It was my great privilege to write the program notes for the world premiere of Katherine Balch’s whisper concerto for Cello and Orchestra. If you’re in Dallas or going to be in Dallas this coming weekend, you should by all means attempt to secure tickets to this event and go. Associate DSO Conductor (and former SLSO Associate Conductor) Gemma New leads the Dallas Symphony in what promises to be an exciting (and perhaps even riotous) springtime ritual.
You can read my notes on the excellent Dallas Symphony Orchestra website, but I included some bonus material that got snipped for space, and I have learned my lesson with links (which don’t seem to be as permanent as I had naively imagined when I started this website). This also gives me the chance to include some cherished photos. I also decided to reframe the concert title and shift the emphasis from The Rite of Spring (no offense to Stravinsky, who I’m confident cares not a whit whether he gets top billing) to the world premiere of the whisper concerto. I understand that the orchestra, like all 21st-century ensembles, has to consider what sells tickets, but as a blogger who is entirely self-financed, I do not.
Speaking of which, and before I forget, here are Balch and soloist Zlatomir Fung in conversation about whisper concerto.
I also want to recommend Balch’s website, which is among the best I have ever seen. You can actually peruse the score for the whisper concerto and marvel over the precise performance instructions and notes on instrumentation. I know people throw around the word “genius” way too often, but if Balch isn’t a genius, I’m not sure if the designation even matters.
New Conducts Borodin, Balch, and Stravinsky
by Rene Spencer Saller
Alexander Porfiriyevich Borodin (1833–1887): Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor
Like Tchaikovsky, who was seven years younger, Borodin was born in Saint Petersburg and died unexpectedly at age 53. The two composers knew each other somewhat but traveled in different circles. Borodin, a prominent professor of chemistry, moonlighted as a member of the Moguchaya Kuchka, or “Mighty Handful”: five influential composers who dominated Saint Petersburg’s musical culture from the mid-1860s until the early 1880s. Besides Borodin, “the Five,” as they were often called, consisted of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, César Cui, and Mily Balakirev. Only Balakirev had the luxury of composing full-time; the others had day jobs. Borodin, the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, published major treatises on acids and aldehydes.
“I do not seek recognition as a composer for I am somehow ashamed of admitting to my compositional activities,” the research chemist wrote in a letter. “For me this is a relaxation, a pastime, an indulgence that distracts me from my principal work.”
After Borodin’s death from a sudden brain aneurysm, a monument was erected in Saint Petersburg. The statue honored his scientific achievements—his music was admired by connoisseurs but still mostly unknown to the general public. His most ambitious work, Prince Igor, remained unfinished at his death. Even though Borodin didn’t live to complete the opera, he was alive in 1879, when Rimsky-Korsakov conducted a performance of its climactic Act II closing number, Polovtsian Dances.
Borodin’s friends Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov relied on their memories and the late composer’s towering piles of papers to complete Prince Igor, a monumental effort at which Borodin had been plugging away, on and off, for the past 18 years. The world premiere of the full opera took place on November 4, 1890, at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg.
A Closer Listen
Especially for an amateur composer, Borodin had remarkably strong melodic instincts, a knack for vivid orchestration, and a disciplined work ethic. Like all his best work, the score for Prince Igor enlivens a staunch nationalism with exotic, even mildly subversive touches. Based on a scenario by Vladimir Stasov, Borodin’s self-penned libretto involves a medieval Russian prince who is defeated by a tribe of Tatar invaders, the Polovtsians, and held captive—although treated as an honored guest—until he makes a daring escape.
Prince Igor, Borodin dryly observed, is “essentially a national opera, interesting only to us Russians, who love to steep our patriotism in the sources of our history, and to see the origins of our nationality again on the stage.” A dedicated researcher, he studied the culture of the region, particularly its songs and dances, derived from a diverse mixture of influences and folk traditions. His musical portrait of the Polovtsians, epitomized by The Polovtsian Dances, incorporates not only authentic Caucasian tunes but also Moorish melodies by way of North Africa and the Middle East.
