Why Old Places Matter (2014)

For Oboe, Horn, Piano

Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players

Duration: 15 minutes

With the Boston Symphony Chambers Players at the premiere in Jordan Hall. Left to right: John Ferrillo (oboe), Randall Hodgkinson (piano), James Sommerville (horn).

With the Boston Symphony Chambers Players at the premiere in Jordan Hall. Left to right: John Ferrillo (oboe), Randall Hodgkinson (piano), James Sommerville (horn).

Program Note: 

As I began work on this piece, I had just returned to the U.S. after a year in Rome. While in Rome, I visited many historic sites and found experiencing these ancient architectural spaces incredibly inspiring, not only because of the beauty of their design but also from the immense sense of history that surrounded me. One place that had a particularly profound influence on me was the Basilica of Santa Sabina, a large church built in the year 400 atop Rome’s Aventine Hill, whose windows made of translucent stone transform the brilliantly bright Roman light into soft, gently glowing hues that dance on its inner walls.

In composing this trio, my thoughts returned to conversations I had at the American Academy in Rome with Tom Mayes, a Fellow in Historic Preservation, who was writing a series of essays – titled, “Why Do Old Places Matter?” – in which he interviews artists and scholars on how old places (of both historical and personal significance) have mattered to them. The responses touch on topics ranging from creativity and beauty to identity, memory and a sense of continuity. My work is a personal expression of the feelings and emotions I have experienced in “old places.”

“Why Old Places Matter” is structured in two movements. The second movement returns to places encountered in the first movement, as we might in recalling a memory, trying to live in a space again and for longer, the memory becoming a new “old place” of its own. “Why Old Places Matter” was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players and is dedicated to the Chamber Players with gratitude and admiration.



Excerpted from the Program Notes from the BSO Chamber Players premiere performance, by Robert Kirzinger:

Boston Symphony Chamber Players at Jordan Hall (Photo: Hillary Scott)

Boston Symphony Chamber Players at Jordan Hall (Photo: Hillary Scott)

Improvised jazz was a big part of Nathan’s performing experience as a trumpet player (he still plays), and that experience has had a major influence on his compositional approach. The explicit influence of jazz in his music, though, has more to do with its energy and flow and interplay of musical characters than with immediately evident stylistic flavors. His music aims at the feeling of spontaneity, action/reaction, that occurs in jazz; musical ideas generated improvisationally are extended and formed via the work and craft of composition into larger narratives. Nathan’s music exhibits a preoccupation with the visceral punch of sound itself as well as with its physical production: although written well for the instruments, it’s often virtuosic and technically demanding, for both individual players and ensembles.

Beyond the sonic, another aspect of Nathan’s process is his engagement with the outside—usually the visual—world. Along with on-site experiences of place, he also engages his musical imagination by looking over arrays of photographs to trigger ideas he wouldn’t otherwise have come up with, a process he has employed for the past several years. Although much of his music could fall into the category of “tone poem,” the idea that the music is truly programmatic, that it tells a definite story, would be off the mark. More accurately, the music relates the composer’s emotional reaction to place or experience; and the memory of that experience: philosophically more akin to Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony than, say, Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote.

Why Old Places Matter was written on a Boston Symphony Orchestra commission for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players; the instrumentation of oboe, horn, and piano was stipulated at the start. The commission was offered in April 2014, during Nathan’s year at the American Academy of Rome as a recipient of the Rome Prize, a circumstance that informed the piece on a deep level. The experience of living and traveling in Italy has been a rich source of new imagery for the composer, inspiring several recent pieces of varying forces and character. The title of Why Old Places Matter (as Nathan notes below) comes from the work of historic preservationist Tom Mayes, whom Nathan had met at the American Academy. The orchestral works Gibellina and Paestum, their conceptions both dating from the Rome year, are musical contemplations based on the composer’s visits to those historical sites, on Sicily and on the Italian coast south of Naples, respectively. Regarding historic places, Nathan remarks on one’s awareness not only of different sensually perceptible qualities of sound, light, and space, but also how time itself seems to move in a different way there than in our day-to-day lives.

Why Old Places Matter is “about” more than one such experience, although the only one the composer cites specifically is the Basilica di Santa Sabina all’Aventino. The piece essentially employs material of two different characters. These are basically juxtaposed in the longer first movement, and blended in the second. In the fast music heard at the start of the piece we have another level of contrast, with the horn’s line opposed to the more mercurial gestures of oboe and piano. This music fits together intricately, with hocket and counterpoint in fast, syncopated rhythms requiring great exactitude from the players. A passage of sustained, resonant chords stands in contrast. In the second movement, arpeggios in the horn part activate subtle, reverberant notes in the piano, which grow to larger chords. The oboe reacts by transforming the harmonic texture into lyrical descant.

