WCUSO, Concert Choir, and Mastersingers
Sunday, May 7th, 7:30pm
Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall
Sibelius, Andante Festivo
Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances Nos. 1 and 3
Hindemith, Apparebit repentina dies, Mvts. 3 and 4
Stravinsky, The dove descending breaks the air
Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms
The 20th century defies a simple statement that would describe its musical language. A broad array of -isms—expressionism, primitivism, impressionism, futurism, minimalism, neo-classicism, neo-romanticism, etc.—is tapped to help organize the century’s unprecedented diversity of artistic expression. So many encounters were daunting (consider the two World Wars for starters), and much was discovered (consider the advances in psychology, literature, science, industry, technology, and the arts). Processing this enormity of experience requires expressive tools of equal substantiality. This environment presents a worthy challenge and a refreshing ease.
In music, one of the foremost challenges is to acquaint oneself with myriad expressive tools or languages, known as musical sound. Just as scientific thoughts, like quantum physics and string theory, are naturally complex responses to complicated issues, so musical languages can be complex in proportion to their context. The endeavor to engage such complexity, be it scientific or artistic, is wholesomely worthwhile; it freshens and expands our perspectives, helping us to see with new eyes.
If effort is required to understand the complexity of the 20thcentury, a counterbalance of ease is offered through the century’s variety. Like a tasty buffet, there is something in the 20thcentury palette for everyone. This evening’s concert demonstrates this breadth of appeal. Sibelius’s Andante Festivo represents a thoroughly Romantic language that is melody-driven, and rich in familiar harmony. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances combine a similar Romantic language with an expanded harmonic palette; Rachmaninoff said that he sought to tap Stravinsky’s rhythmic innovations in these dances. Hindemith’s Apparebit repentina dies may well sound like a more remote language than the Sibelius and Rachmaninoff. It pulls further away from traditional harmonies, embracing dissonance and a more exploratory harmonic progression.
The concert closes with two pieces by Stravinsky. The first, The Dove Descending Breaks the Air, is a late work, written in 1962. It sets a selection from Part IV of T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding from the “Four Quartets”, using the harmonic innovation of Arnold Schoenberg, known as 12-tone technique. Here again, the piece may well sound complex, but it beautifully challenges us to process Eliot’s poetry with fresh understanding. The monumental Symphony of Psalms, while less dissonant, offers another universe of sound unique to Stravinsky, not the least of which is a highly unusual instrumentation (two pianos substitute for violins and violas, and the woodwind sections are expanded).
Musical art seeks to understand its context. It is not surprising that with the change of culture come new tools of expression. This evening’s concert was knit together in part to afford a sample of the 20thcentury’s multifaceted history, and the musical languages that help us process it.