Notes on the Program
By Aaron Grad
One of the very first composers known by name was Pérotin, a French church musician who probably worked at Notre Dame in Paris around 1200. In that period when simple liturgical chant was just starting to blossom into the multilayered vocal music that seeded the entire tradition of Western art music, Pérotin stood out to an anonymous British commentator later in the century, and it is through this one written appraisal that we can attribute specific compositions to him, including a call-and-response melody to match the Latin text of Beata viscera, a poem from the same era recognizing the wonder and mystery of the Virgin Mary.
Pérotin’s melody is no less resonant today, and it has proved adaptable in a variety of settings, including a famous crossover recording made in 1994 that paired jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the early music vocalists of the Hilliard Ensemble. When Orpheus commissioned its newest associate member Gregg August (b. 1968) to compose a work for this program, his thoughts turned to Garbarek’s recording and another Beata viscera rendition by his late friend Alexandra Montano, a distinguished classical vocalist.
August’s Variations on a Theme by Pérotin, scored for string orchestra and solo violin, takes advantage of the natural reverberation of Riverside Church and the richness of the Orpheus sound. It also leans on the stylistic range of soloist Charles Yang, who can traverse fluidly from a virtuosic cadenza to an improvised vamp. August himself straddles classical, jazz and Latin styles in his work as a composer and bandleader, and his role as the bassist anchoring the string orchestra allows for an openness in the musical treatment that will only reveal its final form in the moment of performance.
The London-born, American-based composer Anna Clyne (b. 1980) rocketed into the international limelight in 2009, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra named her as one of two composers-in-residence. Within her extensive catalog of orchestral, chamber and acoustic-electric music, Clyne had proved especially adept at writing for strings, as in her Grammy-nominated concerto for two violins and string orchestra from 2012, Prince of Clouds. When writing it, Clyne explained in a program note, “I was contemplating the presence of musical lineage—a family-tree of sorts that passes from generation to generation. This transfer of knowledge and inspiration between generations is a beautiful gift. Composed specifically for Jennifer Koh and her mentor at the Curtis Institute of Music, Jaime Laredo, this thread was in the foreground of my imagination as a dialogue between the soloists and ensemble. As a composer, working with such virtuosic, passionate and unique musicians is also another branch of this musical chain.”
Having just celebrated his 80th birthday in April, Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941) is proving that he is still in the prime of his musical life, adding major new works to a substantial catalog that stretches back to the 1960s. During his student years at Howard University, Manhattan School of Music and Michigan State University, Hailstork gained notice for his finely crafted scores for large and small ensembles, including a master’s thesis work performed by the Baltimore Symphony. A succession of teaching posts brought him to Virginia, where he joined the faculty of Norfolk State University and then Old Dominion University. He still serves as Professor of Music and Eminent Scholar, and current projects such as his Fourth Symphony—a tribute to George Floyd—show his continued engagement with concert music that reflects his perspective on Black life in America.
When commissioned to write a work for the string orchestra at a high school in northern Virginia in 1992, Hailstork looked back on his own childhood singing as a chorister at a cathedral in Albany to find inspiration for his Sonata da Chiesa, or “church sonata.” The titles of the brief movements match the work’s reverent tone: Exaltation, O Great Mystery, Adoration, Jubilation, O Lamb Of God, Grant Us Thy Peace, Exaltation.
© 2021 Aaron Grad.