New Sounds for Strings

2 p.m. March 5, 2023

Musical Instrument Museum

Warren Cohen, conductor

Capriccio Stravagante                                     Carlo Farina (1604-1639) 

La Lira (hurdy gurdy)
Il Pifferino (shawm, an ancestor of the oboe)
Lira variata (unkeyed hurdy-gurdy)
Qui si bate con il legno del archetto sopra le corde (hammered dulcimer)
La Trombetta; Il Clarino; Le Gnachere (trumpet and kettledrums)
La Gallina; Il Gallo (hens and rooster)
Il Flaution pian piano (recorder)
Il tremulo (organ)
Fifferino della Soldatesca; Il tambiuro (military fife and drum)
Il Gatto (cat)
Il Cane (dog)
La Chitarra Spagniola (guitar)

Chacony in G minor, Z. 730                              Henry Purcell (1658-1695)

Symfonie Voor Losse Snaren                          Louis Andriessen (1939-2021) 
(Symphony for Open Strings)

Adagio for Strings                                              Samuel Barber (1910-1981)


Mezzetin en Turc                                               Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
(from Orchestral Suite in B flat major, TWV 55, 
“Overture Burlesque”)

Cow Keepers Tune and Country Dance          Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
(from “Two Nordic Melodies,” Op. 63)

Gamelan Suite                                                    Graham Cohen (b. 1999)

I.     Gong Kebyar I
II.    Degung
III.   Kotekan
IV. Gending Rebab
V. Gong Kebyar II

Finding the familiar in new sounds for string orchestras 

By Warren Cohen, MusicaNova music director

This program is the most explicitly educational one MusicaNova has attempted as a regular concert series offering. In addition to showing how remarkably versatile string instruments are, I hope to demonstrate the value of listening to familiar string repertoire with an awareness of how experimental music influenced the way our ears process the familiar. 

This works both ways: By placing experimental music in the context of familiar music, we also gain insight into how experimental music remains linked to our general musical culture. The idea is to hear new beauties in familiar music, while opening our ears to potentially missed beauty in less familiar music.

This concert’s works represent the entire spectrum of string music. The early 17th- century Capriccio Stravagente was the first work composed explicitly for the violin and cello, and Graham Cohen’s Gamelan Suite isn’t yet three years old. We have music from every century in between, and music in as wide a variety of styles as you could imagine.

We aim to present it with an ear to historically informed performance, but also with an awareness that in 2023 we hear and listen in a unique way. This not only affects our performance of 17th-century music, but it can and should inform how we play a work like the Barber Adagio from 1938. We do not play it today the way it would have been played when first composed, although to be “historically informed” of such a work is much easier, because you can find the premiere on YouTube!

Carlo Farina: Capriccio Stravangante

This extraordinary work was composed around 1628, a period of great uncertainty in musical history. The old order of modal harmony was being replaced by tonal harmony, although the transition was much slower than many people realize. Notable modal elements remain in the music of J.S. Bach a century later. 

The new music demanded new instruments, and the late 16th and early 17th centuries were hotbeds of innovation in this area. The most significant was the development of modern string instruments, which replaced the older viols and vielles. The new instruments, with greater range and volume, could produce a much broader variety of sounds. These innovations are featured in the Capriccio Stravagante, which could be viewed as an advertisement for the new string instruments. 

Listening to this piece can be shocking as it becomes obvious the “advanced techniques” and sounds we associate with modern experimental music were considered and developed by the inventors of the instruments. These techniques were part of the sound world of the instruments from the start. 

The music lurches from quasi-Renaissance dance music to notes that could have been written yesterday. Farina uses a harmonic palette that includes fascinating dissonances, especially in the “La Lira” movement. The barnyard imitations are amusing, but they also show the unexpected capacities of the instruments in a vivid way.

Purcell: Chacony 

The Purcell Chacony dates from 1681. It was preceded in Purcell’s oeuvre by the Fantasias for Viols, among the last works written for the old string instruments. They are also among the greatest masterpieces ever written, an elegy to the old instruments and old styles of composition of almost overwhelming imagination and emotional power. 

The Chacony shows Purcell moving forward, writing for the new instruments and using more contemporary forms. But the music itself, teetering between the worlds of modal and tonal music, shows the powerful emotional intensity that characterizes his best work.

Purcell preferred to work in minor keys, but the point of his interest in these modes differs greatly from how a modern composer such as Rachmaninoff approached them. Minor keys allowed Purcell to indulge his distinctive harmonic imagination freely, to create emotion through dissonance and intricate cross relations between voices. It is fascinating to compare his use of these elements and how he handles the instruments to that of Farina, whose wild devices are more on the surface but far less sophisticated. 

Yet despite these differences and the four decades between the two pieces, hearing the Purcell in the context of the Farina makes clear that the two composers lived in the same century, used the same instruments, and were part of a similar overall aesthetic.

Andriessen: Symfonie Voor Losse Snaren

Louis Andriessen was a composer of varied tastes and interests. He has been classified as a “minimalist” but do not expect anything in his music to remind you of Philip Glass. Throughout his life he was a vividly anti-establishment figure. The satirical element was always near the surface, especially in works like The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven for Orchestra and Ice Cream Bell. 

The use of the word “symfonie” here is at least somewhat ironic, as the idea of a “symphony” for open strings is a departure from the norm. Andriessen himself wrote nothing serious for a regular orchestra, or for a regular string orchestra for that matter. To add further to the irony, this piece uses devices of development and recapitulation common in typical symphonies, but which he had abandoned early in his career. 

This incredibly ingenious work is scored for open strings, but each of the 12 instruments is tuned to different pitches. This creates remarkable sounds, and it is particularly telling when you hear a melody on open strings spread across many instruments. This is an extension of an old medieval device called “hocket” that Andriessen was fascinated with; he wrote a piece called “Hocketus” that exploits this device at length.

