Thanks to NYC-based composer, coach, organist and pianist Tamara Cashour for her review of this important recent concert!

Music Born from Times of Strife”  — All Saints Episcopal Church, Manhattan, NYC —  Sat. Nov. 9, 2019

The Symphony of the City of New York offered a musically vibrant program on November 9th, as part of their Sally Jenks Memorial Concert Series.

SCNY’s mission statement emphasizes their commitment to diversity and underrepresented composers and cultures.  In line with this noble pledge, Musical Director/Conductor Laurine Celeste Fox arranged a menu of four compositions, two by women and two by male composers. The works also represented a range in the chronological/historical spectrum as efforts by a more historic/more recent composer.  Thus, Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté (1899-1974) and Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) were separated in age by twenty years; the males Kinan Azmeh (b. 1976) and Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), by almost a century.  This point may seem moot until one considers the theme of the program: Music Born from Times of Strife.  The pieces by the three historical composers were written during or post-haste-WW II (composed 1942-47); are all born of a sense of world upheaval which seeped into these cultural artifacts. Not that, post-1945, music no longer stood firmly on the mast of the Eurocentric — European modernist values still led the way — but rather that the atom was split (so to speak):  European tonal traditionalists such as R. Strauss, Poulenc, Britten, as well as Bartok and Shostakovich, representing Eastern Europe and Russia, were writing alongside the likes of avant-gardists Boulez, Messiaien, Nono, Stockhausen, and Cage.

In other words, the scene was diverse and evolving, not static or monochromatic. The SCNY drew a successful through-line from this war-torn world by its egalitarian admission of the two women composers — both who embraced a range of styles including Neoclassicism, Impressionism, Serialism and Minimalism — and the Brazilian nationalist Villa-Lobos, to the living composer’s composition, by the Syrian-born Azmeh.  Originally written in 2005, the version performed at this concert was revised 2007-08, well into the period of drought (2007-10) that caused a Syrian famine and subsequent civil unrest.  Suite for Improvisor and String Orchestra remains an evocative postmodern tribute to the vibrant musical and social traditions of Azmeh’s native land.

The SCNY played with distinction and had two international stars in their soloists.  Pianist Gwhyneth Chen is a winner of the Pogorelich competition, finalist in the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev International  competitions, and who has appeared at major festivals and with noted symphonies. Azmeh, a gifted clarinet virtuoso as well as composer, has been featured in major US and international venues, and won a Grammy as part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.

This concert was further distinguished by an academic component: Fox presented two short “Composer Illumination” documentary films about the women composers, each was screened just before their composition was played, highlighting their life, milieu and works.  Moreover, detailed program notes by Katherine Keiser, Resident Musicologist of the SCNY, provided welcome insight into the significance of all these works.

The Russian born Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté began her musical life as a child prodigy on both the violin and piano.  She was largely a self-taught composer until the age of 37, when she began studies with the Neoclassicist Max Trapp at the Prussian Academy in Berlin. Writing her Concertino for String Orchestra in 1947 war-ravaged, food-rationed Vienna,  the composer–who had already lived extensively in Paris and England–fashioned not an avant-garde piece, but a structurally sound one reflecting her middle-period mature grasp of formal styles of the Baroque and Classical periods as melded to her modernist sensibilities. The first movement (Moderato), in sonata form, boasts a pastoral, somewhat meandering melody which begins benignly enough in the high strings, but increases in seriousness, if not outright darkness, as the movement progresses, and the lower strings join in.  Blithe, then forthright, polyphony keeps this movement in check with moto perpetuo figures, balancing the augmentation in the lower strings as it ends with a true Bachian perfect authentic cadence in A major.  Aside from a few tuning and rhythmic coordination issues, the SCNY played with vigorous charm.  Movement II (Quasi lento spiccati) provoked a sharper ensemble effort.  Gramatté presents a curiously tentative pp spiccato broken tune featuring syncopated accents in the beginning.   Again based on a four-note motif, this movement hits its stride with tutti orchestral full-blown gravitas,  as the melody goes full rogue, erupting in a violently angry legato as it changes direction from ascending to descending chromatics.  SCNY conveyed this dynamic starkness with aplomb.  Movement III (Vivace-im Alten Stil) wraps up Gramatté’s expertly arranged formal concept, with a Minuet and Trio not for the dance parlour!  Hearkening back to the second movement is the Bachian driving polyphony in almost ‘saucy’ form that opens the minuet, which soon comes to graceful rest in a beautiful, muted Trio section for strings.  Said Trio features a plaintive over-melody in the high strings, left undisturbed but supported by ppp undergirded pizz’s in the low strings–the latter also reminiscent of previous material.  This movement features 1st violin soli in treatments of octatonicism and chromaticism.  As the Trio trails off, the Minuet returns, almost too soon and insistently persuasive.  SCNY’s technique rallied in this piece to reach an expert coordination of style and technique, ending with a brillante flourish.

Mr. Azmeh’s Suite for Improvisor and String Orchestra by design features a quasi-improvisatory clarinet solo parlaying motivic material indigenous to Syria, his homeland.  Part I, November 22, [the date refers to the date of the composition’s completion] is a wistful remembrance of a Damascan market parlaying pure Middle Eastern melody, with characteristic microtones and multiphonics thrown in for flavor. Sweeping, rangy improvisatory material starts low and flourishes into higher and higher agogic shrieks and manifest curlicues, all while the orchestra keeps steady time with a 7/8 syncopated monochord ostinato.   Most beautiful was the manner in which Mr. Azmeh negotiated the full sweep of his instrument’s registers–from chalumeau to clarino, as he spun into and spiraled out of motives reminiscent of Baroque opera decorative ornamentation.  The SCNY handled its accompanimental role confidently, playing soft background and letting the soloist shine for the most part, but surging when necessary for a call-response jazzy conversation with the clarinet.  The in-tandem forte legato sections required full-tilt effort from both soloist and strings, but were magnificently spot-on, with the orchestra swelling with sensuous waves of sound as the clarinet rose higher in its bid to release expressive longing and nostalgia for that domicile always, yet no longer, called “Home.”

Part II of Mr. Azmeh’s composition opens on a sweet extended unison drone in the upper strings and soft, seemingly aimless pizz’s in the lower, as the clarinet engages a wistful moderato improvisatory tune stylistic to the region.  Soon the rhythm section (one conga only) kicks in with a cool 4/4 jive and the conversation broadens while the orchestra keeps a low profile.  The middle of the composition offers an extended duet between the conga player and clarinetist; the latter featuring prominent overblowing and crafty improvisations combining compound metrics and clashing sonorities with driving syncopations, as the orchestra finally notches it up by joining the rhythm band, and matching in unison the clarinet roulades.  The movement builds into a quasi-frenzy–a happy, not violent one.  Mr. Azmeh–an absolute technical and musical virtuoso–spoke of his composition as depicting “a wedding in a Syrian village…everyone shows up…musicians come without a playlist, which is often influenced by how many drinks they have….I think it represents a small act of courage to fall in love–it is one of the human rights we can’t take away.”   Ah…yes.  The orchestra, spurred by Ms. Fox’s energetic yet compassionate baton, captured the mood precisely.

With the beautiful, sad melody of Villa-Lobos’ Preludio to Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4, the SCNY found its lush spot under Fox’s steady guidance.  The familiar “weeping” six-note motif, receives both soli and solo ornamental homophonic treatments in the high strings, as the lower strings respectfully keep a peaceful oasis of assurance in half-note time.  With the recap, this situation reverses itself as the violoncelli softly essay the melodic figure, and the upper strings coax a cathartic build-out of the half-note idea, as passion and heartache guide this Bach-influenced gem–originally written for piano solo–to a solid B-minor ending.  Written during a period of an enforced hold on private funds by the Brazilian government, which essentially grounded Villa-Lobos in his own country for an extended period, the quiet beauty of this piece brings to the fore the composer’s love of both Bach and his country, and his ability to meld folk and high culture styles.

The crowning piece on the program was preceded another composer biopic, this entitled: “Music from the Black Hole” [of Leningrad], a term coined by Galina Ustvolskaya’s [1919-2006] editor Viktor Suslin to name the metaphoric source of her craft as emanating from that doomed city that later became St. Petersburg– “the epicenter of communist terror, a city that suffered so terribly the horrors of war.”  In this short documentary, Ustvolskaya is introduced as “the high-priestess of sado-minimalism” (!)  and several stark descriptives are laid out:  “atomic, cosmic, minimalistic, and an expression of the subconscious.”

Ustvolskaya claimed a complete non-interest in Soviet politics, and yet indeed suffered under the Siege (1941-1944), which put her university studies on hold and forced her evacuation and subsequent work in a military hospital.  Even as she resumed and finished her studies and began to teach at the conservatory (1947-1977), Ustvolskaya lived a double compositional life:  kowtowing to the “sunny” requirements of Soviet Socialist Realism by writing film music and on-demand pieces (which she later disavowed and even destroyed), but also writing her less audience-friendly modernist pieces “for the drawer” (Kaiser, program notes, and the documentary).  By 1962 the Soviet government was less hampering of the nature of artistic product, and Ustvolskaya was able to concentrate on her idiosyncratic style.

Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra & Timpani (1946) amply showcased the also-idiosyncratic talents of pianist Chen, and Fox’s sharp, vigorous baton proved a definite asset in this performance. This concerto is marked by widely distinct sections that attempt to dialogue with one another.   Ms. Chen’s clarity of attack and tone shone in her opening solo statement (Lento assai) parlaying the forte angular two-note motif over a range of intervals.  As answered by the orchestra, this section of only 15 bars–despite the insertion of various quintuplet and septuplet figures–fades out modestly after a plaintive lightly chromatic, descending-scale string statement.  Suddenly in m. 16 (Allegro moderato), the piano is “off and running” — running with a moto perpetuo fugal subject, and here again the orchestra responds by taking up the fugal challenge.  But it is short-lived, as the plaintive statement returns (Andante cantabile) and is given extended treatment with an atypically non-showy solo piano cadenza (dolce espressivo), and later, orchestral variations (Largo) on the theme–in a section lasting almost three times as long as the first two.  When the moto perpetuo returns it has morphed into a dialogue of vacillating triplet motifs and the jagged figure of the opening theme–tossed off between piano and orchestra. The 16th note motif returns in an orchestra-only section, but the piano cannot resist hammering away in quasi-Romanticist gestures of chordal triplets and octave leaps forming a virtual bevy of dissonant intervallic jumps.  One awaited a bombastic ending to this concerto, but it simply wasn’t there: the finale of sorts is marked Grave, with expressive marking taking on another level of meaning here.  The piano revisits a mind-numbing repetition of the opening two-note motif, and the orchestra simply accompanies in the most static manner possible, playing out an extended coda of some 15 measures with a single C-major full chord placed carefully on select beats. Although these chords are not marked forte and are more agogic than “banged”, apparently this particular coda construction earned Ustvolskaya a nickname: “The Lady with the Hammer”.

The SCNY gave its most solid playing of the evening in this piece; Fox’s conducting was simultaneously sharp and sympathetic to the vagaries of this particular composition.  Chen did not exercise a particularly percussive technique, but rather a more broad-stroked, horizontally-focused attack that seemed to yearn for a cohesive construction to the extreme sectionality of this composition.   Her tone was consumingly serene in the soft-themed sections and never harsh, and always accurate in the sections more demanding of virtuosity and dynamic extreme.  One could say she turned in a respectful yeoman’s performance of this piece, and that is not at all meant in the perjorative.  For this critic at least, her humility of interpretation hearkened to the mien of restrained genius–i.e a “put-on” face” that Ustvolskaya must have had to maintain under the dictates of Soviet Socialist Realism.   Whether or not Chen had this impetus in mind, cannot be ascertained.

One of the most interesting tidbits I inferred from the evening’s copious proffering of information (the documentaries, program notes and performance itself) on Ustvolskaya was the nature of her relationship to one of her primary mentors: Shostakovich.  The latter composer– whom I conjecture is more well-known to most of us–at one time had proposed marriage to his young mentee–a proposal she rejected .   Although nothing was made explicit in the informational artifacts, it seemed their relationship could have certainly been one of tension, with Ustvolskaya ultimately downplaying his influence in remarking “There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.”  And, more bitingly:

On my part I would like to say the following: never once during the years, even during     my studies at the Conservatory which I spent in his class, was Shostakovich’s music close to me. Nor was his personality. I would be even more candid: I bluntly refused to accept his music, as in the following years. Unfortunately, Shostakovich’s personality only deepened my negative attitude towards him. I do not feel it necessary to further dwell on the subject.    (

Punkt!  Shostakovich eventually admitted:  “It is not you who are under my influence, it is I who am under yours.”  This SCNY concert produced glaring evidence of a female composer attempting a singularly unique voice in the (still) male-dominated world of composition and under a less-than supportive regime–evidence which shines too emphatically for her to be further ignored on concert programs.

This performance was all-in-all entertaining and elucidating–and–in Mr. Azmeh’s case, almost theatrical in its presentation.  Maestra Fox is to be commended for her dedication in bringing off-the-beaten path repertoire to the mainstream symphonic program format, and honoring a diverse array of under-served composers under a common theme.  The only composer whom I had heard of going in the door was Villa-Lobos.  I not only gained a newfound respect for his efforts to promote music of his homeland within the Eurocentric concert framework, but also thorough understanding of the compositional gestalts of Eckhardt-Gramatté, Ustvolskaya and Azmeh.

–Tamara Cashour  11/13/19