About this Recording
8.559618 - GERBER, S.: Chamber Music - Piano Trio / Duo / Elegy / Notturno / Gershwiniana (Nikkanen, Cho-Liang Lin, Beroukhim, B. Smith, Buechner)

Steven R. Gerber (b. 1948)
Chamber Music


The nine works on this recording, presented in roughly reverse chronological order, span the years 1967–2001, most of my compositional career so far.

Gershwiniana (1999), for three violins (or two violins and viola), is the first of several pieces of mine based on works by other composers. In these pieces I take motfis or other fragments from these compositions and then re-work them into something completely new. My intention is not to comment on the original works but simply to use them as a springboard. I have used the same technique in Spirituals (for string orchestra, with a second version for clarinet and string quartet and a third version for string quartet alone), Three Folksong Transformations (also on this recording), and Five Greek Folksongs (After Ravel) for violin and piano. The first movement of Gershwiniana, Song Without Words, is based on the opening motif of Gershwin’s song Nice Work If You Can Get It, whose words are “Holding hands at midnight”; it was my realization of the similarity between the opening phrases of the movement I had already begun and the Gershwin song that led me to write a group of pieces based on Gershwin. The second movement, Canons, takes the opening motif from Love Is Here To Stay (the words here are “It’s very clear”) and, like the first movement, it completely changes Gershwin’s harmony. While both these movements are lyrical and use only white notes, the finale, Blues-Etude, is extremely virtuosic, taking fragments from two of Gershwin’s Preludes for piano and turning them into a series of twelve-bar blues in E flat minor.

Three Folksong Transformations (2001) for violin, cello, and piano uses the same method as Gershwiniana, applying it to three of my favorite folksongs: Song Without Words transforms some of the motifs of Careless Love from F major into a rather dour F sharp minor, with the cello imitating the violin; Canons and Riffs combines canonic passages based on motifs from The Peat-Bog Soldiers, a song Paul Robeson sang so beautifully, with brief, rather cryptic interpolations by the piano; and Variations uses the melodic outline of What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? I am grateful to the recording engineer, Susan Napodano DelGiorno, for suggesting during the recording session that in the second movement it suited the mood better for the cello to begin the canons rather than the violin, as I had originally intended.

Three Pieces for two violins (1997) was begun in part as a study for a concerto for two violins, strings, and harp entitled Serenade Concertante (1998), written for the Russian violinist Tatjana Grindenko and recorded on Arabesque. The first movement alternates material suggestive of so-called “mystic minimalism” (I borrowed this music from my Sonatina for oboe and guitar) with a more rhythmic, rather Coplandesque idea; the second movement is much more dissonant and harsh; the diatonic finale is lyrical and contemplative.

Notturno (1996) was written for the London-based Bekova Trio, for whom I also wrote a Triple Overture for violin, cello, piano, and orchestra, recorded on Chandos. It is in A-B-A form, with the short middle section briefly reappearing at the end. While I borrowed the title from Schubert, whose Notturno is one of the few short works for the medium, the chord-spacing has more in common with Brahms. The basic material is very simple, but the mood is dark.

Elegy on the Name ‘Dmitri Shostakovich’ (1991) was written for the Russian violist Elena Ozol, whom I got to know well when, as composer and pianist, I toured Russia in the early nineties with her group, the Russian Quartet. She asked me to write a work for solo viola, and since Shostakovich was her favorite composer I decided one day to play around with the letters of Shostakovich’s name and came up with two motifs that I liked, based respectively on the letters SHSTA and DMT (S is E flat and H is B natural in German, while T and M represent Ti and Mi, or B natural and E natural). At the end I used Shostakovich’s own DSCH motif, with the C transposed down an octave, and I was very pleased when one violist who played the piece told me that at that moment it sounded to her as if Shostakovich himself were coming out of the grave. The Elegy, which I arranged in 1992 for cellist Mikhail Utkin, has become my most frequently played work. It is also the first of many pieces in which I have used letters as motifs—for example, I used the letters BASHMET in the Viola Concerto I wrote for Yuri Bashmet, the letters BRAHMS in the Serenade Concertante, and the letters AMERICA and USA in my Fanfare for the Voice of A-M-E-R-I-C-A, a work commissioned shortly after 9/11 by Voice of America for its sixtieth anniversary.

Three Songs Without Words (1986) for solo violin were written at the request of my friends Michael Dellaira and Brenda Wineapple for their wedding. These pieces are arrangements of three songs from Words for Music Perhaps, eleven settings of W.B. Yeats for soprano and two violins completed in 1985. In these arrangements changes of register and alternations between single notes and double stops usually indicate which passages were vocal lines and which were string parts in the original versions.

The final three works were written much earlier and are much more chromatic and less tonal than the other pieces heard here.

Fantasy for solo violin (1967) was finished shortly after my nineteenth birthday. It is an extremely virtuosic work in several sections: a maestoso opening, a calmer, slower section climaxing in a scherzando, a return to the maestoso, and finally a calm, lyrical coda based on the second section. Overall the shape is that of an arch (A-B-C-B-A), but the final two sections are highly varied. Duo for violin and cello (1969) reflects a brief period when I was influenced by the first two string quartets of Elliott Carter, though my piece is less complex rhythmically and contrapuntally. Like Carter in his second quartet, I thought of the instruments as characters in a sort of dialogue, sometimes arguing with each other, sometimes ignoring each other, sometimes going off on their own (each has a cadenza), and finally reconciling in the slow coda.

Finally, Trio for violin, cello, and piano (1968) was commissioned by the Kindler Foundation when I was nineteen and given its première by the Trio of the University of Maryland. My first large-scale work, it was stylistically influenced by my teacher and mentor, Robert Parris, who had earlier been my piano teacher, and, through him, Bartók. It is very challenging technically for the performers, and in a couple of the sections I pulled out all the stops in the demands on both the individual players and the ensemble. It is in two large movements: the first is in many sub-sections, Allegro con spirito—Sostenuto—Scherzando— Sostenuto and a highly shortened and varied return of the Allegro con spirito; after that there is a slow transition and then the finale, marked Adagio. I have always thought of the Trio as a “young man’s piece” in its ambitiousness and, relative to many of my later works, its lack of emotional and technical restraint. The Trio has at least one characteristic in common with the Duo, an obsession with combining long-held notes or chords with faster-moving, more aggressive material.

Steven R. Gerber

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