POULENC Sonata for Piano Four Hands
FAURÉ Morceau de concours
DUTILLEUX Trois Strophes sur le nom de SACHER
DEBUSSY Cello Sonata in D minor
AKHMEDYAROV/SAM POST Sketches from Kazakhstan
SHOSTAKOVICH (ARR. ATOVMIAN) Präeludium, from Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano
LIGETI Ballad and Dance
SCHUBERT Scherzo, from String Quintet in C major, D.956
J.S. BACH Prelude, from Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008
GREG PAULSON Excerpts from Nementhia
POULENC: Sonata for Piano Four Hands 1918 | 6 mins
High-spirited Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was a pianist by training. He was remarkably gifted at extracting evocative colors from the instrument, and known for his penchant for putting to use the piano’s sustaining pedal (the one on the far right by the pianist’s feet), which softens the edges of what might sound like overly harsh harmonies. Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands is an early work, composed in 1918 (during the final year of World War I), while he was serving in the French military. It was one of a group of works “written as essays in free melody” as a reaction against what the composer calls ‘Impressionist snow.’” LISTEN FOR: In the early part of his career, jovially brash Poulenc stood in awe of Stravinsky. We find Stravinsky’s imprint on this piece’s complexities as well as in its simplicities. In the second movement, for example, the pianists play only on the white keys. Juxtaposed with the zest of the first and third movements, the effect is surprising.
FAURÉ: Morceau de concours 1898 | 3 mins
Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) brief and delightful Morceau was written on Bastille Day, 1898, as a test piece for the flute while the composer was director at the Paris Conservatoire. Faure was at the time campaigning for the conservatory to appreciate musical qualities beyond technical virtuosity, including valuing musicality in style, rhythm, and phrasing. This piece was obviously a successful result of that experiment, with its lovely melodies that flutter with grace and panache throughout.
IBERT: Entr'acte 1935 | 4 mins
Jacques Ibert’s (1890-1962) brilliant Entr’acte is one of his most popular works and shows his love for Spanish literature and music. The piece opens feverishly with a breathless dance to a pulsing accompaniment—you might be reminded of flamenco guitar music. Then the music vividly depicts a dancer showing off some flashy footwork, leading into a contrasting serenade-like section. PICTURE THIS: Entr’acte ends with a flourish, with the imagined dancer’s arms in the air and an emphatic stamp of the feet.
DUTILLEUX: Trois Strophes sur le nom de SACHER 1976 | 2 mins
Paul Sacher (1906-1999) was one of the most important musical figures of the twentieth century. As conductor of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, which he founded in 1926, Sacher commissioned or premiered more than eighty works—including works by Bartók, Richard Strauss, and Honneger. For Sacher’s 70th birthday celebration on May 2, 1976, famed Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) asked twelve composers each to write a tribute—a work for cello using only the letters of the name SACHER (in musical notation, S = German Es or E-flat; H = German B-natural; R = French Re or D). The Trois Strophes sur le nom de SACHER was French composer Henry Dutilleux’s contribution. Its title refers to the idea of repetition, not rhyme, with the tie between each of the three strophes articulated by the recurrence of the six musical notes in SACHER, in mirror-image.
DEBUSSY: Cello Sonata in D Minor 1917 | 11 mins
We don't primarily think of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) as a humorist, but he was—and a really original one at that. Despite the fact that he was tremendously ill (actually, near death) when he wrote this piece, we clearly hear his inventive humor in this cello sonata. Its melodies are ever quirky, mercurial, ironic, capricious, and handled with the lightest touch. Writing for the notoriously difficult combination of cello and piano is not an easy task, but Debussy was a master colorist and it is magically evident in this sonata. LISTEN FOR: Debussy writes highly flexible rhythms and with a great subtlety and range of harmony—listen for them throughout as he weaves them here in a bolder and more inventive fashion than ever before.
AKHMEDYAROV/SAM POST: Sketches from Kazakhstan 2016 | 19 mins
Program note provided by composer Sam Post: Last summer I received an intriguing email from a noteworthy source. “Can you turn a legendary dombra player’s music into a string quartet?” “Of course!,” I replied, not being completely sure yet what a dombra was. Over the next few weeks I would become intimately familiar with the music of that legendary player, Karshyga Akhmedyarov. I spoke with his daughter, San Francisco Symphony violinist Raushan Akhmedyarova, who, after listening to my compositions, encouraged me to work her father’s music into my own. Today you hear the fruits of that synthesis in this piece for chamber orchestra.
The dombra, a plucked instrument with two strings, has deep roots in Kazakh culture—“it touches the spirit of every soul in Kazakhstan,” says Raushan Akhmedyarova. Capturing its unique sound in a string quartet is impossible but a quartet affords the opportunity for richer harmonies and interplay between voices. Each of these five movements builds on one or more melodies and themes from a piece by Akhmedyarov. I also set out to capture the spirit of Kazakh folk music, with its unpredictable turns of phrase, forward drive, dance-like movement, and simple elegance and beauty.
The first movement (Silky) is named for the Seven Rivers region of Kazakhstan, an area of rich cultural tradition and natural wonders. The music is sweet and sincere at first, but its metric groupings are unpredictable. The middle builds to a climax with the different instruments trading shorter and shorter fragments of the original theme before it returns gracefully intact in the viola.
The second movement (Dear One) is based on a melody Akhmedyarov wrote for his first child, Raushan Akhmedyarova’s older brother. The outer sections capture his brisk temperament in a two-step dance, while the middle section is more loving and tender.
The white birch tree, subject of the theme in the third movement (White Birch) holds spiritual significance for Kazakhstan’s people going back to its nomadic ancestral generations. This movement is meditative and contemplative on the whole, but reaches an intense, longing climax.
