Thursday, February 23, 2023, 7:30 PM
JULIA ADOLPHE (b. 1988)
Etched in Smoke and Light for Piano, Violin, and Cello (CMS Commission, World Premiere) (2022)
CHEN YI (b. 1953)
Romance and Dance for Violin and Piano (1995, 1998)
► Romance of Hsiao and Ch'in
Alexander Sitkovetsky, violin, Wu Qian, piano
GABRIELA ORTIZ (b. 1964)
Trifolium for Piano, Violin, and Cello (2005)
REENA ESMAIL (b. 1983)
Saans for Piano, Violin, and Cello (2017)
DAVID LUDWIG (b. 1974)
Spiral Galaxy for Piano, Violin, and Cello (2017)
► Spiral Galaxy
► Galactic Halo
► Sagittarius A*
Old Partners on New Roads
The piano trio, with a history going back to Haydn, brings together instruments that have two very different ways of making sound. Strings held under tension are common to both, but whereas on the violin and cello these are on view and bowed, on the piano they are tucked away and struck with hammers released by the keys. That disparity has, down through the ages, been the despair and the opportunity of composers. How do you reconcile—or not—sounds that are bowed, that can be sustained and changed, with others that, once struck, live on only as resonance? Julia Adolphe finds some ingenious, beguiling, and compelling solutions in the two movements of the piece she wrote for this concert. Her own note follows:
“Etched in Smoke and Light is written in honor of my father, Jonathan Adolphe, a painter who loved working with translucent materials. I composed the work in the four months following his passing, reflecting on the immensely painful, visceral experience of losing him as well as the powerfully vibrant memories of love, joy, and play that he created with me and gave to me throughout our lives together. My father’s paintings contain traces of smoke, and they are transparent so that light can play across the work’s surface. Both his artwork and this piece strive to capture the ephemeral nature of our reality, to reveal how creative expression enables us to hold on to and immortalize what is at once powerfully present and ultimately transient.”
Chen Yi was one of the first young composers to leave China in the mid-1980s to study at Columbia with Chou Wen-chung. She was a productive contributor to New York’s musical life before teaching posts took her to Baltimore and then Kansas City, Missouri, where she has been since 1998. Her Romance and Dance started out as a work for two violins and string orchestra, of which she wrote the first part, Romance of Hsiao and Ch’in in 1995. The “characters” in this ancient story are two instruments, the xiao and the qin (or guqin), to give them their names in Pinyin form: a flute and a plucked string instrument laid flat, the latter a favorite of scholars. The notion of them playing together gave rise to a whole culture of literary and visual representations. To her interpretation, Chen Yi added a dance in 1998; the version for violin and piano came the year after. In Chinese music as in western, stories can be told in instrumental song, and here the violin takes on the role of the bowed erhu of China—an instrument for which Chen Yi adapted her romance. Although the melodic language is Chinese, we are back in traditional western territory of melody and accompaniment (with roles exchanged from time to time), song and dance.
Gabriela Ortiz’s Trifolium of 2005, which takes its appropriate title, meaning “three-leaved,” from the scientific name for the genus to which clover plants belong, brings the full trio back onto the platform. The instruments get off to a crackling start in a region where they can come together: staccato sonorities on the piano, pizzicatos on the strings. Of course, this will change, but not the basic material, strongly pulsed and energetic, which, the composer discloses, comes out of a collision between Mexican salon music and modern techniques of cut-up and distortion. Here is another composer, then, whose music emerges from the culture into which she was born. Unlike Chen Yi, she has made her life in her native country—in her case, Mexico—though she spent some years completing her training in London in the 1990s. Trifolium, as it bounds on for a powerfully driven twelve minutes, thrives on interactions between Mexican traditional and international modern styles, as also between the instruments of diverse types. And just as soloists spring out of the tight texture from time to time, so do reminiscences of the source. A slower, but still tight, middle section is followed by the piano’s reprise of its opening to set the action moving again at speed.
Born in Los Angeles, Reena Esmail has taken a route that is almost the converse of Ortiz’s, rounding out her education not at a western center but by absorbing herself in the music of North India, where her family originated. Alongside her training at Juilliard and Yale, she studied with Indian masters in California and also, as a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, in India. Bringing about conditions in which cultures—and peoples—can communicate has been at the essence of her work.
