M. Rózsa (1907 – 1995) Quo Vadis? (Sound Track)
Film music is a genre that is attractive as it is elusive to articulate and describe verbally. Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa is well-known for his wonderful music that he composed as sound tracks for such epics as Ben Hur, Julius Caesar and many many more films. Quo Vadis? is a 1951 epic film made by MGM, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and produced by Sam Zimbalist. Interestingly, Sergio Leone worked on it as an assistant director of the Italian company. What is most notable about Rózsa’s sound track for this biblical film is its historical authenticity, namely, the incorporation of a number of fragments of ancient Greek melodies into his own choral-music, astonishingly it did not win a single one! Having said that, the enduring charm of its music (and of its story) is evergreen and it never fails to impress, not only first-time viewers/listeners but also veteran ones as well.
M. Galea (b.1960) Mediterranea (Overture)
For the past ten years we have all witnessed Festival Mediterranea going from strength to strength to reach new peaks. This overture, which is being premiered this evening, was specifically composed to commemorate the festival’s tenth anniversary.
The Overture commences softly with a five-bar phrase which is afterwards emulated more intensely by various sections of the ensemble until it reaches a final answering phrase. This leads to a light fanfare composed of the higher brass section, replicated by the lower one and afterwards, to a heavy full-band contrapuntal-style passage accompanied by the top woodwind section. After smoothly tapering off this passage leads to the second section which starts with a short dialogue between solo trumpet and euphonium to be developed into a cantabile melody on the brass section. The third section recalls the opening theme in the home key against a marching rhythmic pattern. The coda starts with a short pick-up of the main motif in imitative style subsequently reaching to a brilliant climax and a flashing finale.
R. Drigo (1846 – 1930) Serenade (from the ballet Les millions d’arlequin)
Italian-born Riccardo Drigo is most noted for his long career as Kapellmeister and Director of music of the renowned Imperial Ballet of St Petersburg, for which he composed music for the original works and revivals of legendary choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. He also served as conductor of Italian opera performances at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. He is equally noted for his original compositions for ballet, including Les millions d’arlequin. While working on this particular ballet, Drigo took daily walks through the St Petersburg Summer Garden and along the banks of the Neva River, thinking of his native Italy. During one such daily walk, he composed the ballet’s very famous Serenade, which he set to the accompaniment of a solo mandolin. In the version heard this evening, for Althorn solo accompanied by a wind band, one can hear the gorgeously romantic melody that brings out the whole tonal and dynamic range of the instrument. In this arrangement by Denzil Stephens the discerning listener can note that the original has been transposed a tone higher, further emphasising the crystalline quality of the instrument.
Ino Attard: Althorn
G. Puccini (1858 – 1924) Madama Butterfly
As is customary in the yearly La Stella Band concert, a major work that is performed during the evening is what is known as a ‘Selection’, which invariably refers to a chosen opera whose more well-known melodies, overtures, meditations, entr’actes, etc, are culled from the original to form a new whole. It is also customary to choose this ‘Selection’ according to the opera that will have been performed just a few weeks prior to the annual appointment with the Band. This year’s Madama Butterfly at Teatru Astra was a triumph in every respect, as attested by the record number of patrons who were hosted at our theatre. Madama Butterfly, alongside La bohème and La traviata, is a perennial favourite with opera lovers and this, ironically, despite the catastrophic failure of its premiere in 1904. Given Puccini’s penchant for the higher voices, namely, those of soprano and tenor as opposed to the bass and baritone ranges, the orchestration makes serious demands on the trumpet and althorn solos. Throughout the work, one hears well-known melodies of arias sung by the principal characters, such as the soprano’s greatly-awaited ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ in Act Two of the opera. These arias are generally kept in the original key, and are interspersed with other tunes from the opera. One witnesses the delicacy of Puccini’s orchestral technique, which never fails to impress with its refinement and elegance.
Robert Buttigieg: Trumpet
Ino Attard: Althorn
J. de Haan (b.1959) Concerto d’amore
Dutch composer/conductor Jacob de Haan is one of the most popular and frequently performed wind music composers of our time. In a long-time co-operation with his publisher, De Haske Publications, he has issued numerous compositions and arrangements for various orchestral/band formations. His compositions, mostly written on commission, are known worldwide, especially those that are based on a combination of styles, as is the work performed this evening. Concerto d'Amore is structured on a combination of three different styles, namely, baroque, pop, and jazz. The stately introduction of the composition sounds like a baroque overture, with all the harmonic and contrapuntal intricacy one expects of such a style. This is followed by an energetic part in a pop idiom, which tapers off in a characteristic Adagio. A motive from this Adagio is assimilated in a swinging part, after which the work finishes with the return of the Adagio in a much-reinvented style.
F. von Suppé (1819 – 1895) Morning, Noon and Night (Overture)
During the first half of the 1840s, Suppé composed about 25 scores for the director of the Theater in der Josefstadt and also worked as a singer. These scores were generally for provincial theatres in and around Vienna, and in Bratislava and Sopron. Not really full-scale operettas, they are best regarded as plays with songs, usually with an overture. One of these was Ein Morgen, ein Mittag und ein Abend in Wien (Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna), which opened at the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna on February 26, 1844. The play closed after three nights, but the overture was a huge success.
As in many of Suppé's early scores, the overture to Ein Morgen, ein Mittag und ein Abend in Wien is infused with a lyricism and beauty of phrase developed from the composer's study with Donizetti and rhythmic manipulation learned from his perusal of works by Rossini. Like Rossini, Suppé repeats eight- or 16-measure melodic ideas, adding instruments and volume each time to increase intensity. Essentially an ABA structure, this Overture contrasts a slow, lyrical middle section with boisterous music that both opens and closes the piece.
