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Friday, November 21, 2008

CD Review: Martino's Violin Music

Miranda Cuckson wrote the following in the liner notes of her Centaur CD: Music by Donald Martino:

While planning this CD, I had the most fleeting of exchanges with Donald Martino. Having decided to apply for a Copland Fund grant to make a recording of his music, I wrote him a letter asking if I could obtain scores to two of his recent works: the Sonata for Solo Violin, and Romanza. He emailed me in return, saying he was sending the pieces. He thanked me for my interest in his work and suggested we talk in a few weeks, after he returned from his vacation. About a week later, I was looking at his website,, and I was shocked to read there a notice that he had just passed away while on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.

Though haunted by an eerie feeling of sadness, I soon continued with my plans. As I looked through his violin music, I realized I should also obtain his Sonata No. 2, for violin and piano. I contacted his wife, Lora, who kindly found a copy of it in his office and mailed it to me. Some months later, the Copland grant came through.

Reading Ms. Cuckson’s touching notes reminded me of my interactions around this time with Donald Martino (1931-2005), who had been my teacher and long-time friend.

Permit me to digress and supply some background information and a personal account. As a co-Director of the new music ensemble LUMEN, I had been in close contact with him. In fact, a small contingent of former students (and spouses) had dinner at his house just a few days prior to his ill-fated trip. This group of students included John Watrous, Peter Lieberson, Armand Qualliotine, and myself.

LUMEN had been planning to celebrate Martino’s 75th birthday with performances of his Sonata No. 2 and Trio which had recently been completed. But after we received the shocking news of his death, it was determined that the concert should go on anyway as a tribute. Months earlier, while preparing a press-release for what I thought would be a birthday concert, I asked Martino for some background information about his two works. I naïvely inquired if these would be first performances, and if the works had been commissioned by anyone. He emailed back a long response on August 25th, 2005, and in the following excerpt, one can detect a tinge of bitterness in this his response.

These two works were both written in 2004. Neither one was written to a commission. I have written almost exclusively to commission for the last 30 years. The last commissioned work was the Solo Violin Sonata written in 2000, commissioned by the Naumburg Foundation to honor Robert Mann (I am flattered that of those he could have chosen, he chose me) for performance by the Naumburg Violin Competition winner in 2001. Since then, despite extensive sojourns in the hospital each year, I have managed to write ten pieces-- none of them commissioned. I seem to be "out of the loop." Both these pieces are approximately half as long as my "big" works until 2000. But they are no less dramatic or expressive although the particulars of expression do not require the fussy notation that has been associated with my music since 1968. They tend in mood to associate more with my early music from 1945 to 1967. Oh, and since no one commissioned the works, they are undedicated…

But his mood and outlook improved greatly near the beginning of December 2005 when he received a commission from the Tanglewood Music Center for a new work. When Martino left with his wife Lora for a Caribbean cruise, he was brimming with renewed vigor, boundless energy, and a breath of optimism about the future. At times Martino would start his work day at 3 AM - crafting his masterpieces with boundless energy and conviction, and continue working in his basement workshop until late afternoon or into the early evening. He’d become completely consumed by a piece, and live with it until the music was fully distilled, emotionally concentrated, and polished like a diamond. He always held himself to the highest of standards, and would not compromise or settle for anything less than perfection.

While he was “vacationing” on the cruise ship, I suspect that Martino continued to throw himself whole-heartedly into his work - characteristically entering notes with a mouse into the Sibelius software loaded on his new Dell notebook. He was working on the opening bars of his Concertino for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, his anticipated Tanglewood Music Center commission. At this time, his rate of musical invention had accelerated to an amazing pace. It seemed as if he caught a strong wind in his sails, a wind that would provide him with newly discovered artistic energy and freedom which led his career on a journey to new and uncharted territory. Music that had been pent up inside during years of doctor’s visits, operations, hospitalization, physical pain, and deteriorating health was literally spewing out faster than he could write it down – or enter the notes onto the luminous screen of his computer.

When you consider how comprehensive Martino’s catalogue of works is, it is remarkable that much of the music creation progressed at a pace of only two or three seconds per day. As just one of his many students, I strived to attain the same fanatical commitment to music composition, but have had great difficulty in maintaining anything close to his level of artistic intensity.

The entire musical community was shocked when the news arrived that he died suddenly at the age of 74 from diabetes-related heart failure. Martino never got to hear his next-to-last final completed compositions – the Sonata No. 2 and Trio – both from 2004.

LUMEN’s premiere of Martino’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (2004) took place on February 5th, 2006 and was performed by Sunghae Anna Lim (violin) and Donald Berman (piano). Also on the program was the cello work Parisonatina Al’Dodecafonia (1963) performed by Rhonda Rider, and the first performance of his Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano (2004) with Lim, Rider, and Berman.

The performances were inspiring, and the reaction from the audience at Harvard’s Paine Hall – which included many former students, friends and colleagues - was one of awe and amazement. The directness, power, and artistic quality of these late works reveals an aesthetic shift. It indicates a new direction for this composer. Martino was in a sense charting new territory while simultaneously coming to terms with the “Bartókian” musical roots of his beginnings. The two premieres, occurring in early 2006, were formally nominated by his publishing company, Dantalian, for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Music (Martino had already received a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his chamber work Notturno).

