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ClassicsOnline Home » SEREBRIER, J.: Symphony No. 1 / Nueve / Violin Concerto, "Winter" (Callow, Karr, Quint, Bournemouth Symphony and Chorus, Serebrier)
“When Naxos suggested making a new recording of my music, the idea was to give a full panoply and to emphasize the changes in style that occurred over time, from the very early First Symphony, through the experimental years (while working with George Szell in Cleveland as the orchestra’s Composer-in-Residence), the lighter side with two short concert tangos, and finally a score for a film that did not get made,” notes acclaimed composer-conductor José Serebrier. “In my music, while the style changed in the 1960s and 1970s, the ‘message’ remained the same. The lyrical line, the atmosphere, and a certain Slavic undertone are there in all these works.”
José Serebrier (b. 1938): Symphony No. 1 • Nueve: Double Bass Concerto • Violin Concerto, ‘Winter’
Tango en Azul • Casi un Tango • They Rode Into The Sunset – Music for an Imaginary Film
When Naxos suggested making a new recording of my music, the idea was to give a full panoply and to emphasize the changes in style that occurred over time, from the very early first symphony, through the experimental years (while working with George Szell in Cleveland as the orchestra’s Composer-in-Residence), the lighter side with two short concert tangos, and finally a score for a film that did not get made.
Some composers retain the same style over their lifetime. Glazunov’s First Symphony already has all the characteristics of his later works. Haydn was also a case in point, and many other great composers as well. Stravinsky kept making drastic changes in style, even embracing the twelve-tone technique that he had previously condemned. In my music, while the style changed in the 1960s and 1970s, the “message” remained the same. The lyrical line, the atmosphere, and a certain Slavic undertone are there in all these works.
Symphony No. 1, in one movement (1956)
The story behind my first symphony goes back all the way to the last years in my home town of Montevideo, Uruguay, before going to the United States to study at Tanglewood and at the Curtis Institute of Music. Anxious to conduct, I had organized a youth orchestra which gave concerts all over the country with ambitious programmes. In our first concert we performed the four Bach Orchestral Suites. I made the teenage musicians memorize the music, which took months of rehearsals. I was eleven years old at the time. Four years later, I read an announcement in the press about a composition contest for an orchestral work. The winning piece would be played by the national symphony orchestra, known as OSSODRE. I thought that if I won, perhaps they would let me conduct it, which was by then my main interest. For some reason the announcement was made at the very last moment, with only a couple of weeks’ notice. I worked day and night on this, my first full orchestral work. Inspired by Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which fascinated me at the time, The Legend of Faust was to be an overture-fantasy in the mould of Tchaikovsky’s works of the same genre. I remember my parents not actually worried but alarmed at seeing me work all day and night for the final five days to meet the deadline. Literally, I did not sleep for four nights. I finished the score in a taxi on my way to meet the deadline which was on a Saturday at noon. On arrival, I was told I should have put my name in a notarised/sealed envelope and only the pseudonym on the score. The nice lady waited for me to run to a notary and return much later, and accepted the last minute application.
To my amazement, I won the competition, but as I was sixteen, the task of conducting this 24-minute overture was given to a famous guest conductor, Eleazar de Carvalho, who had been Koussevitzky’s pupil alongside Leonard Bernstein. It was a wonderful coincidence because I had already been accepted as his conducting pupil at Tanglewood for later that summer.
In between, I had attended a lecture by Virgil Thomson. The New York Herald Tribune had just folded, and its famous music critic, Virgil Thomson, was awarded a consolation prize in the form of a US State Department-sponsored tour of Latin America to conduct his compositions. The only country that did not invite him to conduct, nor to include his music in concerts, was Uruguay. I remember the artistic director of the orchestra telling me that Thomson’s music was “too simplistic”. Later on, when I got to know and admire his music, I could easily see that this apparent simplicity was no less than Satie’s or, many decades later, the “simplicity” of many minimalists. Thomson knew very well what he was doing. Nevertheless, in Montevideo he was relegated to giving a lecture. Organized by the US Embassy, the lecture was only attended by three people (it was a terribly rainy night), my parents and me. None of us understood English, and he must have sensed it, because after fifteen minutes he abruptly left the stage mumbling something that sounded like “this is absurd”. I had my scores with me, and was hoping to give them to him: a brand new saxophone quartet, a woodwind quintet, and an Elegy for Strings that had already been performed in Paris on Radio France and in Brazil, conducted by my teacher, Guido Santorsola. Obviously peeved by the reception he had been given in Uruguay, and the poor attendance at his lecture, he dismissed my offer of scores and refused to shake hands. The cultural attaché, James Webb, smiled and asked if he could keep them and give them to Mr Thomson later. The Cultural Affairs Officer, named Elizabeth Taylor (!) said she would make sure he looked at them in his hotel, before his morning departure for New York.
