The Music


Posted by SoundBox

December 5, 2019


Principia explores the origins of musical ideas and how they are developed. How does the kernel of an idea develop in a composer’s mind and take shape as music notes on a page? How does a performer then take the composer’s idea and evolve it in the moment?


VIVALDI: Allegro from Sinfonia in G major, RV 149 (1740)
Curator and SFS violinist David Chernyavsky offers this comment: “Act I focuses on the ornamentation improvisation in different styles of music.” We begin with the Baroque . . .

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), one of history’s most famous Baroque composers, is credited for developing the solo concerto genre (think of his immensely popular work The Four Seasons), and for formalizing what is now the “typical” concerto structure of three movements (fast, then slow, then fast). He wrote around 800 (!) works in his lifetime; 600 of them were concertos, but among the remaining 200 compositions are sublime gems like tonight’s sinfonia. One of the last works Vivaldi composed, the Sinfonia in G major, RV 149, was written in 1740 for a lavish performance at the Pietà for Venice’s high society and the visiting Prince Frederick Christian, son of the King of Poland.

LISTEN FOR: In the second movement, Vivaldi uses both arco (with the bow) and pizzicato (plucked) violins in unison, creating an unusual and unique color and texture.

VARIOUS (TRADITIONAL): Lebedik un Freylach, Doina-Cu der Chupe-Larahod, and Di Mame iz Gegangen Freylach Medley
Curator and SFS violinist David Chernyavsky offers these comments:

“Klezmer music is a folk music of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews. It is closely related to Romanian, Ukrainian, Hungarian Romani (Gypsy) and other folk musical traditions, and mostly consists of dance tunes and instrumental pieces for weddings and other celebrations. This style of playing is highly ornamental using various Krekhts (sobs), glissandos (slides), and trills to imitate the human voice. The ornamentation is improvised by the performers, so the same tune can sound quite different from performance to performance and from one player to another.”

LIGETI: Molto Vivace from Concert Românesc (1951/1996)
György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) scores usually project a sensual appeal to which audiences overwhelmingly respond, even though its vocabulary is not that of most other music. One of Ligeti’s composer colleagues compared the writing of this music to weaving of fabric: “Musical technique is like the technique of plaiting and consists of bringing ordered networks into being, in composing various types of intersections. In a way, that is comparable to the techniques used in the textile industry, musical skill works on a fibrous material to which it gives glowing color, profusion, mobility.”

This impulse towards “weaving” a musical composition is sensed in Ligeti’s early autobiographical snapshot, Concert Românesc. “I grew up in a Hungarian-speaking environment in Transylvania,” Ligeti wrote. “While the official language was Romanian, it was only in secondary school that I learned to speak the language that had seemed so mysterious to me as a child. I was three when I first encountered Romanian folk music, an alpenhorn player in the Carpathian Mountains. . . .” In this piece we hear Ligeti weaving the “symphonic-folk” tradition with sounds that are both modernist and listener-friendly.

LISTEN FOR: The Molto Vivace finale movement performed tonight features expanses being given over to a string section that buzzes in tones that may seem hard to discern even though their general contours are clear. A solo violin emerges to lead the high-kicking dance, which grows riotous. While the piece seems to conclude, the solo violin is unwilling to cooperate; it continues to spin about, very high and quiet, even as the rest of the orchestra hammers out emphatic and loud chords—imagine a dance between a mosquito and a fly-swatter.


EARLE BROWN: Event: Synergy II (1967)
Earle Brown’s (1926-2002) Event: Synergy II is an “open-form” work in proportional and graphic notations. The control of the form, the materials and the conducting techniques are specifically indicated by the composer, who offers accompanying instructions on performance parameters.

GARTH KNOX: Selections from Viola Spaces (2007)
Curator and SFS Assistant Principal Viola Katie Kadarauch offers these comments: “With these particular pieces by Garth Knox (b.1956), we see the composer improves the way one actually approaches the instrument and uses the bow. When the fundamental techniques of playing the instrument are changed, a new world of improvisation is possible through experimentation with sound, pitch, and nuance.”

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Music from Les Moutons de Panurge (1968)
Frederic Rzewski (b.1938) emerged as one of the major figures of the American musical avant-garde in the 1960s, and since then he has been highly influential as a composer and performer. In 1966, he co-founded the ensemble Musica Electronica Viva (MEV), which combined free improvisation with written music and electronics. These experimentations directly led to the creation of Rzewski’s first important compositions, including his Les Moutons de Panurge, a so-called “process piece” that combines elements of spontaneous improvisation with notated material and instructions.

In Les Moutons de Panurge we experience a self-sabotaging Minimalist process. The players (“any number of musicians playing melody instruments,” Rzewski specifies, “and any number of non-musicians playing anything”) work their way, by additive and then subtractive means, through a fast, serrated 65-note melody; as they inevitably fall out of unison with each other, the impromptu counterpoint creates a blanket of harmony. Les Moutons de Panurge makes music out of those most human of elements, inaccuracy and error.



TIZOL/ELLINGTON: Caravan (1936)
WAYNE SHORTER: Footprints (1966)
HERBIE HANCOCK: Watermelon Man (1962)
Curator and SFS Principal Bass Scott Pingel offers these comments:Here we explore one of the greatest American art forms, jazz, and the some of the canvases for improvisation found in four different styles. Though the soloist in a jazz tune gets the attention as the lead improviser, in actuality everyone who is playing is constantly improvising within the framework of the song. The pianist is regularly re-voicing and even re-harmonizing the chords and experimenting with rhythm, the bassist is ever-changing the bass lines, and the drummer is constantly playing with rhythm and accent. These can be in response to the soloist but can also serve to inspire the soloist to go some direction, much like a conversation.”


Jeanette Yu is Editorial Director at the San Francisco Symphony.