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This work was Song of the Bells, written by Robert Beaser in 1987. It was for flute and orchestra and exhibited many of the qualities in Beaser’s music that makes him so special. His technique is immaculate—but that word does not describe it completely. His orchestration is lean, yet full. It contains every note needed, not a note more, and like Ravel, he knows exactly how to do this. Many composers pepper their works with notes that only obscure what the real material is. Some are so lean that the works sound unfinished to the ear.
Beaser’s use of harmony and melody are sublime because they are both inevitable and unusual. Melody and harmony are the most difficult things for a twenty-first century composer to write. Attempts at harmony are often represented by pedal tones and works that stay in one place, or by simplistic harmonic patterns that are predictable and boring. Melody too, is either overly simplistic or composed of lyrical passages that have none of the punctuation that real melody has. Beaser is one of the only composers I know of that really understands how to use harmony in unique and unpredictably beautiful ways. His music is always compelling and fresh to the ear. His melodies are true melodies and, like his harmonic language, are always fascinating.
In this recording, the main piece is Beaser’s Guitar Concerto, one of my favourite works of his. Most trained composers do not know how to write for the guitar (myself being one of them). Everything that would seem easy for the guitar is impossible and vice versa. When I finally gave in and wrote my concerto, I had a guitarist-composer at my side the entire time. That’s why my guitar writing is idiomatic. Beaser’s Concerto is idiomatic because he knows how to write for the instrument. His Concerto is a real ‘concerto’, symphonic in scale with virtuoso passages that only a master could write. This recording also contains another earlier work for solo guitar, Notes on a Southern Sky, which Beaser revised in 2015 specifically for this recording.
It is difficult to write a work for youth orchestra that is technically restricted but doesn’t sound limited. Aaron Copland did this in An Outdoor Overture. Beaser achieves this in his Evening Prayer, with its innovative deconstruction and architectural re-imagination of a Hungarian folk tune. By inventing a language which consists entirely of reconfigured fragments of the folk song Esti Dal (Evening Song), Beaser creates a work that shares the sophistication and melodic and harmonic beauty of his other works, yet can be mastered by a youth orchestra. In the hands of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, we hear the work elevated to its highest technical plane.
All of us were affected by the historically changing day of September 11, 2001. Many artists and composers expressed their feelings in paintings, plays, dance and music. Of all of them that I know, the deepest and most heart-wrenching response from an artist is Ground O. Ground O is not a long piece, but I will never forget the first time I heard it. Its power to reflect the enormous sadness of this tragedy is unspeakably moving. I have heard it many times since and I had the same reaction each time.
I have had the pleasure of knowing Beaser for many years now. We both teach composition at the Juilliard School in New York where he leads our composition department. We have become good friends and our friendship is founded on mutual admiration. To me, he is a vitally important composer. Beaser’s music is ‘in the center’, as is mine. He knows and reveres the past and tries to be part of the future. Serialism, minimalism, spectralism or any other ‘ism’ just isn’t part of his vocabulary. He is a serious man of the world, writing music of this age: music that stands apart from fashion or trend. He is a true musician, writing because he loves to write, and because he must write. I respect him enormously.
A note from Eliot Fisk
Although we are only a few months apart in age, Robert Beaser has been one of my greatest music teachers. Since we met at Yale University in 1972, we have been the best of friends and have shared the joys and sorrows of rich lives fully lived. Beaser’s glorious music continues to be a light in my life and the many hours we have spent together adapting the astonishing products of his fecund imagination to the sometimes infuriating exigencies of the guitar, have been among the happiest of my career. Beaser, like Mozart, fits the work to the capacities of the soloist with the precision and care of a glove maker.
Both Notes on a Southern Sky and the Guitar Concerto are epic works of historical importance in the history of the guitar. The Guitar Concerto in particular demands of the soloist a demonic intensity, a polished elegance and dramatic sweep that push the capacities of the guitar into a new dimension. Playing it always feels as if Beaser had, all by himself, propelled the classical guitar fifty years into the future. It has been a great honour to perform this work under the baton of Maestro José Serebrier and to record this masterpiece with the inspiring Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
A note from José Serebrier
The music of Robert Beaser has the rare quality of being of great interest to other composers, musicologists and performers, as well as being loved from the very first hearing by the public. Beaser knows how to communicate deeply through his music which always unfolds with persuasive logic, dazzling orchestration and surprises at every turn. His Guitar Concerto is a unique, groundbreaking work in the repertoire. It’s a virtuoso work that requires a soloist of almost super-human endurance, an orchestra with quick responses and a caring conductor. I feel honoured that Beaser asked me to record his Concerto, a project that took years in the making. This work should be performed and heard all over the world; it never fails to truly move and excite the audience.
I first met Eliot Fisk in 1972 when we were both first year students at Yale. A mutual friend of ours told me, as I was moving into my new dorm room on my first day, that I had to go over to the Old Campus where a certain young guitarist with bushy sideburns, long sandy hair and a permanently quizzical expression affixed to his bespectacled face had planted himself under the great elm tree and was practicing his own Scarlatti transcriptions.
I learned much about the classical guitar repertoire though listening to Fisk play J.S. Bach, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Benjamin Britten, John Dowland, Luciano Berio and many more. He began to ask me to write for the guitar and I responded with Canti Notturni (1975), Notes on a Southern Sky (1980), Mountain Songs (1985), Shenandoah (1996) and most recently my Guitar Concerto (2010). We collaborate remarkably well together—Fisk is expert at helping me tailor my ideas to the counter-intuitive quirks of his instrument. One of my favourite things to do is to sit down and have him play through new passages, because immediately he shows me fifteen ways I can make it come alive which I hadn’t considered.
