Friday, December 7, 2007

Cud chewing

One of my upcoming projects is a concerto for horn and strings for my friend Tommi Hyytinen. I'm not planning on starting it until the fall of 2008, but as is my habit with big pieces, I'm preparing for it far in advance, working out ideas, basic sonic concepts, mood, etc. Horn and strings is a very clean, cool soundworld, one I have an abiding fondness for. I played Gordon Jacob's concerto some ten years ago, sadly not with orchestra, and love the bleak melancholy Nordic composers bring to the combination, as in Kurt Atterberg's quirky essay in the medium, which also includes piano and percussion, and Lars-Erik Larsson's brief yet satisfying Concertino. The première of my yet-to-be-written concerto will be given in 2009-10 by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, based in Tommi's hometown of Kokkola, on the west coast of Finland. I've been listening to their recordings to get an idea of the group's sound, and I'm struck by the rough-edged, yet highly lyrical approach to everything from Mozart to new music. I'm informed that their playing style is rooted in Ostrobothnian folk music, especially the fiddle tradition, which explains much about their unique sound.

With this in mind, I've been thinking about the overall mood I want to convey with the piece. Pondering on the ideas of folk music, nordicity, and such, I found myself drawn back to a piece I hadn't heard in years: Vaughan Williams' Oboe Concerto in A minor, which uses as lush a string orchestra as you'll hear anywhere. Vaughan Williams, as with many other composers I've blogged about here, was a youthful discovery of mine. One of my early mentors, the Missouri-born Montreal playwright, poet, actor, artist and all-around Renaissance man Fred Ward, was a huge fan of old Ralph, and through him I heard most of RVW's works in my late teens. Although I tend to like most everything of Vaughan Williams', I was particularly attracted to the so-called "pastoral" works like the Oboe Concerto, 3rd Symphony, and the lovely Hymn Tune Preludes – "Eventide" is a particular favorite. I pulled apart a score of the Tallis Fantasia when I was about 19, and later wrote a piece for trumpet, cello and string orchestra that, viewed dispassionately years later, is tinged with a certain English-folk-music-meets-Ives quality. That sound of massed choirs of strings was very seductive, and it left its mark on the way I think of ensemble sound in general.

As with most youthful enthusiasms, Vaughan Williams eventually gave way to the more outwardly sophisticated music of Tippett, and later Britten. Living in Finland, one doesn't get to hear a lot of English music, especially of the cowpat variety, though the Radio Symphony is performing the Tallis Fantasia later this spring, which pleases me greatly. I hadn't heard Vaughan Williams in a good ten years until last year, when my good friend David Searle conducted the 5th Symphony with the Helsinki University Orchestra as part of a program of English music which included another favorite of mine, William Walton's Viola Concerto. I was utterly taken aback at how fresh Vaughan Williams' music sounded, how effortlessly alive and breathing, and reflected on how rare it was these days to hear such honest, unaffected lyricism in a big symphonic work. The slow movement especially touched me deeply, an anthem-like meditation in which you'd swear that identifiable snatches of English hymn tunes surface momentarily before morphing into something else.

Building on that experience, the Oboe Concerto seemed like the right place to start, what with its gentle mood and un-concerto-like lack of obvious virtuosity. So, as an excuse to put my new toy to use, I downloaded a recording, got a score, and am once again quite taken with a piece of rather neglected music, in a where-have-you-been-all-my-life sort of way. The first thing that leaps out at me is how smoothly and effortlessly, not to mention how simply Vaughan Williams sways back and forth between fast music and slow, rhapsody and concision, stasis and motion. It's arresting to hear a headlong forward lunge give way suddenly to slow, polyphonic textures, yet none of the transitions ever seems forced, or any of the individual sections too short. The music progresses so naturally from one idea to the next, it's almost as if a gentle breeze were carrying the piece along on its gusts and lulls.

Another remarkable facet of the piece is how little truly fast music it contains. Though there's no official slow movement – the traditional slow middle movement is replaced with a short, cleverly jaunty minuet rife with hemiola – slowness and stasis dominate the piece, interspersed with faster episodes that provide contrast, yet don't overwhelm the lyricism of the slow music. Vaughan Williams upends the concerto tradition by neither writing anything particularly flashy, nor providing much in the way of virtuosic climaxes. Passagework tends to dissolve into stasis rather than lead to anything conclusive. The solo part is obviously very difficult, if the audible clicking of the oboe's keys is any indication, and one is left with the impression of having heard something exciting, but not of having heard a musician work very hard to achieve that excitement.

One of the most difficult things in contemporary music, in my opinion, is the writing of fast music. I rarely hear fast, non-minimalist, yet still pulse-driven new music that I feel works. Often, it's almost as if you can hear the gears in the composer's head churning as they work out their ideas. Very frequently, you come across music that I like to describe as "new notes over old rhythms", that is, a modern pitch content laid over an 18th- or 19th-century rhythmic framework, which is just awkward-sounding a lot of the time. (How many galumphing, mixed-meter octatonic/12-tone scherzi have you heard in your lifetime? I've written a couple, sad to say.) The default cliché for solo wind instrument and string or small orchestra is the churning motor rhythms and note-spinning melodic writing common in the lesser derivations of neoclassicism. Wanting to avoid that as much as possible, if not entirely, Vaughan Williams' Oboe Concerto is becoming an object lesson for me in how to approach the concerto from a fresh perspective, without a lot of the baggage we've come to expect of the form in terms of showy finger tricks and gallery-playing dramatic highlights. Long may that gentle breeze continue to blow.

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