Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Summermusic 2012: Erkki Melartin & Richard Strauss

The last of the Summermusic 2012 concerts is tonight, featuring string trios by Beethoven with Lucy Miller Murray's poem, Sonata, read by Cary Burkett, a string trio by a little-known Finnish composer - okay, let's say virtually unknown in this country - Erkki Melartin, whose career was overshadowed by his contemporary, Jean Sibelius, and then concludes with a rarely heard, early work by a very well-known composer, the Piano Quartet of Richard Strauss which the Mendelssohn Piano Trio - Peter Sirotin, Fiona Thompson and Ya-Ting Chang - recorded on the Centaur label with  violist Michael Stepniak.

That concert is tonight at the Market Square Church at 6:00 - that's not a typo: it really is at six o'clock!

Erkki Melartin
While I've dug into the whole idea of how so much of this summer's music has been written by well-known composers "before they became famous" - you can read an earlier post about Beethoven, Poulenc and Britten - it would be unfortunate to leave Melartin out of this simply because he never became famous. His music, what I've heard of it in digging around YouTube, is certainly worthy of examination, whether I'd be convinced he's "unjustly neglected" or not (considering how many composers get performed who should be "justly neglected," but I digress...).

His situation merely points out the fact how much music is out there that is not being heard. When you consider it, there are a lot of composers we hear on a regular basis but in reality that only scratches the surface of all the composers, at what ever level, have tried to climb this mountain we call "lasting fame." Could there be something out there - other composers, other works - hidden from view (or rather, our awareness), who might speak to a later generation of listeners?

After all, if it had been up to Beethoven's contemporaries, we'd never have heard his Violin Concerto if it hadn't been for a teenager named Joseph Joachim who decided to play it 17 years after the composer's death and brought it into the repertoire.

Or if Mendelssohn hadn't been passionate about a neglected work that had never been performed since its composer's death. Of course, someone else might have dusted off Bach's St. Matthew Passion, but the point is, somebody had to.

Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang, always on the look-out for something new and interesting, heard Melartin's String Trio (Op. 133) at the Bard Festival and decided they wanted to include it on some future program. It was written in 1927, ironically about the time Sibelius 'retired' from composing (though he would live another 30 years and famously destroy many other works including an eighth symphony). Melartin himself died ten years after completing this trio, leaving a 7th and an 8th symphony unfinished.

Yet out of some 185 published works, I'd never heard of him before, myself, and considering my interest in the obscure, that's (frankly) saying something!

So, no doubt, you'll have a chance to discover something you've probably never heard before at tonight's concert.

Here are links to some YouTube videos I found of his music, to give you an idea what to expect: from his 5th Symphony and his 6th Symphony (the last one completed) and his earlier Violin Concerto.

There's much to say about the young Richard Strauss finding his voice - and you can read that over at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train. It also includes videos of the complete Piano Quartet and then links to many of the works Strauss composed before and after it.

Enjoy the discovery!

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Summermusic 2012: Before They Were Famous

Maybe you’ve seen those segments on the Entertainment News Programs about “Movie Stars Before They Were Famous” or watched some early movies of your favorite actors or directors and wondered how they got from that point to where they are today?

In a sense, this year’s Summermusic series is kind of like that, as far as composers are concerned, whether it was intended that way or not. In the first two concerts we heard Beethoven’s early Quintet for Piano and Winds, written a few years before his “break-out” pieces, the Op. 18 String Quartets and his 1st Symphony and, on a smaller scale, the “Pathetique” Sonata which always surprises me when I think it was written before 1800.

(You can read more about Beethoven's life at the time he composed the quintet here.)

Poulenc w/Sirotin, Chang & Malina
Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Duet (see photograph, left: the opening skirmish - having fun with piano duet 'turf wars' - performed here by Ya-Ting Chang & Stuart Malina, as Peter Sirotin tries to stay clear while turning pages) is also a very early work, composed in 1918 when the composer was 19, listed as No. 8 in his chronological catalogue. His first surviving composition was written only the year before, a piano piece that caught Stravinsky’s attention.

