Written by Ronald Comber
Neró, A Concertino for Small Orchestra
Jared Miller (1988- )
After several years as our much-esteemed Composer in Residence, Jared Miller is sadly moving on. This, his final commission for us, demonstrates yet again his enormous talent. We wish him only the best in all of his future endeavors.
Born in Los Angeles in 1988 and raised in Vancouver, Canada, Miller holds a Masters and Doctorate of Musical Arts from the Juilliard School where he studied with Samuel Adler and John Corigliano and served as a Teaching Fellow in the Music Theory and Analysis Department. Before his Juilliard days, he studied composition with Stephen Chatman and Dorothy Chang and piano with Sara Davis Buechner and Corey Hamm at the University of British Columbia. From 2014-2017, Miller was the composer-in-residence for the Victoria Symphony in British Columbia, Canada. He is currently based in New York City where he maintains an active career as a composer and music educator.
Of his latest work, he writes, “Translating to “water” in Greek, Neró depicts the voyage of water from its liquid state on earth as part of rushing rivers and undulating seas to its gaseous state in the sky, in the form of clouds, mists and thunder. The piece is divided into two sections, each one respectively named after the appropriate Greek deity: “Poseidon” for water on Earth and “Zeus,” the god of the sky. Throughout the work, each member of the orchestra will harness their god and goddess-like abilities as players to tackle a plethora of technical and musical challenges in this virtuosic “concertino” for orchestra.” –JM
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 77
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
In the great proliferation of violin concerti which followed hard on the advent of Niccolo Paganini and the invention by Tourte of the modern violin bow, there have been a fair number of good works, a few great works, and a handful of violin concerti that transcend all boundaries of virtuosity and bravura. Beethoven wrote a Concerto which, though dangerously difficult, achieved a high degree of nobility and simplicity. A century later, Elgar and Sibelius both produced stellar works which expressed their inmost feelings through the voice of a lone instrument soaring over orchestral dramas. In 1878, Brahms wrote his own transcendent Violin Concerto, a work so powerful in its conception, so honest in its sublimity as to be unique in its effect. Violin and orchestra interweave organically throughout the three movements, achieving a sense of completeness not to be found in other concertos.
And yet Brahms was not a violinist. He knew, of course, how it worked and how to write music within its compass, but he still could only write from the outside; as it were, not having the deep personal knowledge of cause and effect that would aid an executant composer. He was aided, however, but having had a long friendship with the greatest violinist of the time, Joseph Joachim.
Brahms had met Joachim in 1853, whilst on a recital tour with another violinist, the Hungarian, Eduard Remenyi – the same tour which brought Brahms a certain notoriety as a pianist who not only played the Kreutzer Sonata of Beethoven’s by memory, but could transpose it a semi-tone up in a performance when the piano was flat! Brahms and Remenyi spent much of their free time on tour visiting important musical figures. They met Liszt and his entourage, they met Raff and Cornelius, and they met Joachim. Brahms and Joachim spent much of their free time together making music for the rest of their lives, and Brahms at every opportunity watched Joachim playing in order to learn all that could be done with the instrument. Brahms was also struck early in their friendship by the musical possibilities exploited in one of Joachim’s more popular repertoire Concerti; the Viotti A minor. Joachim later wrote, “During my bachelor days in Hanover, I sometimes had to play it over to him two or three times in succession while we were making music in my room of an evening”. The clear expressive quality of the Viotti gave Brahms the germ of an idea. It took Brahms twenty years to bring it to germination.
In 1877, Brahms, finding his urban existence less than conducive to creation, spent a happy, productive summer in the Corinthian village of Portschach, writing his lovely Second Symphony. The next summer, he returned, to give final shape to his carefully nurtured vision of a violin concerto for his friend. The work was soon complete, and Brahms quickly sent a rough draft to Joachim for criticism. Joachim read through it carefully, and then sent a detailed critique back with a number of diffidently offered revisions. Joachim desperately hoped not to hurt Brahms, but the concerto just didn’t work. In a short time, Brahms replied with a completely revised and perfected concerto, that which we will hear today. Joachim was left astonished, for none of the changes had any relation to his suggestions, and Brahms confessed in his covering letter that he had replaced the slow movement not once but twice in the process. The finished product was a miracle of composition, and Joachim, after adding his own cadenzas gave its world premiere to tumultuous applause with the Leipzig Gewandhaus on New Year’s Day 1879.
Really, the Violin Concerto requires little description. It is itself. The first movement, marked Allegro non troppo, opens with an almost symphonic introduction, filled with boding, which leads to an explosive violin entry. Thematic development is shared between soloist and orchestra throughout, and often the violin serves as a descant to the material explored in the other voices.
The slow movement, an Adagio, opens with a wonderful oboe solo which is picked up and developed later by the violin in a tender cantilena.
