August 6, 2014 @ 8:00 pm America/Los Angeles Timezone
St. James by-the-Sea
743 Prospect Street
La Jolla, CA 92037
$75 | $50

An Evening with Alison Balsom

Winner of Gramophone Artist of the Year 2013, Alison Balsom, presents a full evening of music highlighting her masterwork on trumpet.

Program features works by J.S. Bach, self-taught Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, the classic song The Way You Look Tonight by Jerome Kern, and more.

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J.S. BACHSarabande from Cello Suite, BWV 1008
J.S. BACHConcerto in D Major, BWV 972
FALLASeven Popular Folk Songs
KERNThe Way You Look Tonight

Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig

Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello date from the years 1717 to 1723, when the composer was kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen.  Bach understood the term “suite” to mean a collection of dance movements in the basic sequence of allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue.  He added an introductory prelude to all six cello suites, and into each suite he interpolated one extra dance movement.  The D-minor tonality of the Second Suite gives it an unusually dark and somber spirit–only in the second of its minuets does this music move briefly into the sunlight of D major.  This concert opens with the fourth movement of the suite, the noble Sarabande, in an arrangement for solo trumpet.  This is solemn music, stately and slow, and a performer–on whatever instrument–must sustain Bach’s long and expressive melodic lines.


Born October 8, 1930, Tokyo
Died February 20, 1996, Tokyo

Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski–respected and loved by his colleagues around the world–died on February 7, 1994.  Later that a year a concert in his honor–“Hommage à Witold Lutoslawski”–was organized at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, and for that occasion Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu wrote a work for solo trumpet titled Paths: In Memoriam Witold Lutoslawski.  The piece is dedicated to trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, who gave the first performance at the Warsaw festival on September 21, 1994.

Solo trumpet may seem an unlikely instrument for a memorial piece, and it certainly presents a composer with some unusual challenges, primarily in the lack of harmonic support.  Takemitsu makes virtues of these limits in Paths.  He finds an unusual range of sounds in the trumpet, requiring the player frequently to put on and remove a mute and extending the instrument over an unexpected dynamic range, stretching from triple piano to fortissimoPaths is set at one moderate tempo (quarter note=60), and Takemitsu scrupulously notates small fluctuations from that fundamental tempo; there are no bar lines, and the music’s individual phrases–set off by brief rests–flow between these carefully-gradated changes.  Paths is built upon one basic theme-shape, and this rising-and-falling shape recurs in different forms across the music’s five-minute span–sometimes gently, sometimes stridently–until finally this somber music fades into silence on the trumpet’s high F.


Concerto in D Major for Trumpet and Organ, BWV 972
(after Vivaldi)

Bach spent most of his early career in small towns, far from the major music centers, but he remained keenly aware of larger currents in music.  He made an effort to meet other composers and listened to what they were doing, and he bought a great deal of new music as it was being published.  While he was still in his twenties and serving as organist in Weimar, Bach became interested in the music of Vivaldi, and when Vivaldi published a set of twelve concertos as his Opus 3 in Amsterdam in 1711, Bach immediately bought a copy of the music and studied it carefully.  He was particularly interested in Vivaldi’s sense of concerto grosso form, with its interplay between a small group of soloists (in this case violins) and a larger string orchestra.  Bach was so impressed, in fact, that he arranged five of Vivaldi’s twelve concertos for solo keyboard.  He did this because he wanted to be able to play this music himself, but he also did it as a way of teaching himself what Vivaldi had achieved in this music.

This program offers the first of Bach’s arrangements, of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major for solo violin and string orchestra, which is heard in this concert in an arrangement for trumpet and organ.  In the first movement, marked Allegro by Vivaldi, the solo part breaks free with what had been the solo violin part in the original.  A stately Adagio leads to the concluding Allegro, which gets off to an animated start as the solo part  quickly takes wing.  Some of the writing here is quite “violinistic,” particularly those 32nd-note passages that would have featured quick string-crossings in the original and which sound unusually brilliant on the trumpet.


Trois Pièces (arr. Alison Balsom) Variations sur un thème de Clément Janequin, JA118

     Le jardin suspendu, JA71

     Litanies, JA119

Born February 3, 1911, Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Died June 20, 1940, Petit Puy, near Saumur

The story of Jehan Alain’s life is one of the most interesting in twentieth-century music–and one of the saddest.  Born in the village where Debussy had been born nearly fifty years earlier, Alain studied organ as a boy and was substituting in churches by the time he was 13.  At the age of 16, he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied organ with Marcel Dupré and composition with Paul Dukas.  Over the next twelve years, Alain won many of the Conservatory’s top prizes, including the premiers prix in harmony, fugue, and composition.  He began composing early, and his 140 works–which are primarily for organ–show a readiness to experiment with harmony and form and often reflect an attraction to the Far East as well as his devout Roman Catholic faith.  In all these, Alain was much like his contemporary, Olivier Messiaen.

Alain was inducted into the French Army at the beginning of World War II.  He had been a motorcycle enthusiast since boyhood, and the army made him a motorcycle courier.  Scouting the German advance near Saumur, Alain came upon a column of German soldiers.  He ran his motorcycle into a ditch, pulled out a rifle, and opened fire; he had killed sixteen German soldiers before he himself was killed.  The Germans buried him with full military honors, and the French posthumously awarded him the Croix de Geurre.  Only 29 years old at the time of his death, Alain left behind a wife and three small children.  His younger sister Marie-Claire Alain, who was 13 when her brother was killed, would go on to become one of the greatest French organists of the twentieth century.

This recital offers three of Alain’s most famous compositions, all written while he was a student at the Paris Conservatory and all premièred by the composer on February 17, 1938, at the Église de la Trinité in Paris.  At this concert they are heard in an arrangement for trumpet and organ. This set opens with the Variations sur un thème de Clément Janequin, which had been composed in 1937.  Janequin was a sixteenth-century French choirmaster and composer, though some have questioned whether the theme Alain uses as the basis for his variations here was actually by Janequin.  Alain begins by presenting the stately and somewhat square theme in its entirety, then offers several variations on it.  These grow increasingly complex and harmonically adventurous, though the music returns to the general shape of the original theme in its closing moments.

There has been speculation that Le jardin suspendu was inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, though Alain himself noted that it referred to something unattainable and outside normal existence–he described it as “the ideal, perpetual pursuit and escape of the artist, an inaccessible and inviolable refuge.”  This poised music opens with a simple melodic figure, stated very slowly.  Alain then repeats this melody, reharmonizing, re-coloring, and embellishing it as he proceeds.  These are not so much variations on the original melody as meditations upon it.  There is an intentionally static quality about this music, as if it exists outside time.

The concluding Litanies, a virtuoso showpiece, has become one of Alain’s best-known works.  It is also an expression of his religious faith–he prefixed a note to the score: “When, in distress, the Christian soul can find no more to implore the mercy of God, it repeats, times without end, the same fierce-faithed prayer.  Reason reaches its limits and only belief can chase its flight.”  The opening is marked Vivo, and Alain provides barlines but no particular meter. Sectional in construction, this music alternates very fast and slow sections before finally driving to its ecstatic and somewhat strident final chord, which is to be played triple forte.


Concert Etude, Opus 49

Born March 4, 1877, Moscow
Died July 9, 1957, Moscow

Across the eighty-year span of Alexander Goedicke’s life, Russia was transformed: born under the reign of Czar Alexander II, Goedicke lived into the year when Sputnik was launched.  Goedicke came from a musical family (his father was an organist, and his first cousin was the composer-pianist Nikolai Medtner), but Goedicke himself was largely self-taught as a composer.

At age 23, he won the Rubinstein Prize for Composition for his Concertstück in D Major for Piano and Orchestra and then embarked on a long and prolific career as a composer.  His catalog of works lists four operas, orchestral works (including concertos and three symphonies), chamber music, and a number of works for his own instrument, the piano.

Nearly sixty years after Goedicke’s death, his reputation rests largely on one composition, his brilliant Concert Etude for trumpet, composed in 1948 when he was 71.  The Concert Etude is much loved by trumpet players: all trumpeters play this piece at some point in their careers, and it is often used as an audition piece to show off a performer’s skill and technique.  We usually think of an etude as a teaching piece, a study designed to master some technical challenge, but the title Concert Etude reminds us that Goedicke thought of this piece as one that should be performed in concerts.  Marked Allegro molto, it gets off to a blistering start, and this firm beginning alternates with more lyric material along the way.  The piece does have its technical challenges, particularly in the double-tonguing necessary to master the quick repeated notes and in the singing tone important in the more relaxed passages.  After all the virtuosity of the Concert Etude, its ending is nicely understated.


