Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
490 Riverside Drive, 11th floor
New York, NY 10027-5788
(212) 896 1700
World Premiere | Commissioned by Orpheus
Whether composing, playing flute, singing, teaching, producing electronic music or telling stories, Nathalie Joachim is thriving as a musician unbounded. Born in Brooklyn and educated at Juilliard and The New School, Joachim is a consummate New Yorker, and yet she is equally connected to her family’s roots in Haiti, generating inspiration and source material for her most ambitious projects. She made her name as half of the electro-pop flute duo Flutronix, and at the same time she earned a place in the lineup of Eighth Blackbird, one of the country’s premier contemporary music ensembles. She’s a recording artist whose Grammy nomination in 2020 fell outside of the classical sphere, in the “world music” category. Now she is the one defining the classical sphere for the next generation as a professor of composition at Princeton University.
In writing this new work for Orpheus, Joachim has leaned into her own immersive understanding of how to make music pop in small ensemble settings. After a “warm and gentle” opening section, Vibran snaps into a “punchy and fun” groove powered by a vibraphone pattern that Joachim describes as “almost absurd in its happiness,” punctuated by kicks on a pedal bass drum. In a final section that Joachim calls “transcendent and clear-eyed,” music related to the sweet opening section returns, transformed by lingering throbs of rhythmic vitality.
Nathalie Joachim, composer
Orpheus originally invited me to write a piece around the theme of Carnival, a festive event celebrated throughout the Caribbean diaspora. Carnival represents freedom of creative, artistic, and spiritual expression among a people whose freedoms are still suppressed. To interpolate the entirety of its colorful kinetic energy wrapped around beautiful autonomous Black bodies that hold everything from joy to deep generational sorrow in one piece of music was an impossible task. Instead, I attempted to capture a suspended moment in time, asking myself, “what might just one second of the glorious feeling of Carnival sound like if we could slow it down and zoom in on it?” Vibran, the word for vibrant in Haitian Creole, captures the warm and sublime yet overwhelming sensation of this moment through my own imagination. It is meant to sound like a single moment that fleetingly connects you to a tiny piece of happiness shared by our ancestors.
Orchestrated by Shuying Li
Commissioned by Orpheus
Chopin, at the age of 20, was at a crossroads. A child prodigy on the piano, he had been a published composer since the age of seven; while still in high school in Warsaw, he wrote the music that soon led his peer Schumann to declare him “a genius.” It was clear that Chopin’s talents were bound to take him beyond the small scene in his native Poland (as confirmed by his first concert appearances in Vienna), and so he embarked on the most obvious path available to him and started composing showpieces to play with orchestras.
The problem was that Chopin, a finely-nuanced pianist and an extraordinarily sensitive person, didn’t mesh with the razzle-dazzle expected of composer/performers on the touring circuit during that era. Testing that traditional path, he wrote two piano concertos that he performed himself at splashy concerts in Warsaw, composed and premiered in the opposite order from how they were published. When he soon left Warsaw for what was meant to be his first European tour, he ended up lingering in Vienna and eventually he settled in Paris. Finding his niche in the salons of the upper crust, Chopin forged a whole new kind of career as a pianist, where he rarely performed for the general public. After the twin concertos of 1830, he only followed up with one Polonaise for piano and orchestra completed the next year, and then for the rest of his musical life, he managed to avoid doing anything that extroverted again.
In that context, the Piano Concerto No. 1 is like a portal into an alternate universe, showcasing a young Chopin on a grand stage who grabs all the attention with convincing swagger, from the first fortissimo entrance right through the closing krakowiak that borrows its vigorous rhythms from a Polish folk dance. The only pitfall of this concerto (and its sibling) is the orchestration, which seems optimized to make the orchestra disappear into the background.
Pianos have gotten louder since Chopin’s day, and orchestras have been brought back out of the expectation that they would be entirely subservient concerto accompanists. With all due respect to Chopin, his concertos deserve more evenly balanced orchestrations than the originals, and Orpheus has been on the case. For a previous collaboration with Nobuyuki Tsujii, the orchestra commissioned the young Chinese-American composer Shuying Li to re-orchestrate the Piano Concerto No. 2. Now she has given a similar facelift to the Piano Concerto No. 1, keeping its bone structure intact by preserving the string and timpani parts as written, but using the individual woodwinds to create more contrast and separation.
Orchestrated by Zachary Wadsworth
Commissioned by Orpheus
Having emerged from the first of the crippling bouts of depression that cycled through his entire adult life, Schumann was finding his rhythm again as a 24-year-old music critic, journal editor, and aspiring composer in the idyllic college town of Leipzig, Germany. Like so many twenty-something idealists, he and his friends obsessed over grandiose ideas about life and art; in Schumann’s case, as a bookseller’s son who almost chose to pursue poetry, he was particularly well-read and dedicated in his philosophical pursuits, and those ideas became integral to his music.
An animating force for Schumann in those years was assembling his very own “League of David” that would, like the biblical King David, conquer the Philistines who were holding back high art. He was doing his part through his writings and compositions that were starting to get noticed more and more, and in that period he could even enjoy the satisfaction of being engaged—not to the real love of his life, the piano prodigy Clara Wieck (with whom he shared a first kiss later that year, sparking a nine-year courtship), but to one perfectly lovely Ernestine from the town of Asch.
This hopeful period in the life of young Schumann was the backdrop for his most ambitious piano piece yet attempted, Carnaval. He had already explored similar territory four years earlier in Papillons from 1831, a series of short piano movements meant to convey aspects of a masked ball from a novel by his very favorite writer, Jean Paul. Schumann went deeper in Carnaval by populating the 21 sections with all sorts of “guests” at this ball, including his League of David friends and his current and future fiancées (Italianized as Estrella and Chiarina). It takes two characters to personify Schumann himself: Florestan represents his passionate and gregarious side, contrasted against the pensive Eusebius. At the end, a final rumble pits the whole gang against the blockheads of the world, as represented by a stuffy old tune that ballet lovers might recognize as the “Grandfather’s Dance” from the party scene in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Underpinning all of it is a musical code, built off of the four notes that correspond to Ernestine’s hometown of Asch. (In the German system of note names, Es is what we call E-flat, and H is our B-natural.)
Even Schumann’s biggest boosters considered Carnaval barely playable on the piano. Keyboard virtuosos have worked out the technical challenges, but it is still a Herculean task for any one person to bring this grand party to life, making the score a perfect candidate for something that has become an Orpheus specialty of late: refracting a piano solo into a riot of instrumental color. For this project, Orpheus turned to the composer and pianist Zachary Wadsworth, who leaned into color combinations with the single winds and small string sections that Schumann never would have considered based on the orchestration practices of his day, but that he would surely appreciate now as a snapshot of Carnaval at its most exuberant.
© 2023 Aaron Grad.