Beethoven Program Notes

Mason Bates (Born 1977)

Alternative Energy for Orchestra and Electronica

Approximately 27 minutes

Composer: Mason Bates (Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 23, 1977)

Work composed: 2011

World premiere: The premiere took place on February 2, 2012, in Chicago with conductor Ricardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, from whom the piece was commissioned while Bates was serving as Composer-in-Residence there.

Instrumentation: Electronica (synthesized sounds by “a laptop – played by a percussionist or assistant conductor (unless composer is present)”) and Orchestra: 3 flutes (including alto flute, and piccolo), 3 oboes (including English horn), 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (including contrabassoon), 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 3 percussionists, harp, piano, strings

Alternative Energy for orchestra and electronica
I. Ford’s Farm, 1896 (an amateur fiddler invents a car)
II. Chicago, 2012 (including the FermiLab particle accelerator)
III. Xinjiang Province, 2112 (twilight on an industrial wasteland)
IV. Reykjavik, 2222 (an Icelandic Rain Forest)

 

Award-winning American composer Mason Bates is one of the most performed modern composers in America. He studied composition with some of the great American music teachers in the later part of the 20th Century – Samuel Adler, John Corigliano, David Del Tredici. He is distinguished as being named the Composer of the Year in 2018, as well as the first ever Composer-in-Residence with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. (2018 – present). Previously, he served as the Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony (2010 to 2015). While there, he was commissioned to write Alternative Energy, which premiered in Chicago in 2012 and was later nominated in 2017 as Best Contemporary Classical Composition of the year.

Unique to Bates’ interests is his avid pursuit of being a techno DJ – something he began around 2008. As a classical musician and techno-artist, Bates founded a coalition of various artists and DJs to create “Mercury Soul” that brought classical music and DJ techno sets together at clubs and other venues. This blending of genres comes naturally to Bates. He’s composed several techno-acoustic works – pieces for orchestra with “electronica” – which are typically orchestrated for large orchestral forces and enhanced with synthesized and electronic sounds and samples (digital recordings). The results are spectacular, incorporating a huge array of different types of sonics, from the wide-ranging acoustical tones and timbres from orchestral instruments to the surreal and magically manipulated sounds of modern synthesizers. But doing so successfully requires Bates’ particular genius, which is continually evident in Alternative Energy. He treats this techno-acoustical cross genre as a way of reviving the “narrative symphonies of the 19th Century using 21st Century sounds” where literary-narrative ideas can be enhanced with the sounds of electronics. By “narrative symphonies,” Bates means the Romantic works of composers like Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique), and to a certain extent, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony.

Indeed, Alternative Energy has a narrative to tell, and a lot of fantastical sounds to hear. It’s a tale of warning relevant to today’s energy and climate concerns – how energy creation for billions of people on the planet has created hazards that, if unchecked, could lead to catastrophe. As Bates himself describes his work:

“Alternative Energy is an ‘energy symphony’ spanning four movements and hundreds of years. Beginning in a rustic Midwestern junkyard in the late 19th Century, the piece travels through ever greater and more powerful forces of energy — a present-day particle collider, a futuristic Chinese nuclear plant — until it reaches a future Icelandic rainforest, where humanity’s last inhabitants seek a return to a simpler way of life.”

The idée fixe that links these disparate worlds appears early in “Ford’s Farm, 1896.” This melody is heard on the fiddle — conjuring a figure like Henry Ford — and is accompanied by junkyard percussion and a ‘phantom orchestra’ that trails the fiddler like ghosts. The accelerando cranking of a car motor becomes a special motif in the piece, a kind of rhythmic embodiment of ever-more-powerful energy. Indeed, this crank motif explodes in the electronics in the second movement’s present-day Chicago, where we encounter actual recordings from the FermiLab particle collider. Hip-hop beats, jazzy brass interjections, and joyous voltage surges bring the movement to a clangorous finish.

