Weill Concert Hall, Green Music Center
Corner of Petaluma Hill Road and Rohnert Park Expressway
1801 East Cotati Ave
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
De Tiempo y de Metal
Martin Matalon was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1958, and lives in Paris. He composed De Tiempo y de Metal (“Of Time and of Metal”) in June 2010 on a commission from the French ensemble Ars Nova, which gave the first performance in the 12th century Abbey of Noirlac in central France, on July 10, 2010. These performances are the first in the United States. The score calls for four horns, four trumpets, two tenor trombones, bass trombone, and tuba spatially dispersed in the hall.Duration is about 16 minutes.
Matalon received his bachelor’s degree in composition from the Boston Conservatory of Music in 1984, and in 1986 his master’s degree from The Juilliard School. In 1989, having studied conducting with Jacques-Louis Monod, he founded Music Mobile, a New York-based ensemble devoted to the contemporary repertoire (1989-96). He settled in Paris in 1993 and collaborated with IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), working on La Rosa profunda, music for an exhibition organized by the Pompidou Centre on “The Universe of Borges.” IRCAM commissioned a new score for the restored version of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis. After that considerable work, Martin Matalon turned to the universe of Luis Buñuel, consecutively writing scores for three legendary and surrealistic films by the Spanish director.
Matalon has received many awards, including the J.S. Guggenheim fellowship and Le Prix de L’Institut de France Académie des Beaux Arts (2005), the Grand Prix des Lycéens (2007), the award from the city of Barcelona (2001), the Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1986), and a Fulbright scholarship to France (1988).
Bruno Ferrandis has been a close friend of Martin Matalon’s since they were both students at Juilliard in the 1980s. In 2008 Ferrandis led members of the Santa Rosa Symphony in performances of Matalon’s score for the classic German silent film Metropolis. Now he offers the American premiere of a work specifically designed to show of sound as a spatial element—something that seems to be positively invited by the new concert hall at the Green Music Center.
As the title suggests, De Tiempo y de Metal involves brass (“metal”) instruments, but it also is designed specifically to create a sense of space. Perhaps the first composers to make this exploitation of space explicit were those who wrote festive compositions for St. Mark’s, in Venice, which had separate balconies to the right and left, with an organ in each one and space for singers and instrumentalists. Many composers exploited this space, but Giovanni Gabrieli (ca.1555-1612) is the most famous because he did more than simply echo music from one side to another; he offered different kinds of sonority in different parts of the space.
Matalon conceived De Tiempo y de Metal specifically for performance in a 12th century abbey in central France, in which the sounds produced by the ensemble could flow and echo richly throughout the space. Such a conception also puts to the test the resonance and echoes possible in the new Weill Hall with an effect that will be far different from a performance of exactly the same notes in, say, an open field, where the sound simply disperses throughout 360 degrees.
The dozen brass instruments are placed strategically throughout the hall. (and it is likely that performances in different spaces will have to be individualized for the acoustical characteristics of the individual space). In their different positions, playing against one another, as it were, the instruments also employ different mutes (which change the color of the sound) and special performance techniques for sounds that would not have been called for two hundred, or five hundred, or a thousand years ago. This makes for a wide palette of sonorities than you may expect from, say, a marching brass band, even though the instruments are the same.
De Tiempo y de Metal is laid out in six continuous sections, with emphasis on different instruments or combinations in each movement: The lowest participants (tuba and low trombones) in the second, for example; horns in the fourth; and trumpets in the last two.
These days we hear surround-sound effects in certain film scores through the placement of loudspeakers. But with De Tiempo y de Metal, it is a thrilling “real-life” effect produced entirely by expert players on live acoustical instruments in our very presence.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22
Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris on October 9, 1835, and died in Algiers on December 16, 1921. He composed his Second Piano Concerto in the spring of 1868 for Anton Rubinstein; it was premiered in a concert given by Rubinstein at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on May 13, 1868, with Rubinstein conducting and the composer as soloist. The published score is dedicated to the Marquise de Villers. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for two each of flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. Duration is about 24 minutes.
Although a handful of his works are regular favorites, we really know very little about Camille Saint-Saëns, one of the most prolific and longest‑lived composers of the nineteenth century. There are several reasons for this. In part the sheer number of works overwhelms all but specialists; we know, for example, only one of his twelve operas. Few people have heard more than the Third Violin Concerto or the Second Piano Concerto (of five). In fact, his best‑known piece of all, the Carnival of the Animals, was written as a private joke and never intended for publication. Another reason for Saint-Saëns’ relative obscurity was his careful control of himself; we know little about the man, as opposed to the musician. There are no diaries to analyze or confessions to be drawn from his voluminous private correspondence. He was educated and remained interested in a wide range of subjects. He published articles on the décor of ancient Roman theaters and communicated with learned bodies on questions of astronomy. He analyzed philosophical questions and wrote poetry and plays.
