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ClassicsOnline Home » TINOCO, L.: Round Time / From the depth of distance / Search Songs / Cancoes do Sonhador Solitario (Gulbenkian Orchestra, D.A. Miller)
Portuguese composer Luís Tinoco’s works are “as engrossing as they are entertaining” (Musical Opinion), and these première recordings represent some of the most exciting new orchestral work to appear in recent years. Conductor David Alan Miller writes, “Drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as French Impressionism and Brazilian Jazz, Tinoco creates a sound world that is uniquely, distinctly Portuguese, equal parts sunshine, saudade and sensuality. I know it’s good when it makes my knees weak.”
By Jorge Calado
Luís Tinoco (b. 1969)
Round Time was written in 2002 for the Orquestra Nacional do Porto, and was given its première at the Monastery of S.o Bento da Vitória in Porto on 29 November that year. The work calls for a traditional twentieth-century symphony orchestra: a small wind section of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, a typically twentieth-century brass section (horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba), and a string section of around sixty players. The most significant change is the addition of a sizeable percussion section, including marimba, temple blocks, crotales played with a double bass bow, gongs, and many other instruments that turn this into half-symphony orchestra, half-extra-European ensemble. And it is precisely that blend of traditional symphonic colour and more exotic instrumental sonorities that gives rise to the wide range of timbres discernible in this work.
Round Time is a relatively short work (14’30) with no dramatic arc as such, comprising instead a succession of starkly contrasting atmospheres. Each of these seems to evolve in its own way and is linked to the others in the same way as the different shots in a TV control room are connected: several cameras film the same programme but from different angles, and the producer moves from shot to shot to bring a particular rhythm to the continuous flow of images. Here the composer chooses from a number of different layers of sound, producing a kaleidoscopic effect of ambiences that seem to come and go in a circular manner. The opening, for example, brings us dreamlike, hallucinatory music made up of long notes on the winds and repetitive motifs on resonant instruments such as the harp, celesta, piano, cowbells, bowed crotales and so on, through orchestral writing apparently influenced by electronic music. This initial episode is followed by the sounding of a number of spectral chords, then some heavier orchestral chords. Finally, after three minutes, a long and rhapsodic melody, starting in the lower register and lifted up by violins and woodwind, blossoms into an almost symphonic lyricism. A slow central passage features solos from clarinet, cor anglais and flute, as well as a reappearance of the repetitive motifs, before the work draws to an end. As its name suggests, Round Time leaves us with the impression that we are moving both forwards and backwards at the same time, such is the power of its oscillatory movement.
From the Depth of Distance is slightly longer (17’) and is for solo voice and orchestra. It was written in 2008 and premièred in Portugal by the Orquestra do Algarve and in the US by the Albany Symphony Orchestra. The involvement of two orchestras on opposite sides of the Atlantic inspired Tinoco to set extracts from two extended poems—one by Portuguese poet Álvaro de Campos [Fernando Pessoa] (Ode Marítima), the other by the American Walt Whitman (Passage to India). Both works celebrate the idea of the journey and share a fascination with the means of travel (ships in the Pessoa, the Suez Canal and trains in the Whitman). Pessoa’s journey, however, is a metaphor for exploring the imagination, while Whitman’s is a mystical quest. From the start of the work the orchestra sets pulsating rhythms on strings, brass and percussion alongside slow and resonant textures that seem to be in a different time frame. This sense of contrast continues, in different forms, throughout the score. On the words “processions of sun”, a new long/short rhythm becomes a leitmotif that returns several times as the work goes on, for example on “no mar, no mar…” (at sea, at sea…), and is the only motif that is both sung by the soprano and played by the orchestra. In From the Depth of Distance, the orchestra sometimes accompanies the vocal line, but often seems to take on a life of its own, almost polyphonically, except on the Whitman phrase “voiceless Earth…” where the music stops and a deathly silence descends. The soprano part is syllabic with beautiful lines that are often disjointed, jazz style, or unfold on a single note, recitative-like. The occasional purely ornamental moments (on the “O” of “O, vast rondure” and the “Ah” of “Ah, chamam por mim as águas” [Ah, the waters are calling me]) never disturb the vocal line apart from adding a kind of inner lyricism. The use of two different languages, English and Portuguese, results in a dual treatment of the voice. Tinoco uses primarily the middle and lower-middle range for the Portuguese, with more traditional vocal writing, and the higher, middle-higher range for the English. This opposition invites us to hear something that remains unsaid: the sound of the language itself, like the orchestra, seems to reveal the emotion sparked by the text. As a whole, the work evokes both the immobility of the ocean and the movement of a journey in sound with an almost liquid orchestration of ever-changing timbre.
Written a year before From the Depth of Distance, Search Songs (2007) is another song cycle for soprano and orchestra setting a text by Fernando Pessoa, in the guise of one of his heteronyms, Alexander Search. He wrote these poems not in Portuguese, but in English, transforming himself entirely into his alter ego. Here, the words become darker and more dramatic. The first movement, Towards the End, is about a writer struggling for inspiration, even for sanity. The music is made up of obsessively repeated downward scales, these repetitions at times interrupted by the harmonic and orchestral tensions that respond to the high notes sung by the soprano.
The text of Justice tells of a crime committed in an imaginary country—a magic realist tale that calls Gogol to mind. The music becomes highly rhythmical with powerful contrasts and the voice emphasises the dark tone of the tale being told, in an almost breathless style that rises and rises until the singer is speaking rather than singing.
Movement three, Sunset Song, takes up the theme of absent love so dear to the troubadours of medieval times. The line lengths vary, resulting in a “limping” effect. Unlike the previous movement, this is an internal monologue, rather than a story. The music consists of a long, slow transformation of sound over a sung line whose melody is made up of stepwise intervals and downward scales as in Towards the End, ending in a rising scale, as if to provide one last reversal, which ultimately stalls on two high notes for the soprano (F sharp and G), creating an intense and endless feeling of tension—a musical metaphor for the pain caused by an impossible love.
In The Lip, Pessoa continues the “limping” style of the previous poem, but returns to the magic realism of Justice, with another tale reminiscent of Russian literature. The music becomes lively and repetitive in the manner of a scherzo. The soprano tells the story in half-amused, half-horrified tone, while the play between orchestra and voice is humorous in a way seldom found in contemporary music. Overall, the work has a sense of lightheartedness and mischief, tossed and turned by a light, varied and sparkling orchestration.
The repetitive music returns in the final movement, with long melodies full of lyricism and drama. The text depicts a dark sky, and might remind listeners of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. It is as if a fire has destroyed everything, even the sky, of which all that is left is a single star. The poem suggests the idea of an ending, where all light is fading out, and thus the cycle comes to an end.
The final work on this album—Canções do Sonhador Solitário (Songs from The Solitary Dreamer)—is a reduction of a cantata for narrator, soprano, children’s chorus, orchestra and electronics, written in 2011 to a commission from Porto’s Casa da Música and setting a libretto by Portuguese writer Almeida Faria. For this shorter cycle, the composer has retained four songs for soprano and orchestra that have a poetic substance of their own, eliminating the narrative passages and choral dialogues.
In the opening movement, Um livro (A Book), we hear the music of a clock, a musical box—continuous and almost unchanging—while the singer is accompanied by another part of the orchestra producing long chords of different instrumental texture. Very quickly, however, the orchestra starts to become more and more discreet. The musical box becomes virtually the only accompaniment to the dreamily lyrical vocal line, which is punctuated by very light orchestral touches.
Sonhador feliz (Happy Dreamer) speaks of the song sung by the narrator’s lover—a song which she fears may be a dream but has discovered to be real. The concept of the fragile dividing line between fantasy and reality weaves its way throughout this poem. The music fluctuates between symphonic and incantatory writing, as at the beginning. The voice is called on to cover a considerably wide range, while the orchestra creates a polyphonic relationship with the vocal line, thereby enhancing the drama of the fluctuation between dream and reality.
The third movement, Qualquer encontro (Any Meeting), has touches of a Pessoa-like magic realism. Indeed it verges on surrealism with its depiction of a woman who has chosen to travel by day and by night on the same train, alone and without a fixed destination. The music begins with a long and rhythmic orchestral introduction underpinned by a lively and perpetual triple-time melody. By contrast, the vocal part consists of long-held notes interspersed with more rapid phrases. It seems to express the woman’s emotions while the orchestra appears to be imitating the repetitive sound of the train.
The final text, O Anjo da água (The Angel of Water), is about a female guardian angel who skims the fast-flowing waters, always looking ahead, and never back. The music here is again made up of repetitive pulses and long orchestral chords from which, eventually, fragmentary motifs emerge. The repetitive rhythms permeate the entire movement as the music box did in Um livro. The orchestration, however, means that in this case the music takes on not a dreamlike but a dramatic, imperious dimension. And so not only this cycle, but the album as a whole is brought to a close—no abrupt ending here, rather a kind of evanescence, a lingering resonance that never quite fades away.
English translation: Susannah Howe
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TINOCO, L.: Round Time / From the depth of distanc...