Season Opener: Russian Influences on French Composers

As an ensemble, Civitas has always been passionate about using music to bring cultures together. Last season, we invited Romani (gypsy) musicians from the Czech Republic to collaborate on a project that spanned two continents and celebrated cross-cultural influences on classical and commissioned pieces we performed together in Prague and Chicago. This season, we are excited to bring  our audiences a series of events created with musicians and composers from Beijing, China.

This same spirit of cross-cultural migration and collaboration inspired us to select the music of several French composers who were influenced by Russian composers for our upcoming Season Opener on Friday, October 6 at Gottlieb Hall, Merit School of Music.

We’ll be performing works by three French composers who lived in Paris during the early 20th Century: Camille Saint-Säens (1835−1921), Maurice Ravel (1875−1937) and Francis Poulenc (1899−1963).

At the time, Paris was a cultural magnet for musicians, writers and artists, of all types. Russians who flocked to the dynamic international scene in Paris, included painter Marc Chagall, composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, and Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes.

“Paris and Vienna at the turn of the century were the great mixing bowls of culture and art,” says J. Lawrie Bloom, Civitas’ clarinetist. “Clearly, composers were very influenced by what was going on there, whether it was Russians or jazz.”

Winston Choi, Civitas’ pianist, says it’s important to remember that it wasn’t just the foreigners who were influenced by the French, but that the French were influenced by the outsiders as well. “I guess what’s so obvious is the influence Paris had on Russian composers because it was such a hub, but it went the other way, too. It wasn’t just a one-way street,” he says.

The World’s Exposition in Paris in 1889, when visitors had the chance to hear Rimsky-Korsakov conducting his own works, was a significant and impactful introduction to Russian music for French composers. The experience left a lasting impression on the 14-year-old Ravel, who later wrote his own version of Sheherazade.

Another Russian composer who influenced many French composers was Stravinsky, who debuted his score for The Rite of Spring in Paris on May 29, 1913. The music sent shock waves throughout the musical world, changing how many composers thought about rhythm, harmonic structure, tonality, dissonance and the act of composing.

“It’s a ballet, but it’s totally non-symphonic. Its harmonic structure has almost no precedent,” Bloom says. “It’s guttural. It’s deeply sexual. People didn’t write music like that before.” Choi agrees that The Rite of Spring was groundbreaking music for its time. “It’s incredibly exciting, visceral music,” he says. “The way Stravinsky uses rhythm really shakes up the way we think about music.”

For some composers, such as Ravel and Poulenc, The Rite of Spring inspired them to experiment more and to push the boundaries of composition.

Ravel was in attendance at The Rite of Spring’s première and predicted it would become a historically important piece. Poulenc was too young to have been present at The Rite of Spring’s première, but his uncle introduced him to the music, and he said it was something that impacted him greatly and influenced him for the rest of his career.

For others, the audacity of The Rite of Spring sparked the opposite reaction, causing them to embrace more traditional music. Saint-Säens detested The Rite of Spring. “Saint-Säens was so conservative and neo-classical, I would expect him to hate it because it was completely against everything he stood for,” Bloom says.

However, Saint-Saens was influenced by a different Russian composer, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. The two first met in 1875 when Saint-Saens went on a concert tour to Moscow, and they became fast friends and admirers of each other’s music. In fact, it is thanks to Saint-Saens that Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture was first performed in Paris.

Choi says artists have always been influenced by the works of other artists on the international stage, but by the 20th century, it had become so easy to travel to other countries in Europe that this kind of cross-pollination became inevitable.

“We too often stereotype composers and lump them together nationally,” Choi says. “But really, it’s impossible for composers to escape the influence of people around them.”

Civitas looks forward to exploring these very themes all year, and to conversations this spring with our Chinese and Chinese-American collaborators, reflecting on the varied and complex personal, educational and professional cultural influences the four of us embody as artists and together as a chamber ensemble. We’ll hope you’ll join us on this journey starting October 6!

Valparaiso University: Six Years as Ensemble-in-Residence

When Civitas Ensemble first formed seven years ago, its members knew they wanted to do more than simply play chamber music for Chicago audiences. The group wanted to invest in their region’s students. So when violinist Yuan-Qing Yu proposed being an Ensemble-in- Residence at Valparaiso University, the other members were on board. Since then, Civitas has traveled to Valparaiso at least twice every year, mentoring and coaching young musicians and performing free concerts for students and the public. “They’re an incredibly kind population, so it’s a wonderful school to be a part of,” says Lawrie Bloom, Civitas’ clarinetist.

While they’re on campus, Civitas members give private coaching sessions to individual students, spend time with various chamber groups to give feedback, and sit in on student orchestra rehearsals to provide guidance and notes. Dennis Friesen-Carper, a music professor at Valparaiso and conductor of the Valparaiso University Symphony Orchestra, says getting the chance to study with the professional members of Civitas is an invaluable experience for the students. “It gives our students the opportunity to be right next to these fantastic players, hear interesting music and get to interact with them, particularly in the coaching of our chamber music ensembles,” Friesen-Carper says. Civitas members have played solo and double concerti with the VUSO with music by Brahms, Mozart, Bruch, Dvorak, and Piazzola.

