by Walter Simmons
FLAGELLO Symphony No. 2; Odyssey; Valse Noire; Concerto Sinfonico. ROSNER Symphony No. 7, “Trinity.” University of Houston Saxophone Quartet, Wind Ensemble; David Bertman, cond. NAXOS 8.573060
Nicolas Flagello was one of the 20th century’s leading exponents of traditional late-romantic musical values. He held firmly to this aesthetic throughout his life, forging a personal musical language and a distinctive body of work shaped by his own temperament and embodying his own unique perspective on life.
Born in New York City in 1928, Flagello grew up in a family steeped in music. While still a child, he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with composer Vittorio Giannini, who imbued him with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. His study continued at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) degrees, joining the faculty immediately upon graduation and remaining there until 1977. During the early l950s, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.
In addition to composing, Flagello was active as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire from the Baroque period to the 20th century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994 at the age of 66.
As a composer, Flagello held with unswerving conviction to a view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression. Although this view was unfashionable during his lifetime, more recently his works have begun to win enthusiastic advocacy, as his music is recorded and performed with increasing frequency.
Odyssey was commissioned by Marice Stith and the Cornell University Wind Ensemble, who gave the premiere of the work, under the composer’s direction, in 1981. Odyssey opens with a slow, funereal introduction, which exposes the principal motif, based on the interval of a minor-second. This motif is further explored during the agitated section that follows, during which a subsidiary motif is introduced by the piccolo and the English horn. The subsidiary idea also highlights the interval of a minor-second. After further elaboration of the subsidiary motif, an extended, multisectional development follows. Beginning like a sinister march, the development is swept along by driving triplet figures whose momentum is interrupted several times by references to the brooding introduction. After an elaboration of the two motifs, the energy subsides, leading to a mournful melody introduced by the clarinet. This melody, combining both motifs, builds to a large, climactic statement, in which a suggestion of hope sweetens the prevailing downcast tone. However the grimness returns, casting a shadow over the work’s final chords.
In 1964 Flagello was commissioned to compose a short test piece by the American Accordionists’ Association. He responded with a powerful, tightly-packed work entitled Introduction and Scherzo.Although it has proven to be a valued contribution to the serious accordion repertoire, I felt that its merit transcended its original purpose, and warranted attention beyond the circumscribed community of classical accordionists. In 1984, while Flagello was composing his Concerto Sinfonico, it occurred to me that the saxophone quartet would be an excellent alternative medium for the accordion piece. When I suggested the idea of a transcription to Flagello, he responded favorably, assuring me that he would “get to it” after he finished the Concerto. But by that time a deteriorating neurological condition had advanced to the point where he could no longer work. But the idea continued to haunt me, until, several years later, I undertook the transcription myself, completing it in 1992, and entitling it Valse Noire.
In two sections, the work opens with an aggressively sinister introduction. This leads directly into the “scherzo,” which, though notated largely in 6/8 meter, has the character of a darkly brooding waltz—one of Flagello’s favorite genres. The waltz proper is based on two main thematic ideas, the second of which is hinted at in the introduction.
Flagello composed his Symphony No. 2, “Symphony of the Winds,” in 1970, but the work did not receive its first public performance until 1979, when it was introduced by the Cornell University Wind Ensemble, conducted by Marice Stith. Flagello’s Symphony No. 1 (Naxos 8.559148), is a monumental tragic-heroic work for full symphony orchestra. For its sequel Flagello decided upon a work of reduced duration for smaller instrumental forces, though with no simplification of aesthetic intent. The ensemble consists of only the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections of the full symphony orchestra—a group of about 25 players that differs considerably from the standard symphonic band.
Symphony of the Winds illustrates the intense emotionalism, often somber and turbulent in character, typical of Flagello’s mature style. The composer provided movement subtitles by way of program notes, which suggest the notion of “winds” as metaphor as well as instrumentation. “I: The torrid winds of veiled portents; II: Dark winds of lonely contemplation; III: The winds of re-birth and vitality.” The first movement, Moderato comodo, introduces two motifs that direct the course of the entire symphony. The first of these is based on the interval of a third, which governs the shape of all subsequent themes. The second motif consists of a descending second followed by a descending larger interval, of varying size. Both these motifs are contained within the exposition of the restless first theme. The presentation of the second theme is marked by an eerie calm, soon replaced by an almost demoniacal starkness. The development treats the material through brief, erratic and rhythmically turbulent episodes, continuing the movement’s tone of nightmarish grotesquerie.
The second movement, Aria, is built around a gentle, pastoral melody, improvisatory in character, in alternation with a more somber, soulful melody that ends in a strange cadential figure of unearthly gravity. The movement culminates in an explosive, brooding climax, before ending with the strange cadential figure. The final movement, Fuga, is, as its title implies, a full-length fugue, whose subject is clearly composed of the two motifs noted at the beginning of the work. It pursues its course with a dark vigor, although during the development a ray of optimism intrudes, the first of the entire piece. After a harmonic augmentation and stretto, the work comes to an assertive close.
The Concerto Sinfonico was Flagello’s last completed work. It was commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, who gave the premiere in November, 1985, with the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov. Although the character of much of Flagello’s music is dark and tempestuous, it is difficult to listen to the Concerto Sinfonico without hearing in its consistent tone of anguish, agitation, and dread a sense of what Flagello experienced while confronting the physical and psychological disintegration that his illness had already begun to wreak. On the other hand, the work is a fully autonomous, thematically unified musical structure that requires no extrinsic knowledge in order to understand and appreciate it. Its title indicates the composer’s conception of the work as not so much a virtuoso vehicle as an integrated symphonic structure in which the saxophone quartet serves as the composite voice of a hypothetical protagonist.
Veteran arranger Merlin Patterson was introduced to the Concerto Sinfonico in its original orchestral version in 2004, and decided to create a transcription for wind ensemble. This version was introduced in 2005 by the New Hudson Saxophone Quartet and the University of Houston Wind Ensemble, conducted by Tom Bennett.
The Concerto Sinfonico is launched (Allegro non troppo) by a driving rhythm in the orchestra that quickly builds to an almost hysterical shriek, before the saxophones enter, introducing the main theme. At the head of this theme is a three-note motif that serves as the basis of the entire work. Soon the second theme—a lonely, plaintive melody derived from the first theme—is introduced by the alto saxophone. After this theme reaches a climax, a furious development of the first theme follows. This is followed by an introspective reflection on both themes, which even admits a blossoming of faith and hope, before leading with grim resolution to the driving recapitulation and coda, bringing the movement to a defiant conclusion.
The second movement, Lento movendo, is a mournful barcarolle based on the material from the first movement, primarily as heard in the second theme. This section gradually reaches a climax, ushering in a turbulent central portion that culminates in a chilling explosion. The passage ends in sad resignation. The opening barcarolle returns briefly, then concludes with a reminder of the three-note motif from the first movement.
The third movement, Allegro giusto, opens with the three-note motif, played by the timpani, reinforced by the lower woodwinds and brass. The character of the movement suggests a grimly sardonic scherzo, with newly-fashioned themes derived from the first-movement material. The scherzo is followed by a grotesque “trio” section, before the scherzo idea returns, now subjected to a thorough development. This eventually builds to a stark proclamation, followed by a shattering cataclysm. After the tumult subsides, slow harp arpeggios accompany a hopeful return of the work’s main motif. But the mood darkens, as the second theme answers solemnly over ominous tremolos and timpani strokes. All hope seems dashed, as the driving rhythm that opened the work now hammers it into defeat.
Arnold Rosner was born in New York City in 1945. He earned a doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1971, during an era when the serial avant-garde was at its height. Finding that approach thoroughly unappealing, Rosner has pursued a conservative but highly individual style, and his works have been widely performed, recorded, and reviewed. He has composed three operas, eight symphonies, six string quartets, and numerous other orchestral, chamber, vocal, and choral works. Critic Steven Schwartz commented on Classical.Net: “[Rosner’s] music packs a huge emotional wallop and it’s meticulously well-written besides. He writes gorgeous, powerful, long-breathed tunes. The craft serves the message to the point where it effaces itself almost completely. Listening to a Rosner work is like hearing the music of Orpheus.” Rosner serves on the faculty of Kingsborough College in Brooklyn, NY. He has also worked in broadcasting and, an avid bridge player, he is a tournament champion.
Rosner writes, “I had completed more than 80 compositions, and was in my 40s before attempting to write for band. I will admit that I was somewhat skeptical about the band as a medium for serious music; it took three friends to persuade me to give it a try. Of course, I was wrong about the existing repertoire and the potential for my own music, and I apologize publicly here and now.
“After experimenting with a transcription of Sweelinck’s Chromatic Fantasy for organ I felt ready to write an original work, and proceeded to compose Trinity, my Symphony No. 8, which I completed in 1988. I have written some seven band compositions since, but this one is still the largest in scale.
“In the field of surveying, the concept of triangulation is often used, referring to looking at an area from three different perspectives or angles so as to understand it in full dimension. In my Symphony No. 8, “Trinity,” I have attempted to bring this approach to meditative or spiritual thought. If one views the mysteries from three different, and to some extent opposing viewpoints, does one derive deeper insights or simply confusion? Whether my work succeeds in providing such a full dimension is for the listener to decide.
“Critics have sometimes referred to my music as neo-archaic, and there is partial truth to that. While I believe in fairly complex structures, rich orchestration, and some intensity of drama and mood, I still believe in traditional melody, harmony, and counterpoint. I suppose the “neo-archaic” aspect derives from the fact that I MUCH prefer the modes and progressions of music that is 400 years old to that which is 200 years old.
“The first movement, ‘Ave Maria,’ has some resemblances to Renaissance style and, as the title suggests, views the spiritual world from a devout, perhaps Christian aspect. In the second movement, ‘Le Rondeau du Monsieur le Diable,’ the perspective purports to be devilish, but the actual musical influences are even earlier, suggesting the 14th century or before. Mysticism of numbers and “music of the spheres” take over for the finale, ‘Pythagoras,’ where parts move in cross-rhythmic patterns—slow majestic chorales in the brass against saxophone or woodwind rushes in rhythmic conflict with them, with splashes of color or additional beat-patterns in percussion.”
Notes by Walter Simmons
Author, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (Scarecrow Press, 2004)
David Bertman is Associate Professor of Music and Director of Bands at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. Overseeing more than 450 students, he plays a vital public role in university life, as a roving ambassador throughout the Houston community. He is the conductor of the Moores School Wind Ensemble and Symphonic Band, teaches graduate and undergraduate conducting, and is the co-author of a comprehensive program in band musicianship, published by the Hal Leonard Corporation. During his tenure at the School Bertman has received an impressive series of awards testifying to his distinguished contributions to the University community. He is a member of the Texas Music Educators Association, the College Band Directors National Association, the Texas Bandmasters Association, and Phi Beta Mu.
Moores School of Music
The University of Houston’s Rebecca and John J. Moores School of Music is one of the premier music schools in America. Its remarkable faculty of internationally recognized performers, composers, and scholars; outstanding student body; modern facility; and comprehensive programs make the Moores School of Music a natural choice for nearly 600 students annually. The School’s commitment to academic excellence and the highest performance standards has ensured its role as a vital resource in the educational and cultural life of Houston and the state of Texas.