String Showcase

Program Notes

Caroline Shaw: Boris Kerner

A photo of Caroline shaw

That Boris Kerner was composed “for cello and flower pots,” might yet not be the most interesting thing about the piece. There’s good competition: Composer Caroline Shaw was inspired by a German civil engineer named Boris Kerner, whose 2009 treatise on traffic flow achieved international acclaim amongst physicists and urban planners alike. Kerner’s eureka moment—which was really six years of meticulous analysis on fluid mechanics and traffic congestion—yielded a new understanding of how traffic jams happen and how to better predict travel times. Kerner’s theory zoomed in to find a transitional phase between traffic jams and free-flowing traffic, which he called synchronous flow.

Where most composers might find in this theory a curious intersection of math and motors—and perhaps a brief headache—New York’s Caroline Shaw found another inspiration for her series of elaborations on the phrase “the detail of the pattern is movement.” Indeed, in our attempt to identify a pattern, we usually hurry to find the repeating individual motifs, and in doing so skip over that richly textured world of transitional flux which Kerner’s theory emphasizes. In the percussive part played by the flower pots, and intermittently on pizzicato cello, there are endless elaborations on the space separating distinct notes. Around these staccato notes on flower pots, the cello continuously wraps its rhapsodic ribbon—the repetitive act of which, also, registers as distinct utterances.

Shaw, who is often “cited as proof that classical music has an exciting future,” (The Atlantic), maintains a creative output influenced by many styles and approaches to composition. Navigating a path as a student from Rice, to Yale, to Princeton, Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her “Partita for 8 Voices”—the youngest recipient of the award, at the age of 30. Trained as a violinist, vocalist, and composer, she has grown into a de facto musical institution through which various ensembles and artists, including Kanye West, have found fulfilling collaboration. Despite the variety of her output, her stylistic compass is oriented by a naturalistic element both simple and elaborate. In albums such as Orange and Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part, she manages to squeeze the green and yellow purity of nature out of the rough pulp of urban landscapes. There is perhaps not a more urban landscape than the sight of a city’s concrete arteries clogged with vehicles during rush hour; even here, we can choose to tune into the imperceptible music of synchronous flow.

Program note by Michael Zarathus-Cook

From the Composer

“Boris S. Kerner lives in Stuttgart and is the author of Introduction to Modern Traffic Flow Theory and Control: The Long Road to Three-Phase Traffic Theory. We’ve never met, and we probably never will. But the serendipity of the internet, through some late night research and musing on the idea of friction and flow in baroque bass lines, led me to his name and his work. Boris begins with a fairly typical 17th-century continuo style line in the cello that leans and tilts, sensitive to gravity and the magnetism of certain tendency tones, before getting stuck in a repeated pattern. The flower pots enter the scene as an otherworldly counterpoint to this oddly familiar character, introducing a slightly cooler temperature to the baroque warmth, and sometimes interrupting and sometimes facilitating the cello’s traditional flow of melodic traffic,” writes Shaw.

Quote from Bowdoin International Music Festival

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Dinuk Wijeratne: “A Letter from the After-life” from Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems

A photo of Dinuk Wijeratne

Sri-Lankan-born Canadian composer Dinuk Wijeratne is one of the premier figures of Canadian music. His synthesis of styles borrows freely from musical ingredients ranging from tabla to chamber orchestra. After studying composition in Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, Wijeratne went to study and perform with composers including John Corigliano at the Juilliard School and Christos Hatzis at the University of Toronto. In Canada, he remains the only composer to have been appointed both Conductor-in-Residence and Composer-in-Residence at Symphony Nova Scotia. Outside of concert halls, Wijeratne maintains various engagements as an instructor, including as Creativity Consultant for students at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the Glenn Gould School.

