Friday, July 31, 2009

Looking Back on Summer Music 2009

Since the last of the three Summer Music concerts this past Sunday had stuffed more people into the Glen Allen Mill than I'd ever seen there before, Stuart Malina announced they were re-naming the final work of the afternoon (one that left little room on the stage), Schubert's Trout Quintet, the “Sardine.”

There had also been a lot of great music-making packed into those three different concerts. I'll be writing more about the music itself, but this post is primarily about this year's Summer Music experience.

I'm not sure how many years the Fry Street Quartet has been appearing here but over the past several years, their “residency” here has been fascinating to follow, both in terms of what they play as well as how they play it. A regular audience begins to feel a regular affinity developing between performer and listener, and we (on our side) begin to establish a kind of proprietary relationship as we watch and hear them grow and develop or return to familiar repertoire to allow some new insights or discoveries.

Concentrating on Beethoven has also been a big part of Summer Music's programming from the beginning. There are 16 Beethoven quartets to go around but with only 3 days to program, so it may be a few years before anything needs to be repeated. On the other hand, being that they're Beethoven string quartets, it's likely not to matter very much if they do.

Add a pianist to the string quartet and you have the much more limited repertoire of the Piano Quintet. There may be lots of piano quintets out there but few of them are on the level of those by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák, Shostakovich, Fauré and, with its slightly different configuration, Schubert's “Trout,” something that creates more of a programming challenge. In addition, there's the wider availability of sonatas as well as all those piano trios and piano quartets that can involve members of the string quartet.

Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, now getting ready for his 10th season with the orchestra, has also been playing regularly with Summer Music for several years, now, initially for the Wednesday night concert at Market Square Church; then more recently on the weekend's concerts as well, since they've figured out how to squeeze a grand piano into the Glen Allen Mill and keep it air-conditioned. This year, Stuart joined with the Fry Street Quartet to play the Shostakovich Piano Quintet and, joined by bassist Donovan Stokes, Schubert's “Trout” Quintet, opening and closing the festivities.

In between, violinist Odin Rathnam (and concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony) was joined by Michael Sheppard (a Baltimore-based pianist who played Chopin's 2nd with the Lancaster Symphony in January) to play Ernest Chausson's rarely heard Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet.

 Another regular guest has been oboist Gerard Reuter who adds his customary variety and sense of discovery to each of the three concerts. While the standard repertoire for the oboe may seem somewhat sparse, there's a lot out there that isn't well known, and Jerry has brought a great deal of less familiar music to these programs over the years. This year included a work by a composer I'd never even heard of before – Leone Sinigaglia – and two others I haven't heard live in decades, Loeffler's Two Rhapsodies and a Bach concerto for the oboe d'amore.

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Summer concerts, by their nature – especially when in nature – have different kinds of issues than concerts during the “regular” season. We can worry about snow storms in January, so the question about heat and humidity is always up front when looking at the third week of July. Not than one can do much about it, especially when it comes to the weekend's concerts at the Glen Allen Mill along the Yellow Breeches Creek.

This beautiful old mill was initially built around 1749, the present foundation laid in the 1790s and then bricked in as we see it today in the 1830s. Among the graffiti painted on the interior walls is the signature of someone named Washington Trout, dated 1875. Somehow, listening to music written in the early 1800s seems appropriate, here, especially a piece inspired by trout fishing.

After spring-like mildness and a round of monsoons lasting into July, warm summery weather arrived just in time for Summer Music. The air-conditioner units fitted into the mill's windows (on all four sides) had now become a necessity. It's only been recently that these have been added but there is still one draw-back: in order for the musicians to be heard, the a/c has to be turned off during the concert! Still, a huge improvement over the saunas of yore.

It's not just the heat or the much maligned humidity making things uncomfortable. If you can work up a sweat just listening to a performance, imagine performing it, then. I've seen players stand up to take a bow looking like they've just stepped out of the pool (one intermission image at the Sunday concert: a member of the quartet splayed across the front of a window a/c unit, arms raised for maximum coverage).