Les Six in 1921 at the Eiffel Tower
In 1920, Poulenc (2nd from left in this photograph) and a bunch of his rowdy young friends were meeting at an artist’s studio in Montparnasse when somebody started calling them Les Six. Only in 1921 did Poulenc actually begin his first formal compositional studies – with Charles Koechlin.

What strikes me as so amazing, listening to the piece, is how much it sounds like Poulenc, that it would never have occurred to me this was a bit of “juvenilia” – especially a piece he wrote before he even started studying with a teacher!

Britten in 1933
On the second program, I’d forgotten Benjamin Britten’s “Phantasy Quartet” for Oboe & Strings – a staple of any oboist’s repertoire – was composed in 1932 when he was still a teen-ager. Even for his Opus 2, it’s a very mature-sounding work – maybe the second work he published, but not the second work he wrote. Though he started studying composition shortly after he turned 14, there are some 800 works and fragments written before he published anything. This quartet was composed while he was studying at the Royal College of Music.

And while it might sound at times like his version of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism (Stravinsky had written the ballet Apollo in 1927, Les Noces in 1923 and L’Histoire du soldat in 1918), it is very obviously a work by Benjamin Britten, full of those musical fingerprints that we associate with other, more familiar works of his written after World War II.

Sirotin, Stepniak, Thompson & Reuter rehearse Britten
Talking with Gerry Reuter afterward, I told him it was the best, most compelling performance I'd ever heard of a piece that usually strikes me as “let’s go for a nice walk and then it gets weird.” Gerry was full of praise for his colleagues – Peter Sirotin, Michael Stepniak and Fiona Thompson – because, for the first time in his career (and I’d first heard him play in New York back in the late-70s), they actually followed the composer’s tempo indications and worked very hard to make the opening slower than you’d normally hear it and the climactic section faster, creating certain technical challenges in playing it cleanly and sounding "nice." In fact, Sirotin, in introducing the work, said "If you walk up to us afterward and say 'that was nice,' then we failed miserably: we weren't doing our job."

Usually, Reuter explained, most string players he'd worked with felt - Britten being a teen-ager and all - he didn’t understand how to write for strings (though he’d been studying the viola since he was 10) and so they would end up homogenizing the contrasting metronome markings almost to the point of finding a common denominator.

By following the composer’s well-thought-out and clearly indicated intentions, they turned it into a harrowing piece that made me think “wait, this wasn’t written during World War II, was it?” But then Fiona Thompson, born in England, said, “no, there was a lot of anticipation of the next war during that whole generation between the wars” – like waiting for the other shoe to drop. The fact the Nazis hadn’t come to power yet had no impact on this sense of foreboding or on Britten’s music.

But then, recalling Ralph Vaughan Williams’ chilling Sancta Civitas premiered in 1926 and the Dona nobis pacem of a decade later, despite their titles these are decidedly anti-war works. Britten was, all his life, a pacifist. One can hear his reaction to this inevitability of war in the mechanistic tread that opens the Phantasy Quartet which, despite its small forces, rises to an unexpected intensity before the march resumes, harrowing, hollowed out before dying away with one final breath.

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From Friday Night's Concert
Thinking back to the Beethoven Quintet (see photo, right), which was a conscious imitation of Mozart’s Quintet for Piano & Winds in the same key, the prominence of Mozart’s influence is difficult to ignore and while it might show us, over 200 years later, where Beethoven’s maturity evolved from, we also hear “fingerprints” of his own voice (evident in other works he composed at this time – already in the Op. 1 Piano Trios and the Op. 2 Piano Sonatas) that make this unmistakably Beethoven: for instance, several modulations, the series of off-beat accents and so on.

If he’d been trying to create a musical forgery that could be passed off as a newly discovered work by the late Master, his colleagues would’ve immediately caught him up on it: no, the reason for the imitation was so he could learn from what Mozart had done – and then do it “his way.” Despite the fact he was past his mid-20s, he was still thinking of himself as a student but once he had learned from Mozart what he could, he now had the self-confidence to head out on his own path.

In the third concert of the series – tomorrow, back at the Market Square Church and beginning earlier than usual at 6:00 (that’s six o’clock) – the program includes a reading of Lucy Miller Murray's poem Sonata with excerpts from three of the five string trios Beethoven wrote around the same time he was working on the Quintet and all completed before he began work on the string quartets and the symphony.

