Britt Orchestra / Dover Quartet

Saturday, August 1, 8 p.m.


JOHN ADAMS: Absolute Jest (featuring the Dover Quartet)
STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring

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Britt Classical

The theme of large orchestral works set by the Opening Night concert continues through opening weekend. Radial Play, a short piece by Samuel Adams (the son of composer John Adams), is a dazzling work with a kaleidoscopic effect, constantly shifting to show off the colors of the orchestra.

John Adams, one of the most celebrated living composers today, will be in the Britt audience while the Orchestra performs his work Absolute Jest, with special guests The Dover Quartet.
Adams was inspired by the scherzos of late Beethoven string quartets, and sampled the great composer in a way that resulted, as he describes, as “Beethoven through a hall of mirrors.” The Dover Quartet will perform the Beethoven-inspired themes, and the orchestra will contrast with Adams’ signature propulsive, complex rhythms.

NPR’s Performance Today says of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, “Almost no musical work has had such a powerful influence or evoked as much controversy.” When it premiered in 1913, with its primitive and dissonant music, unusual ballet choreography, and Russian pagan setting, it was met with derision and riots. The orchestral work, however, has stood the test of time, and its premiere is often called one of the greatest moments in Western Art. This will be the first-ever Britt performance of the great work.

Program notes © 2015 Elizabeth Schwartz

Samuel Adams
Radial Play

Composer: born December 30, 1985, San Francisco, CA
Work composed: 2014, on a commission from Carnegie Hall for the National Youth Orchestra.
Dedicated to The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, crotales, glockenspiel, nipple gong, ratchet, sandpaper blocks, sizzle cymbal, splash cymbals, tam-tam, vibraphone, washboard, piano, 2 harps and strings.
Estimated duration: 6 minutes

Samuel Adams finds musical inspiration in a wide variety of sounds, from traditional classical works to the realms of noise and electro-acoustic music. Based in the Bay Area, Adams’ music has been commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, New World Symphony, Ensemble ACJW, St. Lawrence String Quartet, and Carnegie Hall. Adams’ work has been called “wondrously alluring” by the San Francisco Chronicle, while the New York Times describes his work as “mesmerizing, music of a composer with a personal voice and keen imagination.” In 2013, Adams was composer-in-residence at the Spoleto Festival USA, where the St. Lawrence String Quartet premiered his String Quartet in Five Movements. In the fall of 2015, Adams will serve as a composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony.

The word “radial” refers to the idea of music radiating around a particular note. In this sense, the music revolves in ever-shifting patterns, like a kaleidoscopic mandala. The shifts happen subtly, gradually altering the pattern until it morphs into a wholly new design. Adams describes the piece this way: “Radial Play is constructed of a series of contrapuntal ‘objects.’ Each contains a center pitch around which the rest of the music orbits. Over the course of the work’s brief duration, these objects move, evolve, collide, split, expand and contract. In the final moments of the work, the counterpoint extends itself to the thresholds of the orchestra’s range, weakens itself and quickly dissolves.”

John Adams
Absolute Jest

Composer: born February 15, 1947, Worcester, MA
Work composed: 2010, rev. 2012
Instrumentation: solo string quartet, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, chimes, cowbell, bass drum, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, piano (special tuning), celesta, harp (special tuning) and strings.
Estimated duration: 25 minutes 

“I like to think of ‘jest’ as indicating an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention,” writes John Adams. In his symphonic work Absolute Jest, Adams showcases both his own wit and that of Ludwig van Beethoven, whom Adams quotes throughout the work. The Beethoven quotes, lifted mainly from the late string quartets, are not mere references, but building blocks from which Adams constructs his unique homage. Adams chooses fragments that typify what he terms “the emphatic energy of Beethoven.” Using these quotes, Adams reflects Beethoven’s mastery of “taking the minimal amount of information and turning it into fantastic, expressive, and energized structures.”

In his own program notes, Adams writes, “The idea for Absolute Jest was suggested by a performance by Michael Tilson Thomas of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a piece that I’d known all my life but had never much paid attention to until hearing MTT conduct it. Hearing this (and knowing that I was already committed to composing something for the San Francisco Symphony’s 100th anniversary), I was suddenly stimulated by the way Stravinsky had absorbed musical artifacts from the past and worked them into his own highly personal language …

Six months after the premiere, I decided to compose a different beginning to Absolute Jest – a full 400 bars of completely new music … that launches the piece in what is, to my ears, a far more satisfying fashion. The rolling 6/8 patterns recall the … Ninth Symphony scherzo but also summon up other references – of the Hammerklavier Sonata, of the Eighth Symphony, and other archetypal Beethoven motifs that come and go like cameo appearances on a stage …

Absolute Jest had elicited mixed responses from listeners on its first outing. Quite a few reviewers assumed, perhaps because of its title, that the piece was little more than a backslapping joke … There is nothing particularly new about one composer internalizing the music of another and ‘making it his own.’… Of course there are “winks,” some of them not entirely subtle, here and there in the piece. But the act of composing the work (one that took nearly a year of work) was the most extended experience in pure ‘invention’ that I’ve ever undertaken … The ‘jest’ of the title should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, ‘gesta:’ doings, deeds, exploits.”

