The inspiration for Les Violons du Roy upcoming performance

Friday, September 14, 2018

This ensemble gives contemporary audiences their most authentic comparison to chamber music as initially heard by monarchs and their courtiers. Here, they are joined by acclaimed countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo—performing Handel arias and Glass songs in a collaboration Le Soleil described as “a unique, refined, and explosive concert.

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Excerpts from Tolomeo, Re d’Egitto, and Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi
Concerto Grosso in D Minor, Opus 6, No. 10
Excerpts from Amadigi di Gaula and Rodelinda

Born a Saxon and adopted by the British as one of their own after settling in England at age 27, Handel expertly fused the national styles of his day, combining the Germanic science of counterpoint with French elegance and Italian vocalità. Before gaining renown as a composer of oratorio starting in the late 1730s, he was best known for his operatic work. He produced some thirty operas in London, including at the Royal Academy of Music, which he founded in 1719. It was there on April 30, 1728, that he premiered the opera Tolomeo, which borrows a libretto previously used by Domenico Scarlatti. The story is set on the island of Cypress circa 108 BCE, where Tolomeo, deposed by his mother in favor of his brother Alessandro, leads a miserable existence under King Araspe. In the third act, after being forced to marry King Araspe’s sister and disavow his own wife, Tolomeo chooses to take his own life by swallowing poison just before launching into the recitative “Inumano fratel.” In the ensuing aria “Stille amare,” a poignant larghetto in B-flat minor, the fallen sovereign senses his impending death. Fortunately, Tolomeo’s poison turns out to be a sleeping potion, setting the scene for a happy and conciliatory ending.

Completed five years earlier, the opera Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi combines the story of Flavio Cuniberto, thirteenth king of the Lombards (a northern Italian people), with amorous intrigue right out of Corneille’s Le Cid. The aria “Rompo i lacci” is sung in the second act by Guido (a role first performed, like Tolomeo, by the famous castrato Senesino). This tempestuous air in G minor has Guido—the young son of royal counselor Ugone—torn between his loyalty to his father, who has asked him to kill his rival Lotario in a duel, and his love for Emilia, Lotario’s daughter. Only the central section, a tender largo in B-flat major, provides a moment of respite.

Handel’s Concerti Grossi Opus 6 were composed in rapid succession in fall 1739 and are considered the high point of his instrumental output. The set of 12 concerti grossi is clearly in the lineage of Torelli and Corelli. Consisting of five movements, Concerto No. 10 begins with a French overture in D minor dominated by a recurrent four-note motif. The fugal allegro ends with a coda marked lentamente. Next is a slow aria in triple meter, then a bustling duple meter allegro. The penultimate allegro movement eloquently illustrates the basic principle of the concerto grosso: the opposition of a group of soloists (concertino) with the rest of the orchestra (ripieno). The delicate closing allegro moderato marks a return to French style in the bright key of D major.

Philip Glass (born in 1937)
Excerpts from Akhnaten, Symphony No. 3, Songs from Liquid Days, Monsters of Grace, and 1000 Airplanes on the Roof.

Before becoming a leading exponent of musical minimalism (a genre based on the incantatory repetition of short patterns) and an icon known well beyond the classical sphere, U.S. composer Philip Glass studied at the Juilliard School, then in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. His meeting with the legendary Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar in 1965 was a turning point that helped forge Glass’s unique hypnotic style. A self-described theater composer, Glass first gained renown in 1976 for his opera Einstein on the Beach, which challenged operatic conventions by breaking down traditional narrative codes. The work kicked off a trilogy about “men who changed the world through the power of their ideas” (Glass), with Satyagraha (on Gandhi) in 1980 and Akhnaten, created in 1984 in Stuttgart. Based on the life of the pharaoh Akhenaton (14th century BCE), the opera includes texts from original sources in ancient Egyptian, Akkadien, and Biblical Hebrew, linked with narrator commentary in a modern language. Akhnaten’s “Hymn to the Sun” at the close of the second act weaves together major and minor modes and spectacular dissonances. The piece pays tribute to the sun god Aton, whom the pharaoh worshipped exclusively, giving rise to the first known monotheistic religion.

In addition to his operatic work, Glass has written 11 symphonies, the most recent of which premiered at Carnegie Hall on January 31, 2017. His Symphony No. 3 was first performed in 1995 in Künzelsau, Germany, under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies (who also conducted the premiere of Akhnaten) and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. By far the shortest of Glass’s symphonies at roughly 23 minutes long, it consists of four movements with no tempo indications. Glass considers the opening movement “a quiet, moderately paced piece [that] functions as prelude to movements two and three.”

Songs from Liquid Days, recorded in 1986 with contemporary pop artists and performers such as the Philip Glass Ensemble and conductor Michael Riesman, further enhanced Glass’s reputation. The fourth track, the delightful “Liquid Days, Part One” with lyrics by David Byrne, was performed by the group The Roches.

Twelve years later in Los Angeles, Glass penned Monsters of Grace, which he calls “a digital opera in three dimensions.” With 13 scenes, the work draws on poems by 13th-century Sufi mystic Jelaluddin Rumi. Some audiences and reviewers took issue with the 3D animations used throughout the performance.

Always game for unusual collaborations, Glass composed 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, a “science fiction music drama” in one act with text by David Henry Hwang, in 1988 in a Vienna airport hangar. This spaced-out work recounts the close encounters of M, the sole character, with extraterrestrial life forms who warn him that no one will believe him if he recounts his otherworldly experiences.

Don’t miss Les Violons du Roy in Loeb Playhouse on October 21.

Listen to their work here.

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