Legend for Trumpet and Piano

Born August 19, 1881, Liveni Virnav, Romania
Died May 3/4, 1955, Paris

George Enescu was a musician of almost Promethean abilities.  One of the greatest violinists in history, he was also a composer, conductor, music organizer, and teacher, and he made it one of his life missions to revitalize music in his native Romania.  At the age of 20, Enescu achieved worldwide fame with his Romanian Rhapsodies, and those two pieces became almost too famous–the composer found himself saddled with the reputation as a “nationalist” composer, when in fact much of his music has nothing specifically Romanian about it.

Legend, which comes from the non-nationalistic side of Enescu’s work, may seem a surprising work for this composer.  Written in 1906 (making it roughly contemporaneous with Debussy’s La Mer and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony), Legend is scored for trumpet and piano.  A legend is a term without specific musical meaning: while it might suggest a narrative, it can just as readily indicate a general atmosphere.

Enescu’s brief Legend is in ternary form.  Over quiet chordal piano accompaniment, the trumpet’s opening statement arcs upward and falls back.  Enescu treats the trumpet as a lyric instrument in this opening section, but in the central episode–full of brilliant runs–the music grows more virtuosic (it is no accident that Legend, which takes the trumpet through a wide range of techniques and expression, should have become a popular test-piece at trumpet competitions).  Enescu rounds Legend off with a return to the music of the quiet opening section.


Seven Popular Spanish Songs

Born November 23, 1876, Cádiz, Spain
Died November 17, 1946, Alta Grazia, Argentina

Falla had moved from Madrid to Paris in 1907, but he returned to Spain at the beginning of World War I.  His Seven Popular Spanish Songs, completed in Paris in 1914, was the final work he composed before his departure.  In arranging the collection of songs, Falla took the unaccompanied melodic line of seven Spanish popular or folk songs and harmonized them himself, occasionally rewriting or expanding the original melodic line to suit his own purposes.  Several years later the Polish violinist Paul Kochanski arranged six of the songs (with the approval of the composer) for violin and piano under the title Suite Populaire Espagnole.  This program offers Falla’s songs in an arrangement for trumpet and piano.

The first two songs both come from the province of Murcia in southeast Spain. El paño moruno or “The Moorish Cloth” (Allegretto vivace) is based exactly on the famous song, while Seguidilla murciana is built on repeated phrases and quick harmonic shifts.  Asturiana  (Andante tranquillo) is a grieving tune from Asturia, a province in the northwest part of Spain; the vocal line floats above a quiet sixteenth-note accompaniment.   Jota  (Allegro vivo) has become the best-known of the seven songs.  A jota is a dance in triple time from the Aragon region of northern Spain, sometimes accompanied by castanets.  Slow sections alternate with fast here, and the piano imitates the sound of castanets.   Nana (Calmo e sostenuto) is an arrangement of a wistful old Andalusian cradle song; Falla said that hearing this melody sung to him by his mother was his earliest memory.  Canción (Allegretto) is a subdued lovesong that repeats one theme continuously.  A polo is a specific form: an Andalusian folksong or dance in 3/8 time, sometimes with coloratura outbursts and explosive intrusions from the guitar (which the piano imitates here).  This particular Polo (Vivo), while based on Andalusian elements, is largely Falla’s own composition.


The Way You Look Tonight (arr. Mullov- Abaddo)

Born January 27, 1885, New York City
Died November 11, 1945, New York City

We remember Jerome Kern–who wrote Show Boat–as a composer of musicals, but he also spent much of his time in Hollywood and wrote music for a number of films.  Kern’s famous “The Way You Look Tonight” comes not from a stage show but from a film.  Sung by Fred Astaire in the movie Swing Time (1936), it won the Academy Award as the Best Song of 1936.


Libertango  (arr. Alison Balsom)

Born March 11, 1921, Mar de Plata, Argentina
Died July 4, 1992, Buenos Aires

Piazzolla studied briefly with Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the 1950s and returned to Argentina, intent on making his career in his native country.  He had great success in Argentina, but after two decades (and a heart attack in 1973), he decided to return to Europe.  Libertango, composed in Italy in 1974, quickly became a hit in Europe, and it remains today one of Piazzolla’s most popular works.  The title of this brief tango is somewhat fanciful (Piazzolla himself described it as “a sort of song of liberty”), and listeners will be taken more by its pulsing rhythm, which functions as an ostinato throughout, and Piazzolla’s sinuous, sensual, and dark main theme.  As with many of Piazzolla’s compositions, Libertango has been arranged for a variety of ensembles, and one of its most famous champions has been the cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

A Conversation with Alison Balsom hosted by Nicolas Reveles