LAST YEAR – Concerto for Solo Violoncello with Harp, Piano, String Orchestra, and Percussion
II: Winter: Le Triangle Noir
III: Spring: Zephaniah 1:14-15
IV: Summer: For Julia, born 2045 (played without pause)
ca. 25 minutes
In 2018, for reasons that don’t really matter now, I’d listened—really listened—to a new-to-me recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. And I marvelled: not only at the score’s vigor and clarity, but at its innocence, too—as it portrayed each season offering its own delights and terrors while still yielding, safely, to the next. The recording finished: I turned to the news, and learned that—due to the latest in our series of once-in-a-lifetime-except-now-every-year storms—a hurricane had left the city of Houston nearly drowned.
Vivaldi couldn’t write those scores today, I thought. But—if he were alive now, and knew what we know—what would he write?
Last Year is my answer. While Four Seasons is a cycle of four concerti for violin and strings, mine is a single concerto in four movements (the last three played without pause) for the richer-voiced cello; I also add to the string ensemble a choir of piano, harp, timpani, and ringing percussion. A fanfare that shifts, uneasily, between the major and minor modes precedes I: Autumn: Dismissing Eunice. The title remembers Eunice Foote, the American scientist who was the first scientist— in 1856!—to describe and theorize what we now call the greenhouse effect. This music weaves a single melodic thread from Vivaldi’s Autumn concerto into a polymetric scherzo of nervous and glittering character; it’s interrupted, twice, by a tolling procession of chords in the percussion choir—too slow and separated in register, just now, to comprise a recognizable theme. Ignoring those interruptions, the scherzo barrels headlong to an ambiguous conclusion.
In January of 1998, a once-in-a-lifetime ice storm struck North America, causing so much havoc that Canada had to deploy more military personnel than the country had sent during the entire Korean War to address the damage. Because the available images of that storm remain stunningly beautiful—the Canadian terrain seems rendered an eerily silent ice-sculpture of itself—one could forget that the area south of Montreal was without power for so many weeks that English media nicknamed it “The Triangle of Darkness.” Remembering this, my second movement, Winter: Le Triangle Noir introduces an original theme of hushed, awed character as more rumours of Vivaldi murmur in the background: when the percussion choir interrupts again as it had before, its material accelerates and condenses until we can identify it as one of our oldest musical tropes of warning.
The text which gives that trope its name can be read in the title of the next movement. Two solo cadenzas—one stunned, one vehement—frame Spring: Zephaniah 1:14-15, in which the motto from the Vivaldi’s Spring alternately outruns itself at breakneck speed or slows to a crawl in the lowest registers of both cello and orchestra: spurred by the racing soloist, the ensemble attempts a final time to retrieve the feeling, the faith of that baroque theme. It cannot: and the orchestra refracts into, almost literally, a thundercloud of sound—a cluster which begins in noise, little by little acquires pitch, and just as gradually loses pitch, evanescing until only the soloist, serenely maintaining a low B-natural, can be heard.
Now begins, without pause, the finale: Summer: For Julia, born 2045, in which the cello, in a harmonic landscape emptied of everything but sustained bass tones and the cries of seagulls, attempts to speak a promise into the future. But—even as the orchestra takes up and develops, harmonically, that determined theme—the solo cello cannot help, for a moment, but lose itself in recrimination. Memories of chaos, and that opening premonition, return to haunt the final moments: but the cello maintains the last word.
It’s hard to claim that I enjoyed composing Last Year: to try to give voice to the fears and hopes we experience during this moment of crisis pushed me both emotionally and technically in ways I’ve never experienced before. But I was, and am, humbled to have been offered the privilege to attempt it. I thank, generally, the consortium of four ensembles—American Composers Orchestra in New York, New Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra on Houston, and Manitoba Chamber Orchestra—who committed to the work of a composer who is, after all, scarcely known for his work outside the opera house; and, specifically, the woman who has done as much as, if not more than, anyone else of her generation to support the institutions, composers, and performers who host and make and play the music that tries to sing the way we live now. This piece—but not only this piece—would not exist without her. With all warmth, gratitude, and admiration, I dedicate Last Year to Susan W. Rose.