Written by Ronald Comber

Brittle Fracture
Harry Stafylakis (1982-    )

Montreal-born Harry Stafylakis is a Canadian-American composer based in New York City. Described as “dreamy yet rhythmic” (NY Times), his music strives for dramatic emotional and intellectual expression, integrating idioms drawn from classical and popular styles. With an intimate background in progressive metal and traditional Greek music, Stafylakis has developed a unique conception of musical temporality and rhythm, infusing his compositions with a characteristic vitality and drive.

Of Brittle Fracture he writes:

“In the field of materials science, the study of fracture mechanics makes a fundamental distinction between fractures that occur at different levels of tensile stress. In the case of brittle fracture, there is little or no apparent plastic deformation before failure occurs; in other words, cracks travel so fast that it is often impossible to tell when the material will break.

“Brittle Fracture for chamber orchestra attempts to depict this type of structural failure in musical terms. Inspired by modulation and temporal manipulation techniques commonly employed in pop music production, the piece is based on a simple four-note piano theme that is performed as if it were being processed through an echo unit. The piano’s resulting spectral content is selectively captured, extended, and transformed by the orchestral instruments, effectuating a long-range rhythmic, melodic, registral, articulative, and dynamic intensification. Throughout this textural crescendo, the music undergoes various types and degrees of stress that attempt to disrupt the constant musical flow. At the peak of the process the music finally buckles under its own weight, causing an abrupt rupture in the structure. A series of these fractures occurs, slicing between two contrasting musical surfaces until the inevitable and complete dissolution of their constituent materials.”

Brittle Fracture was composed in 2013 as part of a residency with the CUNY Graduate Center’s Contemporary Music Ensemble. It received its premiere on May 8, 2013 in Elebash Hall, New York, with Whitney E. George conducting. The work has been awarded a 2013 Sir Ernest MacMillan prize by the SOCAN Foundation. It was selected for the American Composers Orchestra’s 2014 Underwood New Music Readings; its premiere was on June 7, 2014, led by George Manahan, and presented as part of the New York Philharmonic’s 2014 Biennial.

 


Concerto No. 1 in E Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 11
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)

Although Chopin made his international reputation working in Paris, he had already acquired a considerable fame in Eastern Europe during his adolescence. Studying and performing in Warsaw from the age of nine, he was both well taught by the best teachers and well loved by a discriminating public.

Chopin wrote his two Piano Concertos in 1829-30 for his farewell concerts in Warsaw. The Concerto in E minor was composed (after he completed the Second) in the spring and summer of 1830, and performed on October 11th of the same year. Remarkable for its tender melancholy as well as for a subtly evanescent Polish flavour, the Concerto in E minor proved to be Chopin’s passport to international glory from its first Parisian performance.

The Concerto in E minor is one of Chopin’s very few attempts at orchestral composition, and is very much the work of a composer who lives for and with the piano in every waking moment, who betrays only the most cursory interest in his accompaniment. The overall effect is nonetheless glorious.

The first movement opens with a long orchestral introduction which builds to an extremely effective piano entry. The beautiful first and second subjects show Chopin’s art at its early best. The second movement, to quote Chopin, is an “impression of the eye resting on some much-loved landscape which awakens pleasant recollections.” The Rondo last movement is both dashing and brilliant – the quintessence of Chopin’s personal style and the root of his musical immortality.

 


Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

It is difficult not to pity the Russian composers of the nineteenth century for the terrible handicaps under which they laboured. In Russia, well into the 1860’s, the prospect of a national style of composition, or even of Russian composers writing in any style, filled the minds and hearts of the social establishment with real horror. Even Glinka, the first major Russian composer to have studied abroad, met with consistent ill-will from those who should have fostered his career. The young composers who struggled to establish a new national style in Russian music – Balakierev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and many others, including Tchaikovsky slightly later – had to teach themselves the very rudiments of compositional technique, not from theoretical texts, but from the scores of foreign composers. It must have been appallingly difficult, yet many of them achieved a truly remarkable expertise in the craft which supports artistic endeavour.