By mid-morning I had a phone call. We had no telephone at home, which was not unusual in those days in Uruguay. One had to know government officials to qualify for a phone. We managed by using one of the near-by shops. This call came through the grocery store across the street. It was from Virgil Thomson, aided by Ms Taylor, who translated. He wanted to know if he could take all my scores back home with him, to show them to Aaron Copland, Eugene Ormandy (so he could recommend me to study at the Curtis Institute), and Howard Hanson to see if he would be interested to teach me at the Eastman School in Rochester. I could not believe my luck!
Less than a month later I had been accepted both by Curtis and Eastman schools and I had to make a difficult decision. All of my father’s side of the family had gone from Russia to Philadelphia, so that was a deciding factor. Besides, my composition teacher, the man who accepted me at Curtis, was Bohuslav Martinu˚. By the time I arrived at Curtis in September 1956, Martinu˚ had left, but that is another story. I had a wonderful teacher, more like a friend, in Vittorio Giannini, who was also the main composition teacher at Juilliard. All that was made possible thanks to Webb and Taylor who helped me apply for a US State Department fellowship to pay for my trip and studies. It was a one-year grant, which was generously renewed for a second year. Tanglewood also gave me a full fellowship and the Koussevitzky Award to study conducting with de Carvalho and composition with Copland. One of my classmates in composition was Einojuhani Rautavaara, who would become a life-long friend. My conducting classmate was Seiji Ozawa, also a long-time friend and colleague. That first summer at Tanglewood was idyllic. My English was still very limited so I did not learn much, except by osmosis. At the end of the six-week summer experience I went to New York for a month, to await the start of my first year at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. During those four weeks I worked intensely and wrote my first symphony. I was sixteen. It was my second orchestral work. The Symphony, together with my earlier Saxophone Quartet, went on to win a BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) Award in 1956. I had decided to write a one-movement symphony, with connected multiple sections in different speeds, since I felt that the idea of a multiple-movement symphony of largely unrelated sections no longer applied in the middle of the twentieth century. Anyway, that was the way I felt at the time. I had had very little exposure to contemporary music, except for the festival of American music I organized in Montevideo the year before, in which I included everything from Varèse to Cage. They both fascinated me. Curiously, I had not yet discovered Ives.
The following year , while walking towards school, I bumped into a cellist, and my score fell to the floor. The cellist, Harvey Wolf, was on his way to the airport to join the Houston Symphony. He instinctively asked if he could carry the score along to show to Leopold Stokowski, who had just hired him as the last cellist in the orchestra. I had another copy, so I agreed, not expecting anything from this gesture. Few conductors would take such an idea seriously. A couple of days later, the Curtis telephone operator started giving me messages to call Mr Stokowski. I was sure it was a joke, as I used to leave messages for other students to call Bernstein or Rubinstein. Eventually, the Institute’s Director, Efrem Zimbalist Sr, called me to his office. “What are you doing? Maestro Stokowski called me to say he’s been trying to reach you urgently for two days!” We called from his office. There was this highly accented voice telling me: “We tried doing the première of the Charles Ives Fourth Symphony but it proved impossible. Orchestra can’t get past first bars. Need a première. Press invited: Time magazine, Life, UP, AP. We do your symphony première instead of Ives. Please bring music. Rehearsals start in two days.”
The première of my first symphony took place in Houston on 4th November 1957. The concert also included Debussy’s Epigraphes antiques, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Leonard Pennario as soloist and Stokowski’s own orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (the first time I heard it; I recently recorded and filmed it). But another, more momentous event took place that evening: news from Soviet Russia revealed that the USSR had launched the first man-made object in space, the Sputnik. Music and art therefore disappeared from the news for some weeks—although the symphony was a big success with the public and the critics. The interviews with Time and Life magazines never came out. Only space science filled the news for weeks and weeks.
