Friday, March 9, 2012

Zuill Bailey & Awadagin Pratt, Together Again (Part 2)

Awadagin Pratt
This weekend, two good friends with ties to Central Pennsylvania – cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Awadagin Pratt – come back for a performance with Market Square Concerts at Whitaker Center, Sunday at 4pm EDT.

As personnel manager for the Harrisburg Symphony back in the mid-1980s, I’d hired Awadagin Pratt, then a student at Peabody in Baltimore, as a substitute in the orchestra’s 1st Violin section for a concert. (Yes, that’s right – the violin section.) During a break between rehearsals, he wanted to know if there was a piano around he could practice on – “juries” were coming up, performance exams for conservatory students – and I figured, well, I knew several violinists who’d be lucky to find Middle C on a keyboard. The only piano available that time was the old clunker grand (in much need of repair) kept in a cluttered storage room backstage at the Forum: it didn’t even have a bench. So I left him there and went to discuss business with the conductor in the Green Room next door. Suddenly, we heard the opening of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto and Larry Newland, the conductor then, asked me “who’s playing that?” I remember saying something stupid like “I dunno, I left Awadagin in there a few minutes ago…”

We went over and peeked in the door. Yes, there was Awadagin, playing away, dreadlocks swaying, and sitting on an upturned five-gallon bucket, a cluttered dusty storage room turned momentarily into Carnegie Hall.

The next concert I hired him for he said would be the last one he could play. After the juried exam, his piano teacher told him if he wanted to pursue the piano as his career, he would need to cut back on other things, like the time he spent playing the violin. Yeah, well… I could understand that…

In 1992, he won the prestigious Naumberg International Piano Competition and two years later, an Avery Fisher Career Grant. So it was great to see him come back to play some recitals in the area and then play the Grieg Piano Concerto as a soloist with the orchestra, not as a member of the 1st Violin section.

Then Ellen Hughes started the Next Generation Festival through WITF in 1996 and invited Awadagin Pratt to be its music director. He brought in friends of his among other rising young musicians worth taking note of and introduced Central PA to some incredible performers and some amazing music making. For instance, there was the Cypress String Quartet, then a new group, and they’ve also been returning frequently to the region for concerts ranging from the Pennsylvania Academy’s summer music festival to residency concerts with Lebanon Valley College and, of course, Market Square Concerts. In fact, they’ll be returning for a concert with MSC next month at Whitaker Center.

Zuill Bailey
Another one of those brilliant musicians Awadagin brought to play for us was a cellist named Zuill Bailey. If the music making was of a very high level with these concerts, the electricity between Awadagin and Zuill was even more exciting. I was hoping their careers would take off for them – they certainly deserved it.

Awadagin soon had a recording contract with EMI and started teaching at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. And in 2009, he played at the White House.

The last time Zuill was in town, he had a “CD Party” to celebrate the release of his Telarc recording of the Bach solo cello suites, and he’s been busy as a performer and also director of chamber music festivals in El Paso TX and in Alaska. Both of their professional accomplishments make my head spin to read them. Amazing!

Recently, Zuill and Awadagin collaborated on a recording for Telarc that includes both of Brahms’ cello sonatas as well as other works arranged for cello and piano. They’ll be playing the first of those sonatas on their program here, along with a work chosen for sentimental reasons: the first piece they played together at their first Next Generation Festival collaboration was Beethoven’s A Major Cello Sonata.

Ellen Hughes had a chance to catch up with both of them for her interview in the Patriot-News.

And you can read more about this Sunday’s program in Part 1 of this post which includes the video about making their Brahms recording as well as videos and background for Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and the Beethoven sonata.

Here are Jacqueline Du Pré and Daniel Barenboim recorded in 1968 playing the complete E Minor Cello Sonata of Johannes Brahms in four clips (the poster apologizes for having to break the 1st movement into two bits):
1st Mvmt Part 1
1st Mvmt Part 2

2nd Mvmt

3rd Mvmt

The summer of 1862 must have been an especially good one for Johannes Brahms – he had just turned 29 and was spending time with good friends. He was staying with fellow composer and Schumann protégé, Albert Dietrich, best remembered if largely unheard as the composer who wrote the first movement of the committee-written F.A.E. Sonata for Joseph Joachim, sharing a house somewhere under the Ebernburg Castle (not in a camper: see photo, below). Not far away, taking the cure at Bad Münster-am-Stein, was Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s widow and one of the greatest pianists of the day.

Ebernburg Castle
Following the Lower Rhine Music Festival that June, Brahms and Dietrich spent two weeks there, busily composing, taking walks through the countryside, and spending the evenings making music with Clara.

As Brahms wrote to Joachim, unable to join them, “Now I am sitting in a tavern under the Ebernburg. Dietrich is in the next room belaboring his bride. The bride in question being a ballade for choir and orchestra.”

Dietrich, for his part, wrote to his wife how his friendship with Brahms increased the more time they spent together. “His nature is equally lovable, cheerful and deep,” adding however that Johannes had an impish side, teasing the women which was often misinterpreted, at least by Clara who missed the joke and reacted with indignation, though Brahms had a twinkle in his blue eyes.

For her part, Clara wrote to Joachim, “he made life with him almost unbearable.”

At the end of the two weeks, Brahms and Dietrich took an extensive walking tour visiting friends in Landau and Karlsruhe, then stopping in Baden-Baden where they saw Anton Rubinstein, the Russian composer who was another great pianist of the day. By the end of August, he was back home in Hamburg.

Before leaving Ebernburg, Brahms gave Clara a pile of manuscripts to look at – he always valued her opinion and frequently sent her his latest efforts, something he did through much of his career. Included in the box was the first movement of a symphony in C Minor – minus its introduction, what would eventually become the opening of the 1st Symphony he didn’t feel satisfied with until 14 years later.

This, of course, overshadowed everything else: Brahms was writing a symphony! Even when she had first met Brahms, a 20-year-old who showed up on their doorstep in Düsseldorf, his piano sonatas and string quartets struck her husband as “veiled symphonies.” She had been urging him ever since to compose a symphony: that was the path to success and acceptance. The earliest sketches for this symphony dated back to the mid-1850s, not long after Robert had attempted suicide, that February, by jumping into the Rhine.

But also there was a string quintet in F Minor (with two cellos) and three movements of a cello sonata in E Minor, minus its finale.

Three summers later, in 1865, Brahms rented a couple of quiet rooms (“unbelievably cheap,” he wrote to his father) on the top floor of a quaint house on a hillside near Baden-Baden, consisting of a small but comfortable bedroom and the “Blue Salon,” as he called it, with its blue-and-gold wallpaper. From the window, he could see the mountainside and the road to Baden. He enjoyed these rooms and this area and returned here for several summers.

His schedule was simple: he would wake up at dawn, make strong coffee, take a long walk to mull over what he was working on that day, then before lunch spend four hours composing. After having lunch at a nearby inn he would join Clara Schumann and her children who were staying nearby, walking with them before having more coffee at 4:00, then back to their place for dinner before returning to the Blue Salon.

That first summer, Brahms completed the last movement of his G Major String Sextet and the fugal finale to his E Minor Cello Sonata, deciding eventually to discard its original slow movement which may or may not have ended up in the F Major Cello Sonata composed over twenty years later.

Something that engaged his mind that summer was a keening theme, strongly reminding him of Schumann’s musical sentiments: sitting among the fir trees near the house where he was staying, Brahms began what became the Horn Trio. His mother had become increasingly ill that previous winter, Brahms arriving a few days too late in early February to see her before she died of a stroke. After the funeral, he returned to Vienna where a friend, a singing teacher and amateur cellist named Joseph Gänsbacher, found Brahms playing through Bach’s Goldberg Variations for solace. In tears, Brahms told his friend about the death of his mother, but never stopped playing.

By April, he had composed three movements of his German Requiem, the second of them (the “All flesh is as grass” movement) containing ideas he had sketched shortly after Robert Schumann had attempted suicide 11 years before.

After finishing the sextet and the cello sonata, he sent them to his publisher, Simrock, who declined them. Next, Breitkopf and Härtel likewise rejected them. Leipzig had never been fond of Brahms’ music and Carl Reinecke, a successor to Mendelssohn at the Gewandhaus, considered the sextet “vile,” the kind of music that should be suppressed.

The brighter, more out-going F Major Sonata of 1886, a great deal of it written for the instruments upper register, was written for the cellist of Joachim’s quartet for whom he would also write the cello part of the “Double” Concerto. The darker, internal E Minor Sonata, dwelling more in the lower register of the instrument, was dedicated to an amateur cellist friend, Joseph Gänsbacher, the same friend who had stopped by to visit the composer after his mother’s death. The famous story about the sonata’s first performance, almost too good to be true, makes one wonder if Brahms had misgivings about that decision.

Now, one of the most difficult things about writing for cello and piano is maintaining the balance between the two since the cello, especially in the lower register, can easily be swamped. Considering Brahms’ typically dense textures, it was no wonder Gänsbacher was struggling to be heard, especially in the fugal last movement. At one point, he presumably said to the Maestro that he could barely hear himself at all.

To which Brahms presumably replied, “Lucky for you!”

- Dick Strawser

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