Program Notes | Season Opener
Born 1983, Collinsville, Mississippi
Anthony Barfield, who grew up on a farm in rural Mississippi, wanted to play the drums in his sixth-grade band, but the band director switched him to trombone. Barfield describes that encounter as “love at first sight.” He became so good that he was admitted to Juilliard, where he earned a
Bachelor’s degree in trombone performance. He went on to the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned his Master’s. Barfield performed widely as a trombonist, including performances with the Malaysian Philharmonic and the Alabama Symphony, before deciding to devote himself to composition and to music production.
Commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Invictus was composed in 2020 during a time when COVID and social unrest had intensified a sense of crisis in New York City and throughout the world. In response to that unrest, Barfield composed a ringing, heroic work for 12 brass instruments: four trumpets, four horns, two trombones, bass trombone and tuba. The composer has prepared an introduction to this work:
Invictus, meaning “unconquered,” is a short work about New York City in its current circumstances. It’s about dealing with the heightened sense of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. In conversations with New Yorkers about their personal feelings about these issues, I’ve learned that people feel a sense of anxiety and yet a sense of community and hopefulness that change for the better is on the horizon. New York is resilient, courageous and adaptable. Invictus is meant to show that, despite these troublesome times, we are in fact unconquerable.
Last year, for the first time ever, musicians from The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, The Juilliard School, Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet Orchestra and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra came together to play this piece, conducted by Barfield on the Lincoln Center plaza. That splendid performance (with the players spread out from each other and the conductor) is an anthem for New York City at this unique moment in time.
Petite Symphonie for Wind Nonet in B-flat Major, op.216
Born 1818, Paris
Died 1893, St. Cloud, France
We remember Charles Gounod as the composer of one of the most popular operas ever written, Faust, and of a vast amount of liturgical music. But Gounod also wrote instrumental music, including two delightful symphonies that are hardly ever played and one piece that everyone knows, the Funeral March of a Marionette―made famous by its use as the theme music of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on television.
One other instrumental work by Gounod has enjoyed an active life in the concert hall, his Petite Symphonie for wind instruments. In 1879, French flutist Paul Taffanel founded the Society of Chamber Music for Wind Instruments in Paris, and for that group he commissioned a work by Gounod. The composer, then in his 60s, responded with a piece of chamber music for a unique ensemble of nine wind instruments: one flute and pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. Gounod called the work Petite Symphonie (“Little Symphony”), and that is exactly what it is: a 20-minute symphony in classical form for nine wind players. Premiered in Paris on April 10, 1885, and beautifully written for wind instruments, the Petite Symphonie has become one of the cornerstones of the wind repertory.
The first movement opens with a somber introduction before the music steps out smartly at the Allegretto, which is in sonata form. Gounod writes sensibly for the wind instruments here. Recognizing that winds cannot sustain long sounds in the way stringed instruments can, he gives them short phrases and emphasizes a staccato sound. The Andante cantabile is built on a graceful solo for flute; in the central episode the other instruments spring to the fore, but at the end the flute once again takes up its long melody. The third movement, a Scherzo that Gounod marks Allegretto moderato, is set in 6/8 rather than the customary 3/4 of scherzos. A series of horn fanfares opens this scherzo, which is in ternary form; its outer sections dance energetically, and a horn solo leads the way into the bucolic trio.
The Finale opens with a brief introduction marked Allegretto. The fundamental rhythm of this introduction (long-short-short) gives shape to the main body of the movement, which is also marked Allegretto and which has a jaunty energy. Again, the writing for the nine players is graceful and idiomatic, and―after all this bright energy–the Petite Symphonie comes to a surprisingly subdued close.
Duet for Two Solo Violins and String Orchestra
Born October 1936, New York City
It is difficult to believe that Steve Reich, one of the earliest and most important practitioners of minimalism, will turn 85 next month. He studied at Cornell, Juilliard and Mills and worked with some distinguished teachers, among them Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio, but long before that formal training he had become fascinated with rhythm and drumming. At age 14, he began to study percussion with Roland Kohloff, timpanist of the New York Philharmonic.
In the 1970s he became interested in African and Balinese music and immersed himself in the study of those complex languages: He spent a summer in Ghana at the Institute for Africa Studies and also made a comprehensive study of gamelan music. This began to show up in his own music as a fascination with rhythm, pulse and rhythmic phases. He founded his own ensemble, called Steve Reich and Musicians, to explore these possibilities, and one of his early successes was Drumming (1971), in which a single rhythmic cell is elaborated over a 90-minute span. Across his long career, Reich has written for varied (and sometimes quite large) ensembles that can use voice and tape and other non-traditional instruments, but the fascination with percussive sounds has remained a constant in his music.
Reich composed his Duet for Two Solo Violins and String Orchestra in 1994, and it was premiered at the Gstaad Festival in Switzerland on August 8, 1995. The composer has provided a brief program note for this work:
Duet was composed in 1994 and is dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin and to those ideals of international understanding which Sir Yehudi has practiced throughout his life. The piece is approximately five minutes in length. It is scored for two solo violins and a small group of violas, celli, and bass. Beginning and ending in F, the music is built around simple unison canons between the two violins who, from time to time, slightly vary the rhythmic distance between their two voices.
Las cuatro estaciones porteñas (arr. Leonid Desyatnikov)
Born 1921, Mar de Plata, Argentina
Died 1992, Buenos Aires
Astor Piazzolla was a fabulously talented young man, and that wealth of talent caused him some confusion as he tried to decide on a career path. Very early he learned to play the bandoneon, the Argentinian accordion-like instrument that uses buttons rather than a keyboard, and he became a virtuoso on it. He gave concerts, made a film soundtrack and created his own bands before a desire for wider expression drove him to the study of classical music. In 1954 he received a grant to study with Nadia Boulanger, and it was that great teacher who advised him to follow his passion for the Argentinian tango as the source for his own music.
Piazzolla returned to Argentina and gradually evolved his own style, one that combines the tango, jazz and classical music. In his hands, the tango–which had deteriorated into a soft, popular form–was revitalized. Piazzolla transformed this old Argentinian dance into music capable of a variety of expression and fusing sharply contrasted moods: His tangos are by turn fiery, melancholy, passionate, tense, violent, lyric, and always driven by an endless supply of rhythmic energy.
The title Las cuatro estaciones porteñas needs to be understood carefully: cuatro estaciones is clear enough–it evokes The Four Seasons of Vivaldi. But the meaning of porteña (or porteño) is more elusive: it means “port” area, and it specifically has come to refer to the port area of Buenos Aires, where the tango was born. By extension, porteñas has come to mean anyone or anything native to Buenos Aires. And so a general translation of the title might be The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires.
Las cuatro estaciones porteñas consists of four tangos that Piazzolla wrote between 1964 and 1970 for the small ensemble he led in Buenos Aires: violin, piano, electric guitar, bass and bandoneon. Each tango depicts a different season in Buenos Aires. Las cuatro estaciones porteñas―by turns slinky, seductive, powerful, and haunting―have become immensely popular. The present arrangement, for solo violin and string orchestra, takes us even closer to the example of Vivaldi, for it is the instrumentation of his Four Seasons. In Leonid Desnatyikov’s arrangement, these four tangos become a late 20th-century Argentinian counterpart to Vivaldi’s famous tone-portraits, which had been set in Venice more than 100 years earlier.
–Program Notes By Eric Bromberger