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Program Notes: March 4, 2007

Maya Beckons; I Shall Embrace Her (world premiere)

Andrew Cole (born Auburn, NY, 1980)

Composer’s Note

Maya Beckons; I Shall Embrace Her is a reflective and deeply personal piece. The title is an imaginative translation from a line in the Hindi movie Utsav. To some, the world we see around us is nothing but Maya — Sanskrit for illusion. Wise men tell us that to achieve enlightenment we must detach ourselves from the material world, which gives us many pleasures but can also cause us great misery. While I can see the truth in this belief, I feel that it is a de-emphasis upon life. Having recently gotten married, I cannot imagine giving up the many joys of companionship in order to avoid suffering, regardless of the depth of the misery. I recognize that suffering is a part of existence, and willfully accept it. This piece is about deliberately choosing to embrace Maya and rejoicing in the beautiful illusion of life, come what may.

The commission of Mr. Cole’s piece was a collaboration with the Johns Hopkins University Digital Media Center, Joan Freedman, Director. Mr. Cole thanks Joan Freedman and the Digital Media Center staff, as well as Anthony Villa and his colleagues in the Music Program at Loyola College, for their support of this work.

Piano Concerto in G Major

(Joseph) Maurice Ravel

(born Cibourne, Basses-Pyrénées, 1875; died Paris, 1937)

Though Maurice Ravel is considered one of France’s foremost Impressionist composers, classifications can be slippery. His distinctive Piano Concerto in G Major, completed in 1931, defies this classification as much as it reflects Ravel’s many interests and his uniqueness as a composer.

From his Swiss engineer father, young Ravel inherited a fascination with machines; in his 50’s, he imagined composing a work to be played entirely by factory machines, and in his late years he spent many hours building fantastic little mechanical toys for his two “honorary” godchildren. An even stronger influence was born of his Basque mother, who fostered in Ravel a lifelong love of Spanish music, inspiring such works as the Rhapsodie Espagnole and Bolero. Ravel was as enamored of old music as new: Styles from Bach through the “new” American jazz permeate his 1925 opera L’Enfant et les sortileges (The Child and the Magic Spells), a wonderful morality tale of a rude child who one day finds that the toys he has abused have come to life to teach him a lesson. We can hear most all of these influences in the Piano Concerto in G Major. But where one might expect a hodge-podge of styles, Ravel’s distinctive genius unifies them into a wonderfully imaginative, eclectic, and delightful work.

The splendid and unusual opening of this concerto reminds us of Ravel’s godchildren’s fantastic little toys. A slapstick cracks, opening the scene of what might be a room filled with bizarre little mechanical creatures marching about, rhythmically busy in their curious quests. Right from the start, the piano is in the fray, trilling and roiling up the little machines into a fantastical world of whimsical wonder and childhood-monster grotesqueness. But soon the mechanisms wind down and, in a complete turnabout, the piano spins out a lush, bluesy, Spanish-tinted tune that dances sensually. Both this movement and the third are generally thought to include material from Ravel’s sketches for an earlier work, a Basque rhapsody called Zaspiak Bat. This movement is also where he cleverly discovered that the Dorian mode (a musical scale originating with the ancient Greeks), without its fourth and seventh notes, sounds very much like George Gershwin’s blues riffs, which Ravel admired. The whole movement plays rhythmic drive, sometimes whimsical, sometimes frightful, against the sensual and sultry. After an understated little rhapsody from the piano, the harp plays a “pseudo-cadenza” from yet another magical universe, until some very annoyed mechanistic creatures interrupt with loud grumbles and a little daydreaming of their own. The low registers of the piano then pick up a hard-driving rhythm, gathering up the automatons along the way, until every voice marches to a brilliant end.

Ravel had strong opinions about the nature of concertos. Though he wasn’t the first to do so, he famously accused Brahms of writing concertos against the piano, so insistent was their gravity. Ravel had toyed with calling this concerto a divertissement, an 18th Century term for music that accompanied set changes during operas, intended to please and delight the audience, but not to overwhelm. This notion might help to explain the seeming incongruity among the three movements of Ravel’s concerto. Where the first is frenzy, fancy, and curiosities, the second is beauty and sincerity. The piano begins alone, quietly tapping out the unadorned accompaniment to an unhurried waltz. The melody, simple and moving, emerges timidly at first, as if it were the first steps of a lone dancer in deep reverie. Then the melody wanders, sweetly and gently. The dance moves through ever richer variations, eventually enveloped by gorgeous strings and winds, but retaining its simplicity. The reverie then shyly fades, with the piano trilling delicately and the strings breathing out contentedly. As seamless and naturally flowing as this movement sounds, Ravel struggled more with it than any other of his career. It brought him so close to despair that he admitted to the concerto’s dedicatee, Marguerite Long, that he had composed it two measures, and sometimes only one, at a time.

