the jazz piano players Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans as influences, and one can hear improvising over a vamp figure,“trading,” and jazz harmonic style at times in his music. My favorite Ligeti moment is in the last étude on today’s program, where a gradually descending passage goes off the left-hand side of the piano and emerges magically in the highest notes of the right-hand side, as if the piano had been made into a surreal circular loop. The very most basic linear assumption of the piano, that it has a top and a bottom, has been defied!