The abruptness of Martino’s departure still haunts everyone who knew or worked with him. But his music is carefully notated and is in many ways self-explanatory. His beautifully notated scores supply answers to most of the questions that a performer might ask. The correct musical interpretation can be discovered in the depths and detail of the music’s printed page.

As someone quite familiar with Martino’s music, I listened very intently to Ms. Cuckson’s new Centaur recording of Martino’s violin music. Sitting with score in hand, armed with the critical ear of many prior performances fresh in my mind, I was deeply moved by the sensitivity, insight, raw technical skill, and informed musical intelligence inherent in her playing. It’s no secret that Martino’s music dazzles me, and hearing it performed is not unlike preaching to the converted, but I continue to be amazed by the elegance and virtuosity of his compositions when they are performed exceptionally well, as they most certainly are in this case.

Cuckson brings something new to the table too. She has a wisdom and perspective that does not derive from training alone, but must be felt intuitively. Either you love Martino’s music, or it befuddles you. For most listeners, it seems like there is no in-between. In my mind Cuckson feels this music in her bones, it’s part of her DNA, and I have no doubt whatsoever that Martino would have praised her splendid playing. Although it is true that they never met in person, and only communicated fleetingly by email, Cuckson and Martino are on the same wavelength.

Martino’s music is full of gesture, sporadic outbursts, and a bebop-like funkiness. Cuckson not only gets it, but has a commanding control over the extended universe of sounds emitting from her instrument. Her violin playing is incredibly agile and can instantaneously traverse in timbre from the faint whisper of a wistful sul ponticello double-stop - to a battery of full-fledged frontal attacks played fortississimo.

Cuckson’s musical ability is evident on the CD with her rendering of Martino’s classic fiddle piece Fantasy-Variations which dates from 1962. This 12-minute virtuosic solo work was hailed as one of the landmarks of the composer’s generation – not only for it’s violinistic expressivity, but for the 12-tone complexity of its’ rigorous construction. When I was a student at the New England Conservatory in the 1970’s, the composers were frustrated that the Chair of the String Department, violinist Eric Rosenblith, forebode his students to perform works by student composers. Yet, despite his reactionary stance, Rosenblith recommended that his advanced students learn Martino’s Fantasy-Variations, and consider making it a part of their permanent repertory. Rosenblith understood the importance of this work, and knew that the composition is written exceptionally well for the instrument. Martino, who was not a violinist, may have benefited from some real-time feedback from his first wife – a professional violinist – but he also was very adept at abstractly working out the intricate mechanics of the dark and secret art of violin fingering.

How is it that a young violinist of Taiwanese, Austrian, and English decent - born in Australia, years before the Fantasy-Variations was composed, could perform this work with such innate confidence, conviction, and an intuitive sense about how it should go?

Perhaps the devil is in the detail of the notation. Ms. Cuckson in her CD notes observes the following about the work…

The Fantasy-Variations for Violin (1962) presents a veritable encyclopedia of violin effects, ranging from may sorts of pizzicato to harmonic, glissandi, varied bowing styles, and combinations thereof. Martino indicated in minute detail not only the desired dynamics, but in many cases, extremely specific nuances of phrasing and pacing.

The amount of detailed information notated into the score of the Fantasy-Variations is overwhelming. Already in the first three measures of the piece, the composer presents a richly-colored collection of expressive sounds that expose the “tone row” in a kaleidoscopically shifting pallet of violently-contrasting ideas. Every note or two has its’ own dynamic, articulation, form of attack, tempo, and written expression mark. For example, the opening thematic minor-tenth (low B-flat up to D-flat) is notated with the dynamic fff. Both notes are to be played down-bow on the G-string, and with a dotted slur connecting the notes. There is an indication to play the two-note gesture using the “full bow.” And these two notes are just an example of the performance challenges to follow in the densely written eleven-page score.

The composer wrote that “the opening is deceptive in that it is not a ‘theme’ which is then dealt with in discrete terms.” He goes on to indicate that the piece uses “timbre and register to stratify simultaneously-progressing total-set forms.” Anyone seeking to learn more about the underline construction of Fantasy-Variations can refer to the article "Donald Martino's Fantasy Variations: The First Three Measures" by James Boros. It was published in the Martino Festschrift issue of Perspectives of New Music (volume 29, no. 2).

While this piece is perhaps representative of the tendency to write highly complex music in our recent history, Fantasy-Variations clearly transcends the perceived jaded aesthetic and academic canon of the 1960’s “Princeton School.” The work is performed rather often today and lauded for its’ unique lyricism and distinctive style.