Zoom a hundred years into the dark future of the “Xinjiang Province, 2112” where a great deal of the Chinese energy industry is based. On an eerie wasteland, a lone flute sings a tragically distorted version of the fiddle tune, dreaming of a forgotten natural world. But a powerful industrial energy simmers to the surface, and over the ensuing hardcore techno, wild orchestral splashes drive us to a catastrophic meltdown. As the smoke clears, we find ourselves even further into the future: an Icelandic rainforest on a hotter planet. Gentle, out-of-tune pizzicato accompany our fiddler, who returns over a woody percussion ensemble to make a quiet plea for simpler times.

In the first movement, “Ford’s Farm,” the orchestra itself, without electronica, is filled with wonderful color and effects – the fun and lyrical fiddle tune and its jangly syncopation, over lots of percussive noises (very much the sound of scraps in the junk heap being used as instruments) is a delightful moment. That metamorphosizing motive of Ford’s fiddle tune, as it passes through several enthralling soundscapes, is effectively transportive as a musical link throughout the work. The crank is played by a large ratchet. The middle movement, “Chicago 2012,” opens with actual recordings of the Fermilab’s (the particle physics and accelerator laboratory close to Chicago) particle accelerator in action – it’s creepy, mind-blowing, and surreally beautiful. A nice twist is the return of the cranking ratchet, as if the scientists couldn’t just plug the FermiLab behemoth into an electrical outlet, but had to crank it up to get it working. The third movement, “Xinjiang Province, 2112 (twilight on an industrial wasteland),” begins with electronic sounds, Chinese flute, and pentatonic scales (a scale typically associated with traditional Chinese music), all awash in cosmic noises, beautiful and strange, sometimes frightening. At almost four minutes into the movement, the energy gradually begins to pick up – at first almost soothing, but then growing with intensity – it’s absolutely exhilarating to hear what Bates does with these manipulated soundscapes, sometimes almost lifting the listener out of their seat… until the ultimate calamity, and then the ultimate powering down at the end. The fourth movement, “Reykjavik, 2222,” opens in the mists, with samples of bird song and woodpeckers and forest murmurs – it’s a wonderfully evocative world of sound. The piece then cycles back to the feel of Ford’s Farm and the fiddle tune, but Bates masterfully makes this new world soundscape different from 200 years earlier in the first movement – no less tuneful, but interrupted and fragile. This time, the world is still resounding with electronic sounds, but in the background, as though they were the reverberations from the “meltdown” from the previous movement. The fiddle tune ends this enchanting musical narrative in a pensive, cautionary way.

Yugo Kanno (Born 1977)

Revive - Concerto for Koto and Shakuhachi

Approximately 30 minutes

Composer: Yugo Kanno (Born on June 5, 1977 in
Saitama, Japan)

Work composed: 2013-14

Instrumentation: solo koto (traditional Japanese zither-harp), solo shakuhachi (traditional Japanese bamboo flute)

Revive – Concerto for Koto and Shakuhachi
I. Sunrise
II. Pray
III. Future

Yugo Kanno was born in Japan, and his first love of music came from the eclectic tastes of his father, who, as Kanno describes him, was a devout “audiophile.” Kanno received all of his musical education in Japan, achieving his degree from the Tokyo College of Music. In 2004, he made his compositional debut for Japanese television, and according to his website, from that time onward, “he has been active in a wide range of music productions such as movies, TV dramas, anime (animation), and documentaries.” Best known and extremely popular for his musical scores to accompany video, Kanno’s inspiration in writing for orchestra, however, began around 2007 with a growing fascination and joy for live orchestral music. Since then, he’s written two symphonies and various other orchestral works – one of them being Revive written between 2013 – 2014, a concerto for two hugely important traditional Japanese instruments, the koto and the shakuhachi.

Japan’s long and rich culture has celebrated centuries of music for all kinds of purposes and instruments. The koto, a 13 (or more)-stringed zither-like harp, first arrived in Japan from China (known there as the gu-zheng) in the 7th and 8th Centuries; it quickly evolved into a distinctly Japanese cultural instrument and found its place in nearly every part of society. An entire genre of music grew up around the plucked koto, and one of the genre’s branches included it as an accompanying instrument to the shakuhachi. The soothing, breathy sounds of the shakuhachi – an end-blown bamboo flute that is played forward, like a recorder – became important during the Edo period from 1603 to 1867. It was first used by Buddhists as an alternative to singing chant. The two instruments continue to evolve in Japanese traditional music, and there is now a wealth of modern repertoire for koto and shakuhachi. From centuries ago through present day, the beautifully unique sounds of both instruments have come to be specifically associated with the aesthetic of Japan.

