16 Feb 2012

Takemitsu – A String Around Autumn: Viola Concerto

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (2nd doubles piccolo, 3rd doubles alto flute), 2 oboes (2nd doubles oboe d’amore), English horn, 4 clarinets (including Eb clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubles contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, vibraphone, glockenspiel, chimes, suspended cymbals, gongs, tamtams, 2 harps, piano/celesta, strings

Duration: 17 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – TORU TAKEMITSU (1930-1996) – Toru Takemitsu was essentially self-taught as a composer. His earliest influences all came from the West – France to be more specific – and included Debussy, Franck and Messiaen. This initial study of French masters later led to a fascination with musique concrete, serialism and the compositional philosophies of John Cage. By 1980, however, Takemitsu had moved on from atonality to the simpler voice he referred to as “pan-tonal.”  

THE MUSICA String Around Autumn was commissioned by the Festival d’Automne à Paris in 1989 as part of their commemoration of the French Revolution’s bicentennial. The title was taken from a short work by Japanese poet Makoto Ooka which reads “Sink / Don’t sing. / Be simply / Silent. / Be simple: / A string / To wind around / Autumn.” Takemitsu said that he chose this poem because of two important words in its final phrase: “string” and more obviously, “Autumn.” This makes perfect artistic sense when we realize that the commission was meant from the beginning to feature a solo string instrument. From there, the name of the festival itself makes the second association self-explanatory. It is also no surprise that, given the French setting and the French historical significance, the composer designed a very French-sounding work for the occasion. More than a simple tribute to his hosts, it was an opportunity to invoke his earliest musical inspirations and highlight their impact on his own mature and delicate sound. The piece is often (and not incorrectly) referred to as a concerto but Takemitsu also called it an “imaginary landscape.” In his conception of the music the soloist is the lone human observer of a gorgeous “autumnal scene” and must serve as the interpreter of this natural beauty for the listener. Through the violist’s eyes we experience a misty, nostalgic landscape reminiscent of the most magnificent Impressionistic watercolors.    

THE WORLD – The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The massacre at Tiananmen Square also happened that year. 1989 was the year of the Exxon Valdez and the execution of Ted Bundy in Florida but also the release of Nintendo’s first Gameboy.

THE CONNECTION – Tonight’s concert represents the Utah Symphony premiere of A String Around Autumn.