If the Quintet was an homage to Mozart, these trios branch out from the serenades and divertimentos of Mozart and Haydn, music for “easy listening” written as background music for dinners and garden parties. Written between 1796 and 1798, the first two – published as Op. 3 and Op. 8 –  are closer to this sense of “art as entertainment.” Another serenade-like work written at this time - for flute, violin and viola - wasn’t published until 1802 as Op. 25.

 But the three trios of Op. 9 – the first in G, the second in D and particularly the third in C Minor (a more dramatic work in what, for Beethoven, was always a dramatic key) – go beyond that ease of function.

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2nd Movement, Andante, of the String Trio, Op. 9/2 (up to 4:48)

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Scherzo from the String Trio, Op.9/1 (up to 2:38)

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In fact, Beethoven considered them “among his best” even though a few years later he would declare he was unsatisfied with everything he’d written so far, including the first quartets and the first two symphonies.

That, however, would come with maturity and a greater sense of self-awareness. The confidence to achieve that was something he learned in the process.

Another work on tomorrow’s program is the Piano Quartet in C Minor by Richard Strauss, written when he was 20. You can read more about it in a subsequent post.

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Summermusic 2012: Dvořák's Piano Quartet

Last night, at the 'Dine with the Musicians' evening for Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2012, I had a few conversations with some of the other guests about the Dvořák Piano Quartet that Peter Sirotin, Michael Stepniak, Fiona Thompson and Stuart Malina will be performing this afternoon at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center at HACC - concert time is 4:00.

Though you may not be finding this until after the concert, you can still read the post these conversations inspired -  Dvořák Finds His Voice - after-the-fact. Consider it "audience enrichment" filed under "better-late-than-never."

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Summermusic 2012: Beethoven, Before He Became a God

The first program of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2012 - Friday evening at 8pm, Market Square Church in Harrisburg - includes an early work by Ludwig van Beethoven, his Quintet for Piano & Winds, Op. 16.

Rehearsing Beethoven
Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, will be the pianist for this collaboration with oboist Gerard Reuter, a regular guest at Summermusic, clarinetist Christopher Grymes, familiar to fans of Concertante, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, who played in the Harrisburg Symphony a few seasons ago, and hornist Geoffrey Pilkington, a recent addition to the current Harrisburg Symphony (one of the four soloists in February’s Schumann Concert-Piece).

Beethoven – the “Divine” Beethoven, as he is often imagined – is one of the cornerstones of the repertoire of classical music, his symphonies, sonatas and string quartets forming the foundation on which everything else seems to rest.

So it is perhaps interesting to people used to the “Titanic” Beethoven, the “Larger-than-Life” Beethoven, to hear a few works he composed in the first years of his pre-1800 apprenticeship. It was not a sudden breaking away from his teacher’s traditions that would herald the New Century, replacing efficient formal Classicism with the messy emotional Romanticism.

Music, like history in general, is too prone to such black-and-white observations. Beethoven did not erupt on the scene with his “Eroica” Symphony.

The Quintet for Piano and Winds, from the more “human side” of Beethoven, is not that well known. In fact, it would probably never be mistaken for a “great” work unless Beethoven had never written anything beyond his 2nd Symphony. It was consciously patterned after a similar quintet by Mozart (which Mozart regarded as one of the best things he had ever written at a time he was in the midst of writing the string quartets dedicated to Haydn) but because Beethoven’s is “not so original,” in hindsight, it is considered something of a student work.

Back in March, after Stuart Malina played Mozart’s “Kegelstadt” Trio and Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet as part of his annual “Stuart & Friends” concert with colleagues from the Harrisburg Symphony, I was thinking “wouldn’t it be great to do the Beethoven Quintet next year?” Not long afterwards, sitting in Stuart’s living room to record a pod-cast for an up-coming Masterworks Concert, I was delighted to see the score for the Beethoven Quintet on his piano’s music rack. At the time, I didn’t think it was for Market Square Concert’s Summermusic, but I was equally delighted to see it on the program. And there’s always the Mozart Quintet for Piano & Winds for the next time.

And this conjunction of the Mozart and Beethoven Quintets is not just accidental. Beethoven composed his around 1796 or so, about five years after Mozart’s death and only about a dozen years after Mozart had written his quintet.

