Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Baráti plays Bach, Ysaÿe & Bartók - 'Twas the Night Before Carnegie Hall...

Kristóf Baráti will be playing a Stradivarius violin made in 1703, known as the “Lady Harmsworth,” when he performs at Temple Ohev Sholom tonight at Market Square Concerts' first program of the new year. Last season, violinist Ray Chen played the 1702 Strad known as the “Lord Newlands,” so Harrisburg, as off the beaten path as we might be, is getting to hear some pretty amazing instruments – as well as some amazing musicians.

And Kristóf Baráti will be making his official Carnegie Hall debut on January 21st. This is his first tour of the United States – earlier concerts took him to Boston and Washington D.C. before arriving in Harrisburg – and though he may not be a familiar name to American concertgoers, several performers I know have been spreading the word.

Here is Stephen Brookes' Washington Post review - “In a Violinist's High-Wire Act, Virtuoso Kristóf Baráti Transfixes,” from his performance Sunday at the Phillips Collective:

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“...Béla Bartók’s Sonata for solo violin... opens with a chaconne[-]like movement — and Baráti turned in a reading that was almost painful in its intensity of feeling. The work pushes the violin to the limits with a wildly inventive palette of sounds, and its often wrenching emotional landscape (it was written in 1944) make it a work not for the faint of heart. But Baráti played it with such insight and understanding that the audience erupted in a sustained standing ovation at the end, bringing him back for an encore, Paganini’s Caprice No. 1.”
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Baráti may be too young yet to be called a “violinist's violinist,” but you'll understand this once you hear his impeccable intonation and the flawless technique behind seemingly effortless performances. There are few violinists performing today who can just stand there and play without the physically distracting over-emoting that too many music lovers assume to be the necessary norm. If a performer's job is to make it look easy, he makes it look so effortlessly easy!

His program in these concerts consists of three different composers – two of the six solo sonatas by Belgian violinist and composer, Eugene Ysaÿe; the Partita in D Minor by Bach; and the Sonata for Solo Violin that was one of the last completed works by Bela Bartók. Both Ysaÿe and Bartók in the first half of the 20th Century were specifically inspired by Bach's works from the early 18th Century, and such a program, if not daunting enough to a performer, is a collection of some of the greatest challenges possible for a violinist – and, at that, a lone violinist.

Here is Kristóf Baráti playing the D Minor Partita of Johann Sebastian Bach, recorded at the Moscow Conservatory in January of 2008, on a program of all six sonatas and partitas:

Allemande

Corrente

Sarabande

Gigue

Chaconne: Part 1

Chaconne: Part 2


As Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann about the Chaconne (which he arranged for piano, left hand only): “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”

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Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe composed his six sonatas for solo violin in 1920 and dedicated each one to a different colleague. In this program, Barati plays the 2nd and 3rd Sonatas, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud and fellow-composer Georges Enescu respectively. Like Bach, Ysaÿe created in these six works a compendium of violin technique for his own era.

Ysaÿe: Sonata No. 2, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud: 1st Movement “Obsession
2nd Movement “Malinconia
3rd Movement “Danse des ombres; Sarabande” (Dance of the Shadows)
4th Movement “Les furies

(These video clips on YouTube did not permit embedding the file, here, so my apologies for including only the links...)

Julian Haylock of The Strad reviewed Barati's recent release of the Ysaÿe Sonatas, available on Brilliant Classics:

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"Kristóf Baráti is recorded with exemplary presence in a seductively enveloping acoustic – it feels as though the young Hungarian violinist is standing in the room with you, and the range of dynamics and articulation he encompasses is remarkable. Tapping into his instrument’s natural resonances, cleanly defined by exceptionally strong finger-falls (with occasional fingerboard resonance), the gives the effect of a pure, open sound being gently coaxed and cajoled rather than forced out of the instrument. Little wonder, then, that his mentor Eduard Wulfson is a former pupil of both Nathan Milstein and Henryk Szeryng.

Baráti’s dazzling range of bow strokes and ear-ringing intonation combine throughout to create the impression of technical challenges arising directly out of the music’s expressive core rather than mere hurdles to be overcome. In the opening ‘Obsession’ of the Second Sonata he employs an exciting slight kick to his staccatos and multiple-stopping reminiscent of the young Shlomo Mintz. But what makes this a truly exceptional disc is Baráti’s interpretative vision – movements that in even the most skilled of hands often sound expressively one-dimensional here emerge as deeply compelling emotional narratives. He even makes the moto perpetuo semiquavers that crown the ‘Fritz Kreisler’ Sonata no.4 dance free of musical gravity, with an enchanting sense of every note floating on air. A highly distinguished release."
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That said, this next video clip is not the best recording – made in a small gallery space and simply recorded – and it has the challenges many live performances may have (at one point, somebody manages to knock over something with considerable but unruffling clatter) yet it will give you more than an idea what to expect when Barati performs the brief 3rd Sonata which Ysaÿe dedicated to Enescu.

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Unlike Bach and Ysaÿe, Bela Bartók was not a violinist but he was inspired by hearing Yehudi Menuhin playing Bach and was commissioned to write this sonata for Menuhin. Bartók was living in the United States during the War and completed this in 1944 while he was undergoing treatment for what had not yet been diagnosed as leukemia. This sonata is technically his last completed work – he continued working on the 3rd Piano Concerto, a surprise for his wife (only the last few measures remained to be orchestrated). while sketching the new Viola Concerto but officially finished neither work.

Like the Bach Sonatas which included a second-movement fugue, Bartók writes a fearsome fugue preceded by a chaconne-like movement based on something like a Hungarian folk-song (much of Bartók's thematic material is based on folk song, real or “imaginary”).

1st Movement, Tempo di Ciaccone

2nd Movement, Fugue

3rd Movement, Melodia

4th Movement, Presto


So, given you've had a chance to hear – and in some cases, see – these recordings of Kristóf Baráti playing everything on tonight's Market Square Concerts' program, why would you not want to go hear him live?

The performance is at Temple Ohev Sholom at 2345 N. Front Street – plenty of free parking and presumably the weather should hold out (not too cold and the snow looks like it'll hold off till the next day).

And what will Baráti be doing the day after he's performed here in Harrisburg?

Finding out just how much practice it takes to get to Carnegie Hall!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Music for Cold Weather: Schumann & Tchaikovsky to Warm the Soul

The Avalon Quartet
With the return of the Polar Vortex this week, what better antidote than the heat of great Romantic music, especially two of the most popular 19th Century composers best known for their melodic gifts and rich harmonies. So prepare yourself for the cold with a generous helping of Robert Schumann and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky this Saturday (the 15th) at 8pm at Market Square Church!

If you attended any of the Summermusic concerts this past season (remember those wonderful warm temperatures), you've already heard the cellist of the quartet, Cheng-Hou Lee. This time, he'll be joined by his colleagues, violinists Blaise Magniere and Marie Wang, and violist Anthony Devroye of the Avalon Quartet to offer the third of Schumann's three quartets (all written in a seven-week period when he was 32) and the first of Tchaikovsky's three quartets (written when he was 31, though he'd jotted down the melody of the famous second movement, the Andante cantabile, two years earlier).

It’s often difficult finding decent performances (much less recordings) on-line to post as examples, here, but I've been able to solve the problem by using two different quartets with two different approaches to Schumann's style.

The British-based Doric Quartet played Schumann's 2nd Quartet here two years ago. The 2nd & 4th Movements, here, are from a performance last year at London's great Wigmore Hall (and yes, there's a new violist since their appearance in Harrisburg).

I've chosen the Ysaÿe Quartet of France for the 1st and 3rd Movements, finding this 2012 performance recorded in Paris.

Ysaye Quartet – 1st Mvmt


Doric Quartet - 2nd Mvmt


Ysaye Quartet – 3rd Mvmt


Doric Quartet - 4th Mvmt


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For the Tchaikovsky, similar rules apply, but I found four different performances, not all with the best recording sound, but since the Avalon Quartet is performing at Market Square Church, how can I not use their video of the Tchaikovsky first movement recorded in a church at a 2010 performance?



Based on a folk-song Tchaikovsky overheard – whistled, so the story goes, by a house-painter at his sister's estate in Ukraine – the second movement of this quartet has taken on a life of its own in various arrangements. Here's the original version in a stunning performance by the Borodin Quartet.



The third movement – a scherzo that would be difficult to tap your foot to (unless you're Russian) – is performed by the Kontras Quartet, based in Chicago, and recorded here in a 2010 concert in North Carolina. Not the best sound, but I like their energy.



Of course, Russian music played by a Russian quartet would be the best and while I could've found a couple of different recordings of the entire quartet in a single clip, I liked the idea of sampling different approaches, here. But I have to end with another performance by the Borodin Quartet, itself one of the best and most long-lived quartets in Russia and the Soviet Union. Here's the finale with an appropriately wintry scene to accompany the audio.



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In the past, I’ve written a great deal about Robert Schumann’s life and his Year of Chamber Music – you can read this post which is primarily about the Piano Quintet but which will give you the biographical background to that summer when he composed all three of the Op.41 String Quartets as well as the Piano Quintet and Quartet, all between June and November.

Schumann
Better known at the time as a writer about music than a composer of it, Schumann had recently complained about the fate of the string quartet genre, how, the glory days of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, no one of the next generation had written string quartets of any comparable value.

It’s important to realize, given the easily jumbled chronology of the music we’re familiar with in the concert hall or on recordings, that Schumann was writing this about 15 years after Beethoven’s death (and the Late Quartets were generally unknown and largely unpopular with the typical concert-going audiences of the day – more on that, later) but also about 10 years before he met a young composer named Johannes Brahms (when Schumann composed his quartets, Brahms was still only 9 years old).

Only Felix Mendelssohn wrote quartets during the period between Beethoven’s and Schubert’s deaths and Schumann’s article which have endured in the repertoire: the first two were written when he was 18-20; the three quartets of Op.44 were composed when he was 28-29.

It’s not unusual, then, to see Schumann sitting down to write some string quartets to see how he would fare – and then dedicating them to his friend and colleague, Felix Mendelssohn.

In the spring of 1842, Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of her day, had returned home after a long tour. Plans for an American tour were receding and Robert was glad to have his wife home with him as housewife, mother and hostess rather than concert artist. It was a time they had both begun studying string quartets by Mozart and Haydn when Robert decided to put into practice what he had learned.

By June 2nd, he was sketching “quartet essays” and two days later began the 1st String Quartet. On the 11th, he began the 2nd Quartet even before the first one was finished. In between the 2nd and the 3rd Quartet, not begun until July 8th, he wrote a scathing article about Clara’s ex-boyfriend Carl Banck and his new composition (it was so nasty, Schumann did not include it later when he re-published most of his articles) and also ended up in a libel case which netted him a 6-day jail sentence which was commuted to “a five thaler fine” (I don’t know what the equivalent of the standard German unit of currency would’ve been, but an 1841 thaler recently sold on E-bay for $270). The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first.

We often talk a lot about Schumann’s “split personality,” not that he was schizophrenic in the medical sense or that he was any different from any artist who might be 50/50 Right-Brained/Left-Brained, as we might think of it today. Like the ancient Greek philosophers writing dialogues between teacher and student, Schumann often wrote articles or reviews from the viewpoints or with direct conversations from characters he named Florestan and Eusebius, among others. Florestan was the free and happy one and Eusebius the more pensive and dreamy. You can figure out which side of his nature is behind the music in each of the movements of this quartet, written at white heat in the summer of his Chamber Music Year.

After this he would write a number of other chamber works including, almost back-to-back, the Piano Quintet and the Piano Quartet. People often say Schumann might have lived longer had he been treated for his illness but one has to wonder what impact a healthy life might have had on his music – first of all, would he have had the manic energy to tackle so many works in a single genre all at one time over the span of a few months? He might have been like many of his contemporaries, composers he wrote about and even championed, who were talented and perhaps even popular or at least well respected but, from our standpoint today, completely forgotten.

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Tchaikovsky (undated)
Of course, when it comes to the emotional world of the Romantic Era, there are probably few souls more tortured than Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky and for more reasons than the fact that Russian music in general always strikes us as so sad.

When I was teaching a course in Russian Music, Art and History at the University of Connecticut in the late-70s, I had a chance to talk to a famous Soviet anthropologist visiting our campus who spoke primarily about how the Soviet government was trying to create a unified Soviet culture out of the various ethnic elements that made up the Soviet Union, making the distinction that while Shostakovich was a Russian composer, Aram Khachaturian was an Armenian (not a Russian) even though we in the West would consider them both “Russian Composers” rather than “Soviet Composers.” Anyway, I had the chance to ask her about folk music across this vast country and finally, humorously, asked the question so many Americans think if not ask: “what makes Russian music so sad?”

She thought for a moment as if this had never occurred to her, and then said, “I don't know – long winters?”

Tchaikovsky was something of a late bloomer, keeping in mind they had no music schools in Russia when he was growing up and what musical life existed in the capitals of St. Petersburg and Moscow were either imported – many Italian composers, for instance, were enticed to move to Russia and write operas and even church music for the imperial court – or entirely within the realm of amateurs. It wasn't until 1862 that Russia had its first music school, founded by the pianist and composer, Anton Rubinstein (a cosmopolitan figure and rival of Liszt's, he once quipped “to the Germans, I am a Russian; to the Russians I am a German; and to everyone, I am a Jew”, but as a pianist and conductor, a force of nature who told his students “Beethoven's music must never be studied – it must be reincarnated”).

At any rate, one of the school's first students was a young lawyer named Tchaikovsky who had always wanted to study music (against his father's wishes) but there was no way he could do what other would-be composers did: travel to Germany to study.

(Keep in mind, the United States didn't have a music school until Harvard choirmaster and organist John Knowles Paine convinced his colleagues to let him offer music courses for credit – and he became a one-man music department in the early-1870s.)

So, listening to this string quartet that Tchaikovsky composed in 1871 when he was 31 years old, forget the drama of the last three symphonies (especially the Pathetique) or even the bombast of the Piano Concerto (No. 1, as if most people even know he wrote two more) but remember that piano concerto was only four years away and the 4th Symphony, six.

It's quite possible, when he wrote his 1st Symphony at the age of 26, the year after he graduated, he hadn't even heard a Beethoven symphony in those days before the Internet and recordings. As soon as he graduated, Tchaikovsky was hired by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolai, another amazing pianist, to teach at the soon-to-opened music school he founded in Moscow where, basically, Tchaikovsky felt he was a few pages ahead of his students in the harmony class he was teaching. Still, it kept him from going back to being a law clerk to make a living. He continued teaching there until 1878 after Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow and a generous fan, offered him a stipend so he could devote all his time to composing.

While fame came slowly to the developing composer – keep in mind Schubert had died at the age of 31 – Tchaikovsky had written dances, piano pieces and songs as well as operas (which, though a large work, was still a collection of shorter elements that could be the equivalent of songs, dances and short orchestral interludes). So in a way, his first string quartet is only his second attempt at a large-scale and largely Western-style work, as far as the form is concerned. Even that first symphony, known as “Winter Dreams,” was revised before its delayed premiere took place in 1868 and it wasn't published until 1873, two years after the string quartet. The version we usually hear today (if we hear it) is a further revision made and premiered in 1883, five years before he finished his 5th Symphony.

In 1866, in the midst of working on this symphony which did not progress smoothly, he had a nervous breakdown. Three months before that, he wrote to one of his brothers,

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“My nerves are altogether shaken. The causes are: (1) the symphony, which does not sound satisfactory; (2) Rubinstein and Tarnovksy [Nikolai Rubinstein, his roommate, and Konstantin Tarnovsky, a mutual friend] have discovered I am easily startled and amuse themselves by giving me all manner of shocks all day long; (3) I cannot shake off the conviction I shall not live long and shall leave my symphony unfinished. I long for the summer and for Kamenka [their sister's house in Ukraine] as for the Promised Land, and hope to find rest and peace and to forget all my troubles there... I hate mankind in the mass, and I should be very delighted to retire into some wilderness with very few inhabitants.”
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The House at Kamenka
Whether he found the necessary rest and peace at Kamenka that summer or not, we can only imagine, but one thing he did find at one of his visits there three years later was a beautiful and simple tune with a fairly silly text – “Vanya sat on a divan, drinking, thinking of his sweetheart” – a Russian folk-song sung by a gardener or house-painter at his sister's estate (other sources say a baker). Two years later, he would use this for the slow movement of his 1st String Quartet, the famous Andante cantabile.

Now, this movement is very simple – a very straight-forward setting of the tune with simple harmonies and textures, a slightly contrasting (and original) second theme before the main tune returns. It does not win technical points – Colin Mason, in his article on Tchaikovsky's chamber music in Gerald Abraham's collection, “The Music of Tchaikovsky” (1946) calls it “feeble” and feels that Tchaikovsky “wastes” the tune in this “less interesting” movement, compared to the much better crafted movements of the rest of the quartet even though he admits it would probably be forgotten if it weren't for its “popular slow movement.” Of course, the fact that it's “popular” will rankle any academicians butt, but I digress...

But there is more to this quartet than this “simple” slow movement. Some writers feel it is the best of the three quartets because it is the most consistent. Keep in mind the young, inexperienced composer, fresh from college, basically, had begun by writing a symphony when the few Russian composers around weren't writing symphonies (except Anton Rubinstein who, by this time, had written only half his six symphonies). As a student of Rubinstein's, Tchaikovsky was probably more aware of Mendelssohn's quartets than Beethoven's, but since very few people today would even be aware that Rubinstein had written 10 string quartets himself, it's impossible to say how much of an influence they may have been on the evolving composer.

