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Grammy-nominated ALIAS Presents Concert with World Premiere and Two Wildly Different String Quartets

ALIAS has developed a reputation for championing new music. In its first 10 seasons, ALIAS

Chamber Ensemble has performed over a dozen World Premieres. On its Winter Concert (February 16, 2013 -­?   8:00 PM – Turner Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University), the ensemble unveils another new work, this one by composer John Marvin. The Sonata for oboe and piano will be premiered by oboist Roger Wiesmeyer, a much–loved figure in Nashville’s music scene.  

Also on the program are two string quartets, by Johannes Brahms and John Zorn, written over 100

years apart. The Brahms quartet, his first, stands as one of the great monuments in the genre. The Zorn, titled “Cat o’ Nine Tails”, is an energetic, ever-­?changing romp. “Putting these two string quartets on the same program shows the versatility of this combination of instruments, ALIAS Artistic Director Zeneba Bowers says. “Brahms’ music is lush and romantic; the Zorn is schizophrenic, very reminiscent of Carl Stalling’s cartoon music. The range of character on display in both pieces is astounding.”


Bowers will also be playing Henry Cowell’s “Homage to Iran”. She, along with Wiesmeyer (on

piano) and percussionist magus Chris Norton, played the Persian-­?inspired work on ALIAS Chamber Ensemble’s debut concert eleven years ago. 

The concert’s benefit partner is Park Center.

ALIAS Chamber Ensemble -­ WINTER CONCERT

February 16, 2013 -­ 8:00 PM – Turner Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University


John Zorn: “Cat o’ Nine Tails” for string quartet (1988)

Saxophonist, producer, engineer, and composer John Zorn is one of those modern musical polymaths whose music, indeed whose career, has so many facets as to defy categorization. His music, which has appeared on over 400 recordings, embraces all styles, from jazz, rock, and punk as well as classical. Zorn is influenced by Ives and Cage but also by the film score master

Morricone and cartoon music great Carl Stalling (himself a master of all conceivable styles). It is in this latter vein that we encounter “Cat o’ Nine Tails”, which changes moods every few seconds, and which makes extreme, sometimes ridiculous demands on the players. Aside from technical virtuosity, the musicians must do things with (and to) their instruments that, frankly, are not usually taught (let alone encouraged) in the conservatory.

John Marvin: Sonata for oboe and piano (2012)

The composer, in his own words:

“My intent was to write an oboe sonata in which the piano played a role as important as the ‘solo’ instrument, providing not merely an accompaniment but contributing to the thematic and structural development of the piece.

“Movement I—Arioso—begins with a series of smooth, quietly ascending chromatic chords which will be a ‘signature’ motive for the piano, appearing throughout the sonata in various forms. This first movement aims for lyrical expression through long legato lines punctuated with playful staccato passages. However, an extended development section introduces more robust textures and the piano’s signature motive appears broken into sharp clusters of sound. The movement’s closing passages differ from a traditional recapitulation. Although the piano repeats some of the initial lyrical material, the oboe introduces new material and the movement ends quietly. “Movement II—Kaleidoscope—is a scherzo that has trouble deciding what it wants to be. It is dominated throughout by a simple-­?minded ‘2-­?beat’ rhythm in 2/4 time (that occasionally stumbles over a 3/8 bar). For the most part the texture is sharp and spiky. Attempts are made at lyricism but soon abandoned. There is a brief effort to introduce a waltz-­?like section, but this morphs into a rather argumentative dialog between the two instruments. Finally, there is a recapitulation of the opening gestures ending with a pianissimo upward sweep of chromatic scales.

“Movement III—Theme and Tangents—takes its inspiration (formally) from 19th century masters of the theme and variations concept. I have always been fascinated with the finale to Beethoven’s piano sonata, Opus 109, in which the theme appears sometimes in very miniscule or even truncated form. My version of this idea is perhaps even more extreme: in some ‘variations’ only the faintest suggestion or fragment of the theme appears and immediately changes into new material. In other words, each ‘variation’ takes off on a ‘tangent’. Otherwise, the individual tangents have lengths similar to those found in traditional variations and pass through a succession of moods and tempos. The movement ends with a re-­?harmonized statement of the theme.”

Johannes Brahms: String Quartet No 1 in C minor, opus 51 (1873)

Brahms was famously reluctant to write his first symphony, feeling humbled at the thought of

following Beethoven’s great work in that arena. He finally completed (or rather, released, as he had worked on it for over a decade) his Symphony No. 1 well into his forties. He felt a similar reticence in regard to writing string quartets, again afraid to tread on the hallowed groundwork in

that genre created by Mozart and Haydn. In a note to his publisher (who, among other voices, had been hounding Brahms for a long time to produce a string quartet), Brahms wrote: “I am sorry, but I must ask you to be patient. I realize more and more how difficult it is to master virtuoso

technique when one is not especially adapted for it.... It took Mozart a lot of trouble to compose six lovely quartets, so I will try my hardest to turn out a couple fairly well done.” Four years later, in

1873, Brahms finally published his first two quartets, which comprised his opus 51. The piece overall is serious and brooding, with an elegiac and thoughtful “Romanze” as a second movement, and a stately intermezzo in place of the traditional and typical “scherzo” for the third (an

interesting departure for someone who agonized about following in the footsteps of the great masters of the form). Its final movement recalls the dark mood of the work, and in fact recalls some of the same thematic material from the first two movements.

Henry Cowell: “Homage to Iran” for violin, percussion and piano (1959)

Cowell, while less known to audiences than his contemporaries such as Schoenberg, Ives, and Bartok, or his pupils, including George Gershwin and John Cage, was nevertheless a tremendously influential composer in the mid-­?20th century. He was an innovator and a scholar whose compositional styles and writings laid the groundwork for much of the music of the post-­?WWII era.

Cowell was known especially for his knowledge of many world cultures and their musical

traditions, giving rise to works like “Homage to Iran” for violin, percussion, and piano. The piece, like many of his works, combines folk elements with contemporary compositional techniques and in this case evokes the sound and feel of the Middle East.

-­  Program notes by Matt Walker and John Marvin