Recipient of a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2016, Alexi Kenney is joined on The Lensic stage by award-winning pianist Renana Gutman for our first Concert Recital of the Season! Their selections range from the long-beloved E Major Partita by Bach—a technical showstopper for solo violin—to rarer works like Crumb’s Four Nocturnes, a delicate and birdlike meditation, featuring the subtle integration of many of Crumb’s inspired extended techniques, like having the soloist tap the violin as a percussive element. This eclectic program also features more traditionally emotive works such as Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, one of the composer’s most romantic art songs for solo violin and piano.
|BACH||Partita No. 3 in E Major|
|CRUMB||Four Nocturnes (Night Music II)|
|SCHUBERT||Fantasy in C Major|
|RESPIGHI||Sonata in B Minor|
Partita No. 3 in E Major for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1006
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany
Bach’s six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin date from about 1720, when Bach was music director at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen. The three sonatas are in sonata di chiesa form, employing a slow-fast-slow-fast sequence of movements, but the structure of the three partitas is more complex. The term partita–which suggests a collection of parts—refers to a suite of dances, and Bach wrote his three partitas for unaccompanied violin as sets of dance movements. While each of the sonatas has four movements, of which the second is always a fugue, the partitas have more movements (five to seven) and are somewhat freer in form, as Bach adapted a number of old dance forms to the capabilities of the solo violin. In his final partita for unaccompanied violin, Bach virtually dispenses with the standard allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue sequence of the partita and instead creates an entirely original structure consisting of a stunning opening movement, a varied series of dances, and a concluding gigue (the only survivor from the traditional sequence).
The title Preludio suggests music that is merely an introduction to something else, but this Preludio is a magnificent work in its own right, in some ways the most striking of the seven movements of this partita. Built on the jagged, athletic opening theme, this movement is a brilliant flurry of steady sixteenth-notes, featuring complicated string-crossings and racing along its blistering course to an exciting conclusion. Among the many pleasures of this music is Bach’s use of a technique known as bariolage, the rapid alternation between the same note played on stopped and open strings, which gives this music some of it characteristic glinting brilliance. It is no surprise that this Preludio is among the most popular pieces Bach ever wrote, and those purists ready to sneer at Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement for full orchestra should know that Bach beat him to it: in 1731, ten years after writing the violin partita, Bach arranged this Preludio as the opening orchestral movement of his Cantata No. 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott.”
Bach follows this striking beginning with a sequence of varied dances. The term Loure originally referred to a form of French bagpipe music and later came to mean a type of slow dance accompanied by the bagpipe. Bach dispenses with the bagpipe accompaniment, and in this elegant movement the violin dances gracefully by itself. Bach was scrupulously accurate in his titles, and the Gavotte en Rondeau (gavotte in the form of a rondo) conforms to both these forms: a gavotte is an old French dance in common time that begins on the third beat, while rondo form asks that one section recur throughout. This vigorous and poised movement features some wonderful writing for the violin as the original dance theme repeats in many guises. The two minuet movements are sharply contrasted: Menuet I takes its character from the powerful chordal beginning, while Menuet II, dancing gracefully, is more subdued. The Bourrée drives along its lively course, energized by a powerful upbeat, and the Gigue (an old English dance related to the jig) brings the work to a lively close.
Four Nocturnes (Night Music II)George Crumb
Born October 24, 1929,
Charleston, West Virginia
George Crumb has had a long, distinguished, and unusual career. Like Ives, he received his first musical instruction from his bandmaster-father. He graduated from Mason College in West Virginia, then did his graduate training at the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan, where he studied with Ross Lee Finney; he also studied with Boris Blacher in Berlin and at Tanglewood. Crumb taught briefly at the University of Colorado, but in 1965 he became a professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania and remained there for over thirty years—among his many students are such distinguished composers as Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, and Uri Caine. The recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, Crumb won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for his Echoes of Time and the River and a GRAMMY award in 2001 for Star-Child, a massive work that calls for soprano, boys’ choirs, bell-ringers, a huge orchestra, and four conductors. He retired from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997.