This performance features another conductor at the piano – James Levine, best known as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera – with members of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics: oboist Hansjörg Schellenberger, clarinetist Karl Leister, hornist Günter Högner, and bassoonist Milan Turković.

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1st Movement:

2nd & 3rd Movements:

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The overall elegance and balance of the style and formal structure of the piece is evident in the first movement, from its regal slow introduction (something Beethoven would rarely use in the future) – especially with its harking back to the rhythm of the French Overture of Handel’s day leading to a very dramatic dialogue between the pianist and the winds – to the eloquence of the themes, not to mention an almost cursory development section (something Beethoven would later greatly expand) and avoiding the return to the home tonic without even a wink.

It might bring to mind some of the wonderful piano concertos Mozart had composed after he arrived in Vienna himself, back in 1781, where the wind players were so much better than the ones he worked with at home in Salzburg. But as chamber music, there is more interplay between the players than just juxtaposition of the piano against a small orchestra.

If the first movement reminded me of a piano concerto,the slow movement, the emotional core of the work, brings to mind many of the great arias Mozart composed for his best operas, several of which have prominent woodwind obligatos. There is a moment at 0:50-1:06, the closing fragment of woodwinds’ version of Theme 1, which sounded like… well, I couldn’t quite place it: was it a quote or a coincidence? It was one of those moments where you let the music that’s there go off in a slightly different direction when the light-bulb went off – the opening of the final duet, “Es ist ein Traum” (5:58-6:13, here) in the conclusion of Der Rosenkavalier which Richard Strauss composed in 1911!

Of course, Rosenkavalier is Strauss’ tribute to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, so the coincidence of this similarity would make sense. Both are invoking the spirit of Mozart, Beethoven from only a few years’ distance; Strauss, over a century later.

With the finale, we are back in the world of the concerto – as envisioned by Mozart. His themes often had an ebullient simplicity – child-like rather than childish – no matter how perfect the context was around it.

The story goes that at one performance with Beethoven at the piano and the great Friedrich Ramm playing the oboe (Mozart had written his Oboe Concerto for him), the composer took the liberty of taking off at what in a concerto would’ve been a soloist’s prerogative, improvising a short cadenza on a particular chord marked with a fermata. As the passage came around with each restatement, Beethoven would continue improvising: even though the wind-players began to anticipate this, it annoyed Ramm in particular.

Curiously, when the quintet was played in 1816 with Beethoven’s student, Carl Czerny, at the piano, Czerny did the same thing but Beethoven was so annoyed by this, he upbraided his student for his behavior - then sent him a letter of apology the next day.

Today, casual listeners might find Mozart and Haydn indistinguishable, both high points of the Classical Style (c.1750-1800) even if they couldn’t name another composer from the same era. But this is clearly a work inspired by Mozart right down to the turn of phrase and the smallest formal details. Haydn could never have written this piece: if the last movement makes you smile, it’s not the same sense of humor you would hear in a Haydn finale, lacking any overt jokes or musical puns. It is more the light-hearted spirit – that Viennese spirit that we call “joie de vivre” in French because “Wiener Blut” (“Vienna Blood”) sounds so ghastly – than outright humor, a smile rather than a chuckle.

The year after Mozart died and Beethoven was leaving Bonn to study with Haydn in Vienna, Beethoven’s friend and patron, Count Ferdinand Waldstein (for whom a later piano sonata would be named), wrote in his travel album, “With the help of assiduous labor, you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

By studying and imitating the best of Mozart – what even Mozart thought was “the best of Mozart” – was this how Beethoven received Mozart’s spirit?

Not long after completing the Quintet – and also the three string trios later published as Op. 9 which, at the time, he thought were among his best works to date – he began his first string quartets (which became the six quartets of Op. 18) and his first symphony, all of which were first heard in 1800.

In 1802, as he was working on his Second Symphony, he told his friend Wenzel Krumpholz (for whom he often played through some new pieces), “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on, I shall take a new path.”

One of the works he began working on at that time would soon become his Third Symphony, the Eroica.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

What was Beethoven’s life like at the time he was writing his homage to Mozart?

