Dinuk Wijeratne:
a Modern Polymath

Dinuk Wijeratne is one of Canada’s most sought-after classical artists.

The “exuberantly creative’ (New York Times) JUNO award-winner made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2004 as a composer, conductor, and pianist. He’ll brandish this triple-threat at this concert, conducting a number of masterworks and then setting down his baton to premiere, as a soloist, a gorgeous new piano concerto of his own inspired creation.

And then there are the megahits on the program. First up is Mozart’s Divertimento K137. Composed when Mozart was only 16 and trapped in a stifling work climate, the Divertimento—a typically light-hearted form whose name literally means ‘to amuse’—shouldn’t be a masterpiece. Yet it is. As always, Mozart finds profundity in levity, displaying the grace, elegance, humour, and exquisite beauty we associate with his more mature work.

There’s also Bartók’s Rumanian Folk Dances, a favourite of the MCO, and Grieg’s Holberg Suite, which many critics view as superior even to Grieg’s incidental music from Peer Gynt. That Wijeratne conducts these pieces while also soloing and composing for this concert is the sort of magic show that moves Chronicle Herald to exclaim, “Dinuk Wijeratne continues to astonish us.” A sentiment we share.

Dinuk Wijeratne

Praised by the CBC as an artist “internationally respected for his virtuosity and sensitivity as a musician”, Sri Lankan-born Dinuk Wijeratne is one of Canada’s most eclectic talents … He is the recipient of the 2008 Canada Council Jean-Marie Beaudet award for orchestral conducting; double Merritt Award nominations; Juilliard and Mannes scholarships; two Countess of Munster composition grants; the Sema Jazz Improvisation Prize; the Soroptimist International Award for Composer-Conductors; and the Sir John Manduell Prize—the RNCM’s highest student honor.”

—Canadian Music Centre

The concert begins at 7.30pm on October 30th in Westminster United Church, 745 Westminster at Maryland. Tickets, at $36 for adults, $34 for seniors and $15 for students and those under-30 (incl. GST), are available at McNally Robinson, Organic Planet (877 Westminster Ave), and on MCO’s Ticketline at 204-783-7377.

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Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
Anne Manson, Music Director
Karl Stobbe, Concertmaster
Westminster United Church
30 October 2019

Dinuk Wijeratne

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Divertimento in B-flat Major (K137/125b)

Bela Bartók
Rumanian Folk Dances

Dinuk Wijeratne
Gajaga Vannama, Fantasy Variations on a Traditional Theme

Dinuk Wijeratne
The Poetry of Squares

John Corigliano
Voyage (from L'Invitation au Voyage, 1971)

Edvard Grieg
Holberg Suite, Op. 40

Concert sponsor / Pollard Banknote Ltd.

New Concerto Project

As you may know, over the past couple of seasons the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra has been commissioning some of the most promising, adventurous, and beloved composers working today to write brand new works for orchestra. We’re calling this the New Concerto Project. It’s already included several exciting events, such as the premiere of Vivian Fung’s Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra, Kevin Lau’s Writ In Water, and Philip Glass’ third piano concerto.

And there’s so much more the New Concerto Project has in store for audiences over the coming seasons. Some of the other pieces we’re premiering will be irresistible audience pleasers. Others may be more challenging, but always with the goal of pushing forward the tradition, expanding the Canadian repertoire, and empowering a diverse group of artists to share their gifts and stories.

In addition to the premiere of other new Canadian works, this season includes three new concerto premieres. First up is a new piano concerto by Dinuk Wijeratne, which the composer will also play-conduct at our October concert. One of Canada’s most sought-after classical artists, JUNO award-winner Dinuk Wijeratne made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2004 as a composer, conductor, and pianist. He’ll brandish this triple-threat at the October concert, setting down his baton only to premiere, as a soloist, his stunning new piano concerto.

In February, the stellar Ariel Barnes comes back to perform a new cello concerto by award-winning composer Marcus Goddard; a piece, according to the program note, inspired both by “heavy metal and renaissance polyphony.” In June 2019, the MCO released a CD with Ariel featuring the MCO-commissioned Cello Concerto (formerly The Iron Man) by Michael Oesterle. It will be a pleasure to work once more with Ariel to present a contemporary Canadian concerto. March will see the premiere of a new concerto by Alexina Louie, widely regarded as one of Canada’s greatest living composers. Taking an historical perspective, percussion concertos occupy a small place in the canon, but at the MCO they’re among our favourite things to present. Our premiere of Louie’s Concerto For Percussion and String Orchestra—which features temple blocks, cymbals, gongs, tom-toms, and ringing temple bowls—allows us to happily continue this tradition in a most spectacular fashion. It’s an honour to work with Alexina Louie again.

