Concerto for Violin and Cello in B-flat, RV 547.  

Antonio Vivaldi, Born March 4, 1678 in Venice; died July 28, 1741 in Vienna

Comparatively little is known about Vivaldi, the man and his life. He was ordained a priest and was director of music, staff composer, teacher and violinist at a foundling home for girls in Venice, Seminario musicale dell’ Ospedale della Pietà, that was known as a “conservatory of orphans.” Vivaldi's contract required him to compose at least two concertos a month for the girls; he wrote dozens of operas, oratorios and cantatas, and more than 500 concertos for almost every imaginable combination of instruments. In Vivaldi’s time, concertos were evolving, and were quite different more recent ones; they called for a small group of soloists who exchanged themes with a slightly larger ensemble, the size of today’s chamber orchestra. These pieces were known Concerti Grossi.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin and Cello, an example of a concerto grosso, is a spirited dialogue for the two solo instruments as colleagues and rivals for the spotlight.  The first movement, Allegro moderato, opens energetically, with strong rhythms and straightforward ideas. The soloists develop a musical idea with a canonic imitation with the cello presenting a form of the ascending scale/descending arpeggio, and the violin playing the same music two octaves higher. The first idea is a descending arpeggio and the other a quickly ascending scale. The music develops harmonically, with great beauty. Vivaldi uses ritornello form in which the orchestral theme alternates with solo episodes in the fast outer movements.  The second movement, a sensitive Andante, is short, with the orchestra playing a supporting role. The soloists showcase their imitative technique as they exchange calm and peaceful phrases.   In the final movement, Allegro molto, the orchestral rhythm displays Vivaldi’s humor; the two instrumental soloists have offbeat accents and alternate virtuosic sections, sharing involved passagework between them.

Grosse Fuge (“Grand Fugue”) in B-Flat, Op. 133

Ludwig van Beethoven, Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn; died March 26, 1827, in Vienna

This gigantic movement is one of the most fiercely powerful pieces and forceful expressions of Beethoven’s music. This masterpiece is a magnificent exploration of fugal writing: the structure is an important part of the weighty emotional charge of the music, not just its vehicle.  Its structure is one of the chief features that makes the Grosse Fuge extraordinary and important among Beethoven’s last incomparable masterpieces.

The Grosse Fuge’s intricacy and greatness allow the listener to hear it in several different ways.  It is an introduction followed by a long fugue, or by a series of fugues.  It is a fugal theme with variations, each, in turn, built as a series of variations.  It is also a large-scale sonata-form movement, in which each of the principal components is a fugue.  It is even a cyclical work of four movements condensed into one: introduction, Allegro, slow movement and finale, each part except the first a fugue.  All of these descriptions are accurate.  Every listener must make of this work what he will.  The following is a simple guide to the work’s principal sections.

To begin, a thirty-measure Overture introduces the main theme and some of the transformations, which are used later.  The fugue proper begins with a vigorous and rhythmic counter-subject in the first violin, to which the viola, playing the principal subject, seems initially to be an accompaniment.  The music slows to Meno mosso e moderato for a second fugue, and then speeds up again for the big third fugue, Allegro molto e con brio.  In the long closing coda, all the instruments play the principal subject in octaves and long, sustained notes.

Two months before his death, the ailing composer and his Viennese publisher issued this work with a French title as was customary then, Grande Fugue.  Much later, other publishers gave its name in German as Grosse Fuge.  In Beethoven’s time, in fact, the designation “grand,” in whatever language, generally meant only that the work stood alone, instead of being part of a set of three or six.

Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Born October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney; died August 26, 1958, in London

After a long, dreary period in England’s music history, a new school of interesting nationalist composers burgeoned in the early years of the 20th century.

Vaughan Williams, the greatest of these composers, had a rigorous musical education; he studied in Berlin with Max Bruch and in Paris with Ravel.  During his long career, he composed nine symphonies, five operas, and many other works in almost every imaginable musical form.

He composed this Concerto Grosso at the request of the British Rural Music Schools Association to celebrate its 21st anniversary. The work premiered (with 400 performers) in London’s Royal Albert Hall, on November 18, 1950, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.

In concerto grosso form, a small group of solo players is separated from the larger string body; Vaughan Williams preserved this idea by dividing the orchestra similarly.  He utilized three groups, originally for a didactic purpose.  The first contains skilled players; the second group can handle parts of modest difficulty; and the third, which may be omitted from concert performances, consists of inexperienced players, including some who may only use their instruments’ open strings without the fingers of the left hand at all. This work’s rhythmic difficulties are daunting; some claim they have caused the work to be rarely performed.

Overall, the work contains good spirits and humor. The five movements are not unlike a Tchaikovsky Serenade, with a reprise at the end of the opening music. The first movement, Intrada, or “Introduction,” is a sonorous slow-paced Largo, with a dramatic theme.  It runs into the Burlesca Ostinata, an amusing, sprightly movement based on an “obstinately” repeated figure, at a moderately fast pace, Allegro moderato.  Next comes the central Sarabande, a dignified old, slow dance, Lento, and then an energetic, lyrical, witty Scherzo in the rhythm and tempo of a fast waltz, Allegro (tempo di valse).  At the end, a March (Alla marcia), lively and syncopated, and a Reprise of the Intrada follow.