The last movement, an Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace, marks an abrupt change of mood from the tender wistfulness of the slow movement to gaiety. The somewhat relaxed tempo adds to the vivacious bounciness of the theme. Here, brilliant violinistic effects are allowed to obtrude as, with orchestral support, the movement moves to a joyous conclusion.
The Planets, Opus 32
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Of all the great music composed in England during the past hundred years, few works have been either so popular or as enduring as Gustav Holst’s The Planets, yet with the exception of an important composition for strings, the St. Paul’s Suite, Holst’s music has vanished from the orchestral repertoire. How could this be? A composer with so much imagination and technical mastery must have written more than one major orchestral work, surely?
Well, yes and no. A great talent and a great spirit, Gustav Holst worked appallingly hard for all of his adolescence and the first twenty years of his adult life in the effort to make ends meet while he learnt how to compose as he wished. The scion of a family of professional musicians whose vocation went back for generations, Holst intended to be a concert pianist as his father had been before him, but severe nerve damage from a combination of practising too much and semi-starvation left him permanently disabled. In 1893 Holst was accepted as a student at the Royal College of Music and nearly starved until he won an open scholarship in composition in 1895. Over the next few years Holst taught himself the trombone, in the rather naive hope that he could earn a living — to his delight, he did, becoming a trombonist in the Carl Rosa Opera Company and in the Scottish Orchestra. In 1903 Holst was offered a teaching position in the James Allen Girls’ School and gave up the trombone; two years later he became the Music Director of St. Paul’s Girls’ School as well; in 1907 he became Music Director at Morley College, holding all three positions until 1920. He learnt to compose in his spare time, slowly gaining experience and technical skill. His music began to make an impression in the London concert-halls, though much of his work was for chorus and orchestra, which rather limited its likelihood of performance on a regular basis. At about this time Holst acquired a close friend in Ralph Vaughan Williams and a patron for special events in H. Balfour Gardiner.
Holst’s increasing powers as a composer were reflected in the progression of works that occupied every moment of his spare time from 1905 to the onset of the First World War. A Somerset Rhapsody of 1910 marked the beginning of his real maturity, followed by the first group of hymns from the Rig Veda, and Beni Mora in 1912 and the Cloud Messenger in 1913. The Planets (1914-1916) and the Hymn of Jesus (1920) represented Holst at the very peak of his career.
Sadly, after that peak, there was a sharp falling away. Holst, searching for a new economy in his writing, began to pare his work down; deleting all unnecessary notes, he found a new austerity in his art that exactly captured within its reticulations all that he wished to express. His new music was intellectually rigorous, icily aloof, brilliantly executed. For the next ten years Holst devoted himself to writing in this new style, though audiences actively disliked it. The last years of his life were marked by a return to his warmer earlier style, but ill health interrupted his plans. His works from 1920 on are only rarely played to the present day. They are simply too forbidding.
As a composer, Gustav Holst was both a dreamer and a pragmatist. The inspirations
for his compositions were often intuitive, even peculiar at first glance, yet somehow he always managed to make them work. His idea for The Planets came from a casual curiosity about astrology which simply grew. In 1914 he wrote, “As a rule I only study things that suggest music to me, that’s why I worried at Sanskrit (for the ‘Rig Veda’ hymns). Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.”
Holst completed the first movement, Mars, in the summer of 1914 (coincidental, yet appropriate), Venus and Jupiter in the autumn, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune during 1915, and Mercury in 1916, the orchestration following apace. Written for a huge orchestra (with chorus), The Planets is nonetheless a work of great subtlety and elegance, even in its most ferocious moments. The work was first played at a private performance in September 1918 by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra as a special gift to the composer by Balfour Gardiner. The first public performance took place on February 27th, 1919, to the beginnings of great acclaim.
The seven movements really require little in the way of explanation. The first, Mars, the Bringer of War, opens with a real sense of menace and soon builds to a frenzy of martial ferocity. The second movement, Venus, the Bringer of Peace, commences in a mood of cool serenity, into which a human warmth begins to obtrude. Mercury, the Winged Messenger, is in the form of an especially fleet scherzo with a wonderfully evocative trio. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, is arguably the best known and the most popular of all of the Planets, from its rollicking opening to its Elgarian central section. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, was Holst’s personal favourite among the seven movements — the combination of suffering and menace creating an unforgettable effect. Uranus, the Magician, occupies the same ground as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the first Nachtmusik from Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. A brilliantly grotesque dance, wonderfully orchestrated, the movement ends with a sudden stillness which suggests the unwinking stillness of the night sky. The last movement, Neptune, the Mystic, though very quiet could well be the real core of the whole work. Uncanny, unforgettable, Neptune offers perhaps Holst’s personal glimpse into the infinite.