Dinuk Wijeratne

Sri Lankan-born Dinuk Wijeratne is a JUNO, SOCAN, ECMA, and Masterworks-winning composer, conductor and pianist who has been described by the New York Times as ‘exuberantly creative’ and by the Toronto Star as ‘an artist who reflects a positive vision of our cultural future’. His boundary-crossing work sees him equally at home in collaborations with symphony orchestras and string quartets, tabla players and DJs, and takes him to international venues as poles apart as the Berlin Philharmonie and the North Sea Jazz Festival.

Dinuk has also appeared at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center (Washington DC), Opera Bastille (Paris), Lincoln Center (New York), Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires), and in Sri Lanka, Japan, and across the Middle East. He was featured as a main character in What would Beethoven do?, a documentary about innovation in classical music featuring Eric Whitacre, Bobby McFerrin and Ben Zander. Dinuk has composed for almost all of the artists and ensembles with whom he has performed, including Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Suzie LeBlanc, Kinan Azmeh, Joseph Petric, David Jalbert, Bev Johnston, Zakir Hussain, Sandeep Das, Nick Halley, Tim Garland, Ed Thigpen, Ramesh Misra, Ed Hanley, Eric Vloeimans, Buck 65, the Gryphon Trio, the Apollo Saxophone Quartet, TorQ Percussion, the New Juilliard Ensemble; the Afiara Danel, and Cecilia String Quartets; and the symphony orchestras of Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Fresno, Buffalo, Illinois, Windsor, Victoria, Asheville, Thunder Bay, and KwaZulu Natal (South Africa).

Dinuk has served both as Composer-in-Residence and Conductor-in-Residence of Symphony Nova Scotia. He holds a doctorate from the University of Toronto, and has also studied at the Juilliard School, Mannes College, and Royal Northern College of Music (UK).

Divertimento in B-flat Major, K. 137/125b
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Ever the practical, professional composer, Mozart never hesitated to write music designed solely to entertain. He did so with as much skill and taste as anyone ever has, and without compromising his magnificent creative gifts.

His works in this vein include marches and sets of dances—minuets, German dances, country dances and so on—plus serenades, divertimentos, cassations and notturnos. These last four terms were virtually interchangeable at the time in referring to light-hearted, multi-movement pieces designed as background music for fancy aristocratic functions, name-days and birthdays, betrothals and weddings, ends of university terms, carnivals and so on.

Within this area of his catalogue lies a remarkable range of material. Some of it, such as the work you’ll be hearing tonight, is as light as a feather. Others, especially the Serenade for Winds in C Minor, are remarkably sombre. He also created works of virtually symphonic breadth and grandeur in this field, such as the magnificent orchestral serenades nicknamed ‘Haffner’ and ‘Posthorn.’ Symphonic indeed—he regularly plucked movements from them to produce concert symphonies. Other large-scale Mozart diversions include the Gran Partita for winds in B-flat Major, and the Divertimento in E-flat Major for string trio, whose richness and ample proportions belie its fluffy title.

The sixteen-year-old Mozart composed a set of three divertimenti for strings, of which K. 137 is the second, in his native Salzburg during the early months of 1772. He and his ever-practical, ever-ambitious (and moderately talented) father, Leopold, had recently returned from their second trip to Italy. Papa Mozart wisely felt that establishing a reputation in that most musical of lands could only enhance the likelihood of his son’s being able to develop his miraculous gifts to their fullest and most lucrative degree. Wolfgang arrived back in Salzburg bearing a commission for a new opera, Lucio Silla, which was to be premiered in Milan.

Why he composed the divertimenti remains a mystery. He may have planned to take them along on his return trip, hoping like any clever, self-employed entrepreneur that they would (a) bolster his fame, especially since he had taken care to give them gracious, tuneful Italianate features that he felt sure would please that country’s music lovers; and (b) remove some of the pressure he felt likely to come his way to write such ‘occasional’ music during the hectic period leading up to the premiere of the new opera.

