In Season

Composer Carmen Braden talks about her work.

Last night, on a bit of a last minute decision, I decided to attend my second Toronto Symphony concert of the week.  After my expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of intimacy in Roy Thompson Hall, I arrived at a novel solution for attending this concert, which was essentially a chamber music recital rather than a symphony performance:  sit in the choir loft!  I’ve often seen people sit there at past concerts and always wondered what it would be like.  I figured that with the small number of players used in these performances, the sound balance would not be drastically compromised, and it would put me as close to the orchestra as possible, yet slightly elevated.  Also, the seats were relatively inexpensive, so it was worth a try.  And as it turned out, it was an excellent decision, one which gave me the connection with the performers I had missed in other concerts.  The only drawbacks were that the horn in the first piece seemed to stand out from the other musicians, rather than blending in seamlessly, and also I was unable to see any of the facial expressions of soloist Jonathan Crow in the Vivaldi pieces.  However, I was rather amazed at just how much I *could* see (and the musicians were also cognizant that there were people sitting behind, and took one of their bows to us as well).  But looking out at the rest of the hall, it really did bring home how far away those centre mezzanine and balcony seats really are.  I may investigate some of the far left/right mezzanine seats in the future, since they seem to be a possible option for a less expensive seat that’s a bit closer in.

I: The Summer Stars

To me, the summer stars evoke memories of warm nights and fireworks, campfires and s’mores, the Milky Way wheeling overhead, a starry path for the Swan and the Eagle.  Stars and the night sky are special to me, and have been since I was a child?  But what if your summer had no stars?  Carmen Braden’s Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars opened the TSO concert last night, providing five musical suggestions as to where these stars might do on their ‘vacation’, as it were.   Braden is a Yellowknife, NWT-based composer whose work draws extensively on her natural environment in Canada’s north, where the summers, indeed, lack stars because of the extended daylight hours of the sub-Arctic.  She came out before the performance to help introduce her work, a slender woman with short brownish hair, wearing a sleeveless tunic dress with what looked like Indigenous beadwork.  (I wondered whether she was Indigenous–she is not, although she does collaborate with Indigenous artists).  “Under the glow of these soft starless nights, I wrote five short songs imagining where the stars go when we can’t see them anymore,” she said in the program notes as well as in her introduction.  The work was scored for a small chamber orchestra consisting of strings, horn, flute, and oboe (increased from the septet that it was originally scored for), and Braden provides some thoughts in words to accompany each of the five “songs.”  These words, to me, brought each piece to life (much as the Petrachan sonnets that accompany each of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons do).

  1. Where do the stars play when they disappear in the summer?
    Where do the stars play when they disappear in the summer?
    They play among the shadows fallen, far away

    This somewhat melancholic, wistful movement opens the piece and sets the scene for the atmospheric work that would follow.

  2. Comet River
    Sparks in a hailstorm
    Fire outside of time
    All rushing on
    Downstream becomes upside down

    These words helped me visualize what I heard in the music–sparkling, bold, glittering like a river, but one of sparks in the sky.

  3. A clandestine meeting with an Aurora
    When she sends her light around me
    When she sends her arms of light around my outward star
    We shine green fire
    Like sky dew shining on new sky leaves

    For me, this was the highlight of the piece.  It started with the horn making an eerie, ethereal pitchless sound, evoking wind.  Strings evoked the shimmering of the aurora through glissandos and transparent harmonics, with the oboe and flute fluttering over top.

  4. Sway me around, Orion!
    Sway, oh sway Orion
    Come, sway me around!

    Braden’s jazz side really comes to the fore in this piece, with its funky pizzacato passages.  I could picture the actual constellation of Orion, with his starry belt, dancing a waltz or a tango with a nearby constellation.

When the Moon hangs lonely in the blue sky
When the moon hangs lonely in the blue sky,
Then the moon calls out
“Far away star,
come home and bring the snow.”

This final part opened with a solo by the horn, voicing the lonely moon, calling to a star, almost as if a missing lover.  The star responds, voiced by the flute and oboe, while the strings sizzle in the background.

Braden’s work has been described as “drop dead gorgeous.”  It is.  She perfectly captured the ethereal, shimmering, sizzling feel of the heavens, leaving me wanting to listen to this piece over and over and over again.  And as it turns out, I can.  This is the centrepiece of her new album of the same name, and made me want to hear more.

II. American Realism

In studying the cult of ‘Soviet Realism’ and its disastrous impact on Soviet composers, writers, and artists, it’s easy to forget that the trend of working to incorporate “authentic folk” traditions “accessible to the masses” into art was a much larger trend, one that in countries where such practices were not mandated by the order of a dictator bore much more viable fruit.  In the United States, one of the earliest examples (apart from the mostly-ignored-during-his-lifetime Charles Ives) is George Gershwin, who crossed over from his career writing popular songs and musicals to composing works that are still part of the classical music canon.  But the Depression and WWII-era works of Aaron Copland have to rank at the pinnacle of this movement.  Appalachian Spring  was first and foremost a ballet, one commissioned by an American philanthropist for Martha Graham’s ballet company.  Per the program notes, Copland said:  “I knew certain crucial things…that it had to do with the American pioneer spirit, with youth and spring, with optimism and hope.”  He was also asked by Graham to use American folk music in the score, leading to the inclusion of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” probably the most famous part of the work.  Interestingly enough, the work was named by Graham after the fact, and the ‘spring’ referenced was actually a mountain spring rather than the season.