Bowed string instruments, of course, are found in both Indian and western music, and therefore open themselves to what you might call continental drift. Esmail has written a lot for them, alone and in ensembles. Saans, meaning “Breath” in Urdu, came about in April 2017, when she was completing her Clarinet Concerto and realized its slow movement could readily be transferred to piano trio and so make a suitable present for the wedding of her friend, pianist Suzana Bartal. So it was: Saans was performed for the first time on Bartal’s wedding day—but not by her, for the wedding was in Paris and the premiere in L.A. Two years later, pianist and trio caught up with one another in Beverly Hills, and this time the violinist was Vijay Gupta, playing the day before his marriage to… the composer.
The Indian way of making melody is fundamentally vocal in how it draws out and varies breath-length phrases (hence this trio’s title) from a chosen rāga. Musical behavior of this kind is very well suited to bowed strings, not so well to the piano, and for much of its eight-minute duration Saans is composed of singing phrases that the violin and the cello exchange and share—a very suitable sort of music for a wedding gift. The piano’s role is largely to accompany, but more and more also to sing, like a guest at the event smiling on.
Last and longest of the pieces in this concert, David Ludwig’s Spiral Galaxy of 2017, his third piano trio, is in three movements playing altogether for a little over twenty minutes. The composition takes its inspiration and some principles of design from what Ludwig calls “our cosmic home the Milky Way,” which it first observes at once from a great distance (so that we can see, or rather hear, the spiral shape) and up close (since we simultaneously hear the workings of that spiral). At the start, the instruments are very close together. As the spiral broadens—a small motif in perpetual rotations and transformations—they draw apart, the focus first on the violin and cello, then on the piano. The whole spiral mechanism springs out from the unstable alliance between strings bowed and struck.
Similar spiraling figurations reappear in the middle movement, “Galactic Halo,” but now stretched out in terms of both speed and timbre. The music is slower; it also moves over a wider field of sound, with the instruments sometimes close together again (as may be brought about when the pianist uses a hand inside the piano to pluck strings or dampen them), sometimes widely separated. In the latter case, Ludwig’s song-like phrases and exotic modality for the strings may recall the Esmail piece. In the words of the composer, this movement “musically describes the sphere of stars that radiates out from the galaxy.” The finale, “Sagittarius A,” is, to quote the composer again, “a homage to the great black hole in the middle of the Milky Way,” a fugue that pulls downward, repeatedly breaks up, and ends in disintegration and silence.
Ludwig appends some remarks that give the spiral a whole other meaning: “On a more (literally) poetic level, I was moved in writing this trio by the idea of the spiral itself, and how that shape is a metaphor for the growing connections (and complications) of our lives. Lines from two poems occur to me—one from Yeats: ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre,’ and this from Rilke: I live my life in expanding rings that pull across overall existence. I may not complete the last’s ending, but I will try.”
Paul Griffiths is a music critic, novelist, and librettist.
Pianist Wu Qian on Playing New Music with the Sitkovetsky Trio
Nicky Swett: How does your trio you start exploring completely new pieces of music when there are no recordings or past performances to fall back on?
Wu Qian: We have been playing together for almost eight years, and we are quite experienced in working with new repertoire as a group. We usually start off quite pragmatically, figuring out how the three parts fit together, trying to identify a common pulse—usual things that form the basis of everything we will do afterwards. As we spend more and more time on it, the piece will reveal more of itself until a clear interpretation begins to form. Unless the piece has been specifically written for us, it is unlikely that we would get in touch with the composer until our interpretation is more or less done; then we can perhaps send a recording to make sure we are all on the same wavelength.
NS: What led to this collaboration with composer Julia Adolphe, whose new work for piano trio you will premiere on this concert?
WQ: We are extremely excited to work with Julia. Ever since hearing a movement of her Viola Concerto at the 2016 Emerging Artists Awards at Lincoln Center, we have looked for an opportunity to work with her. We will get to spend some time with her before the premiere of this new trio and can’t wait to discover this new piece together. We find her work very beautiful and meaningful. Julia’s music is quite atmospheric, and it always feels as if one is listening to a richly created world. We hope we can bring all of these elements to life and do the piece justice.
NS: Many of the works on this program are rhythmically complex. What are some strategies your group uses to find a common pulse and approach to rhythm?
WQ: Rhythm is such an important core element in all music, whether historic or contemporary. In these works that we will be performing, rhythm has an interpretive role to play as well as a metronomic one. In the case of Reena Esmail’s Saans, for example, we are looking for a way to fit the rhythmic gestures of the grace notes into the expressive world of the music. It feels more like a musical instruction than a mechanical one. In David Ludwig’s Spiral Galaxy, on the other hand, it is very important to look for the common pulse between the three of us, which helps to deliver the close, imitative canons that David asks for. This is something that comes with repetition and the time to find that common beat, but when it begins to click, the piece comes together quickly.