A Continental Tour

Saturday, December 29, 2018 at 11:00AM

South Reno United Methodist Church


Program Notes by Chris Morrison

Bacewicz: Quartet for Four Violins (1949, 12 minutes)

Composer and violinist Grażyna Bacewicz was perhaps the first Polish woman composer to attract international attention. After studies in Poland and France, including work with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, Bacewicz spent three years as principal violinist of the Polish Radio Orchestra. During World War II she lived in Warsaw, where several of her pieces were premiered at secret, underground concerts. In subsequent years, her music attracted so much attention that she turned increasingly toward composing, making it her full-time career in 1954 in the wake of a serious automobile accident. Unsurprisingly, many of her compositions focus on the violin, including seven concertos and five sonatas. The Quartet for Four Violins is representative of her neoclassical style. It is a relatively lighthearted piece, originally intended for her students, that surpasses that origin in its textural variety and expressiveness.

Mozart: Piano Trio in B-flat major, K. 502 (1786, 22 minutes)

The year that saw the composition of this Trio was one of the more successful and productive years of Mozart’s adult life. Not only was the opera The Marriage of Figaro given its premiere, but Mozart also composed three of his greatest piano concertos (Nos. 23-25), the “Prague” Symphony No. 38, the “Kegelstatt” Clarinet Trio, and a pair of piano trios. The first of those latter trios, K. 496, was relatively simple and probably intended for amateur musicians. When he returned to the genre a few months later, Mozart had rethought the relationship between the three instruments. In K. 502, seemingly designed for professional musicians, one hears the two string instruments emerge with much greater independence, while the piano part is a brilliant virtuoso vehicle.

The first movement is dominated by the phrases traded between the piano and strings right at the start. That same sort of interplay is heard in the extended slow movement, a lovely, sometimes decorative song-without-words. While the piano opens the third movement and the three instruments work together as equal partners throughout, taking turns with the melodic lead and interacting in counterpoint with one another, it is the violin and cello that exchange phrases in the final moments before the strong closing chords.

Kodály: Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 12 (1919-20, 20 minutes)

During the period of the writing of his Serenade, Kodály got caught up in Hungarian politics. In 1919, accused of Communist and anti-Hungarian sympathies, he lost his job as deputy director of Budapest’s Academy of Music. Performances of his music were banned, and he wrote little during that time. Composed in the wake of the Quartet No. 2, the Serenade excludes from the usual string quartet only Kodály’s favorite instrument, the cello (for which he had written a remarkable solo sonata in 1915). One of the noteworthy qualities of the Serenade is its light texture, largely free of a bass register.

The first movement is mercurial, with dance-like passages and many changes of tempo. The influence of Hungarian folk music is never far away. Over a tremolo from the second violin, the viola opens the slow second movement. Soon the first violin takes the lead, moving into a conversation with the viola. Expressive markings in the score, like ridendo (laughing) and disperato (desperate), are suggestive. As with the opening movement, dance rhythms and folk music are a big part of the exciting third movement. Béla Bartók was among the Serenade’s fans, writing “This composition is a genuine, modern product of Hungarian culture. It is extraordinarily rich in melodies, with exotic characteristics influenced by the strong rubato of old peasant music.”

Turina: Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 67 (1931, 18 minutes)

Joaquín Turina’s music is a fascinating blend of Spanish and French influences. Born in Seville, his early studies took place there and in Madrid. He then moved to Paris for a decade or so, soaking in the sounds of French Impressionism. But then Turina returned to Spain, wanting to compose in a more consciously Spanish idiom. The Piano Quartet exemplifies this combination, with a frequent Spanish flavor as well as a use of cyclical form – where the same music appears in different forms in each movement – that Turina would have learned about in France.

After the first movement’s opening in unison strings, a rising and descending motive is heard in the violin. According to one commentator, this mysterious opening evokes the old cante jondo or “deep song” of southern Spain. Likewise evocative of Spanish music, specifically the guitar, are the piano chords and pizzicato strings of the lively second movement. A more contemplative central section provides contrast. The third movement opens with a passionate gesture from the violin. The piano, then the strings, take up bits of music from the first movement. For the forceful conclusion, the opening of the first movement is heard once again, this time in the major key.