Dispatches from Classical Workgroup

Gian Carlo Menotti
Gian Carlo Menotti

Classical workgroup presents two dispatches from what some people might call the front but what we think is not at all a bloody battle field but the friendly confines of the WOBC station with all the great music housed within it.

This is what Franklin Sussman has been checkin’ out:

  • Ravel – Violin Sonata No. 2
    This piece is super chill to listen to in the morning right after waking up. There’s not much to say about it but it is a quaint and intimate sonata with melodies that will definitely get stuck in your head.
  • Dvorak – The Golden Spinning Wheel
    I first learned about this piece, and the existence of Dvorak’s tone poems in general, when I was going to see Cleveland Orchestra for the first time and Bill Preucil was supposed to play Dvorak Violin Concerto, which is one of my favorites. I was so disappointed to hear a few hours before the concert that he had a pinched nerve and wouldn’t be playing that night, but I was happily surprised when they replaced it with this piece. The story, as I remember it from the program notes is like some sort of gruesome and twisted rumpelstiltskin situation, but even without all of the details this wonderfully programmatic piece keeps your attention and has a great beginning and end.
  • Sibelius – En Saga
    This is one of his best tone poems and also one of his earliest works. It combines Finnish inspirations as well as influences from Swedish, his mother tongue, and apparently Iceland as well. I enjoy that it does not really have a specific story, as opposed to many of his other mythology inspired works, but instead just gives the general impression of a saga.
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5
    This is one of my all time favorites, although I had not listened to it for a while until recently. It is a timeless classic and a piece that always has more to offer the more you listen to it.
  • Prokofiev – Quintet in G Minor
    This unusual quintet for violin, viola, bass, oboe, and clarinet is a perfect example of Prokofiev’s unique chamber music skill, and it is even adapted from a chamber ballet. If you like this, check out both of his string quartets as well.
  • Menotti – Violin Concerto
    This seemingly obscure violin concerto is similar in structure to that of Barber, which makes sense because Menotti and Barber were partners while working on their violin concerti. Although Menotti eventually left Barber for a younger man, and never reached the level of fame Barber did, this piece shows his unique style and skill. Unfortunately, not many recordings exist, the best being by Jennifer Koh (Oberlin ’97!), though even that one has some flaws due to the piece simply being awkward to play in many sections.
Cataclysm, by workgroup member Yu Victor Zheng

“A flute and piccolo, a guitar, a snare drum, and a bass drum. Not the most conventional quartet you’d expect to see.I called upon the mighty, deep resonance of the bass drum, the sharp, crisp attack of the snare drum, the hollow wooden knock and the snap of the guitar wood and strings, and the wavering, rich tone of the flute enhanced by the shrill, piercing cutting edge of the piccolo.

What happened then was a fascinating puzzle in which I was presented with a battle that emerged between the four voices. Lacking the type of timbral coherency one would hear in something like a string quartet, the four voices would fight another for dominance. It became obvious to me that I could not compose this like I had my previous ensembles; each instrument was timbrally distinct and I had to think of not only how they would enhance each other but where they would disrupt each other. After a few attempts to write so that the quiet instruments would only play when they could be heard, I had a different idea. What if I were to depict their battle in the music? Embrace their conflict rather than work around it?

This is the story that then emerged from the piece. The counterpoint between the bass drum and snare mesh together well and project powerfully while the flute’s entrance, playing tongue pizzicato tones a minute or two in, is the entrance of an outsider, struggling feebly to imitate, but being beat back by, the tide of the mighty bass and snare. But the flute finds an ally in the guitar, which initially attempts to blend in with its own percussive attacks on damped strings, and they switch tactics: the flute switches to the piercing piccolo and instead of imitating the percussion, they go fully tonal and the piece dissolves into a cheery folk-like duet between the guitar and piccolo while the drums play quietly in the background. This is not to last, however, as the two percussion instruments decide to fight back, setting the stage for a furious finale. Unable to combat the power of the drums head-on, the piccolo and guitar attempt a variety of tactics in the form of diverse sounds ranging from piccolo glissandos to scratching the guitar strings with a pick. But eventually they are overpowered and they bow out of the piece, leaving the two percussion instruments alone. The piece ends with several mighty crashes on the bass drum, evoking cataclysmic explosions.”

Victor also recommends this piece:
The Yellow River Cantata (黄河大合唱), set for combined orchestra and choir, was written by Xian Xinghai, depicting the Chinese struggle against the Japanese invasion during World War II. The Yellow River Piano Concerto (黄河协奏曲) is an adaptation by Yin Chengzong of the most important melodies of the Cantata into a piano concerto, but being written after the Communist takeover, also includes quotations from Communist-endorsed melodies such as The East is Red and The Internationale. Both pieces are popular as patriotic Chinese pieces and represent a fusion of Chinese melodies and instruments with Western orchestration and structure.