When we study the life and works of Modest Mussorgsky, however, matters become rather obscure. To this day, no one has been able to say with certainty whether Mussorgsky had anything approaching technical expertise or whether he had somehow managed to transcend technique altogether, writing adventurously for effect. That he was frequently guilty of startling infelicities in his compositions goes unchallenged. But in his later works, these infelicities often add a magical quality to his effects. Were they deliberate?

The established opinion regarding Mussorgsky has always been tempered by these doubts, and in the light shed on his severe state of alcoholism in most biographies, pessimism has generally coloured any evaluation of his music. Yet there is something special there. His many songs have a beauty quite unlike anything produced by his contemporaries, and the Pictures at an Exhibition, originally designed to be a little piano suite, have gone on to hold a place of honour – not in their original form, but gloriously transformed into a great orchestral showpiece.

Mussorgsky first had the inspiration for Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874. The year previously, his close friend the architect-painter Victor Hartmann had died suddenly, leaving a gap in Mussorgsky’s life. In May of 1874, Hartmann’s friends organized an exhibition of his work. Mussorgsky, viewing the collection of his friend’s paintings and architectural drawings, was struck with the idea of composing a piano suite describing ten of Hartmann’s creations. Mussorgsky wrote with feverish enthusiasm, and the Pictures at an Exhibition were completed on June 22nd of the same year.

The music passed quickly into the piano repertoire, though the breadth of vision behind the writing could only be suggested in that medium. Rimsky-Korsakov later orchestrated it, but in doing so, polished much of the life out of the work. It wasn’t until 1922 that Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, commissioned Maurice Ravel to orchestrate the Pictures in his own exquisite way. The new scoring was premiered in Paris on May 3, 1923, and was swept triumphantly around the world in short order. Ravel, through his uncanny skills at orchestration, brought every nuance of Mussorgsky’s thought to vivid life. Bold yet intricate, the music pulsates with vibrant colours and effects.

The Pictures are preceded by and often linked with a theme depicting the viewer promenading from room to room (the composer made a sly joke; since he walked with a slight limp, the promenade is in the unusual rhythm of 11/4). The ten pictures are:

            Gnomes: inspired by Hartmann’s sketch of a design for a nutcracker, the music suggests the gnomes’ awkward gait as they teeter on misshapen legs.

            The Old Castle: a medieval castle, complete with a troubadour singing a wistful air to his lady.

            Tuileries: on a lovely spring morning, the Tuileries are inhabited by a vivacious host of children and their nurses.

            Bydlo: a Polish farm cart, noted for its solid wooden wheels, drawn by a pair of oxen over a rutted track.

            Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks: Hartmann’s sketch of an idea for a fantastic ballet, which appealed to Mussorgsky.

            Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle: subtitled “Two Polish Jews, One Rich and the Other Poor,” depicts pomposity and its fawning counterpart.

            Limoges – The Market Place: bargaining and chattering take place in the warm sunshine.

            Catacombs: stern and brooding, the music slightly departs from the picture it represents, for Hartmann painted the Paris catacombs, while Mussorgsky’s autograph score in inscribed Sepulcrum romanum.

            The Hut on Fowl’s Legs: Hartmann’s drawing was of a clock in this form, celebrating one of the principal features of the abode of Baba-Yaga, a legendary witch of great power. Mussorgsky also includes hints of Baba-Yaga’s activities in his description.

            The Great Gate of Kiev: Hartmann had made plans for a monumental gate that had been proposed for Kiev (with a cupola in the shape of a helmet and a full peal of bells). Mussorgsky wrote an heroic counterpart, music of such nobility and sheer pageantry as to be unforgettable once heard. Ravel completed the effect to create a finale of effulgent glory.