They share two unusual features: each has three movements, rather than the four or more that were typical of a divertimento or serenade; and they are scored for strings alone, rather than the standard mixed-instrument ensemble. Mozart may have intended them to be performed by individual players, as string quartets. It is possible that they are the works that his father, Leopold, offered to the publisher Breitkopf in February 1772—without success. In recent times they have been played most often by orchestral strings.

No record remains of their first performances. One likely possibility is that they debuted in the luxurious private salon of Count Firmian, Governor General of Milan. Mozart had met this generous music lover during his earlier visit. What is known for sure is that Lucio Silla knocked ‘em dead when it first hit the boards on 26 December. Twenty further performances followed before Mozart returned to Salzburg in March 1773.

The ‘Salzburg’ Divertimento in B-flat Major differs from the other two in placing the slow (and most elaborate) movement first. It alternates sweet, low-volume lyricism with sharp, almost dramatic outbursts. The two remaining movements bristle with energy and good humour; the finale sporting a particularly enticing rhythm.

Rumanian Folk Dances
Béla Bartók

  1. Stick Dance
  2. Sash Dance
  3. In One Spot
  4. Horn Dance
  5. Rumanian Polka
  6. Fast Dance
  7. Fast Dance

Bartók collected the folk tunes that make up the Rumanian Folk Dances in 1910 and 1912. He first arranged them for solo piano in 1915, then two years later prepared a transcription for small orchestra. Tonight you will hear a version for string orchestra that Czech musician Arthur Willner prepared in 1937.

Some composers, such as Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, have been criticized for confusing genuine Hungarian folk music with the music of the wandering tribes known as Gypsies or Romani. Musicologists may concern themselves with this, while most others will sit back and enjoy the music—whether the gorgeous melodies, fiery emotions and toe-tapping rhythms you’re hearing are authentic or not.

Bartók and fellow composer Zoltán Kodály made extensive use of the 4000 marvelous and widely varied Hungarian folk melodies they had gathered in the field. Sometimes they quoted them directly; sometimes they used them as the building blocks for original compositions; sometimes they created original melodies in similar style.

Bartók collected the instrumental fiddle tunes that make up this delightful suite of Rumanian Folk Dances in Transylvania. This border region, home to legendary Count Dracula, has at various times belonged to either Hungary or Rumania. The suite is probably Bartók’s most frequently performed work, either in the versions he prepared himself, or in other transcriptions such as the one for violin and piano created by his friend, violinist Zoltán Székely. His approach here is a straightforward presentation of the tunes, without changing or developing them in any way.

The suite has seven brief, strongly contrasted sections: a stately Stick Dance; Sash Dance, a lighter, moderately paced number; the melancholy In One Spot; a moderately paced Horn Dance, with solo violin; a hearty, heavily accented Rumanian Polka; and finally, two rousing fast dances.

Gajaga Vannama, Fantasy Variations on a Traditional Theme
Dinuk Wijeratne

The composer has provided the following note:

The two most prominent ethnic groups of Sri Lanka — the island country of my birth — are the Sinhalese and the Tamils. I happen to be a product of both. This piece is a highly personal musical interpretation and realization of a traditional melody and classical ‘Vannam’ dance-form that dates back to the early 1700s. In the royal courts of the city of Kandy, the last capital of the era of the ancient kings, the vannamas evolved from short sung melodies into longer, substantial dance pieces. In Dance and the Nation, cultural anthropologist Susan A. Reed captures the cultural context of the vannamas:

“The staple of most Kandyan dance performances, whether in processions or on stage, are the vannam dances. Originally the vannamas were a group of songs of both Sinhala and Tamil influence composed during the Kandyan period and sung in the courts of the Kandyan kings. The expressive arts of the court that developed during this time can be viewed as a blend of South Indian and Lankan elements. There are 18 traditional vannam dances, of which the most popular is the Gajaga Vannama. It depicts the majestic gait of the celestial elephant of the great god Sakra. The song of the Gajaga Vannama describes the sacred elephant with 8 trunks and 16 tusks bathing and frolicking in one of the 700 lotus ponds of the abode of the gods. The vannamas are often danced in processions, from small wedding processions with a few dancers to large ritual processions with dozens.”