In its original context, as a ballet sequence, The Polovtsian Dances closes Act II of Prince Igor. For this hook-happy show-stopper, Khan Konchak presents a menu of sensuous splendors available to the prince once he consents to stop fighting the Polovtsians. As a parade of sultry concubines and catamites sashay and shimmy for the barbarian chief, along with his court and captives, Borodin tempts the ear with a seductive array of dances: ambiguously ethnic (or “Orientalist,” as postcolonial critics might argue); rich in orchestral color and harmonic interest; rhythmically complex but still conducive to graceful human movement.
In addition to serving as an exhilarating concert opener, as it does here, The Polovtsian Dances inspired some of the music in the 1953 musical Kismet, which turned the tantalizing woodwind-sung main theme into “Stranger in Paradise,” a monster Broadway hit that enjoyed even greater success when the musical was repackaged as a star-studded MGM movie. Crooned by pop idols, hummed in countless showers, whistled on the way to work, Borodin’s music is much more famous than the man who created it. Anonymous ubiquity: the hallmark of a true classic.
Katherine Balch (b. 1991): whisper concerto: for Solo Cello and Orchestra
The winner of the 2020–21 Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome, Balch was nominated for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2020 Career Advancement Award by violinist Hilary Hahn. Balch, who earned advanced degrees in music from Yale and Columbia, is currently a visiting assistant professor of composition at the Yale School of Music. Her work has been commissioned and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the London Sinfonietta, and Ensemble Intercontemporain, among many other prominent orchestras and ensembles.
Dubbed “some kind of musical Thomas Edison” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Balch constructs distinctive sound worlds unique to each new composition. The prolific young composer engineers an eclectic but efficient sonic code, precisely calibrated to the needs of a particular project, incorporating everything from toy instruments to tuned crystal water goblets, earthenware pots, and pianos prepared according to painstakingly detailed instructions involving color-coded graphs and elaborate symbols.
In the score for Balch’s new Dallas Symphony Orchestra co-commission whisper concerto, every element of the sound is mapped to the minutest detail, right down to images of all the specific objects that she used to modify the strings of the prepared piano. She provides specific instructions for most of the other instruments, too, whether it’s col legno battuto bowing for the strings, which requires the musician to strike the strings with the wooden part of the bow normally held by the fingers, or a passage where the cello’s bow is swapped out for a bamboo chopstick. Elsewhere she calls for nontraditional variations on traditional techniques such as pizzicato or flutter tonguing. In some glorious version of an afterlife, John Cage and Henry Cowell are surely smiling.
Composed in 2022, whisper concerto is true to Balch’s style in that it sounds at once perfectly idiomatic and utterly strange. Beautiful—sometimes even conventionally tonal—melodies commune lovingly with shameless noise. Virtuosity gives way to entropy only to catch its breath and come back weirder and wilder, transformed by the volatile power of orchestral collaboration. Shards and fragments of free jazz mysteriously reassemble themselves, against all odds, into a peculiar chorale.
“The end of my concerto deals with elements of Ligeti’s noise-based cadenza, but in a different, more tonal context,” Balch explained in a recent interview with Rita Fernandes of The Strad magazine.
One challenge that she confronted while composing her cello concerto was maintaining some kind of fruitful equilibrium between the solo instrument and the orchestra. ‘The cello’s low register can be difficult to balance, and I really wanted to honor the integrity of the instrument’s tessitura,” she told Fernandes. “It’s never a battle between cello and orchestra. I want them to fit together in a way that provokes intimacy between them.”
The Composer Speaks
“whisper concerto is named after the bristling, agitato ‘whisper cadenza’ of György Ligeti’s cello concerto. Like Artifacts, my concerto for violin and orchestra, this piece is not meant as a showcase for cello alone, but for the orchestra as a whole, which reacts to and augments the soloist.
