Program Notes

The 2017 Festival Program Notes

by Dr. Jeffrey Sykes, ©2017. All rights reserved.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Arr. Franz Danzi (1763-1826)

Three Arias from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, arranged for two cellos

Franz Danzi was a German cellist and composer and the son of a noted Italian cellist father. As a young man, he knew Mozart; Beethoven was a contemporary of his; and he gave significant aid to the young Carl Maria von Weber. He was raised in Mannheim where his father was principal cellist of the extraordinary orchestra Elector Karl Theodor had assembled. He joined the cello section of the orchestra in 1778 and, when the court moved to Munich in 1784, he was appointed principal cellist, replacing his father.


Danzi is remembered today chiefly for the many magnificent woodwind quintets he wrote. As a cellist of the first rank himself, he wrote quite a lot for the instrument, including several sonatas and concertos. Danzi had met Mozart when the latter traveled to Mannheim in 1777-78. Danzi’s father had won praise from Mozart when he played the principal cello part of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, and the younger Danzi revered Mozart and his operas ever after. He arranged four famous arias from Mozart’s great opera Don Giovanni for two cellos. We will hear three of those arrangements on this program.


Egberto Gismonti (b. 1947)

Agua e vinho (ca. 1972)

Egberto Gismonti is a Brazilian composer, guitarist, and pianist of Italian and Arab descent.  After studying in Brazil for fifteen years, he moved to Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger.  Boulanger encouraged him to look close to home for inspiration (as she did with Astor Piazzolla), and in fact his style incorporates Italian and Arabian melodies, the influences of Stravinsky and Villa-Lobos, traditional Brazilian genres (choro, bossa nova), Brazilian Indian themes, and jazz.  He has made nearly fifty albums of his own compositions on which he plays piano, guitar, flute, various Brazilian Indian instruments, kalimba (a thumb piano from Africa), and other instruments.  The work on tonight’s program, Agua e vinho (“water and wine”) was originally written for guitar and violin and has been arranged for two cellos by Anthony Ross and Beth Rapier. It successfully straddles that line between popular and classical music, as does much of Gismonti’s music.


Alfredo da Rocha Viana, Jr., aka Pixinguinha (1897-1973) Carinhoso arranged for two cellos (1916-17)

Alfredo da Rocha Viana, Jr., better known as “Pixinguinha,” was a composer, arranger, flutist and saxophonist born in Rio de Janeiro. Pixinguinha is considered one of the greatest Brazilian composers of popular music, particularly within the genre of music known as choro. By integrating the music of the older choro composers of the 19th century with contemporary jazz-like harmonies, Afro-Brazilian rhythms, and sophisticated arrangements, he introduced choro to a new audience and helped to popularize it as a uniquely Brazilian genre. “Carinhoso”—“Affectionate”—was written by Pixinguinha in 1916-17 and is one of the most important pieces of Brazilian popular music.


Mark Summer (b. 1958)

Julie-O for two cellos (date?)

Mark Summer was the original cellist for the Turtle Island String Quartet, a San Francisco-based jazz string quartet that bridged several styles, including bluegrass, classical European music, funk, jazz, Latin American music, and Indian classical music. He played with the quartet from its founding in 1985 until 2015. He has written several pieces for solo cello and cello duo, including his signature work Julie-O. Julie-O was featured in a 2015 advertising campaign for the Apple Watch and on two episodes of NBC’s Parenthood. It is a kaleidoscopic, multi-tamboured tour-de-force.


Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884),

Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15 (1855)

The first half of the nineteenth century saw a great awakening of national identity throughout Europe. The Napoleonic wars, the ups and downs of the Habsburg Empire, and a growing sense of the importance of the individual in society all led groups of people to seek common ground around linguistic and cultural affinities. This was particularly true of the Czech people, who had suffered greatly under the domination of the Habsburg Empire, losing not only political power but in fact losing their language. (The Czech language had been officially banned from public use, came close to extinction several times, and survived only as a regional language among peasants.) This new feeling of nationalism led to the first Czech-German dictionary, which in turn opened up the Czech language to a whole generation of people who had been denied access to their mother tongue. This fueled a tremendous surge of intellectual and cultural activity, all drawing inspiration from the Czech language and Czech folk music.