All of this has an impact on the musicians and their concentration, even their instruments. Wood swells, strings can stretch and an oboe's reeds can become as responsive as kleenex. Wiping brows and fingerboards is a common visual detail. Hands sweat not because of nerves: wiping them on already soaked clothing probably doesn't help much.

Though insects are less of an issue at the mill, now, something that might have been a moth and, depending on your perspective, about the size of a B-52, added an unexpectedly extensive choreographic moment to the finale of Chausson's Concerto Saturday night, with concerned musicians and audience members scanning about, worried where it might land. Thinking of the old joke (“Maestro, there was a fly on my music and I played him”), I was hoping it wouldn't be on some fiendishly difficult 16th-note passage obliterating the high-point of the piece...

Yet none of this seems to have any impact on the performance: Market Square Church might have a higher ceiling and the seats at Whitaker Center are certainly more comfortable, but even with acoustics that are clearly limited – not what you might think the first time you walk into it, though – there is something about the camaraderie that makes one overlook these issues.

Performances, despite the occasional heat-induced intonation problems, are just as intense as they might be in an air-conditioned venue; the audiences responds just as warmly, if not more, than they might after ninety minutes spent listening in the plush comfort of a standard concert hall.

It is, after all, summertime and whether or not the living is easy doesn't matter. More casual, yes; any less involved, no.

While the weather had been iffy at best for Sunday, I am glad to report that Jupiter Pluvius put in only a passing appearance.

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer Music Time

It's SUMMER MUSIC 2009 this week and the Fry Street String Quartet is back for another festival of three concerts – along with three Beethoven quartets and some friends joining in for the fun and all the great music-making.

The first concert is Wednesday (tomorrow evening as I write this) and it's at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg. AND IT'S AT 6:00 PM. That's not a typo: the concert really does start at SIX O'CLOCK P.M. [EDT]. That's earlier than most weeknight concerts begin which is why my friend Justin Case thinks I should be obsessing on it.

The program for this 6pm concert is Beethoven's String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18/5, and Leone Sinigaglia's Variations on a Theme by Schubert with Gerard Reuter, oboist. Joined by pianist Stuart Malina, the quartet concludes this first program – which, if I hadn't mentioned it, starts at 6pm – with the Piano Quintet in G Minor by Dmitri Shostakovich.

I'd blogged about the Shostakovich with an “up-close/personal” post, here.

Then for the weekend, the festival then moves to the Glen Allen Mill, a beautiful location along the Yellow Breeches (if you need directions, I've included them below).

Saturday evening's concert, at 8:00 pm, begins with another of the early Beethoven String Quartets, the dramatic one in C Minor, Op. 18 No. 4. Here's the quartet playing the last movement:
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The program continues with the Two Rhapsodies by Charles Martin Loeffler, pianist Michael Sheppard joining oboist Gerard Reuter and Fry Street's violist Russell Fallstad.

And then violinist Odin Rathnam joins Michael Sheppard and the whole quartet for Ernest Chausson's Concerto in D Major for Violin, Piano & String Quartet. If you've been there before, you know the stage is going to be full.

I've posted an “up-close/personal” about the Chausson on the blog, here.

Sunday afternoon's concert begins at 4:00pm and opens with the Concerto in A Major for Oboe d'Amore and strings, the oboe played by Gerard Reuter and the string orchestra by the Fry Street Quartet. Then, another of Beethoven's early set of string quartets, the 2nd in G Major, before concluding with one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire, the Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert. 3/4's of the Fry Street Quartet will be joined by pianist Stuart Malina and bassist Donovan Stokes.

I've blogged about the Trout Quintet with an up-close/personal post, here.

It's BYOP (bring your own picnic) both before the Saturday concert and after the Sunday concert. I'm not sure if trout fishing is allowed but it looks like it should be a great spot for it whether you catch anything or not.

