NOVA Chamber Music Series’ New Paths concert to celebrate imaginative youthful masterpieces of Andrew Norman, Johannes Brahms

For its 2015-2016 season, NOVA Chamber Music Series once again is carving out several new ambitious paths in programming. Each of this year’s six subscription concerts is ingenious in approach and repertoire, with works from the existing chamber music literature that are paired specifically with new compositions and Utah premieres of music by local and nationally known composers. The programming conveys parallels about the creative process in composing and music making between new and old composers.

NOVA logo (blue)And, in conjunction with the Utah Symphony’s 75th anniversary, three contemporary composers – Andrew Norman, Nico Muhly, and Matthias Pintscher – will have their chamber music performed during the same week in which their orchestral music will be premiered by the symphony. Norman’s music is featured in the opening concert.

Jason Hardink, NOVA’s artistic director, starts the season off appropriately with New Paths, a program featuring a pair of works by Norman, a composer based in Los Angeles who has just entered his middle 30s, juxtaposed against two chamber works composed by Johannes Brahms during his twenties in the middle of the 19th century. “These are imaginative masterpieces of youthful artists,” Hardink adds.

In both instances, the composers are focused on exploring, leveraging and exploiting the full dynamic range of the sounds and textures to be pulled from stringed instruments. While there are 150 years separating the works, one can see the similarities in approach and emphasis both composers have undertaken in their respective stages of creative development.

The concert will be Nov. 1 at 3 p.m. in the Libby Gardner Hall on the University of Utah campus.

Andrew Norman
Andrew Norman
The Utah premieres of Norman’s two chamber pieces – one written when he was 25 and the other started when he just barely turned 30 – will come just five days before the world premiere of Switch, a percussion concerto commissioned by the Utah Symphony for percussionist Colin Collier. Norman is turning out a prodigious output that includes a string trio The Companion Guide to Rome, a half-hour work that was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music. He recently finished a piano concerto, Suspend, for Emanual Ax, as well as a widely-discussed symphony-in-all-but-name, Play, for Boston Modern Orchestra Project: BMOP. Other commissions include a piano concerto for Jeffrey Kahane and the New York Philharmonic, a three-part symphony for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and collaborations with the Calder Quartet, eighth blackbird, Jeremy Denk, Jennifer Koh, and the Berlin Philharmonic.

The first of Norman’s works is an eight-minute thrilling ride for eight violin virtuosi entitled Gran Turismo, which he completed in 2004. It starts out ideally with instructions for the eight violinists to put the pedal to the metal with only the briefest interruptions before the musicians accelerate into overdrive and finish the last 16 bars in a bravura display of flooring it.

Norman writes in his artistic statement that the inspiration for the music came from a recent discovery of Futurist art and a preoccupation with fast cars fed by an addictive car racing video game coincidentally titled Gran Turismo. The music is rhythmic and forceful at virtually every turn. Norman describes the effect he sought to achieve:

They also shared a certain flamboyant machismo that I associate strongly with the Italian peninsula (it is the Italians, after all, who produced Vivaldi, Marinetti, and Ferrari). There were other striking parallels as well; the way that “force lines” rigorously divided space and created a dramatic sense of visual rhythm in much Futurist art—notably present in Giacomo Balla’s 1913 and 1914 paintings of speeding cars found on this and the preceding page—resembled the jerky sequencing of imagery in the video game, which in turn became a metaphor for the cut-and-splice method of juxtaposition that permeates the violin piece.

This exhilarating octet will be performed by Utah violinists Kathryn Eberle, Claude Halter, Yuki MacQueen, Alex Martin, David Porter, Hanah Stuart, Julie Wunderle and Karen Wyatt.

Norman, who also is inspired by the ways music is notated as a means of conveying expressive instructions to performers, wrote An Index of Peculiar Strokes, a collection of nine movements for string quartet, that comprise a fairly comprehensive vocabulary of the versatile special effects that stringed instruments can achieve in terms of unique sounds and tonal textures. He started the work in 2010 and has periodically revised it up until recently. The Fry Street Quartet, the ensemble in residence at Utah State University which also is joining NOVA as its quartet in residence for the ninth season, will perform Norman’s work. Members are Robert Waters, Rebecca McFaul, violin; Bradley Ottesen, viola, and Anne Francis Bayless, cello.

The Fry Street Quartet
The Fry Street Quartet

The nine movements can be excerpted and presented in any order. He labels each movement with specific instructions for the musicians, such as Skim which showcases the effects of sul tasto and extreme flautando that can generate coreless sounds as well as those that sound like the flute. Release calls for the musicians to use glissandi and to aim for a maximal ring after each note. Skip incorporates glissandi (gliding on the strings) and ricochet, while Stammer instructs the musician to stay on the surface of the string (but always completely on it), while making a series of tiny, strobe-like impulses with the bow arm. These impulses create a string of very rapid and short notes. Scrape results in an unpredictable white noise in a scratch tone that has no pitch. The musicians achieve a visual effect of diverse physical gestures with the score that is compelling as the deep, rich possibilities of the sound palettes stringed musicians have on hand.

The Brahms’ selections include the Scherzo in C Minor for Violin and Piano from the F.A.E. Sonata, the earliest work the German composer wrote for this instrumental combination. At the age of 20 (in 1853), Brahms had been introduced to the famous violinists Eduard Reményi and Joseph Joachim during a concert tour in Germany which ultimately led to being introduced to Robert and Clara Schumann in late September 1853, both of whom were impressed by the young composer’s talents. As a gift for Joachim, Brahms and Schumann along with composer Albert Dietrich decided to compose a movement each for a violin sonata, with the added trick of seeing if Joachim could guess who wrote each of the movements. Brahms wrote the scherzo for the sonata, which carried the acronym F.A.E.(Frei Aber Einsam or, translated, free but alone). Incidentally, Joachim, who played the sonata with Clara Schumann at piano, successfully guessed all three movements and their composers.

Alex Ross, the distinguished New Yorker critic, has written that all of the composer’s music could be classified as “late Brahms,” and the Scherzo has many of the traits that characterized his lifetime output – intense rhythmic energy encased in equally rich and intense harmonies that bring forth all of the possible tonal textures from the instruments.

Brahms, as a young man.
Brahms, as a young man.
Likewise, the String Sextet no. 1 in B-flat, opus 18, published in the early 1860s, signals Brahm’s youthful genius and it is perhaps the earliest work of his that is performed most frequently. One of the most intriguing aspects of Brahm’s formative trajectory as a composer is that he prepared to tackle the string quartet form, which would come later in his output, by writing chamber music for more string instruments. In this sextet, he adds parts for another cello and viola to the traditional string quartet and the result is rewarding to the listener’s ears, especially in the deeper bass line textures and the more richly elucidated harmonies carried through by the two viola parts – creating sound textures that would not be possible in the traditional string quartet format.

The music reflects youthful exuberance and is consistently bright with the notable exception, of course, in the second movement, which is situated in a classic theme-and-variations format with a minor key.

The Fry Street Quartet will be joined by Brant Bayless, viola, and Matthew Johnson, cello, for the Sextet’s performance.

In addition, Hardink and Kimi Kawashima will handle piano duties for the program.

NOVA also continues its Gallery Series concerts with offerings at the 15th Street Gallery in Salt Lake City and the Bountiful Davis Art Center.

For more information about the series as well as subscription tickets and the entire season, see here.

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