You can read a continuation of this post, here.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Summermusic with Mother Goose

The perfect antidote to heat frustration - indoor, air-conditioned concerts with great music and great music-making!

That's something Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2012 can offer you - three concerts beginning this Friday evening at 8pm at Market Square Church, another on Sunday afternoon at 4pm at HACC's Rose Lehrman Arts Center, and then, returning to Market Square Church, a third concert beginning earlier than usual - at 6pm.

You can read more about the series here.

figuring out the logistics...
Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, and Ya-Ting Chang, member of the Mendelssohn Trio and executive director of Market Square Concerts, will be performing two piano duets.

There was a time when the "piano duet" or "piano hour-hands" - two players at one piano (the old saying 'two on a bench' is now outmoded since the typical piano bench is no longer the traditional long bench but a plushly sculpted bucket seat) - was one of the major forms of home entertainment, back in the days before TV and in-house sound systems (much less such outmoded technology like CDs and radio) provided all the entertainment a family needed. Rather than sit around staring at each other waiting for television to be invented, people made their own music.

And composers like Franz Schubert cashed in on this vast "amateur audience" by providing them with all manner of pieces, whether serious or light-hearted in nature, original pieces or arrangements, technically challenging or suitable for beginners, whether music for dancing or to show off marriageable daughters to prospective husbands. More people would've heard Beethoven Symphonies in four-hand arrangements than would ever have been to an orchestra concert. More people played Schubert's popular "Marche militaire" than ever heard his most famous piece, the Unfinished Symphony, in his lifetime (actually, that's a trick question: nobody heard that during his life-time: it wasn't 'discovered' until 37 years after he died, but I digress...).

Last year, Stuart and Ya-Ting played one of the great piano duets in the repertoire – the Fantasy in F Minor by Franz Schubert – but this year, they’re offering two very different works: the brilliant, saucy and often naughty-sounding Sonata that Francis Poulenc wrote in 1918, full of post-war joie de vivre, and a work better known as an orchestral suite but originally written for piano duet, Ravel’s Ma mère l'oye, or “Mother Goose.”

In fact, “Mother Goose” was not only written for children, as you might expect a piece inspired by fairy tales, but in this case written specifically for children to perform. Friends of his had two gifted children and so he composed five short “pictures” for them. Mimi Godebski was 6 and her brother Jean was 7 when he began working on the piece, adding to it over a couple of years and completing it in 1910.

Ravel never seemed to have lost touch with his inner child. He was fascinated by clock-work toys (his father was an inventor and toy-maker) – one famous story has him picking up a wind-up bird and holding it out to a friend of his, saying “Listen! You can hear it’s heart beating!” When he’d get bored at friends’ parties, he often would sit on the nursery floor and tell the children stories. You can imagine Cyprian and Ida Godebski suggesting he turn some of those stories into music for their children.

When the work was given its first public performance, it was played by other children – but both under the age of 10. Immediately, colleagues saw its choreographic potential, so by the time he was done with it, he had orchestrated it (adding a prelude and some interludes) for use as a ballet. It then became a regular visitor to concert halls around the world.

Here’s a performance with pianists Martha Argerich and Akiko Ebi of the complete work:
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It opens with a dreamy, slow dance, the “Pavane for the Sleeping Beauty.”

The winding patterns in the second piece (at 1:26) recall the paths through the dark and eerie woods where Tom Thumb wandered. Not to be confused with the American circus star - in French, he's Petite Poucet (a.k.a. Hop o’my Thumb), he's not the only child in fairy tales to get lost in the woods and leave bread-crumbs on the path to find his way back only to discover they’re all eaten by birds (appearing at 3:04).

The middle piece (at 4:19) is the exotic “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas,” speaking of clock-work toys, full of pentatonic music bringing to mind the Far East. The pagodas (at 5:14) come to life and dance for her. Musically, theorists talk a lot about Ravel’s use of “quartal harmonies” (chords built on fourths rather than thirds like traditional major and minor chords) but what he’s really doing is much simpler: you can get the same effect by just playing only the black keys of the piano! That’s the “sound” of the piece but the texture is more specifically inspired by the Javanese (or Balinese) Gamelan which Ravel may have heard in Paris – the first time one had performed there was in 1889 and it was an ear-opening experience for Claude Debussy. Listen to this clip of some authentic gamelan music.