It’s not unexpected that I would want to write Fisk a concerto—it was just a matter of time. It has taken a long time indeed; our project has had its share of false starts for over a decade. The Guitar Concerto is cast in a form of three-movements and I have kept the orchestration lean for practical reasons of balance and portability. The first movement—entitled ‘Chains and Hammers’, uses a string of minor thirds and weaves them through a series of edgy variants. A modified sonata form provides the scaffolding for its expressive swings and flourishes. From the opening measures the guitar bursts out of the box and the orchestra acts as an ever-evolving partner. The second movement turns inwards and is called ‘Tombeau’. It is filled with Baroque references—stately and elegiac. There is a hypnotic, meditative theme in 3/4 time (which is a departure from the 4/4 allemande of traditional tombeaux). This gets interrupted and upended by a middle section which turns nightmarish—an incessant modal and rhythmic inflection takes hold and throws the order off balance. The movement means to pay homage to early lute music and to Ravel—who himself paid homage to Couperin—evoking an earlier style and synthesizing it into a new fusion. The third movement is called ‘Phrygian Pick’ because it mashes together the Andalusian and bluegrass styles both of which are so iconic and idiomatic to the tradition of the guitar. One of the most discernible traits in my music is the predilection to combine elements which at first seem irreconcilable and turn them into an unexpected hybrid. After the first two weighty movements, I had been eager to break out of the E-based guitar tuning, so I decided upon a new scordatura—bringing the low A string down one step to a G. This small change opened up a multitude of possibilities for the instrument and it gave me everything I needed to collide these incongruous worlds.
The Guitar Concerto was co-commissioned by the Albany Symphony, the American Composers Orchestra and the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz.
Notes on a southern sky
Notes on a southern sky was composed in 1980 for Eliot Fisk. It is one of the first works of mine which was influenced in some way by folk music. In this case, the music of Latin America, particularly Venezuela, with its rich folk tradition in music of composers such as Antonio Lauro and the great guitarist Alirio Díaz.
This piece is a homage of sorts as seen through the prism of an outsider. It is bipartite (slow-fast), in modified arch form. In the first section the opening pulsing Es generate into aleatoric loops, which then evolve into a signature chromatic four-note turn motif, which ultimately re-appears at the dramatic apex of the second, faster section. In between, there are dance-like rhythms, syncopated melodic threads and chordal interruptions, all leading to the driving final coda.
When Notes on a southern sky was first composed, it presented a decided challenge for guitarists, particularly in terms of stamina and negotiating some highly elaborate contrapuntal passages. Over the years, I tried my hand at revising it, with playability in mind. For this recording, I finally arrived at a balanced revision which I am happy with. It shortens the work by several minutes, but still retains the proportions and overall architecture of the original edition.
The little folk song Esti Dal (Evening song) from Zoltán Kodály’s published collection Vegyeskarok (Choruses for Mixed Voices) provides the impetus for my orchestral work Evening prayer. The work was commissioned in 2007 by the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. BYSO was the first real orchestra I played in when I was starting out and the experience helped to shape me as a young musician. As a percussionist, I was introduced to the works of Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Lutosławski, Paul Hindemith, Kodály and much of the standard repertoire. As a composer, I was given the opportunity to make my debut there, conducting one of my earliest orchestral works in Jordan Hall and on the Esplanade in Boston.
In past pieces when I have employed folk material (often from the Appalachian region of the US), I have chosen to set it more or less strophically. For Evening prayer, I chose this Hungarian tune and employed it in a more abstracted, circuitous way. The song animates the piece on two different planes: first, the words themselves, imploring a safe and gentle transit to a foreign land—a shepherding through a difficult time to find peace and transcendence in a new place. The narrative arc of Evening prayer actively mirrors this transformation and journey. Second, the tune itself is deconstructed; the fibre and sinew of my own musical language is built entirely on the simple diatonic shapes and quirky rhythms that make up Esti Dal. But the resultant music is completely new. And while the actual tune itself is quoted several ways throughout, it principally functions as a trope, fragmented and woven into the fabric of a wholly different musical idiom.
Ground O is orchestrated from a movement of my earlier suite entitled Souvenirs for piccolo (or clarinet) and piano. The music itself was shaped profoundly by the tragic events of September 11 in New York, as it was composed within a month of this tragedy. In 2011, as the tenth anniversary of those events neared, I received a commission from the Seattle Symphony for a farewell tribute to their Music Director Gerard Schwarz. I felt compelled to rework the music to give Maestro Schwarz a new incantation of music that holds a special place in my oeuvre. In crafting this orchestration, I was particularly absorbed in creating an ethereal tintinnabulation of soft piano, percussion and harp sounds surrounding a fragile solo violin line which intones the melody, only to re-emerge in the final pages as a disembodied, angelic obbligato.
Following are the original notes I wrote for Souvenirs:
Ground O (the letter O, not zero) was composed in October of 2001. It is simply impossible for anyone from around where I live in New York City not to have been overwhelmingly affected by the events of the prior month. As we all hobbled around trying to make sense of it all, I finally resorted to the only thing I knew how to do: compose. For the longest time I was uncomfortable referring to it literally, and left the song hanging with temporary working titles. Yet as time receded, I began to more readily accept things for what they were. And so sometime later I accepted the present title, albeit slightly skewed, for what it was as well.
Robert Beaser © 2017