DIRECTIONS TO THE GLEN ALLEN MILL: it's on McCormick Rd between Bowmansdale & Lisburn. From Rt 15 South, take the Rossmoyne Rd exit – turn LEFT at the light – continue on Rossmoyne Rd to Lisburn Rd – follow Arcona Rd until it dead-ends at McCormick Rd – turn LEFT onto McCormick Rd – Mill is ¼ mile ahead on the right – parking is in the meadow around the bend, just over the bridge.

Since it's a summer concert, regardless of the temperatures – and the Mill IS AIR-CONDITIONED now – it's still recommended to “dress casually.” Given the fact you'll be parking in a meadow, you may want to leave those high heels at home.

Tickets for any or all three of the concerts are available through or by calling The Box at (717)214-ARTS. Remaining tickets will be available at the door.

This year’s festival honors the memory of Dr. Jason Litton, who for many years was president of the board of Market Square Concerts and had a strong association with its Summermusic Festival.

The festival is partially underwritten by contributions received from the Jason Litton Memorial Fund and Linda Litton.

Corporate Sponsor for the 2009 Summermusic Festival is The Novinger Group. Season sponsor is Capital Blue Cross. Market Square Concerts also receives support from the Cultural Enrichment Fund and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

And don't forget, in case I forgot to remind you, Wednesday evening's concert BEGINS at 6:00pm, earlier than usual.

- Dr. Dick

Chausson on a Summer Evening

This weekend, violinist Odin Rathnam and pianist Michael Sheppard will join the Fry Street Quartet at Market Square Concerts' Summer Music 2009 on Saturday night at the Glen Allen Mill. The concert begins at 8:00

The program concludes with work generally regarded as one of those “why don't we hear this work more often” kind of pieces: the Concerto in D for Violin, Piano & String Quartet by Ernest Chausson.

Chausson got a late start, not writing his first piece, a little song called “Lilas,” until he was 22. At that age, Schubert (presumably) wrote the Trout Quintet, the 667th piece in his catalog of complete (and incomplete) works; Mozart, his “Paris” Symphony (No. 31), about half-way through his catalog; Mendelssohn, having written the Octet when he was 16, wrote most of his Italian Symphony when he was 22, though it was not his 4th Symphony except according to the time it was published many years later. Only Beethoven at 22 had yet to find his voice, just arrived in Vienna: the list of his major works was yet to begin. There are over 135 opus numbers on that list: for Chausson, only 39.

Chausson also had not intended to follow a career in music. To please his father, he studied law and that first little song wasn't written until after he'd been sworn in at the bar. Another two years passed before he decided composition even interested him: he had gone to Munich and heard a performance of Wagner's Flying Dutchman and later came under the spell of Vincent d'Indy, one of France's major composers and teachers. In a short amount of time, Chausson entered the Paris Conservatoire, studied with Jules Massenet and sat in on Cesar Franck's classes. Franck's mysticism and chromatic style was perhaps more in tune with Chausson's spirit than the more classically honed Massenet, though both of these styles – very different in their day – became part of his own language. By the time he was 30, he was becoming a leading light of the Paris musical establishment: younger composers like Debussy and performers like Ysaye met and mixed with musicians of the older generation.

In France, especially following the disastrous years following the Franco-Prussian war when France had been defeated by the German forces, it was considered unpatriotic to espouse anything German. Yet here was young Lawyer Chausson traveling to Munich to hear Wagner's operas – The Flying Dutchman, the complete Ring, Tristan und Isolde and, in 1882, to Bayreuth to hear the world-premiere of Parsifal. The following year, newly married, Chausson took his wife on a honeymoon to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal a second time.

