This weekend (starting Thursday evening), Music Director Fabio Luisi conducts the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of Angélica Negrón‘s Arquitecta, sung by Lido Pimienta. After the Negrón world premiere, the DSO and pianist Francesco Piemontesi perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The concert concludes with Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, which will be recorded for a future audio release.
Luisi Conducts Negrón, Beethoven, and Brahms
by René Spencer Saller
Angélica Negrón (b. 1981): Arquitecta (World Premiere)
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and now based in Brooklyn, New York, Angélica Negrón is the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence. The multi-instrumentalist, composer, educator, and music journalist has written numerous works for chamber ensembles and orchestras, as well as film scores and assorted pieces for accordions, toys, and electronic and robotic instruments. Her original compositions have been commissioned and performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Kronos Quartet, loadbang, MATA Festival, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Sō Percussion, and the American Composers Orchestra, among others. As a founding member of the transnational electro-acoustic group Balún, she sings and plays accordion and violin. In 2022 the Hermitage Artist Retreat awarded Negrón the Greenfield Prize, which includes a $30,000 commission and a six-week residency.
Negrón received her early training in piano and violin at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico, where she later studied composition with Alfonso Fuentes. She holds a master’s degree in music composition from New York University, where she studied with Pedro da Silva, and she has completed coursework toward a doctorate in composition at The Graduate Center (City University of New York), under Tania León. Her distinctive style filters an eclectic range of influences—Arvo Pärt, Björk, Juana Molina, Meredith Monk, John Cage, and former DSO composer in residence Julia Wolfe, among others—through her unique and wildly fertile imagination.
Arquitecta, a song that features Colombian Canadian vocalist Lido Pimienta, was co-commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Bravo! Vail. Although Negrón has written several other major vocal works, both for chorus and solo voice, this is her first composition for voice and full orchestra. Augmenting Pimienta’s live singing are sampled voices, an essential part of Arquitecta‘s sound world.
In a recent conversation with Denise McGovern, DSO Vice President of Communications, Negrón explained that the sampled voices are “mostly in Spanish” or singing something that more closely resembles “sound and gesture than language,” sourced from “the actual recorded voices of women I love and admire who have shaped in some way or another my life—family and friends.”
One of these formative female relationships is with Pimienta. “Lido and I go way back to 2008, when we were both featured in Club Fonograma, an influential music blog dedicated to Latin American and Spanish music and culture,” Negrón explains. “Club Fonograma created a really special online community of Latinx music makers and shaped a lot of the Latinx indie sound with their monthly compilations Fonogramáticos. We heard each other’s music for the first time there and started to correspond virtually and then finally met in person a few years ago in New York. During 2020 we did a collaboration for Prototype Festival with the Puerto Rican comedian and illustrator Mariela Pabón. That said, it was not until I saw her beautiful piece with the New York Ballet, in sky to hold, in [October] 2021 that I realized the potential of her voice as a force in front of an orchestra.”
Negrón refers to Pimienta’s recent score, Lux Aeterna, used in sky to hold, choreographed by Andrea Miller for the New York City Ballet. Among the very few female composers in NYCB history, and the first-ever female composer of color, Pimienta sang her piece on stage with the company.
Amanda Hernández, the young Puerto Rican woman who wrote the poem that provides the song’s text, describes its mood as equal parts elegiac and optimistic: “I wrote this poem thinking about the house I grew up in, the houses I have lived in and the houses I had to say goodbye to. It’s an ode to the pain that comes with farewell and the celebration of what that ‘new door that opens’ promises when another one closes, or collapses.”
The Composer Speaks
“In “Arquitecta,” Hernández captures the maternal spirit and its connection to tangible spaces often burdened by a lifetime of memories and labor, both visible and invisible. The physical and emotional weight of caring for family and home transcends the passage of time and endures beyond loss; it ultimately becomes inextricable from the conception of self and, paradoxically, a solace.
“For the last several years, my mother became her own mother’s primary caregiver—in the wake of my grandmother’s recent death, Hernández’s evocative imagery of the house as Matriarch resonated deeply. Lido Pimienta’s experience as a mother and her vulnerable but powerful voice bring life to Hernández’s celebration of women and the spaces they traditionally inhabit.
“The piece is a through-composed 10-minute orchestral song. It begins with an extensive, rhythmically driven instrumental introduction, sonically ‘building’ the house of Hernández’s poem through repetitive and increasingly arduous orchestral gestures. From here, the song unfolds with Lido’s voice embodying each verse through expansive melodies and hypnotic melismas, exchanging expressive melodic runs and dynamic shimmering soundscapes with the orchestra.
“Throughout the song, the orchestra will have recurring moments of flourishes incorporating disjointed fragments of Caribbean music as well as gestures inspired by natural soundscapes from Puerto Rico, sound-painting the landscape within which the house stands. These will be punctuated by occasional electronics in the percussion, sampling everyday household objects as well as environmental recordings, capturing a domestic atmosphere. Joining Lido will be a cascade of sampled female voices—also played live by the percussion—intensifying as the piece develops, building up to a deluge of emotion evoking distant and fragmentary memories from a collective past.”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827): Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
The Third Piano Concerto evolved over years. Beethoven had an idea in 1796, put it aside for a long time, and left the written version of the concerto in flux at the 1803 premiere (the first and last time that he played it in public). Then, in 1804, while writing out the piano part for a student, he revised the C Minor Concerto again. As originally composed, the Third Concerto requires the soloist to play a high G, which is believed to be the earliest instance of that note in the piano repertoire. In 1804, after trying out a new expanded keyboard design, Beethoven extended the range to include the C that sits over the fifth ledger line above the treble staff. Even though going so high meant that his concerto could be played only on new, state-of-the-art pianos, Beethoven wanted the work to reflect these technological advancements.
Beethoven was known for being difficult. His savage performance style—louder, harder, faster! —meant that he occasionally damaged the fragile keyboard instruments of the age, like an Enlightenment-era Jerry Lee Lewis. As a young man (and a middle-aged one, too) his rough yet haughty personal code compelled him to quarrel with others over slights real and imagined. He often scandalized his devout teacher Joseph Haydn, who believed him to be an atheist and referred to him mockingly as “the Great Mogul.”
But Beethoven’s skills as a pianist far eclipsed Haydn’s, and pretty much everyone else’s after Mozart’s untimely death. In a letter written around the time that Beethoven was sketching out ideas for his Piano Concerto No. 3, Frau von Bernhard, an habituée of the same Friday morning musical salon, described the wigless young virtuoso’s behavior as “unmannerly in both gesture and demeanor,” with Beethoven even refusing, on one particularly galling occasion, to play for the hostess’s mother, who got down on her knees and begged. Mozart had admired the gracious and cultured Countess Thun, yet this “small and plain-looking” man with an “ugly, red, pock-marked face” dared to snub her!
Although he seldom bothered to transcribe the dazzling improvisations that came to him so easily, Beethoven did something unusual with his Third Concerto. In 1809 he composed—as in committed to staff paper—a cadenza for the first movement that functions much like an extended development section. As his deafness worsened, he felt increasingly incapable of public performance. If his music was to be heard at all, he needed other people to play it.
Over the years, other pianist-composers have created their own cadenzas, a traditional form of musical tribute that Beethoven practiced, too, when he was still a hot-shot virtuoso. Clara Schumann, who was 49 years old when she performed Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto for the first time, described the experience in a diary entry from November 3, 1868: “I played Beethoven’s C Minor Concerto for the first time (almost unbelievable) with real delight. I composed a cadenza for it, and I believe it is not bad.”
A Closer Listen
Piano Concerto No. 3 marks the end of Beethoven’s early period and the beginning of his middle period, when he dismantled and reassembled everything he knew about form, tonality, and genre.
A dotted drum-beat motif pulsates through the opening Allegro. The second theme, carried by violins and clarinets, is lyrical and lithe, a frisky contrast to the somber martial passage that it follows. The piano rushes in: a flurry of mad ascensions. After a magnificent cadenza, Beethoven gives the timpani the drum-beat motif he’s been teasing us with since the opening measures.
The central Largo is in sharp-studded E major, a key so far removed from C minor that it barely inhabits the same hemisphere. According to biographer Jan Swafford, Beethoven played the entire opening with the sustain pedal down.
The rondo finale begins in the home key of C minor, but a lighter touch prevails. In the mighty coda, the tempo speeds to Presto, and the rondo resolves in euphoric C major.
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897): Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98
Brahms’s fourth and final symphony draws on a lifetime of experience and immersive study, resulting in a work that’s both intensely experimental and deeply traditional. Although the E Minor Symphony is now widely considered to be the capstone of his career as a symphonist, it was not warmly welcomed. After the composer and pianist Ignaz Brüll performed a two-piano reduction of the score for a small gathering of Brahms’s closest friends, an awkward silence fell. The conductor Hans Richter and the music critics Eduard Hanslick and Max Kalbeck, all loyal supporters, were unable to say a single nice thing about it. Hanslick later wrote, “I felt as though I were being thrashed by two extremely clever fellows.” Kalbeck told him that the finale, now regarded as the very heart of the work, was unsuitable for a symphony and should be replaced.
Although the Fourth’s premiere, conducted by the composer himself on October 25, 1885, in Meiningen, was a great success, it flopped badly in later performances in Vienna. The Austrian composer and critic Hugo Wolf dismissed it as “the art of composing without ideas.” Even the conductor Hans von Bülow, who famously anointed Brahms the successor to Bach and Beethoven, described it as “difficult, very.” For more than a decade, audiences were unmoved, if not openly hostile.
It was not until his final appearance in public, less than a month before he died, that Brahms witnessed a positive response to his final symphony. His former student and biographer Florence May described the performance in Vienna of March 7, 1897, in poignant detail: “A storm of applause broke out at the end of the first movement, not to be quieted until the composer, coming to the front of the artists’ box in which he was seated, showed himself to the audience…. The applauding, shouting house, its gaze riveted on the figure standing in the balcony, so familiar and yet in present aspect so strange, seemed unable to let him go. Tears ran down his cheeks as he stood there in shrunken form, with lined countenance, strained expression, white hair hanging lank; and through the audience there was a feeling as of a stifled sob, for each knew that they were saying farewell.”
A Closer Listen
Today, in the wake of modernism, postmodernism, and all its atonal offshoots, we struggle to understand why Brahms’s contemporaries found the Fourth Symphony so perplexing. Although it is certainly cunningly made, its cerebral underpinnings never distract from its beauty. The repeating cycles of descending thirds, which appear throughout the symphony in myriad motivic patterns, unite contrasting moods. Darkness permeates light, minor shifts to major, and vice versa.
The springing Allegro theme of the first movement gives rise to an overt quotation from one of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs: “Oh death, how bitter you are.” The gorgeous Andante moderato begins with a theme in the medieval-church Phrygian mode—which Brahms understood as the expression of deep need, a longing for heavenly comfort—and then gives way to the scherzo-like Allegro giocoso, a triangle-happy romp in C major.
Yet it is the finale, based on the almost archaic passacaglia form (a set of variations over a repeated bass line), that renders the work truly sublime. A masterful compendium of everything Brahms had learned as a symphonist, it’s loosely based on Bach’s death-drunk Cantata No. 150, “For Thee, O Lord, I Long,” and transforms the passacaglia, an ancient procedure, into a recognizable but astonishing take on 19th-century sonata form.
Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller