About this Recording
8.559183 - SEREBRIER: Symphony No. 3 / Elegy for Strings / Fantasia
English  German 

José Serebrier (b

José Serebrier (b. 1938) Music for Chamber Orchestra


The Elegy for Strings (1952) was first performed in Belho Horizonte, Brazil, conducted by my composition teacher, Guido Santórsola. I did not hear that performance, but I was present when he conducted it in Montevideo a few weeks later. To this day I recall a local critic writing that he enjoyed this dark, brooding piece, but that it had to be impersonal, because it seemed inconceivable to him that a fourteen-year-old boy living in Montevideo could write such sad, dark music. The Elegy was a first in many ways for my beginnings as a composer. It was my first published composition (by the Pan American Union in Washington DC, which in turn led to my life-long relationship with Peer Music publishers). It was my first work to be played abroad, with performances at Radio France in Paris, conducted by Juan Protasi, and a New York première at Carnegie Hall conducted by Leopold Stokowski. This is the first recording.


Shortly after my arrival in the United States I started my studies with Aaron Copland, and it was he who suggested the title for the enigmatic Momento psicológico (1957). I had mentioned to Copland the motive behind this work: “There is that crucial moment in life when you must decide whether to make a left or a right turn, and that choice can shape your destiny.” Copland replied: “It’s a fateful, psychological moment.” Scored for string orchestra, there is also a distant trumpet sound –just one note–  always present, sometimes whispering, sometimes screaming.


After graduation from the University of Minnesota, and Antal Dorati’s departure from Minneapolis, with my Guggenheim grants finished, life became a big question mark. While driving back to New York I stopped for gas in a small city in upstate New York, and read a newspaper announcement that on that same evening the local orchestra was auditioning conductors. With spirit of adventure, I called to ask if it was still possible to apply. The audition was successful, and I became the music director of the Utica Symphony, a semi-professional orchestra. The position came as a package with a part-time Assistant Professorship at the local college to teach violin and composition. This new school, part of Syracuse University, used makeshift classrooms, but at least I had my own office, and a school library room where I could compose. It was in this school library/cafeteria that I wrote every note of my Fantasia for String Quartet (1960). The noise and the constant chatter failed to distract me. I enjoyed writing this piece, on commission from the Harvard Musical Association in Massachusetts, a contest I had won which included a première by members of the Boston Symphony, at the Harvard Musical Association’s beautiful salons. The première, in the spring of 1961 was a wonderful event. The next time it was played was in Washington, DC at the Inter-American Music Festival. I was unable to attend, but was amused by the Washington Post’s review, which declared it an “instant hit, a veritable 1812 of string quartets.” That was not what I had in mind at all, but I was delighted that it had communicated so well. Later, Wladimir Lakond, the editor at Peer Music, suggested a string orchestra version of it, with double basses added, and he published both versions. As time passes, I still feel very close to this piece which just poured out of my pen in less than a week.


After a short introduction that sets the mood –a folk-like melody of melancholy nature– there follows a persistent solo violin, using unexpected melodic and harmonic structures. This recurrent solo, a sort of devil’s trill, is purposely out of place. The music goes back and forth in the manner of an improvisation. The closest it comes to a set form is the recapitulation of the solo violin section, which leads to an unexpected, driven coda. This ending may come as a surprise, since the bulk of the piece is so lyrical. The title has to do with the free form of the piece, but it was also a kind of homage to Stokowski/Disney’s wonderful film. When I wrote Fantasia I had not yet started to work with Stokowski in New York (that would come eighteen months later), but he had already premièred two of my works.


During my first years with Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra in New York I was still writing music regularly, mostly encouraged by him and some of his best musicians. Stokowski had assembled an orchestra with some of the best free-lance virtuoso musicians in the New York area. Two of the star performers were Paul Price, who commissioned my Symphony for Percussion for his Manhattan Percussion Ensemble, and Davis Shulman, who commissioned a work for trombone and strings. The Variations on a Theme from Childhood (1963) can be performed on trombone or bassoon. It requires a virtuoso of great technique. The strings are also stretched to the limits, with extremely high writing.


I received a commission from the American Accordionists Association to write a work for accordion and chamber orchestra, the Passacaglia and Perpetuum Mobile, for accordion and chamber orchestra (1966). The instrument was entirely foreign to me, but Elsie Bennett, longtime president of the organization, and the brains behind their massive commissioning series, lent me an accordion, which I studied for weeks. It was a great challenge, because the chords provided by the buttons on the left side of the instrument were ready-set, giving the composer very little freedom for tonal imagination and variety. The instrument has since then been improved, and composers today do not have that problem. I gave the commissioning organization a bonus, a piece for solo accordion, which I wrote at the same time.