A couple of years into this period of his life, Chausson was composing a number of large-scale compositions simultaneously. From 1886-1895, he worked on the opera, King Arthur, directly inspired by Wagner's Tristan, except for its overall pessimism. His song cycle, Poème de l'amour et de la mer (Poems of Love and the Sea), involved him between 1882, the year of Parsifal's premiere, and 1893. He wrote his Symphony in B-flat – like his teacher Franck, he wrote only one – in 1889-1890. In 1891, he completed The Legend of St. Cecilia. Between 1889 and 1891, he also composed a piece of chamber music that cannot be classified as a Violin Sonata or Concerto or a Sextet despite the fact it's sort of “all of the above.”

The Concerto in D Major for Violin, Piano & String Quartet is sometimes referred to, combining the original French with English, as the Concert in D, but “concert” in this case should be pronounced in French with the accent on the 2nd syllable which would appear to mean “concerto,” anyway.

Six players aside, it's not really a sextet because not all of the parts are actually equal: the violin soloist and the pianist are clearly more soloistic than any part of the quartet but the quartet isn't always in the background like a reduced orchestra for a concerto, either.

At the time, Chausson wrote to a friend saying that “De-Wagnerization is necessary” even though he had clearly adopted certain Wagnerisms like the chromatic modulations and harmonic procedures (which Franck had already inherited), certain orchestrational details as well as Wagner's use of leitmotives (or “signature tunes”), a more lyrical and dramatic language. From Franck who borrowed it from Beethoven, Chausson borrowed the “cyclical form” in which themes from previous movements recur climactically in the final movement of a large-scale piece, as Beethoven did at the opening of his 9th Symphony's finale and as Bruckner was doing in his very dense, very Germanic symphonies.

Critics of the day regarded Chausson's music as “vague, disjointed, incomprehensible, harmful – in a word, Wagnerian.” On the whole, Chausson realized French music was not going to finds its national voice by imitating German accents – his literary sources were more the old Gallic ideals of the medieval legends, or the spirit of the French Baroque masters like Couperin and Rameau. In fact, his title for this work for violin, piano and string quartet – Concert – is more in the obscure sense of an 18th Century “work for a concert.”

He also wanted to prove that a sonata or a string quartet could contain “as much music as a whole opera.” So it was amusing to see Odin mentioning on Facebook that he “is having great fun re-studying Chausson Concerto....What a piece!!!” One pianist-friend commented “a great piece with way too many notes!” to which pianist Michael Sheppard responded “TELL me about it. Yeeesh.”

As Lucy Miller Murray points out in her notes, there's also a certain sadness that pervades much of this piece. Perhaps, she says, “The source of the sadness was probably one all too common among creative people born in comfortable circumstances,” mentioning a strong father who had discouraged the serious study of music – unsuitable, no doubt, for a family of their income bracket – when Chausson was a young man going off to study law. It's curious that soon after after Chausson's father died in 1894, Chausson completed perhaps his most performed work, the Poème for Violin & Orchestra. His musical style was taking another, both more mystical and more refined turn, moving away even further from his own interpretations and syntheses of Wagner's style, to something more distinctly his own.

Unfortunately, we'll never know where this path might have taken him: the string quartet begun in 1897 (often described as “austere”) was left unfinished when he died in 1899, just five years after his father died around the age of 90. He was 44 when on a beautiful spring day he died in a freak accident, losing control of his bicycle on a downhill slope at his country estate, running straight into a brick wall, dying instantly.

Another example of the old “What-If” game, wondering what French music might have been like since it seemed he was poised to become the leading composer of the generation between Franck and Saint-Saëns and the next generation of young talent, what longer-lasting influence he might have had on Faurè, Debussy and perhaps Ravel.

Incidentally, another work left on the sketch pad when he died was another “Concert” - this one for piano, oboe, viola and string quartet! Hmmm... I'm thinking “there's Odin, who plays a dynamite viola, and oboist Gerard Reuter, one of my favorite oboists of all times, who'd played earlier on the program, pianist Michael Sheppard already warmed up and the Fry Street String Quartet all set to go for Chausson's Concert No. 2 - if maybe he'd worn a helmet that day...”

- Dr. Dick

Photo credits: Odin Rathnam's press photo by Sean Simmers; Michael Sheppard's, from his website.
P.S. You can find free full scores to download on-line for the Concert in D by Chausson at the International Music Score Library Project portal.
Disambiguation: for information about the French breakfast pastry, the apple chausson, click here...

Fishing for Trout along the Yellow Breeches

Chamber music is something I've often described as “music played by friends for friends.” Schubert's Trout Quintet which pianist Stuart Malina, members of the Fry Street Quartet and bassist Donovan Stokes will perform at 4pm this Sunday afternoon at the Glen Allen Mill - part of Market Square Concerts' Summer Music 2009 - was also a work written for friends.

It was also written following a delightful summer vacation in an old Austrian city located between two idyllic rivers in eastern Austria. What the trout fishing may have been like there, I don't know, but it seems the ideal piece of music to hear along the Yellow Breeches in an old mill that dates more closely to the time Schubert wrote this idyllic and happy music.

In 1815, Schubert, then 18, met the singer Johann Michael Vogl, a baritone who sang major roles at one of Vienna's major opera houses: the year before, he had created the role of the villain Pizzaro in Beethoven's latest revision of Fidelio. Reluctantly agreeing to meet the young composer, he sang through of a pile of songs, his reactions going from “not bad” to “you have something special in you, but as yet you are too little of the actor and showman; you have fine ideas but should make more of them.”

Vogl was a tall and imposing man. Schubert was about 5'1”. One of Schubert's friends drew a wicked caricature of the two, reflecting Vogl's stature in the arts community and Schubert's relative insignificance.

In those days, singers didn't give “song recitals.” Composers – even Mozart and Beethoven – wrote songs primarily for the domestic market, meaning amateurs to perform at home, back in the days before the invention of stereos, radios and TVs when people made their own entertainment rather than watched or listened to it. If you read any novels of the time – like Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, written in 1813 – there will likely be references to the young unmarried daughters of the house who would play the piano and sing for their friends and family: a girl's talent was considered a marriageable trait. These, then, were the performers Schubert's contemporaries had in mind except Schubert often wrote songs setting “deeper” poems with more difficult piano accompaniments and requiring more vocal technique. Vogl appreciated this and took Schubert and his songs around to his friends and sang this music for them. Without being published, Schubert would build a reputation as a composer of songs. It was, however, not a very good kind of reputation: opera was “where it was at.”

And that's probably why Schubert's friends arranged for Herr Vogl to meet their young friend. Money was to be made not in writing songs for pretty daughters to warble after dinner but in getting operas performed. That was the mark of a professional composer. In 1820, Vogl would sing the parts of twin brothers in Schubert's opera Die Zwillingsbrüder, written just for him. One of the few operas Schubert would complete or even see on the stage, it was a failure. One of music's great mysteries is that Schubert, an expert dramatist in the miniatures he wrote – Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, for instance, written when he was 16 – seemed incapable of finding the dramatic moment in extended scenes on the operatic stage.

Perhaps Schubert's most popular song is Die Forelle, “The Trout.” He wrote this during the spring of 1817. There's a famous story that, in the midst of drinking a good deal of wine on a Saturday night, Schubert sat down and (while everybody else was talking) wrote Die Forelle. The manuscript certainly looks like it, but the truth is, he was visiting a friend whose younger brother very much liked Schubert's songs, and so Schubert sat down and from memory wrote out a copy of this one for him – it was the third time he'd copied out this song, but keep in mind it was also in the days before there were photocopiers.
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"Die Forelle" (The Trout) with tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake:

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In 1819, Vogl was going on an extended vacation to his hometown of Steyr, an industrial town about 2/3s of the way between Vienna and Salzburg (it would celebrate its 1,000th Anniversary in 1980) and he decided to take his young friend Schubert with him.

