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.