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SUN / MAY 19, 2019

Notes by Gregg Wager

Composers, of course, should have something to say. Performers interpret meaning in their own way, but also have something to say when choosing their programs. Organist Iveta Apkalna (b. 1976) knows just what she is saying when interpreting pieces from the standard repertory, but says even more by being friendly to late 20th- and 21st-century music. Her program this evening insightfully blends traditional with modern sensibilities from her homeland of Latvia and neighboring Lithuania, and with music of East and West from the Cold War era.

Although written as a finale, the Toccata by Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) from his Symphony No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1, stands alone as a popular piece suitable for a variety of occasions. Its perpetual 16th-note motion in the right hand, crisp repeated chords in the left hand, and octave-leaping melody in the pedals follow faithfully the distinctive elements of the French organ toccata, in an exhilarating and iconic way.

Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931) wrote Hell und Dunkel (Light and Darkness) in 1976, a year after the death of one her staunchest supporters, Dmitri Shostakovich. It proceeds without time signature or bar lines, with only a few Italian language tempo indications along the way referencing a steady pulse.
Scale flurries, trills, and other patterns written mostly in 16th notes proceed freely, with support from held tone clusters. Together, they mix abrupt dissonances and dense sonic textures to create a continuously visceral affect. The pairing of scale and cluster as two opposing musical elements also invites the listener to find an interpretation between horizontal and vertical dimensions, if not light and darkness itself.

When the Dalai Lama visited North America in 1979, Philip Glass (b. 1937) wrote Mad Rush to honor the occasion. Although originally conceived as being of “indefinite length,” the published version indicates only three repetitions of the entirety, or a binary form with a shortened coda.
The opening three-voiced texture emphasizes two-note patterns playing against each other with two-against-three rhythm. This contrasts with a four-bar idea of running 16th notes in both hands that adds two extra beats during the fourth bar. 

Latvian composer Aivars Kalējs (b. 1951) wrote Lux aeterna, Op. 51, as a tribute to composer Olivier Messiaen upon his death in 1992. Its slowly unfolding chordal passages and eerie modal melodies and scales reflect the sacred nature of a traditional text from the Requiem ritual. The conscious blending of religious sentiments of both the composer and Messiaen produces lush harmonies and grand ecstasy. 

Over the years, composer Pēteris Vasks (b. 1946) has acquired international fame by artfully employing elements of Minimalism, chance music, and folk music from his homeland, Latvia. The première of his Hymnus tonight occurs with the specific request not to provide a program note, so that the audience may find its way through the music without a preexisting idea.

Built upon Christian numerology, the third book of Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Clavierübung may have aspired to be more a Mass for organ than a collection of related smaller pieces. It opens and closes with what has since been commonly catalogued as the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552. 
The three-part Prelude follows the triple symbolism of the Holy Trinity, with the Father as a dotted rhythm; Son as a lighter, simpler idea; and Holy Ghost as the all-encompassing 16th-note melody. The five-voice triple Fugue is popularly referred to as “St. Anne,” because its subject sounds similar to an English hymn tune with that name.

The Sonata “Ad Patres” by Lithuanian composer Bronius Kutavičius (b. 1932) borrows its title from a series of paintings by fellow countryman Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911). The music explores how simple repeating patterns create both drones and resulting melodies.
Originally written for two organists in 1991, the piece has since been transcribed for organ solo by Jūratė Landsbergytė (b. 1955). As a solo piece, a performance becomes more an interplay between the control of two hands instead of the separate points-of-view of two players. 

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote Deux légendes in 1863 as a pair of solo piano pieces. While the first drew inspiration from a story from the life of St. Francis Assisi, the second depicted a famous episode from the life of St. Francis of Paola (1416-1507).
Liszt especially bonded with the latter, claiming that he was actually named after this saint. In a letter to Wagner, he described a picture he displayed on his wall of the miracle of St. Francis of Paola crossing the turbulent waters of the Strait of Messina using nothing but his cloak for a sail.  
Musically, this story allows a sturdy chorale-like opening to be repeated several times, eventually picking up momentum. Left-hand passages depicting waves of water enhance the texture.  
Legend No. 2 has been transcribed several times for organ, including on sight by Camille Saint-Saëns, which impressed Liszt deeply. The version employed here, by Swiss organist and composer Lionel Rogg (b. 1936), emphasizes how the organ can depict the religious nature of this music, but also how much the organ can further separate the chorale from the ornate left-hand work using distinct registrations.

Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin and a JD from McGeorge School of Law.