Schubert stayed at the home of a “cultured lawyer” who had three sons and eight daughters and whose nephew, Anton Stadler, an old school friend of Schubert's, also lived there. He would meet Vogl for meals at the home of Josef Koller, an iron merchant whose daughter was a talented pianist named Josephine. It was there Schubert, Vogl, Josephine and Stadler performed Der Erlkönig as a trio (Schubert sang the part of the father). That month, Schubert also wrote a piano sonata just for Josephine – the Sonata in A Major, K.664.

Another piece of music associated with that vacation was a little cantata written for Vogl's 51st birthday – Schubert was again one of the singers – and performed at the Kollers' house.

More public music making took place at the home of a wealthy mining official, Sylvester Paumgartner, a bachelor who was a local patron of the arts and an amateur wind player and cellist. The best musicales in Steyr took place either in the music room or the larger 2nd floor salon of his home on the city's town square (see photo). Vogl, sort of a local hero having gone off to a great career in the Big City, was the center of attention and being a bit of a prima donna would not always feel like singing: on occasion Paumgartner had to get down on his knees and beg him to sing. Schubert was very much in the “back seat,” sitting at the piano, but still, people admired his songs, though they more openly enjoyed Vogl's singing of them. One of the favorites was Die Forelle.

Paumgartner owned a copy of Johann Nepomuck Hummel's Septet in an arrangement for the unusual combination of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass (the first 'real' piano quintet, consisting of the now standard string quartet plus piano, wasn't written until Schumann wrote his in 1842). In order to have something else for this group to play, he asked Schubert to write a little something for him and, if he would, include a set of variations on the song Die Forelle as one of the movements. And so that's how Schubert came to write this Quintet in A Major for Piano & Strings - which has always been known as “The Trout Quintet.”

Since the original manuscript is lost and no one (not even his school friend Stadler) ever mentioned the performance in a letter or subsequent memoirs, it's hard to say when it was written or premiered. The going story is that he wrote it then and there and in a matter of days everybody played it and loved it.

Unfortunately, that's not true. There were two other visits to Steyr – 1823 and 1825 – but because of the style of the piece compared to its contemporaries, it's more likely it was written after this first visit when Schubert was 22.

What actually happened was that the request was made before Vogl and Schubert left, the piece was composed that autumn in Vienna, Stadler copied the parts and sent them back to Paumgartner. Unfortunately, Schubert overestimated Paumgartner's abilities as a cellist: apparently, the work was played through (perhaps not even performed), then put away on the shelf. It wasn't published until 1829, a year after Schubert died at the age of 31. Today, it is probably one of the most popular pieces in the chamber music repertoire.

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Here are the last three movements of the Trout Quintet recorded by five friends in 1969 - Daniel Barenboim (piano), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (viola), Jacqueline du Pre (cello) and Zubin Mehta (double bass):
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Variations on the song, Die Forelle (The Trout)

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- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Summer Music & Shostakovich

After everybody’s settled in to their summer routines – which for most of us means lack-of-routine – it’s time for Summer Music 2009, the annual summer series with Markets Square Concerts, three concerts that begin Wednesday July 22nd at Market Square Church and then continue Saturday evening at 8 and again Sunday afternoon at 4 at the Glen Allen Mill along the Yellow Breeches Creek. The Fry Street String Quartet returns along with pianist Stuart Malina, oboist Gerard Reuter and, for the “Trout” Quintet, bassist Donovan Stokes.

Wednesday evening’s concert begins at the unusual time (as far as concerts normally go) of 6:00 at Market Square Church – which means you can come in early, take in a great concert and then head out to Harrisburg’s Restaurant Row for some great food. And you get to hear the 5th of Beethoven’s first set of six string quartets on a program that includes a little known set of variations on a delicious Schubert song, “Heidenröslein” for oboe and piano by Leone Sinigaglia who studied with Dvořák and then came under the spell of Brahms in Vienna in the 1890s. Joined by Stuart Malina, oboist Gerard Reuter returns to Summer Music with this performance: he’d been here with his colleagues of the Dorian Wind Quintet this past March which included a performance of Lee Hoiby’s Sextet for Winds & Piano which featured Stuart Malina at the piano.

