Volkert, Mark: Pandora

Mark Volkert was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1951, and now lives in Oakland, California. He has been a violinist in the San Francisco Symphony since 1972 and Assistant Concertmaster since 1980. Pandora, for orchestral strings, was written in 2010 and carries the dedication: “For Michael Tilson Thomas and the strings of the San Francisco Symphony with great admiration.” These are the first performances. Performance time: about twenty minutes.

For Mark Volkert, playing the violin and writing music go hand in hand. He had no sooner begun elementary violin before he was writing little tunes for himself, just for the fun of it. Eventually he showed some of those little tunes to his violin teacher, Ralph Matesky, conductor of the Stockton Symphony and a skilled arranger of music for school orchestras. Matesky’s counsel was sensible, practical, and trenchant: Keep filling up notebooks, he said. Write and write; perfect your style; learn your craft. Remember that a piece doesn’t have to be difficult to be good. Just keep writing.

Children often lose interest in scribbling out pieces, but not Volkert. Per Matesky’s advice, he kept at it even throughout his high school years. “I kept some of my pieces, but most of them I tossed,” he recalls. “I kept writing, manageable things that could be played. I think I composed my first orchestra piece in college.”

That college was Stanford University, and it provided abundant training by way of counterpoint, harmony, orchestration, and even electronic music. Volkert recalls that “the best textbook, as it were, was playing in the orchestra. You hear everything, all the great music that has established itself, and for a reason. Then there was contemporary music, particularly the changes that composers needed to make during rehearsals. I’m always thinking practically, about knowing your craft, knowing what is going to work with an orchestra, rather than finding out during rehearsals. That’s my mindset: practical.”

In those days Volkert’s violin teacher was San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Stuart Canin, who provided a peerless example of inspiration seasoned by meticulous craft and hard work. “He always practiced; he always sounded good,” remembers Volkert. “There’s a lesson in that, the work ethic, actually practicing the art of listening carefully, yet not allowing yourself to become too obsessed with details.”

In 1972 Volkert auditioned for the San Francisco Symphony and won a seat in the second violins. It was only his junior year at Stanford, but he completed his degree nonetheless in 1974, playing in the SFS all the while. “It’s good that I started in the back,” he recalls, “because I hadn’t had a lot of professional experience.” He moved up soon enough, however, and in 1980 became Assistant Concertmaster, the position he holds today.

With such a background, it shouldn’t be surprising that Volkert’s catalogue—both as composer and arranger—emphasizes instrumental music, particularly for strings. He is no exclusivist, however; witness his 2006 setting of Frederick Converse’s Laudate Dominum for brass quintet, or his Seven Pastoral Songs, written for and premiered in 2011 by the Volkerts’ son Nicholas.  Nor does he stay strictly within concert-hall confines, as his arrangements of songs by Noel Coward attest. He has received commissions from the Marin Symphony, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Stanford University, among others. The San Francisco Symphony commissioned Volkert’s 1995 Solus as well as his 2001 arrangement of Ravel’s violin-cello sonata for string orchestra, in addition to performing his 1980 Sinfonietta, and, in 1986, his Symphony.

Pandora started out as a purely abstract work in classical sonata form. As the piece evolved it began to suggest elements of the Pandora myth, particularly in its darker and more sinister aspects, so Volkert incorporated those elements into what nonetheless retained its sturdy foundation in traditional form. Volkert provides us with a description of the story and its meaning:

There are many versions of the Pandora story. I have based my piece on the telling by the Greek poet Hesiod, our earliest written account, dating from the end of the eighth century bce.

To punish Prometheus for stealing fire, Zeus ordered Hephaistos to make a woman out of earth and water. Her name, Pandora, means “all gifts” [Greek: pan + dora] in that each of the gods on Olympos gave her a gift, such as great beauty, weaving skills, gold necklaces, glorious tresses, and a deceitful and treacherous nature. She was given to and accepted by Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus, who had been warned by Prometheus to accept no gifts from Zeus.

Two quotations from antiquity, in translation by Richmond Lattimore, further illuminate the story. The first is from Homer’s Iliad, which probably dates from the middle of the eighth century bce. “There are two urns that stand on the door sill of Zeus. They are unlike for the gifts they bestow: an urn of evils, an urn of blessings.”

The second quotation is from “The Works and Days” by Hesiod. “But the woman [Pandora], with her hands lifting away the lid from the great jar, scattered its contents, and her design was sad troubles for mankind. Hope was the only spirit that stayed there in the unbreakable closure of the jar, under its rim, and could not fly forth abroad, for the lid of the great jar closed down first and contained her; this was by the will of cloud-gathering Zeus of the aegis.”

That’s the basic story. More important is the teaching behind the tale, the truth that is being conveyed through myth. Volkert continues:

Several interesting points present themselves in these two excerpts. Pandora lifts the lid from a jar (Greek: pithos), not a box. It is not benign curiosity but rather her treacherous nature that compels her to lift the lid. Perhaps the most provocative question of all is, why was hope (elpis) in the jar of evils? Elpis is sometimes translated as “expectation,” either of good or of ill. Many people hold to the notion that hope/expectation is a benefit to humankind. However, as elpis was included in the jar of evils and not the jar of blessings, could Hesiod have intended it to be one of many woes? Perhaps unfulfilled hope/expectation prevents us from enjoying and living in the present. By dwelling on the future we diminish the beauty and fulfillment of the moment.

Volkert concludes with Hesiod’s reminder that “There is no way to avoid what Zeus has intended.”

In addition to its programmatic aspects, Pandora is also a spectacular showpiece for its players both singly and collectively. Cadenzas—passages for solo instruments—abound, most notably for several instruments that are traditionally restricted to supportive roles. The double bass is first up with a brilliant passage that spans the instrument’s dramatically wide range, followed by a short but striking spree from the second violin. Pandora bows to orchestral tradition by allotting the longest and most complex cadenza to the first violin, but perhaps that is meant to counterbalance the frequency with which significant melodic material is presented by viola, cello, and double bass, either solo or ensemble. Furthermore, Pandora takes full advantage of the panoply of intriguing sounds that are produced by techniques ranging from the common pizzicato (plucking the strings), through the less common sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge), to the downright obscure battuto alla punta (striking the string lightly with the tip of the bow.) As a result, the work teems with a wide and variegated battery of sound effects: subtle, strident, gossamer, spiky, ghostly, raucous, lithe, muscular, sinister, sometimes even funny. One particularly delectable such passage occurs at about the two-thirds point in the score, just before the arrival at the formal recapitulation. A feather-light Tempo di Menuetto arises unexpectedly, all twee and twittering with mincing gestures from, of all things, paired double basses in their highest possible registers. Dry interjections from various instrumental bystanders—including a piercing mousetrap shriek from the second violin—join in to create a comic-book portrait of merry skullduggery, truly a “malevolent minuet,” as Volkert calls it.

Pandora is cast in classical sonata form, the first-movement structure (exposition-development-recapitulation) that is commonly encountered in symphonies, overtures, and concertos. Like many such works, Pandora begins with an introduction that sets the stage for the drama to follow. Beginning with a mood of quiet foreboding as “Pandora contemplates the task with which she is charged,” the music erupts into a flurry of whirring figurations as she opens the jar. The sonata-form rhetoric that follows is established, as expected, with the primary theme, here an angular and rhythmic affair that evokes Bach (or even Bartók) not only in its shape but also in the rigor with which it is developed. (Pandora’s materials are all derived from a few underlying seed ideas, very much in keeping with Volkert’s emphasis on thoroughgoing craftsmanship.) The music continues with unabated rhythmic energy until it reaches a climactic passage of “motor” rhythms; those give way to the first of the work’s cadenzas, for solo double bass.

The contrasting secondary theme that follows is made of gently contoured and lightly pulsating figures that evoke an almost dreamlike mood. But the tranquil idyll is not to last; soon buzzing activity resumes with the development—the middle section of sonata form. Whirling figurations alternate with still and sweet chordal passages, then the music stops as the double basses (transformed almost beyond recognition by their stratospheric register) enter with that “malevolent minuet” that injects a moment of droll comedy into the proceedings. With that—and a cadenza from the second violin—Pandora enters its recapitulation (the third and final section of sonata form), in which the work’s melodic materials are now brought into a conclusive balance. The Bachian primary theme runs its course, gives way to the lyrical secondary theme (now fragmented into a series of brief solos), then leads onward to the forthcoming ending.

If Pandora were a concerto, this would be the place for the soloist’s big cadenza. As it turns out, a cadenza—from the first violin—is very much in the offing. Written by a violinist who knows his instrument’s capabilities inside and out, the cadenza bristles with dazzling violinistic effects, culminating in a skyrocketing scale and a grand flourish.

The roller-coaster ride of a coda begins with thematic fragments over steady figurations in the lower strings. Bit by bit the tempo increases, the rhythm becomes ever more motorized and steady, the volume  grows. Finally the strings etch out a broad yet energized figure that brings Pandora to an appropriately dramatic close.

Pandora’s compelling effectiveness stems as much from its fine craft as from its colorful string writing, its liveliness, and its engaging lyricism. While a work of Pandora’s polish cannot come into being without copious talent, time, training, and experience, Mark Volkert stresses that there is no elemental mystery to writing music. “Anyone can do it,” he says. “You learn the language of music—the alphabet, the punctuation and the grammar, and you use it and write. I’ll show you how to do it, and you’ll have the thrill of writing a piece.”

Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is Chair of the Department of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

More About the Music

Recordings: Among recordings of Mark Volkert’s music is Delectable Pieces, featuring the Volkert-Walther String Trio (Con Brio).  |  The Volkert-Ellis Trio’s album BitterSweet features Volkert’s arrangements of songs by Noel Coward, Fritz Kreisler, Francis Lopez, and Ivor Novello (Golden Gate Music).

Reading: As of yet, printed material about Mark Volkert is limited mostly to reviews, program notes, liner notes, and the like.