Two Pop Songs on Antique Poems, composed for string quartet as part of Afiara Quartet’s Spin Cycle project, earned the composer a Juno Award for Classical Composition in 2016. Commissioned by the Afiara Quartet, the work premiered in May 2015 at Koerner Hall, and was performed by the TSO as part of its TSO Concert On Demand video series. Wijeratne’s work is a melding of the old and new in string orchestration. In the first of these songs, “A Letter from the After-life,” there are three main influences woven together in energetic dialogue, the most prominent of which is the catchiness of its Pop-like melodies. The Classical element is similarly apparent in the two instances wherein Wijeratne directly quotes from a Franz Schubert quartet (Death & the Maiden). The centrepiece of the work, from which the title of the song is borrowed, is an excerpt from a collection of quatrains by 12th Century Persian poet and polymath, Omar Khayyám:

“1. ‘A letter from the After-life’
I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell”

— from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, 1859, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.

Listen to an interview with Dinuk Wijeratne here.

Program note by Michael Zarathus-Cook

From the Composer

“I found the concept of this unique project to be irresistible: ‘Pop’-influenced music for a Classical string quartet. Almost as irresistible as the musicians involved. The ‘Afiaras’ (as I like to call them) are astonishingly equidistant from tradition and innovation. And so I sought to create for them my own kind of ‘collision of old and new’, where the beauty and meaning of vintage poems might inspire the kind of loops, grooves, and catchy tunes heard in Pop. The melodies are, in fact, settings of the poem texts with the words stripped away. Contained in ‘A Letter from the After-life’ are two quotes from Schubert’s Death & the Maiden quartet. Ironically, they struck me as being Pop-like and so I allowed them to emerge as though improvised; then to be improvised upon,” Wijeratne writes.

Quote from Wijeratne’s website.

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Kelly-Marie Murphy: Rains of Ash and Embers

A photo of Kelly-Marie Murphy

Inspired by the wildfires that swept across Western Canada in 2018, Dr. Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Rains of Ash and Embers is a meditation on the dualities of the Canadian landscape. With it, Dr. Murphy found expression for the exploration of a piece “that combines beauty and devastation; one that acknowledges our fragile relationship with an ever changing ecology”. For her, the wildfires revealed a widening gap between the popular perception of the Canadian wilderness, and the imminent threats posed to it by climate change.

This duality finds expression in the string orchestration for Rains, which ranges from searing pyrotechnics on high strings to “the human side of remorse and regret” on harps. Commissioned and premiered by the Senior String Ensemble at De la Salle in April 2019, the approximately seven-minute piece is scored for a small string orchestra and a pair of harps. Throughout, warning sirens announced on violins exchange seamlessly with alarms of a clear and present danger. Even the end of the movement culminates in a shimmering mirage equidistant from heat and respite.

Described variously as “Bartók on steroids” (Birmingham News) and “an alien of extraordinary ability” (US Immigration and Naturalization Service), Dr. Murphy’s career has been at the centre of Canadian music for several decades. Her artistic sensibilities are informed both by extensive compositional studies in universities across North America and Europe, and by lived experiences travelling Canada. Born on a NATO base in Sardegna, Italy, she was raised in barracks across Canada, lived in Washington D.C. and now resides in Ottawa.

Her extraordinary mind for the minute details of composition is also matched with a broad view that is conscious of the complex world informing and receiving her music. She adds to this a healthy dose of humour and a lightness of touch in navigating a male-dominated industry; her website features a section titled “They Hate Me…”—a fascinating collection of mildly spiteful reviews. She takes all this in stride while enjoying an international celebrity with a rarely matched litany of awards, accolades, and residencies.

Program note by Michael Zarathus-Cook

From the Composer

“2018 has gone on record as the worst fire season in Western Canada. It broke the record which was set the previous summer, 2017. Close to 13,000 sq km of British Columbia was burned, and clouds of smoke and ash travelled across Canada affecting air quality and visibility in many provinces. One cloud made it all the way to Ireland, and smoke was visible from space.

I set out to write a different kind of piece about Canada: one that combines beauty and devastation; one that acknowledges our fragile relationship with an ever changing ecology. If Canada is defined by it’s majestic landscapes, clean water, crisp air, and vast forests, what does the ever-increasing deforestation say about us? The piece was commissioned by the Senior String Ensemble at De la Salle. It is a single-movement work of roughly 7 minutes. The strings give the illusion of heat and flame, but also the very human side of remorse and regret and even hope,” Murphy writes.

