TOMAS SVOBODA. STRING QUARTETS. Vol. 1, No. 1-4.
Martinu Quartet. North Pacific Music NPM LD 022.
2006 TT: 76:32.
ORCHESTRAL WORKS BY TOMAS SVOBODA
Overture of the Seasons; Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra;
Symphony No. 1 ("Of Nature")
James DePreist cond. Oregon Symphony; Niel DePonte, Marimba.
Albany, TROY 604.
2003 TT: 70:59
A musical Wunderkind, born in 1939, Tomas Svoboda wrote his Opus 1
at age nine, entered the Prague Conservatory at 15 and wrote his first
symphony at 16, before he had any formal composition instruction.
(Svoboda did find it necessary to make many revisions during rehearsals
for performances a year later in Prague.) Later he studied individually
with Ingolf Dahl and Halsey Stevens, the biographer of Bartok, in Los
Angeles, where he completed a master's degree. Stevens found little
that Svoboda needed teaching, as the work he presented was already nearly
beyond his professor's criticism. Svoboda spent three decades teaching
at Portland State University, where he is now Professor Emeritus. His
compositions number over 180 and include six symphonies, two piano
concertos, a violin concerto, two cantatas and at least eight quartets,
as well as other chamber music. Most of the quartets have been recent.
His works have been performed on a thousand occasions to date, including
400 symphonic performances--half of those of the overture reviewed here.
He has had 50 commissions and his Marimba Concerto was nominated for a
Grammy in 2003.
The quartets are quite different in character from one another. Number
1, Op. 29, written when Svoboda was about 20, is short (about ten
minutes) but delightful. In four brief movements, and subtitled the
"Dance Quartet," it is crisp and lively, even spritely. Reportedly it
was influenced by broadcast Czech folk music and somewhat in the style
of Janacek, with Bohemian harmonic language. I assume that it would be
fun to play.
The second quartet (duration 25:44) was written thirty years after the
first, in 1997, and is numbered Op. 151. Composed in the beautiful
setting of mountainous Montana, the first two--of three-- movements were
composed in ten days. The opening movement begins very quietly and
slowly, with a viola solo but becomes fast, complex and emotional. The
middle movement sets the first violin over a pizzicato accompaniment by
the other instruments. The final movement (lento moderato) begins
peacefully and ends energetically in a manner that to my ears sounds
Quartet No. 3, Op. 175 (2002) is also in three movements. According
to the unsigned notes accompanying the recording, which I tend to assume
were written by the composer, this quartet expresses the "sadness of
unfulfilled yearning." The first movement, in sonata form, has "tender
polyphony," succeeded by development marked with "turmoil and confusion."
The opening and ending of this movement is fierce and dissonant; in
between it quiets and pauses, with rather short musical phrases. The
second movement expresses the "relentless passage of time alternated
with childhood memories" and the finale represents "the hope and positive
energy of the present." I hear the second movement as rather march-like,
with staccato attacks and without flowing melody; there is another moment
reminiscent of Bartok. The finale, marked Vivace, has a skipping-along
motion over some longer lines.
Quartet No. 4, with Bass Drum, is a somewhat grim and tragic affair in
two movements only, expressive of the present state of the world which
Svoboda does not regard hopefully. The "unfortunate war in Iraq" with
its "uncontrolled consequences" sets its mood. The seven minute Vivace
is intense and suggests "nightmare images." The twelve minute second
movement, beginning and ending Adagio, is a dirge. It is relieved by a
central allegro section different in character and with some pizzicato
playing. The last couple of minutes are marked by the slow beating of
the drum played, as it happens, by the second violinist.
I have no information about Svoboda's later quartets.
The orchestral works on the Albany release also span a wide time period,
from 1957 (and even earlier) in the case of the symphony, to the 1993
Marimba Concerto. They can all be approached without dread of any grim
content, though they do have some loud climaxes! For some reason, Albany
did not see fit to include any timings for these works and their sections,
but I will indicate them here as I noted them.
The Overture of the Season--just which season is not specified--is
celebratory in tone and has strong rhythms, including syncopation,
throughout. Within its 8:42 duration it has more than one change of
pace and makes good use of the whole orchestra from the bright brass and
drums of the opening to nice parts for the strings and woodwinds, the
The Marimba Concerto, composed on commission over the course of a
year for the Oregon Symphony percussionist featured here, is lyrical
and neo-romantic in style. Kind to this gentle and mellow instrument,
the orchestra does not overwhelm the soloist, although in addition to
those two parties to the action there is a "keyboard quintet," consisting
of piano, celeste, harp, bells and crotales (a group of small, pitched
cymbals, for those who don't know; I had to look this up myself.) This
quintet, placed near the soloist and conductor, sometimes plays alone,
contributing a concerto grosso-like effect. Each of the three movements
runs between eight and nine minutes. The first movement, Moderato,
includes a flute solo, a loud climax at midpoint, with a change in
character towards the end which comes with a kind of quiet rumble.
The Adagio, varied in character, with rising and falling tensions
(characteristic of quite a lot of Svoboda's music), loud and soft passages,
and march rhythms leading to a crescendo. It begins with melody in the
strings and ends quietly and gently. The Vivace finale opens with a
brash and brassy effect and it is nearly a minute before the soloist
enters but things are quite gentle toward the end.
The symphony is quite substantial, and remarkably interesting from
such a young composer. Svoboda evidently revised it a quarter century
after its premiere, but the third movement is still based on the composer's
Opus 1, called "The Bird." When first written, the composer was particularly
drawn to the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak and it shows
particularly with respect to the last-named, notably in the finale.
What particularly attracts me to the work is Svoboda's very strong
rhythms--evident in his other works as well, and the varied character
of the musical treatment, with effectively rising and subsiding tensions,
for instance, so that I never found any part of the symphony tedious,
turgid, or pointlessly overblown. The orchestration is masterful also.
The notes sum up the work as a chorale, a scherzo in triple meter, an
andante dominated by the color of the woodwinds, and a complex rondo
with the character of Czech folk song and dance.
Movement One, a little over ten minutes, opens with a strong measured
tread against which a melodic flute solo is heard over the strings, which
swell to a full flow and some pounding within a couple of minutes. The
melody is quite euphonious but there is some loud tension also; towards
the end the treading pace becomes really exciting when it accompanies
what I take to be a series of rising harmonic moves. The second movement,
Presto, (8:14) is rhythmically exciting--dance-like--and includes some
big tutti passages. The seven-minute Andante is marked by a definite
beat, but the music always breathes: the bird it suggests is a Cuckoo,
I would say. There is a passage of high light string playing followed
by a full swelling effect and then a loud tutti. The finale (10:20) has
a loud, cheerful and celebratory opening. Strong forward motion is
predominant, but along the way there is gentleness, spritely melody,
syncopation, pounding rhythms and a really big climax before a return
of the sound of the Cuckoo and a quiet ending which dies away.
I strongly recommend both of these recordings.
Copyright 2007 by R. James Tobin
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