With those adored instruments in mind, Kanno used them as solo instruments in a concerto format. In a brief interview at an earlier performance with the Seattle Symphony in 2015, Kanno explained:

“Under the name Revive, I composed these movements to express Japan itself. The first movement being Sunrise, the second Pray, and third Future. I hope the audience will be able to understand my thoughts as expressed through these songs.”

Kanno wrote the work in remembrance and in response to the tragedy of the Great (Tōhoku) East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. The disaster claimed over 18,000 lives and caused the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor to partially fail. Kanno’s musical representation begins on the quiet morning of the earthquake in the first movement, “Sunrise,” through the harrowing moments of its destruction, evacuations, and the growing crisis with the Fukushima Nuclear plant in the second movement, “Pray,” and ends in hope and the strength of perseverance and rebuilding in the final movement, “Future.”

Revive begins with a beautiful serenade from the koto (the zither). Aside from the joy of hearing its calming and iconic voice, watching a koto virtuoso is an aesthetic wonder in itself. The shakuhachi (flute) is equally a delight to hear, and the virtuosity demanded from both of these soloists is inspiring. Kanno’s orchestral writing, too, is wonderfully imaginative and powerful. There are more than a few moments that give us goosebumps, and plenty that are playful – listen particularly in the last movement for when the orchestra members, as well as the shakuhachi soloist, put down their instruments and actually clap rhythms. In all, Kanno captures the journey of Japan and its people, rather than the tragedy itself, making his Revive extremely moving and poignant, and ultimately, optimistic.

Kanno’s website ends each page with his promise to continue support for the victims of the 2011 Earthquake and the area’s rebuilding:

“Twelve years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and although the situation is still difficult, we sincerely pray for the earliest possible recovery of the affected areas, and will continue to make donations and support activities. We will carry out support activities such as donations for those who have been affected.”

 
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral,” Op. 68

Approximately 43 minutes

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (Born in Bonn in 1770; died in Vienna in 1827)

Work composed: 1802-1808

World premiere: The premiere occurred in Vienna, at the Theater an der Wien, on December 22, 1808. The concert itself was a four-hour long marathon at which several premieres took place, notably including also his Fifth Symphony

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, strings

Symphony No. 6 in F Major, “Pastoral,” Op. 68
I. Allegro ma non troppo (Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arrival in the Country)
II. Andanted molto mosso (Scene by the Brook)
III. Allegro (Merry Gathering of Country Folk)
IV. Allegro (Thunderstorm)
V. Allegretto (Shepherd’s Song. Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm)

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” is filled with charm and gratefulness, the light of the sun through summer leaves, and the grace and quietude of nature observed. When one regards Beethoven, with all his scowling portraits and the allusions to monumental struggle in his Fifth Symphony, hearing his Sixth comes as a complete surprise.

As with his Fifth, the Sixth’s essence had been germinating in Beethoven’s head for many years. His busy city life in Vienna was increasingly counterbalanced by long sojourns to its parks and out into the countryside, and especially in the lovely town of Heiligenstadt, where in the summer of 1808 he escaped to finish the Pastoral. As he wrote to a friend, “No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.” The composer, now truly suffering from his increasing deafness and dissatisfaction with human nature, found joy in the purity of nature and captured it in the expression he knew best – music.

