Benjamin Britten had a precocious start in music, studying piano and viola and composing hundreds of works by the time he was a teenager. At 14, Britten’s viola teacher introduced him to the composer Frank Bridge, who agreed to give Britten private lessons. The ambitious composer lost some of his youthful swagger working with Bridge—he later wrote, “I, who thought I was already on the verge of immortality, saw my illusions shattered”—but he emerged from the demanding lessons with new rigor and technique to match his natural inventiveness.
Britten entered the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1930. His composition lessons there with John Ireland were unremarkable, far less influential than his discoveries of modern composers ranging from Schoenberg to Stravinsky. Britten’s career gathered steam in 1932 when a prize-winning Phantasy for string quartet led to his first professional performance. A Sinfonietta from the same year became his official Opus 1.
The Simple Symphony cataloged as Britten’s Opus 4 had its roots in his juvenilia. The four movements recycled eight themes he wrote between the ages of nine and twelve, as he explained in a program note. “Although the development of these themes is in many places quite new,” he wrote, “there are large stretches of the work which are taken bodily from the early pieces.”
This work for string orchestra plays with baroque and classical conventions, in the manner of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony or Stravinsky’s many neoclassical scores. The first movement, titled Boisterous Bourrée, adapts the tempo and phrasing of that French dance, while Playful Pizzicato aptly describes this all-plucked, scherzo-like romp. The slow and stately pace of the Sentimental Saraband again updates a time-honored French dance. In the Frolicsome Finale, drawn-out crescendos and colorful contrasts hark back to the rollicking rondos of Haydn and Mozart.
Aaron Grad ©2017
In Pursuit of Flying is a piano concerto in three movements, all of which are connected thematically and structurally. The first movement features material that is clearly melodic in nature, and plays with the traditional form of a first movement for concertos. The first theme is introduced in the orchestra, and the piano introduces the second theme when it enters, so that the ensemble and piano are delineated not only dramatically but thematically as well. The piano later picks up the first theme, and then following its cadenza, both themes are combined.
The second movement is a dream-like exploration of dovetailing harmonies and themes. Unresolved dissonances are allowed to trail off into silence until a second character emerges--a kind of gentle dance which lives in a world that weaves freely into and out of the slower more emotionally charged music. The piano has the last word, after one final outcry which roars with blurred dissonances: a slow cadenza made up of long suspensions counterpointing a transformation of the opening melody. The final movement is a wild and spinning presto with ripping figures in the piano, romping through the ensemble and finally careening towards an explosive end.
I am thrilled to have written this concerto for Jeremy Denk, who is one of my all-time favorite pianists. To write this piece for Mr. Denk and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is truly an honor. And I am profoundly grateful to Justus and Helen Schlichting for generously commissioning the piece.
Hannah Lash ©2017
In 1938, the American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss marked his thirtieth wedding anniversary by commissioning a new work from Igor Stravinsky. Bliss and his wife, Mildred, hosted the premiere in the lavish music room of their house in Georgetown, an upscale neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The property, dubbed Dumbarton Oaks, provided the lasting nickname for Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra. The composer was ill and unable to attend the May 8 premier performance, but he arranged for Nadia Boulanger (the legendary teacher of composers ranging from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass) to conduct in his place.
The “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto is a quintessential product of Stravinsky’s thirty-year fascination with “neoclassical” style—although, in purely musical terms, it would be more apt to label the score “neo-Baroque.” The orchestration, which calls out soloists from among the small ensemble, reflects the Baroque concerto grosso tradition, especially the diverse solo groups found in Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos; further proof of the Baroque inspiration comes in the first movement, when the violas launch into a formal fugato section. Having the violins and violas divided into three parts each (and omitting second violins) draws a clear parallel with Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3, although the application here is quite different; Bach’s divisi often thickens and enunciates a line, whereas Stravinsky’s separation of voices promotes diffuse, airy textures, such as the churning accompaniment under a bird-like flute solo in the second movement. The energetic finale concludes this modern “Brandenburg” with pulsing beats and shifting accents, an unmistakable Stravinsky sound in any phase of his career.
Aaron Grad ©2013