We tend to perceive many artforms as being unchanging, ‘vertical’ creations that are fixed in time. Yet when we look closer, or dig into their histories, they reveal aspects of tradition and innovation in proportions that are delicate, subjective, and often hotly contested. My ‘imagining’ of the Gajaga Vannama is scored for strings and piano (my instrument), and set in a single-movement of 15 minutes. After a short, slow introduction of 7 beats to the bar, the main section of the piece begins. It gradually increases in tempo and urgency over time. Towards the end is a 2-part vocal recitation. The first part is a direct quotation of the kastirama (drum composition) from a classic recording of the vannamas by Piyasara and Chandrakanthi Shilpadhipathi. The second part is a variation on the kastirama of my own composing. The further increase of tempo in the coda (concluding section) imagines the dancers entering a state of trance.

This piece was composed on a co-commission from the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and I Musici de Montréal. My thanks to Pabalu Wijegoonawardane for his translation of original source material; to Dr. Sumuditha Suraweera for his knowledge on traditional drumming; and most especially to my dear colleague Eshantha Peiris, without whom I would have been lost if not for his invaluable ethnomusicological expertise, assistance, and advice.

The Poetry of Squares
Dinuk Wijeratne

The composer has provided the following note:

The Poetry of Squares is a perpetual-motion piano etude which is inspired directly by kaida—a rhythmic form of North-Indian Classical tabla music. Kaida creates cyclic musical material which sound like ‘loops’ of notes, where phrase endings connect to new beginnings. As a result, the music takes on a hypnotic quality. ‘Translating’ the essence of kaida, from Indian tabla to Western piano, has become an attempt to balance some of the rhythmic intricacy of tabla with the harmony that the piano can provide. In this sense, the first etude of Chopin’s op.10 and the first prelude of Bach’s ‘48’ are two more distant influences, in which unchanging rhythms shift the spotlight towards gradual changes of harmony.

Voyage, for string orchestra (1976)
John Corigliano

The composer wrote, “Voyage, for string orchestra (1976), is an instrumental version of a 1971 a cappella choral work that was a setting of Richard Wilbur’s translation of Baudelaire’s famous (poem) L’Invitation au voyage. Wilbur’s poignant setting pictures a world of obsessive imagination—a drugged version of heaven full of sensual imagery. The music echoes the quality of the repeated refrain found in this lush translation: “There, there is nothing else but grace and measure, richness, quietness and pleasure.”

From Holberg’s Time, Op. 40 (Suite in olden style)
Edvard Grieg

The year 1884 marked the two hundredth anniversary of Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), an important Norwegian scholar and author. His immensely popular, satirical stage comedies earned him the nickname “The Molière of the North.” Mirroring his stature as Norway’s foremost composer (and the first to win an international reputation), Grieg received a commission to celebrate the occasion with two works: a cantata for unaccompanied male chorus and a piano suite that reimagined the dance forms of Holberg’s era. Hence the suite’s full title: From Holberg’s Time—Suite in Olden Style. Other composers have paid similar tributes to previous eras. Tchaikovsky had written his Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra, for example, during the previous decade.

Grieg stated that his aim with the suite was to “resurrect for a brief instant, times of long ago.” His primary models were the harpsichord works of French composers such as Rameau and Couperin. He may also have had in mind three other, non-French masters who were born the year after Holberg: Bach, Handel and Scarlatti. In the suite, he used several types of pieces that all these composers employed regularly, including sarabande and gavotte.

Grieg gave the first performance himself, on the exact anniversary. The cantata was premiered that day as well, in the marketplace at Bergen during the unveiling of a statue of Holberg. Grieg transcribed the suite for string orchestra the following year, the form in which it is most often heard.

It is music of great beauty, warmth, and variety. Homage to baroque style it may be, but Grieg’s folk-flavoured romantic idiom is heard clearly, too. Much of the suite’s appeal lies in his skillful use of the strings, either for delicate effects or massed sonorities. The perpetual motion-style Prelude deftly mixes the exuberant and the wistful. The following Sarabande has a grave, simple beauty.

You may recognize the gracious third movement, Gavotte and Musette. For many years it was the opening theme of CBC Radio Two’s classical request program, RSVP. The suite reaches its emotional summit in the fourth section, a beautiful, gravely expressive Air. Grieg here produced greater depth of feeling than would have been common during Holberg’s era, but total authenticity was not his primary consideration. A lively and jovial Rigaudon, sporting brief solos for violin and viola, and a melancholy, minor-key central section, concludes the suite.