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ClassicsOnline Home » WUORINEN: Tashi / Percussion Quartet / Fortune
Charles Wuorinen writes virtuosic music for virtuoso performers. He has a profound desire to engage with the listener and with sympathetic performers, and essential to this engagement is a spirit of adventure and fun. Wuorinen’s music, from his earliest pieces through the more recent masterworks, is a body of work as significant as one is likely to encounter. Both Tashi and Fortune were written for the ensemble Tashi, and although the rate at which events unfold in Fortune is more gradual than the relentlessly intense Tashi, the two works share certain concerns and complement each other. Wuorinen seems especially in his element when writing for percussion instruments, as demonstrated here by the rhythmically exciting Percussion Quartet.
By Alan Rich
Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938)
Tashi • Percussion Quartet • Fortune
Charles Wuorinen writes virtuosic music for virtuoso performers. That statement is incontrovertible, but it is also true that the term "virtuoso" has come to connote a type of empty display for display's sake, a connotation not at all germane to the music under consideration here. The original derivation of the word refers to the quality of being learned or skillful. Those adjectives certainly describe Wuorinen, a superbly trained, highly skilled master who takes the job of writing music very seriously, but they do not capture something equally if not more fundamental. Properly understood, virtuosity serves the composer's profound desire to engage with the listener and with sympathetic performers, using his learning and skill as well as that of his executants to explore the widest possible expressive range. Essential to this engagement is a spirit of adventure and fun, with composer and performers alike taking genuine pleasure in the play of musical ideas, and in projecting those ideas in fresh and invigorating ways by bringing to bear all of their technical prowess. This sense of play and savoring of possibilities add crucial elements to a more expansive definition of virtuosity, and they inform every work on this disc.
Both Tashi (1976) and Fortune (1979) were written for the ensemble Tashi, founded in 1972 and originally comprised of violinist Ida Kafavian, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, cellist Fred Sherry, and pianist Peter Serkin. The works share certain concerns, perhaps most notably Wuorinen's increasing interest during that period in pitch centricity within a basically non-tonal language ( Tashi is centered on A, Fortune on F), but in other ways the two pieces complement one another. For example, the rate at which events unfold in Fortune is considerably more gradual overall than in Tashi, where the textures are much more complex and active at the very outset. In addition, it could also be said that Fortune is somewhat lighter in its overall mood (though by no means lightweight musically) than its more relentlessly intense older sibling.
Tashi exists in two different versions, one for chamber ensemble and orchestra, and the other for ensemble alone, which the composer worked on concurrently, from April 1975 to January 1976. Wuorinen completed the version with orchestra first, but the chamber version was the first to be performed, by Tashi in Colorado Springs on 15 January 1976. The orchestral version was first heard on 13 October 1976, played by Tashi and the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by the composer.
The outer movements of Tashi are roughly equivalent in length, the central movement being the longest. The interludes (also approximately equal to one another in length) basically continue to explore, in a somewhat more relaxed fashion, material set forth and dealt with in the main movements, as well as continuing their respective basic characters or affects. For example, the first interlude is in keeping with the tempo and basic rhythmic gestures of the first movement, and the second interlude maintains the essential mood and pacing of the middle movement.
In Tashi two prominent musical gestures take on motivic status and can help to serve as a thread for the attentive listener: the tremolo figure of a minor third first heard in the piano in the second bar of the piece, and the trill figure first heard in the clarinet approximately one minute into the first movement. This movement also contains very intricately worked out polyrhythmic counterpoint, especially for the piano, a feature that recurs in the other main movements as well.
Generally much more lyrical in character, the central movement, while its main tempo is not far from that of the first, gives the impression of much slower motion, as well as a more subdued, though ultimately no less intense, expressive quality. A particularly poignant moment occurs shortly after three minutes have passed: a restrained, extremely soft chorale-like section for the entire ensemble, suggesting the key of A flat minor, all the more moving for the fact that it is fleeting, dispelled almost immediately by the reappearance of the aforementioned trill motto in the clarinet.