Appalachian Spring was originally performed by an ensemble of 13 musicians (piano, clarinet, flute, bassoon, plus a doubled string quartet and a bass) to accompany Graham’s choreography;  it was later expanded by the composer into the familiar orchestral suite.  The TSO, in keeping with the chamber nature of this concert, chose to perform the original version, and it was definitely a revelation.  The more sparse orchestration heightened the intimacy and impact of the work, taking away some of the ‘epic’ feel of the full orchestral version and tying it more directly to the ballet it was always meant to be.  Their playing was transparent and phenomenal, particularly the wind players.

But because it’s what I do, I could not help but contrast it with another work from the same year, Shostakovich’s second Piano Trio, dedicated to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died at age 41.  This work is, in many ways, as different from Appalachian Spring as a piece could be–anguished rather than joyful, bracketed by death rather than imbued by life.  Shostakovich could not look away from the war in Europe in the same way that Copland could, and it’s thought that the Jewish-sounding dance theme of the final movement represents inmates of concentration camps who were forced to dance on their future graves as they were shot, one by one.  This piece, of course, was a rejection of so-called Soviet Realism, really only made possible by the fact that Stalin was too busy with the war to worry much about what composers were up to, although there were already signs in the frosty reception of Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony that those days were coming to an end.

And I also thought about 1944 itself, the year of D-Day, 75 years ago.  I cannot think of any American classical work written during the war that really deeply addresses it in all its complexity in the same way that Shostakovich does (and as a few other European composers do, notably Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written when he was he was a prisoner of war). Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is probably the best known work from the period that seems to at least have the war in mind, but in the abstract, with the implicit assumption that the “common man” will, indeed, emerge triumphant.  It’s as if there was a kind of ‘American Realism’ during the war, where the American spirit of hope, optimism, and high ideals was valued and celebrated, and tragedy sublimated to this escapist narrative.  It did not come at the end of a gun, or through government decree, but it would be folly to underestimate the societal pressure in the US to hew to patriotic themes in times of trouble.

“Our business is rejoicing.” –Dmitri Shostakovich

III: Four Seasons

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is one of those works that appears on many classical ‘greatest hits’ lists.  Various portions of it (particularly the first movements of Spring, Autumn, and Winter) find their way into advertising and soundtracks and the like so frequently that they could very easily become cliche.  I’d never actually heard them performed live, although my high school orchestra played both the Spring and the Autumn concertos, putting me in the unusual position of having performed a work but having never heard it. (Aside: I googled Fred Ripley, who played the violin solo in those performances, wondering what had become of him, and it looks like he completed a PhD in music and as recently as 2018 was teaching and playing both violin and viola).

Jonathan Crow is the TSO’s concertmaster, an extremely tall, relatively young violinist who I had heard perform the Sibelius Violin Concerto in June.  He’s amazing, and I had no doubt he would bring his best to the Vivaldi–and he did, particularly in some incredibly scorching passages in the Summer and Winter concertos, as well as the beautiful expressiveness I love in the middle movement of the latter. But what makes these works special is each’s ability to evoke the feeling of each season, and that responsibility lies as much with the orchestra as with the the soloist. So how did they do?

These concertos are, for the orchestra, not terribly difficult, although there are a few solo passages for violin and cello (outside of the main violin solo) that are challenging.  The key is to be able to evoke each the seasons in each of the four concertos.  To assist with this, the text of the Petrachan sonnets that Vivaldi included with each of the concertos to help paint the picture of what the music depicts were recited at the beginning of each one.  The first was in English, the second in what I believe was Japanese, the third in Chinese, and the final in French.  These helped recall in particular the bird-song in the first movement and the barking dog in the second movement of the Spring concerto, the buzzing of flies and the tempestuous storms that pervade the Summer concerto, the bounciness of the hunt scenario of the third movement of the Autumn concerto, and, most particularly, the rain and ice of the Winter concerto.  It was in this last that the orchestra was nothing short of spectacular. The fluttering of the fingering in the initial part first movement evoking the trembling cold was accompanied by bowing that allowed harmonics to come through, evoking ice, until the entire ensemble came together, slipping and stampeding across the ice.  The gentle pizzacato in the second movement evoked falling rain (we are in Italy, remember–it’s not all snow), and then, finally, the strings evoking the mincing steps one takes when trying to cross ice, concluding with the tempest of the blowing north wind.

It was a satisfying night exploring the seasons with the TSO.  I came away reacquainted with an old favourite, hearing a classic work in a new way (and with new perspectives on the year 1944), but I now know what the stars do when we can’t see them, and that alone was worth the price of the ticket.