Igor Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring: Scenes of Pagan Russia in Two Parts

Composer: born June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov), Russia; died April 6, 1971, New York City
Work composed: 1911-1913
Instrumentation: 2 piccolos, 3 flutes, alto flute, 4 oboes, 2 English horns, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bass clarinets, 4 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 8 horns, 2 Wagner tubas, 4 trumpets, high trumpet, bass trumpet, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, antique cymbals, bass drum, cymbals, guiro, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, and strings.
Estimated duration: 35 minutes

Igor Stravinsky’s initial concept for The Rite of Spring came to him in 1910, while he was working on The Firebird. In his 1935 autobiography, Stravinsky described a ‘fleeting vision’: “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” He floated this idea past Nikolai Roerich, a noted archaeologist, and Russia’s foremost authority on folk art and ancient ritual. Roerich was intrigued by this concept, and the two men mapped out a plot for a ballet depicting scenes of pagan Russia, culminating in the sacrifice of The Chosen One.

Over the years, Stravinsky claimed several different origins of the ideas for The Rite of Spring, each contradicting the others. After his first explanation of the vision that interrupted his work on The Firebird, he began revising or purifying the history of The Rite. In 1920 he told a reporter The Rite of Spring had been conceived without any thought to storyline or ballet staging, and finally repudiated the folk and Russian underpinnings of the work altogether. Why Stravinsky revised the origin story for The Rite of Spring is complex, and has to do with the initial failure of the work in its original form as a ballet, as well as with Stravinsky’s desire, after he left Russia permanently and denounced it following the 1917 revolution, to remake himself as a “Western” composer. As musicologist Richard Taruskin notes, “He rejected the parochial lore of his birthright and embraced an aggressively cosmopolitan ideology of absolute music – music without a passport, without a past, without ‘extramusical’ content of any kind.”

The Rite of Spring is written in two large sections, “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice,” each containing many smaller sections with their own titles. The musical structure is formed around many repeating rhythmic patterns, called ostinati. Stravinsky also quotes fragments of melodies from a number of different Russian and Lithuanian folk songs. Harmonically, Stravinsky combines the modal scales of the folksongs with an octatonic scale (a scale made of alternating whole and half steps), to create rich and unusual sonorities. What gives The Rite of Spring its unique energy is Stravinsky’s innovative decision to abandon a steady beat in favor of constantly shifting ostinati and melodic fragments. One fragment follows after another with no modulation or linkage, in an abrupt, dislocated manner. This resulted in music of such complexity that Stravinsky often had trouble determining where the measure lines should fall in the score.

Much has been written about the riot that broke out at the first performance of The Rite of Spring, on May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The riot was actually a response to Vaslav Nijinsky’s provocative choreography rather than to the music itself, which became impossible to hear as the audience’s reaction grew louder. The open dress rehearsal a few days earlier occasioned no such violent reaction, probably because those attending were music and dance cognoscenti. In contrast, the audience attending the premiere was made up of the general public, along with supporters and detractors of Serge Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes. This audience expected an evening of ballet that included Les Sylphides and other standard fare; it is no wonder they protested Nijinsky’s shocking and extremely un-balletic (i.e., not classical) steps. As one Paris critic noted, “at the end of the Prelude the crowd simply stopped listening to the music so that they might better amuse themselves with the choreography.” Most reviews of the opening performance paid scant attention to the music, aside from mentioning Stravinsky as the composer.

The performance continued over the riot, which included fistfights and flying debris. Nijinsky had to call out the steps to the dancers from offstage, as they could not hear the music over the increasing pandemonium in the house. The promotional value of such an opening was not lost on either Stravinsky or Diaghilev. Stravinsky recalled, “We were excited, angry, disgusted, and … happy … Diaghilev’s only comment was ‘Exactly what I wanted.’”

Despite the firestorm of publicity that followed the premiere, The Rite of Spring ballet was performed only a half-dozen times. Ironically, Nijinsky’s original choreography for The Rite of Spring has since been lost. The Rite of Spring was not positively received until the spring of 1914, when it was conducted by Pierre Monteux as a concert piece. Its status as the epitome of 20th century music did not coalesce until the end of the 1920s, after the score was published, and The Rite was performed by orchestras from Leipzig to Buenos Aires.

Samuel Adams - Radial Play

John Adams - Absolute Jest
John Adams' Earbox


Igor Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring: Scenes of Pagan Russia in Two Parts

2015 Britt Classical Playlist

Guest Artist: Dover Quartet

Dover Quartet

The Dover Quartet catapulted to international stardom following a stunning sweep of the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, becoming one of the most in-demand ensembles in the world. The New Yorker recently dubbed them “the young American string quartet of the moment,” and The Strad raved that the Quartet is “already pulling away from their peers with their exceptional interpretive maturity, tonal refinement and taut ensemble.” In 2013-14, the Quartet became the first ever Quartet-in-Residence for the venerated Curtis Institute of Music.

During the 2014-15 season, the Dover Quartet will perform more than 100 concerts throughout the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe. Highlights include concerts for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, Schneider Concerts in New York City, and Wigmore Hall in London. The Quartet will also perform together with the pianists Andre Watts, Anne-Marie McDermott, and Jon Kimura Parker; the violists Roberto Díaz and Cynthia Phelps; and the Pacifica Quartet.

In addition, the Quartet will participate in week-long residencies for Chamber Music Northwest, the Phoenix Chamber Music Festival, the Chamber Music Society of Logan, and the Festival Internacional de Musica de Cartagena. 

For more information about the Dover Quartet:

Pre-Concert Conversation

Jefferson Public Radio's Director of FM Program Services, Eric Teel, will host a pre-concert conversation with composer John Adams and members of the Dover Quartet at 7 p.m. in the Performance Garden. 

Table Rock City Series Performer: Siskiyou Violins

Britt Performance Garden from 6 p.m. to 6:45 p.m.