The overall mood of the piece, especially at the beginning and end, is melancholic. The sound of the open strings is far more varied than one would imagine. Nevertheless, this is experimental modern music with a minimalist aesthetic. It is not familiar or easy listening, but it has its own strange beauty,

Barber: Adagio for Strings

The Barber Adagio has become the go-to piece in the United States for solemn and tragic situations. It is one of the few serious compositions that are universally known, whether from a classical performance, its use in the movie Platoon, or Dutch DJ Tiësto’s upbeat remix with close to 200 million YouTube views.

The piece was originally part of a 1936 string quartet. Barber arranged it for string orchestra at the suggestion of Arturo Toscanini, who premiered the expanded piece in 1938. The piece extends the melancholic mood of the Andriessen but in the opposite way. The Adagio’s key of Bb minor is of almost no use on open strings. The expressive, stepwise melody is played in long arcs by each of the instruments in turn, something not remotely possible in a work for open strings. 

And yet, there is something compelling about hearing it immediately after the Andriessen. We hear how opposite devices can be applied to a similar mood, and how both works reflect, in their own way, the 20th century. The 40 years between their composition is much like the 43 years between the Farina and the Purcell, and as both those works reflect the language of their times, so too do Barber and Andriessen reflect the spirit of their century.

The second half of the concert focuses on the ability of string instruments to portray music not strictly associated with Western art music. It is once again “New Sounds for Strings.”

Telemann: Mezzetin en Turc

One often overlooked element of 18th century music is the attention placed on “exoticism.” Many composers of the time were fascinated by non-Western music. Turkish music in particular was in fashion to the point that harpsichords and pianos were constructed to add “Turkish percussion.” 

Telemann was one of several composers who actively tried to incorporate elements of what we would call “world music” into his vocabulary. Though he saw it through an 18th century lens, he did a wonderful job conjuring up the spirit of Turkish music in this little number. For those who think Telemann was a skilled but conventional hack as a composer, this and so many of his other exotic works suggest a person of great curiosity and openness, and whose music embraced many original and even outlandish elements.

Grieg:  Cow Keepers Tune and Country Dance 

The string orchestra was a staple of the late baroque period, but by 1770 it had gone completely out of fashion. Little is written for string orchestra between then and the latter half of the 19th century, when the women’s movement led to its resurrection. 

Middle class women were expected to learn to play instruments as part of their education, but they were excluded from symphony orchestras. While piano was always the first choice for a woman to play, it was acceptable to learn string instruments. It was probably inevitable that women started forming all-female string orchestras and commissioning composers to write music for them. Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, and many others wrote memorable music for these groups. Grieg was intrigued by the medium, and he wrote some of his most memorable music for string orchestra.

Grieg based a good deal of his music on the folk music of Norway, but he always softened the edges of the sound to make it more palatable to bourgeois 19th century ears. Toward the end of his life he did less and less of this, but he never completely gave in to the rugged irregularity and rhythmic complexity of Norwegian folk music. The music here has hints of the rugged folk style of western Norway, but phrases are regularized and the music is tamed. That said, these are attractive tunes and effective concert pieces. 

Graham Cohen: Gamelan Suite

The music of the Gamelan orchestras of Java and Bali has inspired musicians since it was introduced at the Paris Exposition in 1889. Debussy regarded this event as a seminal moment in his musical development. The extraordinary beauty and virtuosity displayed, the odd scales and radical tuning (to Western ears) of the instruments were unlike anything anyone had heard, but once heard the sound of the Gamelan was unforgettable. 

Throughout the 20th century, Western musicians wrote works explicitly influenced by these Indonesian ensembles but none, with the exception of Lou Harrison and Colin McPhee, had more than a superficial acquaintance with Indonesian musical theory. Virtually nothing was available in any Western language on Indonesian musical theory until McPhee spent several years collecting data on Bali, creating a body of work admired in both Indonesia and the West.

For a while, there was a movement to play non-Western music only on the original instruments. Harrison, for instance, moved toward writing music for actual Gamelan ensembles as opposed to writing works for Western instruments that use Gamelan elements.

Lately, however, we have seen increasing attempts to again cross-fertilize Western and non-Western music, brilliantly explored in the music of Reena Esmail and one of MusicaNova’s composition fellows, Avril Akashaya Tucker. 

Graham Cohen’s Gamelan Suite sits firmly in this latter tradition. It relies almost exclusively on Gamelan musical devices, but expressed through the unfamiliar vehicle of a string orchestra. Each of the five movements is focused on different aspects of Gamelan music, ending with an exuberant dance that works off the traditional Balinese “fast music” called Gong Kebyar with its characteristic alternation between two tempos. The effect is extraordinary, as the music is absolutely recognizable as “Gamelan music” without using any of the instruments associated with the style.

MusicaNova Orchestra

Violin I
Julian Nguyen, concertmaster
   John & Elizabeth McKinnon chair
Pamela Buck
Mo Farag
Linda Quintero
Claire Siervers
Pat Snyder
Danny Yang
Violin II
Spencer Ekenes, principal
   Robert Dixon chair
Lisa Eisenberg
Anna Paretta
Marj Sherman
Pat Waxman
Debbie Youngerman
Janet Quiroz, principal
   Dominique van de Stadt and Octavio Pajaro chair
Graham Cohen
Cynthia DuBrow
Dana Zhou
Jill Osborne
Maria Simiz, principal
   David Connell chair
Jennifer Cox
Alex Duke
Cindy Leger
Nathan Benitez, principal
Dominic Pedretti
Stephen Schermetzler