Composer; Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Director of Program Publications, Editorial


Audio Excerpt (from Movement I):

Performed by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players: John Ferrillo (oboe), James Sommerville (horn), Randall Hodgkinson (piano). From a live performance at Jordan Hall (Boston, MA). Recording excerpt used with permission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Video (full recordings):

Movement I (video below is of the full piece):

Movement II (video of movement II only):

Performed by Peggy Pearson (oboe), Laura Weiner (horn), Mei Rui (piano). From a live performance at le poisson rouge (New York).

View Online Score


“Why Old Places Matter” — the title of Eric Nathan’s tricky, lovely new trio, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and premiered by them at Jordan Hall on Sunday — could also be a classical-music rallying cry: No other musical clique cultivates more game and soul of an old-school flick, as it were, forever revisiting and reviving bygone eras and repertoire. Nathan’s piece takes inspiration from historical sites in Italy (where the composer spent a year as a Rome Prize winner), rather than the virtual sites of the classical canon. But it still hinted at why some old music never gets old.

Scored for oboe, horn, and piano (John Ferrillo, James Sommerville, and Randall Hodgkinson on Sunday, an enviable and exact crew), “Why Old Places Matter” opens with a softly turbulent, twitchy dance between sound — quick flourishes, hazy chords — and silence, the music snatching its own presence out of the void. It alternates with a second notion, the winds triggering haloes of resonance from the strings of the piano, layering overtones onto the sound, echoes altering their source at the source. That idea becomes the basis of the second movement: Sommerville tolled a long series of horn calls (a traditional classical-music stand-in for nostalgia and reminiscence), that, after a brief reprise of the first movement’s jagged swirls, returned muted and distant.

The contrast between the two movements was expressively pointed, evoking the built-in frustration of experience: the first movement’s sensory overload, the second’s poignantly incomplete memory. Thus the attraction and vexation of music: We never quite get it all, and we never quite remember what we get. No wonder we return, again and again. “Why Old Places Matter” certainly made a convincing case for a repeat visit."

- Matthew Guerrieri, The Boston Globe (1.13.2015)
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"Eric Nathan’s Why Old Places Matter for oboe, horn, and piano, commissioned for these players by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, made its bow in a performance that seemed to do full justice to its jumpy, stuttering rhythms, evocative solos, and idiomatic writing for each instrument. 

Nathan’s new piece, Why Old Places Matter, is also cast in two movements, one evoking a vivid experience and the other “recollected in tranquillity.”  That phrase is from Wordsworth, but Nathan got the piece’s title from closer by, a series of articles on historic preservation by a fellow Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. [...]

If the piece is, as he wrote, “a personal expression of the feelings and emotions I have experienced in ‘old places,’” those emotions must have included excitement, agitation, even disorientation, judging from the work’s first movement, a rush of nervous exclamations for oboe and piano over a calmer horn line.

Pianist Randall Hodgkinson executed his part’s spurting arpeggios and marcato chords with a deft and light touch.  He, oboist Ferrillo, and hornist Sommerville sounded perfectly in synch for the music’s relentlessly syncopated outbursts and silences.

In the second movement, Nathan abandoned furious dissonances for long stretches of the horn playing softly by itself, repeating a gently upward-leaping figure.  Without Sommerville’s endlessly artful inflections, this unremarkable motive might not have made very interesting listening; but the imaginative hornist called, responded, reflected, and in general imbued the little motive with that nostalgic ache that is his instrument’s specialty.

Eventually, the oboe slipped in with calls of its own, the piano rumbled and tinkled in the background, and all seemed to be listening intently for the sound of ancient footsteps and voices.  After the work’s quiet close, the audience warmly applauded the players and the composer, who joined them onstage."

- David Wright, Boston Classical Review (1.12.2015)
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"BSO commission Why Old Places Matter (2014) by Eric Nathan (b. 1983) received its world premiere with Ferrillo, Sommerville, and guest pianist Randall Hodgkinson. Recent recipient of the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Nathan composed his highly attractive work for oboe, horn and piano structuring it in two movements. He writes, “The second movement returns to places encountered in the first movement, as we might in recalling a memory, trying to live in a space again and for longer.” For the first part, a silence-sound fast moving continuum, both punchy and pleasant, played out with coherence uncommon to compositions written these days. A kind of whole-tone background in Nathan’s canvas contributed to the many pleasing crunches and jangles from the piano. From the oboe, isolated sonic ribbons often in quick descent spiritedly played out against forceful sonic dashes, which were often emboldened by the horn.

Memories of the foregoing were frequently posed as overtones resonating from the piano’s strings, activated by the winds. The horn-centered slower second movement leaned more to a diatonic context. There was even a nostalgic passage with older-fashioned arpeggios suggesting some remembrances were beginning to actualize. Throughout, the piano and oboe acted as if memory was running short, only fragments stirring.

[...] Why Old Places Matter received a stunning premiere from Ferrillo, Sommerville and Hodgkinson who handled all sorts of challenges most of that of ensemble precision."

- David Patterson, The Boston Music Intelligencer (1.12.2015)
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