Delights and Dances

Michael Abels, Born in 1962 in Phoenix, Arizona

Michael Abels, an African-American composer best known for combining classical music with African-American jazz, blues, bluegrass and ethnic genres, has gained widespread recognition for his orchestral music. Abels studied at the University of Southern California, where he explored his African-American roots by examining gospel music and African drumming. Later, he studied West African music at California Institute for the Arts. Abels received two Meet the Composer (now New Music USA) grants, one of which allowed him to work with young musicians through the Watts Tower Arts Center in Los Angeles, as well as commissions and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the LA Opera and many orchestras.  

Delights & Dances, commissioned by Sphinx, captivates listeners with witty, soulful, and infectiously rhythmic music. A New York Times review described the piece as “an energetic arrangement . . . which incorporates jazz, blues, bluegrass and Latin dance elements.”

Delights & Dances features quickly moving chord sequences and 16th note runs for the solo quartet, which are rhythmically varied by the insertion of triplet patterns that relax and slow down the pace. The introductory section begins slowly, Largo, molto rubato, with rhythmic freedom. The opening passage for solo cello sounds almost like a cadenza, then the solo viola plays the cello's ascending motive, and the two play a brief duet in joined by the two solo violins. The orchestra enters, pizzicato, with short, detached, syncopated patterns. This section sounds like blues but is very rhythmic and has an optimistic feel. Each player in the solo group plays its own riff. The final section, "Bluegrassy" begins with a solo viola theme; soon all four soloists join in a spirited hoedown. Finally, the solo quartet and the orchestral strings play together for the spirited conclusion.

Guardian of the Horizon, Concerto Grosso for Violin, Cello, and Strings

Jimmy López, Born in 1978 in Peru

 The Chicago Sun-Times has called the award-winning young composer Jimmy López Bellido “one of the most interesting young composers anywhere today,” while The New York Times has deemed him an “expert in orchestration”).  Lopez studied at the National Conservatory of Music in Lima, at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and at the University of California-Berkeley.

His works are adventurous and winning and have been performed by leading orchestras internationally.

As part of the Renée Fleming initiative, the Lyric Opera of Chicago commissioned him to compose a full-length opera based on the bestselling novel Bel Canto, which premiered on December 7, 2015 to wide critical acclaim. It was nominated for the 2016 International Opera Awards and was recently featured on PBS Great Performances. López is the Houston Symphony's Composer-in-Residence for 2017-19.

Guardian of the Horizon: Concerto Grosso for Violin, Cello, and Strings, was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization, with the support of Linda and Stuart Nelson, Carnegie Hall, and New World Center in honor of Sphinx’s 20th Anniversary Celebration

Lopez writes: “One of the greatest joys one can have as an artist is for one’s art to make a difference. Sphinx’s core mission does exactly that; it inspires and empowers young talented artists to fulfill their full potential, artists who, because of the color of their skin, might otherwise be at a disadvantage when it comes from benefitting from opportunities in the classical music field. As a Latino composer myself, I am proud to join in celebrating Sphinx’s 20th anniversary and in doing so, I pay homage to the symbolism behind the name of the organization itself.

“Guardian of the Horizon is a metaphor for Sphinx, which is associated with strength, wisdom, and resilience. It seemed to me like the most logical choice, albeit the most challenging, but as I was about to embark on the composition of this piece, tragedy struck me in a way which turned this into one -if not the most- personal piece I have written to date. My father, Javier, a staunch supporter of my music since my early childhood, and the most loving and generous man one could ask for a father, passed away on December 4, 2016. In light of this enormous loss, the figure of the Sphinx gained an even greater significance. I began to think of Greek Mythology and Oedipus (hence the title of the first movement) but then I started to think of it the way ancient Egyptians did, as a manifestation of Hathor, Goddess of birth and death, or as “Horus in the Horizon”, guarding the rising and setting sun, and finally, as holding the keys to the gates of wisdom. In my work, the Sphinx guards the passage to the afterlife, but the aspiring soul must first answer a Riddle, and only then can it be allowed into Crossing the Threshold. As I got to work, it felt more and more like I was writing a companion piece for my father’s transcendental journey, a journey that we will all have to undertake someday.

“As its subtitle suggests, this piece pays homage to a type of baroque musical composition called the concerto grosso, and what could be more appropriate to honor this form than an ensemble of strings: the family of instruments which reached perfection during baroque times, well in advance of all the others (woodwinds, brass, percussion, etc.). The violin and cello are treated as equals, at times joining forces in order to become a super instrument, and at others behaving like rivals in a competition of dexterity and endurance. The string ensemble does not limit itself to the role of accompanist; it is an active participant, constantly interacting and challenging the soloists, while soaring to ever greater heights.

“This piece is a labor of love. Few things in life have the power to touch us so deeply; the loss of a parent being one of them. But this piece is also meant to celebrate life, the life and talent of those young artists whom you will see on stage, because they represent the best and brightest, regardless of race or color. We must remember that no matter how dark the times may seem, our path will always lead us Into the Effulgent Light.”

The program notes are copyright © Susan Halpern, 2017.