Music Monday: Yano: Oboe Concerto

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You know, as good as I like to think my musical memory is, sometimes things happen that really make me question it. Take today’s piece: I was absolutely over the moon for Marco Aurélio Yano’s oboe concerto in high school, and then I completely forgot about its existence until a brief notice in the most recent issue of The Double Reed* about the impending publication of the piano reduction reminded me of how many feelings I had about it. So, of course, I rushed off to listen to it again, and all of those feelings came rushing back.

And so here we are. There isn’t a lot of biographical information about Marco Aurélio Yano out there, and much of what little there is focuses so intently on his disabilities (he was born with quadriplegia) that it’s difficult to get a fully rounded picture of him as a human being — while his quadriplegia certainly shaped his life experiences and isn’t something to be erased or swept under the rug, it seems doubtful that it was his entire world, that he had no other likes, dislikes, opinions, or personality traits. But since I didn’t know him personally, I have to rely on what others have written, and those writings are largely silent on such matters. Yano was born in 1963 in São Paulo to a Japanese-Brazilian family, and in due course he graduated from the State University of São Paulo (UNESP) with degrees in conducting and composition. It was at UNSEP that Yano met and befriended the oboist Alex Klein, who is a champion of obscure and contemporary oboe repertoire, and honestly deserves a profile all his own.

Naturally, given Klein’s dedication to expanding the oboe repertoire, it was only a matter of time before he commissioned a concerto from Yano. It was a fairly specific commission as these things go: Klein wanted the work to be at least half an hour long, scored for a large orchestra that took an active part in developing the musical material, to push the limits of oboistic technique in both traditional and extended areas, and to reference Yano’s Brazilian heritage. In other words, Klein wanted a monumental showstopper that would push even the best oboists in the world to their limits and beyond. He got it.

Or, rather, he got most of it. The commission came in 1988, and by 1991, Yano had written out the entire concerto in short score — all the melodies and harmonies and rhythms were worked out, and there were a few indications of which instruments would play what in the orchestra, but most of the orchestrational work was yet to be done, and there were almost certainly some fine-tuning revisions still in the works. Unfortunately, by 1991 Yano had contracted brain cancer, and he died that year with the orchestration unfinished. He was 27 years old. Edmundo Villani Cortes, Yano’s compositional mentor at the time of his death, worked together with Alex Klein to finish the orchestration and tweak the solo part for playability reasons (Klein and Yano had been planning to meet after the orchestration was finished to go over the solo part together and adjust it as needed; this is pretty standard practice for concerto commissions), giving us the work as it stands today.

Massive, heavy chords begin the first movement, each subsiding into a low held drone that builds (often with the help of the synthesizer) to a new mass of sound. The entire orchestra comes together for the last of these, falling away to reveal the solo oboe hanging plaintively in midair. The cadenza that follows is largely built around a motive that echoes the pronunciation of Yano’s full name, a motive that will show up in various guises thruout the work. The first instrument to rejoin the soloist is the synthesizer, the two instruments engaging in a playful imitative duet that soon launches a much faster, but still discordant passage in the full orchestra. The solo line begins simply enough, but soon breaks into dazzling displays of virtuosity over the orchestral tumult below.

A somewhat more singing line in the oboe is soon taken over by the violins in a searing tutti that leads to a rather more mysterious dance supported by various glittering percussion instruments that gradually shift from pitched to unpitched ones. An extended virtuosic display ensues, one that brings the faster tempo to a halt and paves the way for a cadenza filled with distortions and extended techniques, supported by jittery waves of synth and unquiet glissandi in the strings. The low brass make another attempt at faster music, but the oboe seems reluctant to join in at first, only breaking into rapid-fire displays when the full orchestra has joined in and the new tempo is inevitable. It doesn’t last long, tho, and the oboe winds up marooned on an impossibly long high note — like a flatline on a heart monitor — while the orchestra fades into a sobbing silence. (Alex Klein reads this movement as a depiction of Yano’s life, ending with his death, and titled it “In Memoriam” to acknowledge this. You can read more about his reasoning by downloading the program note booklet about this recording from the Cedille website — I certainly find it a pretty compelling argument.)

Rather than the orchestral introduction of the first movement, the second begins with a solo cadenza. Plaintive and lonesome, seeking for something out of reach, there is a tenderness and lyricality here that was largely missing from the first movement, and it provides a transition into the seresta that follows. Strings slip in under the last solo lines, and then a bassoon plays a brief melody before the oboe takes the lead again in music that is simple and tender and achingly nostalgic. The oboe sings over a constant bed of rich, warm strings, frequently duetting with solo wind instruments from the rest of the orchestra. Gauzy washes give way to expansive vistas, but the music never loses the emotional thread that ties this movement together into the beating heart of the work. There are moments of virtuosity, to be sure, especially in the second cadenza that comes towards the movement’s end, but simplicity is the overarching order of the day.

Clocking in at a little over 15 minutes, the frevo that concludes the work is the longest of the three movements, but it earns its length. It starts unassumingly enough with light pizzicato strings plucking out a guileless pattern in 7/8 (instead of the expected 4/4), over which the oboe soon lays a perky dance tune. Other instruments slowly join in — a xylophone here, some bowed strings there — until the full orchestra bursts into a rousing rendition of the dance. A playful interlude involving much back-and-forth between the soloist and the orchestra then follows, which segues directly into a reprise of the oboe’s first statement of the dance theme, this time more embellished and supported by various brass instruments. A tumult ensues that almost seems in danger of ending things eleven minutes early, but instead of stopping, the tempo slows, and a distant solo horn presents a noble, lyrical melody over delicately shimmering strings.

Once the oboe takes this new theme up, it begins to take on the character of an anthem or ballade, a folk song without words. As with the seresta, simplicity and tenderness carry the music forward, but here the piece has transcended the ache of the second movement, and floats freely in expansive bliss. There is no overpowering climax to this section, it stays smooth and even for its entire course, ultimately fading into a reverent silence.

And then the dance returns. The theme is deconstructed and hard to hear, the music primarily being occupied with blistering passages for the soloist of ever increasing virtuosity, the orchestra largely relegated to percussive interjections. And then, almost like magic, the simple little dance tune returns, and the piece builds with growing excitement — and something that almost sounds like a quote from West Side Story — to one last cadenza for the oboe, this one punctured periodically by light accompaniment from other instruments. The orchestra returns quietly, but quickly builds, not to another tutti rendition of the dance theme, but instead to a blazing, expansive reprise of the central anthem, the brass carrying the melody in a brilliant apotheosis that leaves time only for a few last dazzling displays from the soloist to bring the work to a giddy close.

*The Double Reed is a quarterly journal published by the International Double Reed Society that prints news and pieces of scholarly interest to the double reed community, as well as reviews of double reed sheet music and recordings. Its existence makes me unreasonably happy, and I kind of doubt I’ll ever actually stop subscribing to it.