Program Notes – May 2021
By Chris Morrison
Born: 1981, New York, New York
Jessie Montgomery is an acclaimed composer, violinist, and educator. She is the recipient of the Leonard Bernstein Award from the ASCAP Foundation, and her works are performed frequently around the world by leading musicians and ensembles. Her music interweaves classical music with elements of vernacular music, improvisation, language, and social justice. She was born and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her father, a musician, and her mother, a theater artist and storyteller, were engaged in the activities of the neighborhood. It is from this unique experience that she has created a life that merges composing, performance, education, and advocacy. Since 1999, she has been affiliated with The Sphinx Organization, which supports young African-American and Latinx string players. She currently serves as composer-in-residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi, the Organization’s flagship professional touring ensemble, and was recently appointed the next Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Montgomery holds degrees from the Juilliard School and New York University and is currently a Graduate Fellow in Music Composition at Princeton University.
Composed: 2006 (revised 2012)
Duration: 7 minutes
Strum was the title track of Jessie Montgomery’s 2015 debut album on the Azica Records label, Strum: Music for Strings. She has written the following about her composition:
“Strum is the culminating result of several versions of a string quintet I wrote in 2006. It was originally written for the Providence String Quartet and guests of Community MusicWorks Players, then arranged for string quartet in 2008 with several small revisions. In 2012 the piece underwent its final revisions with a rewrite of both the introduction and the ending for the Catalyst Quartet in a performance celebrating the 15th annual Sphinx Competition.
“Originally conceived for the formation of a cello quintet, the voicing is often spread wide over the ensemble, giving the music an expansive quality of sound. Within Strum I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.”
Born: August 18, 1957, Changsha, Hunan, China
The world-renowned artist and UNESCO Global Goodwill Ambassador Tan Dun has made an indelible mark on the world’s music scene with a repertoire that spans the boundaries of classical music, multimedia performance, and Eastern and Western traditions. As a child, he took a great interest in the rituals of the village shaman, whose musical use of objects like water, paper, and stone has been incorporated into his own works in what he terms “organic music.” Initially banned from pursuing a musical career during the Cultural Revolution, Tan Dun taught himself to play traditional Chinese instruments, and eventually was allowed to study at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Later he moved to New York for doctoral studies at Columbia University. His music is often inspired by traditional Chinese ritual and theater. A winner of prestigious honors including the Grammy Award, Academy Award, Grawemeyer Award, Bach Prize, Shostakovich Award, and most recently Italy’s Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement, Tan Dun’s music has been played throughout the world by leading orchestras, at opera houses and festivals, and on radio and television.
Crouching Tiger Concerto
Duration: 25 minutes
Instrumentation: flute, percussion, harp, strings, solo cello
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Ang Lee and starring well-known actors of Chinese descent including Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi, was one of the biggest film hits of its time. A huge success internationally, it won over forty awards, and was nominated for ten Academy Awards, receiving the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 2001. Ang Lee described his film as “a kind of dream of China, a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies in Taiwan. Of course my childhood imagination was fired by the martial arts movies I grew up with and by the novels of romance and derring-do I read instead of doing my homework. That these two kinds of dreaming should come together now in a film I was able to make in China, is a happy irony for me.”
Set in the late eighteenth century Qing dynasty, the film is a fusion of the wuxia, or martial arts film, with a love story. At the end of his career, the renowned swordsman Li Mu Bai entrusts his precious sward “Green Destiny” to his love, the warrior Yu Shu Lien, to deliver to their benefactor Sir Te. However, it is stolen by a masked thief, and the search takes the story in directions both violent and romantic. The film’s depictions of battles on walls and rooftops, at the top of a bamboo forest, and on water made a lasting impression and were frequently imitated in later films.
For the music, Ang Lee turned to his friend Tan Dun. In his score, Tan Dun used a traditional Western orchestra, a folk orchestra, a percussion ensemble, and soloists performing on Chinese instruments like the erhu, bawu, and rawap, along with a prominent role for the cello designed for Yo-Yo Ma. Like the film, the music was much-praised, and Tan Dun won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Score. Not long after the film’s release, Tan Dun used some of the music in creating the Crouching Tiger Concerto for cello and chamber orchestra, which was premiered in London with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist on September 28, 2000. (There is also a second version of the concerto for the Chinese erhu.)
The concerto is in six movements, with solo cello cadenzas connecting the orchestral movements. It is scored for string orchestra, to which Tan Dun adds a flute, harp, and percussion instruments. The concerto was originally accompanied by a video that included a reconstruction of old Beijing, a bamboo forest, the Gobi Desert and Taklamakan (or Taklimakan) Plateau, and a Chinese warrior moving through images of Yo-Yo Ma performing.
