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

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