Written by Ronald Comber
John Abram (1959- )
John Abram was born in England in 1959. After composition studies at Keele University with Roger Marsh and Peter Dickinson, he moved to Canada in 1984 to complete a PhD at the University of Victoria with Rudolf Komorous (composition) and Doug Collinge (electroacoustic music). From 1986 to 1988 he was Associate Director and Conductor of the Open Space New Music Series at the Open Space Gallery. In Toronto from 1989 to 1994, he co-founded The Drystone Orchestra and was a member of ARCANA, also performing with ARRAYMUSIC, Strange Companions and others. From 1994-2008 he was on the teaching staff at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. He continues to engineer and produce MRU’s larger recording projects. He was Artistic Director of Neworks Calgary and produced many concerts of Albertan, Canadian and International artists over a seven-year period. John has also been active in film and multimedia work – recent collaborators include Marla Hlady, Gary Burns, Barbara Sutherland and Chris Myhr. He now lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Pluck was composed in 2008 for the Morningside Music Bridge String Orchestra. The first performance was conducted by Nicholas Pulos. Pluck has several meanings of which I was mindful: the playing technique of pizzicato, of which there is a lot in this piece; the hand-picked selection of the students in the MMB programme; the courage of these young performers for choosing music as a career. There are four movements in the piece: I – Risoluto, II – Amabile, III – Adagio, which leads without a break into IV – Energico
Kol Nidrei for Cello and Orchestra, OP.47
Max Bruch (1838-1920)
On the whole, the music of Max Bruch has fallen on rather hard times in the last fifty years. His truly remarkable powers of assimilation, in that he was more than capable of writing music in any national style that struck his fancy, allied to his almost uncanny knack for writing exactly the sort of work that an audience of his time would want to hear, has tended to date his music rather badly.
The Kol Nidrei for Cello & Orchestra transcends all that, although it is at the same time a strong sample of Bruch’s emotionalism. The main theme is based on a traditional synagogual chant – All the Vows – sung on the eve of Yom Kippur. Bruch heard it first in 1880, and immediately was seized with the idea of using it as the basis for an extended piece for cello and orchestra. With his remarkable talent working at its highest level, he produced in a short period, a composition that is a miracle of religious feeling. The work is so successful a portrayal of the spirit of the original Kol Nidrei that Bruch has long been perceived as being Jewish himself.
The work is in ternary form. The cello opens with a complete statement of the theme, followed by several variations. Bruch then introduces a new theme within the orchestra, followed by a reiteration by the cello. This theme, Bruch’s own, is the perfect foil to the passionate first part: it lends an air of calmness to the work and leads naturally to a final restatement of the principal theme.
The Kol Nidrei was introduced in Leipzig in 1881, to tumultuous applause, and it has received the same reaction ever since.
Rococo Variations, Op. 33
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
The middle period of Tchaikovsky’s career was remarkable for the number of major works that flowed, white hot, from his pen. In the years immediately surrounding his composition of the Rococo Variations (1876), Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake, the Third Symphony, Francesa di Rimini, the Third String Quartet, and several smaller works. He also, by the autumn of 1877, had commenced work on the Fourth Symphony and Eugene Onegin. Life must have been hectic, for he toured and held official positions, as well as conducting a courtship which was to have disastrous marital consequences.
Tchaikovsky wrote the Rococo Variations for the cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who gave the work’s premiere in Moscow on November 30, 1877, almost a year after its completion. That bold statement of fact conceals a bitter tale, for Fitzenhagen not only exercised editorial powers in the cello part, but in performance actually altered orchestra parts and even the order in which the Variations were played! Fitzenhagen appears to have had some proprietary right to the Rococo Variations overall, for it was his version of the score that was published, not Tchaikovsky’s.
Whatever the version, the Rococo Variations are quite delightful. As the title implies, Tchaikovsky wrote the music with the musical spirit of the Eighteenth Century in mind. The lightly classical scoring, designed to support the development of a wonderfully chaste theme, is a testimony to Tchaikovsky’s inventive nature.
Symphony No. 8 in G minor, Op. 88
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Dvořák suffered more than many lesser artists from the hidden restraints of form. Blessed with an uncanny gift of inspiration, Dvořák wrote as fluently and enthusiastically as the young Schubert had done some fifty years previously. But the rules had become more complex. Dvořák, as a result, only just achieved a true sense of unity in his symphonies towards the end of his career, in spite of his having won golden opinions worldwide for his earlier works on the basis of their inspiration and sheer melodic charm.
Dvořák wrote the Symphony No.8 in G Major in the summer and autumn of 1889. Dvořák, who always wrote quickly and rarely revised anything, nonetheless surprised himself with the force of his inspiration. Years of careful formal assimilation were swept away as Dvořák transcended structure to create a wholly fresh view of the symphony through Czech eyes.
Dvořák used his unorthodox new Symphony with a certain irony; first presenting it to Prague’s Franz Josef Academy upon being elected a member, then declaring it his “thesis” upon his receiving an honorary Doctorate from Cambridge.
The Symphony is in the proper four movements. The first is based on the juxtaposition of major and minor themes. Opening impressively in the minor, the movement progresses through a veritable garden of themes, becoming more emotionally charged through to its wonderful climax.
The slow movement, constructed around one lovely melody, acquires real individuality through its dramatic modulation and its modernistic chromaticism.
The Scherzo movement, marked Allegretto grazioso, is a clear departure from the violent “Furiants” of Dvořák ‘s preceding symphonies. An almost Mendelssohnian first section is relieved by a gently Bohemian trio, returning at the end to a state of sudden enthusiasm.
The Finale combines Dvořák’s aim of writing a set of variations on a melody from the first movement with his enthusiastic inclusion of a few more themes that caught his fancy. Full of charm and thrilling energy, the movement concludes the symphony with heroic abandon.