Saturday, September 23, 2017

Harrisburg Discovers Valery Gavrilin & his ballet, Anyuta

Anyuta arrives on the promenade
It is now Autumn, officially, the Equinox occurring without our having noticed it on Friday late in the afternoon, without fanfare, without the sense that we have just experienced “a change-of-season.”

And now “the New Season” begins on Sunday – for Market Square Concerts' 2017-2018 Season, that is, our 36th season, as the years fly by. And we open it at 4:00 at Market Square Church with a piano duet of two pianists from Russia, one born in Kharkov, now in Ukraine (well, of course it was always in Ukraine, but now it's an independent country, not just a province of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union) and the other in Moscow, who met in Jerusalem, who teach in Wisconsin and are performing works for piano duet – “four-hand piano,” as it's usually called – by Mendelssohn and Schubert, and, since the world of the piano duet is full of that ability to imitate fuller orchestra-like textures with arrangements of orchestral works by Manuel de Falla and George Gershwin (their own transcription of his “American in Paris”).

And something that might furrow your brow as you try to recall “have I ever heard these names before?” Dances from the ballet Anyuta by Valery Gavrilin.

You can read about the Schubert Fantasy in F Minor, one of the masterpieces for the piano duet, in this post – and then more generally about the rest of the program in an earlier post. This post is about Mr. Gavrilin and his ballet.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Valery Gavrilin
Given the rest of the program, I could quip that Valery Gavrilin is “least but not last,” since he is the least familiar name on the program and figures in the middle of the first half, and though he might be the one voted most likely to require an introduction, there's just not that much to say about him or his music. And that's not meant to be cruel.

After all, one source I read somewhere called him “the last great Russian composer of the 20th Century.”

It is the irony of culture – and cultural politics – that most Americans can probably name only a small handful of Russian (or Soviet) composers writing since the 1940s, at least those they might regularly hear on American concert programs – not counting Rachmaninoff (who died in 1940) or Stravinsky who by then was living in America and became a US citizen in 1945 (and probably those works of his you have heard are his three early ballets, all written before the start of World War I).

Shostakovich and Prokofiev would head the list, easily enough, but beyond that, more experienced concert-goers might recall Kabalevsky and Khachaturian (works by both of them were performed by the Harrisburg Symphony earlier this year), then more recent names like Rodion Shchedrin and Alfred Schnittke (but then, have you heard their music performed live?) and, I'd like to think, Sofia Gubaidulina but I have yet to hear any of her music live. However, don't forget Moise (or Mieczysław) Weinberg who had two chamber works of his performed here in Harrisburg in 2015, thanks to Peter Sirotin's advocacy.

I can hear Danny Kaye revving up his classic “Tschaikovsky? (I lahve Rrrrussian composers!)” But how many of those modern composers listed in that song have you heard in concert or on recordings? Beyond Danny Kaye's song, where the names roll rapidly off the tongue in some demonic patter song after Gilbert & Sullivan, most American classical music lovers have not even seen those names unless you read Wikipedia on nights when there's nothing on TV...

So here's your chance to discover Valery Gavrilin.

He was born in Vologda, an ancient Russian city dating back to the 12th Century, located north of Moscow and about parallel with St. Petersburg to the west. The year was 1939 – picture it! World War II began with Hitler's invasion of Poland just weeks after his birth. When he was three, his father would be killed during the Siege of Leningrad during which Shostakovich composed and premiered his 7th Symphony, called, for obvious reasons, The “Leningrad” Symphony (and I once had a chance to hear the “Leningrad” Symphony played by the Leningrad Symphony, but I digress...).

The fact the Wikipedia entry (and most other biographical squibs I can find) merely says “his mother was imprisoned when he was ten” gives you an idea about life in the Soviet Union under Stalin during the purges of the late-1940s: imagine something so horrid as to be ten years old and have your mother hauled off to prison, and it can be disposed of in such a casual sentence.

After having been sent off to a nearby orphanage, he entered a music school when he was 11 and somehow, by some stroke of luck, a music teacher from the Leningrad Conservatory heard him and sent him off to the Children's School in Leningrad where for the next four years, he studied clarinet, piano – and, already, composition. Whatever happened after that, he was 24 when he graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory with specialties in two areas: composition and musicology.

Shortly after that, he published a collection called “The Russian Notebook” (no further information) that “would make his name,” and he continued to teach at the conservatory.

Then, in the height of summary, without further ado, he died in 1999 at the age of 59 following two severe heart attacks.

In between, however, he must have written sufficient music to warrant being named a People's Artist of the USSR, an Honored Artist of Russia, and the winner of a USSR State Prize in 1983 for his “Choral Symphony” or as it is described in his list-of-works, “Perezvony, a choral symphony of-action [sic] for soloists, mixed chorus, oboe, percussion and narrator” which he'd been working on between 1978 and 1982.

In 1982, he also wrote the ballet Anyuta, the first of four ballets in his catalogue, along with three operas, three fairly early string quartets, some sonatas and other chamber works, a great many songs and choral works, and lots of incidental music for the theater and numerous film scores.

As an example of what to expect when you hear the selections from Anyuta the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo will perform on Sunday, here are the “Tarantella and March” from the ballet, with a YouTube video that is the essence of the piano duet as a social medium, even filmed in somebody's living room (all it needs is a couple of friends sitting on the sofa enjoying their performance):
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

You can immediately hear the “wrong-note humor” of Shostakovich's lighter music, the sarcastic tone distorting what might be, otherwise, a fairly standard dance but with unexpected twists and slips into remote keys – all turned into a caricature.

But to judge Gavrilin on this one excerpt may be trying to figure out why Shostakovich is a Great Composer if you only know the Polka from The Golden Age – and know nothing about its context.

Based on a Chekhov short story published in 1886, the ballet Anyuta – the title is a nickname for “Anna” – can be described as a social commentary on love and marriage during the height of Imperial Russia, the age in which Tchaikovsky was presenting his greatest symphonies and ballets, (his opera, Eugene Onyegin, in 1877, the same year as his 4th Symphony) as well as the Golden Age of Russian Literature with the novels of Dostoievsky (who died in 1881) and Tolstoy (his War & Peace and Anna Karenina, speaking of love-and-marriage, two of the greatest novels ever written, were both published between 1869 and 1877).

Here is a summary of Chekhov's story:
= = = = =
Anyuta, a small, tired girl, lives with Stepan Klotchkov, a medical student, in squalor, serving for him, besides other things as an anatomy model (for studying ribs, among other body parts). She spends her time taking work as a seamstress and talking little, thinking a lot, mostly of how it happens that all of her former student partners have managed to somehow get out of here to some kind of better life while she is stuck in this place… Rather taken aback by his artist neighbor Fetisov's comments upon the 'unaesthetic' conditions he lives in, Klochkov decides to throw Anyuta out, then lets her stay for another week, out of pity.
= = = = =

You can read the entire story, here. And if that is the entire story – which it seems to be (I am unfamiliar with it) – it seems barely longer than the synopsis, a few pages at most, only about 1600 words (honestly, this blog post is longer...). How did Valery Gavrilin turn this into a full-evening's ballet?

Here, then, is the synopsis for the ballet:
= = = = =
Act I
Following the death of his wife, Pyotr Leontievich, a school-teacher in a provincial town, is left with three children on his hands: a grown-up daughter, Anna (Anyuta), and two little boys, Petya and Andryusha. Grieving for the untimely passing away of his spouse, Pyotr Leontievich takes increasingly to the vodka bottle.

Modest Alexeyevich, a middle-aged official, asks for Anna’s hand in marriage. Anna accepts his proposal in the hope her marriage will save her family from poverty and herself from a life of undiluted tedium and semi-starvation. Anna breaks up with her sweetheart, a poor student, and goes to live with Modest Alexeyevich. She realizes only too soon that her marriage will bring her no benefits: her husband, who is close-fisted and cold-hearted, with a practical, pragmatic outlook, has no intention of helping his wife`s relatives.

