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Elements and Transitions (2008)

 

A work in four movements for violin and organ; Commisioned by King's Chapel, Boston, Massachusetts; premiered Sunday, January 25, 2009, 5:00 P.M. at King's Chapel; performed by Jodi Hagen, violin and Heinrich Christensen, organ.



Program notes from the premiere:

In the summer of 2008, Heinrich Christensen approached me about composing the work that premieres on this evening’s concert.  Heinrich’s idea was to create a companion work for the recent organ and violin transcriptions of Vivaldi's Four Seasons.  As we talked, it became clear that the proposed work would pose a unique challenge. It would have to serve two distinct purposes: first as musical interludes between each of the Vivaldi concerti; and second as a stand-alone four movement piece that could be performed without the Vivaldi concerti for its second concert presentation in June 2009.  Moreover, it was decided that each movement of Elements and Transitions was to reflect on the Vivaldi concerti in some way—incorporating motivic or harmonic materials, utilizing programmatic musical material, or incorporating text and using musical image painting.  The title then refers to these two concepts: the piece is about the “elements” as in weather phenomena, focusing on the transitions between the seasons; and the piece develops musical elements taken from the Vivaldi concerti and then serves as the transitions between the concerti.

To my mind, part of Vivaldi's Four Seasons’ greatest charm is also its curse.  The concerti and their programmatic associations are famously popular, but so recognizable to contemporary audiences that they have become almost caricatures of themselves.  Indeed, the works have been co-opted as the soundtrack associated with so many films and advertisements that many people have forgotten how ground-breaking and original these pieces were at the time they were written nearly 300 years ago. 

I decided to compose four movements as a way of reframing (with the intent of reinvigorating) some of Vivaldi’s original ideas, reflecting a contemporary point of view.  When I read the sonnets that accompany each concerto, I tried to imagine what Vivaldi's world might have looked like in 1723--how the weather and climate would have felt; how Italian’s lives in the 16th century were driven by seasonal changes; and how Vivaldi, were he alive today, might have thought differently about writing this work.  Focusing on particular meteorological events, I chose to depict scenarios that were personal to me—days I can recall when distinct weather patterns have etched a clear picture in my memory. 

The following “roadmap” highlights particular aspects of each movement that might prove interesting to the first-time listener:  

I. Clouds rolling through a bright blue sky:  This movement is based on a small musical motive taken directly from the Vivaldi “Spring” concerto’s first movement, and developed as the kernel that generates virtually the entire movement.  This motive goes from being groupings of four sixteenth notes in 4/4 time in the Vivaldi

to groupings of six sixteenth notes is 12/8 time

This motive accompanies a melody that recurs throughout the movement, and is passed back and forth in various guises between the organ and the violin.  

II. An oppressively hot day:  This movement suggests and unrelenting heat by using subtle but constant organ color changes over a long, sustained chord that builds for the duration of the movement.  The violin part includes a variety of Vivaldi’s figurations (in many cases lifted directly) and placed in an entirely new context. 

III. Intermittent rain in Central Park: This movement, perhaps more than the others, uses the violin and organ together to create a blended texture that paints a musical picture.  There is a break in the rainfall mid-movement, and the violin portrays a little romance, which is finally interrupted by the return of the precipitation. 

IV. Renewal and the continuing cycle: This epilogue opens with a serial theme, the pitches of which are derived from Vivaldi’s concerti.  The movement depicts the seasonal transition from winter to spring, and includes programmatic suggestions to the performers imbedded in the score (another idea incorporated from the Vivaldi): “The bright morning sun rises on a glorious, snow-covered landscape…icicles hanging from the trees and rooftops begin to melt; frozen streams begin to flow, blankets of snow begin to disappear…”  The movement closes with a final Vivaldi quote, signaling that the cycle is beginning again.