Robert Beaser conducts his Chaconne

With great expectations since I first received the score in early spring, I looked forward to the second performance of Robert Beaser‘s Chaconne. It’s a new work that I had studied and played in a large guitar orchestra for its premiere in April 2018. This time, Robert Bekkers, the conductor of our Boston Guitar Orchestra, played it with eight other musicians. Knowing that the nine guitarists rehearsed nearly every day of the Boston Guitar Festival confirmed my earlier belief that it was not an easy piece at all.

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Premiering new work for guitar orchestra: Beaser’s Chaconne

Premiering a new work is always a nerve-wracking experience, especially in front of the composer and an unknown public. I’m not sure who has the greater pressure, the composer or the performer, or in this case, the conductor.

On Sunday 18th March 2018, the Boston Festival Guitar Orchestra, made up of several regional guitar ensembles, including Boston Guitar Orchestra, gave the world premiere of Robert Beaser‘s Chaconne, a piece commissioned by the Boston Classical Guitar Society for the New England Guitar Ensemble Festival (NEGEF).

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Spatial music: movement and sound in Nicolaikerk

Years ago, as a composition student, I was asked to write music to make use of the huge space in St Nicolas Church in Utrecht. Pressed for time, I adapted a piece for baroque recorders and baroque violin. Only at the premiere did I see the greater possibilities of space and movement.

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Following the Ninth to Middlebury and Boston

After screening the documentary “Following the Ninth: in the footsteps of Beethoven’s final symphony” in Hawaii, Anne Ku went to Vermont to meet the director and Boston to see the orchestral performance.

There is a new movement taking place. It’s called “Following the Ninth.” You’ll have to see the 78-minute documentary “Following the Ninth” to know that it’s not just about Beethoven’s last symphony. It’s about how the “Ode to Joy” was used in several world events as a song of solidarity and hope: Tian An Men Square (1989), Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), Tsunami in Japan (2011), and the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

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Rehearsing new piece with composer

Our rehearsal with the composer brought new insights to the performance of this piece. With fresh understanding, we now have to get into the piece for its premiere on 3rd May in Spain!

Only two weeks after he heard us perform in November 2007, Amsterdam-based composer Gijs van Dijk (pronounced like “hey-s”) finished the “Abstract and Dance” for our piano guitar duo. Instead of starting on that piece, we asked if he would write something for our trio with Korean violinist Naeon Kim.

Today Gijs came to hear his “Abstract and Dance” — for the first time. I had assumed “abstract” in the title to mean an abstract, such as a shortened summary of the piece. He had deliberately made the first part increasingly “abstract” or nearly 12-tone. The pun was not intended. It’s interesting how the gist of the piece comes to light after working with the composer. Without his feedback, we would have to rely entirely on what’s specifically written in the piece.

It begins with andantino grazioso but we only followed the metronome setting at quarter note = 84 not at all andantino or gracefully. In the absence of bows and slurs, we didn’t pay much attention to phrasing. Until now the guitarist and I had been focussing on being able to play together, in synchronisation, without hiccups. There were no pedal indications, but I guessed that pedalling was necessary for such a contemporary piece. To be sure, I just had to ask, for I’m accustomed to do very little pedalling for 19th and 18th century pieces to avoid overpowering the guitar.

“Yes, do pedal as you see fit.”

We played through the entire piece without stopping. This is the usual practice, to let the composer hear it in its entirety. And then we’d work through the piece, asking questions, giving suggestions, etc.

One of my secret games with composers is to see if they can tell if I’ve misplayed a note. In a piece full of accidentals like this one, it’s not clear if certain accidentals are meant to be or deliberately left out.

Bar 12 did not indicate a C# as was the case in the previous measure. I had wondered whether there should have been a C# otherwise I would expect a courtesy “natural” to avoid confusion. I played as written, but Gijs stopped me. The C-natural in the bass sounded odd.

“Please add the sharp, just like the previous bar.”

After the second group of clusters in the guitar coinciding with a long bass trill in the piano, a new pattern emerged in bar 31. The composer asked the guitarist to play the new phrase melodically. “Put a slur over it. Can you play it legato?”

This meant I should lead into it melodically too, i.e. add a slur and make it feel like we’re talking to each other. Indeed until now, we were so set on playing the right notes, in the right tempo, at the right time, making the right accents, in the right dynamics, that we hadn’t a clue about the dialogue between the two instruments.

We could view the piece as two people talking or trying to have a conversation. I begin with a dramatic statement in bar one. The guitar attempts to say, “And I have also been …” but gets cut off by two huge sfz (suddenly very loud) chords of mine, as though saying, “I’m not done yet!” I start again, as before. My two gigantic sfz chords cut him off just as he tries to react. I continue like a soliloquy. He tries to empathise but is drowned out. When I pause to breathe, he gets his chance. He squeezes and wheezes a string of fast notes in ff desperate to be heard finally.

After a lot of exciting to and fro, the guitar bangs away on all 6-strings while the piano trills away on the lowest G#.

Here is where the melodic section begins, a gentle mp quint climb. But this melodic, legato section is short-lived. Ten measures later, both instruments pound away, 6-note chords on the guitar against 5-note clusters on both hands for the piano in ff. Either they are both mad or both wanting to get attention.

Six bars later, they’re back making melodic music again.

Connecting the “abstract” to the “dance” is an “adagio.” The composer wanted us to make it even slower than the indicated metronome tempo. “Make the half-note a 42,” he said.

We added poco rit to end small sections and crescendo’s where necessary. It was like adding extra colours to a finished work, with the creator’s consent, of course. We rounded the lines, smoothed out the shades, and made this section a true adagio, a relaxing contrast from the “abstract.”

I was eager to throw myself into the “dance” with a full blown allegro, quarter note = 120, as indicated. The guitarist complained that it was too fast for him. [Ha! I could do it and I was unstoppable.] To my disappointment, the composer asked that we slow it down to an easy quarter note = 112.

“That sounds better,” he said.

Perhaps the composer was sympathetic since he was a guitarist himself. I nearly sulked at the guitarist’s grin.

Much to my chagrin, I saw the benefits of taking it slightly more slowly. At this tempo we could express the accented notes which were not simultaneous for guitar and piano. Suddenly I heard something else. It was no longer a race to see how fast we could play it, but an intricate dance, like the kind of interlocking in minimalist music I played in gamelan ensembles.

Our rehearsal with the composer brought new insights to the performance of this piece. With fresh understanding, we now have to get into the piece for its premiere on 3rd May in Spain!