Ben Bolt-Martin: Among Friends cello concerto
This will finally be an opportunity for WCP to debut Among Friends, a concerto for cello and orchestra which Ben Bolt-Martin composed and dedicated to the members of the Waterloo Chamber Players in early 2020. For obvious reasons, we didn’t get a chance to perform together for a long time, leaving Among Friends unperformed except for the Coda, which we recorded on our phones during one of many lockdowns.
It is a rich soup of emotions that this concert brings out in me. I first played with the Waterloo Chamber Players as they (and I) were just starting out. This group has always been a source of what I find most essential to music making, a sense that musicians working together can be a source of mutual support and connection that is unavailable in almost any other human endeavour. It has remained, at its core, a group dedicated to the act of making great music with all of the benefits of bringing together like-minded musicians to accomplish something polished and beautiful.
It was with this in mind that I wrote Among Friends. It is a concerto, but not in the sense that a concerto has come to be known. My goal, in the end, was to have my good friends in the Waterloo Chamber Players surround me as I played music I had written, much of which is atmospheric and meditative, and very little of which is bombastic and show-offy.
The first movement centres around a piece I wrote years ago to be played with a looper. I never came up with an appropriate name for it, but I’m glad it’s found a home in this piece. In this instance, I pair it with a tune I wrote for my sister’s wedding, a tune which I find to be wistful and melancholic, reminiscent of younger days.
The second movement wanders down some misty and shadowy paths, wandering loosely into the world of romanticism with some dark and evocative episodes.
The third movement is rhythmic and a little funky, another tune that I’m happy to finally have found a home for with lots of energy and a slightly off-centre groove. It wanders off into a round dance based loosely on the instrumental in Paul Simon’s Can’t Run before dissolving into the aforementioned Coda.
I’m so happy that another of our good friends, Dan Warren, will be there to lead the orchestra during this premiere of Among Friends. Dan is an artistic treasure and a good friend. It is always a pleasure to share the stage with him.
Beethoven Symphony No. 7, Op. 92 (1812)
Though Beethoven began sketching ideas for a new symphony almost as soon as his Sixth had been completed in 1808, the main work on his Seventh Symphony began in the autumn of 1811. The piece was completed by the following summer and premiered to great public acclaim in December 1813; it has enjoyed remarkable popularity ever since.
Among the most high-spirited of Beethoven’s works, the symphony is particularly notable for the prominent role that rhythm plays throughout: characteristic rhythmic motifs pervade each movement. Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny suggested that Beethoven was inspired by the metrical patterns of Classical poetry. The symphony’s lively rhythms inspired Richard Wagner to regard it as “the apotheosis of the dance” (on one occasion, Wagner proved as good as his word when he performed an interpretive dance to the second movement, accompanied on piano by his unsuspecting houseguest, Franz Liszt). Commentators have also noted the rustic, Arcadian character of many of the Symphony’s themes, perhaps influenced by the fact that Beethoven composed while arranging Scottish, Irish, and Welsh folk songs at the behest of Edinburgh-based publisher George Thomson.
The first movement begins with a portentous introduction:
After a series of opening chords, powerful rising scales alternate with a lyrical melody introduced by the oboe. The introduction fades away on a single repeated note, which soon articulates the jig-like rhythm that dominates the rest of the movement. Creating a pastoral atmosphere, the flute introduces a dancing theme based on this rhythm. In place of the usual contrasting second theme, the music continues to develop this main idea until reaching a grand pause. The first time, the pause leads to a return of the dancing flute theme and all that followed it; the second time, the pause leads to an intense developmental passage.
After the music passes through many keys, the flute theme returns in the violins above a rushing accompaniment, carried aloft by the development’s momentum. Suddenly, it comes to a halt; amid the half-light of woodwind solos, the movement then reaches its true climax before continuing with a varied reprise of its other main ideas. Near the end, a grand pause once again stops the music; this time, a long crescendo ensues, leading to an ebullient conclusion.
Perhaps the most enthralling of all Beethoven’s symphonic movements, the following Allegretto has made a profound impression on listeners from the beginning. Three years after the Symphony’s premiere, one critic wrote that it “speaks inwardly even to those who have no training in music; by means of its naïveté and a certain secret magic it irresistibly overcomes them […]” After a mysterious introductory chord in the woodwinds, the lower strings intone the incantatory rhythm that continues throughout. As more instruments enter, this idea grows in power, until the woodwinds introduce a more lyrical, contrasting theme (softly accompanied by the main rhythm in the lower strings). These two ideas alternate, reaching a climax and fading away. Hauntingly, the movement ends with the same woodwind chord that began it.
The third movement has an ABABA form; the fleet, playful opening section alternates with a slower, songlike theme that may have been based on an Austrian pilgrim’s hymn. For Berlioz, this hymn-like theme was “very much in the spirit of landscape painting and the idyll.”
The festive finale has a direct connection with Beethoven’s aforementioned folk song project; at the end of his arrangement of the Irish folk song “Save me from the grave and wise,” Beethoven appended a short coda which bears a striking resemblance to the main theme of this movement. Interestingly, the song’s final verse contains the lines “Hence with wisdom, dull and drear,/And welcome folly and adventure:/Cease my song—a sound I hear/The planxty [a dance tune] comes—the dancers enter.” Perhaps the finale is this merry dance.
After the whirlwind of the main theme, a transition leads to a contrasting melody: a lilting tune for violins whose delicacy is undercut by loud woodwind offbeats and irregular rhythms. As in the first movement, a grand pause precedes a wild development. After a reprise of the movement’s main themes, this final dance whirls to a breathtaking ending.
Written by Calvin Dotsey for Houston Symphony Orchestra, January 28, 2020