Quote from Murphy’s website.

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Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5

A photo of Gustav Mahler

“Mahler finished his Fourth Symphony today. As usual it made him not happy but deeply depressed to lose such a daily incentive.”
— From the memoir of Natalie Bauer-Lechner, August 5, 1900

Out of the temporary depression following his Symphony No. 4, Gustav Mahler rallied his efforts for a fifth symphony with the same cerebral density as the preceding four, but an unexpectedly evocative Adagietto. Though the composer wrote of a studious devotion to Bach in the period before composing No.5—and there seems to be intimations of the regal airs of the Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in the first theme of the fifth movement—the symphony is far from monotonous throughout. In it, Mahler found the greatest expression of his conception of orchestral polyphony. The composer, who wanted his symphonies to reflect the tremendous variety of the world, was becoming weary of what he deemed “homophony is disguise,” in favour of the assembly of themes which “are distinct from one another in rhythm and melody”.

This new-found appreciation for polyphony was the topic of conversation on a ceremonious Sunday walk in the summer of 1900 along a path in Klagenfurt, Austria. Mahler was joined by violist and friend, Natalie Bauer-Lechner. She recalls his response to the sounds from a nearby festival: a combination of carousels, military bands, and shooting drills, uniting to form a cacophony at which Mahler exclaimed:

“You hear that? That’s polyphony, and that’s where I get it! Already in my early childhood in the woods at Iglau, I was singularly moved by that kind of thing, and it stayed with me. Because, you see, it’s all the same whether it happens in noises like this, in the singing of hundreds of birds, in the howl of a storm, in the splashing of waves or the crackle of a fire [...] Only it’s the job of the artist to arrange and unite them into a harmoniously sounding whole.”

It is against this background of symphonic contrasts that the Adagietto stands out as a harmonious unit. Known for his fastidious and relentless revisions—he was still revising No. 5 nearly a decade after its inception—the Adagietto remained relatively untouched in instrumentation. The scattered activity of the symphony’s preceding three movements persists, but tamed by the harp’s measured pace: a gently pulsing ventricle above which the viscous stream of an elegiac aria is sung across strings high and low. The movement anticipates a retort to the worry expressed by his wife, Alma Mahler, in a letter written to him in 1902, just after the first rehearsal:

“Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking iridescent, and flashing breakers?”

This was the same concert-going public that, just 13 years later, would hear Stravinsky’s Rites for the first time. They’d be shocked by how rapidly the musical vernacular was evolving and unaware of the degree to which they had been prepared for the polyphonic textures of the Ritual of Abduction section.

Program note by Michael Zarathus-Cook

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Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

A photo of Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna, Austria on September 13, 1874 and died in Los Angeles, California on July 13, 1951. He completed Transfigured Night in its original version for string sextet in December 1899. He prepared a version for string orchestra in 1917, and this revision of it which he prepared in 1943.

The Schoenberg of atonality and serial composition–the innovative, controversial procedures that demonized him in the minds of many listeners–still lay ahead when he composed this rapturous, ultra-Romantic piece. Until 1899, his creative output had been confined to songs, piano pieces and a string quartet and the conservative Romanticism of Johannes Brahms strongly influenced them all. That year, the poems of German author Richard Dehmel (1863-1920) inspired him not only to set some of them to music, but also to create an evocation of Dehmel’s poem “Transfigured Night.” Schoenberg scored it for six strings and cast it in the form of a single, continuous movement. It proved to be his most ambitious and most successful work to date.

In 1950, he wrote, “My composition was, perhaps, somewhat different from other illustrative compositions, firstly, by not being for orchestra but for a chamber group and secondly, because it does not illustrate any action or drama. but was restricted to portraying nature and to expressing human other words, it offers the possibility to be appreciated as ‘pure’ music.”

Once Dehmel heard it, he wrote to Schoenberg that “I would consider it a sin of omission if I did not say a word of thanks to you for your wonderful sextet. I had intended to follow the motives of my text in your composition, but I soon forgot to do so, I was so enraptured by the music.”

The poem is a dialogue between two lovers, as they walk through a chilly moonlit forest. The woman reveals she is expecting a former lover’s child. Her new lover argues the depth of their feelings for each other will ensure that they will love the child as their own. The music progresses from initial anxiety, through turbulent yearning, to a final sense of tranquil fulfillment. The original chamber version communicates a compelling sense of intimacy, but Schoenberg’s transcription for full orchestral strings brings added power and sumptuousness.

Program note by Don Anderson

Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), poem by Richard Dehmel (1896)(S.H. transl.)

Two figures pass through the bare, cold grove;
the moon accompanies them, they gaze into it.
The moon races above some tall oaks;
No trace of a cloud filters the sky’s light,
into which the dark treetops stretch.
A female voice speaks:

I am carrying a child, and not yours;
I walk in sin beside you.
I have deeply sinned against myself.
I no longer believed in happiness
And yet was full of longing
For a life with meaning, for the joy
And duty of maternity; so I dared
And, quaking, let my sex
Be taken by a stranger,
And was blessed by it.
Now life has taken its revenge,
For now I have met you, yes you.

She takes an awkward step.
She looks up: the moon races alongside her.
Her dark glance is saturated with light.
A male voice speaks:

Let the child you have conceived
Be no trouble to your soul.
How brilliantly the universe shines!
It casts a luminosity on everything;
you float with me upon a cold sea,
but a peculiar warmth glimmers
from you to me, and then from me to you.
Thus is transfigured the child of another man;
You will bear it for me, as my own;
You have brought your luminosity to me,
You have made me a child myself.

He clasps her round her strong hips.
Their kisses mingle breath in the night air.
Two humans pass through the high, clear night.

Source: Harper's Magazine

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Gustavo Gimeno, conductor

TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno outside Roy Thomson Hall

Gustavo Gimeno begins his first full season as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with the return to in-person performances in November, 2021. Maestro Gimeno has programmed a 2021/22 season that reflects his expansive artistic vision, intellectual curiosity, and sense of adventure, and will conduct eleven subscription programs.

He is known for his passion for exploring how well-known classical works contrast and illuminate repertoire across many musical genres and styles of diverse composers. He made his Canadian début with the TSO in February 2018, and returned in June 2019 to conduct the suite from Stravinsky's celebrated ballet The Firebird. In October 2019, he conducted Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé to critical acclaim, with the Toronto Star stating “Gimeno revealed himself to be a focused, meticulous leader whose main goal was to let the composer’s ideas speak clearly…. The Toronto Symphony will be in sure artistic hands for the foreseeable future.”

Gustavo Gimeno has been the Music Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg (OPL) since 2015, appearing with the orchestra in many of the most prestigious concert halls throughout Europe. He is a much sought-after guest conductor worldwide, performing with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, London Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Münchner Philharmoniker, and is regularly invited to the Concertgebouworkest. In the U.S, Gustavo has conducted with the National Symphony Orchestra Washington, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston and Chicago symphony orchestras, The Cleveland Orchestra, and many more. He is in demand as a conductor of opera, with past appearances at Liceu Opera Barcelona (Verdi’s Aida), Zurich Opera (Verdi’s Rigoletto), and Valencia Opera House (Bellini’s Norma), where he is scheduled to conduct Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel in 2022.

As part of his touring engagements, Gustavo has conducted alongside soloists Daniel Barenboim, Gautier Capuçon, Anja Harteros, Leonidas Kavakos, Bryn Terfel, Yuja Wang, and Frank Peter Zimmermann. A highlight has been performances of the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos with Krystian Zimerman.

