Sinfonia Concertante

Movement I: opening

National Arts Centre Orchestra
Conductor: Pinchas Zukerman

Duration: 22 minutes
Written: 1992
Premiered: February 24, 1993
by National Arts Centre Orchestra
Conductor: Franz Paul Decker
National Arts Centre
Ottawa, Canada
  • 2 Flutes (second doubles on Piccolo)
  • 2 Oboes
  • 2 Clarinets in Bb
  • 2 Bassoons
  • 2 Trumpets in C
  • 2 Horns in F
  • Timpani/Percussion (1 player): Castanets, Maraca, Guiro, Glass Winds Chimes, Triangle, 2 Tam-tams, Bass Drum, Glockenspiel, Vibraphone, Xylophone, Musical Saw
  • Strings (minimum one Double Bass with low C extension required)
  1. Impromptu: Allegretto
  2. Burlesque: Moderato (a la Mazurka) – Prestissimo
  3. Aria: Lento
  4. Finale: Presto
Some fifty years ago I wrote my first widely accepted orchestral composition, In Memoriam Karol Szymanowski, an intense symphony immersed in extended tonality. Thirty years later, with renewed conviction, I used tonality again as I still believed it to be a sound vehicle for intellectually convincing and dramatically compelling resolutions. Much that is new can be said without the shock of abandoning the triad!
The fusion of the twelve tone method with extended tonality and other contemporary methods, has been at the basis of my writing for decades now. I write the music that I wish to hear, or rather, because I hear it. The music of the Renaissance still remains most inspiring to me today, as it was half a century ago.
Sinfonia Concertante (the third in a cycle of five) is one of several works related to Poland (i.e. Souvenirs de Pologne – 1984, Symphony Cold War – 1967, or Elegia – 2005).
The impulse for this work came during my first return visit to Poland. Initially, when I saw the country of my birth after many years of absence, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia. I was received at the airport and delivered to a first class hotel. I came to be a guest-of-honor of the eminent International New Music Festival – Warsaw Autumn. It was a beautiful first impression!
This veneer slowly revealed cracks, and soon a different picture became clear: the persistent communist pressure, the engraved wounds of the NAZI occupation, the ever increasing control of the Roman Catholic Church, and much, much more… each marching to a different drummer. My head exploded and I left Poland with the “marching” in my head. The life I saw there seemed to mirror the humour of the absurd taken directly from the works of Ionesco and Mrozek. I was irritated and tired. Apathy, fear, and poverty seemed to dominate the life of my family. I resolved to write a commentary, a satire in places and, chiefly, a chronicle of my personal reactions to the world I once knew in my early years. A voice within me called for Chopin, for harmony and melody… I listened and obliged, setting myself a formidable task in the process.
Unlike in several other orchestral works (i.e. Flute Concerto, Souvenirs de Pologne, Epitaph for Strings or Moment Musical), in which tonality was brought in and out of focus within the context of broader formal designs, the architecture of Sinfonia Concertante is totally dependent on a triad and a melody. The work is highly lyrical and poetic, at times pensive, at other times fanciful or capricious, with the intermittent contrast of dramatic episodes. It marks a departure away from a pure absolute music, which I had favoured in the past. It is a programmatic and metaphorical work. It also contains an identifiable Polish signature through the use of a Mazurka, a hint of Chopin in movement II, and an allusion to an ancient strophe in movement IV. A highly virtuosic piece for orchestra, it features various soloists and ensembles from among its members.
Movement I. Impromptu, begins with a string trio playing in an almost pastoral setting. Programmatically, it portrays the surface of the many official smiles that I saw upon my arrival in Poland. The mood gradually changes, as the ugly face shows up from beneath the veneer. A longing for something that is not quite tangible gives way to the tragic memories of the recent past. There is an echo of the marching NAZI troops, augmented by the communist May parades (to a different drummer), police pressure, and the survival instincts in the midst of all of this. The many “musics” collide and the pastoral mood of the opening is no longer sustainable. The movement is truly an impromptu to the life in my native country, as I found it at the time.
Movement II. Burlesque (a la Mazurka), is, in part, a satire on the absurdity of some of the realities. It is, however, most of all, a portrayal of a futile attempt to escape from these realities. Simultaneously, it is a further exploration of the darker side of life. As usual, when the tears fail, the humour of the absurd steps in.
Movement III. Aria, in its simple narrative “sings” about the more elevated portrait of the country that is extremely beautiful and rich in its history.
Movement IV. Finale, (played attacca), brings a dose of optimism into the mix – at least initially. “Discourtesy” and interference (from other instruments called “hate” and “intolerance”) prevent the sustainability of this status quo. The flute, in its solo, still paints a picture of a better future – at least for the moment. When a religious processional song enters the mix, it becomes obvious that the music, in its frantic Prestissimo, is about to run “into the wall”. The result is an immense collision with a tremendous impact, a volcanic irruption. Things are no longer able to assemble into a coherent whole. The piece ends rather suddenly, with a sustaining chord, a depiction of a cold void.

"The work adheres to familiar tonalities but contains idioms reflective of more modern composing techniques. Many contrasting moods create a constantly changing kaleidoscope, and the ingenious orchestration provides many virtuosic solo and ensemble moments."

- The EXAMINER; March 12, 1993
- The CITIZEN VALLEY; February 25, 1993
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