Santa Cruz Symphony – “Fratres” by Avro Pärt


Composer Arvo Pärt                       

On Sunday, March 26, at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts, the audience was once again treated to Director Daniel Stewart’s innovative programming for the season’s fourth concert. The concert opened with Fratres (Brothers – 1977) by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt) (b. 1935). Arvo Pärt’s creative career under the harsh rule of the former Soviet Union  left much to be desired, a common experience by many Soviet composers of that time. The Soviet policy of “see no evil” (art), “hear no evil” (“modern”, Western contemporary music) and “speak no evil” (literature, poetry) forced many either to flee to Western sanctuary or conform! Pärt elected to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, a conversion that annoyed the Soviets, but allowed him to expand his spiritual life, lead him to embrace sacred music and mysticism that labeled him a “spiritual minimalist.”

Fratres was composed without fixed instrumentation, but was first composed for string quintet plus wind quintet. In actuality, Fratres has been rearranged some 16 sixteen times. Pärt stated he found complex music somewhat confusing and that “when a single note was beautifully played, it was enough.” So it is no wonder that Pärt employed at least an allusion to “minimalism” when he uses fewer notes and much repetition. Most impressive was the control of dynamics performed in all three works. Not just the common distinction between loud (forte) and soft (piano), but the specific difference between soft (piano) and very soft (pianissimo) as indicated by the composer in the score. This performance exemplified the kind of subtle control of dynamics more commonly found in commercially-produced recordings than in live performances! On this very point alone the Santa Cruz Symphony has risen to yet another important level.

An interesting approach used by Pärt is what he refers to as “tintinnabuli” that consists combining two simple elements, a melodic line and a triad. The continuity of these two simple elements is achieved by leading the melodic line step by step with triad tones which rotate depending on melodic line. It is challenging, but most effective. The opening featured the atmospheric use of strings in practically inaudible ranges accompanied by the bass drum with a calculated, sparse rhythm that over the course of the work’s duration rose to a higher dynamic level and then slowly diminished to that heard in the beginning to create an arch form. The overall effect was superb — it was a new sound experience in precise control employing minimal motion that created a floating and surreal almost mystical sonority. Very well executed!

Haydn composed two concertos for cello, one in C Major and the one in D Major, Op. 101,  No. 2, Hob. VIIb: 2 (1783). Both were composed for specific cellists. The concerto in D was composed for Bohemian virtuoso cellist Anton Kraft (1749 – 1820), principal cellist of the Eszterhaza Orchestra. Kraft was known for his beautiful tone and expressive playing, two aspects that were fully present in guest artist Oliver Herbert’s superb performance. Based in San Francisco, Oliver Herbert’s accolades are impressive and extensive. He has won numerous competitions and in 2012, became principal cellist of the San Francisco Youth Symphony and has performed as soloist with many orchestras.

Haydn was experimenting with the idea of raising the role of the cello to that of soloist rather than bass line continuo player. The score provides ample opportunity for the soloist to perform complex passages on a much more challenging level than had previously been heard. Once again, Herbert took full advantage of the opportunity and to be certain, “Papa” Haydn would have been in ecstasy to hear the magnificent sound produced by the young 19-year-old cellist, whose performance was not only a display of virtuosity, but an impressive show of sensitive artistry! This young man has a future in the world of music performance!

The opening set a tranquil mood in which the strings enjoyed sharing Haydn’s musical ideas in exceptional balance and tone. The singing quality of the second movement were performed as if Haydn had the young Mr. Herbert in mind. The “bouncy” quality of the third movement provided the rhythmic contrast the gave energy and spirit to this delightful work.

Franz Schubert’s (1797 – 1828) String Quartet No. 14 in Minor, “Death and the Maiden,” (1824) was arranged for string orchestra in 1896 by Gustav Mahler, himself a master composer and orchestrator. At this time it was written, Schubert had become extremely distraught over the illness that would cost him his life. The quartet’s title stems from the song “Death and the Maiden” written by Schubert in 1817 employing the text by German poet Matthias Claudius (1740 – 1815). The quartet was premiered in a private setting in 1826, but was not published until 1831.

From the onset one could read a sense of urgency into what would follow. As the movement progressed, bursts of orchestral energy reinforced this idea with impressive, contrasting dynamics shaping the contours of the ideas Schubert had composed. There is a striking resemblance between the texts and motives of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” by Matthias Claudius and Schubert’s famous Der Erlkönig, with text by Goethe. In both works the protagonists are courted by imaginative, powerful supernatural beings. Schubert incorporated “Death’s voice” in the second movement in variation form. This is Schubert’s only work in which all four movements were composed in a minor key, although for contrast the second movement ended in the key of G major.

It was obvious that Maestro Stewart put tremendous energy into this performance reflecting the deathly visitor blending the orchestra’s tonality change in the trio of the Scherzo-Allegro third movement and ghostly tarantella that created a sense of chase of Schubert’s song. The cryptic references to the previous movements were masterfully combined by Stewart with fine orchestral precision and impressive tonal balance to its very conclusion. This concert was unique and thoroughly enjoyed by the overwhelming applause!


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