This was the first time I heard the name of Charles Ives. I did not see his music until four years later. One day, while conducting my first orchestra, the Utica Symphony in up-state New York, I received a telegram from Stokowski inviting me to become an associate conductor of the maestro’s soon-to-be-formed American Symphony Orchestra. During the second season, Stokowski planned once again the long-awaited première of Ives’ Fourth Symphony. The first time I got to see the score was when the maestro, facing the orchestra and the score on the stage of Carnegie Hall, in front of music critics and Ives scholars invited to attend the first reading, asked me to approach the podium. “Let’s start with the fourth movement. Please conduct it. I want to hear it”. Being twenty everything seems possible, but opening the over-size score was the biggest shock of my life. I don’t know how, but I “conducted” it. Afterwards, I told Stokowski “but Maestro, I was sight-reading!” to which he replied casually and smiling “so was the orchestra”.
In 1962 Stokowski gave the New York première of my Elegy for Strings and in 1963 the world première of my Poema Elegiaco to open the Carnegie Hall season.
Nueve, Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra (1971)
I wrote Nueve for Gary Karr, commissioned by the Plainfield Symphony Orchestra, the oldest orchestra in New Jersey, for their fiftieth anniversary. Gary Karr was living in Plainfield, New Jersey at the time, and I was the music director of the orchestra. We gave the première there, and played it in Cleveland and on a tour of South Africa among other places.
I wrote it during my two seasons as composer-in-residence of the Cleveland Orchestra, as a companion piece to my harp concerto Colores Mágicos. Both concertos have much in common: aleatoric writing, distance between the musicians (some in the balcony, others in the pit, some back-stage), and most disturbing for conductors: no bar lines at all. Conductors cannot do what they do basically—beat time. The harp piece became a ballet with the Joffrey Ballet, and toured all over the United States. In it, the only musician on the stage was the harp soloist, with the orchestra in the pit, like in an opera. In Nueve, the solo bass is surrounded by the string orchestra, while the only woodwinds, two clarinets, are “incognito” in the audience. During one of the variations, a jazz segment, the two clarinetists stand up and play along, surprising the unsuspecting audience. At the climax of the jazz variation, the brass erupts in the balcony. All along, the soloist also reads poetry, Prometheus Unbound by Shelley. While in the concerts the poetry reading was done beautifully by Gary Karr, for the recording he suggested it be done by an actor, and we had the great fortune to have the incomparable Simon Callow. At the end of Nueve, while the orchestra reaches a tremendous climax on one note in unison, a choir emerges from the distance and can be heard in an ethereal chant, adding an element of timelesness and perhaps eeriness. This is in direct contrast to the noisy jazz variation in which two opposite jazz drummers have a sort of “combat”, alternating and finally joining in the game. The work has nine variations, and uses mostly nine notes. The reason for the title and the concept was that my New York apartment was, and remains, on 99th street, on the 9th floor. Nueve of course is Spanish for nine. While it may be a “period piece”, unsurprising at the time it was conceived, something about its concept remains close to me, and is not different in its ultimate message to previous or later works, regardless of the different language used.
Tango in Blue (2001) and Casi un Tango (2002)
A few years ago, while on tour in Germany with the Bamberger Symphoniker, I was asked to do an unusual program with the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, preceded by tangos by Kurt Weill, Stravinsky and Piazzolla. Rob Suff, who had just produced my Tchaikovsky recordings for BIS, witnessing the enthusiastic audience reaction, proposed that we make a recording of tangos by these and other composers. We proceeded to put together a mixed bag, from the German and French periods of Kurt Weill to Stravinsky’s peculiar take on the form, Satie’s minimalist “perpetual” tango, which I orchestrated, and Gade’s flamboyant, popular Tango Tzigane. Piazzolla could not be left out. My own contributions to the genre were conceived before this recording was planned. Tango in Blue was written during the long over-night flight from New York to Montevideo, as an impromptu gift for the SODRE (National Orchestra) of Uruguay, which had invited me to conduct their anniversary concert. It did not have a title, and we performed it as an encore. I asked the public for title suggestions, and was soon inundated with names, none of which seemed appropriate. For a while it was called “Last Tango before Sunrise”, which seemed to capture the character of the piece, but it did not seem quite right. My favorite was Blue Tango, until I was reminded that there are at least two pieces with that name. Then a friend suggested a compromise, which I liked best, and Tango in Blue was born. The first four notes are a direct quotation from the final four notes of my Partita, Symphony No. 2, as if I was saying that there is where I left off, and I am back. Partita was one of the few compositions, (written soon after my arrival in the United States), that used Latin American rhythms and melodic turns. After writing experimental works during the 1960s and 1970s, it was a challenge to go back to basics, and write a simple tonal tune, a sort of popular piece for concert use. I had great fun composing Tango in Blue, and was thrilled to find it so successful. After Montevideo, we played it in Lima, Buenos Aires, São Paulo and many other cities, on tour with the National Chamber Orchestra of Toulouse. At my publishers’ request, I wrote several versions of it, for violin and piano, string quartet, saxophone quartet, string orchestra, and other formations. Casi un Tango, written shortly after, follows an entirely different concept, nostalgic and more “classical”, for English Horn solo and strings. The publishers have also printed versions for other solo instruments, saxophone, French horn, bassoon, flute, etc.