Act II
At a ball given to celebrate the Christmas holiday, Anna`s youth, intelligence and beauty win the hearts of all the men present. Artynov, a rich landowner, army officers and finally even His Excellency compete for the attentions and sympathy of Modest Alexeyevich`s young wife. They are ready to do anything in order to please Anna.

Anna is quite swept off her feet by her rapid ascent to fame. The attentions and love bestowed on her by the upper crust of society in a provincial town cause her to forget everything: her hateful, boring, dull-witted, as he now seems to her, husband, her drunkard father, her wretched, half-starving brothers, her former sweetheart.

Modest Alexeyevich, who immediately realizes that he stands to gain from his wife`s popularity, encourages her love affairs. His career and position in society come first for Modest Alexeyevich. Very soon he is awarded the order of St. Anne and he waits impatiently for new favours from his wife`s suitors.

Pyotr Leontievich is declared bankrupt. His few remaining belongings are confiscated and, on a frosty New Year`s Eve, he and his children are turned out into the street.
= = = = =

By comparison, it seems almost unrecognizable to the original Chekhov, but that's theater for you: they do it in adaptations of large-scale novels to films as well, adding background material, additional characters, or eliminating unnecessary characters and sub-plots almost to the point the original is no longer recognizable. Here, it's just the reverse, fleshing out Chekhov's take by giving Anyuta a wholly different lifestyle and Klotchkov's episode with her as a now-distant love affair becomes romanticized with a nameless “Student.”

I found two clips to post of Gavrilin's ballet: the first includes scenes between Anyuta and the Student, the balletic equivalent of an operatic love-duet, filmed at an outdoor concert in Red Square with two of Moscow's iconic landmarks in the background:
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

Though you may not have time before the Sunday concert, I would recommend coming back to this afterward, if you want to watch a Soviet-era film of the complete ballet made the same year as the premiere:
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

The satirical nature of the music – and a typical Soviet approach especially to satirizing Russian bureaucracy (Imperial perhaps, but any Russians in the audience would know it could just as easily be applied to Soviet bureaucrats, too) – becomes clearer, once you can see how the music is choreographed. The opening waltz, a kind of promenade, is one thing but I highly recommend watching the segment from 9:06 to 12:12, where Anyuta's future husband, a mid-level bureaucrat in this provincial town they live in, hands out the day's assignments to his clerks who, in the process of processing official papers, are interrupted by the arrival of “His Excellency,” a provincial official (not the Tsar, as you might think, from the regalia and due deference!) – and then try to get Monty Python's “Minister of Silly Walks” out of your head...

Whatever may have been Chekhov's initial “meaning” behind his character, Anyuta, the ballet fashioned for Valery Gavrilin certainly expands the whole idea of social commentary with its mixture of old-fashioned romanticism and entertaining if cold-hearted satire.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Schubert and the Social World of the Piano Duet

Schubert in 1825
Join us Sunday at 4:00 at Market Square Church for the first concert of the new season with the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo playing music by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Falla, Gavrilin, and Gershwin. 

If you're just joining us, you can read the first post in this series here, where you can also hear video-clips of a live performance of the Mendelssohn Allegro brillante that opens Sunday's program and a recording of Gershwin's An American in Paris which closes it. (“Really, do I need to hear the Gershwin, it's so familiar,” you might wonder, but then it's from a piano roll made by the composer himself, playing his own four-hand arrangement – all four hands – for the rarified world of the player piano.) For the post about Valery Gavrilin's Anyuta on the first half of the program, check out this third post in the series.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

As you scan over the program for an up-coming concert, does your mind react in a certain way when you see familiar composers' names on the list – and then pull up with a mental question-mark when you see someone you've never heard of before? For many of us, that can point out the possibility of adventure, the excitement of discovery; for others, there's a sense of fear at the unknown.

Now, you don't have to be a Grade-A Classical Music Expert to realize names like Bach, Beethoven or Mozart – or, considering this Sunday's program with the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duet, Mendelssohn, Schubert and perhaps even Manuel de Falla – to realize you're dealing with some of the standard names in classical music. If you're like most concert-goers, certainly Mendelssohn and Schubert are up there with the Most-Familiar-and-therefore-Most-Satisfying-Names-in-the-Business (Schubert particularly ranks high on most “Favorite Composer” Lists).

But who is Gavrilin and what is Anyuta?

Well, I'll get to that in a separate post. First, the familiar: Schubert.


Schubert's original "fair copy," a page from the secondo part of the Fantasy in F Minor's finale
And not just any Schubert. The “Fantasy in F Minor” for Piano Duet – listed as D.940 in the list of Schubert's works – was written between January and March of 1828 and was intended for the only public concert of his music he ever gave (outside the private homes of his friends and fans) but he was unable to have it copied out in time. Instead, a few weeks later, he played at a friend's home along with the composer Franz Lachner when it was well-received. Who knew, that May 9th, that in six months and ten days, Schubert would die at the age of 31?

It's been called one of Schubert's finest works and certainly one of the greatest works for piano duet, elevating the usually mundane mode associated with “salon music” to a level of artistry and sophistication, and indeed seriousness, rarely achieved in the medium since.

While there might be greater performances to offer you, I've chosen this live performance of the Fantasy primarily because, of those videos with varying levels of musicianship available, I wanted you to see how performers interact. They are the Dutch brothers, Lucas and Arthur Jussen, recorded at a 2014 concert in Korea when Lucas was 21 and Arthur, 18 (yes, they do the whole “twin” thing very well, don't they?). I think Lucas is playing primo to Arthur's secondo, or is it the other way around...? Anyway, this is music from another world, far removed from the sociable salons of 19th-Century Vienna and even most concert halls around the world.

= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

My favorite performance available on-line is an audio file only but I highly recommend it, with the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter and the English composer Benjamin Britten, recorded live at Britten's Aldeburgh Festival in 1965.

Some might call Richter and Britten's performance “too classical” compared to the Jussens whom others could call “too romantic” – but then Schubert is definitely on the boundaries of both as was Beethoven, whatever such boundaries mean for such composers. It is also worth noting that, when Schubert composed this, it was almost a year after he had been a pall-bearer at Beethoven's funeral in March of 1827, speaking of “deep thoughts”...

Though we associate “fantasy” with something free-wheeling and formless, synonymous with “rhapsody,” Schubert's fantasies are usually large-scale four-movement works. Why didn't he call them Sonatas? Because a sonata meant a specific pattern of movements with particular expectations (one might call it “baggage”) as to how the musical material was to be handled. In that sense, these fantasies are freer in form but still multi-movement sonata-like works all the same: consider the “Wanderer” Fantasy and the C Major Fantasy for Violin and Piano, both of which quote phrases from his own songs.

The F Minor Fantasy opens with this seemingly unassuming phrase that builds through varieties of contrasts to clearly emotional depths (and heights) all without those clear-cut lines between what is one movement or another. Moments of dramatic outbursts, of lyrical outpourings, of light-hearted nostalgia (perhaps) all come full circle when at the end we return to the opening - and he turns that one lyrical theme into, of all things, an old-fashioned but immensely powerful fugue. Curiously, Schubert is often criticized for the weakness of his finales – a common problem in “multi-movement-forms 101” – but in this instance he captures something beyond the usual living-room performance of a piano duet with its amateur players and audiences waiting to be entertained. We are left, after that final cadence, to ponder where art can lead us and what, in the context of our daily lives, music can mean.

The Mozart Family

Speaking of “family acts,” while Mozart and his sister Nanerl (as she is always known, though her name was officially Maria Anna) frequently played music for two pianos as well as four-hand duets – documented in this 1780-ish family portrait of Nanerl and Wolfgang at the keyboard with their father, violinist Leopold Mozart and their late mother, Anna Maria, included through her portrait – Mozart, as well as Haydn and Beethoven, composed little for the piano duet format.

Part of this, you can see, has to do with the size of the pianos in those days, which did not comfortably accommodate two players like a modern instrument with 88 keys. Even later, one could argue that women's fashion did not always bode well for the piano duet: witness this photograph of a Victorian wife playing a piano in the family parlor. (On the other hand, we can marvel at the fact that Nanerl Mozart's hair is almost as voluminous as our anonymous Victorian wife's skirt...)