Completely changing scenes again, the third movement begins with an obnoxious comical motif. Immediately a feverish flurry abounds, and soon an E-flat clarinet starts squealing and caterwauling, until the pompous opening returns to shut it up. This movement is a Ravellian cabaret, full of fast and changing scenes, amusing as they border on pandemonium. Breathless pianistic virtuosity plays amidst bumbling chaos and changing tonalities, mocking even the obnoxious motif that appears each time the whole show begins to derail. The ending is a mad dash for stage left, chased by the motif, leaving the orchestra and soloist winded and the audience dizzy.

— Max Derrickson

Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92

Ludwig van Beethoven

(born Bonn, 1770; died Vienna, 1827)

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is one of the most beloved of all symphonies. Its famous second movement is itself a masterpiece. That this is arguably Beethoven’s most skillfully realized symphony, only partially explains why it is so inspiring. What has truly enraptured listeners for 200 years is its infectious exuberance and joyful intensity.

The first movement’s slow introduction, with its broad swashes of colorful chords separated by descending woodwind lines, may seem to be just luxuriant sonority, but it establishes two important features that will define the symphony — mood and rhythm. The scales and lengthy sets of repeated notes lay the groundwork for a rhythmical metamorphosis. This wonderfully inventive moment comes as the introduction bridges into the exposition (the introduction of the movement’s main themes). Harmony and melody have evaporated, and the winds and strings are left in stasis, quietly trading single notes in a simple rhythm. The flutes then subtly, magically, morph into the new, delightful skipping rhythm of the exposition’s first theme. Though the rest of the movement spans vast melodic and harmonic ground, this skipping rhythm persists through nearly every measure. Uninhibited by Beethoven’s usual struggle between fate and triumph, this persistent, carefree rhythm creates a true ebullience. It also lets the energy steadily intensify until, as the basses well up like sea surges, the horns gloriously proclaim the theme one last time.

The second movement Allegretto is a work of such otherworldly beauty that one can’t help but be swept into its realms. This movement, too, revolves around a simple, persistent two-bar rhythmic motif: quarter note, two eighth notes, and then two quarter notes. But where the first movement’s rhythm acted as an engine, the rhythm here is an emotional transporter. The movement starts with a solitary, solemn chord, followed by a skeletal melody in the rhythmic motif. Beethoven builds this melody and a yearning countermelody into a set of ever more mysterious, passionate, and beautiful variations. As the movement draws to a close, musical layers peel away and the rhythm begins to falter, until we find ourselves back to the solemn chord with which we began.

The third movement scherzo, marked Presto, begins in a blaze of animation, with a rhythmical pattern taken from the static metamorphosis in the first movement. Beethoven had never written a scherzo of such energetic intensity. The middle section (trio), usually a more relaxed contrast to the outer sections, here also builds powerfully. Although the trio’s theme is believed to be based on an old Austrian hymn, it is hardly treated as such. There is a powerful moment near the middle of the trio when the horns begin a syncopated half-step warbling, building great tension, until the exalted phrase of the hymn is joyfully released by the strings, trumpets, and timpani. The movement ends with the Presto firmly re-establishing its quick-stepped pace.

The Finale continues the frenetic nature of the Scherzo, but with even greater intensity and vitality. The first two short phrases introduce a rhythm that will, again, persist throughout the movement. Then the first theme begins a rollicking descent into joyful lunacy, ending the symphony with a nearly uncontrollable elation. The conductor and musicologist Donald Francis Tovey called this movement a “triumph of Bacchic fury,” and it is indeed one of humankind’s great affirmations.

As beloved as the seventh symphony has become, it was premiered under curious circumstances. The work had its debut in December 1813, along with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Wellington’s Victory (Battle Symphony), in a concert given to benefit Austrian and Bavarian soldiers disabled while fighting Napoleon in the Battle of Hanau. The concert was organized by Johannes Maelzel, inventor of the metronome and, among other peculiar devices, the panharmonicon, a sort of huge mechanical orchestra. For this concert, Maelzel persuaded Beethoven to compose a symphonic work that would incorporate this invention. Beethoven wrote Wellington’s Victory, commemorating the recent defeat of Napoleon in Vitoria, Spain, complete with live cannon and musket fire in time with the music. But the piece had to be performed without the panharmonicon, because it was broken. Playing in the orchestra that evening were such luminaries as the composers Hummel, Meyerbeer, Spohr, Moscheles, and Salieri. The Battle Symphony was the unabashed hit of the concert, but the seventh symphony also received an enthusiastic welcome, with the audience demanding an encore of its second movement.

— Max Derrickson