Grove's Dictionary has this to say about it, though: “a number of [Tchaikovsky's] compositions, especially the weaker ones, show the influence of his former master: his attitude to songs and piano music, for instance, was very similar to Rubinstein's. But in addition, certain passages of Tatyana's music in Tchaikovsky's Onyegin are derived from similar passages in Rubinstein's The Demon allotted to Tamara, who is, however, a puppet-like figure beside Tchaikovsky's incomparable heroine.”

Nikolai & Anton Rubinstein
Likewise, Grove's assessment of Rubinstein's output as a composer seems to bear out in the public awareness of his music today: his larger-scale works often showed “signs of haste,” good ideas that could be developed in a “trivial manner” that revealed “his fatal facility as a note-spinner.” He felt his name on the title page was enough to generate interest in selling his music. Out of six massive symphonies, five piano concertos suitable for a giant of the keyboard plus some 20 works for the stage, in addition to a lot of chamber music for various combinations and tons of songs and what are generally dismissed as “salon pieces” for the piano, he is primarily remembered today for only two early works, piano pieces like the “Melody in F” and the “Angelic Dream” from the collection of 24 pieces, Kammenoy Ostrow (The Stone Island).

Anton's younger brother Nikolai, was himself an exceptional pianist, “more detached and analytical” than Anton. He was however more of a champion of Tchaikovsky and his music than the teacher, despite Nikolai's infamous attack on the 1st Piano Concerto (written just four years after this string quartet) and it was Nikolai's death in 1881 that brought forth the Piano Trio in which Tchaikovsky poured out – at great length – his grief.

It may have been Rubinstein's cosmopolitan world with its Germanic training that tempered Tchaikovsky's innate Russianness and made him an object of concern to the Nationalist School of The Mighty Handful, the famous “Russian Five” of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Mussorgsky, Borodin and... oh yes, Cesar Cui who championed Russian folk-song as the root of Russian music (taking their cue from Glinka in the earlier generation, generally considered the first “native-born” Russian composer of any stature – as Stravinsky would later say, his “Kamarinskaya” was the acorn from which the might oak of Russian music grew – here it is, performed by a student orchestra in Peter Sirotin's hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine. Peter tells me his father used to conduct this orchestra in the 1980s and he played his first chamber music concert with Beethoven's Op.12 Sonata in that hall in 1986!)

Even though Balakirev famously gave Tchaikovsky the complete outline and thematic profile for his first successful orchestral work, the overture Romeo and Juliet which was premiered (in its first version – we, primarily, know the third version today) the year before he composed this string quartet. There were various hopes and attempts to “convert” Tchaikovsky to the Nationalist Cause but he was too much his teacher's student to fall completely under their sway. Even though he frequently used Russian folk-songs and dances in his symphonies, his popularity was always suspect by the Five. But that is more a story for the future.

Right now, think of Tchaikovsky, aged 31, only five years after he made the decision to give up his day-job as a law clerk in the Ministry of Justice to become a professional composer.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

First Concert of the New Season: The Ariel Quartet and Orion Weiss


Well, Labor Day and Summer have given 'way to Fall and... okay, so let's not think too far ahead, here – but this weekend is the first performance with Market Square Concerts' New Season and it features the current winner of the Cleveland Quartet Award from Chamber Music America, the Ariel String Quartet who'll be joined by pianist Orion Weiss.

You can read more about the quartet, the pianist and this weekend's program in Ellen Hughes' article from her Patriot-News column, Art & Soul, here.

The program includes Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 18/2, the Ravel Quartet and, with Orion Weiss, the Piano Quintet by Ernő Dohnányi, written in 1914.

The concert is at the Market Square Church, Saturday the 27th at 8pm – I'll be doing a pre-concert talk which begins at 7:15. Considering this year is the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I (the war that didn't, alas, end all wars) as well as the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II – as we begin another phase of the War on Terror – my topic will focus on the Dohnanyi quintet which was composed in 1914.

The Ariel Quartet received the Cleveland Quartet Award for this season which was first awarded to the Brentano Quartet in 1997 which has since been awarded to the Borromeo, Miami, Pacifica, Miró, Jupiter, Parker and Jasper quartets – all of which have been heard here with Market Square Concerts through our participation in an elite group of eight presenters around the country ranging from Carnegie Hall to the Friends of Chamber Music in Kansas City, MO.

So in honor of that legacy, here's the Beethoven Quartet Op.18/2 with the Cleveland Quartet from their original 1970s recording of the Early Quartets (self-evident if only from the hair-styles...):

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1st Movement

2nd Movement

3rd Movement, Scherzo

4th Movement, Finale

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The first three of the six early quartets were not composed in the order they were published in, by 1801. Even the first of the quartets was largely rewritten – the sketch book indicates the amount of trouble Beethoven went to to find the final version of the quartet's themes and the published version is quite different from an early copy Beethoven had sent to a friend (then asked him not to distribute it, because he'd since learned how to write for a quartet). It's assumed the G Major (No. 2) was composed third but it still harks back to 18th Century classical style and his teacher Haydn who, at this time, had already finished writing his symphonies but was working on the last two sets of quartets, published in 1799 when Haydn was in his late-60s (he was at the time composing The Creation). 

Because this quartet, with its opening genteel flourish, struck listeners as similar in style to Haydn's, it was nicknamed the “Komplimentier-quartett” or, as it's usually translated, the “quartet of bows and curtsies.”

You can compare Beethoven's with what Haydn was writing around the same exact time – the opening of his Op.77/1 Quartet – performed here by the Avalon Quartet who, by the way, will be playing with Market Square Concerts in November.

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It's hard to believe that Ravel's Quartet, composed in 1902-1903, is a “student work,” written while he was studying with Gabriel Fauré – even though he was 28 at the time and had already written a number of well-known works beforehand (the piano pieces Pavane for a Dead Princess and Jeaux d'eau) plus the Sonatine and the song-cycle, Shéhérazade shortly afterward.

Rejected by the judges for that year's Prix de Rome competition, the Quartet had received both good and bad reviews at its first performance in 1903 – even his teacher thought the finale “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.” Following further controversy with the 1905 competition, no less than Claude Debussy (then in his early-40s and who'd written his own quartet in 1893) wrote to Ravel that “In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.” Despite his misgivings about the quartet's finale, Fauré was still intensely supportive of his student, something one couldn't always about Haydn and Beethoven.

Here is a recent winner of the Cleveland Quartet Award and a frequent visitor to Market Square Concerts, the Parker Quartet, playing the first movement of the Ravel Quartet:
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And while I couldn't find them playing the rest of the quartet, here's a recording of the complete quartet by the Berg Quartet complete with score. If you don't have the time or don't feel like listening to the first movement over again, the 2nd Movement begins at 7:43.
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I'll be talking more about Ravel, his musical style and its relationship to the years before World War I at my pre-concert talk on Saturday. Ravel also served in the war and was an ambulance driver who, in March, 1916, served at Verdun on France's “Western Front,” one of the longest and costliest battles in history.

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The build-up to World War I did not begin with the assassination of an Austrian archduke in the Balkans in the summer of 1914. Political tensions in Europe had been on edge ever since the end of the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s and the emergence of the German Empire as a major political and military power. If that seems like going back into the past to find the causes of a war, remember that much of the reason we're fighting in the Middle East today has a lot to do with the Western attitude toward nation-states and the arbitrary establishment of artificial borders there at the end of World War I.

So there's more to the connection between the next piece of music and the start of World War I beyond the fact that both date from 1914.

Not the least of that is the composer's name: born in Hungary (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) of an old Hungarian family that had been ennobled by the Austrians in 1697. Officially, he was Ernst von Dohnanyi, the Germanic form of his name, which is how he styled himself through his career. Today, he is generally known by the Hungarian form of his name, Ernő Dohnányi.

If you listen to his early works, they sound little different from the music being written by Johannes Brahms and the raft of Brahms imitators who dominated the Viennese music scene at the end of the 19th Century, names largely forgotten.

Curiously, his first published piece – though actually the 68th work he composed – is a Piano Quintet that was not only approved by Brahms in 1895, Brahms arranged for its first performance in Vienna.

Here's the opening movement of this 1st Piano Quintet with the Avalon Quartet (again, who'll be appearing with Market Square Concerts in November). Even the last movement (performed here by the Amernet Quartet who'll join us for our April concert) is like one of Brahms' beloved Hungarian Dance finales (though here sounding more Czech than Hungarian).

While it would be easy to dismiss this – an Op. 1, after all – as a youthful work since the composer was all of 17 at the time, it is still a derivative work even if it's by an assured young composer who certainly knows what he's doing even if he hasn't developed his own voice, yet – and how many 17-year-olds have, Mozart and Mendelssohn aside? Even Richard Strauss, writing a horn concerto at 17, sounds more like Schumann than the Strauss we'd come to know and love in the tone-poems written not too many years later.

