Program Notes: Notes from California

Tumblebird Contrails (Bay Area Premiere)
Gabriella Smith (b. 1991)

Smith describes herself as “a composer and environmentalist.” She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area “playing and writing music, hiking, backpacking, and volunteering on a songbird research project.” Many of Gabriella’s works address the climate crisis. 

Gabriella received her Bachelors of Music in composition from the Curtis Institute of Music. She also attended Princeton University. Her mentors include John Adams, Richard Danielpour, Jennifer Higdon, and Steve Mackey.

Tumblebird Contrails was commissioned by the Pacific Harmony Foundation for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, where it premiered in 2014, conducted by Marin Alsop. In her program note, Smith says the work “is inspired by a single moment I experienced while backpacking in Point Reyes, sitting in the sand at the edge of the ocean, listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the Pacific (the keening gulls, pounding surf, rush of approaching waves, sizzle of sand and sea foam in receding tides), the constant ebb and flow of pitch to pitchless, tune to texture, grooving to free-flowing, watching a pair of ravens playing in the wind, rolling, swooping, diving, soaring–-imagining the ecstasy of wind in the wings–-jet trails painting never-ending streaks across the sky. The title, Tumblebird Contrails, is a Kerouac-inspired, nonsense phrase I invented to evoke the sound and feeling of the piece.”

En blanc et noir (orch. Robin Holloway)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

En blanc et noir is a suite for two pianos composed in Normandy during June, 1915. The title, In White and Black,” refers to the colors of piano keys. Debussy said the three movements “derive their color and feeling merely from the sonority of the piano.” Further, he remarked that “these pieces need to draw their color, their emotion, simply from the piano, like the ‘grays’ of Velázquez, if you understand me.” Each movement comes with  a dedication and a literary motto.

The first movement, dedicated to conductor Serge Koussevitzky, is prefaced with a line from the libretto to Gounod’s opera, Roméo et Juliette: “He who stays in his place and does not dance quietly admits to a disgrace.”

The second movement is dedicated to the memory of Jacques Charlot, a business associate of Debussy’s publisher who had been killed in action in the war. It is prefaced by a passage from François Villon’s Ballade against the enemies of France. Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein feste Burg” (A Mighty Fortress) is quoted, as is the French “Marseillaise.”

The third movement is dedicated to Igor Stravinsky, and is prefaced by a quotation from Charles of Orléans: “Winter, you are nothing but a villain.”

The History of Red
Reena Esmail (b. 1983)

Indian-American composer Reena Esmail works between the worlds of Indian and Western classical music. She has degrees in composition from The Juilliard School and the Yale School of Music, and received a Fulbright-Nehru grant to study Hindustani music in India. She is currently artist-in-residence with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

The History of Red was commissioned by soprano Kathryn Mueller and a consortium of orchestras. The piece was first performed on April 24, 2021 by River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Brett Mitchell, with Mueller as soloist.

Inspired by Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Esmail made a setting of Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan’s poem, The History of Red. Like Knoxville, Esmail notes, “the singer grapples with the world around her. And yet it is different—-Linda Hogan’s beautiful text is clearly the voice of an adult woman, aware not only of her own current world, but of the entire, complex history of her ancestors. Perhaps that is why her words instantly grabbed me-—at this time in the world, when we are each grappling with our own complicated, intertwined histories, her journey felt so resonant to me. I wrote this piece as the pandemic was raging around the world, as the effects of decades of racism hit a new fever pitch in the US, and as we headed into the 2020 presidential election with so much trepidation. My own complicated history, and the history of this time, is also embedded in every note of this piece.”

Symphony in Three Movements
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Commissioned by the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York, Symphony in Three Movements was first performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Stravinsky, on January 24, 1946. It was Stravinsky’s first major composition after emigrating to the United States, and contains material from other projects he had abandoned.

Stravinsky regarded the work as his “war symphony,” a direct reaction to the events of World War II. He was influenced, he said, by “our arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope, of continual torments, of tension and, at last, cessation and relief.” 

The first movement was inspired by a documentary on Japanese scorched earth tactics in China. The piano part derives from an incomplete piano concerto. The second movement consists of unused music for a film version of Franz Werfel’s novel Song of Bernadette, especially a scene for “The Apparition of the Virgin,” with a prominent part for the solo harp. Both solo harp and solo piano appear in the last movement, which was spurred by newsreel footage of goose-stepping soldiers. Stravinsky said the finale was meant to depict “the rise of the Allies after the overturning of the German war machine.”

Stravinsky had second thoughts about the programmatic content of the Symphony. “In spite of what I have said,” he later wrote, “the Symphony is not programmatic. Composers combine notes. That is all. How and in what form the things of this world are impressed upon their music is not for them to say.”

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2023