Next up is a spirited dance (Inspiration), based on a melodic line Akhmedyarov composed after Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union. The brief middle section adds a dash of American folk style, with the solo assuming the role of an Appalachian fiddler.
The final movement is another two-step dance and starts out with almost manic intensity. Akhmedyarov’s “Morning Star” theme, which he wrote after learning of the birth of his first grandchild, appears gracefully in the middle of the movement, and is quoted in fragments in the outer sections. The end builds in accelerating waves, driving to a frenetic conclusion.
I would like to give special thanks to Yo-Yo Ma for putting me in touch with Raushan Akhmedyarova, and to her and the rest of the San Francisco Symphony musicians and staff for commissioning and taking on the project. Special thanks also to the members of the Kassia Music Collective, Bernard Vallandingham, and Isaac Selya. This piece would not have been possible without all of them.
About the composers: KARSHYGA AKHMEDYAROV (1946-2006) was born in Atyrau, Kazakhstan. A proponent of the improvisational genre of dombra music called Kuyi, he transcribed more than 500 previously unwritten works for dombra and composed more than 300 works of his own. He held the positions of concertmaster in Kurmangazy’s National Orchestra and assistant conductor of Osipov’s Russian Academy Orchestra in Moscow. He performed on the dombra throughout Europe, Asia, and the US, and later served as the head of the dombra department at the Almaty State Conservatory in Kazakhstan.
SAM POST (b.1986) is a composer-pianist based in Washington DC, where he is on the faculty at Levine Music. His compositions for piano have been played throughout the US and Canada by pianists such as Carlos Rodriguez, Ralitza Patcheva, Kara Huber, Ron Levy, and Michael Caldwell. He is a founding member of the Kassia Music Collective, a group dedicated to contemporary music that draws on older traditions. His newest album, “Dizzy Days,” features eight original ragtime compositions along with classics by William Bolcom and Scott Joplin. Find out more at samueljpost.com or facebook.com/sampostpiano.
SHOSTAKOVICH (ARR. ATOVMIAN): Präeludium, from Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano 1955 | 2 mins
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) was one of music’s greatest reporters on the human condition. He was an essential composer, a man who could not commit himself to heroism nor to moral and intellectual slavery, one whose actions and statements cover the gamut from noble to base, whose music exhibits staggering divergence between public and private works, who functioned in a society tyrannically demanding of its artists. It is hard to think of another composer whose work is so intensely affected by life—his own, but also that of the world in which and for which he wrote. LISTEN FOR: His lush and deeply moving Präeludium for two violins and piano is brief but boldly expressive; its dark yet soaring melodies have proven so entrancing that the work has been transcribed for numerous combinations of instruments.
LIGETI: Ballad and Dance 1950 | 3 mins
György Ligeti (1923-2006) became known to the international music community in the 1960s. DID YOU KNOW? No piece of avant-garde concert music has been heard by more people than his Atmosphères, which, without the composer’s knowledge and to his immense annoyance, was co-opted in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick for a movie you may have heard of: 2001—A Space Odyssey. The Hungarian composer’s short but sweet Ballad and Dance was written a decade before he was catapulted onto the international stage, and was clearly a piece he held close to his heart; the work is included in the massive Ligeti Project recording cycle, for which the composer worked on until his death in 2006. Ballad and Dance is based on Romanian folk songs. Ligeti had spent the year prior to its composition researching native music in Romania, and some of the music from that experience form the root of this music. The opening Ballad is leisurely in pace, beautiful, melodic. The second section, Dance, is exuberant, energetic, and virtuosic—perfect for the mother-daughter duo performing tonight!
SCHUBERT: Scherzo, from String Quintet in C major, D.956 1828 | 9 mins
The special qualities of late Franz Schubert (1797-1828)—by which I mean, tragically, a man just beginning his 30s—come together so magically in this String Quintet. DID YOU KNOW? This piece was Schubert’s only effort in this unusual formation of two violins, viola, and two cellos, and he found truly imaginative ways to exploit its possibilities through intriguing pairings and sub-groups within the ensemble. The Scherzo movement performed tonight is vivacious and bumptious—almost manic. Its opening is muscular. A slower trio section follows, and then the pace relaxes drastically. Then the chorale-like music takes on a somber, hymn-like character, after which the raucous music of the beginning returns for another go-round.
J.S. BACH: Prelude, from Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 circa 1720 | 4 mins
Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) six suites for solo cello were not published until 25 years after his death, at which point they were pretty much regarded as exercises of an improbably high degree of abstraction, and not as “real music.” (What?!) It was generally supposed that such pieces were, well, freaks—an idea no doubt considerably reinforced by the strained and unhappy noises most musicians make when they tried to play them (not like SFS Principal Bassoon Stephen Paulson, though). Bach made all six cello suites to a uniform pattern of Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue, always with one other dance inserted between the Sarabande and Gigue. The Preludes of all of them, including the second suite played tonight, are figuration studies in broken chords or scales.
GREG PAULSON: Excerpts from Nementhia 2016 | 6 mins
Program note provided by Greg Paulson: Greg Paulson (b.1988) is the guitarist for Progressive Death Metal band Arkaik. Since joining the group in 2014, the band has done nine tours (190 performances) in support of their four albums that have been released by Unique Leader Records. Greg began classical violin lessons at age six, but decided to switch to electric guitar at seventeen. His style draws influence from progressive metal, neo-classical guitar, and jazz fusion. He will be performing some excerpts from songs he’s written off Arkaik’s 2017 album, Nemethia, and 2015 album, Lucid Dawn.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.