The Romanza for Solo Violin (2002) was written 40 years after the Fantasy-Variations. While the Romanza is more freely constructed than the earlier work, it is no less-challenging to play. Written for the virtuoso new music guru, Rolf Schulte, this piece does not shy away from virtuosic 19th century Romantic gestures and rich sonorities (such as a preponderance of octaves). There are many molto cantabile and dolce moments, but also fast and extended con anima passages that careen by in an arc of fire. Looking at the score, I am reminded that this was the first publication where Martino had abandoned the laborious process of writing the final copy in pen and ink. In late 1999 I had introduced him to Sibelius software, and Romanza was his music publishing software début. (I have always harbored mixed feeling about this dubious distinction, since Martino was also famous for his award-winning music autography).

Ms. Cuckson has a natural ability for this music, and it stems in part from her education. She began her studies at the age of nine in the Pre-College Division of the Juilliard school, and went on to receive her Bachelor's, Master's, and Doctorate degrees from that esteemed institution. Among her many fine teachers was Robert Mann, the long-standing first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet. It was the Juilliard Quartet who commissioned and premiered Martino’s Fourth String Quartet (1983). Mann and Martino had worked together professionally for many years. It is not surprising that Martino's dedication of his Sonata for Solo Violin (2003) reads: "To Robert Mann, whose performances conjure the depths of the composer's soul."

Perhaps some of the insight and vision Cuckson brings to these pieces was handed down, at least indirectly, from her teacher Mann. Although I have learned that he never coached her specifically on these works, we can credit Mann for suggesting Martino's music to Cuckson.

It's fitting that the lead track on Cuckson’s CD is the Sonata for Solo Violin. Mann and Martino conferred about the technical aspects of the creation of this 22-minute, four-movement work. It is a large-scale piece written with the Bartók Sonata clearly in mind. (Bartók’s piece was a favorite of Martino’s, and he had selected it as one of the works to be studied for the PhD general exams I took at Brandeis).

Martino’s Sonata for Solo Violin is a much broader work than Romanza, and the musical ideas are grander and more triumphant. But something completely new happens in the third movement. The Intermezzo: Fughetta in omaggio is a fugue played entirely with pizzicato. Lasting for only two minutes, it is unlike anything I’ve heard played on a violin before. The aggregate sound is similar to what you might expect coming out of a string ensemble. In fact, it is technically so difficult that there were some initial questions if it could be played at all. I recall that Martino consulted a well-known violinist about this movement, who replied that he did not believe it was playable. But it was Robert Mann who looked more closely at the score, and with some of his suggested changes, Martino was able to work out a solution. The published score comes with a comprehensive raw polyphonic vision by Martino (version "IIIa" written densely on two staves, and concluding in an eight-note texture). It is implied that the violinist can take a degree of artistic leeway in making a viable custom realization out of the base-music the composer provides. However the score also includes a sample solution, which supplies a fully-written realization (with fingering) in a transcription by Robert Mann. Ms. Cuckson utilied a couple of Mann's ideas, but found another way of playing it. This movement is an example of composer-performer collaboration at its best. There is no official way of performing the Intermezzo: Fughetta in omaggio, and it will be realized quite differently with each new performance.

It must have been quite liberating for Martino to hear his Sonata for Solo Violin performed by Frank Huang at his NY Recital after winning the 2003 Naumburg Foundation competition. It seems as if Martino's music takes on a different trajectory from this moment on. The Bartók influence that was so evident in the early works of his youth, such as the Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano (1952), begins to reemerge. (Martino jokingly called his early piece "Bartók's 3rd" Sonata for Violin and Piano).

Martino's Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (2004), written more than 50 years after his earlier work in this instrumental combination, is in no way a nostalgic return to the comforts of a previous era. Sonata No. 2 is an impressive work that integrates a life-time of musical experiences into a musical language that is transcending and timeless. It avoids the note-to-note nuance of his earlier work and goes directly for the benefits and simplicity of a longer line. The score is sparsely notated and carries just the bare necessities of articulation and expression marks. Musically, it is abound with regular pulse, cantabile melodies, clearly discernible phrases, dramatic climaxes, and is quite “accessible” to all without ceding anything from his past. Martino never abandoned his personalized and flexible flavor of the 12-tone system, although his work is (by some definitions) considered “serial.” Yet the explicit appearances of the row are largely thematic, and seem to be articulated in such an obvious way that I have to wonder if they were put there simply to annoy his vindictive 12-tone critics. I know for a fact that he did not consider tone rows to be necessary or relevant to the music, even though he still used them primarily out of habit.

Let’s remember that Martino’s late works - as Bartókian as they sound – were written without commission and faced uncertain prospects for performance (In fact, his last completed composition - the remarkable Concerto for Orchestra - is still awaiting a first performance). In the first few years of the 21st century, Martino’s career suffered unjustly from his prior association with the Princeton-school of composition, despite that fact that his music had long-evolved and kept up with the spirit of the times. He was not an academic.

Fortunately, an upcoming generation of talented musicians, such as violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen, are dispelling the misleading labels and musicological vitriol. They seek and discover music that simply appeals to them. As pessimistic as one can be concerning the future of modern music in our present state of cultural affairs, the emergence of a CD devoted to the music of Donald Martino supplies a much needed beacon of hope.

Music by Donald Martino
Miranda Cuckson, violin
Blair McMillen, piano
Centaur Records, Inc.
CRC 2955
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