Bedřich Smetana was the first major musical figure in this cultural flowering. According to Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “such was the force of [Smetana’s] musical personality that his musical style became synonymous with Czech nationalist style, his name a rallying point for the polemics which were to continue in Czech musical life into the next century.” Smetana’s achievements are all the more remarkable for two reasons. First, he was not a native speaker of Czech. His education, like that of all Czechs of his generation, had been conducted completely in German, and he had to learn Czech as an adult. And yet his eight Czech-language operas, the most famous being The Bartered Bride, established a repertoire of Czech-language opera that was taken as a model by other composers and is still performed today. (Interestingly, the young Antonín Dvořák played viola in the pit orchestra under Smetana’s baton at the premiere of The Bartered Bride.) Secondly, by 1874 he had become deaf as a result of syphilis. Like Beethoven, many of his greatest works were written after he was completely deaf, including his symphonic masterpiece Ma Vlast.

Smetana’s Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 15, was written in 1855 in reaction to the death at age four of his first child, his musically talented daughter Bedřiška. His second child, also a daughter, had died a year earlier, and his wife had just been diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill her in 1859, so this was a time of great difficulty for Smetana. But as is often the case, this personal difficulty led to music of great emotional power.  The three-movement piano trio is the largest Smetana work had attempted up to that time. The trio is remarkable not only for its profound sense of despair, but also for its great sense of unity. Some of the material in the trio draws on a piano sonata he had written in 1846, but one would hardly recognize it as Smetana’s compositional technique had grown so smooth in the interim. He uses thematic variation, transformation, and reminiscence to great effect, so much so that some conservative critics complained of the work’s “rhapsodic nature.” But it is precisely this “rhapsodic nature” that has won the piece its lasting place in the repertoire.


Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

String Sextet in A Major (1876)

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most important Russian composers on the 19th century and considered one of the greatest masters of orchestration of all time. His symphonic works such as the Capriccio espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the suite Scheherazade are staples of the repertoire. His operas, of which he wrote sixteen, are standard fare in Russian opera houses but rarely heard in the west except for a few instrumental excerpts, including the “Flight of the Bumblebee” from The Tale of Tsar Saltan. He was a member of the loose-knit group of St. Petersburg-based Russian composers called The Five or The Mighty Handful. Other members were composers Mili Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Alexander Borodin. Together, the group rode the wave of cultural nationalism sweeping across Europe in the late nineteenth century—the same wave that turned Smetana to Czech nationalism. They believed in establishing a nationalistic style of classical music that would draw on Russian folksong and folklore and orientalism, a blend of exotic melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements. The group also opposed academic training in music, feeling that it stifled creativity. On this point, Rimsky-Korsakov broke ranks with The Five and pursued a serious self-directed academic study of music theory, harmony, and counterpoint. As a result, he was able to combine all of the nationalistic features so beloved of The Five together with Western European classical composition techniques to create a uniquely powerful musical language.

For most of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov combined his composing career with a career as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy and later as the Inspector of Naval Bands. When he was appointed Professor of Practical Composition and Instrumentation at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1871, he had to teach his classes in uniform: Russian officers were considered to be always on duty. While teaching at the Conservatory, he was teaching himself in the evenings, following a rigorous course of writing counterpoint exercises, fugues, chorales, and a cappella choruses, always keeping one step ahead of his students.

The String Sextet in A Major was written for a competition held by the Russian Musical Society in 1876. Up to this time, Rimsky-Korsakov had written songs, piano music, operas, and orchestral works, but very little chamber music: only the String Quartet in F Major, Op. 12, written in 1875, precedes the Sextet. Rimsky’s Sextet didn’t win the first prize, but it did receive an honorable mention. The work is in five movements, and most unusually has two scherzo movements back-to-back (movements 2 and 3). Rimsky was especially proud of the complicated six-part fugue in the second movement. As the critic Leonid Sabaneiev wrote, the sextet is a “youthful, entertaining piece that is full of gaiety.” Interestingly, Rimsky chose not to publish the sextet during his lifetime. It was first published in 1912, four years after his death.