x2 Program Notes - Muhly, Cerrone & Mendelssohn

Please enjoy the program notes for tonight’s x2 Concert: Mendelssohn Piano Trio. These program notes were created as part of Project Resonance, the Music Academy’s unique program combining writing training with public engagement. Through this initiative, both Academy fellows and young scholars from UC Santa Barbara are given the opportunity to work on program notes and other written materials for the Summer Festival.

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NICO MUHLY Pastoral

NICO MUHLY Crosswise

NICO MUHLY Teacher-Student

Collaborating with the composer Nico Muhly, one of America’s preeminent creative forces, is less him writing for you and more him writing with you. He’s a tailor, each piece a perfect fit for its interpreter. Pastoral, Crosswise, and Teacher-Student are the fruits of our recent work together; three pieces that speak a common musical tongue but were born from wildly different circumstances.

Pastoral is part of a sound installation (currently on display) at the Planting Fields Arboretum in Long Island, NY. The two-part installation exists inside the main house of the Coe estate as a (recorded) solo piano piece, and outside in the surrounding gardens as an expansive fractalization of the piano piece, scored for ensemble and electronics. The sounds of nature enshrine the score—birdsong, landscape, inclement weather—and Nico punctuates the piece with a pastoral hymn by Thomas Tallis called Like as the doleful dove delights:

Nico Muhly (Photo by Heidi Solander)
At top: Pianist Conor Hanick (Photo by Anneliese Varaldiev)

Like as the doleful dove delights alone to be,
and doth refuse the bloomed branch, choosing the leafless tree,
where on wailing his chance, his bitter tears besprent,
doth with his bill his tender breast oft pierce and all to rent;
whose grievous groanings though, whose grips of pining pain,
whose ghastly looks, whose bloody streams outflowing from each vein,
whose falling from the tree, whose panting on the ground,
examples be of mine estate, though there appear no wound.

Crosswise is a short sequential piece of limitless imagination and variety. It was conceived as “house concert” music, and as such speaks with a quiet intimacy. The score also includes a number of extremely geeky inside jokes derived from Nico’s and my shared reverence for our Juilliard ear training teacher, Mary Anthony Cox. As I said, tailormade. Special thank you to the Music Academy for commissioning this piece, with support from Michel Brustin, and Stephanie and Fred Shuman.

Last spring, after one conversation or another with Nico about Music Academy and my excitement to work with our piano fellows, I received an email from him with the subject, “Four Hands For Ü”. Attached was Teacher-Student and the message, “Well, you’re going to need something to PLAY with them! So here.” This brief little etude is as the title says: a wise but slightly lethargic teacher in the bass, showing by example; an eager student in the treble, poised and crystalline, playing to the beat of their own metronome.

– Conor Hanick, Faculty Artist, piano


CHRISTOPHER CERRONE I Will Learn to Love a Person

Much has been written about Generation Y, or “Millennials,” as they are more commonly known. This generation is tech-savvy, coming of age at the start of the internet boom, but also remembers a time when smartphones, Spotify, and AI were all but a fantasy. They are resilient but somewhat jaded, having lived through some of the most devastating crises in modern history—9/11, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. This perfect storm of circumstances led Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic to dub them the “New Lost Generation” in April 2020.

However, the Millennial condition is a subject not often addressed in contemporary classical music, an oversight that Brooklyn-based composer Christopher Cerrone sought to rectify. After completing his opera Invisible Cities (a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize), Cerrone wanted to compose a vocal work that resonated more directly with an “overeducated 29-year-old Millennial,” as he described himself. He soon stumbled across the poetry of Tao Lin, an American author whose style is rooted in the fragmentary language of the Internet and social media. These writings instantly hit a nerve. “What struck me was a kind of immediacy,” Cerrone recalled, “They were so direct and self-doubting and kind of funny. The thing I look for in words is space for music, and it struck me as the perfect text that, if sung, would be amplified.” The resulting song cycle, I will learn to love a person—scored for soprano, clarinet, piano, and percussion—was completed in 2013 and sets five of Lin’s poems, which probe the emotional nuances of Millennial relationships in an hyperconnected world. By doing so, Cerrone hopes that the work “reflects the strange and beautiful experience of growing up at the turn of the century” in all its messy, contradictive, and wondrous glory.

The first song (“The sky was green that night”) opens with a chilled hush. Soft wanderings in the piano and vibraphone provide a gentle cushion for the soprano’s entrance, whose chantlike musings soon blossom into a doubtful reverie. Twinges of bitterness are exacerbated by the clarinet on the words “that hurts,” a musical idea that will return later. After the soprano shrugs off her lover’s disinterestedness, without break, the ensemble gathers momentum and launches headlong into the next song (“Eleven page poem, part iii”). Though bright and ecstatic on the surface, lines such as “i feel terribly lonely and insane” suggest that everything is not alright. The song concludes with a climactic assurance that the protagonist will “be right back” (or “brb” in text message lingo). But, a break between the final two words raises a moment of doubt. Is our protagonist indeed planning to “be right back”? It’s up to the listener to decide, as the cycle impassively moves on.