Members of Civitas teach students everything from how to improve their phrasing to giving technical advice. But Friesen-Carper thinks the most valuable advice they provide is teaching students about the nuances of performing together as a chamber group — a very different skill than what one learns playing in an orchestra. “In chamber music settings, it’s about getting them to listen more intently, to know when to assert and lead, versus following,” says Winston Choi, Civitas’ pianist. Because chamber music groups aren’t led by conductors, players need to learn how to listen to the other members to stay in sync, and they need to have a strong grasp of the entire piece, rather than just their own parts, so they can get back on track should the group go astray. “The last time I was at Valparaiso, I had a string quartet and they each knew their parts very well, but they were each counting their parts. In the short time I was with them, I got them to focus on trusting each other and listening to each other,” Yu says. “I think that’s the part I really enjoy — feeling like I made a difference.”

Bloom says they also focus on teaching the students in the chamber groups how to subtly gesture to the other members when they want them to moderate their tempo. “In any chamber group, any member in the group needs to learn how to indicate when we need to have something happen, and that’s a skill. People think that’s simple, but it’s not simple,” he says. Bloom encourages the chamber music groups he coaches to study the entire score so they know where to come in. “They’re too focused on their own part and they forget that that has to relate to someone else’s part. If you have rest, what else is going on?”

Friesen-Carper says the students often make big progress when they receive feedback from the Civitas members. “Having the chance to interact with these professionals gives the students an opportunity to move up to the next level with a criticism that might shake them out of their day-to- day, step-by- step progression,” he says. “Also they give a different point of view. There are times when the members of Civitas suggest an interpretation that is different than the professor who has been doing the coaching, and that’s all welcome.”

Choi agrees that they are often able to help students have a breakthrough, simply by offering different feedback than they usually get. “Sometimes, it’s the same points that their teachers have made, but hearing somebody else say it, often in different contexts and with different wording, can help to really inspire the change to be more embraced,” he says.

At Valparaiso, many of the students who perform in the orchestra or chamber groups are majoring in something other than music, and the majority are not interested in pursuing a career in music. But having the opportunity to work one-on- one with the professional musicians of Civitas can inspire a love of music that will last a lifetime. “Civitas is really working with people who are going to be experienced amateurs, as well as professionals and those who are going to be mostly savvy music consumers,” Friesen-Carper states. “So they are really nurturing the love of music and the understanding of Western music tradition in a very broad range of student musicians.”

Bloom confirms it is just as gratifying to mentor these students as it is to mentor those who want to become professional musicians. “They may be the next generation of audience members, and we need that just as much,” Bloom says.

Chinese Concerts Launch Year of the Dog

Civitas Ensemble believes one of the best ways to bring cultures together, to make the world a more beautiful and inclusive place, is through music.

Last year, we collaborated with superstar violinist Pavel Šporcl and The Gipsy Way Ensemble from the Czech Republic in part to reduce the stigma around the Romani (otherwise known as gypsy) culture and the Roma people. The MacArthur International Connections funded project instead elevated Romani traditions and musicians. Earlier this season, we celebrated French and Czech composers who were influenced by Russian composers in Paris to highlight the importance of cross-cultural pollination with a program collaboratively designed with the Driehaus Museum in conjunction with their L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters exhibit.

This winter, as we celebrate the Year of the Dog, we’re excited to bring audiences music from contemporary Chinese composers that have been influenced by both Eastern and Western music to show audiences a range of ways in which these two cultures can come together musically.

In our concerts on February 26 and March 4, we will perform two pieces written by modern Chinese composers — “Emanations of Tara” by Yao Chen and “Five Elements” by Zhou Long. Both composers are known for creating music that combines elements of both Western and Eastern sensibilities — perhaps because both were originally born in China but then spent time studying music in the United States.

Yao Chen was born in China and came to the United States in 2001 at the age of 23, where he earned his Ph.D. in composition at the University of Chicago and later taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois and Illinois State University. He now lives in Beijing.

After a long, distinguished education in China learning both classical and traditional Chinese music, before and after the Cultural revolution, Zhou earned a Doctor in Musical Arts at Columbia University. A citizen of the United States, Zhou has taught and composed extensively, and is the winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his opera, Madame White Snake.

Both “Emanations of Tara” and “Five Elements” use a combination of Western instruments with the pipa, a traditional Chinese string instrument, to create a sound that is wholly unique.

“The pipa is also called the Chinese lute,” explains Yihan Chen, a well-known pipa player who will be playing the instrument at both concerts. “It is held vertically, and I use my right hand fingers to pluck the strings outward to make a bright and clear sound. The pipa is a very expressive instrument. It can play very beautiful sounds and also can play some dramatic sound effects, which works well for new music.” Plans are also under way to record both pieces for a second album with Chicago’s Cedille Records are in the coming weeks.

Tickets for February 26 can be found here, and for March 4 here.

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