As life grew busier with conducting tours and the direction of international festivals, I saw my composing time brought to a halt. What broke the ice, some fifteen years after my last works, was a combination of circumstances. For my festival in Miami I had commissioned Elliott Carter to write his Fourth String Quartet which we premièred together with new works by many other composers. In 1987 I had ten prominent composers write new works especially for Lucas Drew, one of the foremost double-bass virtuosos in America. He insisted, however, that I add my own contribution to the list. My small contribution to Lucas Drew’s series of commissions was George & Muriel (1986), for the unusual ensemble of double-bass, double-bass choir, and wordless off-stage chorus. I found that writing this short piece, after so many years, was as if I had never stopped composing, and it encouraged me to continue. At that time, my close friends George and Muriel Marek were about to celebrate their sixtieth wedding anniversary and I could not think of a more personal gift for them than a new composition.


This work does not intend to be in any way a portrait of the Mareks. It is a work I may have written anyway. The music reflects what was on my mind at that moment, my most intimate thoughts, and as such it is my humble but deeply felt homage to George and Muriel Marek.


When I first met this wonderful, colorful couple, Dorothy and Carmine, I was in the midst of organizing Festival Miami. My composing time had been reduced to the wishful thinking of ideas, with no time left for writing them down. Every moment was taken up by organizational work for the new festival and guest conducting all over the world. This little essay, Dorothy & Carmine! for flute and strings (1991), written to celebrate the marriage of longtime Miami friends Dorothy Traficante and Carmine Vlachos, is meant as a wedding gift rather than a musical picture. I experimented with sonorities by paring strings with two wandering flutes, one of which appears from nowhere in the audience, almost as a dancer who is sometimes invited to join the stage proceedings. The flutist is sitting in the audience unbeknown to the public, and sometime towards the end of this puzzling (to me as well) piece, the flutist seems to get excited or inspired by the happenings onstage and starts playing. By the time the public becomes aware that an ‘intruder’ is daring to interrupt the concert, the flutist stands and starts to walk toward the stage, all the while playing faster and faster until reaching the usual soloist spot on the stage next to the conductor. After a brief climax, the flutist exits slowly to the back-stage area, and can still be heard repeating a haunting drone as the orchestra comments with background sounds. Finally, the sound of the flute can still be heard, but magically, this time the sound comes from the back of the auditorium (or the balcony), as a second flutist echoes the dying notes of the first flute. Do not try to read a meaning behind the notes here (nor in the other essay of this series). Each listener is welcome to make up his own story line, if it helps in enjoyment of the music.


I completely surprised myself when writing Symphony No. 3, Mystical – Symphonie Mystique (2003), in being able to complete it in a week. Part of the rush was the imminent recording deadline, but it came out of my pen as if I was just transcribing something that had always been in my memory. Later I was reminded of a statement by my friend Einojuhani Rautavaara: “music exists in some other plateau, and we composers merely write it down.” When he and I shared Aaron Copland’s composition class at Tanglewood in 1956, we struck an immediate friendship.


My previous two symphonies are completely different in every respect. The first, also written in the heat of the moment during the summer of 1956, shortly after my arrival in America, was in an extended one movement. It seemed to me at the time that the multiple-movement form no longer applied, since mood and speeds now changed freely within each movement, and there was no need for the separation into independent pieces. No one was more surprised than I was when Leopold Stokowski announced he was going to conduct it with his orchestra in Houston, as a last minute replacement for the première of the Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony.


The Second Symphony, Partita, is an extensive four-movement work, composed during my years in Minneapolis, while studying conducting with Antal Dorati. This work took several months to complete. It was my first recorded composition (Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra), and it provided me with a US conducting début. In 1960 Howard Mitchell decided to include it in the subscription series of the National Symphony Orchestra, and he invited me to conduct it.


The Third Symphony is in the traditional four-movement format, but here the tradition ends. The opening is a rather brash, aggressive moto perpetuo, the only fast movement in the work, with obsessive, repeated rhythms. The Slavic-sounding melody of the second subject reappears throughout the other movements in several disguises, not necessarily as a leitmotiv, but as a memory of things past. The opening is in the simple a-b-a format, while the rest of the movements are quite rhapsodic. The second movement opens with a long cello line, which builds a dark climate using the minimal diatonic interval, a semitone, sometime broken across octaves. A haunting high violin line intercedes, like a voice from afar. It leads to succeeding interludes that have a feeling of unresolved conflict, ending quietly and questioningly. The third movement is also a fantasy or rhapsody like the previous one, but very different in character. It opens quietly with the second violins, soon joined by the violas, and followed by anxious, anguished sounds. It is eventually interrupted by a sad, cryptic waltz. This waltz keeps returning obsessively, over and over. Eventually it gives up, and the movement ends in resignation. The finale is perhaps the main reason for the subtitle. After a short introduction, again based on the second motive of the first movement, it changes character, leading to a repeated drone, like a passacaglia, serving as the backdrop for a distant voice, a disembodied sound, wordless and mystical. Echoes of that same recurrent second motive from the first movement make their final ghostly appearances, hidden under the string ostinato. It seems to have an outer- worldly character.


 José Serebrier

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