In 2020, Gimeno conducted the world premiere of Francisco Coll’s Violin Concerto, written for Patricia Kopatchinskaja and co-commissioned with NTR ZaterdagMatinee, London Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony and Bamberger Symphoniker. During 2021, Pentatone released a recording of the Violin Concerto with Kopatchinskaja, Gimeno and OPL as part of a Coll monograph. Gimeno’s catalogue on Pentatone with OPL also includes Shostakovich’s Symphony No.1 and Bruckner’s Symphony No.1, Ravel’s complete ballet music to Daphnis et Chloé, Mahler’s Symphony No.4, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle and César Franck’s Symphony in D minor.

Gustavo will make his debut with Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony in 2021 and 2022.

Born in Valencia, Spain, Gustavo Gimeno began his international conducting career in 2012 as assistant to Mariss Jansons, while he was a member of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. He also gained invaluable experience as assistant to Bernard Haitink and Claudio Abbado, who strongly supported and influenced him in many respects as a mentor.

For more detailed information, please visit Gustavo Gimeno’s website.

Gustavo Gimeno's appearances are generously supported by Susan Brenninkmeyer in memory of Hans Brenninkmeyer.

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Joseph Johnson, cello

TSO Principal Cello Joseph Johnson with his cello

Principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since 2009, Joseph Johnson previously held the same position with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He also serves as principal cellist of the Santa Fe Opera. Prior to his Milwaukee appointment, Joseph Johnson was a member of the Minnesota Orchestra cello section for 11 years. He was a founding member of both the Prospect Park Players and the Minneapolis Quartet, the latter of which was honoured with The McKnight Foundation Award in 2005.

Mr. Johnson has been heard throughout the world as a soloist, chamber musician, and educator. His festival appearances include performances in all classical genres at the American festivals of Santa Fe, Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, Bard, Cactus Pear, Grand Teton, and Music in the Vineyards as well as the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan, and the Virtuosi Festival in Brazil. Recent highlights include the Canadian Première of the Unsuk Chin Cello Concerto with the Esprit Orchestra, as well as Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Kingston Symphony and Etobicoke Philharmonic. Upcoming concerts include concerto engagements with the Niagara Symphony and Symphony Nova Scotia.

A gifted and inspiring teacher, Mr. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Cello at the University of Toronto, as well as the cello coach for the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra and the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, FL. He conducts numerous masterclasses for a wide range of institutions and ensembles.

A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Joseph Johnson earned his master’s degree from Northwestern University. Awards and honours include a performer's certificate from the Eastman School of Music and first prize from the American String Teachers Association National Solo Competition.

Mr. Johnson performs on a magnificent Paolo Castello cello crafted in Genoa in 1780.

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Charles Settle, percussion

TSO Principal Percussion Charles Settle plays the triangle

Charles Settle joined the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as Principal Percussion in 2017. He was previously a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (2004–2017), where he had been serving as Acting Principal Percussion since 2015. Charles has also appeared with many other ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic (where he was Percussion and Assistant Principal Timpanist for the 2008/09 season), Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In the summer months, Charles performs with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony in Sun Valley, Idaho, as well as the Strings Music Festival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

From 2000 to 2004, Charles was a member of the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida. Charles made his début solo appearance in September 2015 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, performing Avner Dorman’s concerto for two percussionists, entitled Spices, Perfumes, and Toxins.

An active educator, Charles has given masterclasses at the University of Toronto, Cleveland Institute of Music, University of Florida, DePaul University, Manhattan School of Music, Interlochen Arts Camp, New World Symphony, and the Curtis Institute of Music where he visits annually. From 2013 to 2017, Settle was an adjunct faculty member at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. He also coached the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra from 2004 to 2015. In 2017, Charles joined the faculty of The Glenn Gould School at The Royal Conservatory. He is the Percussion Coach of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Charles was born in Princeton, Kentucky, where his love of music began. He completed his high school studies at the Interlochen Arts Academy, and earned his Bachelor of Music from the Curtis Institute of Music where he studied with Michael Bookspan and Don Liuzzi. Charles serves as an Artist and Clinician for Zildjian Cymbals, Freer Percussion, and Pearl/Adams Drums.

When Charles is not performing, you can find him playing outside with his two young children or enjoying a glass of wine with his wife.

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