Peggy Monastra has written of the work: “The Crouching Tiger Concerto is highly reflective of Tan Dun’s current interest in the historical cultures of the Silk Road. Woven into the film score and concerto are instruments, their performing techniques and articulations, and melodies native to the cultures which intermingled along the Silk Road in China’s Xinjiang province. Of particular interest is the cello melody in the third cadenza which is a folk song from this region. Instruments heard in the concerto which are indigenous to these Silk Road cultures are the tar (a North African frame drum) and the bawu (a bamboo, copper-reed flute which came into China from Southeast Asia). The rawap (a high-pitched, plucked string instrument native to the Uygar culture of the Taklimakan area) is prominent in the film score and represented in the concerto in melodies and articulations transcribed to the cello and the orchestra. The erhu (a Chinese bowed string instrument which has its roots in India) is evoked throughout the concerto in the melodic contours and sonorities called for in the cello’s melodies and cadenzas. Additional instruments from Silk Road cultures can be heard throughout in the gestures and timbres that Tan crafted into the scoring of this Western orchestra.”
Born: May 31, 1804, Paris, France
Died: September 15, 1875, Paris, France
Born Jeanne-Louise Dumont, Louise Farrenc showed considerable skills as a pianist from a young age. She subsequently had several prestigious teachers, including two of the best pianists of that time, Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Ignaz Moscheles. She also showed promise as a composer, and possibly studied with Anton Reicha at the Paris Conservatory starting when she was fifteen. In 1821 she married a flutist she met at the Conservatory, Aristide Farrenc, and took his last name. Farrenc toured as a pianist for years, her reputation as a virtuoso becoming such that, in 1842, she was appointed Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory – the only such appointment at that institution given to a woman in the nineteenth century. She held the position for thirty years. As a composer, she initially focused on music for the piano, then moved to writing chamber and orchestra music in the late 1830s and 1840s. After her death, she was remembered for her piano playing but largely forgotten as a composer, until a revival of interest in her music in the last couple of decades.
Symphony No. 3 in G minor, Op. 36
Duration: 34 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, timpani, strings
In 1841, Farrenc composed the first of her three symphonies, with the second following four years later. The latter was a particular success. Despite the fact that her concerts as a pianist and as a composer were consistently well-received, she had trouble convincing orchestras to perform her symphonies. Her Third Symphony, completed in 1847, had to wait until 1849 for its first performance, by the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire conducted by Narcisse Girard. The work was praised by the likes of Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz. However, perhaps frustrated by the lack of performance opportunities, the Symphony No. 3 proved to be Farrenc’s last orchestral composition, and she moved increasingly toward chamber music in her later years.
While her first two symphonies adhered to the form and sound of Classical era composers like Mozart and Beethoven, Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 inhabits the world of later Romantic era composers like Carl Maria von Weber and Felix Mendelssohn. After a very short, searching slow introduction, the first movement speeds to present three main melodies, the restless first focusing on strings, the more lyrical second introduced by the flutes and oboes, and the third based on arpeggios and scales. As the music progresses, its initial full texture turns increasingly to exchanges between smaller groups of instruments. After embellishments of the main themes in the development section, with some harmonic wandering and extended passages in the major, the melodies are repeated in their original forms before the music speeds again for a forceful, even fierce coda.
The second movement is slow and songlike, characterized by the reviewer of the work’s 1849 premiere as “noble, elevated, religious, and graceful at the same time.” Woodwinds and strings alternate statements of the main theme, which has something of the character of a chorale. It is taken up by the strings and horns, and the mood turns briefly dramatic before the strings return with the main melody. The third movement is a Scherzo with a central trio, a dance that nonetheless builds up considerable momentum at times. Largely transparent in texture and rhythmically lively, it is reminiscent of some of the music Felix Mendelssohn composed for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Dramatic and restless, the fourth movement conjures up a profusion of exciting ideas that are developed energetically, the intensity relenting only occasionally. In those days, it was quite typical for symphonies in a minor key to make a turn to the major in the final movement for a more affirmative ending, “darkness dispelled by light” as it were. There are occasional exceptions, however, like Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and the Symphony No. 4 by Johannes Brahms – and Farrenc’s Third Symphony, which maintains its minor tonality in its stormy conclusion.
“Crouching Tiger Concerto”
“Symphony No. 3”
The Reno Chamber Orchestra’s “At Home” concerts continue this summer! Held in intimate, outdoor settings, these are the perfect occasion to enjoy chamber music in gorgeous surroundings. For more information about attending, email development (at) renochamberorchestra.org.