When composers write for instruments they possess a great deal of skill playing, some very extraordinary music can result. They will go right to the limit (if not over the line) of what the instrument is capable of while always featuring the best resonant characteristics of that voice. It is so gratifying to perform works by composers who play your instrument because everything just works!
Our concert this evening features three pieces by composers who were and are master instrumentalists writing for their instrument. On the first half, Evan Premo plays his piece Artemis in the Oak Grove for bass and piano (2013) and Kenji Bunch performs his Suite for viola and piano (1998). After intermission we hear Dvořák’s String Quintet, a work which was first composed in 1875, and then revised in 1888.
By the time the String Quintet was composed in 1875 Antonin Dvorak was coming into his own as a mature composer. He had begun writing by absorbing and imitating the musical styles of Liszt and Wagner. By 1873 he had evolved his own unique voice, returning to classical structures of Haydn and Mozart and infusing his sonic palette with melodic and harmonic elements of Czech music.
For a young composer, embracing such a unique approach was taking a huge risk. Success required securing a publisher and having one’s music performed internationally. Publishers were extremely conservative when choosing material to market. Dvorak, however, had a powerful secret weapon in the person of Johannes Brahms. Brahms first encountered Dvorak’s music in 1873 while serving as a jurist for the Austrian State Stipendium, a cash prize for struggling artists. In December of 1877 Brahms wrote to his publisher in Simrock in Berlin successfully encouraging them to accept manuscripts from the young Czech. As Dvorak’s scores became available, musicians grabbed them up and began performing his music world-wide.
The String Quintet No 2 was first identified by the composer as opus 18 and was a five movement piece. Adding a double bass to a standard string quartet was a very unique step. The combination results in a wonderful’ deep sonority as the bass shifts roles from orchestral doubling of the cello to acting as a unique fifth voice. Dvorak’s later revision was to remove the original second movement which was itself a reworking of material from his String Quartet #4. This excised movement eventually became his Nocturne for Strings in B major, Op. 40. The remaining four movements were then published by Simrock in 1888 as opus 77, and this is considered the definitive version.
Dvořák was a skilled violist. He had supported himself as he developed his compositional craft by playing the viola in the Bohemian Provisional Theater Orchestra from 1862-1871. Imagine if he were still among us and could join our ensemble tonight!
Our other composer/performers ARE right here on stage right now. There are overviews of their lives and careers to-date in the performers’ biography section of this program book.
When recently asked, Evan Premo described his compositions as products of all his musical influences: American and Scandinavian traditional and contemporary folk music, musical theater, film music, as well as the “classical” canon. Of his work Artemis in the Oak Grove he writes:
“When my former bass teacher Diana Gannett asked me to compose her a piece, I thought of her namesake in Roman mythology: Diana, goddess of the hunt (her equivalent in Greek mythology is Artemis).
What would it be like to be immortal like the goddess Artemis? Without death defining the limitations of our existence, how would sanity be possible? It seems to me the only possible solution would be to live each moment absolutely in the present. If immortality were my problem I would choose to spend my limitless time like Artemis, hunting deer with bow and arrow in the wilderness, therefore participating in the circle of life and death and living each moment.
Imagine this piece as the course of a day, from dawn until dawn, in an immortal life: the immortal life of the goddess Artemis.”
Composer Kenji Bunch has received acclaim from audiences, performers, and critics alike for his work combining vernacular American influences with techniques from his classical training to create a unique vocabulary of New American music. I vividly remember being backstage at the Hardwick Town House preparing to go on stage and witnessing Kenji Bunch teaching a pizzicato lick he had come up with to Katherine Winterstein as both giggled uncontrollably. That riff, like so many of his other wonderful musical motifs made it into the work we hear tonight as he explains below.
“Suite for viola and piano was written in 1998 for violist Naoko Shimizu. It was my first work for viola, which is the instrument I play and know more intimately than any other. My motivation for this work was to write a virtuosic, substantial piece that would present the viola as a versatile solo instrument capable of a multitude of colors and characters. The work is in five movements, the last three of which are played without pause. It begins with a dramatic rhapsody that alternates between exclamatory Romantic gestures and placid stillness. The second movement is a scherzo built upon a silly pizzicato figure I developed with my friends backstage at a summer festival in Vermont. There are also elements of speakeasy jazz and stride piano romps. The third movement is… based on a descending lament-bass figure that is presented throughout the movement. This gives way to a viola cadenza that makes reference to the previous movement before exploding into a final perpetual motion that gains momentum every few bars until it crashes to the end.”