SoloDuo (Matteo Mela & Lorenzo Micheli), guitars (Italy) - Saturday, June 4 at 8:00 p.m.


Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)


Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
    Suite Bergamasque
        - Prélude
        - Menuet
        - Clair de lune
        - Passepied

Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)
    Sinfonia from the opera “Il pirata” arranged by Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829)


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
    French Suite no. 5 BWV  816 transcribed by Ida Presti (1924-1967) and Alexandre Lagoya (1929-1999)
    - Allemande
    - Courante
    - Sarabande
    - Gavotte
    - Bourrée
    - Loure
    - Gigue

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)
    Tango Suite
        - Allegro
        - Andante rubato, melanconico
        - Allegro

Lorenzo Micheli performs on a guitar built by Daniel Friederich, France.
Matteo Mela performs on a guitar built by David Rubio, England.


Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) is a great composer disguised as a middling one. Part of his disguise is that, in his keyboard sonatas, he’s a formulaic miniaturist. (He also wrote operas, sinfonias, and choral music, but they’re seldom played nowadays.) So it’s easy to dismiss his sonatas with the airy notion that if you’ve heard a few of them, you’ve heard them all. But such dismissal dissolves under the sheer inventiveness of the music. Like the protagonist in Ilse Aichinger’s “The Bound Man,” Scarlatti finds endless possibilities within his self-imposed confines.

Scarlatti served eight years in Portugal, teaching the harpsichord to a young princess. On the death of his father, he moved back to his native Naples. But soon after, his former student married Ferdinand VI, son of Spain’s Philip V. She immediately invited her former teacher to join the Spanish court. There Scarlatti remained for the rest of his life. And there he heard music unlike that of his homeland. As a harpsichordist and composer, he adapted these exotic sounds into a music unlike that of any other composer. Across his over 500 keyboard sonatas, there’s a consistency of form and detail that makes his music easy to recognize. Such relentless sameness would, in lesser hands, doom the music to boring repetition. Yet all his sonatas display a surprising freshness and vivacity. What Scarlatti himself modestly called “an ingenious Jesting with Art,” American poet Marianne Moore aptly summed up in these lines: “The mind is an enchanted thing, like the glaze on a katydid-wing, subdivided by sun till the nettings are legion. Like Gieseking playing Scarlatti.”

At first glance, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) seems the exemplar of a modernist. Indeed, many textbooks comfortably pigeonhole him in this way. (One essay begins its examination of him with the sentence: “With Debussy, we enter the modern era of Western art music.”) But on closer look, he defies easy classification. That he embodied contradiction is undeniable. On the one hand, he embraced iconoclasm, writing: “Continue to be original, above suspicion. It spoils an artist to be greatly in sympathy with his surroundings.” On the other hand, he was a staunch champion of France’s past musical glory—he loved Jean-Philippe Rameau’s music, and urged other French composers to learn from it. It’s no small irony that, in looking to the past, Debussy was ahead of his time, foreshadowing the neoclassicism more commonly associated with Igor Stravinsky.

One of his most popular piano works, Suite Bergamasque, gave him no end of trouble. He began it in 1890, but didn’t complete it until 1905. During this time his compositional style had changed, and Debussy struggled to reconcile his early drafts with his newer approach. Having also become a reliable money maker for publishers, he had to stave off their impatient demands for anything he happened to be working on. “It is not possible to publish the Suite Bergamasque,” he complained to a particularly insistent publisher, “I am still in need of twelve bars for the Sarabande.” That he mentioned a sarabande in a work that ultimately didn’t have one shows how the suite evolved over its long gestation. In its final form, the suite comprises four movements, three of which are traditional baroque dances. Here Debussy ingeniously balances the apparently incompatible baroque past with the early modernist present. 

In our own time, concert goers who want to recall a particularly enjoyable concert experience can buy a CD of the works they just heard performed. But for those attending an opera premiere by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), this was obviously impossible. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, minor composers sensed an opportunity and started churning out arrangements of popular opera tunes, mostly aimed at amateur musicians with time and spare cash on their hands. Much of this stuff was forgettable. But in more able hands, these arrangements could show real substance and provide a challenge for players of more than pedestrian skill. Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829) was a virtuoso guitarist who brought a sure touch to these opera arrangements. In fact, although Franz Liszt is often credited with turning opera paraphrases into high art, Giuliani historically beat him to the punch, something music historians seldom acknowledge. 

Wedding gifts seldom make history, but Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wasn’t an ordinary husband. The earliest manuscript for the French Suites, written in Bach’s own hand, was a present for his wife Anna Magdalena, a musician of considerable skill. She was twenty when Bach married her in 1721. This was his second marriage, having lost his first wife to a sudden illness just seventeen months earlier. Though his quick remarriage might suggest unsentimental practicality rather than love, theirs was an affectionate and happy relationship. Some two centuries later, English author Esther Meynell found this to be irresistible fodder, and penned a romantic fable in which the young Anna describes her joy in the music: “Very soon after our marriage he gave me a music-book he had made for me. I was not yet very advanced, though I could play a little before I was married, and he had written these little melodious compositions to please me, to encourage me, to suit the stage of skill at which I had arrived and lead me gently on towards a higher one.” As one concert pianist quipped about this artistically timeless wedding present: “it beats a set of china.”

For all the charm of these suites, how they came to be called “French” is a mystery. Bach himself, as far as we know, never called them that. And it’s hard to argue Gallicism on formal grounds. Indeed, two movements—an Anglaise and a Polonaise—are decidedly not French. Perhaps a more convincing argument can be made on general and stylistic grounds. Forkel, Bach’s 1802 biographer, wrote that they earned their name because “they are in the French style.” And it’s true that the French Suites are unique in their lack of a prelude in each suite and being small in scale. Rather, charm and elegance are their calling card. They eschew dense counterpoint and instead highlight melody and idiomatic keyboard texture. Musicologist Albert Schweitzer, in a somewhat clunky but heartfelt passage, wrote of them: “The amateur unconsciously imbibes certain principles of thematic formation, of part writing, of modulation and of construction, and from which he acquires a certain unconscious critical faculty, that protects him against inferior art.” 

In a 1986 interview, the composer and bandoneon virtuoso Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) declared: “I wouldn’t know what to do if the majority liked my music. I prefer it that the nonthinking public never becomes interested in my music.” The thinking musician, however, had already discovered Piazzolla. Classical musicians flocked to his music, among them Gidon Kremer, Yo-Yo Ma, the Kronos Quartet, and the Assad Brothers, for whom Piazzolla wrote his Tango Suite. American cellist Carter Brey described his first encounter: “There was something about their leader that commanded instant attention. Astor had a quality that would have served him well had he been a policeman or a gangster instead of a musician. You felt compelled to stop smirking and watch him warily. And when he wrung the first phrase from his bandoneon, I sat up and listened as if I were hearing music for the first time.” Brey’s wariness was prudent. Piazzolla was a trained boxer and seldom shied away from fisticuffs in his youth. But he also had a lighter side. While visiting England he met an Argentine bandoneonist who resided there. The player cried out to Piazzolla in mock despair: “You must know that I hate you, because now I’m only the second best bandoneonist in Britain.” Replied Piazzolla with a sly smirk: “Don’t worry, I’m leaving tomorrow."

- Tom Poore

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