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"The Poet's Hour": Composer and his work

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Video transcript

- As part of the Gund/Simonyi commissions, from my last season as music director in Seattle, my dear friend Joseph Schwantner wrote a piece called A Poet's Hour for solo violins and strings. - 10 years ago my wife Janet and I, decided to move to southern New Hampshire, where we've been living since that time. And there's something about the spirit of that land. So I've been reading lots of Thoreau. Obviously, a transcendental writer from New England. And I recall these words from his journal of 1853. There are, from time to time, mornings, both in the summer and winter, when especially the world seems to begins a new, beyond which memory need not go. It's the poet's hour. And one of things about living in New Hampshire, is its extraordinary kind of environment. You get up early in the morning and the mist wafts through the trees. And it's kind of extraordinarily invigorating environment. And now to lead an artist's life, to make my own decisions about how I proceed through the day has been really most meaningful to me. And so my music is really tinged by that environment obviously. And for me, the violin part is the poet's voice in this composition. - When I first heard it, I immediately really loved it. Because I thought I had remembered two words, coming to my mind, haunting and beautiful. And it really it's very simple. But those two words really struck me. Like that mood that the music was conveying. So I started learning it and it was surprisingly challenging. - I call it a soliloquy for violin and orchestra. It's not a solo piece, obviously, but in some ways, in my mind, the piece could also almost be played, just as a violin solo. Its not to say the string orchestra is not important, it is, obviously, but I had that kind of narrative, that kind of continuum. There's almost not a place where the violin doesn't play. And so, you're attached. As in a dialogue where you're listening to someone reciting a poem, you know? - He starts off very simply. (soft piano music) Now, in a way, if I play them all together. (soft piano music) It's really quite beautiful. But it's not really what you would expect. So you have this. (soft piano music) Which almost sounds like this chord. (soft piano music) But then he doesn't do that. He plays this note, so it's this chord. (soft piano music) And then he adds this one. (soft piano music) And then this one. (soft piano music) And that's the language in a sense. That sets the tone. When you have everyone playing very softly, these pitches. (soft piano music) And holding the pitches. And then the violin comes in. And the violin plays all fourths. And he does them as harmonics. So when you watch Yevgeny play, he's not pushing a note down. He's pushing one finger down, and touching with another. And that creates a note that's two octaves higher. So, he's playing, this note. (soft piano music) but this one comes out because of that. It's an eerie kind of sound. Now if you think about, what Joe was trying to do, with the Poet's Hour and the mornings, and summer and winter, it's hesitant. It's like the morning is just about to begin. (tranquil music) Then he finally brings in the cellos and basses just to do these pitches. (soft piano music) And then again he does the same kind of building, of pitches but in a completely different register. (tranquil music) When the violin comes in, he comes in playing all sixths. (tranquil music) Then the same material but this time there's single notes in the violin. They're not double stops anymore. (soft piano music) And it's answered by the orchestra playing. (soft piano music) And then violin solo (soft piano music) And then again, orchestra back and forth. And then (soft piano music) the same note from the beginning for the cellos and basses. And this then builds with that same material, just exactly that and then it comes to an end. (tranquil music) And after it comes to an end, the violin section plays very simple. (soft piano music) So that's what the violins play. While the violins are playing that, the solo violin is playing those same harmonics, (soft piano music) again in the high register but what becomes really interesting is that the cellos, the basses, the violas and second violins have a figure that begins, (soft piano music) and what happens is the bass plays the first one, with the cello, and the second with the cello, the third with the viola, the fourth note with the seconds. So, it's (soft piano music). And everyone of those pitches is held. Again, it gives us a whole other sound. And the basses play, there's pizzicato, so they're plucking, and when they stop and they go, (soft piano music) that remains. (tranquil music) That section then comes to an end, and the solo violin now leads the next section. And this becomes a little more complicated. He has this note, then he does. (soft piano music) It's a whole other mood and then that is developed. (tranquil music) Then it brings us to a section that's a little more stagnant with a lot of little stops and starts Basically with the same material. (soft piano music) And then we have a little cadenza. (tranquil music) And now the central section begins. The central section is basically, this kind of rhythm. (soft piano music) With changing pitches and the accompaniment. Then the solo violin. (soft piano music) Which we recognized and then the answer is (soft piano music) from the orchestra and then the solo violin. (soft piano music) And then again the answer from the orchestra. (tranquil music) This material continues, it repeats. I think it's in a sense a little minimalist in the sense that there's subtle changes, but it keeps repeating the same material. But what's interesting is the changes, are fascinating. and it doesn't last long, before he moves on to the next idea. But the ideas all relate. It's extraordinary. Then another little cadenza. And then the violin has a whole extended section where he's playing very fast notes, leading to a full blown cadenza. (tranquil music) When the cadenza's over, this ostinato passage in the bass's. (soft piano music) It begins and it goes on for a long time. You won't even notice it after awhile. Because the other members of the string section are playing something not this similar. (soft piano music) While the violin plays, again, some real virtuoso double stops. (tranquil music) Basically, he, the violinist, brings back all that material, develops it in this almost kind of almost primitive way in the accompaniment, and it leads back to the same kind of (soft piano music) force as we did as harmonics. And finally, basses, you'll hear again playing. (soft piano music) You won't even notice that they were there. And then all of a sudden the piece ends, and that's it. They're just there playing it. Very poignant, very subtle, very beautiful. And I think Yevgeny he played it exceptionally well. (tranquil music)