I have written a four-movement Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (Weaving Olden Dances), a consortium commission comprised of:
Westchester Chamber Orchestra (NY), Barry Charles Hoffman, Director
Western Piedmont Symphony (NC), John Gordon Ross, Director
San José Chamber Orchestra (CA), Barbara Day Turner, Director
Appalachian State University (NC), James Allen Anderson, Director
It was premiered May 3, 2008 by Barry Hoffman and the Westchester Chamber Orchestra at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. Here are five excerpts from the four movements taken from a live recording of the premiere:
To view/download a PDF of the score that matches the recorded excerpt, click here.
2 Oboes / 2nd dbls EH
2 Horns in F
2 Trumpets in Bb
Timpani (5); Tambourine; Cajón (or shakers, if unavailable); Susp Cymbal; Bodhrán (or 3 large, closely tuned toms)
Total duration: ca. 24′
(Mvt. 1: ca. 4’30”; Mvt. 2: ca. 6’30”; Mvt. 3: ca. 7’30”; Mvt. 4: ca. 5’30”)
Given that composers have defined the term “Concerto” rather fluidly historically, when Barry Hoffman approached me about composing a new Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, I had to decide what it would mean for me. In the end, I decided on a blend of Baroque and 20th/21st Century conceptions. I have long admired that the Baroque Dance Suite represented an internationalist ideal of artistic and intellectual commerce flowing throughout Europe at that time, whose non-variable core included the Allemand (German), the Courante (French or Italian), the Sarabande (Spanish), and the Gigue (English or Irish). Since one of my major musical preoccupations is with non-Western and folk musics, it struck me that the international nature of the Baroque Suite might make an interesting vehicle for the creation of a suite of pieces that explore elements of world and folk musics.
To that end, the first movement, after a muscular opening featuring a big role for the timpani and aggressive writing for the brass and strings, quickly moves to a hypnotic expansion of the opening ideas that employs (in the winds and strings) some of the rhythmic interlocking characteristic of Indonesian and Balinese music for Gamelan. The second movement is a Pavane, which is a French relative of the Allemande. Traditionally this movement is unsyncopated, and builds from smaller fragments into a larger work. Here, I took a 13th Century anonymous Hymn tune called Novus Miles Sequitur, and similarly build the piece from smaller fragments or phrases. In place of the Sarabande, I based the next movement on the Siguiriya, one of the Flamenco dance forms. A ritornello based on flamenco guitar styles occurs three times in the movement, contrasted by solo sections and flights toward non-flamenco tonalities, though the Andalusian scale dominates the piece at various transpositions. The final movement is where the Gigue would occur in the Suite. This movement is a blend of Irish Sean Nos and traditional Irish and Appalachian fiddle styles.
There are passages that are virtuosic for the orchestra as an instrument a la Bartok, but I also tried to treat orchestral color as a component of this, striving to create a wide variety of colors over the course of the piece. Every individual wind and brass player, and also the timpanist each gets at least one solo at some point. Individual string players are also given solos, and the various sections of strings have prominent solos or duos. One more note on the solos and the question of virtuosity: I think it’s important to point out that musical virtuosity is expressed by performers not exclusively by the ability to master extraordinarily difficult passages, but rather to bring their full musicality to bear on any passage, whether it’s simple or not.
Composer Charles Griffin and Conductor Barry Hoffman Discuss the New Concerto for Chamber Orchestra:
Barry Hoffman – What makes this a Concerto for Orchestra?
Charles Griffin – When you first approached me about the piece, it was your suggestion that I write a Concerto for Chamber Orchestra. Because the request was not for a solo concerto (traditional association with the term “Concerto” is a Romantic one, evoking soloistic virtuosity and the kind of potential for drama that arises from pitting the soloist against the full orchestra), I was forced to consider other, arguably atypical models. I say arguably, because composers’ conception of the Concerto as a form has in fact gradually evolved over the centuries to allow for something much looser in the 21st Century anyway. Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra of 1943, for example, treats the Orchestra itself as the virtuoso instrument, with each section of instruments featured in a soloistic or virtuosic way. The Concerto as a form originates in the Baroque Era, and at that time, composers more often than not conceived of drama in the Concerto not so much by pitting a soloist against the rest of the orchestra, but rather by contrasting smaller groups of instruments against each other.