An attention-grabbing bang begins the Overture. The first theme then sounds quietly on pizzicato strings before a ponderous brass chorale takes over. After a seemingly random outburst from the strings, (substituted this evening by the Clarinets) the opening bang sounds again, followed by the pizzicato string melody. Thus far, the orchestration has been very colourful, shifting from dense to thin textures before the full orchestra closes the opening section with a firm cadence.
All of the preceding music turns out to be the introduction to an extended, beautiful cello solo (played this evening on the tenor saxophone) featuring a plaintive melody over a waltz accompaniment on pizzicato strings. The pleasantly-rounded melody happens twice before the full orchestra takes over, providing a new closure to the tune in the high strings. The cello takes over once again, ending its passage with an expressive, rising line that stops abruptly when the opening bang returns. Once again, the pizzicato theme follows, but this time it is interspersed with more outbursts and leads to a moment of total silence. Unexpectedly, a new, very active tune begins and moves along with increasing intensity. Yet another new melody, built on a dotted figure reminiscent of Rossini, enters and initiates the repetition of short melodic fragments as the dynamic and rhythmic intensity grows. Finally, a reference to the opening bang closes the piece.
Joe Cini: Tenor Saxophone
U. Hodorov (b.1944) Gypsy Rhapsody
Composed for the sensuous tones of the Clarinet in A, the piece starts with the exotic harmonies one invariably associates with Yiddish music, at once assertive yet melancholic, retreated yet affirmative. Hovering in the liminal space between the major and the minor modes, the melody yields itself to the seductive surrender of the liquid beauty of the middle to lower range of the Clarinet against a largely staccato (pizzicato on the original) background. A more adventurous middle section unfolds in a sequence of mini-cadenzas on the Clarinet which are, as the piece implies, largely improvisatory and rhapsodic in nature. The unbridled, free rein expected of this music comes in the next section, which develops into a frenetic rush of wild, swirling phrases so reminiscent of a Salomé Dance of the Seven Veils. The band largely provides a strong harmonic, chordal texture against which the Clarinet warbles its way through a sequence of trills, very fast passages and high-reaching notes that builds up into a wonderful climax to round the piece off with panache.
George Apap: Clarinet
J. Vella (b.1942) Rebbieħa op. 45
Spending 42 years at the helm of an institution is no mean feat. It does not get much easier when that institution is a traditional Wind Band where the conductor is that unshakeable pivot that holds the diverse and divergent parts together to form a solid whole. Joseph Vella has been that pivot around which the colourful narrative of a Wind Band unfolds in all its excitement, plots and sub-plots. One can say, with a certain degree of satisfaction and pride, that under the intelligent direction of Joseph Vella, La Stella Band has made huge leaps forward in establishing itself one of the most revered Wind Bands on the islands.
However, Joseph Vella is not ‘only’ a conductor – a role that in itself makes huge demands on any mortal. Unarguably, he is also Malta’s leading composer to date, with works of his heard all over the globe. To say that Vella’s compositional output is impressive and remarkable would be an understatement. Encroaching on the 140 opus number, Rebbieħa could be said to bring to a close the composer’s early phase. A composer of the very original type, Vella shows an extraordinary respect for form. Amongst others, his Passacaglietta and Sarabanda for Strings attest to this, apart from his rigorous attention to structure even in his most avant-garde works such as his String Quartet and Symphony No 3. The way Vella composes this Overture is characterised by a neglect of elements considered overtly technical in favour of instrumental colouring and harmonic piquancy. The discrete sections of this work each portray a different mood or state, yet Vella is also aware of the unifying whole for the colouristic-pictorial element dominates even the harmonic structure: the phenomenon of merging tones is superimposed on the principles of tonal-chordal architecture, which again results in a changed role for the dissonance, whose use and desirability depend entirely on its value as colour agent. This one-movement piece in the style of a symphonic poem falls into three distinct sections, marked Allegro Moderato, Tempo di Marcia Funebre, and Allegro respectively. Although Rebbieħa cannot be said to be programmatic in the late-Romantic sense, there is all the same an indistinct narrative thread to it, subtly coated by an underlying patriotic veneer. It was, in fact, composed as a tribute to Malta’s historic ability to emerge victorious in spite of the difficulties it has from time to time found itself in, especially during the two great sieges. The turmoil of the first section, characterised by rhythmic punches, blaring brass and fanfare-like themes, imparts a feeling of instability and restlessness that, however, soon makes its way to a temporary lull on the strings and woodwind. “Poetry begins with a primitive man beating a drum in a jungle” - the quasi-barbaric and rugged atmosphere of the first part of this Overture is highlighted by the use of the percussion and by the consistent and insistent emphasis on rhythm. In fact, the solo percussion introduces the second section, slowly and successively picking up the rhythm of a magnificent funeral march with strident calls on the brass. The solo horn offers a moment of respite from the ever-tightening grip of inexorable mourning, after which the funereal tones resume, this time with more relentless vigour to reach a climax on the tutti orchestra. Mainly through the intelligent implementation of the percussion, the easeful transition from the first to the second sections sees a seamless development from the athletic to the poetic; the rugged is polished into refinement and the primitive allies itself comfortably with the civilised. The atmosphere of the last section is almost dance-like, coming across as a kind of appeasement after the emotional intensity of the preceding section. Here, the solo trumpet and clarinet engage in a dialogic exchange of ideas in their statements of a lilting theme. Among all this merrymaking, snatches from the Maltese National Anthem rear their head, first quite coyly on the flute and oboe, then more assertively on the brass. Rebbieħa is a work characterised by an organised riot of wild colour, passionate, emotional engagement, and brilliant harmonic and melodic nuances.
Robert Buttigieg: Trumpet
Josef Camilleri: Horn
Programme notes written by Maria Frendo