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

An anonymous piano duet
Technically, a “piano duo” is a pair of pianists and we usually think of them playing one piano each and there, Mozart did compose several works, including concertos, for two pianos. But when we use the term “piano duet,” this is the “two-on-a-bench” kind of thing where they both share a single piano. While there are examples of such pieces before 1764 when an 8-year-old Mozart appeared in London playing keyboard duets with his older sister – their father claimed “no one has ever written a four-hand sonata before” – it did not become popular as either a musical format or a social phenomenon until considerably later. “Schubert was the one great composer to write extensively for the medium,” as Grove's Dictionary puts it. But then, during Schubert's lifetime, no one considered him a “great composer.” He was merely trying to make a living and he enjoyed writing often convivial music for his friends to play at social gatherings whether they were called Schubertiads or not.

"A Schubert-Evening at Joseph von Spaun's" by Moritz von Schwind

One of the ways a composer could make a living in Schubert's Vienna was to publish music for the “amateur market” (which I mentioned in the previous post) where the performances took place in family parlors rather than in concert halls. This involved reams of dances and variations geared to less accomplished performers, perhaps, but which afforded a sense of accomplishment to the non-professional and proved, one hoped, entertaining to their friends.

Schubert rarely got to write music specifically for a bona fide concert-level pianist. One of his most famous was the “Wanderer” Fantasy – written in 1822 after having put aside his Symphony in B Minor (which he then left unfinished). Unfortunately, the fantasy turned out to be beyond Schubert's own abilities to play it. But that doesn't mean his other piano music is generally “amateurish” in our modern view of the word.

Schubert was easily the shortest of the Great Composers, standing barely five feet tall (some sources say he was 1.52 meters tall which converts to 4' 11.8424”; others say 1.56m, which would be 5' 1.4172”) – his friends sometimes called him Schwammerl or “Little Mushroom” – and that may have something to do with his being shy and, certainly, insecure compared to, say, Beethoven (who would easily rank as one of the least shy and least insecure of the Great Composers). At parties when the dancing started, Schubert preferred to play the music rather than dance, and would improvise for hours, much to the delight of his friends. Then he would write some of these down and send them off to his publisher, usually as strings of little piano pieces like 36 Waltzes or 17 Ländler. But he also wrote a number of more substantial dances for piano duet and these were more often meant as “performance pieces” in the parlor rather than music to be danced to.

Schubert was also probably the poorest of the Great Composers, looking back on it, always dealing with poverty, and always trying to make ends meet, often dependent on friends for lodging and the frequent financial loan. On the other hand, one can also blame these same friends for the kind of lifestyle that may have contributed to his early death – taking him out drinking with them against his doctor's orders, for one thing – but that's beyond the limits of this post.

So an actual job presented itself to Schubert through one of his fans, a teacher at a prestigious school for aristocratic sons and the father of a soprano who would eventually sing at the premiere of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. In one of the few successful examples of “networking” in Schubert's life, this is how Schubert, then 21, became something of a composer-in-residence with Count Johann Karl Esterházy at his summer estate in Hungary, a small town in the Galánta region called Zselis (now in Slovakia). But this is not the same kind of gig Haydn had, in charge of his own orchestra, running the opera house, and being responsible for everything from church services to dinner music. This Count Esterházy was a poorer, more distant cousin of Haydn's Prince. In fact, the sum total of Schubert's duties involved giving the count's two daughters musical instruction and composing pieces for them and their family to perform in the evening as well as arranging music for special occasions like the visit of a small handful of fellow aristocrats. For them, over a period of two summers, he wrote a number of songs and “part songs” – songs for two singers or more, in some cases like small choruses (one-on-a-part) in which everybody gathered around the parlor piano and sang while Schubert or one of the daughters accompanied them – as well as numerous piano duets, some with more challenging primo parts for himself to play, others with less demanding parts intended for both sisters together.

the Esterházy estate in Zselis as seen today
His first visit ended in mid-November when he returned to Vienna, happy enough with the job if a little lonely and feeling isolated not only from his friends but – as Haydn also felt – far removed from the musical circles that inspired him. He was also no doubt happy enough with the money he had in his pocket. Through the winter, he continued to give the young countesses their music lessons either at the Esterházy town house or their suburban estate (poorer than Haydn's Prince, but not too shabby, compared to what Schubert was used to), but if he were invited to return to Hungary the next summer, he may have declined because of the potential of having one of his operas produced and realizing that, comfortable or not, it was not realistic to while away the summers in a nobleman's distant country estate when so much career potential existed in the Imperial capital. It was clearly a different world than Haydn's had been.

It was not until 1824 that Schubert accepted another invitation to Zselis. In between, the success he had hoped for eluded him – his opera was a failure and new ones were refused – his publisher Diabelli was losing interest in his music and what royalties he earned showed Diabelli's disdain. Plus he was dealing with bouts of ill health, particularly syphilis in 1822 and again in early-1824, so perhaps the reasons that kept him in Vienna in 1819 were no longer that important and the idea of a few months in the country might be the vacation he needed (not to mention a guaranteed income).

By this time, Countess Marie, the younger of the two daughters, was becoming an accomplished pianist with a good soprano voice. Though Karoline, the older daughter, had a weak contralto voice and was less proficient at the keyboard (she was “a useful accompanist”), she was more passionately interested in music and Schubert found himself falling in love with her.

Countess Karoline von Esterházy
How serious this budding relationship was, we can't really say but he did make a verbal declaration to her, at one point, as witnessed by Baron Schönstein, one of the guests there and a fan of Schubert's music. He later recounted how she could not return whatever the young composer felt for her – class distinction aside: she would later marry Count Karl de Crenneville-Poutet but not until 1844) – and chided him that so far he had not dedicated a single work to her. Schubert responded, “What does it matter? Everything is dedicated to you anyway.”

Though this time his salary had increased by 25%, Schubert was treated more as a family friend who stayed in the main house rather than as one of the servants living in the estate agent's quarters. He wrote more songs, dances, and piano duets, including the one called the “Grand Duo” in C Major, D.812, a large-scale sonata that for generations many saw as the sketch for the Grand Symphony he had talked about writing (especially the legendary “Gastein” Symphony supposedly written in 1825). Schönstein also relates how the part-song Gebet (“Prayer”), D.815, came to be written: at breakfast one early-September day, one of the other guests asked Schubert to compose a song for them all to sing, setting a poem she was particularly fond of. That evening, after dinner, less than ten hours later, they all gathered in the music room to sing it through, reading from the manuscript – daughter Marie, the soprano; mother and daughter Caroline, the alto; Schönstein, the tenor; Count Esterházy, the bass; Schubert at the piano – a song of 209 measures, almost 11 minutes in this performance. They performed it then “with more assurance” the next evening after Schubert had a chance to copy out their individual parts. Other nights would find them reading through sections of Haydn's Creation or the Mozart Requiem. Schubert seemed happy enough.

But when Schönstein later announced he would be leaving in mid-October, Schubert suddenly begged him to take him back to Vienna with him, a month earlier than he was scheduled to leave. One could imagine at least one reason for his frustration, this time.

Though he wrote a great deal of music after his return – the first thing, apparently, was another attempt at making some money, a sonata for a newly invented instrument that, given Schubert's luck, never caught on and made his effort useless, some hybrid thing called an arpeggione – his Fantasy in F Minor wasn't written until early 1828, a little over three years later. He had written other piano duets since he'd left Zselis, but this one is, in so many ways, different. Plus, he dedicated it to Countess Karoline Esterházy. Which may, perhaps, explain... well, who knows...

By the way, that famous drawing of Schubert playing the piano surrounded by his friends I'd posted above? It was drawn by one of his closest friends, Moritz von Schwind, in 1868, recollecting a “musical evening” spent at their friend Joseph von Spaun's home (he called it “a Schubert-Evening”). It is a gallery of over thirty of the composer's friends – the singer Vogl sitting next to Schubert at the piano, Spaun just to the right; only Franz von Schober, one of Schubert's closest friends (who also supplied the poem for An die Musik) and an indefatigable prankster, seems disinterested in Schubert's playing – he is in the middle row, far right, facing away from the piano, flirting apparently with a young woman who would later become his wife.

But presiding over the room – more likely Schwind's artistic license rather than in any reality – is a portrait directly looking over the piano.

It is a portrait of Countess Karoline Esterházy, absent from the gathering of friends, perhaps, but apparently present in more ways than one.


- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The New Season Begins: the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo

Who: The Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo
What: works for “Piano Four-Hands” by Mendelssohn and Schubert, Falla, Gavrilin and Gershwin
When: Sunday, September 24th, 2017, at 4pm
Where: at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg.

Tickets to all of our performances are $35, $30 for seniors, and free for K-12 age children with $10 tickets available for one accompanying adult. We also offer $5 tickets to college students with valid school ID.

You can buy tickets here - and through our website  – plus tickets will be available at the door.


This post introduces the performers and explores the Piano Duet. It includes video clips of Mendelssohn's Allegro brillant and Falla's "Spanish Dance," plus the four hands of George Gershwin playing his own transcription of An American in Paris! (Well, through the magic of the piano roll.)

The second post will focus on Franz Schubert and his Fantasy in F Minor, certainly one of the masterpieces of the piano duet repertoire - and then a third one introduces a composer who will no doubt be unfamiliar to an American audience as Schubert is familiar: Valery Gavrilin and his ballet Anyuta.

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

The “new year” is upon us – at least, it seems like a new year, even if it's actually September, not January. Like fiscal years, arts seasons have for some reason never followed the calendar, giving us a cumbersome “2017-2018 Season.” But after the end of summer (not official until Friday at 4:02 EDT) turning over a new if not yet brightly colored leaf, after the kids go back to start a new grade at school, after the holiday of Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year (observed this year beginning at sundown on Wednesday), getting ready for the first concert of the season always seems like another form of “new year.”

And so Market Square Concerts first program of this new season is this Sunday afternoon at Market Square Church, starting at 4:00. So often, those first-concerts-of-the-new-season often don't usually start until October, so this news might catch you unawares.

We begin the season with a piano duet – technically, they call themselves the “Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo” since they play repertoire for two pianos as well as what we call “piano four-hands” or “piano duet,” something which, years ago, I'd heard someone clarify as “two-on-a-bench.”

The fact there are two pianists and only one piano at Sunday's concert has nothing to do with space – or with budget cuts.

The program includes a brilliant work by Felix Mendelssohn – his Allegro brillante – and perhaps the masterpiece of the duet repertoire, the Fantasy in F Minor by Franz Schubert that makes us forget the whole idea of the piano duet began as home entertainment, gathered around the parlor piano in the days before there were TVs and stereo systems.

This lighter side of the duet repertoire is represented by arrangements of the Spanish Dances from Manuel de Falla's La vida breve and their own transcription of George Gershwin's orchestral souvenir, An American in Paris.

In between, there's something of a rarity: “Pieces from the ballet Anyuta” by the Russian composer Valery Gavrilin and it's quite possible Peter Sirotin will be the only person in the audience familiar with this delightful score! (More about this music a little later.)

Stanislava Varshavski hails from Kharkov, Ukraine – also Peter Sirotin's home town – and Diana Shapiro was born in Moscow. While both of them studied music at home, it was in Israel where they were both pursuing advanced training at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem that they met. In 1998, their teacher suggested they play as a duet – and that's how they got started.

They now live and teach in the United States, taking time to perform around the world.

Here's a video of their performance of their own arrangement of the “Russian Dance” from Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka – originally an orchestral work that began as a work for piano and orchestra and later became the first of Three Pieces the composer arranged for piano solo (for no less than Artur Rubinstein).



As you can see, once the camera pans down to their hands, there is a certain issue about “space” here and sometimes it seems arrangers often try to have some fun with the idea of who plays what, where.

Normally, with two people sharing the bench, the one playing the upper register (called the primo part) covers the melody (assuming the melody is in the upper register) and the one playing the lower register (called the secondo part) handles the bass and the harmony, generally recognizing “Middle C” as a boundary point. This at least maintains the typical body posture of the performer's hands and arms in relation to the placement of the body but limits the reach to only half the 88 keys.

But often the “other body” creates logistical problems: “if I'm to play that note, how do I get enough elbow room there?” This is one reason “piano four-hand” music is rarely so virtuosic with arms flailing in dramatic gestures – before somebody gets a nose broken or an eye poked out.

Not to mention who controls the pedal. Is it the “melody” person because isn't that the most important thing (primo, after all)? Or is it the “harmony” person because that really is what needs to be audibly clarified by the pedal, since the melody can be phrased by good “right hand” technique? And so on...

So, you see, you have to be good friends to play piano duets. It's more than just being in such close proximity to the other performer.

Given the players' proximity, it's interesting to note the history of the “Piano Duet” as a social phenomenon – Social Music as a medium from a time when most people made their own music (unless you were an aristocrat and could afford to hire musicians to make it for you).

Probably all of the music being published for piano duet in the late-18th, early-19th Centuries was intended for the “amateur market” of the growing middle class, for “household music-making” (a different approach to “house music” than we're used to today). This was a time when respectable young ladies were expected to be able to play the piano and sing as well as sew and do other things commendable to future wives (cooking, however, was usually relegated to a hired servant in those days, even for the middle class).

If you saw the recent BBC/PBS series Victoria, you might recall the scene where the young queen of England plays a Mendelssohn piano duet with her cousin (and future husband), Prince Albert. Though this photo doesn't really show much of the piano in question, it certainly gives you an idea that there was more than just musical entertainment in this scene...

Very often the primo part was designed for the more advanced player, the secondo, chugging along with the accompaniment, more for the less-experienced player.

And while much of this music was amateurish in its own way – collections of dances and simple tunes to give the impression of artistic accomplishments – some of it was designed with a higher quality of “amateur” player (keeping in mind amateur meant someone who didn't make a living at it but does it for the love of it, considering the Latin amo/amas/amat, for “love”).

But other works were conceived for players of equal talents – and might give those of us today a different view of the word when “amateur” has taken on a more pejorative blush.

Mendelssohn certainly didn't compose his Allegro brillant for just any amateurs. He wrote it on short notice for a benefit concert in 1841 for newly-married friends of his who were having legal problems – the great pianist Clara Wieck who had only recently married the composer, Robert Schumann. As part of the concert, Mendelssohn played secondo to Clara's primo, elevating a popular form of domestic music-making to a higher professional level, but one that would have been quite familiar to its audience, at least in style if not substance.

Here's a Russian piano duo – Alexander Bakhchiev and Elena Sorokina to play Mendelssohn's scampering scherzo: note that the “second part” is no second fiddle and sometimes even has its own solo.
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

One of the chief objectives of the piano duet was to offer “regular people” the sense of joy and accomplishment that artists (who, for argument's sake, may not be all that regular) get all the time from their playing, an experience that can be both satisfying on a personal level as well as entertaining for their family and friends.

And so, much of the repertoire one could buy in the music shops included arrangements of popular pieces or melodies – or variations and fantasies on them. In that sense, something like the Spanish Dances from Manuel de Falla's La vida breve (“The Short Life”) on this program, though a little later than the early-19th Century, would serve its purpose.

In this video, the camera-work gives you an opportunity to see how the hands of Carles and Sofia divvy up the keyboard, an element which also provides a good deal of the visual entertainment.
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

Another aspect of this “amateur market” was the education – or perhaps, better, the “familiarization” of a would-be concert audience with the symphonic repertoire. Throughout the 19th Century, symphonies regularly appeared in four-hand arrangements so someone going to a concert – a special event in days when you couldn't buy a recording to listen to it or hear it on-line – could purchase a duet-score and play through it, get to know the tunes, see and hear what the composer was doing in the development section, know what to expect with the work's highlights.

And then, after the concert, considering it could be years before they might hear that piece “live” again, it would be a chance to reacquaint themselves with it whenever they wanted to.

Certainly four hands at the piano would better imitate a full orchestra than two.

But what was behind Gershwin's own “recording” of An American in Paris on a 1933 piano roll in which the composer played both parts of a four-hand arrangement? Just as people might not be able to hear live concerts of the piece that often, and maybe they didn't have a record player to deal with those cumbersome 78rpm records, imagine having George Gershwin himself to play your own player piano for you whenever you wanted, just at the flip of a switch?



Stay tuned for Part Two as we get a chance to hear Franz Schubert's incredible Fantasy in F Minor and find out who Valery Gavrilin is!

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Summermusic: Two Russian Piano Quintets You've Probably Never Heard Before

 Summermusic 2017 concludes its three-concert tour on Wednesday evening - beginning at 7:30 in Market Square Church - with a Russian program of two Romantic piano quintets: one by a well-known composer; the other by one not-so-well-known in this country. Alexander Borodin, one of the Russian Five (or the Mighty Handful), may be more famous for his “Polovetsian Dances” and Sergei Taneyev is... well, probably better remembered as a teacher and for having been a star pupil of Tchaikovsky's than for being a composer, and yet without him, the transition from Borodin and Tchaikovsky to Rachmaninoff and Skryabin might have been quite different. So let's explore the rarified world of the Russian piano quintet!
A Russian Program

When we think of “Piano Quintets,” we tend to think of a mighty handful of masterpieces by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák and Shostakovich (and possibly Franck), usually in that order. Yet the two quintets on this program do not fall into the “masterpiece” category nor are they by composers well-known for their chamber music. (Well, that's not entirely fair, since Taneyev is hardly known as a composer at all any more, though he wrote a good deal of chamber music including six string quartets over a productive career of thirty-five years.)

It's also curious that, when you listen to them, they sound not terribly dissimilar: the Borodin may seem less complicated only because the Taneyev is longer, more virtuosic and overall more complex. But we might think the same when comparing either the Schumann or the Dvořák to the Brahms quintet, even though 22 years separate Schumann's from Brahms' and 23 years separate Dvořák's from the Brahms.

Borodin's quintet was composed in 1862, even before you could say he'd begun his musical career, and Taneyev's was written four years before he died, in 1911, 49 years after the Borodin.

To put it in another perspective, Tchaikovsky wrote his first published composition in 1867 and died in 1893, eighteen years before Taneyev's quintet. On one hand, Borodin, influenced at the time more by Mendelssohn and Schumann (though he didn't appear to know Schumann's quintet) – and Schumann had died only three years before Borodin traveled to Germany to study – wrote his quintet two years before Brahms wrote his; when Taneyev was composing his quintet, younger composers were gearing up for some considerable stylistic changes for the new century: Stravinsky wrote Petrushka in 1911 after putting aside, at least momentarily, The Rite of Spring, and Schoenberg wrote Pierrot Lunaire. Borodin was 28 with his whole career ahead of him; Taneyev was 55 with his career basically behind him.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Borodin: Chemist, Composer
Borodin's quintet is in three movements, starting with what is essentially a moderate tempo for a first movement, followed by a scherzo and then a broadly contrasting finale, at times joyful, melancholy but above all songful (like so much Russian music). To those familiar with Borodin's best pieces, his voice is remarkably identifiable: if it shows any influences from the German composers he enjoyed, it is not in the surface level we hear most easily. If it sounds “very Russian” to you, keep in mind he had no real Russian models – the “famous” Russian music, to put it simply, had not yet surfaced beyond the two most significant composers in the generation before him, Glinka and Dargomizhsky.

But he is not quoting Russian folk-songs to get this “Russian sound” as other composers would do later. When I hear Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, for example, I am surprised how many of those tunes are actually folk songs he's quoting, but when I asked Peter Sirotin about Borodin's tunes, he jokingly replied they “just sound like it. He was good at creating faux-folktunes.”

Here is the complete quintet (in one clip) with pianist Alexander Mndoianiz and the Moscow String Quartet. There was not a lot to choose from but this seemed in general more idiomatic, to give you an impression of the piece.


It is interesting to note, of the “Russian influences” in the piece, he saves the impressions of Orthodox church music for the last movement, bringing it to a benedictory close. At times, this finale seems to be working too hard to act like a finale. However, once you realize he was completely self-taught at this time – as far as music was concerned – one can overlook a great deal.

(For more about Borodin's life and the background of his quintet, see below.)

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Tchaikovsky, perhaps the most famous and most popular Russian composer, once said, “Oh Borodin, a good chemist, but he cannot write a proper measure without Rimsky helping him.”

So let's continue with the piano quintet by Tchaikovsky's star pupil, Sergei Taneyev (or Taneev as you might see it, sometimes). I'll write more about his life and career further on.

Just as “amateur” is a word that can carry double meanings, the word “academic” can imply not only a preference for technical skills over “mere emotionalism,” it can also imply a dryness of interest for listeners unconcerned how well you can write a fugue. Brahms was derided at the time as an “academic” composer – one critic, even in 1900, still complained that his lush String Sextet in B-flat Major was “musical trigonometry” – and even Wagner had a back-handed compliment for his “Handel Variations” which ends with an enormous fugue which Wagner thought was very accomplished: “One sees what still may be done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them.”

Prof. Sergei Taneyev
And Taneyev knew how to use them. While compared to most Russian composers – who did not care for such academic niceties whether they could use them or not (and Tchaikovsky certainly couldn't, despite various attempts to include them in his music) – his work may sound more “rigorous” and “complex,” but by the time you get to the end of the last movement, you're probably more aware of the Romantic passion of the music than its dry academic, theoretical, contrapuntal structure.

He described his own compositional methods as first, assembling his themes; then he wrote on them various contrapuntal exercises – canons, imitations – until he had “exhausted their polyphonic possibilities.” Having done that, then, he set about actually composing the piece.

It was an age-old battle – which came first, the mind or the heart? Beethoven wrote on the score of his Missa solemnis (a work bristling with fugues), “From the heart, may it return to the heart.” Considering Bach who had a similar interest in fugues and canons – the epitome of polyphonic writing – and more modern composers like those who composed “according to Schoenberg's 12-tone methods” (serial music) which we tend to over-analyze, it would seem the mind was more important than the heart, and in many less talented composers, it would seem craft became a substitute for imagination (as Allen Shawn says in his biography, “perhaps Schoenberg's work deserves a more superficial treatment than it has hitherto received”).

On that note, let's just say, “listen to Taneyev's quintet and enjoy it as it comes to you.”

Completed in 1911, there are the four standard movements. Though the first movement is marked “Introduction,” it is actually a long intro followed by an even longer, romantically dramatic, often tempestuous fast section. The scherzo is another of those fleet-footed, light-hearted contrasts to all the traditional gloom-and-doom we associate with Russian art. The slow movement, essentially a passacaglia with variations, an old baroque form, is almost a funeral march, a tragic tone-poem on a symphonic scale before the finale with its mix of drama and playfulness boils up into a dramatic conclusion worthy of Brahms.

I'm posting two clips, both with the same pianist, Mikhail Pletnev. The first, despite its idiotic graphic, is the better recording and more intense performance, but the second has the benefit of the score, for those who'd like to follow along and “see” what they're listening to.

Taneyev's Piano Quintet in G Minor (complete) with Mikhail Pletnev, piano; Vadim Repin and Ilya Gringolts, violins; Nobuko Imai, viola; Lynn Harrell, cello:


(complete w/score) Mikhail Pletnev, piano; Alexei Bruni and Sergei Galaktionov, violins; Sergei Dubov, viola; Alexander Rudin, cello (recorded in 2001):


Earlier in this series, I had quoted Charles Ives, known for his typical Yankee cussedness: “Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful.”

Another favorite composer of mine, the American Roger Sessions, himself often described as an overly intellectual composer, once said, “Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart -- as if the one could function without the other.”

Wherever one begins, the end goal is always the same – the combination of the heart and mind into a complete, if not universally satisfying, whole.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The Russian Five: Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimksy-Korsakov

PART TWO

Alexander Borodin – Dr. Alexander Borodin – is what in this country we would call an “amateur” in the sense he did not make his living by his art (“amateur, from the Latin amo/amas/amat, to love”). Yet anyone familiar with Borodin's music would realize there is nothing “amateurish” about its quality. 

Borodin's day-job was being a chemistry professor. He called himself “a Sunday composer” who, during the winter – teaching season – could compose only when he was home sick. Consequently, his music-friends would greet him not by saying 'I hope you are well' but by saying 'I hope you are ill.'

Borodin was largely “un-trained,” another aspect of consideration when bandying about the word “amateur.” True, when he would've been a student, they didn't have music schools in Russia – Anton Rubinstein opened the first official one in St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital, in 1862 and when his brother Nikolai opened one in Moscow four years later, one of his first students was a former law-student named Tchaikovsky.

Borodin & Mendeleyev (center)
Instead, following his scientific interests, Borodin had entered the Imperial Academy of Medicine and Surgery in St. Petersburg in 1850 – a prestigious institution dating back to the days of Peter the Great: one of its later students named Pavlov might ring a bell – and following graduation, he spent a year as a surgeon in a military hospital, then was appointed as a professor of pathology and therapeutics before receiving his Doctorate in medicine and pursuing some post-doctoral work first in Heidelberg, Germany, in the late-1850s, then in Pisa in 1862, the year he published a paper describing the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride. One of his fellow students in Heidelberg, by the way, was a chemist named Mendeleyev who would publish his first periodic chart of the elements seven years later.

While in Heidelberg, Dr. Borodin met a young Russian woman – Ekaterina Sergeievna Protopopova – who was an amateur pianist with a preference for Chopin and Schumann. A woman of weakened health, she had come to Germany for “the cure,” but returned to St. Petersburg in 1862 – as did Borodin – and not long after that they were married.

Borodin's interest in music was awakened, in a sense, by Ekaterina's playing. So is it any coincidence that, while in Italy, he composed the piano quintet we'll hear on Wednesday night's program?

When he returned to Russia, Borodin was appointed a professor of chemistry at his alma mater and he and his new wife set up house-keeping in a spacious and rent-free apartment in the Academy building where domestic life took on a happy if often chaotic domesticity.

One other thing happened in 1862: though he had met a civil servant named Modest Mussorgsky, another would-be composer, a couple of times, it wasn't until he returned to Russia, his musical interests reactivated, that Borodin met composer and teacher Mily Balakirev and began taking lessons from him in his “spare” time. Though Rubinstein had opened his conservatory that same year, a full-time college professor would hardly have time to take regularly scheduled classes and lessons and so continued the age-old tradition of studying, however haphazardly, with a "master."

By then, Borodin had already completed a small number of chamber works – a couple of piano trios, a cello sonata (inspired by Bach), two string trios, a string quintet and a string sextet – before he began his Piano Quintet in C Minor. Once he started working with Balakirev, he jumped right into composing his first symphony.

So technically, if we examine that “amateur” status again, as far as the Piano Quintet is concerned, yes, Borodin was as yet “un-trained.” He finished it before he turned 29.

As life would unfold for Prof. Borodin – who added to his workload by championing education for women and later founded the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg – he found little time to work on his compositions. Living at the academy itself made him accessible, day and night, to students and colleagues. Relatives of his wife's would show up if they needed a place to stay and at any one time someone might be sleeping on a couch or in a spare bed or, as happened one time, on the grand piano, forcing him to abandon plans to get any composing done for the moment.

Plus, in addition to relatives, they seemed to collect stray cats. As his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov noted in his autobiography,

= = = = = = =
“Many cats that the Borodins lodged marched back and forth on the table, thrusting their noses into the plates or leaping on the backs of the guests. These felines enjoyed the protection of Catherine Sergueïevna. They all had biographies. One was called Fisher because he was successful in catching fish through the holes in the frozen river. Another, known as Lelong, had the habit of bringing home kittens in his teeth which were added to the household. More than once, dining there, I have observed a cat walking along the table. When he reached my plate I drove him away; then Catherine Sergeyevna would defend him and recount his biography. Another installed himself on Borodin’s shoulders and heated him mercilessly. ‘Look here, sir, this is too much!’ cried Borodin, but the cat never moved.”
= = = = = = =

In the 1860s, Borodin was a member of a circle of composers orbiting around Mily Balakirev, along with Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky and a fellow named Cesar Cui whose day-job was being a military engineer and later a music critic. Advocating a "national Russian voice" in their music, they became such a powerful presence in Russian music they were known as “The Mighty Handful,” though the exact words the critic Stasov used to describe them was “Mighty Bunch.” (I have often argued that Cesar Cui, the last to be mentioned and the most easily forgotten, might well be the “Little Finger of the Mighty Handful,” but that's another story.) More often they are referred to as “The Five” but this is something they never used among themselves and something which seemed rarely used in Russia at all (it was mostly a French thing). Rimsky, in his autobiography, always referred to themselves as “Balakirev's Circle.”

This aesthetic viewpoint is important for the development of Russian music (and culture in general). In Russian culture, at this time, there were those who favored the old Russian traditional identity, called “Slavophiles,” and those who preferred the idea of being cosmopolitans, becoming part of Europe both culturally and socially. Yes, technically this division goes back before the days of Peter the Great – Peter I to Russians who, historically, do not always consider him all that great – in the early-1700s when he brought the old Asiatic empire kicking and mostly screaming into the sphere of Western Europe. (I could point you in the direction of several fat books that delve into this topic, if you're interested: Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance and Bruce Lincoln's Between Heaven and Hell; there's also Richard Taruskin's On Russian Music).

The idea was – following developments that had already started happening in Western Europe following the 1848 revolutions – to incorporate the folk-songs and dance rhythms of the people into the music rather than rely on the “imported traditions” of especially German music. They essentially rejected such things as symphonies and concertos and especially the abstract world of chamber music.

Yet this incorporation of the music of the Russian people either as outright quotations or creating melodies in the style of folksong, rather than imitations of German or Italian styles and techniques as had been the norm in Russian history since 1700, goes back to Mikhail Glinka - speaking of amateurs with little if any real training - whose Fantasy on Two Wedding Songs, Kamarinskaya, written in 1848, is (as Stravinsky later put it) “the acorn from which all Russian music grew.”



(Balakirev, himself a brilliant pianist at the start of his career, even made a Lisztian transcription of the piece which I've always had a fondness for.)

As you can hear, the faster tune itself is never "developed" in the German sense, but repeated over and over with ever-changing textures, orchestration and harmonies - a bit like Ravel's Bolero, perhaps, which, when it was first heard in 1928, was considered so radical! This, then, is the dilemma of the folk-inspired composer: how to create a long-form piece out of a few bars of music that defy expansion?

But remember, Borodin's initial endeavors in music were rooted in these early chamber music pieces of his like the Piano Quintet which were so heavily influenced by the style of Mendelssohn (remember, he was in Germany when he wrote most of those pieces). He had no innate Russian tradition to build on. Even later, he would compose two symphonies and two string quartets which his colleagues argued against as being “Un-Russian,” wishing he would spend what limited time he had for composing on more appropriate genres like operas (like his Prince Igor which he started working on in 1868 and still left unfinished at his death twenty years later) and symphonic poems (like his In the Steppes of Central Asia).

And yet this Piano Quintet sounds so inherently Russian with its folk-like themes, it might come as a surprise it is not only such an early work of his (despite its simplicity which one can excuse more as “charming” rather than “amateurish”) but that it was written before he came under the nationalist influence of Balakirev and his circle!

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

In between Tchaikovsky and the Russian Five and composers like Rachmaninoff, Skryabin (or Scriabin, if you prefer), and Prokofiev is a whole generation of composers usually lumped under the heading “The Second Generation,” none of whom – except Alexander Glazunov – ever caught the imagination of their audiences to the same degree as their teachers or, ironically, as their own students did. We could mention Lyadov, Lyapunov, Arensky, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Glazunov, Gretchaninov and – before this starts sounding like a song by Danny Kaye – Taneyev.

Young Taneyev
Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev was a child prodigy and had the advantage – unlike any of the Five or of Tchaikovsky – of attending formalized studies from the beginning, entering the Moscow Conservatory at the age of 10 or 11, eventually to study piano, starting at 15, with Nikolai Rubinstein (Tchaikovsky's chief mentor if at times his most savage detractor, if you recall the famous story of his initial reaction to Tchaikovsky's seemingly naïve first piano concerto). At 13, Taneyev began taking theory and eventually composition classes with Tchaikovsky himself. At 19 he played Brahms' D Minor Piano Concerto and was the first student to graduate with first prizes in both performance and composition.

But he was also something of a theorist/musicologist, one might say, specializing in “theoretical counterpoint” in the music of Bach but also Palestrina, Josquin and Lassus, composers “so old,” many of his fellow students wondered why bother (keep in mind, Rimsky-Korsakov complained of a program Balakirev conducted with symphonies by Haydn on it, wondering why they were playing “such ancient music”).

Considering the Romantic ethos of his teachers, it is telling that Taneyev quoted Leonardo da Vinci on the title page of his magnum opus, twenty years in the making, Imitative Counterpoint in Strict Style: “No branch of study can claim to be considered a true science unless it is capable of being demonstrated mathematically.”

When not teaching, composing, performing or writing, he liked to relax with books about natural and social science, history, mathematics and with the philosophy of Plato and Spinoza.

Taneyev, looking very much the Russian Brahms
Because everybody not well known has to be described in more familiar terms, Taneyev is usually called “The Russian Brahms” and if his piano quintet has any roots in those “famous quintets” I mentioned, it would be closer to the Brahms than anything else. It is interesting, though, that the Shostakovich, which would be written almost 30 years after Taneyev's, would include a fugal movement after a long-lined, meditative introduction (just like a Bach Prelude & Fugue, come to think of it), and other somewhat “learnéd traits” for a Soviet composer already in trouble with Stalin's regime for writing “formalist” (that is, “Westernized,” specifically “Germanic”) music.

Taneyev became a close friend and confidant to his teacher Tchaikovsky. At the age of 19, he also gave the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto, much to the composer's delight so that Tchaikovsky decided to write a second concerto specifically for Taneyev to premiere. At 22, Taneyev took over Tchaikovsky's teaching position when (courtesy of Madame von Meck's stipend) Tchaikovsky could retire to concentrate solely on composition. After Tchaikovsky's death, Taneyev completed his sketches for another piano concerto he'd decided instead to turn into his still unfinished 7th Symphony, thus realizing a 3rd Piano Concerto.

Tchaikovsky, notoriously lacking in self-confidence, felt comfortable taking advice from his former pupil whom he admired for his honesty even if, at times, it was occasionally negative, even brutal. Yet the younger man had his humorous side and wrote a little ballet for Tchaikovsky's birthday, once, something with an absurd scenario and music that was “a contrapuntal pot-pourri” of themes from Tchaikovsky's works. There were also several parodies (like “Quartets of Government Officials”), comic fugues and variations as well as “toy symphonies”!

While Borodin lived two entirely separate lives – chemist and composer – Taneyev's world was similarly divided between creativity and scholarship (which, as one biographer noted, “would have awed a medieval monastic”), not to mention his outside interests in mathematics and science. While it could be mentioned that Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rubinstein, and Glazunov were “Homeric drinkers,” surpassed only by the unfortunate Mussorgsky, Taneyev was uncharacteristically a teetotaler. Not surprising.

- Dick Strawser




Sunday, July 23, 2017

Summermusic: Next Stop, Latin America!

It's true that one of the best souvenirs a traveler can bring home is a broadened perspective. After a night of American piano trios on Friday, the second stop on our three concert tour Sunday afternoon at 4:00 takes us through Latin America with the Brasil Guitar Duo featuring music by composers from Cuba, Argentina, as well as Brazil.

The Brasil Guitar Duo in performance
Their varied program opens with “Zita” by Astor Piazzolla, perhaps the best-known name among Latin American composers today with audiences in the United States, but also Leo Brouwer of Cuba and Egberto Gismonti of Brazil on the first half with an all-Brazilian second half with more Gismonti plus Jacob do Bandolim, Marco Pereira and Paulo Bellinati.

The duo – João Luiz and Douglas Lora – met as teenage guitar students in São Paulo and have been performing together for more than fifteen years. Lora received his Masters at the University of Maimi and Luiz (who has also arranged several pieces for their duo) received his from the Mannes College in NYC, currently pursuing his doctorate at the Manhattan School, and is head of the guitar department at SUNY-Purchase.

They have performed a wide-ranging repertoire from Bach and Scarlatti to a number of world premieres including a Concerto for Two Guitars by one of the composers on tonight's program, the São Paulo-born Paulo Bellinati, and a sonata for two guitars and two cellos by Leo Brouwer they premiered with Yo-Yo Ma and Carlos Prieto in Havana. Their recording of the complete works for two guitars by Brouwer, available on the Naxos label, was nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best New Composition.

Here are a few video clips available on YouTube of three of the works on their Harrisburg program: “Zita,” a movement from the Suite Troileana by Piazzolla,


“Bom Partido” by Paulo Bellinati,


and Sete anéis (“Seven Cycles”) by Egberto Gismonti (as arranged by João Luiz):


For a complete performance of the Sonata for Two Guitars by Leo Brouwer, scroll down...

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

There is a famous anecdote that almost sounds like it could be apocryphal but certainly speaks volumes of truth for many composers, not just Astor Piazzolla. In 1954, he left Buenos Aires – at the urging of Argentina's leading “classical music” composer of the day, Alberto Ginastera – to study with one of the most influential teachers in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, who taught most of the leading American composers of the day who flocked to The City of Light to study with her, ranging from Aaron Copland, Walter Piston (who was Bernstein's teacher at Harvard) and Elliott Carter to Burt Bacharach and Joe Raposo (more famous for the songs he wrote for Sesame Street). Another of her students, by the way, was Egberto Gismonti, whom I'll get to in a moment.

In the early-1940s, Piazzolla, growing up in the world of the tango in Argentina and a bandoneon player in major dance bands in the capital city, met the pianist Artur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who urged him to study with Ginastera, studying the scores of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, listening to orchestra rehearsals by day and playing the dance clubs by night. By 1950, he gave up his own band, now, to concentrate on composing “serious” music and in 1953 his “Buenos Aires Symphony” won a competition and was given its premiere.

A fight broke out in the audience between people who were enjoying the piece and those who were offended by having two bandoneons in the orchestra! (Remember how offended Paris critics were when Cesar Franck included an English horn in his D Minor Symphony...?) Regardless, Piazzolla won a scholarship as a result of that concert which allowed him to travel to Paris to study with Boulanger.

Nadia Boulanger with her student, Astor Piazzolla
By then 33, Piazzolla played through a number of his “classically-inspired” pieces for his new teacher with little response. It wasn't till he started playing one of his tangos – Triunfal – that she reacted: “This,” she said, “is the real Piazzolla!” Dismissing the pile of “serious” works, she said “this” was what he should focus his efforts on.

(Another version of the story has him feeling despondent after she did not respond favorably to his "classical" works and so, no doubt feeling homesick, went off in some other part of the building and began playing some tangos. Boulanger heard this, listened for a while, and then told him “This is the real Piazzolla!” Either way, it gets to the truth of a composer's identity.)

So he primarily studied counterpoint with her – it was, according to Carter, what she was most brilliant at – and it would, in fact, become a major feature in the development of his “New Tango” style. It was the synthesis of the “serious” which he'd started to learn with Ginastera, with the “popular” element he'd grown up with and which was such an important aspect of his environment.

It is an old argument, this “serious” versus “popular.” If the story sounds vaguely familiar, remember that another young American composer in his late-20s with his feet firmly planted in American popular music went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger as well, only this time she refused to take George Gershwin on as a pupil.

So here we have another great “What If...?” game to play: if Piazzolla had stayed with his “serious” side, would as many people today know the name and hum his music if he instead wrote symphonies and operas and string quartets like his mentor Alberto Ginastera? Would his “serious” music have had the same sincerity his tangos have?

This would also become the major struggle in the creative life of Leonard Bernstein but that's for another time, perhaps.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

This idea of labeling music “serious” or “popular” is another product of the 20th Century. I always hated both terms in the “either/or” pigeon-holing of art when I was growing up in the '60s – does that mean that, say, Dave Brubeck or the Beatles were not serious? Wouldn't that then make “classical” music “unpopular”?

Brahms wrote his “Hungarian Dances” inspired, in part, by hanging out with friends in smoky taverns where gypsy bands played. They were also, he knew, his bread-and-butter: between them and his little Lullaby, he was probably the richest living composer in an age when most composers we can think of were struggling to stay alive. He was a big fan of Johann Strauss who would be considered the closest thing to a “pop icon” of the day but who today is another famous “classical” composer, not that many conductors would consider programming a bunch of Strauss waltzes and polkas on the first half and Brahms' 1st Symphony on the second. And yet Brahms incorporated his “Hungarian” music in the finales of his Violin Concerto or the G Minor Piano Quartet as if it were perfectly natural and while there were always critics who disliked anything Brahms ever did, I don't recall that being a major controversy. He simply absorbed it as another “thing” in his environment which he could make use of in creating his own voice.

Ginastera, in Argentina, wrote music based on “indigenous folk-music” because that's what European composers did – if it wasn't Brahms' ethnic heritage, the idea of incorporating folk songs and dances from his own native Bohemia was the one thing that finally put Dvořák on the musical map, after having imitated first Wagner and then Brahms so long, he despaired of ever finding a style of his own. It was what Dvořák told his American students to do when he taught in New York City in the mid-1890s, how to find their own American voice: take American folk-songs and build your music on them. Curiously, he thought that would be the spiritual songs of African slaves.

While that was easy for a Russian composer like Rimsky-Korsakov or a Hungarian composer like Bartók or even an English composer like Ralph Vaughan Williams, what did that mean to an American? Especially an American who didn't need Ancestry.com or a DNA-test to know his grandparents or parents came from England or Italy or Russia or Spain – or from any of the parts of Africa that most other people were almost totally unaware of? How did an Irish-American composer who'd grown up on reels and shanties create a natural-sounding American voice out of the songs of the Native Americans?

And folk music in Latin America was always divided between the indigenous cultures and the colonial cultures. Yet we (as “Americans” – even that is, technically, a loaded term: aren't Canadians and Venezuelans “Americans” also?) tend to overlook the fact that Latin America is as much a melting pot as the United States: from colonization supplanting the “native” or indigenous culture and then the wider spread of European immigration, we forget that Piazzolla, for instance, is originally an Italian name, his grandfather growing up in Southern Italy's Apulia; that Paulo Bellinati is a Brazilian, not an Italian composer despite the ethnicity behind his name; or that Egberto Gismonti's mother was from Sicily and his father from Beirut, Lebanon.

After a time Ginastera – and Villa-Lobos in Brazil – made the transition from folk-inspired music to “abstract” music – “abstract” (the “most serious” of “serious” music, I suppose) in the sense it was not based on a story and not employing folk songs and rhythms simply for the sake of color, “abstract” like the symphonies of Brahms or the string quartets of Beethoven. Going beyond the native, popular influences resulted in more universally translatable works like Ginastera's opera, Bomarzo, set in Renaissance Italy, and Villa-Lobos' numerous suites called Bachianas brasilieras, composed “as if Bach were a composer living in Brazil today.”

* * ** *** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Leo Brouwer is an Afro-Cuban composer whose great-uncle was Ernesto Lecuona who wrote a little something called “Malagueña” and whose cousin Margarita Lecuona wrote “Babalú,” already famous in this country before becoming the signature tune of Desi Arnaz's bandleader character in “I Love Lucy.”

With that family legacy, it would not be surprising young Leo would show musical talent: his father, a doctor, was an amateur guitarist and by 17, Leo was performing and composing.

Leo Brouwer
Brouwer came to the United States to study at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT, and then at Juilliard, studying with Vincent Persichetti and Stefan Wolpe. In 1970, he played in the Berlin world premiere of El Cimarrón by Hans Werner Henze and for a 1979 competition in Hungary he wrote a work for 200 guitars. In addition to the songs and rhythms of his native Cuba, Brouwer was influenced by the aleatoric aesthetic of Iannis Xenakis and the serial music of Luigi Nono. But he was fluent in enough musical “languages” to comfortably transcribe Beatles songs for solo guitar and write music for over one hundred films, including Like Water for Chocolate. In addition to three string quartets and numerous other chamber combinations, he has also composed eleven guitar concertos.

In 1990, he composed a sonata for English guitarist Julian Bream and in 2009, he composed the sonata for two guitars the Brasil Guitar Duo will be performing on their program today, the “Sonata de Los Viajeros” which, at least metaphorically, reflects the journeys of someone who is widely traveled.

It is in four movements and though I could find no translations available (and I do not speak Spanish), their titles might be (1.) Primer Viaje a Tierras Heladas (The first journey to the Land of Ice); (2.) El Retablo de las Maravillas; La Venus de Praxiteles (The Altarpiece of Wonders. The Venus of (the ancient Greek sculptor) Praxiteles); (3.) Visita a Bach en Leipzig (Visit to Bach in Leipzig); (4.) Por el Mar e las Antillas (By the Sea and the Antilles).

This performance of the Sonata with the Brasil Guitar Duo, recorded at Teatro Martí in Havana, begins about 1:20 into the clip.


At the end of the video, the composer, sitting in the front row, stands up to take a bow. This concert also included the world premiere of Brouwer's El arco y la lira for two cellos and two guitars which I highly recommend!

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Egberto Gismonti was born in Rio de Janeiro where he began studying piano at the age of 6 and then, after 15 years of study, went to Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger who encouraged him to combine “the collective Brazilian experience” with his own musical style. (Notice, this was a slightly different response than the advice she gave Piazzolla.) He also studied with Jean Barraqué, a serialist who'd studied with Webern and Schoenberg.

Gismonti in Buenos Aires, 2017
Self-taught as a guitarist, Gismonti returned to Brazil and began designing guitars with more than the usual six strings, expanding the possibilities of the instrument. “Approaching the fretboard as if it were a keyboard, Gismonti gives the impression that there is more than a single guitar player.” This recent photograph of him shows him playing his ten-string guitar.

Gismonti's sojourn in the Xingu region of the Amazon basin made a lasting impression. “Brazilian culture,” he says, “is the basic fountain or source that drives my music.”

“Gismonti is one of those musicians that is at one and the same time a shining light in the music of one particular country, and the music of a totally original human being who defies nationalistic categorisation,” guitarist Derek Gripper writes of his experience with the composer's music. “In many respects his music is quintessentially Brazilian, but at the same time it reaches so much further than the music of one nation or history possibly could. ...He just showed me what music could be.”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Of the three remaining composers on the program, I am running out of time – courtesy of various excuses, an overly helpful cat (which reminds me that Leo Brouwer composed a piano trio entitled El triángulo de las Bermudas) and resulting computer issues we don't need to get into. Besides, it's not my habit necessarily to write extensively about every piece on the program - and some lend themselves to "extensivity" moreso than others...

Together, all these create a varied sampling of the many “dialects” of the Latin American musical language – as varied as one might expect to find when comparing European composers from different countries and eras or even American composers from different backgrounds in our own country.

Earlier, in the previous post, I'd mentioned the old argument about “what constitutes an American composer?” – is it a composer who reflects “the American experience” (whatever that is) or someone who is, basically, born and trained in America?

When I started writing this post, I decided to check for some generic information about “Latin American Music” and found this, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“The music of Latin America refers to music originating from Latin America, namely the Romance-speaking countries and territories of the Americas and the Caribbean south of the United States."

And while that may seem self-evident, rather than building walls perhaps it's really all we need to consider when trying to define something so richly complex as music?

- Dick Strawser