But most of all he was an astonishingly fluent, gifted musician. He played the piano part of a Beethoven violin sonata before he was five years old, and at ten he made his formal debut playing concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, then offering to play, as an encore, any Beethoven sonata that the audience might be pleased to request.
He was born in the year that Donizetti wrote Lucia di Lammermoor, and when he died, Alban Berg was in the middle of Wozzeck. Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers when Saint‑Saëns was a toddler, and T.S. Eliot was completing The Waste Land as he died.
Late in his life he found himself attacked for old-fashioned attitudes; he despised the music of Debussy and was horrified when he attended the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Those who found him a fuddy-duddy claimed he composed “well-written bad music.” His style was strongly influenced by such astonishingly diverse composers as Mozart and Liszt. He was a renowned Mozart performer all his life, and he always admired the clarity of thought and melodic line of that master. But he was a close personal friend of Liszt’s, and his keyboard technique developed from the virtuosic exercises of that master.
It was in imitation of Liszt that Saint-Saëns began composing symphonic poems; we hardly hear them today, alas, except for Danse macabre, which, like so many wonderful and effective pieces, has been relegated to Pops concerts. Liszt returned the favor in a big way by encouraging Saint-Saëns to complete one of his operas and promising to perform it when opera managements were leery of putting it on the stage because of its Biblical subject; the result, of course, was Samson et Dalila, the one opera by Saint-Saëns that still holds the stage.
The Second Piano Concerto owes its existence to the friendship that developed between Saint-Saëns and the Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein. The friendship was cemented at their meeting in 1858 when Saint‑Saëns sat down at the piano and sight‑read the full score of Rubinstein’s gigantic Ocean Symphony, which he was vainly trying to interest the world in hearing. Ten years later the two paired up for a series of concerts in Paris with Saint-Saëns conducting (his first experience in that role) and Rubinstein appearing as concerto soloist. Later Saint‑Saëns recalled:
After that magnificent season we happened to be at some concert or other in the Salle Pleyel when he said to me: “I haven’t conducted an orchestra in Paris yet. Let’s put on a concert that will give me an opportunity of taking the baton.” I replied, “With pleasure.” We asked when the Salle Pleyel would be free and were told we should have to wait three weeks. “Very well,” I said, “in those three weeks I will write a concerto for the occasion.” And I wrote the G-minor Concerto which accordingly had its first performance under such distinguished patronage.
And he was as good as his word, putting the entire piece on paper in the next seventeen days.
The first movement of the concerto opens, rather surprisingly, with an extended solo section in a free prelude style that is Saint-Saëns’ homage to Bach, although before the orchestra enters, the soloist has already reached a level of virtuosity that suggests Liszt—an extraordinary pairing. The orchestra’s entry marks the end of the introduction and the main section of the first movement, which is laid out as a sonata-form movement in an unusually moderate tempo (though the pianist’s splashes of virtuosity, which scarcely ever abate, somewhat counteract the sense that this is a “slow” movement). The remaining two movements are progressively faster in tempo. The Allegro scherzando is a delicious romp that suggests some familiarity with Mendelssohn’s fairy music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (from the first performance it was the most popular part of the score), while the finale, Presto, begins with a roar of triplets that turns into a rondo in the style of a tarantella.
Though the concerto is scarcely “profound,” it was an astonishing achievement in French music at a time when few composers bothered with the genres of abstract music, considering them dull and lifeless compared to the splendors of the opera. Saint-Saëns demonstrated just how much life and brio could be poured into the form, providing a hearty good time for all concerned.
Symphonie fantastique, Opus 14
Louis-Hector Berlioz was born in La Côte‑St.‑André, Isère, on December 11, 1803, and died in Paris on March 8, 1869. He composed the Symphonie fantastique in the spring of 1830 and conducted the premiere on December 5 that year in Paris. The score calls for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets, four bassoons, four horns, two cornets, two trumpets, three trombones, two ophicleides (played here by tubas), timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, bells, two harps, and strings. Duration is about 49 minutes.
The Symphonie fantastique made Berlioz’s reputation from the beginning. The work is most famous for its brilliantly imaginative orchestration and for Berlioz’s use of a single melody, which he called an idée fixe, in all five movements. Yet for all its renown as the great Romantic symphony, the Symphonie fantastique is really based on classical principles, organized in palindromic fashion around a slow movement at the center with two movements in characteristic dance meters (waltz and march) surrounding it, and large-scale fast movements at the beginning and end. Moreover the whole is laid out in a logical harmonic plan, though the logic is not lacking in surprises.
Berlioz was not interested in writing the kind of music that the average French concertgoer of his day—and even the average musician of his day—preferred. “Soothing music,” he said in his memoirs, “not too dramatic, but lucid, rather colorless, safely predictable, innocent of unheard‑of rhythms or harmonies or new procedures of any sort, modest in its demands on the intelligence and concentration of performer and listener alike.”