The final movement recalls the boisterous exuberance of the first, but gradually is overtaken by smoother, quieter material flowing mostly in equal note values, with rich chordal cushioning provided by the piano. This coolly placid music finds its ultimate rest in the final A major first-inversion triads, intriguingly (and perfectly) voiced, and the final sforzando A in the clarinet and piano.
While Wuorinen is always utterly assured in his handling of whatever musical forces claim his attention, he seems especially in his element when writing for percussion instruments, delighting in their nearly unlimited combinational potential. His Percussion Quartet (1993-94) tends to treat the ensemble, particularly in the first movement, as a collection of duos and quartets. The meticulous deployment of the instruments within each player's bailiwick is crucial to the structure of the work, and the resultant mixing and matching of the "ensembles within the ensemble" can provide a convenient way to follow the progress of the music. To give a few examples, the first and second percussionists might be heard as a homogeneous duo playing vibraphones. That duo might be contrasted with the drier tone of a second duo playing marimbas, but may also form with them a quartet of mallet instruments that creates a more blended sonority. Each player is assigned one timpano, so there is a prominent timpani quartet that makes its presence known throughout the piece. There is also a mixed quartet of temple blocks (Players 1 and 2) with tom-toms (3) and bass drums (4), a quartet of non-pitched metals (anvils, almglocken, cymbals, tam-tam), among numerous other groupings. Dedicated to Claire Heldrich, and commissioned by the New Music Consort, New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, and the Percussion Group of Cincinnati, the work is slightly over eighteen minutes long, and cast in two movements. The first of these begins dramatically, rapidly exposing the various duos and quartets in a constantly mutating texture that often emphasizes multiple rhythmic levels. At two points in the movement—the first slightly more than two and a half minutes in, and the second at a little after six and a half minutes—events of widely varying lengths, for the different duos and quartets are separated by precisely measured silences. The second movement is much lighter in tone, essentially a tripartite dance suggestive of a Baroque gigue, with an added rhythmic piquancy courtesy of the introduction of the claves, the one instrument withheld in the previous movement. The layering of cross-rhythmic patterns in the middle of the movement challenges the clarity of the dance-like pulse; though not entirely absent it is for a time harder to detect. But it re-emerges from behind its cloud in time to usher in the return of the A section, leading to a high-spirited ending, with all of the various instrumental groups taking a final turn in the spotlight.
Commencing, like Tashi, with an unusually voiced triad (this time F major, in root position), Fortune was commissioned by the city of Bonn for the Beethovenfest of 1980. It was completed in November 1979, and received its first performance in Bonn in October 1980. The work consists of two movements, Before and After, which the composer specifies may be performed without pause (as they are on the present recording). In contrast to the opening of Tashi, the first movement takes its time gathering momentum, eventually (during its final minute or so) reaching the speed and predicting the notes and gestures of the second movement. Besides the elemental Beethovenian power of the initial triads, this listener thinks he may detect (though he has no direct supporting evidence from the composer) a very subtle reference in the work's beginning to the famous slow movement (the "Heiliger Dankgesang" ) of the Opus 132 quartet. Be that as it may, the exquisite pacing and control of static, bare bones harmonic material evinced by Wuorinen at the work's outset, as well as his utter command of form in both large and small dimensions, is certainly a fitting and eloquent homage to Bonn 's favorite son. Triadic harmonies exert great influence in the pitch world of Fortune, always rendered miraculously fresh-sounding by the ever-new but always logical contexts in which Wuorinen places them, and, as often as not, by the spacings and instrumental colors he assigns them (string harmonics, soft chiming chords in the piano, etc.). The second movement takes a very different view of the material set forth in its predecessor; for instance, notice that this movement also begins with equally spaced repetitions of a chord, this time a non-triadic one in a much higher register. Gradually a textural complexity is achieved that approaches that of Tashi, and the work ends with one of Wuorinen's "tonal puns" — an allusion to a traditional plagal cadence that affirms once and for all the primacy of F as pitch center.
© Hayes Biggs, 1998, 2006
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WUORINEN: Tashi / Percussion Quartet / Fortune