Crumb has always been a non-conventional composer, intent on following his own imagination rather than working in received forms. There are no symphonies, concertos, string quartets, ballets, or operas among his works. Instead Crumb has followed quite a different path, and as a composer he might be described as an explorer. Throughout his career, he has been fascinated by timbre and sound and has written for prepared instruments, for spatially-arranged performers, for electronically-amplified instruments. His rhythmic language can be complex, with different rhythmic worlds occurring simultaneously: Crumb’s scores—notated precisely—look like no other composer’s.
Crumb composed his Four Nocturnes for violin and piano in 1964. The title nocturne implies music of the night, and these four brief pieces (the entire set spans only nine minutes) are subtle, subdued, and complex in the extreme. Audiences new to this music might best approach it by listening for the eerie sound-world Crumb creates in these four miniatures. They may subtly evoke night-sounds (whispering wind, insects sounds), but they also remind us that things can go bump in the night. Crumb notates this score with extraordinary precision. The pianist is at times instructed to reach inside the instrument to pluck strings or strike the piano’s frame, while the violinist must master every technique imaginable, including ponticello bowing (on top of the bridge), artificial harmonics, playing with the wood of the bow, quadruple-stopped glissandos, and many more. Crumb indicates to the second how long specific silences should last, and he even specifies which of the violinist’s fingers should pluck individual pizzicatos. This is a world of delicacy, shadow, and subtlety, and all of these are projected through music of unbelievable difficulty for its performers.
The first performance of the Four Nocturnes took place on February 3, 1965, at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Paul
Zukovsky was the violinist, with
the composer at the piano.
Fantasy in C Major for Violin
and Piano, D.934
Born January 31, 1797,
Died November 19, 1828,
Schubert wrote the Fantasy for Violin and Piano in December 1827, only eleven months before his death at age 31. The music was first performed in public on January 20, 1828, by violinist Joseph Slavik and pianist Karl von Bocklet, one of Schubert’s close friends. That premiere was a failure. The audience is reported to have begun to drift out during the performance, reviewers professed mystification, and the Fantasy was not published until 1850, twenty-two years after Schubert’s death.
Hearing this lovely music today, it is hard to imagine how anyone could have had trouble with it, for the only thing unusual about the Fantasy is its structure. About twenty minutes long, it falls into four clear sections that are played without pause. Though it seems to have some of the shape of a violin sonata, the movements do not develop in the expected sonata form—that may have been what confused the first audience—and Schubert was quite correct to call this piece a “fantasy,” with that term’s implication of freedom
from formal restraint.
Melodic and appealing as the Fantasy may be to hear, it is nevertheless extremely difficult to perform, and it demands players of the greatest skill. The first section, marked Andante molto, opens with shimmering ripples of sound from the piano, and the lovely violin line enters almost unnoticed. Soon, though, it rises to soar high above the accompaniment before brief cadenza-like passages for violin and then piano lead abruptly to the Allegretto. Here the violin has the dance-like opening idea, but the piano immediately picks this up, and quickly the instruments are imitating and answering each other. The violin writing in this section, full of wide skips and string-crossings, is particularly difficult. The third section, marked Andantino, is a set of variations. The piano alone plays the melody, which comes from Schubert’s song Sei mir gegrüsst (“Greetings to Thee”), written in 1821. Some of Schubert’s best-known compositions–the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet and the “Trout” Quintet–also build a movement out of variations on one of the composer’s own songs, and in the Fantasy Schubert offers four variations on Sei mir gegrüsst. These variations grow extremely complex–some have felt that they grow too complex–and once again the music makes great demands on its performers. At the conclusion of the variations, the shimmering music from the beginning returns briefly before the vigorous final section, marked Allegro vivace. Schubert brings the Fantasy to a close with a Presto coda, both instruments straining forward before the violin suddenly flashes upward to strike the concluding high C.