Probably no musical event of his life fired his energies more than his first exposure to music that was the very opposite of that description—the symphonies of Beethoven, which offered a vivid demonstration that instrumental music could have an expressive force far more profound than the vocal compositions he had heard up to that point. Without Beethoven, there would be no Symphonie fantastique.
Yet the Fantastique also required another impulse for its creation. This came on September 11, 1827, when the young composer simultaneously encountered Shakespeare and Harriet Smithson at a performance of Hamlet in which Miss Smithson played Ophelia. Shakespeare remained a lifelong literary idol. The influence of Harriet Smithson was more immediate. Hopelessly infatuated, Berlioz spent months trying to bring himself to the lady’s attention. He conceived a program symphony, which he called Episode from the Life of an Artist, but his emotional state made it impossible to compose. His condition became the subject of gossip until he heard a false rumor of a supposed affair that the actress was having. He began a new version of the original plan with a distinctly cynical ending: in the last scene, the witch’s sabbath, she was to appear as “a prostitute, fit to take part in such an orgy.”
Later Berlioz cooled off. Successive versions of the Program softened the attack on the heartless woman who drove the protagonist to poison himself, becoming eventually a “fit of despair about love.” He compounded a highly-colored plot from such diverse works as Goethe’s Faust, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales, DeQuincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, and Chateaubriand’s René.
The work performed on December 5, 1830, was not the one we know today; much of it was reworked in the following two years while he was in Italy, having won the Prix de Rome. In the Eternal City he reworked a considerable part of the first three movements. The revised version was performed with its sequel, Lélio, or The Return to Life, on December 9, 1832; the symphony, at least, was a great success. Still later Berlioz added the “religioso” coda of the first movement.
During all this time, Berlioz continued to refine his literary Program. At first he insisted that a copy should be handed out to the audience, since he considered the symphony “an instrumental drama,” for which the Program was “the spoken text of an opera, serving to introduce the musical movements, whose character and expression it motivates.” Later he let the music speak for itself. By 1855 he had recast so that the entire symphony is as an opium dream.
The first movement’s introduction is derived from a romance that Berlioz had composed under the influence of a youthful infatuation. He found the melody given to the violins at the very beginning “exactly right for expressing the overpowering sadness of a young heart caught in the toils of a hopeless love.” It makes an effective introduction, in C minor, for a movement that will ultimately be in the major. The idée fixe (the term was the composer’s own) appears as the principal theme of the Allegro in the first movement, but it is derived from Herminie, a cantata he had written in 1828 in one of his unsuccessful efforts to win the Prix de Rome.
The Ball is quite simply the traditional dance movement—a waltz—with the idée fixe appearing as the Trio. Two harps lend a wonderful splash of color to the ball, seconded by the bright woodwinds.
The Scene in the Country is a slow sonata form with the idée fixe appearing as the secondary theme. The movement is framed by a miniature tone poem, a dialogue between an English horn (on stage) and an echoing oboe (off stage). When the movement draws to its close, the English horn attempts to resume the dialogue, but the only response is a tense silence and—original stroke!—menacing soft chords in F minor played by four timpani while the English horn attempts to sing the end of its song in F major.
The last two movements are musically linked in their scoring for large orchestra with a full brass ensemble. Berlioz claimed to have composed the March to the Scaffold in a single night—not so bold a claim as might appear, since he cannibalized the march from unperformed opera, Les Francs juges, adding only the quotation of the idée fixe just before the fall of the guillotine.
The Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath concludes the symphony in tonally classical manner, returning to key of the opening movement. But in its powerful sonority, its evocative use of tolling funeral bells and the Dies irae melody of the Requiem Mass (first in earnest and later parodied), Berlioz brings layers of extra‑musical reference that had rarely been employed in a symphony before. The mysterious tritones, the grotesque parody of the idée fixe, the clanging of the funeral bells bringing in the low bassoons and tubas are all a kind of large introduction for the “sabbath round‑dance,” which appears in a full‑fledged fugal exposition. Both Dies irae and fugue subject return together for the recapitulation, following which Berlioz unleashes the full energy of his large orchestra in the hair‑raising coda.
A footnote, sadly unromantic: Berlioz managed to arrange for Harriett Smithson to attend the performance of the symphony and its sequel Lélio on December 9, 1832. She was apparently charmed to discover the lengths that Berlioz had gone to express his feelings for her. She married him the following October. Alas for happy endings—the marriage that was consummated in such a romantic haze fell crashing apart on the hard rocks of reality. Within a few years they discovered that they were miserable together; they separated in 1844. Immediately after Harriet’s death in 1854, Berlioz married Marie Recio, his mistress of many years.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)