Primal Message

with the NAC Orchestra
Nokuthula Ngwenyama

Primal Message

Describing her piece Primal Message, originally written for string quintet in 2018, Nokuthula Ngwenyama says it’s “based on the idea of communicating the things we learn to communicate with each other: our intelligence, our emotions, our goodness.” The creative journey of the work was sparked by her reading Steven Johnson’s 2017 article, “Greetings E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us)”, in The New York Times Magazine, and her reflecting on the Arecibo message, the interstellar radio message about Earth and humanity sent to globular star cluster M13 in 1974. As she told Matthew Neil Andrews in an interview for Oregon ArtsWatch from September 2018,

Primal Message was good for exploring us, and how we communicate. …Primal essence—both the intelligent and emotional, all of it. How do you get in touch with that? And how do you communicate that? And have it be a message of beauty, and compelling enough for another life form to be like, “whoa, that’s kind of cool that someone tried to put that math in there and do this and make it a song.”

Tonight, you’ll hear the orchestral version of Primal Message, which was premiered in November 2020 by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Xian Zhang. As a compositional framework, Ngwenyama uses the prime number sequence 2-3-5-7, which shapes the rhythmic patterns as well as melodic and harmonic structures of the piece. A warm, yearning melody, based on the pentatonic scale, is the work’s heart. Presented in wave-like sections, with quieter, delicately textured moments surging into more intense, impassioned outpourings with denser counterpoint, the melody has, as Ngwenyama notes, “a certain sort of ecstasy…all the hopes, dreams, and passions of humanity.”

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

Florence Price

Piano Concerto in One Movement

Andantino – Adagio cantabile – Allegretto

Florence B. Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement, completed in 1934, was the composer’s second major orchestral work, following the success of her first Symphony in E minor. She was the soloist for the work’s premiere, which took place on June 24, 1934, at the commencement exercises of Chicago Musical College, where she was a graduate student. Accompanied by the college’s orchestra, her performance was positively reviewed, and the concerto was subsequently played elsewhere to critical acclaim.

Gender and racial barriers ultimately restricted the reach of Price’s music, and following her death in 1953, her works, including her Piano Concerto, were largely forgotten. In 1993, American musicologist Rae Linda Brown examined the two extant manuscripts to the concerto (one for solo piano and orchestra reduction, and one for two pianos), and located manuscript orchestral parts in the private collection of Eugenia Anderson, a Chicago piano teacher. The score has since been reconstructed, and in recent years, the Piano Concerto has emerged on concert programs again, championed by pianists such as Michelle Cann.

Price’s Piano Concerto fuses Euro-American art music elements—here, the “romantic piano” idiom of the 19th century—with melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic aspects from the music of her African American heritage. The piece unfolds in three distinct sections. The opening Andantino, in D minor, unfolds to reveal a spiritual-like theme. It is initially introduced as fragments—first, as short motives in the trumpet, then, in a free passage for solo piano—followed by further development by the orchestra. Only after another piano cadenza is the theme unveiled in full by the orchestra, accompanied by grand arpeggios in the piano. There’s a brief section with a fanfare-like theme in the trumpets; then, an extended developmental episode, in which piano and orchestra are more closely intertwined, awash in impressionistic harmonies, with ample virtuosic passages for the soloist.

The Concerto shifts into D major for the gorgeous song that is the Adagio cantabile. As Brown has noted, it’s in the call-and-response form commonly used in African American folk music. Each time the call (or verse) is introduced by the oboe, it’s subtly altered, in keeping with the improvisatory nature of the part. This alternates with the solo piano’s lyrical response, frequently tinged with chromatic harmonies, and lushly accompanied by strings. The final section is based on the syncopated rhythms of the “pattin’ juba”, a popular antebellum folk dance. Piano and orchestra alternately take on the catchy syncopated melody, subjecting it to a whirlwind tour through different keys and harmonies as well as complex rhythmic treatment, thus bringing the Concerto to a high-spirited close.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

Mozart

Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major

I. Adagio – Allegro
II. Andante con moto
III. Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio – Menuetto
IV. Finale: Allegro

 

Mozart composed his Symphony No. 39 in the summer of 1788, during which he also completed the “great” G minor Symphony (No. 40), and the “Jupiter” Symphony (No. 41). There is little to no record of their first performances, but it’s quite likely that they appeared in concerts in Vienna in the autumn of that year. For one, the composer was a pragmatic man and was unlikely to have written symphonies, which was then a genre of increasing prestige, without the prospect of earning money or recognition. However, perhaps the lack of performance information was connected to the circumstances of the time, notably, of Austria being at war with Turkey; with many aristocratic families having left Vienna as a result, there were limited resources and opportunities to put on large orchestral concerts.

Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major has elegance, wit, drama, and brilliance. Its “sound world” is characterized by a certain warmth and mellowness, owing to the presence of clarinets (but no oboes). (Mozart had long loved the sound and expressive qualities of the instrument.) A slow introduction opens the first movement in a grand manner; for a moment, it takes a darker turn and later, ends rather mysteriously, but the first theme of the movement proper is all sunny and relaxed grace in the violins. A vigorous orchestral episode follows, transitioning into a gentle second theme, led by the clarinets. As the movement progresses, it’s the energetic element that is developed and prevails in the end.

The Andante second movement features an elegant theme of dotted rhythms, initially presented by the strings. Its presentation (varied upon subsequent returns) alternates with two contrasting episodes of stormy, turbulent character. The ensuing Minuet is a robust and stately dance, while in the Trio, one clarinet takes centre stage with a charming melody, while the other burbles underneath. Built on a single lively theme, the final Allegro is full of drive and wit. There are plenty of surprises throughout as well; listen for abrupt stops, sudden changes in key and dynamics, even a mysterious chorale featuring clarinets and bassoons, which help wrap up this exquisite symphony with brilliance and drama.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley


NAC Orchestra

FIRST VIOLINS
Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster)
Jessica Linnebach (associate concertmaster)
Noémi Racine Gaudreault (assistant concertmaster)
Elaine Klimasko**
Marjolaine Lambert
Jeremy Mastrangelo
Manuela Milani
Leah Roseman
Erica Miller*
Martine Dubé*
Marc Djokic* 

SECOND VIOLINS
Mintje van Lier (principal)
Winston Webber (assistant principal)
Mark Friedman
Carissa Klopoushak
Frédéric Moisan
Edvard Skerjanc**
Karoly Sziladi
Emily Westell**
Andréa Armijo-Fortin*
Renée London*
Sara Mastrangelo*
Heather Schnarr*

VIOLAS
Jethro Marks (principal)
David Marks (associate principal)
David Goldblatt (assistant principal)
Paul Casey
Ren Martin-Doike**
David Thies-Thompson
Sonya Probst*

CELLOS
Rachel Mercer (principal)
Julia MacLaine (assistant principal)
Timothy McCoy
Marc-André Riberdy
Leah Wyber
Desiree Abbey*

DOUBLE BASSES
Etienne Lepine-Lafrance (guest principal)*
Hilda Cowie (acting assistant principal)
Marjolaine Fournier
Vincent Gendron

FLUTES
Joanna G'froerer (principal)
Stephanie Morin**

OBOES
Charles Hamann (principal)
Anna Petersen**

CLARINETS
Kimball Sykes (principal)
Sean Rice

BASSOONS
Christopher Millard (principal)
Vincent Parizeau

HORNS
Lawrence Vine (principal)
Julie Fauteux (associate principal)
Elizabeth Simpson
Louis-Pierre Bergeron**

TRUMPETS
Karen Donnelly (principal)
Steven van Gulik

TROMBONES
Donald Renshaw (principal)
Colin Traquair

BASS TROMBONE
Douglas Burden**

TUBA
Chris Lee (principal)**

TIMPANI
Feza Zweifel (principal)

PERCUSSION
Jonathan Wade
Dan Morphy*
Timothy Francom*

HARP
Angela Schwarzkopf*

KEYBOARD
Olga Gross*

 

PRINCIPAL LIBRARIAN
Nancy Elbeck

ASSISTANT LIBRARIAN
Corey Rempel

PERSONNEL MANAGER
Meiko Lydall

*Additional musicians
**On leave

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