In the end, I decided on a blend of Baroque and 20th/21st Century conceptions. There are passages that are virtuosic for the orchestra as an instrument a la Bartok, but I also tried to treat orchestral color as a component of this, striving to create a wide variety of colors over the course of the piece. Every individual wind and brass player, and also the timpanist each gets at least one solo at some point. Individual string players are also given solos, and the various sections of strings have prominent solos or duos. One more note on the solos and the question of virtuosity: I think it’s important to point out that musical virtuosity is expressed by performers not exclusively by the ability to master extraordinarily difficult passages, but rather to bring their full musicality to bear on any passage, whether it’s simple or not.
B.H. – Why did you choose the baroque dance suite form?
C.G. – I was on a Bach kick last year. I was listening, reading about and playing through lots of Bach. For me, as with many composers, Bach is a life-long mentor and sustainer, one of the ones to go back to for subconscious composition lessons from time to time. I started every day for about 6 months by playing through some Chorales. During this period I became interested in Bach’s Suites, and the idea of artistic and intellectual commerce flowing throughout Europe at that time. The Baroque Dance Suite by the time of Bach became a semi-standardized multi-movement work whose non-variable core included the Allemand (a stately German dance in 4/4 time), the Courante (a lively French or Italian dance in 3/4), the Sarabande (a slow Spanish dance in 3/4), and the Gigue (a lively English dance in 6/8). There are many variable additions to the Suite, including Overtures, Minuets, Gavottes, etc. While in the traditional suite, all the pieces are related by key, they are not related thematically.
Since one of my major composerly preoccupations is with non-Western and folk musics, it struck me that the international nature of the Baroque Suite might make an interesting vehicle for the creation of a suite of pieces that explore elements of world and folk musics.
B.H. – In your program notes, you talk about composing the piece, “with a contemporary eye toward the meaning of internationalism today.” Do you feel you accomplished this? If so, how?
C.G. – The original plan was to write a five movement suite, beginning with an Overture. As I was writing, I realized that the piece was getting long. After I’d completed four movements of the planned five, I realized I’d already had approximately 26 minutes of music. You stopped me (for now) from writing a fifth movement, which will eventually be located in the spot between the current 2nd and 3rd movments.
Movement I – Trance Overture. After a muscular opening featuring a big role for the timpani and aggressive writing for the brass and strings, it quickly moves to a hypnotic expansion of the opening ideas that employs (in the winds and strings) some of the rhythmic interlocking characteristic of Indonesian and Balinese music for Gamelan. Download a perusal copy of Movement I here.
Movement II – Pavane. The Pavane, along with the Tombeau, is a French relative of the Allemande, which was typically the first proper movement of the Suite. An Allemande is typically in 2/4 or 4/4, unsyncopated, and builds from smaller fragments into a larger work. Here, I took a 13th Century anonymous Hymn tune called Novus Miles Sequitur, most likely of British origin and similarly build the piece from smaller fragments or phrases. This is the most traditional sounding movement in the piece, with a harmonic and color palate that is a blending of English and French classical styles. Download a perusal copy of Movement II here.
Movement III – Not yet written, but this is where the Courante would occur in the Baroque Dance Suite. I will eventually write something here based on Eastern European traditions.
Movement IV – Tierra de luz, Cielo de Tierra. This is where the Sarabande, a dance of Spanish origin, would occur in the Suite. I based this movement on the Siguiriya, one of the Flamenco dance forms. A ritornello based on flamenco guitar styles occurs three times in the movement, contrasted by solo sections and flights toward non-flamenco tonalities, though the Andalusian scale dominates the piece at various transpositions. Download a perusal copy of Movement IV (identified as Mvt III in the score) here.
Movement V – Weaving Olden Dances. This is where the Gigue would occur in the Suite. This movement is a blend of Irish traditional music and its American stepchild in Appalachia. Download a perusal copy of Movement V (identified as Mvt IV in the score) here.
Do I feel I accomplished this? Well, it’s an experiment. The Overture movement cannot stand on its own, but the others all can, I believe, which was a secondary or possibly tertiary goal for me. I’ll let others judge how they hang together in sequence. That being said, and to be quite honest, the piece won’t be fully complete for me until that remaining movement is written and placed together with the others. I think the missing movement will help to deepen the sense of stylistic contrast that already exists from movement to movement.
The following reviews are of the San José Chamber Orchestra’s performance of my Weaving Olden Dances: Concerto for Chamber Orchestra that took place at Le Petit Trianon Theater (72 N. 5th Street) in downtown San José, California on Saturday August 29, at 8PM and Sunday August 30, at 7PM.
NEW WORK, OLD DANCES, ELVIRA’S CONCERTO
By Paul Hertelendy
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2009
Vol. 12, No. 5
Read the full review here.
The clever idea of a commissioning consortium enables several groups around the country (and not just one) to present a new work om concert. The San José Chamber Orchestra opened its season with the West Coast premiere of New Yorker Charles Griffin’s “Weaving Olden Dances,” part of a merry-go-round taking the dances to four different venues spanning both coasts. It’s a big 31-minute, four-movement work of modern sounds laid over traditional forms—a well-made piece avoiding the expected clichés.
Griffin, 41, enters skillfully into disparate realms. An agitated timpani opening suggests an action movie, giving way to a perpetual-motion ostinato that the composers says was inspired by the gamelan. The Pavane section that follows is lovely, escapist romanticism soaring skyward. The third movement is the most overtly dance-like, with the orchestra parroting the broad strums of the flamenco guitar running through modes as well as the beat of the zapateado dance—a latino tap dance without the tap shoes. The finale, after Irish models, is a joyous noise rushing to a climax. The format idea is derived from the dance suites so prevalent 300 years ago.
There were various solos within this concerto for orchestra, none more notable nor more praiseworthy than on viola (Eleanor Angel) and cello (Lucinda Breed Lenicheck).
Altogether, “Weaving Olden Dances” is an effective work with definite audience appeal. And Music Director Barbara Day Turner led it with high energy, nuance and consistency.
A MODEL OF DIVERSITY: SAN JOSÉ CHAMBER ORCHESTRA OPENER
By Gary Lemco
The Classical Music Guide Online
Read the full review here.
The musical surprise came in the form of Griffin’s four-movement Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, which might be a distant cousin of pieces like Cowell’s Persian Set. A sort of Baroque dance-suite, the music opened with a Trance Overture, in the manner of the gamelan orchestra of Bali, percussive, chiming, clangorous, brash, and declamatory. Long pedal points punctuated the interlocking rhythmic impulses. Some might have thought this music composed by Villa-Lobos. The second movement, Pavane, sounded like a medieval “chest” or “consort” of instruments, utilizing a concertante violin to intone a 13th-century cantus firmus called Novus Miles Sequitur. The third movement, Tierra de luz, Cielo de Tierra, enjoyed a concertante cello opening. The music became quite syncopated, often touching upon the world of Ginastera‘s Estancia ballet. At its climax, the music became a fugue in flamenco style. The last movement, Weaving Olden Dances, began with a viola that lisped in Irish accents, inviting us to a fierce gigue or reel that incorporates Sean Nos and Appalachian dance elements, allusions to the music for Braveheart and Aaron Copland. Almost every member of the orchestra had a virtuoso, solo run or riff to offer the color of his contribution. Eclectic it was certainly—so even Bartok may have had a hand in it—ending with something like a sea-shanty in Technicolor. But, that it was a successful vehicle for Turner and her SJCO there could be no doubt.
JON NAKAMATSU AND MOZART’S PIANO CONCERTO NO. 21 — A HEAVENLY PAIRING
By Richard Scheinin
San José Mercury News
Read the full review here.
The bulk of the program’s first half was devoted to a new work by Charles B. Griffin, a native New Yorker who lives in Latvia. A nomadic, international sensibility informs his “Weaving Olden Dances: Concerto for Chamber Orchestra,” which draws inspiration from Indonesian, French, flamenco and Irish/Appalachian dance forms.
Commissioned by a consortium of American orchestras (including the San Jose Chamber Orchestra), the work unfolds in four movements.
The first echoes the jig-sawed structure and rhythms of the Balinese gamelan; its highlight is a sinuous and long-lined solo for violin (Cynthia Baehr, here), composed in the manner of Lou Harrison. The second movement, a Pavane, built from a 13th century hymn, is lushly elegiac. The final movements, respectively, draw on flamenco and Celtic melodies — rhythm-charged, but remarkably generic, as if inspired by World Music 101 classes.
Hats off to Day Turner (who has devoted much of her career to performing music of living composers) and the orchestra’s many soloists (i.e. Bruce Foster, such an expressive clarinetist) for giving this piece a shot.