Summer Music ends with a set of variations on another Schubert song – the composer’s own take on “Die Forelle” or “The Trout” – which is the centerpiece of one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire, Schubert’s Quintet in A Major for Piano & Strings which friends know less formally as “The Trout Quintet.”

Wednesday’s program, however, concludes with the Piano Quintet by Dmitri Shostakovich, a dark and dramatic work judging from its powerful opening Prelude & Fugue – you can hear a recording of the Prelude here. I’m not sure if it’s the Borodin Quartet with Sviatoslav Richter or not, one of the great recordings of the piece, but here is a video of the Fugue played by uncredited string players with pianist Glenn Gould.
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(Sorry about the bad edit at the end, but it's such an incredible performance, I had to use this clip!)

The Quintet was premiered in Moscow in November of 1940 at the start of the 2nd World War (the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union didn’t happen until the following summer). This official photograph was taken presumably at a warm-up before the Leningrad premiere a month later with the composer, then 31, at the piano and the Glazunov String Quartet.

The Quintet initially began life as a string quartet, what would have been the composer's second. For some reason, then, Shostakovich, a brilliant pianist himself, decided to add a piano part to the work.

When a friend of his, a well-known literary critic, asked him why, Shostakovich responded it was more for practical than artistic reasons: “So that I could have the chance to perform [it] myself and thereby travel on concert tours. Now the Glazunov and Beethoven [Quartets] won’t be able to do without me – and I’ll get a chance to see the world.” Then he and his friend both broke out laughing: “Are you joking?” the friend asked. “Not in the slightest!” the composer replied. “You are an inveterate stay-at-home while at heart I’m an inveterate traveler!” But from the expression on his face, the friend later wrote, it was impossible to tell if he was serious or not. That was very much part of Shostakovich’s character: even when it sounded like he was telling the truth, maybe he wasn’t.

Whether Shostakovich's dream of touring came through or not (it didn't), he did end up giving us, nonetheless, one of the four or five great Piano Quintets in the repertoire.

Speaking of masks, just to prove the tragic mask can be balanced by the comedic mask, the stately austerity of these two opening movements is then followed by a dissonant high-energy wildfire of a scherzo. Here’s a performance with violinists Joshua Bell and Henning Kraggerud, violist Yuri Bashmet, cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich in the third movement’s scherzo (performed here as an encore):
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(Whew! Isn't that amazing?!)

It’s pretty hard to tell what exactly this “scherzo” means in the context of the whole piece, when you consider the Italian word “scherzo” means “joke.” This joke may be lubricated by the flowing of vodka but it’s the kind of earthy joke, perhaps, that no one really laughs at.

The interlude that follows returns to the leaner texture of the fugue (you can hear a recording of it here with, again I assume, the Borodin Quartet & Richter). Considering the dark mood of much of the music so far, the finale, then, might seem far-fetched with its clownish tune full of odd leaps and fanfarish rhythms (or perhaps it’s something with Spanish castanets?). I’ve often heard this movement as an after-thought, almost a disappointment, but when I heard Stuart playing it with the Enso Quartet a few years ago at another Market Square Concert, their slightly faster tempo – it’s marked Allegretto which is not too fast but faster than the standard “walking tempo” of an Andante I’m used to – suddenly made sense when you got to the fade-out ending. After his 5th & 6th Symphonies with their supposedly big positive resolutions in the last movements, listeners might expect a similar happy ending or at least some more dramatic conclusion than this seeming understatement.

(You can hear a recording of Yefim Bronfman and the Juilliard Quartet in the Quintet’s finale, here.)

Shostakovich often wrote music that reminded some of his listeners of things he may have had no intention of implying – the flourishing cult of “secret programs” in the 5th and 10th symphonies, for instance – so it is only my inference, here, when this music reminds me of his after-school gig as a teenager, playing piano for silent movies.

One of his favorite characters was Charlie Chaplin: doesn’t the ending of this gentle, clown-like piece have a kind of off-into-the-sunset glow about it, the Little Tramp swinging his cane, strolling off wistfully into the distance? I’m not saying that’s what he had in mind but that’s what it reminds me of and may explain a lot of about the contrasts in this piece: it’s all entertainment but however we view the world, it leaves us something to think about at the end of the day.

In a few days, I’ll be posting some more about some of the other works on the program, so check back.

And remember, even though it’s summer, the Arts don’t take a break – you can enjoy them all year ‘round!

- Dr. Dick

Monday, July 13, 2009

Support for Supporting the Arts

If you've ever enjoyed a performance by any of the local arts groups as an audience member; if you have ever had an emotional response to a painting or to a theatrical production; if you have ever felt an epiphany from an experience with something artistic, whether it changed your life or just improved your day; if you have seen the expression on a child's face coming face to face with something artistic that cannot be explained in a government report, you know the importance of art in our every-day lives.

Tuesday morning at 11:00, there will be a rally in the State Capitol Rotunda in support of supporting the arts in Pennsylvania, organized by Citizens for the Arts. You can read their notice about it here.

Let's hope the steps aren't empty tomorrow morning!

Please check out Dr. Dick's other blog, Thoughts on a Train, for more information.


- Dr. Dick

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Philip Glass's Violin Sonata in the News

In Harrisburg last February, a birthday present was unveiled in public for the first time.

To most in the audience – many of whom came from Philadelphia and New York for the concert – it was a chance to hear Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff play the world premiere of a violin sonata by a well-known and world-class composer, Philip Glass.

To Martin Murray, it was part of the long process of bringing an idea to life, commissioning a very busy composer to write something as a birthday present for his wife, Lucy Miller Murray, the founding director of Harrisburg’s Market Square Concerts.

Here are violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Jon Klibonoff playing the 2nd Movement of the Violin Sonata by Philip Glass, recorded in WITF's studio and posted (where else) on YouTube:
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Tonight, they will perform Glass’s Violin Sonata at the Telluride Music Festival in Colorado which prompted this article in today’s Wall Street Journal. You can read Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim’s “Even Bach Needed Goldberg” here for an entertaining account of how this work came about.

Other works mentioned in the article and commissioned by individual patrons (like Mr. Goldberg centuries ago) include Christopher Theofanidis’ piano piece “All Dreams Begin with the Horizon.” Harrisburg heard Tanya Bannister, who gave it its premiere at a private birthday party in February 2007, play it at her Market Square Concerts recital less than a year later. A gift for an amateur pianist, Stephen Schwartz, it was “a little something” commissioned for the occasion by his partner, Miles Kahler. Ms. Bannister has since recorded the work for the Albany label.

Quoting from Ms. da Fonseca-Wollheim's article,

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"To bring a new piece into the world is a great privilege," says Mr. Glass, noting that if it had not been for Mr. and Mrs. Murray, he would never have written this violin sonata. "You live your life on the edge of the unknown. Some people don't want to go there. This couple, they've wandered into this world."
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When you think about it, giving the gift of music really is a gift that keeps on giving.

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You can read my previous posts about Philip Glass’s Violin Sonata here and here.

Join us in February 2010 for another world premiere in Harrisburg when Brooklyn Rider performs a new work by Lisa Bielawa, commissioned by Market Square Concerts, a work she’ll be writing this fall while living in Rome as part of her winning this year’s Rome Prize. (And you can read more about that in a previous post, here.)

Summer Music 2009 is coming up in a few weeks – there’s a preview of it and the new 2009-2010 season in this post.

Dr. Dick