This fairy tale, by the way, may not be familiar to American children brought up on Walt Disney. It’s based on a French tale that mixes a bit of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty & the Beast” – cursed by an evil fairy who’d not been invited to the party celebrating the princess’ birth, the little girl is turned into the “ugliest girl in the world” and whisked off to a magic kingdom ruled by a Green Serpent. Eventually she falls in love with the serpent-king and discovers he is, in fact (naturally), a handsome prince and her own beauty is also restored. “Laideronette” may sound like an exotic name for a princess, but it really means “Ugly Little Girl” in French, for those of you who have any little princesses in your house who might be looking for an alter-ego…

The fourth piece (at 7:26) picks up on this Beauty & the Beast story more specifically: it’s a very genteel conversation between the two with Belle answered (at 8:37) by the Beast. As you would expect, he is transformed (at 10:37) with an upward glissando, his low rumbling theme now played in the piano’s upper register. (It’s easier to hear in the orchestral version where the Beast is played by the contrabassoon before he is transformed into a handsome violinist.)

The final piece (at 11:54) is not based on any specific fairy tale: “no one seems to know where this fairy tale came from,” writers love to say, but it’s fairly obvious, if you can imagine Ravel sitting on the nursery floor telling children these tales, whether in words or in music, that he would bring all of the characters together in his own story as if saying good-bye after a party in the garden (proving Ravel had more imagination than many writers about music).

Even if he doesn’t identify who’s in this “Fairy Garden,” is there any more magical happy ending than this?

- Dick Strawser

Monday, July 16, 2012

Summermusic 2012: The Perfect Antidote for Heat Frustration


It’s summer and it looks like there’s another heatwave on its way (really, maybe 100° again? srsly?) but this year’s Market Square Concerts "Summermusic" is all indoors in air-conditioning. (I mention that because, with summer concerts, one often thinks they’re always outside).

Like years’ past, there are three concerts but unlike recent years where two of them were held at a beautiful, picturesque mill on the Yellow Breeches, the first and third concerts will be held at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg and the second one, at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center at HACC’s Wildwood Campus.

You can hear Cary Burkett’s interview with Peter Sirotin here.

In an interview last summer with Ellen Hughes for the Patriot-News, oboist Gerry Reuter talked about returning to the Mid-State for Summermusic, saying “it feels like a family reunion when we get together, not just the performers, but also the audience. We anticipate seeing people and recognize them, talking with them before and after the performances, hanging out together.”

That sense of friendly casualness extends to the performances and the music they play.

The first program of this summer’s concerts is Friday evening at 8pm, with French and German music for piano and winds and also for piano duet. Stuart Malina, music director of the Harrisburg Symphony who also loves to play chamber music with his friends and colleagues, and will join wind players oboist Gerard Reuter, a regular guest at Summermusic, clarinetist Christopher Grymes, familiar to fans of Concertante, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, who played in the Harrisburg Symphony a few seasons ago, and hornist Geoffrey Pilkington, a recent addition to the current Harrisburg Symphony whom you may recall as one of the four soloists in February’s Schumann Concert-Piece featuring the orchestra’s horn section.

Stuart will also join Market Square Concerts’ executive director, pianist Ya-Ting Chang, also a member of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio, for piano duets by Poulenc and Ravel.

The program opens with two light-hearted works by Francis Poulenc, one of the most light-hearted composers around and one famous (or infamous) for tweaking the stuffiness usually associated with classical music. Jaunty joie de vivre flourishes in the Trio for Piano, Oboe and Bassoon and particularly in his early Sonata for Piano Duet written at the tail-end of World War I.

Maurice Ravel’s music is usually considered elegant and pristine, the exact opposite of his contemporary Poulenc. Where Poulenc considered himself a “Vulgarian,” Ravel was something of a dandy who wore impeccably tailored suits but who had a child-like love of mechanical toys and perhaps enjoyed talking with children more than he might their parents when attending a dinner party. This spirit – both tasteful and innocent – comes to life in his suite, originally written for children to play, based on tales from “Mother Goose” (or, more correctly, the French equivalent of collected fairy tales).