Violin Concerto, ‘Winter’ (1991)
Around Christmas in 1991, violinist Michael Guttman approached me with an idea to record The Four Seasons, but not by Vivaldi. He knew only of two works: the Milhaud and the Rodrigo. I was asked to locate an autumn and a winter concerto, but the search proved very frustrating. There are a number of works inspired by the seasons, but they are symphonies, ballets, oratorios, not violin concertos. Robert Matthew-Walker pointed out Chaminade’s Automne, but there was definitely no winter. None of the prominent composers we approached would agree to compose a concerto in less than two or three years, so I had no choice but to write it myself. The concept and form of the work evolved, ironically, walking on the beautiful white sand beaches of Key Biscayne, Florida, at Christmas 1991. I had never meant to portray literally the season of winter. My winter concerto would have to be a poetic vision of winter, not so much the actual season as the winter of life, the time approaching death, when presumably all memories come back in a flash; when reality, futility, purpose, memories all mix in a mocking parade, a never-ending dream.
The work starts with the solo violin cadenza, joined by the orchestral violins, barely audible. Towards the end of the cadenza we hear a duo between the solo violin and the concertmaster, leading to the main portion of the work: a virtuoso, relentless allegro. At the climax three great composers’ visions of winter are quoted: first the introduction of Haydn’s winter from the oratorio The Seasons, which harmonically fits the concerto like a glove. Next, that wonderful first page from Glazunov’s Winter, from the ballet The Seasons. Finally it transforms itself into a heroic quote from Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, “Winter Reveries”. Throughout the concerto I have quoted my own first composition, the solo violin sonata, written at the age of nine. That quotation became the main element in the work, from which everything else evolved. Since the concept of “movements”, as in classic/romantic works, no longer applies, the work was composed in one movement. The concerto ends triumphantly, with a flourish.
They Rode Into The Sunset – Music for an Imaginary Film (2009)
Just before Christmas 2008 I had a call from Mumbai, asking if I would be willing to compose the music for a film that required western music, a most unusual case, since Indian movies traditionally use their own music. The director of the film, also its script writer, sent me the script and asked to come and see me. We met in New York a few days later, and he explained that for three or four of the scenes they would need the music right away, before the film was even made, and those scenes would be choreographed to the music. We read the script, and mapped the sections and decided on timings. It all sounded very exciting, as writing for the movies has been a secret ambition of mine since I started to compose, and this particular project seemed made in heaven. The film was to end with what the director called “a symphony”, a twelve-minute orchestral work, which I would conduct, playing myself. The script depicted a young Indian composer who had studied in London, but suffering from a syndrome that eventually paralized his entire body, he dictated this “symphony” from his hospital bed. The piece would include elements from several key scenes of his life. The music was needed within weeks, so I worked furiously to meet the deadline. However, just as it was to be recorded in London, the workers in Bollywood went on a long strike and most films had to be canceled, including this one. Since we had already planned to make a new recording of my music, Naxos asked me to include this piece, as a contrast to my other works, also because it is my newest opus. My previous work was an extensive five-movement Flute Concerto with Tango, commissioned by BIS Records for virtuoso flautist Sharon Bezali. She recorded it with the amazing Australian Chamber Orchestra and its leader Richard Tognetti, as is their norm, without conductor.
© 2010 José Serebrier
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SEREBRIER, J.: Symphony No. 1 / Nueve / Violin Con...