December 1, 2022
The composers of “Season of Light”
Alongside the well-known Bach, Corelli, and Telemann, we are featuring two additional composers on our annual Baroque concert programs this month: Isabella Leonarda and Joseph-Marie-Clement dall’Abaco, both prolific composers, the first of whom led a quiet contemplative life in a convent, while the latter lived an expansive and cosmopolitan life throughout Europe.
Isabella Leonarda was born in 1620 to a prominent family in Novara, whose members were church officials, knights, and civic leaders. She entered Collegio di Sant’ Orsola, a convent in Novara, at age 16 and remained there until her death in 1704. She composed more than 200 pieces of sacred music, all while holding positions within the convent of increasing responsibility, including those of music instructor, mother superior, and counselor.
Her Sonata Duodecima is believed to be the first violin sonata composed by a woman, and the Opus 16 sonatas of it which it is the last appear to be the earliest instrumental sonatas published (in 1693) by a female composer.
Leonarda was virtually unknown outside Novara, where she spent the entirety of her life. Several of Leonarda’s works were discovered in France where Sebastien de
Brossard, a French composer, came into possession of some of her music and gave a wonderful testament to her skills: “All the works of this illustrious and incomparable Isabella Leonarda are so beautiful, so gracious, so brilliant and at the same time so learned and so wise, that my great regret is not having them all.”
Joseph-Marie-Clement dall’Abaco was born to Italian parents in Brussels in 1710, where his father, himself a musician, was in exile with the court of Maximilian II of Bavaria. The family later followed Maximilian’s court to Versailles before returning to Munich, where Joseph began his musical education under the tutelage of his father. At age 19, dall’Abaco was in service to the Prince-elector of Cologne at Bonn, where he played in the court chamber orchestra; he was appointed its music director in 1738. This position allowed dall’Abaco to perform frequently in major European centers; he was active in London by 1740, where he one of the prominent cellists of the time.
In 1752, dall’Abaco’s brother-in-law fled court after stealing a significant amount of money from the Prince-elector who employed them both; life at court became difficult for dall’Abaco after the incident, prompting him to renounce his position and return to Verona, Italy. While visiting his family in Munich that winter on his way to Verona, he was anonymously accused of plotting to poison the Prince-elector of Cologne, an accusation of which he was not found guilty. These events undoubtedly changed the trajectory of the composer’s life: he settled in Verona in 1753 and remained there until his death in 1805. During his long life, dell’Abaco wrote close to 40 cello sonatas, and the 11 Capricci for Violincello Solo, the first of which is featured on this program.
September 13, 2022
The Composers of “Consider the Source”
Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)
A gifted, award-winning, and exceptional musician and composer, Jessie Montgomery has crafted music that is wholly original and engaging as it is refracted through the prism of her American experience.
We perform Source Code (2013) on our Consider the Source concerts, a piece in one movement for string quartet that is at once plaintive and sweet. The composer’s own program note reflects on the sources of inspiration:
The first sketches of Source Code began as transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the peak of the Civil Rights era in the United States. I experimented by re-interpreting gestures, sentences, and musical syntax (the bare bones of rhythm and inflection) by choreographer Alvin Ailey, poets Langston Hughes and Rita Dove, and the great jazz songstress Ella Fitzgerald into musical sentences and tone paintings. Ultimately, this exercise of listening, re-imagining, and transcribing led me back to the black spiritual as a common musical source across all three genres. The spiritual is a significant part of the DNA of black folk music, and subsequently most (arguably all) American pop music forms that have developed to the present day. This one-movement work is a kind of dirge, which centers on a melody based on syntax derived from black spirituals. The melody is continuous and cycles through like a gene strand with which all other textures play.
Jessie Montgomery is, according to the BBC, “one of the most distinctive and communicative voices in the US, as a player and a creator.” Learn more about what she’s up to, and listen to some of her music on her website, https://www.jessiemontgomery.com/
Chinary Ung (b. 1942)
We feature Chinary Ung’s Child Song (1985) on our September 2022 concerts, in our first performances of this composer’s music. Starting with a single Cambodian folk song he remembered from his youth, Ung captured both his past and his present by scoring the piece for Western instruments. The work is luminous, dark, provocative, and lovely all at once, as it spirals through a single movement.
Ung’s portfolio is extensive, and runs the gamut from works for solo instrument or voice through orchestral compositions. There is one notable and extensive period in which he wrote only one piece, and its onset coincided with the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Adam Greene, in a portrait of Ung that you can read in its entirety on the composer’s website, wrote:
“The rise of the Khmer Rouge and its policies confirmed Ung’s fears regarding the threat to music and culture in Cambodia, as the practice of music was banned in the country and musicians were either killed or sent to forced labor camps. The devastation wrought by the regime through its four-year reign was so utterly complete that it is almost incomprehensible, yet Ung was able to compartmentalize the agony of personal loss into a project of preservation, and ultimately, of hope. To have agency in the midst of calamity was a privilege. Over the next several years he would make contributions to the preservation of Cambodian culture through three, often interrelated, roles: Archivist, Teacher, and Performer.”
His music is engaging and inspiring, lyrical and often mystical in tone, but Chinary Ung is much more than a composer. He has worked tirelessly to document and preserve Cambodian culture as well as that of other Southeast Asian communities. His website is an exploration of his music, activism, and life. It is well worth an extended visit: http://chinaryung.com/about.html
Judith Weir (b. 1954)
Judith Weir, whose Three Chorales for cello and piano is featured on the Consider the Source concerts, hails from Great Britain, and is a prolific composer of opera, chamber, orchestral, and choral music (and everything in between). She spent a summer in her younger days studying with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood, has taught at Harvard and Princeton, and has had music commissioned by the BSO and Boston-area musicians. In 2014, she was the first woman appointed Master of the Queen’s (presumably now, King’s) Music, a royal post that gave her the opportunity to write music for royal and national celebrations and commemorations. She uses the position to support amateur music groups and rural music festivals. Her website, www.judithweir.com is worth a visit, and her blog on the site is charming and delightful.
Three Chorales for cello and piano fits nicely with the theme of the concerts, where each piece – while wholly original – has at its inception point a source, whether folk songs, poetry, or dance. Weir was inspired by phrases from religious poetry and music, but she considers the three movements to be “personal, secular, and mystical.” Each is brief, self-contained, and lovely. The cello’s long, singing, lines have a contemplative quality juxtaposed against a spare piano. While it is appropriate to sit back, close your eyes, and let the music envelop you, this is music worth leaning into, paying close attention, and marveling at the perfection of each note, as well.
For additional insight into Judith Weir’s music and to hear excerpts from many of her pieces (or listen in their entirety if you have Spotify), check out this site: her descriptions of her music are wonderful.