Tuesday, March 31, 2009

This Weekend's Music

While the Guarneri Quartet is wrapping up their Farewell Tour -- their performance this Sunday at 4pm at the Market Square Presbyterian Church will be one of their last concerts anywhere -- Sunday is also, according to Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed's proclamation, "Lucy Miller Murray Day," celebrating her contribution to the musical life of Central Pennsylvania.

Not only did she start Market Square Concerts 27 years ago and been running it up until this season, having passed the baton to Ellen Hughes, now, Lucy has also turned pages for numerous pianists and written extensive program notes for the series. Though she's never been able to parlay her page-turning expertise into a second career, she has taken her extensive collection of program notes and compiled them into a marvelous book called Adams to Zemlinsky: A Friendly Guide to Chamber Music which you can order here.

Here are her notes for this weekend's concert:

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 74, No. 3 “The Rider”

Haydn’s voluminous output alone does not explain his powerful musical and cultural influence. His 83 string quartets, though daunting in number, are also overwhelming in their stylistic breadth and ingenuity. They move across the boundaries of the Baroque and the Classical and, as suggested by the Op. 74 quartets, even suggest the dawn of Romanticism.

The move to a freer, more emotional expression was occasioned by the end of Haydn’s 29-year tenure as Kappelmeister in the court of the Hungarian aristocrat, Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. That, coupled with two highly successful visits to London, gave Haydn a wider musical exposure. For the first time he heard music played in public halls by professional musicians for a general public. This more democratic approach to music freed him from the decorative style demanded by the aristocratic amateur players and audiences. Prior to this, however, Haydn’s music had already taken on new emotional depths as a result of a philosophical influence that stressed the importance of faith and the senses as opposed to the logic and reason of the Enlightenment.

Shortly after returning from his first visit to London, Haydn was invited to compose a set of string quartets for his friend Count Anton Apponyi, a relative of the Esterházys. The invitation resulted in the three quartets of Op. 71 and the three of Op. 74, appropriately called the “Apponyi Quartets.” They were composed in the summer of 1793 in time for a triumphant return to London where they were received with great acclaim. With their more exaggerated emotional content marked by sharp harmonic contrasts, easily identifiable melodies, brilliant part writing, and faster tempos, here was music the public grasped.

In Op. 74, No. 3, we are called to attention by the opening three chords followed by a dramatic silence, a motto Haydn uses again and again in more than an introductory way. The first and the last movements with their rocking rhythms give the quartet its nickname, “Rider,” but the exquisite Largo assai is the soul of the work with its modulations from major to minor and its elaborate use of scales and arpeggios. Spiritual and noble, the slow movement is a monument of string quartet writing. The following Menuetto wears its crown lightly but still reveals Haydn as a master of counterpoint. Then we are thrust into the powerful Finale and take a wild gallop to the end.

(While 2009 marks the 200th Anniversary of the death of Franz Josef Haydn, today - March 31st - is the 277th Anniversary of the birth of the composer known not only as the Father of the Symphony but also the Father of the String Quartet -- Dr. Dick.)

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10

In his The Literarture of Chamber Music, Arthur Cohn makes a telling statement about Zoltán Kodály: No more fastidious composer exists in the field of 20th century music. Kodály’s musical glossary furnishes one of the best illustrations of authentic, national musical language. He has no intellectual artificialities; the music pours out in free style yet is as balanced as the most precise phrase that Mozart fashioned. It is a tamed music but roams freely on the tether of subtle Hungarian accent. Kodály is the Schubert of Hungarian music as Bartók is its Beethoven.

Kodály spent most of his life in his birthplace, Budapest, where he studied at both the University of Budapest and the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. The exception to this were his years in Paris where he studied with Charles Widor and was influenced by the music of Debussy. He returned to Budapest in 1907 to teach at the Academy of Music and to champion the cause of Hungarian music. Around this time he also befriended Bélá Bartók, and the two began their life-long study of Hungarian folk music. Like Bartók, however, Kodály was no simple imitator of folk melodies. In a 1955 speech, his telling comment on this subject was: “The music of the people…can be lifted out from beneath the rubbish heaped on top of it, and a higher art can be built upon it.”

Kodály’s “higher art” is readily evident in his String Quartet No. 2 composed in 1917. That war-ridden time might also explain the work’s prevailing darkness. In a 1946 lecture, Kodály himself commented, “There is no better stimulus for artistic work than suffering.” Indeed, Kodály suffered through both World War I and World War II in his native Hungary without losing his inspiration for composing or for the championing of Hungarian music. Referring to his own work in another lecture, he stated: “Some day the ringing tower of Hungarian music is going to stand. And if in its pedestal some of these stones will be lying and the rest destroyed, I shall regard without concern the night of my deep grave.” When he died in Budapest in 1967, he was one the most respected figures in Hungarian music and remains so today.

Together with its darkness, the first movement of the String Quartet No. 2 reflects modernity. We hear 20th century harmony yet, almost mysteriously, Kodály retains a certain lyricism. So, too, do we hear the influence of Debussy with even hints of bird song. Comparison, however, should not detract from its sheer originality.

In the second movement, Kodály takes a stronger stance with startling solos for violin, forceful cello statements, and dramatic pauses for all. Sonority is fully explored from the highest to the lowest ranges. The suggestion of a folk dance lightens things at the end but not at expense of dramatic effectiveness.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Quartet in F Major

“Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second,” said Ravel. That statement aside, his sole string quartet is elegantly crafted in Classical sonata form reminiscent of Mozart. Superimposed on that form are the gorgeous tonal colors and effects we associate with this twentieth century French master with an interest in music of the Far East.

The first movement opens with a rich melody shared by the four instruments and then handed to the first violin over rapid figures by the second violin and viola. An exciting tonal effect occurs when the violin and viola play two octaves apart. In the second movement, Ravel’s love of the exotic reveals itself in the suggestion of a Javanese gamelan orchestra. The rhapsodic third movement includes a reference to the opening melody, thus preserving form but always in lustrous and ever-changing colors. Stemming from a five-beat meter, the restlessness of the last movement is ended by a return to the first movement theme. Structure is not all, however, since the ravishing melodies and tonal colors remind us that this work is, indeed, emotional first and intellectual second.

Written in 1902-03 when Ravel was still a student at the Paris Conservatoire, the work is dedicated to his mentor Fauré who took issue with the last movement. Debussy, on the other hand, said to his younger colleague, “In the name of God, I implore you not to change a note of your quartet.” This encouragement is interesting in light of the endless comparisons that would be made between the Debussy and Ravel quartets, a comparison that led to a frosty relationship between the two composers. Ravel would comment, “It’s probably better for us, after all, to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons.” Yet the coupling of the two quartets on recordings continues to this day.

Ravel’s Quartet was premiered in Paris on March 5, 1904. That the Guarneri Quartet ends its 45-year career with performances of this work, as well as the two preceding it, confirms a great heritage.

©2009 Lucy Miller Murray

Lucy Miller Murray is founder of Market Square Concerts in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and served as director from 1982 to 2009. Her book, Adams to Zemlinsky: A Friendly Guide to Chamber Music, was published by Concert Artists Guild of New York and is available at amazon.com. A second edition is forthcoming.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Guarneri Quartet: Getting Started

Hard to believe this weekend will be the last concert of the season for Market Square Concerts.

Harder to believe is it's the last opportunity for Harrisburg audiences to hear one of the legendary string quartets of our time. The Guarneri Quartet will be performing at 4pm Sunday afternoon at Market Square Church in what will be one of their last performances. The end of the 2008-2009 Season marks their retirement after 45 years of playing before the public.

My previous post looked at the "life cycle" of a string quartet. This one looks at how the Guarneri Quartet itself got started. There'll be another post soon about the music on the program: Haydn's "Rider" Quartet, Dohnanyi's 2nd Quartet (from their latest recording) and Ravel's Quartet.

Incidentally, you can read Guarneri violinist Arnold Steinhardt's blog, Fiddler's Beat, at his website (just follow the link at the bottom of the home-page).

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Some string quartets slowly come into existence, evolving out of a bunch of friends hanging out together who started playing through stuff and then decided to branch out beyond that weekend’s reading session or wedding gig.

Other quartets are brought into being by a higher power – usually a teacher or mentor – who points at them and says “You – form a quartet and play this program.”

Careers may begin with a big bang or, more likely, take years of hard work and promotion before they start receiving recognition, a long process during which more quartets will just give up trying.

Along the way, there might be some good reviews, a competition, acceptance by a high-powered agent, maybe even a lucky break with a big-name endorsement. Maybe a quartet or two got their big Carnegie Hall debut concerts by sitting around a mid-town Manhattan soda fountain the way Hollywood starlets got movie contracts in years gone by, but I wouldn’t suggest making it part of the plan.

In 1964, three violinists in their late-20s who’d all been students together at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute for Music – Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley and Michael Tree – went to the Marlboro Music Festival. Like a roster of available participants, each musician played chamber music with different combinations of instruments and players.

Tree was interested in playing the viola and sometimes played violin, sometimes the viola, worried about the changes one needed to make physically, musically and temperamentally when switching between instruments on the same program. With his friends, he played quartets with a borrowed viola. Joined by cellist David Soyer, a few years their senior, they filled out the Mendelssohn Octet for the Budapest Quartet, one of the greatest quartets of all times, who was mentoring the festival along with the likes of pianist Rulolph Serkin and other famous musicians.

It was cellist Mischa Schneider (who’d been in the Budapest Quartet for 34 years then) who was first impressed by their interpretation. It seems these four young players came into the first rehearsal fully formed with their own interpretation, not like four players put together who would need to be taught and molded into the overall plan. It was 2nd Violinist Alexander Schneider (who even after his years in the quartet went on to mentor young string players until his death in 1998) who said they should form their own quartet.

So they did.

They took their name from the family of violin makers in Cremona, Italy, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Guarneri Family. By then, cellist David Soyer owned a cello made by Andrea Guarneri. But Michael Tree, who chose to play viola, didn’t even own a viola at the time and had to borrow instruments for the first few years.

(There’s a rumor going around that the three violinists had decided who would play viola by a coin-toss, which Tree says was absolutely not true: he was exploring playing the viola and was all too happy to become the group’s violist.)

In the next few seasons, with the endorsement by the Budapest Quartet, the newly-minted Guarneri Quartet – who also learned aspects of moderation and even temperament from their mentors which they also applied to the non-musical aspects of their relationship – performed at the Spoleto Festival, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and made some recordings for RCA.

Unlike most young quartets (both in terms of the quartet’s newness, their collective youth as well as their individual experience), the Guarneri had managed to soften the rough edges usually associated with newness. They sounded like an already mature ensemble.

The producer of their recordings urged pianist Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of all time and then “pushing” 80, to listen to the Guarneri’s recording. He was more than impressed: he wanted to record with them.
So one day they got together and played through the Brahms Quintet, perhaps the most famous of all works for piano and string quartet. Rubinstein was almost 80, the quartet members ranged from 29 to 43. And yet it was a perfect match. They recorded it shortly afterward. At the end of that session, Rubinstein said he wanted to do the Schumann Quintet with them, too, so they read through that and recorded it the next day.

One could say “the rest is history.”
In addition to two recordings of the Complete Beethoven Quartets and the Mozart “Haydn” Quartets (both for RCA and for Philips), the complete Brahms String Quartets, String Quintets, plus the Piano Quartets and the Piano Quintet, the major Schubert Quartets and the String Quintet, plus the quartets of Schumann and Bartok along with the single quartets of Debussy and Ravel, there are recordings of the complete quartets of Arriaga (a Spanish composer who died before he was 20) and Leoš Janáček as well as quartets by Sibelius, Grieg and Verdi that are not often heard or recorded. You can find out more about some of their recordings available on-line here.

Their latest recording, released in February 2009 to coincide with their Farewell Tour, is SONY’s “Hungarian Album” which features three quartets including two by Ernő Dohnányi (his String Quartet No. 2 in D-flat Major, Op. 15 and String Quartet No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 33) plus Zoltán Kodály's String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10. The Kodaly is on the program this weekend with Market Square Concerts, along with Haydn’s “Rider” Quartet and Ravel’s Quartet.

Violinist Arnold Steinhardt, incidentally, has some recordings that are made available at his website’s quartet page: these are recordings you can download from some of their LPs which have never been transferred to CD before! You can sample them or purchase them. Enjoy!

- Dr. Dick
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Photo information: Top - Guarneri Quartet in 1965, the year after their founding (photo by Helen Wright).
2nd - The Guarneri Quartet in Munich in 1969 (photo by Irving Fisher)
3rd - recording with Artur Rubinstein from a 1971 recording session (photo by Dorothea von Haeften)
4th - the quartet in a cross-over pose (found at Arnold Steinhardt's website, presumably 1969 by Irving Fisher)

The Life Cycle of a String Quartet

One of the great quartets in the world of chamber music is drawing the curtain closed at the end of this season. The Guarneri Quartet has been playing for 45 years and the four members of the quartet decided that 2008-2009 will be their last season together. They’ll be performing one of their last concerts (ever) this Sunday afternoon at 4pm at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg. (This is my first post about the concert: there will be others, so check back.)

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The Life Cycle of the String Quartet

Locating them in their natural habitat may not be difficult, but there is no one field guide that I know of which will help you identify a string quartet just by listening to them, nor give you particulars of their range, identifying characteristics nor even any information about their life cycle.

First of all, how does a string quartet’s life begin?

Very often, friends will get together to play, perhaps as students, decide the chemistry works well, find themselves a name and, if they decide to pursue something beyond the local scene, an agent. Having a cool name helps, have good chemistry is essential – and the agent, a necessity.

Giving concerts puts them before the public and with any luck some influential critics. Winning a few competitions doesn’t hurt. In fact, today it too is almost a necessity.

Eventually, the quartet will be performing in better and bigger halls in larger and more important cities and, with any luck, drawing in some money to make worthwhile all the time spent practicing and rehearsing and performing, working the repertoire into shape for either the discerning public or the competition judges and dealing with internal issues ranging from interpretation to the conflicts that inevitably arise when four different people – possibly with four different personalities and temperaments – spend so much time together, like any other deeply committed relationship.

Lucky ones get to make recordings. Luckier ones get to keep theirs active in the catalogue (neither is so easy today).

The more famous a quartet becomes, the busier it gets, the more demands it creates on its own inner workings but also in the life-outside-the-ensemble of each component member. One quartet player described working with his colleagues as being “like a second marriage.” It is difficult to be on the road when the spouse is left home and the children are growing up. Fortunately today, while tours may be more numerous, they do not require the travel time they once took, chewing up great chunks of the calendar year. And now there are cell-phones and e-mail to help them stay connected with the roots at home.

There are probably no statistics kept anywhere that would indicate how many quartets are born to compare that to how many quartets, for instance, are performing in any one season. But the names of only a few of them will reach the Top Shelf.

How quartets die, metaphorically speaking, is easier to explain. Many simply disband at an early age, whether for lack of success if not failure, or because the chemistry sours, reality bites or individual career paths change as the members decide to pursue the less challenging world of the solo performer where there is only one person to argue with about phrasing, dynamics or repertoire.

If a quartet is a single musical organism made up of four individuals, what happens when one member leaves – for whatever reason – and has to be replaced?

For many groups it’s the equivalent of transplant surgery: the process is one thing, the period waiting for the newly transplanted member to take (or not be rejected) is another. Sometimes this works and other times it can lead to the nastiest blood-letting from which the patient would be lucky to survive.

Sometimes, quartets change their personal and reconstitute themselves as almost wholly new ensembles. Ralph Evans, the 1st Violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet which was founded in 1946, actually grew up listening to the recording made by the original Fine Arts Quartet. Now, there is a whole new generation of players carrying on the name.

The Juilliard Quartet has undergone similar re-configurations since it, too, was formed in 1946: its founding 1st violinist, Robert Mann, retired after 50 seasons with the ensemble. When they performed with Market Square Concerts during their 60th Anniversary season (and Market Square Concert’s 25th), Ronald Copes, the most recent “New Guy,” had already been with the group nine years. But now, Joel Smirnoff, the current 1st violinist, will be leaving at the end of this season to take on the role of president of the Cleveland Institute of Music (moving on to bigger and more extensive organizational issues), to be replaced by the Next New Guy, Nicholas Eanet, 36 years old and a former student of Robert Mann’s.

And so life goes on.

Each significant anniversary is approached with a justifiable celebration, perhaps new recordings or a series of re-issued recordings (at least in the days when that part of the business was still industrious) and a tour similar to a victory lap. There are inevitable comparisons to its own past and questions raised about its future: a quartet at this stage of its life never has the chance to just relax in the present.

Other quartets make it to a ripe old age which in the world of classical music, where the composers themselves are often 100 to 250 years old, is not so easy to define in merely mortal terms. Standard definitions according to Social Security or political term limitations need not apply. There is no determining formula to combine the quartet’s number of years spent before the public multiplied by the age of its individual members to come up with a Quartet Longevity Index.

So after so many years together, the question must be faced, eventually, “when is it time?”

If the members agree that it would be better to disband and retire at a certain point rather than reconfigure itself into a new generation, the passing of the quartet is filled with more than just nostalgia. This time, if the public is lucky, there will also be one more victory lap that becomes an emotional long farewell. You would think it would just be easier to put out a press release announcing its retirement but this would be read by its fans like an obituary of a dear friend, never getting the chance to hear them one last time, to say good-bye.

The Guarneri Quartet has decided this season will be its last. Was it a momentous decision made after much soul-searching?

Not exactly. As violist Michael Tree explained in an interview last autumn, about the decision they reached in June, 2007.

"It was last spring in New York, about five minutes before we were due on-stage. The thought was raised that we might consider ending our careers on what we hoped was a high note. And that was that. We all had similar feelings, and one of the things we've learned over the years is to keep discussion to a minimum."

After 45 years and with only one personnel change in its history, the Guarneri Quartet is in the process of taking that final tour. This Sunday is our chance to celebrate all those great years of music-making and say good-bye.

Need I add, “don’t miss it”?

You can now read how the Guarneri Quartet got its start.

- Dr. Dick

Friday, March 27, 2009

Music for Lee Hoiby Fans: Some Suggestions

Since last weekend’s concert with the Dorian Quintet and Stuart Malina playing his Sextet for Winds & Piano, several people have told me they became “Hoiby Fans” that night, asking me what I’d recommend to build up their library, adding some of his music to their collections.

On my blog at Thoughts on a Train, you can read about my chance to visit with Lee Hoiby who was able to come to Harrisburg for the concert: we had dinner with him before and a brief chance to chat afterward as well. Several people enjoyed meeting him and hearing him talk in the post-concert Q&A and no one seems to believe his birth-date was correct in the program.

Some believe there really are only two types of music, whoever said it first – good and bad. I like all kinds of music but just because I like Elliott Carter’s music doesn’t mean I’m not going to like Lee Hoiby’s music. There are lots of modern “atonal” – gnarly, difficult – composers whose music I don’t care for just as there’s a great deal of tonal – tuneful, accessible – composers whose music I also don’t care for. Perhaps a better way of delineating “good or bad” would be to say “sincere or insincere.” It’s not a degree of talent, either: it’s the ability to connect with a listener, an intangible talent that cannot be taught and which few of us learn.

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First of all, Lee Hoiby's Sextet has been recorded by the Dorians with the composer at the piano, available on the Summit label. Another earlier work of his, a very delightful and typically tuneful work called “Diversions” is available on another Summit CD.

Among his other instrumental works, I would highly recommend his 1st Piano Concerto, written in the mid-1950s, which was on the Citadel label with other American composers’ works for piano and orchestra but appears to be out-of-print now. I listened to the other pieces once but come back to Hoiby’s concerto often: it’s a favorite of mine and I loved playing it on the radio. If you can find it in back-stock or get it from a dealer, I highly recommend it. I would hope it would be reissued soon or perhaps a new recording made of it. It’s absolutely delightful: the first movement is especially wonderful in its lyricism and the last movement just keeps me smiling from beginning to end.

Another CD offers his 2nd Piano Concerto, a more substantial piece, perhaps, along with a solo piano work, the “Schubert Variations” and the Violin Sonata, all of which I also highly recommend.

Hoiby is best known as a writer for the voice. Having worked with Gian-Carlo Menotti when he was in his 20s, involved in the production of several of his teacher’s operas from that decade, he has produced many fine operas himself – in fact, the few I have heard I find more sustaining than several of Menotti’s later works. His newest recording is his setting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Shakespeare's text adapted by his partner and librettist Mark Shulgasser, recorded in full on the Albany label and just released earlier this month. I have not, because of my schedule, had the time to sit down and devour it whole (wanting, also, to read the original Shakespeare before listening to each of its three acts). Still, you’re going along with the business of staged theater set to music which may suffer a bit if you can’t see it (directly or indirectly) and then suddenly you’ll hear something jaw-droppingly beautiful that transcends any limitations opera-on-CD might have for people unfamiliar with the work.

The Tempest was completed in 1984 but not recorded till now, following a recent staging at SUNY Purchase – with a surprisingly good cast in all the roles. More recently, he and Mark have collaborated on another Shakespeare opera, Romeo & Juliet, finished in 2004 but still looking for a premiere production. Lee himself described it as “the best of the lot.”

Of his earlier operas, Summer and Smoke (setting Tennessee Williams’ play) is not recorded (or at least not available) except for the “Anatomy Lesson” scene. It had been produced for PBS in the 1980s when they did that sort of thing and it would be great if this could be released as a DVD.

A Month in the Country (originally produced as Natalia Petrovna) is based on a Turgenev story. At the moment, one of my annoyances is dealing with several boxes of still unpacked CDs which is where my copy must be lurking: I wanted to check the final scene which as I recall had another of those drop-dead gorgeous ensembles (an octet?).

For those who might be unwilling to drop themselves into a full-length opera, here is a CD with two one-act operas, recorded by the Eastman Opera Theater, including his lively setting of an episode from Julia Child’s TV show, Bon Appetit!, which captures Hoiby’s wit and ability to roll with the energy of his subject. I’m not familiar with This Is the Rill Speaking which fills out the double-bill here, not that I need to be to recommend it.

If you are familiar with the music of Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti, then you should have no problem enjoying the music of Lee Hoiby. Barber is without a doubt America’s greatest composer of songs. Hoiby excels with these miniatures. His latest collection of songs was recently released on the Naxos label, called “A Pocket of Time” which includes 21 songs and a duet (incidentally, from the opera A Month in the Country). Recorded two years ago with the composer at the piano, this is a wonderful recording for any Hoiby fan to have.

As a musician always looking for reinforcement, two of the most inspiring works I’ve ever heard – the equivalent of an artistic anthem crossing all national boundary lines – would be Schubert’s An die Musik (not just because it’s Schubert but anything called “To Music” should be listened to as a Daily Affirmation) – listen to this YouTube compilation of tenor Fritz Wunderlich with translation in the foot-notes – and the Composer’s Aria from Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, which got me through many low-points in my career (here is Tatyana Troyanos singing it from a Metropolitan TV Broadcast in 1988).

Now I’ve added a third musical prayer – Lee Hoiby’s song “Where the Music Comes From,” the sixth song on this Naxos album, which I’ve listened to probably 10-12 times a day this past week. It’s not “about” music – in fact, music is only the first line – but it speaks perhaps to the importance of music as just one aspect of what sustains us. It’s the composer’s own text:
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I want to be where the music comes from

Where the clock stops where it’s now.

I want to be with the friends around me,

Who have found me, who show me how.

I want to sing to the early morning

See the sunlight melt the snow.

And oh, I want to grow.

I want to wake to the living spirit

Here inside me where it lies.

I want to listen till I can hear it.

Let it guide me and realize

That I can go with the flow unending

That is blending, that is real.

And oh, I want to feel.

I want to walk in the earthly garden

Far from cities far from fear.
I want to talk to the growing garden,

To the devas, to the deer.

And to be one with the river flowing

Breezes blowing sky above.

And oh, I want to love.

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The song itself is as simple as it could be, three slightly varied strophes that begin with one of those circular accompanimental patterns that Schubert might have used to set the mood just before the voice enters. I could imagine the composer sitting at the piano and coming up with this pattern, wondering where it could go and before realizing the clock had not indeed stopped, he had completed this song (if it took him hours of sweat to work out the details, it certainly doesn’t show).

If some of the other songs on this album – especially “The Lamb,” “In the Wand of the Wind,” and “Lady of the Harbor” along with the emotional impact of his “Last Letter Home” – hadn’t reminded me that Lee Hoiby is one of the finest composers of songs in this country, this one showed me why. It may sound no more modern than if Schubert had written it himself – aside from a characteristic modal inflection now and then – but it wasn’t written by somebody out to imitate Schubert’s style: it was written by someone who understands Schubert’s heart.

Jay Nordlinger’s witty liner notes quote Hoiby calling this “my Cat Stevens song” :-) and concludes with the observation
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“I have heard a number of singers sing Hoiby songs. But the best singer of them, I have to tell you, is Hoiby himself – even now, even in his eighties. ...More than once I have heard him sing ‘Where the Music Comes From’ which, from his throat, becomes a personal prayer: a prayer for direction and growth. Once you’ve heard him sing it, the song gets under your skin. Of course, it gets under your skin anyway, as does so much of the music of this remarkable, individual man.”
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Not striving for any sense of completeness, I want to mention there’s also a new collection coming out on April 1st with soprano Ursula Kleinecke-Boyer that also includes “Where the Music Comes From” and other selections also included on the “Pocket of Time” disc among others, but also includes what is probably his most performed (in fact, maybe even over-performed, at the expense of other songs overlooked), “The Serpent.”

There’s a story that a voice coach once told him “If you throw a brick out of a window on the Upper West Side, you will probably hit a soprano who has learned ‘The Serpent.’” For some reason, I have actually never heard this song – and since Ms. Kleinecke-Boyer’s disc ends with it, I will have to add it to my collection just to feel... well, a little more complete about it.

One of Hoiby’s great champions was the soprano Leontyne Price, one of America’s greatest opera singers ever and who, early in her career, premiered Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, arguably the finest songs written by an American composer, and for whom Barber created the role of Cleopatra in 1966 for the Met-opening Antony & Cleopatra. For her, Hoiby wrote a set of songs called simply “Songs for Leontyne” which she included in her 1965 Carnegie Hall debut, a recording only recently issued on the RCA label called “Price re-Discovered.”

Two of those songs are included in the Naxos “Pocket” CD – along with the anecdote about Ms. Price and the composer performing the song “Evening” at a party. Afterward, the soprano told the composer “You played that awfully fast,” to which he replied, “That’s the way it goes, Leontyne.”

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tanya Bannister Returns to Harrisburg

If you heard Tanya Bannister’s Market Square Concerts recital in January of 2008 at Market Square Church, you might want to know she’s playing a concerto this weekend with the Harrisburg Symphony!

Last year, she played the “Handel” Variations of Johannes Brahms, several pieces by Chopin and a piece that she had premiered, written for her by Christopher Theofanidis, “All Dreams Begin With a Horizon.”

This weekend, it will be Mozart on the program with Stuart Malina conducting the Harrisburg Symphony: the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, one of Mozart’s most popular concertos if not one of his finest. (You can read my up-close-and-personal post at Thoughts on a Train here.)

This is a work Mozart himself regarded very highly. It’s one of three concertos he composed in a few months’ span around the same time he was writing the opera, The Marriage of Figaro with which the A Major Concerto shares a good deal of its lively spirit.

The symphony’s concerts will be held at the Forum on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm.

Also on the program, Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin,” the Serenade for Winds by Richard Strauss (the one he wrote when he was 17) and a rather light-hearted symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich (compared to most of his other large-scale dramatic symphonic works) even though it bears the Beethoven-haunted number “9.” (You can read more about Shostakovich's 9th here.)

At her website, you can hear her play Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Incidentally, for this concert the Harrisburg Symphony is joining the nationwide food drive, Orchestras Feeding America. Please consider bringing canned goods and dried food items that can be donated to the cause when you come to the concert. You can find a list of recommended items on this page.

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Composer in the Audience

When Ellen Hughes made her opening remarks from the Whitaker stage to start last night’s performance with the Dorian Wind Quintet, she mentioned Stuart Malina was going to join them for the Sextet for Winds and Piano by Lee Hoiby. Then she announced we were quite lucky to have the composer with us in the audience.

The ripple of awareness that immediately charged through the auditorium was not only something you could hear – that whisper of surprise and anticipation – but see as many people started looking around, craning their necks to see someone, somewhere, who looked like a composer.

It seemed to add some excitement to the proceedings and it was nice to sense. How many people years ago had told me “the only good composer is a dead composer”? And by that they usually meant long dead. We had become a rather necromusical society, afraid of the new.

Maybe there is something about seeing a real person rather than an idealized portrait or marble bust or hearing the person who created this music talk to us about it that helps us enjoy it more. Does someone who looks just like anybody else in the audience make the music more relevant to us? It may not have that sense of an old friend – hearing a Beethoven quartet, for instance – but it may help us step out onto some new journey, to go some place you’ve never been before with someone you feel you can trust.

It helped that the work was given a committed performance by players who clearly enjoyed what they were doing. Perhaps knowing the composer was listening to them gave them an extra spark – two of them had been involved in the work’s premiere or previous performances they’d given with the composer himself at the piano, so for them it was very much a more personal experience than playing something written not quite 200 years ago by someone dead so long it’s difficult to imagine he was ever a real person.

While music for woodwinds is often bright and perky (too much of it, alas, reminds me of ‘cartoon music’ because that perkiness is something a woodwind quintet can do quite well), Hoiby’s music, in addition to having its perky moments – there’s a recurring rhythmic passage in the first movement that had heads bopping and hands tapping – also has its very deeply felt and serious moments, going beyond the merely pretty. If the rhythmic elements of the opening got your brain charged, the second theme – which I can only describe as “gorgeous” – went right to the heart. The second of its two movements, a set of variations, had enough variety in it to be both slow movement and finale. Two highlights were the clarinet and piano’s duet and the piano’s solo variation which spoke directly to the soul.

It’s not “because it was a tonal work” that this could happen. Whatever the musical style, it succeeded because the composer knew how to use his language, to make it connect between the players and the listeners.

At the “Q&A” afterward, the bassoonist mentioned how well his part “lies under the fingers” (which means it feels natural to play it, nothing dauntingly challenging). Hoiby explained how, even as they were rehearsing the piece for its first performance, he would ask the wind players how comfortable was a certain passage to play. “I’m a pianist,” he explained, “and if there’s one instrument I’m comfortable writing for, it’s the piano. But I don’t play the violin or the horn or the bassoon, so I often ask players about this or that.”

He said they did make suggestions and he did make changes because the point is to write something they’ll want to play. It doesn’t mean he’s writing something easy to play but he sees no point in writing something that is such a challenge to play, something that may be so unrealistic – I was thinking of Beethoven’s response to his first violinist’s suggestion about a passage in one of the quartets when Beethoven told him “What do I care for you and your lousy fiddle?” – they’d go out on stage with a sense of dread (and it’s very hard to play the clarinet while gritting your teeth).

As for the pianist’s role, Stuart Malina can attest it’s no “back-seat” piano part, easy to toss off. But learning the notes, you realize also how well it too “lies under the fingers,” something that can only be achieved by a composer who knows the instrument.

There were many students in the audience and several of them stayed to greet the players and the composer afterward. One student was sitting at the end of the row Hoiby and I were in, taking notes probably as part of a class assignment. When I asked if we could move some seats around so the composer could be on the aisle, going up to take a bow, this student ended up sitting next to the composer. Before the second half began, I heard Lee talking about how he wrote the piece, when they performed it, a steady stream of conversation till the lights went down. That’s one student, I suspect, who’ll have a different insight into the experience last night than anyone else there. Can you imagine what it’d be like, going to a recital of Schubert songs and finding yourself sitting next to Schubert?

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In a span of two weeks, recently, Harrisburg audiences heard the world premieres of works by Philip Glass and Shulamit Ran. While there was disappointment Glass couldn’t be here, there was genuine enthusiasm to hear Ms. Ran talk about her composition. George Crumb attended the Market Square Concerts performance of an all-Crumb program with Orchestra 2001 in November that was very warmly received. Jeremy Gill (whom we usually describe as Harrisburg’s Own) came home to talk about a short work of his, the “Eliot Fragments,” on January’s concert when Matthew Bengtson also played works by Elliott Carter and György Ligeti as well as Bach (Gill’s 1st Symphony, btw, will be performed by the Harrisburg Symphony in May).

And who can forget the rousing enthusiasm that roared its approval when Jennifer Higdon took her bow last year after the Harrisburg Symphony played a dazzling performance of her Percussion Concerto? (Is it too soon to say there’s a work by Jennifer Higdon on Market Square Concert’s next season when the Cypress Quartet comes to town?)

-- Dr. Dick

P.S. You can also read my post A Visit with Lee Hoiby over at Thoughts on a Train.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Weekend Up-Date with Lee Hoiby & Antonin Reicha, FOB

It’s official – we’ll have a live composer at this weekend’s Market Square Concerts performance with the Dorian Wind Quintet and pianist Stuart Malina, Saturday evening at 8:00 at Whitaker Center.

But since there are two living composers on this program, I should clarify that: Lee Hoiby was able to find time in his schedule to join us in Harrisburg for the performance of his Sextet for Winds & Piano and will be available for a Q&A from the stage after the performance.

I had also asked him for some information about the work since I couldn’t find much factual information on-line about, even something as basic as when it was written.

He said he composed it in 1975 and the title – which I’ve seen variously as “Sextet for Wind Quintet & Piano” or “Sextet for Piano & Winds” – is actually “Sextet for Winds & Piano.”

It’s published as Op. 28a and when I asked him what the “a” meant, he said he’d have to check (usually that means Op.28b is an arrangement of the piece for another combination of instruments).

He also told me the Sextet, commissioned by the Dorian Quintet, was his first instrumental commission: soprano Mary Beth Peil, wife of the quintet's clarinetist Jerry Kirkbride, sang the lead role of Alma in his opera Summer & Smoke, written in 1970. I knew the Quintet had given it its world premiere with the composer at the piano, but had missed their more direct involvement with it.

(You can read a fascinating article over at USOperaWeb interviewing Ms. Peil, the “first” Alma in 1971, and a soprano who sang a performance in 2002.)

If you missed it, check out my earlier post with more biographical detail about Lee Hoiby and, over at Thoughts on a Train, some personal reminiscences about the composer I've known since the mid-60s.

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If I had questions about Antonin Reicha’s Quintet, I would be unable to e-mail him and not for lack of finding his addy... he died in 1836, about nine years after his friend Beethoven. You could say they grew up together, spending their early teen years playing in the Court Orchestra for the man who ruled the city of Bonn, Germany, one of those smaller principalities whose ruler was called an “Elector.”

Reicha was born in Prague the same year Beethoven was born in Bonn. Reicha’s father was a town piper which basically meant every hour he had to climb the town tower and tootle the time (you would think the town could afford a mechanical clock). This may explain why he died young, when his son was only a year old.

The boy’s education was eventually taken over by an uncle, a violinist who got the conducting gig in Bonn and took his nephew with him. By this time, the boy had become a good flutist and whether it was because his uncle was the conductor or not, at the age of 14 he was the orchestra’s principal flutist. In the back of the viola section was a kid named Ludwig van Beethoven whose father was a bass-player disappointed that his son had outgrown the Mozart-Wannabe prodigy-of-the-year stage.

Anyway, this is Reicha’s story, not Beethoven’s: the latter ended up going to Vienna and finding a much better agent. Today, Reicha is probably better known as an FOB (Friend of Beethoven) - and for being the Father of the Wind Quintet just as Haydn is often called the Father of the String Quartet (as well as the Symphony - though that's not why they call him Papa Haydn).

Antonin Reicha – he’s usually called, Germanically, Anton in most references – spent some time in Vienna too but found a professional home in Paris in 1799, then went to Vienna again in 1801 before returning to Paris in 1808 where he later became a teacher at the Conservatoire where he spent the next 28 years.

Curiously, he was known as the more avant-garde of the two, he and Beethoven. While Beethoven is given credit today for ushering in the Age of Romanticism and changing musical history, Reicha had ideas like these:

(1) In 1803, the year Beethoven wrote the Eroica Symphony, Reicha published 36 Fugues for the piano “in the new system” which used unheard-of meters like 5/8 or different lines playing in different meters (like 4/2 against 3/4). Pretty wild, but this never caught on. They were dedicated to Haydn (he probably didn't have to curl his wig the day that score arrived in the mail).

(2) He thought of having different ensembles all playing at once but each one in a different key (a string quartet in G Major with a wind quintet in E Minor, for instance). This might not be quite the clash of keys you’d hear from Darius Milhaud in the 1920s or Charles Ives even earlier, but it was certainly way out there for 1815.

(3) He thought of having different parts of the orchestra placed spatially around the performance area, surrounding the audience with sounds coming from different locations.

If this last one reminds you of Hector Berlioz – particularly his Requiem with its four brass groups in sensurround and the angelic tenor of the Sanctus placed off in some upper balcony, did I mention one of Reicha’s students was Hector Berlioz?

And there were also Liszt, Gounod, Cesar Franck and several others who studied with him many of whom were more famous in their day than now. Quite an impressive roster, though. After all, who studied with Beethoven?

As a flutist, Reicha was aware there was not a lot of great music available for wind players to play together. Other than the old-fashioned ensemble of oboes, horns, bassoons and maybe clarinets (but curiously flute-free) , there was no wind ensemble really complementary to the String Quartet. So he single-handedly created the woodwind quintet by combining a flute, an oboe, a clarinet, a horn and a bassoon. Then he wrote a set of six quintets for them which became so popular, soon there were woodwind quintets popping up all over Europe playing his music. So he wrote eighteen more between 1811 and 1820. (One could argue, what did Beethoven invent?)

Reicha also composed a once-famous octet for strings and winds, ten string quintets, 37 string quartets (but yet only 24 wind quintets), five quintets for wind and strings, several piano trios and violin sonatas, and a large body of solo piano music as well as eight symphonies, three large-scale choral works and eight operas. But today, his fame rests primarily on who some of his students were and on a handful of these wind quintets.

The one the Dorian Quintet is performing at Whitaker Center is one of the most frequently heard (all things being relative). You can hear them play the third movement here and the fourth movement here.

In fact, for the 2002 season, the Dorian Quintet chose that beautiful third movement as a starting point for five of their previously commissioned composers including Lee Hoiby to write “anniversary variations” for their 40th Anniversary season.

At the risk of going on too long in this post, for information about Paquito D’Rivera’s “Aires Tropicales” and György Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, check out Lucy Miller Murray’s program notes.

I’ll close by mentioning if you’re looking at György Ligeti’s name and wondering how it’s pronounced, I’ll try to approximate it for you. The first name, the Hungarian equivalent of George, is actually closer to “George” than it would be to pronounce the Y’s which are only there to soften the G’s, so it’s ZHORZH (except the vowel is somewhere between an O and a neutral vowel but that's close enough). The last name is accented on the first syllable (like most Hungarian words and names), so it’s LIH-geh-tih, not lih-GET_ee which would be Italian. If you like food, think Ligeti Splits, not spaghetti... (sorry, but if it helps you remember how to pronounce it, it’s all for a good cause).

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Dorian Quintet with Stuart Malina: Music by Lee Hoiby

The number of wind quintets in the roster of ensembles comparable to the most widely known and respected string quartets are few, as I explained in my previous post. One of those, the Dorian Wind Quintet, is performing this weekend at Whitaker Center on Market Square Concerts’ next program, Saturday night at 8:00.

In addition to performing across the country and around the world since the original group formed in 1961, they were the very first woodwind quintet to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1981.

Many times a string quartet, coming to town for a concert, will appear with a guest pianist to perform one of the piano quintets by Schumann, Brahms or Shostakovich. Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, has appeared in that role several times in past seasons, but this weekend he will be playing a work with the Dorian Quintet, the Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano by Lee Hoiby.

In fact, the Dorian Quintet gave the world premiere of this work about 30 years ago with the composer at the piano (it was composed in 1975). They have also recorded it for the Summit Label in 1995, again with the composer at the piano. It’s one of many works they’ve introduced to the world or commissioned from leading composers - like George Perle’s “Quintet IV” which went on to win the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

You can hear the segment from a 2002 “Performance Today” broadcast with the Dorian Quintet performing live in Studio 4A – which was also the occasion for the farewell of bassoonist Jane Taylor who was retiring from the ensemble after 40 seasons.

In these audio clips, recorded at “Saint Paul Sunday,” you can hear the quintet playing two movements of the Quintet in E-flat, Op.88/2 by Antonin Reicha which they’ll be playing at Whitaker Center this weekend: here’s the beautiful third movement and the lively finale.

In the summer of 2007, Gerard Reuter, oboist of the Dorian Quintet, was performing with Market Square Concerts’ SummerMusic and playing a few pieces with Stuart Malina who was also playing one of those major piano quintets with the Frye Street String Quartet. I overheard them talking about music to play with piano and winds but other than the Poulenc Sextet, Stuart couldn’t immediately think of anything else. That’s when Gerry suggested the Hoiby which Stuart hadn’t heard before, and the conversation continued from there. So it’s no surprise to see them playing it, now, as they reconnect for this performance.

Lee Hoiby may not be all that familiar a name to many in our audience in Central Pennsylvania. He’s best known for his operas and songs, though Harrisburg did get to hear his “Schubert Variations” which Peter Orth played several years ago with Market Square Concerts.

You can read my own personal recollection of Lee Hoiby whom I met, in a way, when I was in high school and have remained in not very regular correspondence with since then.

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Lee Hoiby, born in Madison, Wisconsin, showed considerable musical talent at an early age. His grandfather, emigrating from Denmark, was a violinist and teacher. His aunts made up a touring all-girl saxophone band. Being forced to play the piano in “alcoholic dives” by his father, though, may have had the opposite effect it had on Brahms: familiar with the pop idiom of the ‘30s, he rejected it as any influence on his own musical world.

The Kolisch Quartet came to Madison, led by the son-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, which introduced Hoiby to much of the great repertoire of 19th Century Europe and also the more modern music of Schoenberg and Webern which he, as he says in his biography, “viscerally rejected.”

At the same time and on the opposite spectrum, he met Harry Partch, one of the most unusual and independent voices in American music (sometimes called a “hobo/composer”) and even played in his ensemble of home-made instruments that explored ancient as well as newly fabricated artificial and microtonal scales - something else he decided not to use in his own music.

His intent had been to become a concert pianist, studying with one of the great European pianists of the day, Egon Petri, a student himself of no less than Feruccio Busoni. However, someone sent some of the music Hoiby was composing “for fun” to Gian-Carlo Menotti at the Curtis Institute for Music and the school offered him a scholarship, an offer he couldn’t refuse.

He spent the next two years studying strict Palestrina counterpoint, something regarded by music students as the “driest of the dry” but which in principal is essential to learning good compositional skills. He also got bitten by the opera bug, studying with the Italian-born composer who is most famous for his operas. Hoiby became involved in the Broadway premiere of Menotti’s The Consul and later The Medium and The Saint of Bleecker Street. His own first opera, The Scarf, was premiered at Menotti’s Spoleto Festival in 1957 and received much acclaim when New York City Opera produced it the following year.

He’s probably best known for his operatic setting of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, premiered in 1971, which the New York Post viewed as “the finest American opera to date.” Since then, The Tempest, based on Shakespeare’s play, was completed in 1986 and recently received its New York area premiere at SUNY Purchase where it was recorded: that performance was just released last week on the Albany label. Another Shakespearean opera, Romeo and Juliet was completed in 2004 but is still looking for its first performance.

Lee Hoiby has written a wonderful amount of songs, over a hundred of them, some of them championed by Leontyne Price and other well-known singers. In fact a new collection of them was just released last month on the Naxos label, entitled “A Pocket of Time” with the composer at the piano.

But perhaps the one receiving the most attention is a more recent work, setting the last letter Pfc Jesse Givens wrote from Iraq before his death, originally written for the men’s choir Cantus, but also available for baritone and piano. A performance of it (in which I believe the composer is the off-screen pianist) has been posted on YouTube - I include it here for those of you unfamiliar with Lee Hoiby’s musical voice.
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But there are also a large number of instrumental works in his catalogue, including two piano concertos. The 1st Piano Concerto, something I enjoy listening to frequently, is typical of his lyricism and his rhythmic buoyancy.

The Dorian Quintet has also recorded Hoiby’s “Diversions for Wind Quintet.” Two movements are included in one of the clips at that 2002 Performance Today broadcast which host Fred Childs introduces with the anecdote about the composer, going to Italy in 1953 to study as a Fulbright Scholar, being rejected from the school as “a naive American who hadn’t yet seen the light of atonality,” which was then the only accepted style in most modern, academic circles. So instead, he just “bummed around Italy, writing music.”

Though it may seem difficult to believe today, in our more pluralistic musical world – you can read more about this aspect of 20th Century Music in Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise – there was a lot of pressure on the more conservative composers then to “get with it.” Gian-Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber were just two of the major American composers to reject the political as well as artistic pressure and both of their careers suffered because of it. Ironic that, not long after Samuel Barber’s death in 1981, that political spectrum began to change, atonality and serialism became the conservative, old-fashioned voice in the face of the new tonality, feeling curiously avant-garde, and critics started declaring the death of serialism. Goes around/comes around...

Whatever one’s aesthetic choices may be, it is important for a creative artist to maintain the integrity of his or her natural inner voice. And it is great to see that Lee Hoiby’s voice – no matter whether it’s vocal or instrumental – is still singing at the age of 83.

- Dr. Dick

Friday, March 13, 2009

Wind Quintet vs String Quartet

Let’s face it, there are more string quartets in the world – at least, in the professional, touring concert world – than there are wind and brass quintets. This may also have something to do with orchestras having more strings players than wind players in them, but maybe not. A standard orchestra can have 40-50 string players but maybe only 8-12 woodwind players (they can add more for the occasional Mahler performance, but generally speaking).

Why wind players who played in bands haven’t created the same kind of awareness and level of playing orchestras have has always been a mystery to me. And yet every high school and middle school will probably have a band – maybe a marching band for football season and a concert band or two the rest of the year. In addition, colleges may also have an elite band usually called a “wind ensemble.”

The point is, there are lots of string players who end up playing in orchestras and forming string quartets. Look at any brochure for a chamber music concert presenter around the country and there will be plenty of pianists, violinists and string quartets.

Not so many wind quintets.

So where do all those wind players go after they’ve played in bands and formed student wind quintets in college? If they haven’t joined an orchestra or are out there teaching somewhere, that means they’re probably making money (“Question: what’s the difference between a free-lance musician and a pizza? Answer: A pizza can feed a family of four”).

Part of the problem is repertoire. It’s a self-feeding conundrum, perhaps, that Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven wrote, like, 107 string quartets between them, but nothing originally for a woodwind quintet. When your standard works are by, say, Franz Danzi and Anton Reicha, contemporaries of Haydn and Beethoven, whose music is unknown to modern concert-goers used to standard symphonic and the usual chamber music fare, it’s an up-hill battle.

So it basically boils down to, let’s say, apples in one corner and oranges in another.

Part of the issue is the “unity of sound” you get out of a string quartet, where the sonorities of the two violins, the viola and the cello match each other because they’re members of the same instrumental family. It is easier to create and blend the layers music needed in the late-18th Century – melody, bass-line and the inner parts filling in the harmonies - with instruments who have matching sounds.

Life is different in a wind quintet (or woodwind quintet, though nobody refers to a brass quintet as a brasswind quintet except in Germany). Here you have five different instruments, each one a member of its own family. The clarinet is a single-reed instrument with a mellow tone. The oboe and bassoon are both played with double-reeds and have a more “reedy” tone but are very different from each other in sound. The flute (which at one time in its history was made of wood) has no reed, the sound created entirely by the player’s breath and lips. I’m not even sure how the horn (commonly called the French horn though it’s not really French but German) got into the group since it was never made of wood. But that’s not the point.

For one thing, a “wind section” in Haydn’s orchestra consisted of pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons, sometimes adding a flute or two, later adding clarinets after they started cleaning up their ax. Trumpets were only used on “special” occasions (like when you need something loud) and trombones weren’t added to the symphony orchestra until after 1800, anyway. So the horn sort of became a member of the “wind band” by default. A frequent ensemble heard at aristocratic dinner parties and outdoor serenades consisted of pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons (later adding clarinets) - and maybe a string bass to beef up the bass-line. Anyway, I digress (a bit).

In Haydn’s day, these instruments were considerably different from those you’d hear today. Flutes were wooden, keys and other details on all of them were not as extensive as they are now, the horn had no keys (or valves) at all, and the clarinet didn’t really exist except in popular music meant for dancing and even then was fairly primitive compared to the modern instrument.

Not only were their sounds different: mellower, they would have blended better than their modern counterparts which continued evolving through the mid-19th Century. Compared to string players who could be playing instruments made at the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, around the early-1700s, that’s a big difference. (String players like to think of their instruments as having attained perfection earlier.)

A lot of this “evolution” happened because wind players playing in orchestras were now playing in large concert halls, not the music rooms of the aristocracy. Their sound was too mellow. It’s ironic that orchestras would add more violins to beef up the sound and its projection in a bigger hall, but not add more flutes or oboes to do the same thing. Instead, they worked on the instruments themselves to increase their ability to project - and, another irony, to cut through the mass of string sound.

(Side-note: French orchestras got into the habit of writing pairs of winds but using four bassoons because they wanted to bolster the bass-line. Four modern bassoons in some of these scores can create the bull/china-shop effect today.)

And to have these wind instruments duplicating the standard string quartet allocations of melody-bass-and-middle-harmony might place the flute as the equivalent of the 1st Violin, but then the oboe is not an easy instrument to (at least willingly) be subservient about playing the 2nd Violin’s inner harmonies, especially since its lower register is not conducive to balancing with much of anything. This would also put the clarinet at a disadvantage since “inner-harmony parts” would place it in the least adventurous part of its range. (Enough violists have gone into therapy for similar reasons, I suspect.)

And so, the ensemble is better suited to what we call “polyphonic” music – where the individual instruments can serve in melodic or bass-line roles (sound organized horizontally), creating the necessary harmonies by their vertical alignment.

It’s just too bad that composers who wrote such great polyphonic music for string quartets like Beethoven or Brahms never thought to try the same thing with the wind quintet.

Or maybe it was because there weren’t as many professional wind quintets out there begging them to write for them.

Okay, so in this corner you have the chicken – in that corner, the egg...

Given all this, it’s a little unusual – not really, but sort of – to have one of the best known wind quintets, the Dorian Quintet, appearing on the next program with Market Square Concerts when they perform at 8pm on Saturday, March 21st, at Whitaker Center.

They’ll play one of those “early” wind quintets by Friend-of-Beethoven Anton Reicha (actually, they grew up together, playing in the court orchestra in Bonn), the Bartok-inspired Bagatelles by György Ligeti (written in 1953) and a delightful bit of tropical breeze from Cuban-born clarinetist, Pacquito d’Rivera.

To this ensemble of disparate instruments, then, add one that creates its sounds by hammers hitting strings in a wooden box, that can play its own melody/bass-line/harmony but is really a percussion instrument – the piano.

This will add Stuart Malina to the mix, more often seen by local concert-goers playing a stick while standing in front of the Harrisburg Symphony. He’s one of those conductors equally at home as a performer (not that conducting isn’t performing... I just mean... oh, nevermind...) – he loves to play chamber music and has joined the Market Square Concerts roster in the past with various guest string quartets to play some of the finest pieces for the combination by Schumann, Brahms and Shostakovich.

(You can see him next month in a special annual concert called “Stuart & Friends” when he’ll join with several of his colleagues in the orchestra for an evening of chamber music at Whitaker Center on April 28th at 7:30.)

This time, it’s the Sextet for Wind Quintet & Piano by Lee Hoiby – and I’ll tell you more about that and the other music on the program in future posts.

- Dr. Dick

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Photos: Top - Guarneri Quartet who, incidentally, will be playing one of their last concerts - ever! - with Market Square Concerts on April 5th.
2nd - Dorian Wind Quintet (more casual, in a recording session) who are playing on March 21st
3rd - L-R: Viola, Violin & Cello (the 2nd Violin is not a separate instrument: it's a state of mind)
4th - Instruments of the Woodwind Quintet (upright: clarinet, oboe, horn; lying down on the job: flute, bassoon)

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Premiere of Philip Glass's Violin Sonata

March may have come in a bit like a lion (despite some deceptive fleece), but February went out with a celebration.

It’s not every day a town-in-the-provinces (as most trend-setting culture vultures in New York or Los Angeles would view a city like Harrisburg) gets to hear the world premiere of a work by one of the best known composers writing today.

It may have seemed slender by comparison to getting first dibs on his latest opera or symphony or even a string quartet, but the Violin Sonata that Philip Glass composed for Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff to play at this past weekend’s Market Square Concerts performance at Whitaker Center is a work that may well have legs to be heard around the world, eventually. And when it is heard, when other violinists begin to learn and play it, when audiences in New York or Europe or Japan hear it for the first or tenth time and when it is recorded and people everywhere will be listening to it, it will say on the score, in the program notes, or in the liner notes that it was commissioned for these performers to play by Martin Murray in honor of the 70th birthday of his wife, Lucy Miller Murray, and was first heard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And most people will wonder where the heck that is...

The composer was in California, performing some of his own music there and therefore was unable to attend the premiere of his Violin Sonata here. But he sent an e-mail to be read to the audience which WITF-FM’s classical music host, Cary Burkett, read from the stage. I quote it here with permission from Market Square Concerts Director Ellen Hughes:

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Among my earliest memories of enjoying music are the many hours spent listening to the great masterpieces of 19th century chamber music with my father, Benjamin Glass. He had a small record shop in downtown Baltimore and he regularly would bring home albums of 78 rpm’s, the staple for music lovers in those days. Among his favorites were the violin/piano sonatas of Brahms, Faure and the great masterpiece of Franck. I spent many, many hours with my father listening to these works.

When Maria Bachman approached me about a new work for her and Jon Klibonoff, these musical memories immediately came to mind. Of course, the great composers of the past have set an almost impossible standard for the present. However, it is fair to say that they continue to inspire today's and, hopefully, future generations. Also it is fair to say that, even as the language of music continues to grow with the times, many basic elements of structure, harmony and rhythm will have a somewhat familiar sound to today's audiences.

During the composition of the music you are about to hear, I met numerous times with Maria and Jon to hear them play through new movements and revisions as they were completed. I want to thank Maria for the many suggestions regarding bowing, phrasing and other musical details that became part of the work. On his part, Jon, with his wealth of experience, provided the support and encouragement that make the work of a composer somewhat easier and most enjoyable.

Again I would like to thank Martin and Lucy Murray for commissioning this work, thereby making it possible for it to be composed. I understand that they themselves are amateur musicians who hope to play at least part of it themselves. I thought that the second movement might be a good place for them to start.

Finally, I want to thank the audience for being present at this premiere performance. Without devoted and committed listeners the music world would be a lonely place indeed.

I regret very much I can't be with you for this special evening. I am in California also performing and will have to catch up with this violin/piano sonata at a later date.

I hope you enjoy the music.

Philip Glass
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It would be an understatement to say the audience at Whitaker Center did enjoy the music. I have rarely seen such a spontaneous standing ovation after a piece of “new music” in this city – the other time was the performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony last season – and the enthusiasm was definitely genuine.

There’s no secret that the “major buzz” about this performance was the Glass Premiere. People were coming from New York and Philadelphia (and quite likely other places beyond the periphery of Central Pennsylvania) to hear it and would have come no matter what else was on the program. There were more “young people” in the audience (these days usually referring to “people with hair other than white”) and a large number of students who might not have been there if the Glass weren’t on the program.

Looking around the hall – one of the few times I’ve seen Whitaker’s Sunoco Theater filled for a classical music program – it was refreshing to think, in an age when people were reluctant to program modern music for fear of scaring people off, that perhaps it’s new music that is actually bringing people into the concert halls for a change, rather than relying on the museum-like presentation of the great, much-admired, long-dead Classical Canon.

And what of the newest of the new?

The sense of enjoyment was augmented by a clear sense of pride – this was OUR piece, written for US: WE got to hear it first. People at the reception afterwards were wondering what it must have been like to have been at the premiere of the Brahms 3rd Sonata which concluded this program, first heard “out-of-town” in Budapest in 1888, or when Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was played for the first time. This sense of “discovery” is different from hearing a piece you yourself have never heard before, caught up in the collective experience of all those you are sharing it with, knowing that no one else has heard this music before you have.

Oh, technically speaking, that may not be entirely true. If you attended Lucy Miller Murray’s birthday party you would have had the chance to hear the first movement played through when Martin Murray presented the piece to her, mysteriously referred to on the invitation as “presentation of the husband’s gift.” She was surprised to answer the door to find Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff standing there but since they are good friends, how nice of them to be able to come to the party. Little did she (or any of the guests) know why they were there. The first movement, at that time, was all that was complete and so they performed it privately as the gift that has been a topic of conversation in this town – or at least in its classical musical circles – ever since.

If you attended the Soundscape presentation with the performers on Friday afternoon, the day before the concert – you can read my post about that here – you would have heard the third movement. If you were listening to WITF-FM later that afternoon, when Cary Burkett interviewed the performers on a live broadcast, you would have heard them play the second movement.

So it’s conceivable some people might have heard all the music on the installment plan before the official premiere. But that doesn’t alter the impact (or the officialness) of hearing it whole.

The first movement begins with the standard rippling arpeggios that are one of Glass’s foremost fingerprints. But there was something different here: I had been wondering how Glass, best known for working with multiple keyboards or a full orchestra, using different layers of instruments and voices where he can build intensity by adding more and more layers to the mix, would meet the challenge of writing for just two players. But even at 71, this is one composer not afraid to be looking at his own voice and wondering what else can he do.

At times, the texture was simplistically bare – one reason this style has always been dubbed, for better or worse, “minimalism” – the piano at times just highlighting a simple bass-line. But like the famous C Major Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier which is “just” arpeggiated chords that spells out an implied melody in its upper notes, Glass begins to weave these into more than just blocks of repeated chords. The texture might remind you of Mozart but there were times, especially with a particular fragment in the left-hand, that was pure Schubert – and literally, Schubert at his purist. Not that it wasn’t ever unmistakably Philip Glass. But there was something subtler at work here, something I may have not paid attention to in his music before, overcome by the more obvious repetitions.

To skip ahead to the third movement, I kept thinking this was more like a chaconne, an old-fashioned Baroque process with a repeated chord-pattern that underpins a series of ever-spinning variations. The instruments traded patterns and their variants back and forth, occasionally bounded by a little wisp of a wider-ranging arpeggio up into the upper registers. The movement had a sense of forward motion, building tension very subtly without going to the extremes Beethoven or Brahms might, for instance. This was a language based on chords and their hypnotic repetitions becoming harmony. And if you’re thinking “aren’t chords and harmony the same thing,” harmony is more the art of taking chords and putting them into a social context which gives them a sense of forward motion (the whole basis of tonal music and one reason why many people feel unsatisfied with non-tonal music because it lacks that focus to grab onto). At the end, it was that little wisp that evaporated into thin air and it was over.

It’s the second movement I found stunning. “Emotional” is not something I would attribute to Glass’s music on a primary level. Beautiful, yes, but usually in a “classical,” objective way. Here were chords (outright or implied) sliding past each other, one strand in the violin, the other in the piano, creating a kind of dissonance or tension I had not expected to find. Melody by itself is also something many people don’t look for in Glass’s music unless it’s built up through the chords like Bach does with that C Major Prelude. And beyond that, it spins.

Despite his suggestion for two amateur musicians to start with the second movement, it is not easy to play just because it’s slow: like Mozart, there is more to this music than just getting the notes. This is truly the heart of this piece, a loving statement thoroughly fitting the dedicatees, a loving gift from a husband to his wife. And how wonderful that we had the chance to share it with them.

-- Dr. Dick

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I would write more about the rest of the program – oh yes, they played Ravel’s G Major Sonata, Enescu’s Sonata “in the Romanian Popular Style,” and Brahms’ 3rd Sonata in D Minor – but I have reached my word-limit ;-)

The photographs were taken at the reception in the Sunoco Performance Theater Lobby following the performance.
Top: L-R w/pianist Jon Klibonoff, Ed Harsh from Meet the Composer who was instrumental in arranging the commission, Martin Murray and Lucy Miller Murray (holding the score of the sonata), and violinist Maria Bachmann.
2nd Photo: Martin Murray and Maria Bachmann (holding her copy of the score of Glass's Violin Sonata) share some champagne.
3rd Photo: WITF's Cary Burkett and Lucy Miller Murray (proudly displaying the score) pose for the kammerblogger.
4th Photo: Maria Bachmann signing autographs for members of the audience.