Program Notes

with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

Michael Ippolito (1985- )
A la fenestra  (world premiere)

Part of TFO’s mission is to promote and play music of our time, fresh works that reflect the vibe around us. So this season, expect to hear names you probably don’t know: Thierry Caens, Lera Auerbach, Polina Nazaykinskaya, Gabriela Lena Frank, Kevin Puts, Mindaugas Urbaitis, and Michael Ippolito.

But haven’t we heard Ippolito before? Didn’t the orchestra commission his work, Triptych, for the 50th anniversary season? Yes, and the 24-minute piece made such an impression on TFO Music Director Michael Francis that he asked Ippolito to write a new work to launch the 2021-22 season.

“He sent me the score of what he calls In the Window,’’ Francis says, explaining how the piece is both literal and metaphorical. “It’s a very beautiful idea.’’

A graduate of Brandon High School, Ippolito has been crafting complex compositions at the piano since he was a kid. At 15, his portfolio included an impressive Rhapsodie Pathetique, which was played by the Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra. Three years later, TFO offered the premiere of another original work, Waltz.

He went on to study at the Juilliard School in New York and the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Soon, his music was being performed by major orchestras in the United States, winning him prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Juilliard and ASCAP. Today, he teaches music composition at Texas State University in San Marcos.

“For us, he’s important because he’s from Tampa,’’ Francis adds.

Francis wanted to honor that local connection through this commission, and the six-minute piece should engross listeners, Francis believes: “It’s something akin to (Respighi’s) Pines of Rome. There’s a surround-sound feel and a huge climax in sonic development. I think it will be thrilling to hear.’’

The 36-year-old composer dug deep into historical sources for inspiration.  The official title, a la fenestra (In the Window), comes from the first line of Petrarch’s Canzone 323, an idealized vision of the poet’s beloved Laura, who allegedly died in the bubonic plague of 1348. For Ippolito, the verse is both ancient and modern.

“While this text is almost 700 years old, to me the image of the poet alone at the window seemed to summarize so much of our shared experience during the Covid-19 pandemic,’’ he says. “Lockdowns and social distancing have meant that many of us spent months alone, missing friends and family and longing for a return to normal life.’’

The composer’s new work opens with an unaccompanied horn melody, a lone voice calling out. From that isolated beginning, he says, “the music gradually builds to include more instruments responding to the horn’s call, a musical depiction of connecting across distances.’’

Near the end, Ippolito inserts a brief quote from another a la fenestra, a vocal work by Orlando di Lasso, who in 1557 also set Petrarch’s poem to music.

During long stretches of isolation because of Covid, Ippolito noticed media photos of people leaning out of windows in cities around the world, singing together and cheering each other on – just as people did during the plague years. These images inspired him to compose, and with a renewed hope.

“It’s interesting to note that there are historical descriptions of the exact same scene in plagues hundreds of years ago,’’ he adds. “Our quarantined ancestors sang from their windows, too.’’

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
The Four Seasons, Op. 8

Give Vivaldi credit: He wasn’t a slacker. Known as the “red priest” because of his crimson hair, Vivaldi cranked out music at an amazing rate, and not just instrumental pieces. In the last few decades, scholars have revived many of Vivaldi’s 50-odd operas, which reveal both a flair for the human voice and a treatment of the orchestra as more than just an ornament for singers.

Vivaldi taught violin at the Ospedale della Pieta convent for orphaned girls in Venice, where he composed fluidly over more than 35 years, bringing to life many of his 230 violin concertos and some 250 works for other instruments. The rap on Vivaldi is that he wrote one concerto 500 times. But close listening to the variety of his concertos, sacred works, chamber pieces and operas reveals something else: a wellspring of dynamic shades and colors, nervous energy, and fervent melody.

These qualities shine in his most enduring work, Le Quattro StagioniThe Four Seasons – the first four concertos from a book of 12 published in 1725 that Vivaldi called “contests between harmony and invention.’’ After the score was “rediscovered’’ and first recorded in 1950, it launched a flood of albums that helped ignite the Baroque craze.

Vivaldi’s influence lies in almost single-handedly inventing the three-movement Italian-style concerto: a rhythmic opening section, an arioso-like slow movement, and an animated close. As a virtuoso violinist, he expanded the possibilities of the instrument and the boundaries of technique.

The Four Seasons remains his trademark, a musical postcard of spring, summer, autumn and winter in contrasting keys: E major, G minor, F major and F minor, respectively. As program music, it tells a story of the changing seasons, and evokes the bucolic sentiment of the original sonnets that inspired the composer (most performances today avoid these poetic references).

The music announces Spring with brisk tempos, bird song and shimmering creeks; Summer arrives under a hot sun, a peasant’s dance and thunderstorm; Autumn celebrates the harvest, drinking and hunting; and Winter takes listeners full circle with the shivering musical figures of an ice storm.

Like the Beethoven that ends this program, Francis chose Vivaldi as a way of emerging from a pandemic year: “It underscores how this has been a difficult time, and it’s a metaphor for how one season moves into another – and that this too shall pass.’’

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

In his book The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination, Matthew Guerrieri devotes nearly 300 pages to the opening of the world’s most famous symphony. What does it mean and why is it so persuasive? The electrifying motto that jumpstarts the music is “short enough to remember and portentous enough to be memorable,’’ he notes, “seeming to unlock the symphony’s meaning but leaving its mysteries temptingly out of reach, saying something but admitting nothing.’’

In other words, Beethoven’s Fifth is abstract and intangible, so it’s up to you, the listener, to interpret these four iconic bursts of sound – da da da dum! Fate knocking at the door? Victory over tyranny? A deaf composer shaking his fist at his lot in life? Or, is it just ink on a page, as the conductor Arturo Toscanini once suggested: “To some, it’s Napoleon. To some, it’s a philosophical struggle. To me, it’s allegro con brio.’’

Regardless of its cultural reinventions, the work as a whole – four economical and interrelated movements – has aged without wrinkles since its first performance on Dec. 22, 1808 in Vienna. The all-Beethoven concert was a marathon. It stretched four hours and included the Symphony No. 6; the aria Ah! Perfido; two sections from the Mass in C; the Piano Concerto No. 4 with the composer at the keyboard; a piano improvisation; and the Choral Fantasy for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus.

The audience had heard nothing like the Fifth. The opening launched an arcing design in which form takes precedence over melody. Cast in the dark key of C minor ─ which left the audience flabbergasted ─ the four notes serve as connective tissue, the tendon that holds everything together, a motif recycled over the next 35 minutes.

“The compaction of material flows from the first gestures,’’ notes Jan Swafford in his 2014 biography Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. “In the symphony’s first movement, we hear the primal rhythmic figure that will dominate … to the end.’’

While the opening allegro explodes with inexorable drive, the second movement in A-flat major is a calm in the storm, a series of double variations that take us on a gentle ride forward. A scherzo follows, the symphony’s pivot point. It echoes the opening theme in hushed strings and muted timpani before unleashing a fusillade of horns, ushering in the fourth movement without a break. The gloom of C minor gives way to the radiance of C major – and one of the most riveting climaxes in music.

“As we work to emerge from this crisis of Covid, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is really the only piece that could open the season, because it so perfectly embodies our journey from darkness to light,’’ Francis says. “All the turmoil in Beethoven is turned upside down in this work, but we end in victory – and joy.’’

Program notes by Kurt Loft, a St. Petersburg-based writer and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune.