During the July 13th, 2013 pre-concert talk led by composer Robert Pollock and pianist Winston Choi, the old church at the south-south-western most beach of Maui filled up quickly. It was interesting to observe some early birds to the 7:30 pm concert arriving late to the 6:30 pm talk but searching anxiously for a seat in the wooden pews. I found a nice spot near the west window through which I’d hoped to see the setting sun, but my view of the musicians was soon blocked by the latecomers.
In describing his inspiration for writing his Duo No. 6, a violin piano piece dedicated to his wife of 44 years, Robert Pollock demonstrated Wagner’s famous Tristan chord on the piano. This chord is the subject of many discussions in music analysis and composition. Pollock, who founded the Ebb & Flow Arts organization that introduces, commissions, promotes, and produces live concerts featuring music of living composers, then added a bottom note and a top note to the chord. Surprisingly, the new chord no longer sounded atonal. Even untrained ears can tolerate the resulting chord. He then showed how Scriabin used the expanded chord that gave to jazz harmony.
While the Tristan chord may have sounded dissonant when it was first introduced in Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, our modern ears have gotten used to it. Perhaps this is one reason to challenge our ears to unfamiliar sounds, for it expands our listening.
Choi described Pollock’s new work “organic to play physically, everything was tied to one another, a natural progression like a living being.” All the discussion around this piece made me very curious — what does the score look like? Could it be shown on screen during the pre-concert talk?
Later during the concert, I listened for derivatives of the Tristan chord, the tension and the resolution, and the occasional moments of tenderness, that sweet longing expressed by violinist Ming Huan Xu’s sensitive playing. This was a modern love song, of “emotions not yet felt” and harmonies that need to be heard again and again. The world premiere of Robert Pollock’s Duo No. 6 (2013) by Duo Diorama preceded the final piece in a well-put-together program of modern works by Zupko, Stravinsky, Ruo, Pollock, and Corigliano.
The other very interesting, perhaps still unknown, story told during the pre-concert talk concerned John Corigliano’s Violin Sonata. I had not come across the story in my pre-concert research, only appearing briefly in the description of the score: “This work, although dedicated to his parents, was much despised by Corigliano’s father. In fact his father discouraged any attempts at composition. This work, composed in 1963, augurs much to come in the development of his compositional style. The piece won first prize in the 1964 Spoleto Festival Competition for Creative Arts (Walter Piston and Samuel Barber were on the panel).” The work was the turning point not only for Corigliano as a composer but his relationship with his father, who played it as often as he could for the rest of his life.
For me, the pre-concert talk is an essential part of the concert-going experience. Despite the very comprehensive and well-written program notes given before the concert, my earlier research, and my meeting the performers the evening before, I did not know what to listen for. Now that I’ve heard Mischa Zupko’s Trigger (2005), Huang Ruo’s The Invisible Compass (2012), and Pollock’s new work, I lament that there will be a time lag before I can hear them online. As for Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante (1931) and Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963), just google to get youtube recordings.