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New Music/Early Music: The New Brandenburgs, pt. 3

The New Brandenburgs

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra commissioned six modern composers to write new works inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. This is the last of three programs devoted to exploring the new compositions alongside the original inspirations.

In part one, works by composers Aaron Jay Kernis and Christopher Theofanidis were featured. Part two explored Stephen Hartke’s “A Brandenburg Autumn” and Paul Moravec’s “Brandenburg Gate.” Now we look at pieces by Melinda Wagner and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

[Special thanks to WQXR, New York Public Radio, for providing recordings of the New Brandenburgs heard on the program.  Click here for more information about this project.]

Melinda Wagner

Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Melinda Wagner was given Brandenburg Concerto #4 as her muse. The work she wrote, entitled “Little Moonhead: Three Tributaries,” was scored for solo violin, two flutes, harpsichord (doubling celesta) and strings.

Wagner writes,

In "Brandenburg" No. 4, Bach puts into motion a relatively small number of voices, each presented in broad brushstrokes, through doubling [of voices]. In addition to all of its lightness and air (and the delicacy provided by soloists), there is a kind of orchestral heft, along with pristine clarity. My own music tends to be much more dense, with many more voices, compound chords, and [divided] strings. Ironically, I suspect that Little Moonhead will sound more like a chamber work, perhaps because my "brushstrokes" are pencil-thin.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

The most distinguished of the six composers to be commissioned was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one of the 20th Century’s most prominent British composers. Davies was given Brandenburg concerto #5 as a starting point.

From there he took inspiration from the poem “Sea Orpheus” by George Mackay Brown. Davies not only borrowed the poem’s title for his own work, but drew further inspiration from Bach’s other compositions and medieval chant.

Davies writes,

There are three movements, played without a break, all based on a Gregorian chant, ‘Tantum Ergo Sacramentum’, which is subject to constant transformation processes, and is present throughout in some form. The work was commissioned as a companion piece to Bach’s Fifth “Brandenburg” Concerto, and has a similar orchestration, with flute and violin solos, and a virtuoso keyboard part, taking full advantage of the modern grand piano. This is the first time I have attempted to write a strictly neo-Classical work, and, as well as from the “Brandenburg” Concerto, I have borrowed techniques from Bach’s Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue.

Cardinall’s Musick and William Byrd

The British vocal ensemble Cardinall’s Musick has been recording the compositions of William Byrd for many years. In 2010, the ensemble completed its project to record Byrd’s complete Latin church music by releasing volume thirteen in the series.

Entitled Infelix Ego, the CD not only capped off a monumental accomplishment but earned them a highly coveted Gramophone Award. The recording includes motets Venite, exultemus Domino, Domine, non sum dingus, Haec dies, and Cantate domino.

Featured Release

Our featured release looks at the Alia Vox label recording “Istanbul.” Jordi Savall leads Hesperion XXI and guests in a program of music surrounding the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir—philosopher, historian, composer, musicologist, and linguist.

The recording mixes 17th-century Ottoman court music with more popular Sephardic and Armenian traditions of the time.

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