About this Recording
8.573486 - VAN DER ROOST, J.: Spartacus / Poeme Montagnard / Sinfonietta, "Suito Sketches" (Philharmonic Winds OSAKAN, Van der Roost)

Jan Van der Roost (b. 1956)
Spartacus – Symphonic Tone Poem • Poème Montagnard • Sinfonietta ‘Suito Sketches’


Spartacus, a symphonic tone poem, carries the dedication Omaggio a Ottorino Respighi. Composed in 1988, this in places somewhat cinematic work pays humble homage to Respighi, a remarkable Italian master of orchestration. A similar and undeniable Roman inspiration which has characterised several of his major works, has been the unwritten scenario behind this piece. In fact Respighi turned out to be one of the most influential composers from the first decades of the twentieth century for many of his successors—including many film music composers. Years after his death in 1936 he still proves an inspiration for various types of composers. For me his imaginative and colourful music has always held a fascination, so it is no surprise that I wrote Spartacus especially for my composition portfolio for my diploma at the Antwerp Conservatoire. Unusually, it was not a commissioned piece, but I composed it “for myself”, so to speak, with the aim of adding a work for wind orchestra to that portfolio (alongside symphonic works, chamber music pieces, vocal music, et al.). Soon after its première in Holland (1989), it became quite successful internationally and it has been (and still is) played countless times by wind orchestras from all over the world.

The slightly oriental sounds of the opening passage of the work refer to the exotic origins of the numerous slaves who were brought to ancient Rome by their oppressors as a result of their conquests: many of them died as gladiators in arenas like the famous Colosseum in Rome. Spartacus became leader of the rebellion against the Romans in the last century BC. An almost stubborn pedal note “C” in the lower registers offers stability and determination, though the rest of the players seem to be involved in a rhythmical fight between the various sections. The quiet middle part of the piece could be seen as the “love story” between Spartacus and his (imaginary) beloved, while the final movement depicts the fight against the Romans. According to various sources, however, the dramatic fate of the rebel slaves was cruel: they were crucified alongside the Via Appia in 71 BC. A dodecaphonic chord symbolizes this fact and when themes from the middle part are reprised, the eyes of Spartacus and his beloved meet for the last time, as if in a flashback, before perishing on the cross. A short but spectacular vivo concludes this symphonic tone poem, which contains some Respighi influences, but without direct quotation.

There is in a way a particular connection between Poème Montagnard and Spartacus, as the Orchestre d’Harmonie du Val d’Aoste (located in the French-speaking north-western part of Italy) was the first Italian wind orchestra ever to perform Spartacus. It has turned out to become one of their absolute favourites ever since. In 1997, Lino Blanchod, their conductor and the director of the Conservatoire of Aosta, commissioned a new work from me which was intended to serve as their “own choice work” for the World Music Contest in Kerkrade (The Netherlands), held that same year. As requested by the commissioning body, I paid homage to the main historical figure from that region, the fifteenth-century Catherine de Challant, who had a major influence on the area during her lifetime. This explains the obvious renaissance-influences in various places, most particularly in the renaissance dance—featuring, unusually, recorder quartet. The beginning section, however, depicts the wonderful natural scenery of the area: the Alps and especially the famous Mont Blanc are a dominant feature of the Val d’Aosta. A romantic slow passage on the other hand illustrates the love affairs of the noble Catherine de Challant and, after a short fugato, the piece concludes majestically with an augmentation of the renaissance dance theme. One more musical element characterizes this work: the notes B-A-C-H-D, derived from the conductor’s name BlAnCHoD, recur at a number of points and in various registers: they are like a musical thread (or in French a fil rouge). I here mixed the German system of letter notation, in which the international B corresponds with B flat and H with B natural, in order to provide more diversity of pitches. Just as with Spartacus, this mountain poem is now played all over the world by wind orchestras able to master this rather challenging but also colourful and expressive music.

In 2004 the professional Osaka Municipal Symphonic Band (Japan) commissioned a major piece on the occasion of their 80th anniversary. The wonderful city of Osaka—the second largest in Japan—is often called “capital of water” or “suito” in Japanese, so the subtitle of my Sinfonietta appropriately became Suito Sketches. The four movements all have their own character and atmosphere and they display the various qualities and possibilities of the modern wind orchestra. The Landing starts with a rather improvisational and aleatoric passage, featuring several woodwind instruments in soloist rôles. After that atmospheric and somewhat hesitant start, a solemn and noble theme appears in the middle and lower brass, reaching a climax towards a broad tutti passage and settling to a quieter atmosphere which refers to the opening passage. The Sword Dance is much more powerful and dynamic: hammering percussion rhythms and low bass notes create a solid and sometimes threatening sound, after which a barbarian dance breaks out. Through virtuoso and exciting patterns and rhythms, this spectacular dance pushes the entire orchestra towards an almost diabolical climax, concluded by a “golpe fatal”… In contrast with these more violent sounds, the third movement, Nightfall by the River, is calm and peaceful and it offers some woodwind soloists a chance to show their lyrical qualities. In general the orchestration of this slow movement is refined and colourful and it alternates conventional as well as unusual instrumental combinations. The final movement, Towards the Future, is much brighter and more virtuosic, and apart from a whirling motif (presented by the woodwind), a chorale-like theme is introduced by the trombones, continued by the other brass instruments. Both elements being developed and combined with each other, thus creating a grandioso ending to this miniature symphony. Sinfonietta turned out to be a true challenge for all performers so it is basically reserved for the “better ensembles” within the international wind orchestra world.

These three compositions, different in style and inspiration, are often played within the vast repertoire for wind orchestra which is available nowadays. In other words, they have become valued contributions to that repertoire, which of course pleases me very much. It was a great pleasure to conduct and to record them live in Osaka and I think this compilation of “live” recordings makes sense because all three works have their own personality and character, so illustrating various aspects of my compositional activities for this musical medium over the last decades.

Jan Van der Roost

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