But what of the second piano quintet?

Not surprisingly, YouTube is full of performances of the first quintet, a much more accessible work. I'm not sure how frequently the 2nd Quintet is performed – suffice it to say this will be the first time pianist Orion Weiss is playing it in public – but I'm sure it doesn't mean that much when I say, frankly, before Peter Sirotin asked me about doing this pre-concert talk, I'd never heard it.

By this time, Dohnányi turned 37, so we're 20 years further along. This Op. 26 Quintet is by no means an extroverted work of a brilliant student showing off what he can do and while it's a much more serious and dramatic work than his Op. 1, I also need to point out the piece he'd recently completed, a set of variations, Op. 25, is a chameleon-like delight for piano and orchestra based on, of all things, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” taken through successive disguises in various styles of the day, from its pompous Wagnerian introduction to jibes at Tchaikovsky and Debussy among others along the way, subtitled “For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others.”

You can hear a (highly recommended) performance with the composer at the piano at the age of 79. The photograph was taken three years later.

And yet, his next work is one of the darkest contrasts imaginable. Like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, it is a reminder that art can be escapist in challenging times - life goes on - just as it can be remind us that, when times beat us down, we still have a soul.

For those of you who read music and want to follow the score, check out the link to the “Petrucci Library” (the musical equivalent of the Gutenberg Library for literature) and download the score free as a .pdf file.

I suggest this because one of the problems I have with these performances I'm about to post is they only suggest the drama in the music. For those of you who wonder how a piece of printed music can be different from one performance to another, I mention that when a performer butchers Beethoven you're familiar with it's always the performer's fault but when you hear a piece of new or unfamiliar music that doesn't do anything for you, it's always the composer's fault.

My issue is solely with their interpretation: fine musicians, obviously, I just don't feel it lives up to the potential I hear after reading the score.

That said, here are the first two movements, with an ad hoc ensemble of violinists Paul Roby and David Niwa, violist Kenichiro Matsuda and cellist Luis Biava with pianist Mariko Kaneda recorded in an Ohio church. The recording aside, the set-up here is certainly one issue, given the limitations of their performance space.
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1st Mvmt

2nd Mvmt “Intermezzo”

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The 3rd Movement threw me – I couldn't continue with the same performance because their video stops before the last 17 measures or so (how can that happen? why post it if it's not complete?) The other video available of this work is by a student ensemble (otherwise unacknowledged and recorded in such a way you would never know there was a pianist on stage with them) from a local music academy in Salem OR – in that sense, congratulations on the performance, though again I'm not promoting it as a professional and authoritative interpretation.
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Admittedly, my first impression was “where's the fourth movement?” There had to be a finale, right? It certainly didn't sound complete – one problem I had with either performance. But when I read the score, I realized how the ending “works” – a vague and perhaps unsatisfactory “conclusion” for a time that was anything but satisfactory and conclusive.

While the counterpoint suggests the tension of Beethoven's “Grosse Fuge” – and I think for a reason, given the composer's Germanic side – I feel the performers haven't quite grasped that. And the return to the material of the opening movement – a typically French gesture from the late-19th Century “cyclical” style of Saint-Seans and Franck – is more than just a “reflection” on previous material as Brahms might do. It leaves you in the dark – and E-flat Minor is, no matter how you play it, a “dark” key, but with, at the very end, a beatific-sounding E-flat Major chord by way of benediction.

What the unsettled period before the War would mean to Dohnányi is one thing – he was in Berlin before the war started and where I'm assuming this piece was composed – but he would return to Budapest in 1915 where life during the War would be quite something else.

(You can read more about life in Hungary around this time – when Bartók was composing his ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin – in this post, part of a pre-concert talk for the Harrisburg Symphony.)

Dohnányi was one of the great pianists of his day and while he may have been described as “one of the first great concert pianists to regularly play chamber music” (I'm not sure how Clara Schumann would react to that), his organization of the musical life of the Hungarian capital was prodigious. According to his younger colleague (and decidedly anti-German) Bela Bartók, Dohnányi, who gave about 120 concerts per season in Budapest during the still unsettled years following the war, provided the entire musical life of Hungary both as conductor and pianist.

His son Hans von Dohnanyi would become an official in Germany before and during the 2nd World War when he was involved in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. He was arrested and then sentenced by Hitler himself to be hanged, strung up by piano wire. Hans's son, Christoph, born in Berlin in 1929, would leave Hungary with his grandfather in 1944 and later become one of the leading conductors of his generation.

After leaving Hungary's wartime fascist state before the Soviet occupation, Dohnányi never quite rejuvenated his international career, and eventually settled in Tallahassee, FL, where he taught at Florida State University and died in 1960 while in New York City recording some Beethoven sonatas for the Everest label at the age of 82.

My talk for this program – which will focus on the music in relation to war-time – will be posted after the concert.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Season at a Glance (or Two)

Now that summer is “officially” over, students are back to school and everybody's back from vacation (if not the vacation mind-set, just yet), it's time to be looking ahead to the New Season which gets underway soon enough. Even if the weather may be a bit confusing, there's the awareness that dates on the calendar are still closer than they appear: just walk into any store and see what's on display.

Market Square Concerts' 2014-2015 Season will begin at the end of September with the appearance of the most recent winner of Chamber Music America's “Cleveland Quartet Award,” the Ariel Quartet who'll be performing works by Beethoven, Ravel and Ernő Dohnányi with pianist Orion Weiss at Market Square Church on Saturday, September 27th at 8pm. Dick Strawser offers a pre-concert talk at 7:15, marking the centenary of the start of World War I. Dohnányi's Piano Quintet No. 2, written in 1914, in its own way encapsulates the history and music of the time, before anyone knew what would become a World War became “The War to End All Wars” but wouldn't...
Orion Weiss

One of Beethoven's early quartets – Op. 18, No. 2 – was first heard in 1800 when Europe was on the verge of decades of continent-wide warfare during the Napoleonic Age. With Ravel's Quartet, premiered in 1904, this concert brings into play some musical changes going on around times of great historical turmoil.

Members of the quartet talk about their early involvement with the Jerusalem Music Center where they began their career as an ensemble


and here, from January 2014, they perform the conclusion of Beethoven's “Serioso” Quartet.


Orion Weiss, named the Classical Recording Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year in 2010, has performed with major American orchestras (including a last-minute sub for Leon Fleisher with the Boston Symphony) and has a busy schedule of solo recitals and chamber music programs. Here's an excerpt from Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto recorded live this past July.


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Avalon Quartet
In November, the Avalon String Quartet brings Schumann and Tchaikovsky to Market Square Church on Saturday, the 15th, at 8pm.

Cellist Cheng-Hou Lee will be returning to Harrisburg for this program, following July's “Summermusic” festival when he joined Peter Sirotin, Ya-Ting Chang and members of the ensemble to play works by Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. You can hear some of those performances at the MSC YouTube Channel, here

One of the clips I found on-line features the slow movement from Ernő Dohnányi Piano Quintet No. 1 (written about two decades before the 2nd Quintet you can hear on the September concert).

Here, they perform the scherzo from Bedrich Smetana's E Minor String Quartet (“From My Life”)
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Their Market Square concert will include the last of Robert Schumann's three quartets and the first of Tchaikovsky's three quartets, best know for its Andante cantabile which has taken on a life of its own.

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Kristóf Baráti
For the first concert of the new year, we move uptown to the Temple Ohev Sholom for a program of music for solo violin with Kristóf Baráti. He'll be playing sonatas by Eugene Ysaÿe and Bela Bartók and Bach's monumental D Minor Partita on Tuesday, January 20th at 8pm, the night before his Carnegie Hall debut ("practice, practice, practice").

Barati offers the first movement, “Obsession,” from Ysaÿe's 2nd Sonata, here, as an encore, 


but he'll play the whole sonata for us - actually, two whole sonatas by Ysaÿe - the 2nd and 3rd. While Bach's Solo Sonatas and Partitas are familiar to most concert-goers – especially the “Chaconne” from the partita Barati performs on this program – Bartók's sonata, one of his late works, is not that well-known. Quite frankly, just looking at this program makes it clear Barati likes a good challenge. At least, with a pianist, he'd have a chance to catch his breath once in a while...

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Trio Solisti - Jon Manasse
The following month, Market Square Concerts will help the Rose Lehrman Arts Center at Harrisburg Area Community College celebrate its 40th Anniversary with the return of Trio Solisti joined by clarinetist Jon Manasse on Saturday, February 28th at 8pm for works by Turina, Poulenc and Milhaud, as well as Piazzolla and Gershwin.

Trio Solisti has been a regular visitor with Market Square Concerts over the years and, as happens often enough in many longer-lived ensembles, there will be personnel changes. Adam Neimann recently joined the ensemble as pianist. 

Here's the driven “scherzo” from Dmitri Shostakovich's 2nd Piano Trio with the latest download of Trio Solisti.


In Harrisburg, they'll play Joaquin Turina's B Minor Piano Trio and Piazzolla's “Four Seasons.”

In this audio clip, clarinetist Jon Manasse plays Weber's Concertino in E-flat.


He'll join members of the Trio for the Poulenc Clarinet Sonata, Milhaud's “Suite” for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, and to wrap up the program, some Gershwin songs.

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Donald Sinta Quartet
Something a little different comes along with the Donald Sinta Quartet at Whitaker Center on Saturday, March 28th at 8pm when this saxophone quartet plays great string quartets by Dvořák, Shostakovich, Barber plus Grieg's Holberg Suite, a program they call “No Strings Attached.”

Named for their mentor, the legendary saxophonist and teacher, they formed in 2010 and have quickly made a name for themselves in this country and abroad (for instance, a 2011 tour of China).

Here, they perform the opening movement of one of the staples of any saxophone quartet's repertoire, the quartet Alexander Glazunov composed in 1931.



But like many ensembles with relatively limited programming options – considering the great composers of the 19th Century didn't have saxophone quartets to compose for – they often covet other people's repertoire. And so they'll borrow Dvořák's “American” Quartet and Shostakovich's Cold War era 8th String Quartet as well as the Adagio (for Strings) originally from Samuel Barber's Op. 11 Quartet and Grieg's nostalgic look back in the history of Scandinavian art with his “Suite from Holberg's Time.”

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Amernet Quartet
The Amernet String Quartet offers the final concert of the main subscription series on Saturday, April 25th at 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom with a powerful program of quartets by Mendelssohn, Schulhof, Shostakovich and Weinberg. Dr. Truman Bullard offers a pre-concert talk at 7:15 about a program that observes the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II.

In 1941, Erwin Schulhoff was deported to the concentration camp at Wurzberg where he died the following year. Mieczysław Weinberg, born in Warsaw and fleeing to the Soviet Union following the Nazi invasion (he lost most of his family in the Holocaust), became a protege of Shostakovich's. While Shostakovich's 4th Quartet on this program was composed in 1949 in the on-going aftermath of the war and of Stalin's repressive regime, Weinberg's 5th Quartet was composed in 1945 at the end of the war.

Mendelssohn's music, technically, was also a victim of World War II, banned by the Nazis because of the composer's Jewish birth. In this clip, after introducing the quartet's instruments, the Amernet perform a movement from Mendelssohn's Quartet Op. 44 No. 2 (they'll play the third quartet of the set at Temple Ohev Sholom).


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Season subscriptions are available at $190 for the full season (seniors $170) or a "Take 3" Pass at $100.

Single tickets are $35, seniors $30, students $5 for all concerts.

Free Admission for students K-12 and $5 for one accompanying parent, sibling or teacher. Group rates are available for groups larger than 10 people.

Tickets may be purchased on-line at Market Square Concerts' website, at THE BOX in person, by phone at 717 221-9599 and 717 214-ARTS or online at whitakercenter.org or email drichter@marketsquareconcerts.org. Remaining tickets will be available at the door.

And then, before you know it, it will be time to get ready for Summermusic 2015 - but we'll tell you about that later in the season.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summermusic 2014: Two C Major Quintets - Part 2: Schubert

Schubert in 1825
As Peter Sirotin posted on Facebook today, "Any day which includes [a] performance of  the Schubert Quintet is a good day."

And he gets to perform this work - which he admits is one of his "Top 3" favorite pieces - on the final program of this season's Summermusic, Wednesday at 6pm at Harrisburg's Civic Club.

(You can read more about this concert in general, here, and about the Mozart that opens the concert, here. For information about parking in the area which might seem rather daunting to out-of-towners, check this post.)

Most of this post is a biography of Schubert's last year and especially the time he composed his Quintet in C Major.

But since the premise behind these three concerts has been "inspiration," how composers found inspiration in works by other composers, I want to point out some obvious similarities despite the fact Schubert's work never seems like an imitation, is never derivative and might not even strike the listener as a tribute to a favorite composer.

But Schubert clearly had Mozart's C Major Quintet (K.515) in his mind, directly or indirectly. when he was 19 and heard a Mozart quintet live at a musicale he was also performing at, he described it as a "life-changing experience," more or less ("a day that will stay [with me] forever" as he wrote in his journal. There's no proof (as far as I can tell) that that particular quintet was the C Major, but regardless, it would have ignited a love of Mozart already burning to the point he would study the scores of all the quintets - if not all the works of Mozart - he could get his hands on.

The most obvious fact - though by no means the most significant - is that they're in the same key. But listen to the an excerpt from each first movement:

Mozart's Quintet, the first movement only, with violinist Joseph Swenson and friends. Before you click on "play," please scroll down to make sure you can see the illustration just below the video clip.

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opening of Mozart's K.515
Here's the score of the opening page of the Mozart Quintet. Even those who can't "read" music might notice the rising line of short notes (daaah... bup búp bup bup bup búp bup) in the cello and, in the fourth and fifth measures, the sustained line in the 1st violin, complete with a little figure we call a "turn." Keep those two "gestures" in mind.

Now, to the Schubert (below).

In this historic recording with the legendary Pablo Casals in a live recording made at a summer music festival in 1961, my primary interest is following the performance with the score embedded in the video: again, even if you don't "read" music, try following along (they manage to turn the pages for you). Though it may sound presumptuous to mention the performance is a bit old-fashioned, especially with the use of portamento, the sliding (or slurping) between notes, but it is Casals and a traditional sense of interpretation. Be that as it may...

In the very opening, you'll see a long sustained melodic line (is it a melody?) which looks very similar to the violin part of the Mozart, even down to the "turn." This turn becomes a major element of Schubert's first movement - we'll hear it everywhere.
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While you might be thinking, "so?" So what? Lots of composers can write a line with a "turn" in it and write in the key of C Major.

If you don't have time to listen to the first ten minutes, then, scoot ahead to 9:17. Structurally, this is a very dramatic moment, the return of the opening "theme" in the Recapitulation. But Schubert doesn't just copy out the opening as you'd first heard it. No, he fills it out a little. With what?

Notice the violin part. What was the long sustained note with the turn (the "melody") is in the cello now - it had been in the violin, first time - but what's happening in the violin? A rising line of short notes. Look at the opening cello line in the first measure of the Mozart. Then at 9:40, he switches the parts so the sustained note and the turn are in the 1st violin and the rising short notes are in the cello, just as they are in the Mozart.

Eh? Coincidence? Hmmm...

Anyway, let that suffice as merely one aspect of connection between a specific work by Mozart (written in 1787) and one of Schubert's greatest and most original works (when all is said and done) written in 1828.

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There are so many things that continue to amaze me no matter how many times I hear Schubert’s Quintet.

People have said there must have been a rush to complete as much music as he could before he died, not that anyone would know how much time they have left in one’s life, especially when you’re in your early-30s like Franz Schubert in the 21 months following the death of Beethoven. But that’s the way Schubert was most of his life, writing as much music as he could possible get down on paper: how else do you end up with nearly a thousand pieces in your catalogue in just 18 years?

From November, 1827, to his death a year later, Schubert wrote (if not completed) 36 works, according to Otto Deutsch’s catalogue, including
- Piano Trio in E-flat (D.929, published as Op.100) which we heard on Sunday's concert with this season's Summermusic - November ‘27 (the B-flat Trio had been written the month before)
- Fantasy in C for Violin & Piano (D.934) based on the song “Sei mir gegrüsst”) - December ‘27
- Four Impromptus for Piano (D.935, published as Op.142) - December ‘27
- Fantasy in F Minor for Piano Duet (D.940) - January-April ‘28
- “Auf dem Strom” (D.943), song for tenor, horn & piano - March ‘28
- Symphony in C Major The Great” (D.944) – though it was probably composed two years earlier, there had been evidence it was begun (or more likely, revised) in March ‘28
- Three Impromptus for piano (D.946) often called more generically “Drei Klavierstücke” - May ‘28
- Mass in E-flat (D.950) - begun June ‘28
- Quintet in C for Strings (D.956) - sometime in August-September ‘28
- Fourteen Songs known asSchwanengesang” (D.957) - finished between August & October ‘28
- Piano Sonata in C Minor (D.958) – September ‘28
- Piano Sonata in A Major (D.959) – September ‘28
- Piano Sonata in B-flat Major (D.960) – last page dated 26th September ‘28
- Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“Shepherd on the Rock”) (D.965) October ‘28

Whether you’d consider them all “masterpieces” or not, this list of fourteen works (really 27, since you should count the songs of Schwanengesang individually as it’s not really a single work per se) does not include nine other songs (two or three written earlier that could’ve fit into the set of “Swan-Songs”), eleven part songs and short choral works (including a setting of Psalm 92 in Hebrew, written for a specific temple’s Sabbath service), four other “miscellaneous” works for piano solo or duet and - oh yes – two large-scale unfinished works, a symphony in D Major (D.936a) and an opera, The Count of Gleichen, listed as D.918 because it was begun the previous summer. And one should also include some “homework assignment” for his counterpoint lessons, which I’ll get to, later.

Look at those works completed if not all written in September 1828, the three last piano sonatas, the C Major Quintet and several of the Swan-Songs (only the first and last are actually dated). While there are sketches that exist for material that ended up in the piano sonatas from earlier that summer, most of the work was done in a matter of three weeks.

But the original manuscript of the quintet has vanished and with it any preliminary sketches, though Schubert rarely “sketched,” his inspiration traditionally described as being “at white-heat” that even if he dropped a page on the floor (so the wives’-tale goes) he would prefer to start over on a new page rather than waste the time to pick it up. Was the quintet a product of “white-heat?” Was it really composed, as several biographers seem to conclude, in two weeks’ time? In addition to the sonatas he was either composing or copying over in final form to send off to publishers, that is one very intense month!

And in less than eight weeks, he died ten weeks shy of his 32nd birthday.

It’s not that he knew he was dying. His health had not been good, off and on, especially after 1822 when, at the age of 25, he began showing the first symptoms of syphilis, presumably in November, not long after he finished... or rather, left unfinished the B Minor Symphony (“The Unfinished Symphony”), the score dated October 30th, 1822, and the virtuosic Fantasy in C, a piano solo known as “The Wanderer Fantasy,” also one of his most dramatic, violent and, at times, pessimistic pieces. Signs of illness may not explain the despair of the fantasy or even why he never completed the rest of the symphony (he had started the third movement but stopped after nine measures), since we normally think of works of art being unhampered by reality, but the chronology is difficult to ignore.

It was at the end of August, 1828, that Schubert, on the advice of his doctor, moved out of his friend Schober’s house in downtown Vienna to take a room in his brother’s new suburban home just outside the city, since the air – and no doubt the quieter life – would be better for his health. And then in the next few weeks he wrote the string quintet and three sonatas. Could there be some correlation between his health and his inspiration? Certainly, the quintet is one of the loftiest works anyone has ever written under any circumstances.

Today, a composer could brag he (or she) doesn’t write anything unless it’s commissioned or would at least have a performance of it already lined up. We’ve lost that romantic notion of the struggling artist writing for the sheer pleasure of creating art, the product of pure inspiration.

To say Schubert was famous may not be entirely accurate but statements about his being unknown are not exactly truthful, either. His music did not bring him a great deal of money, though his short dance pieces for piano were popular and his songs were well-known, probably circulating more in manuscript copies, the early-19th Century answer to ipods and illegal downloads. By a small group of music lovers, he was certainly respected, but he had difficulties getting his works performed, mostly because he was writing things that were not practical for Vienna in the 1820s: keep in mind, things had gotten tough enough, economically, that even Beethoven threatened to leave for new financial possibilities in Paris or London.

Ironically, the first public, largely professional concert of Schubert’s music was also his last. It took place on March 26th, 1828, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death as it turned out, and included the E-flat Piano Trio, several songs and part-songs including “Auf dem Strom,” after opening with a movement of (presumably) the not-yet-performed G Major String Quartet. The attendance was good, the response, since it was mostly of Schubert’s many friends and acquaintances, enthusiastic, but there was no critical mention of it in the press because all of Vienna (in fact, all of Germany, apparently) was taken up with the five concerts being given by the then-all-the-rage violinist Nicolo Paganini, performances which brought in about 5600 florins per concert. While I have no idea what a florin in 1828 might be worth today, it’s enough to mention that Schubert’s concert brought in 320 florins total, less than 6% of Paganini’s box-office take. For him, he thought he’d done fairly well – not enough as he’d’ve liked, but he was feeling flush enough to plan a couple of summer vacations. Unfortunately, these never came about.

Schubert was convinced that the path to monetary success and artistic recognition was through the operatic stage. For a composer who could write such intensely dramatic songs and telling psychological miniature portraits in his songs (you only need to point out Gretchen am Spinnrad, written when he was 17, to prove that), he couldn’t write a theatrically successful opera if, not to press the analogy, his life depended on it, but he persisted. Even at the end of his life, he continued working on The Count of Gleichen with its lame, cliché-ridden plot and badly written libretto by one of his closest friends. He filled 36 large pages and 52 smaller-sized sheets with sketches and completed sections but it didn’t seem to matter the censors had already rejected the story – shockingly, it included a benign view of a bigamous hero – so even if he might manage to finish it, it wasn’t going to be taken up by any theater in Vienna.

The unfinished D Major Symphony, usually numbered the tenth – there’s no room here for the story of why there had been no 7th Symphony for so long and why the “Great C Major” has appeared as the 9th, 7th and sometimes the 8th – apparently was begun in October ‘28, fragments of three large-scale movements sketched in a “short score” format (like a reduction playable at the piano, but with occasional orchestrational cues written in). The 2nd movement was the “most complete” section but the 3rd movement, labeled a “scherzo” which would imply there would be a 4th movement finale, seems to have morphed into a combination scherzo-and-finale with several large patches of fugal writing, very unusual for Schubert.

Which brings me back to those “counterpoint lessons” Schubert had set up just before he died. When he was working on the Mass in E-flat earlier that year, he had been studying Handel oratorios: Messiah, he’d said, was one of his favorite works. A few months before his death, Schubert told friends about these Handel scores, realizing “Now for the first time, I see what I lack.” He arranged to take lessons with organist Simon Sechter to “make good the omission.”

What was it that Schubert, at the age of 31 and who’d been composing since before he was 13, lacked?

Counterpoint.

Usually, this is assumed to mean “the writing of fugues,” something that by 1828 was pretty old-fashioned already. Composers might insert “a fugal section” to show that they know how to do something academic, that they’ve learned their craft. It might not always sound natural, given the flow of things: Beethoven aside (who at least admitted he approached it “with some license”), I often feel like we should do The Wave whenever a 19th Century composer breaks into a “learnéd” fugue midstream (there’s one in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony of 1885 that usually reduces me to a puddle of giggles).

It's possible the "writing of fugues" was what concerned him, though. In 1826, he had applied for (and not gotten) a post as assistant court composer for church music and had, no doubt, written the Mass in E-flat as an audition piece. But he was passed over for a more senior and more professionally successful composer, Josef Weigl, primarily an opera composer. Perhaps they figured "Schubert - he's what, 29 years old? Let him try again next time..."

When I listen to Schubert’s quintet, it amazes me that he felt so insecure that he had to go study counterpoint. I’m not familiar with his masses – at least the last two “mature” ones – and I’ve heard the Unfinished D Major Symphony (No. 10, D.936a) once or twice on the radio, enough to remember there’s a lot of fugal writing going on in that last movement (though how much of it is what Schubert sketched and how much is part of Brian Newbould’s realization of it, I couldn’t say), but fugues aside, the art of writing melodically and rhythmically independent lines that are interdependent harmonically – a broader definition of counterpoint – is not something Schubert was lacking!

All you have to do is listen to the opening of the second movement.

Here's a live performance with Pinchas Zukerman and friends recorded in Germany in 2006:
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Long slow notes in two- and three-part harmony in the inner voices (as they’d be called, regardless of the fact they’re instruments), with rhythmic filagree-like patterns in the 1st violin that remind me of birdsong, and one cello plucking along on what sounds like the downbeat with the harmonic underpinning. These are three fully defined layers of easily identifiable ‘sound’ – the long slow notes actually turn out to be the melodic layer – that becomes clearer the second time around, about 2½ minutes later, when the “bird-calls” of the 1st violin are replaced by plucked chords answering the cello’s bass line. Then, having taken about 5 minutes to run twice through this theme – speaking of expansive – there’s a sudden change of mood: the violins now have the decidedly more dramatic theme, here, the cellos’ bass-line now more insistent, turning back over on itself, and the middle voices now playing an agitated pattern, filling in the harmony but completely separate, rhythmically, from the outer parts, a far cry from the relaxed contemplation of the first theme.

Why would anybody who could create passages like that feel that insecure about needing to study counterpoint?

Unfortunately, we’ll never know what impact those lessons with Simon Sechter would have on Schubert’s later music. He only took one lesson – on November 4th, 1828. He had already complained of feeling sick the week before but managed to walk the four or five miles to the church where his brother Ferdinand’s Requiem was being performed, not counting a three-hour walk they and the choirmaster took afterwards before walking home (no public transportation to the suburbs in those days). Complaining of feeling tired, understandably, Schubert still felt well enough to walk the mile-or-so to and from his teacher’s house for the counterpoint lesson the next day. That weekend, Schubert attended a friend’s dinner party where much wine was drunk and everybody thought he was feeling pretty good (in any number of ways). By Tuesday of that week, then, he “took to his bed,” did not make it to the next lesson - in fact, never left the house again.

Another friend showed up with a copy of his setting of Psalm 23 which needed some corrections. There was no real anxiety – he had been ill before and had recovered before – and Schubert himself complained only of feeling tired, not of any pain. A few days later, he sat up in bed to make corrections on the publisher’s proofs for the second half of the Winterreise songs – keeping in mind the final song, “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”), one of the most desolate songs in the repertoire. He wrote to his friend Schober, asking if he could borrow any books by American author James Fennimore Cooper which he hadn’t read yet.

Two days later there was, as they say, “a turn for the worse,” presumably after friends came and played Beethoven’s C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131, for him at his request. By the end of the performance, he had become so excited and his condition had deteriorated so rapidly, they put him back in bed. His friend the librettist of The Count of Gleichen came by to visit the next day or so: Schubert had continued to work on it up until that week, and they even talked about another collaboration once he finished this one. Apparently, in these first two weeks of November, he also worked on the sketch for the slow movement of the D Major Symphony, before things got so bad, he was unable to work at all. A few more days passed: on the 18th, Ferdinand wrote later, Schubert began hallucinating, then died the following day. As his friend, the poet Grillparzer wrote for the epitaph, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but far fairer hopes.”

So it is impossible – for me, at least – to listen to this quintet and not dwell on things deeper than the acquisition of contrapuntal skills or on the expansion of harmonic and structural techniques to create a work that lasts between 50 and 60 minutes. Schumann, who didn’t know the quintet existed then, wrote about the “heavenly lengths” of the Great C Major Symphony which Ferdinand showed to him during a visit in 1839. The Quintet, equally heavenly, somehow didn’t surface until 1850. Like the symphony, it was just too long – for the audience but also for the players – and both were first performed in heavily cut, shortened versions.

Igor Stravinsky was never one to mince words about other composers (of Benjamin Britten, he said, “He’s an excellent accompanist”), but when someone asked him if he weren’t “sent to sleep by the prolixities of Schubert,” he replied, “What does it matter if, when I awake, it seems to me that I am in paradise?”

- Dick Strawser

Summermusic 2014: Two C Major Quintets - Part 1: Mozart

(Mozart medallion, 1788)
The third and final concert of Summermusic 2014 is Wednesday evening at 6:00 – yes, that's six o'clock – at the Civic Club of Harrisburg with two great quintets by Mozart and Schubert on the program – Mozart's String Quintet in C, K.515 from 1787 and Schubert String Quintet in C, D.956, one of the greatest works in chamber music (and probably, by many accounts, music in general) and one that was directly inspired by the Mozart quintet on the first half.

If you've been to the two earlier concerts, you've already heard four of our performers – violinists Peter Sirotin (artistic director of Market Square Concerts) and Leonid Ferents (a friend of Peter's from schooldays in Moscow, Leonid's also a violin-maker and recently finished both the violins he and Peter will be playing), violist Michael Stepniak (Dean of the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music) and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee (a member of the Avalon Quartet, he'll be back with his colleagues for our November concert) – and to this we'll add two more: the violist Nicole Sharlow (a.k.a. Principal 2nd Violinist in the Harrisburg Symphony) in the Mozart and the cellist Nadine Trudel (principal cellist of the Sarasota Orchestra who recently premiered her husband's concerto for cello and bass in San Jose) in the Schubert.

If you're unfamiliar with the location or need directions, see the previous post – also if you're wondering what those K. and D. numbers mean. It also has video clips – further down – with live performances of both complete works as well as some background information.

Check here for information about parking in the Civic Club area.

This post is more about the 'biography' behind Mozart's Quintet and the time in his life it was written. You can read the post about Schubert's Quintet, written 41 years later, here. (I mean, the quintet was written 41 years later: the plan is to finish the Schubert post this afternoon.)

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Mozart finished writing this quintet and added it to his “thematic catalogue” on April 19th, 1787. It was to be the first of three such string quintets – they would be offered to the public as a subscription which meant, basically, he would advertise them in the Viennese papers for sale, people would buy or “subscribe” to them and when the works were ready and printed, they would receive their copies of all three quintets. Today, it might be the equivalent of pre-ordering an up-coming release of a best seller on-line. Having completed the C Major, he immediately went to work finishing the G Minor Quintet.

But there were other things going on in Mozart's life at the time.

Perhaps the overriding concern was, as usual with Mozart and his wife, money. Another child – Johann Thomas Leopold – had been born the previous October and Constanze was occasionally ill. They lived in an apartment they could barely afford in Vienna's “Inner City,” a fashionable address close to everything important for Wolfgang's musical life as well as their social life. And Mozart's professional reputation was slipping a bit.

The previous year saw the premiere of his opera The Marriage of Figaro, a very bold new direction for opera at a time when most plots dealt with mythological settings and the main characters were either Greek gods or allegorical figures from the old myths. Even though Figaro is set in the castle of a Spanish nobleman of the 18th Century, the primary movers of the plot are the servants and – to make matters worse – it's the servants who win by outsmarting the aristocrats. The original play by Beaumarchais had been banned in Paris, so the Austrian court of Joseph II, Austrian and Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, was not pleased when the Emperor allowed Mozart's projected opera based on it to go forward.

Keep in mind this fact: Mozart's opera premiered in 1786 and the Bastille fell in 1789.

The storming of a political prison in Paris marked the opening of the French Revolution after a long period of simmering dissatisfaction with the king's government and the wide separation between the aristocrats (say, the 1%) and the middle and lower classes. Also, keep in mind the queen, Marie Antoinette, was Joseph II's younger sister, whether she ever said “let them eat cake” or not. Plus, of course, there was the very real fear that if the French king would lose his throne, such events could spread to other countries across Europe.

Just briefly, the situation in the Austrian Empire – which covered a good deal of Central and Eastern Europe from what is now the Czech Republic and parts of Poland to northern Italy, Hungary and the Balkans to the borders of what was then the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) which also controlled Greece, Bulgaria, much of Romania and Serbia. In addition to an expensive, on-going war against Turkey, there was constant unrest in the Netherlands (part of the Austrian Empire brought about by those Renaissance marriage-treaties) and Hungary (which would continue simmering through the mid-19th Century until the Austrian Empire officially became the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867).

Emperor Joseph II
Joseph II was an “enlightened ruler” who initiated numerous reforms that – in our eyes – seemed progressive and necessary: freedom of speech and thought, religious toleration, “shattering the chains of serfdom,” improving medical care, “making bishops Imperial subjects” plus numerous economic and social reforms (even concerning burial practices) but which fought against centuries-old traditions.

In the mid-1780s – Mozart had arrived in Vienna permanently in 1781 – there were frequent protests against these imperial reforms from the city's conservative factions and it was difficult to avoid political pamphlets being distributed among the people bearing titles like “Why is the Emperor Not Belovèd by his People?”

(If any of this should strike a modern reader as somewhat familiar, you can read more about it in Volkmar Braunbehrens' Mozart in Vienna: 1781-1791, p.312, for more details: if you can find a copy of this book, I highly recommend it.)

In 1786, there had been a popular outcry against Franz Zallheim, a dissolute nobleman and convicted murderer, which resulted in his public execution in gruesome medieval fashion and took place in various locations of Vienna's Inner City. (The fact this went against the Emperor's reforms was also a topic of debate: attacked for his reforms, he was attacked by his supporters for allowing something that went so strongly against his reforms.) Supposedly, it was witnessed by 30,000 people.

The first stage – the reading of the sentence and the application of hot pincers to his flesh – took place a few hundred yards from Mozart's apartment. From there, Zallheim would be led to the “usual place for execution” to be broken on the wheel “from the legs up” until he died, his body then displayed on a gibbet.

That day, Mozart composed two new arias to be added to an impending revival of his 1781 opera, Idomeneo. It's unlikely he would not have been aware of what was happening on his own doorstep.

Mozart had been working on The Marriage of Figaro since the middle of the previous year. Its premiere would take place about seven weeks after Zallheim's execution, meaning the opera was not yet finished and the sprightly overture – one of the happiest pieces in the repertoire – was so far just a gleam in his brain.

Unfortunately, Figaro was not a great success, running for nine performances but not going over well with the bulk of the audience – members of the aristocratic class who, given memory of the popular reaction against Zallheim, one of their own even if he was a murderer, did not feel comfortable seeing another one of their class – the hapless if fictional Count Almaviva – made a fool of by his valet and his wife's maid.

Lorenzo da Ponte, New York, 1830
Fortunately, Mozart was invited to produce Figaro in Prague where, in fact, it was so great a success (fewer aristocrats in the audience, if nothing else) Mozart composed his “Prague” Symphony in gratitude and promised them a new opera for the following year, a second collaboration with a Jewish-born Italian priest who had a penchant for women and gambling named Lorenzo da Ponte (did you know he eventually emigrated to America and was, briefly, a merchant in Sunbury, PA?)

Once back in Vienna, Mozart set to work to rebuild his finances. 1786 had not been a good year, earning 2600 florins, a 30% drop from 1784 which had been a good year. In the fall of '86 he had taken up the idea of a German or English tour but with two small children, this was a challenge.

Then somebody mentioned to him something that had been going on back home in Salzburg, which brings us to the second major issue affecting Mozart's life at this time.

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Leopold & his Children
Leopold Mozart was one of the most (in)famous “stage parents” in music, exploiting his two children – Wolfgang and his sister Maria Anna known to history as Nannerl – taking them around to perform before the crowned heads of Europe from Vienna to Paris and London and the Netherlands. There were numerous trips to Italy, Munich and again Paris – not to mention frequent visits to Vienna – in hopes of finding Wolfgang, now a teenager having outgrown his prodigyhood, a cushy court job (ostensibly a cushy court job for Leopold which would include, as a bonus, his brilliant son). Nannerl, by this time, had gone from being a piano prodigy to being a girl with no professional prospects.

When Mozart broke away from his father in 1781 to move to Vienna (Leopold could not risk following him for fear of losing his job with the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg who, despite history's view of young Mozart, was glad to be rid of the upstart Wolfgang). When Leopold found Wolfgang was interested in marrying a daughter of the Weber family, his primary concern seemed to have been the potential loss of the fortune Mozart might make, the influence the Webers would have over his son instead of him, which was then followed by the concern what dissipation married life might bring would lessen that potential fortune in the second place.

Needless to say they had a serious falling out. Their correspondence was often strained and less frequent.

Meanwhile, Nannerl married a much older nobleman already twice widowed with five children who had an estate outside Salzburg. When her son was born, he was named Leopold after his grandfather, and who remained in his grandfather's house while his mother returned to her husband to raise her five step-children. It was her father's idea to turn “Little Leopold” into another Mozart prodigy: this was to keep this a secret from her brother.

A friend from Salzburg, unaware of this secrecy, mentioned to Wolfgang in passing about his nephew (born in July, 1785) still living with Mozart's father a year later. Whatever Mozart's reaction was to this, it was like the presentation of a solution: he and Constanze could go off to England and leave their two children with Leopold (along with some money and a servant to help cover expenses).

Curiously, the father who planned on turning his daughter's son into a New Mozart was not interested in raising his son's son. In fact, he wrote to Nannerl he was incensed at the idea: why, he fumed, they might decide to stay in London or they might die and he would be stuck with them, and so on in similar fashion.

Now, it's easy to turn Leopold into a monster – certainly Maynard Solomon's biography of Mozart makes the case for it and Peter Schaffer's play and the film based on Amadeus would indicate Mozart had psychological reasons to fear his father. But in these letters, it's quite clear – aside from missing the point of having his own prodigy's son to turn into the Next Generation Prodigy – he was more concerned about the expense of raising his grandchildren than his son dying at an early age in a distant country!

Leopold's response was firm and no doubt disappointing. Plans for a London visit – keep in mind, Haydn's first trip to London wasn't until 1790 – had to be put off if not canceled.

For whatever reason, Mozart did not inform his father of the death of his own recently born son, also named after his father, a second “little Leopold” who suffocated in his crib barely a month after his birth.

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Then news arrived from Salzburg that his father was ill and, it eventually came out, dying. Leopold was 67 and though not well, he described himself in a February letter to Nannerl as just getting older. Even in early May, he wrote to her that he was “no worse” and looking forward to warmer weather and fresh air.

Mozart, recently affected by the death of a fellow Mason, wrote to his father with some alarm and urging him not to keep any news from him, that he would “fly to your arms as quickly as is humanly possible.” This letter was dated April 4th, 1787.

Mozart was not always good about keeping his correspondence so no reply to this letter survives. At any rate, it was the last letter he wrote to his father.

He finished the C Major Quintet on April 19th and on May 16th, the G Minor Quintet, a stormy work as you'd expect in that key (if C Minor was Beethoven's “stormy” key, G Minor was Mozart's – he wrote only two symphonies in a minor key and they are both dramatic and indeed stormy works in G Minor).

Leopold Mozart died on the 28th of May. Though we don't know how long it took the news to reach Vienna, there is no record of Mozart's reaction or his grief, but several days later, there was another death in the Mozart household: his pet starling, the one who could whistle the rondo theme from his G Major Piano Concerto K.453 (although with an inserted sharp where it didn't belong). On June 4th, he wrote a poem about the bird – and was working on a serenade known as Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Shortly after receiving news of his father's death, he wrote its companion piece which he called Ein musikalischer Spass, “A Musical Joke.”

Don Giovanni, punished
The main work of the summer was the new opera, a tragi-comedy called Don Giovanni or Il dissoluto punito which was premiered in Prague at the end of October. In the romantic 19th Century, this was perhaps Mozart's most famous work with its dark undercurrents and especially the whole business of the Statue of the Commendatore (killed by Giovanni in the first act) coming to life and dragging his killer off to Hell.

Enter the pop-psychologists (no pun intended)...

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Anyway, back to the quintet. I had mentioned it was being written for this subscription but as he was finishing up the G Minor quintet in May, Mozart was forced to realize his reputation has sunk far enough that, as a business venture, his offering up three – count 'em, three – major pieces of chamber music, following on the success of the six quartets dedicated to Haydn published in 1785, there was not enough money coming in to warrant continuing the offer.

So he had take to the humiliating route of placing an ad in the newspaper announcing the subscription was canceled.

He did not bother writing a third quintet!

What was happening to Mozart? Though Figaro was a success in Prague, it went over poorly in Vienna. He was giving fewer concerts now and his income had fallen sharply – by 30%, as I'd mentioned, comparing figures from 1784 and 1786. Given the initial success of Abduction from the Seraglio and his having written other if shorter operas, he was still only the seventh most performed composer in Vienna – unfortunately, I can find no record in the biographies I have that mention who the top six were. Certainly they won't be names we would've heard in our modern concert halls and opera houses much less even recognize.

But that's for a continuation of the story – perhaps the C Major Quintet is one of the last happy pieces he could compose in happy circumstances.

Five days after he completes K.515, he, Constanze and his surviving son, Karl Thomas, moved into more affordable quarters in a still stylish but cheaper suburb of Vienna.

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Oh, and one other event occurred between April 4th, when he wrote that last letter to his father, and April 19th, when he completed the Quintet in C Major.

A young fellow from Bonn arrived in Vienna on April 7th, a 16-year-old pianist and composer (and apparently quite an impressive improviser) named Ludwig van Beethoven. Too young to be on his own, yet, Beethoven's primary goal from this trip was to make himself known, meet Mozart and play for him and perhaps arrange at some future point a chance to study with him.

Mozart had, after all, taken on a young pianist – Johann Nepomuck Hummel, an 8-year-old prodigy – as a live-in student during the previous year.

Unfortunately, before two weeks had passed, Beethoven received a letter from his father saying his mother was dying and so the trip was cut short: Beethoven immediately returned to Bonn.

Whether Mozart actually heard Beethoven play is not known though there are many legends about it – especially from some of Beethoven's friends, though Beethoven himself never mentioned it. And surely, if he had, wouldn't you think he'd be bragging that even the great Mozart had said of him, “Surely here is someone who will someday make a noise in the world”?

By the time Beethoven was able to settle things with his family (his father, being incompetent and an alcoholic, was unable to care for his three sons and so Ludwig became the family bread-winner), he once again planned on going to Vienna to study with Mozart. Only by that time, Mozart had died. So he did the next best thing – he studied with the other great composer we know from this period, Franz Josef Haydn.

But it's very clear, looking at Beethoven's early works between 1792 and 1800 (if not beyond) that he learned much more from studying and performing Mozart's music.

And how did Mozart's C Major Quintet – on the first half of Wednesday's concert – impact Franz Schubert's C Major Quintet on the second half?

Read the post about Schubert's Quintet here, including an example of "borrowing" from the Mozart Quintet.

- Dick Strawser

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image credits: the original Mozart boxwood medallion from 1788 disappeared during World War II - this photo is of a copy made from the original; the portrait of Lorenzo da Ponte, painted in New York in 1830 by Thomas Morse, hangs in the New York Yacht Club and was found at the DaPonte Center's website in Austria; the photo of the Commendatore's visit to Don Giovanni's for dinner is from the Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart and Da Ponte's opera and was found (apparently uncredited) at Minnesota Public Radio's 2012 posting re:the Met broadcast.