“whisper concerto is a working out of several musical contradictions I find expressively intriguing: how can an andante be agitato? A presto, dolcissimo? How can a cadenza play (and be playful) with the evolving demands and expectations of performer virtuosity? How can a simple chorale become the shadow of a desperate, fluttering, noisy scorrevole? In folding together these musical opposites, I hope to have captured some of the kinetic virtuosity of Zlatomir’s playing, for whom this concerto is dedicated, along with his kindness, playfulness, gentleness of spirit, and warmth.” —Katherine Balch
Some Terms Defined
Andante: Moderately slow tempo, as in a walking pace
Agitato: In an agitated manner
Cadenza: An improvised or composed ornamental passage designed for virtuosic display and typically performed in a rhythmically loose style
Chorale: Hymn or psalm form harmonized according to a set of conventional procedures
Dolcissimo: Very sweet or soft
Scorrevole: Gliding or flowing from note to note
Tessitura: Italian for “texture,” the term refers to the range of notes or general pitch level at which the voice (of the singer or instrument) most comfortably resides, without strain or undue challenge.
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971): Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Without the efforts of some crucial creative partners, Stravinsky’s iconic ballet Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) would not exist in its current form—or perhaps at all.
Among the Russian composer’s most essential collaborators were three of his fellow countrymen: the painter and archaeologist Nicholas Roerich, who helped develop the two-part scenario and to whom the score is dedicated; the choreographer and impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned it for Les Ballets Russes; and Vaslav Nijinsky, the insurgent young choreographer whose savage kinetic language may have actually provoked the riot for which Stravinsky’s music is credited.
Stravinsky was in his late 20s and still relatively unknown when he began working with Diaghilev. The proud young composer almost passed on the opportunity after Diaghilev was late to their first meeting. Just as Stravinsky was about to slip out the street exit, Diaghilev hurried to stop him. “I’ve often wondered if I’d opened that door,” Stravinsky told his biographer, “whether I would have written The Rite of Spring.“
A Pagan Sacrifice
Sometime in 1910, while polishing the score of his first Diaghilev commission, The Firebird, Stravinsky was distracted by “a fleeting vision, which came to me as a complete surprise.” According to his own account, he imagined “a solemn pagan rite [wherein] sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.”
Instead of pursuing this idea immediately, he finished The Firebird and began his next ballet, the folk-inflected, pathos-drenched Petrushka. It wasn’t until July 1911 that he resumed work on what eventually became The Rite of Spring (with the subtitle “Pictures from Pagan Russia”). He and Roerich hashed out the story and discussed potential dance movements. That September, back at his family’s estate in Ustilug, Stravinsky was eager to plunge into the score. “I’ve already started composing,” he wrote. “I’ve sketched the prelude, and I’ve gone on and also sketched the ‘Divination with Twigs’; I’m terribly excited! The music is coming out fresh.”
He continued to work on it the following winter, in Switzerland, finishing the first act in late February. In a letter to a friend he exclaimed, “it’s as if 20 years, not two, have passed since the composition of Firebird!” That March he traveled to Monte Carlo and played the first part of the score for Diaghilev and Nijinsky as a piano reduction. They’re “wild about it,” he boasted to his mother.
Pierre Monteux, who would later conduct the infamous premiere, wasn’t so favorably impressed. “I was convinced he was raving mad,” the Frenchman confessed. “The very walls resounded as Stravinsky pounded away, occasionally stamping his feet and jumping up and down…. My only comment at the end was that such music would surely cause a scandal.”
After completing the orchestration in spring 1913, Stravinsky traveled to Paris to oversee the rehearsals. The dancers and musicians found the piece so daunting that an unprecedented number of practice sessions were scheduled. The exotic tonalities and erratic rhythms notwithstanding, the dress rehearsal went well.
The actual premiere was a different story. The opening bassoon solo—written entirely above middle C—upset a very vocal contingent of the audience. Almost immediately, the patrons were shouting, blowing whistles, and shoving one another. Because the dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra over the fracas, they fell out of sync. Diaghilev screamed from the wings and Stravinsky panicked, but Monteux soldiered on. He was, in Stravinsky’s approving assessment, as “impervious and nerveless as a crocodile.” “It is still almost incredible to me,” the composer later remarked, “that he actually brought the orchestra through to the end.”
Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller
Listening to Balch’s “Forgetting” on SoundCloud. Amazing!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Isn’t she wonderful? I’m glad you are discovering more. I love the way she shares so much of her work, including her scores. In addition to being extremely creative, she seems to be unusually well-organized.