Christopher Cerrone (Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff)

The following movement (“I will learn to love a person…”) is of similar character to the opening, albeit calmer and a bit more lyrical. After a callback to the sharp pangs of “that hurts,” the voice catapults up to a high B-flat—its highest note in the work—on the words “we must try harder,” a declaration that may be made in vain. The hyperkinetic energy of the second song returns in “When I leave this place,” which bubbles happily along before tumbling into another broken, ambiguous “be right back.” The final song (“Are you ok?”) is perhaps the bluntest of the cycle, ruminating on the theme of a broken relationship. It starts off hopeful but takes a darker turn as the clarinet and vibraphone introduce hints of dissonance. The most striking moment occurs when the soprano recalls a dream where she “went into your room and crawled under your sheets from the end of your bed.” Written in the style of “a strange waltz”—as the composer calls it in the score—this text is repeated three times, imbuing the words with an obsessive, almost sinister quality. The mood soon brightens as the protagonist wishes her lover (or former lover) “happy birthday,” and wistfully concludes that “i miss walking with you at night.” Is there any hope of reconciliation? A brief coda—which ricochets between the piano and vibraphone—seems to suggest that there is not. For now, at least, the protagonist will have to face the bright and terrifying unknown, continuing to “learn to love a person” until the right someone comes along.

– Kevin McBrien, PhD Candidate, Musicology, UC Santa Barbara


FELIX MENDELSSOHN Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49

“The master of all trios.” – Robert Schumann

Composed in 1839, the D minor Piano Trio, Op.49 is a true masterpiece that reflects Felix Mendelssohn at the height of his creative prowess. The thirty-year-old was at the top of his profession, had championed the revival of Bach’s music and built a cultural empire in Leipzig, all while being happily married to his beloved wife, Cécile. Well-received at its 1840 premiere, German composer Robert Schumann praised the trio as “an exceedingly fine composition that, years hence, will still delight our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” Schumann’s words are indeed true as the Mendelssohn D minor Piano Trio, Op.49 is one of the most popular trios in the canon.

The Op.49 trio is an accessible piece for the listener. Although Mendelssohn composed this trio in a concertante style where one or more instruments are treated similar to a soloist, the piano seemingly plays a prominent role with its dense writing of keyboard virtuosity and extravagance. However, it is the active collaborative role of the violin and cello parts together with piano that highlights the trio as a masterpiece of chamber music. Schumann continued: “It need hardly be said that the Trio is not a piece just for the pianist; the other players also have to play their roles in lively fashion and can count on gaining satisfaction and appreciation. So may the new work be effective from all perspectives, as it should, and may it serve us as evidence of its creator’s artistic power, which now appears to be near its full bloom.”

Portrait of Mendelssohn by Eduard Magnus (1846)

The Op.49 trio is an accessible piece for the listener. Although Mendelssohn composed this trio in a concertante style where one or more instruments are treated similar to a soloist, the piano seemingly plays a prominent role with its dense writing of keyboard virtuosity and extravagance. However, it is the active collaborative role of the violin and cello parts together with piano that highlights the trio as a masterpiece of chamber music. Schumann continued: “It need hardly be said that the Trio is not a piece just for the pianist; the other players also have to play their roles in lively fashion and can count on gaining satisfaction and appreciation. So may the new work be effective from all perspectives, as it should, and may it serve us as evidence of its creator’s artistic power, which now appears to be near its full bloom.”

Felix Mendelssohn once famously said, “Art and life are not two separate things.” For Mendelssohn—an astonishing musical prodigy and polymath in literature, language, philosophy, and painting—art was infused into every aspect of his life. In fact, Mendelssohn’s range of intellectual and musical abilities earned him the title of the “Second Mozart” by German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a claim supported by Schumann, who said that Mendelssohn was “the Mozart of the nineteenth century, the most brilliant musician, the one who most clearly sees through the contradictions of the age and for the first time reconciles them.”

Mendelssohn was aware of the changing times of art and life in the Romantic era, the free expression of one’s feelings as seen from the literary works of Lord Byron and E.T.A. Hoffmann, musical compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven and Frédéric Chopin, and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner. Mendelssohn led mostly a comfortable life and had little interest in breaking the traditional foundations in music. Instead, his musical genius was driven from his love of music by the old masters, and this fascination led to a creative fusion of old and new styles, where Mendelssohn’s compositions offer a refreshing realm that resembles the foundations of classical texture and detail, while introducing new sonorities and emotions. If I may describe Mendelssohn’s music in relation to food, it would be such like an artisan croissant with beautiful toasted marbling on the crust that once tasted, the sweet or savory filling invites a palette of traditional and new flavors to be experienced.

This trio brings together all the qualities of Mendelssohn’s musical language. The first movement combines legato arching melodies that are seamlessly passed from one instrument to another, where one can picture Mendelssohn, an enthusiastic painter creating colorful brushstrokes on a canvas. This large sonata form movement combines the foundations of classical form with the heightened emotions of 19th-century Romantic music. A beautiful piano solo opens the second movement in reminiscence of a “song without words,” inspired by Italian bel canto singing, and the violin and cello continue this melodic dialogue to a heartfelt climax. The witty “fairy scherzo” in the third movement is reminiscent of the Mendelssohnian scherzos from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op.61 and the popular String Octet, Op.20, where its brilliant excitement from rapid staccato strokes on all three instruments takes our imagination to a magical garden of fairies and spirits dancing. The finale of the D minor Piano Trio opens with a pianissimo mysterious dance in a march-like rhythm, yet it is filled with intensity that later unfolds into a triumphant ending in D Major.

– Joanne Chew Ann Chang, Academy fellow, collaborative piano

For your listening pleasure, Joanne has also curated a short playlist with some of her favorite recordings of this work. Click here to listen on Spotify. (Joanne also recommends the 2010 recording by Emaneul Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman, which isn’t on Spotify.)


 

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