Born June 30, 1958, Helsinki, Finland
The composer has supplied a program note for this work:
The title Lachen verlernt
(Laughing Unlearnt) is a
quotation from the ninth movement of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Gebet an Pierrot (Prayer to Pierrot). The narrator declares that she has unlearnt the skill of laughing and begs Pierrot, the “Horse-doctor to the soul,” to give it back to her. I felt that this is a very moving metaphor of a performer: a serious clown trying to help the audience to connect with emotions they have lost, or believe they have lost.
Lachen verlernt is essentially a chaconne, which in this case means that there is a harmonic progression that repeats itself several times. The harmony remains the same throughout the
whole piece; only the surface, the top layer of the music changes. Lachen verlernt starts with a
lyrical, expressive melody (the same melody has an important
role in my orchestral work Insomnia, which I was writing at the same time, in the summer of 2002). Gradually the music becomes faster and more frenzied until it develops an almost frantic character, as if the imaginary narrator had reached a state of utter despair. A very short coda closes this mini-drama peacefully.
I wrote Lachen Verlernt for Cho-Liang Lin, to whom it is also dedicated. Lachen Verlernt was commissioned by the La Jolla Chamber Music Society’s SummerFest with the generous support of Joan and Irwin Jacobs.
Violin Sonata in B Minor
Born July 9, 1879, Bologna, Italy
Died April 18, 1936, Rome, Italy
Audiences so automatically identify Ottorino Respighi as the composer of opulent orchestral tone poems or imaginative recreations of music from the past that it comes as a surprise to many to realize that he also wrote chamber music: there are two string quartets, but the most famous of his chamber works is the Violin Sonata in B Minor, composed in 1917. Respighi—38 years old at this time and a professor of composition at the Liceo de Santa Cecilia in Rome—was just achieving maturity as a composer: the previous year had seen the creation of The Fountains of Rome, the first of his Roman cycle, and from 1917 would also come the first set of the Ancient Airs and Dances. The Violin Sonata, a work of which Respighi was extremely proud, had its premiere on March 3, 1918.
This is a bold work. Respighi was himself an accomplished violinist, and in this sonata he writes virtuoso music–extroverted, soaring, and extremely difficult–for both performers. Unlike the colorful orchestral tone poems and the charming works from antiquity, the Violin Sonata is tough music, built on an unusual metric and harmonic freedom and fired with an expressive panache reminiscent of the young Richard Strauss. The difficulties of this sonata have kept it from being taken up by a large number of performers, but it has had its champions, notably Jascha Heifetz, who made a memorable recording in 1950.
Over quietly-rippling piano accompaniment, the violin introduces the singing main idea of the opening Moderato; marked dolce espressivo here, this theme will grow more animated and powerful as the movement proceeds. The violin also has the soaring second idea, and both subjects are treated in the virtuoso development before a gentle reprise brings the movement to a quiet close.
Solo piano has the long opening of the Andante espressivo, and the rolled chords of its opening melody will recur throughout this movement. Particularly remarkable here is the metric variety: Respighi moves smoothly between 10/8, 4/4, and 3/4 in this movement, which rises to a terrific climax–at one point Respighi asks the violinist to play come una cadenza before a haunting coda stills the movement’s tensions.
The finale is a passacaglia based on a ten-bar ground bass: the piano announces this powerful progression, and the violin enters to begin a series of animated
variations. This is an extremely dramatic movement, and at the end it drives to a huge cadence where Respighi marks the piano’s tremolando concluding chord quadruple forte.
—Program notes by Eric Bromberger
The recipient of a 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant, violinist Alexi Kenney has been praised by the New York Times for “immediately drawing listeners in with his beautifully phrased and delicate playing.” His win at the 2013 CAG Victor Elmaleh Competition at the age of nineteen led to a critically acclaimed debut recital at Carnegie Weill Hall. Read more…
Praised by the New York Sun for playing “with great vigor and aplomb” and for the “true poetry in her phrasing,” Renana Gutman has performed across three continents as an orchestral soloist, recitalist and collaborative artist.
A top prize winner at Los Angeles Liszt competition, International Keyboard Festival in New York, and Tel-Hai Internationl Master Classes, she has performed with orchestras including Jerusalem Symphony, Haifa Symphony, Belgian “I Fiamminghi”, Mannes College Orchestra.