Beethoven himself chose the name for his Sixth, as the “Pastoral,” as well as each of the movement’s subtitles, and together they suggest a “program,” or narrative series of scenes which the Symphony will depict. As such, the Pastoral is regarded as one of the first successful “programmatic” symphonies in the Classical repertoire – a fundamental structure that would soon dominate symphonic writing in the Romantic Era. But in 1808, Beethoven cautioned against pictorial precision. In the brief, and rare, program note that he provided for its premiere, Beethoven called the Pastoral “… more of a matter of feeling than of painting in sounds… no picture, but something in which the emotions are expressed that are aroused by the pleasures of the country.” His subtitles evoke, in a metaphysical way, the psychological essence of what being in nature meant to him, honoring nature’s “music” with his own. Even so, Beethoven does indeed provide a few obvious, and delightful, musical representations in the Symphony. The result is Beethoven at his happiest and most tenderhearted.

The methods of expression that Beethoven generally focused on, though, were quietness, repetition, and a relaxed pace (or, as musicologist Donald Tovey called, “lazy”). One can hear this marvelously in the first movement, Awakening of Cheerful Feelings…, where the mood is exquisitely peaceful, and in which Beethoven seems to blissfully luxuriate in the simple repetition of themes – one such little five-note descending motive is repeated 80 times. And the harmonic pace of the movement is also on holiday – for example, near the middle of the movement, the key (Bb) lollygags for some 50 measures before Beethoven moves to a new key (of D). All of this contentment in your bones nurtures us, calms us, and brings us into nature’s realm. And this will be the spirit pervading the whole Symphony.

The second movement, Scene by the Brook, contains some especially lovely naturalistic representations. The first can be heard beginning in the opening measures – a slow and sauntering triplet figure is played by the second violins, violas, and cellos representing Beethoven’s flowing brook. The brook gathers a little speed as Beethoven doubles the triplet’s rhythm. Most lovely, here, is the melody in the first violins above the burbling of the lower strings – as if the sojourning Beethoven is simply basking in the natural delights. It’s some of the sweetest music in the entire Symphony. And just before the end, some delightful imitations of birdsong arrive in an unlikely little quartet. The birds themselves are identified by Beethoven in the conductor’s score: a nightingale, a quail, and a cuckoo are played by the flute, oboe, and two clarinets, respectively.

The third movement, Merry Gathering of Country Folk, is Beethoven at his most witty. Beethoven’s friend, Anton Schindler, remembered something Beethoven had observed:

“Beethoven asked me if I had noticed how village musicians often played in their sleep, occasionally letting their instruments fall and keeping quite still, and then waking up with a start, getting in a few vigorous blows or strokes at a venture, although usually in the right key, before dropping to sleep again.”

It’s likely that Beethoven is making musical jokes at the musician’s expense here. Although the Gathering begins in a relaxed way, quite soon the instruments start getting a little out-of-hand in volume – making “Merry” indeed. Shortly, at about one minute into the movement, this friskiness leads to some overzealous French horn heralding, and it’s a gloriously fun moment. Perhaps Beethoven was having the horns wake up the bassoonist, for as the next section immediately begins with a chirpy little tune in the oboe, the sleepy bassoon apparently can only manage two different pitches in accompaniment.

The fourth movement, Thunderstorm, is another of the famous musical representations in this Symphony. It’s a marvelous moment, too, crafted as a kind of “Meanwhile, as the band is engaged in their frivolity, a storm is brewing on the horizon.” Without a break, the country musical scene cuts to pianissimo (very quiet) tremolos (quickly repeated bow strokes creating a shimmering effect) in the basses, evoking the electricity that’s quivering in the atmosphere. The storm builds up rather quickly. To capture it, Beethoven uses thunderous timpani, squealing piccolo, and as the storm passes directly overhead of the now shelter-seeking Country Folk, a blistering climax that adds in the trombones in a colossally thunderstruck and dissonant set of chords.

As the storm gradually subsides, Beethoven creates one of the loveliest moments in any of his symphonies. Out of the shivering tremolos arise the oboes, then, without any pause, the final movement, Shepherd’s Song. Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm, musically opens up through the winds, then horns, and then the strings, like the breaking of the clouds and the glow of the sun spilling through the storm clouds and across the earth. The Symphony ends in this happy radiance with a beautiful hymn-like theme, and as essayist Basil Lam astutely observed, it’s Beethoven’s thanks to “… the Creator …, not for ending the storm, but for the glory of Nature, of which the storm is a part.”

© Max Derrickson