You can read more about Ravel's suite, here.

Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Winds is not heard that often, certainly not as often as his string quartets or the piano trios. In three movements, it’s a delightful work from his early years in Vienna, before Beethoven became BEETHOVEN.

Here's a classic recording of Beethoven's Quintet with members of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics and another conductor at the piano - this one, James Levine.

= = = = =
1st Movement

2nd & 3rd Movements

= = = = =

You can read more about Beethoven and his quintet, here.

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Our string players will show up for the second concert – Sunday afternoon at 4pm at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center of the Harrisburg Area Community College’s Wildwood campus (see? Inside and air-conditioned!) joining Gerard Reuter for Benjamin Britten’s “Phantasy Quartet” and Stuart Malina for the Piano Quartet in E-flat (Op. 87) by Antonin Dvořák.

Bohuslav Martinu in 1945
The program opens with two works for just violin and viola (it doesn’t mean the other musicians are late) – a set of three “madrigals” by the Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinu written shortly after World War II; and one of a collection by the American composer, Augusta Read Thomas, called “Rumi Settings,” inspired by a poem of this Persian poet of the 13th Century about music and inspiration – this one, “Suspended and Graceful,” as she described it “like a pearl from the ocean floor.”

Martinu composed his madrigals (a term he used for several short pieces though this set is also known as “Duo No. 1 for Violin and Viola”) for violinist Joseph Fuchs and his sister, violist Lillian Fuchs shortly after they met in 1947. Here’s their recording of all three of them, made in the early-1950s which excuses the sound-quality. But what an interpretation – and, after all, the people who inspired the work and first played it!
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Hard to imagine this was one of many works Martinu composed while recuperating following a near-fatal fall from a balcony the year before, landing on concrete some ten feet below. Born in what became Czechoslovakia, he fled his homeland following the Nazi invasion in 1941, settled first in Paris and then left for the United States when the Nazis took control of Paris. Plans to return home were foiled by the Communist take-over after the war, though in 1956 he moved to Switzerland where he remained until his death three years later.

Incidentally, among Martinu's students (particularly at Tanglewood) were Alan Hovhaness and... uhm... well, Burt Bacharach (probably not a name you were expecting to see, here).

A better known Czech composer is Antonin Dvořák who, really, needs no introduction to American audiences and who, coincidentally, also spent some time in the United States teaching and composing, most famously his last symphony, From the New World and the 'American' Quartet.

Here is a performance of the opening movement of Dvořák’s Piano Quartet (not to be confused with the more famous and much more frequently performed Piano Quintet) with members of the American Chamber Players:
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(Contrary to the photograph in the “video,” there is no flute in the piece.)

In addition to Stuart Malina and Gerard Reuter, the performers for the second concert will include violinist Peter Sirotin who is (in addition to everything else) also acting concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony this coming season, cellist Fiona Thompson, principal cellist of the Harrisburg Symphony (she recently performed Strauss’ Don Quixote with the orchestra) and a member of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio, and violist Michael Stepniak, Dean of Shenandoah Conservatory,  and frequent recording collaborator with the Mendelssohn Trio.

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The final concert of the series – next Wednesday, the 25th, returns to Beethoven – again, from his first years in Vienna – but also includes an early work by a well-known composer and a late work by an almost unknown composer.

Three movements from three different string trios – works Beethoven composed between finishing the Quintet for Piano and Winds (see Program #1) and beginning the String Quartets, Op. 18 – will be part of a slightly different approach, performed in collaboration with Lucy Miller Murray’s poem, Sonata, recited by Cary Burkett, WITF’s Arts & Culture Desk and former Classical Air host.

Here are two of the string trio movements - works that Beethoven thought, at the time, were among the best he'd written so far - with classic performances by the Grumiaux Trio:
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The scherzo from the Trio, Op. 9 No. 1 (up to 2:38)

The 2nd Movement from the Trio, Op. 9, No. 2 (up to 4:48)

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Richard Strauss may be well known for his symphonic poems and his operas, less so for his chamber music. His father was one of the great orchestral horn players in Germany who loved Mozart but hated Wagner’s operas, though he was acclaimed for his performances in them. Not surprisingly, his son grew up with an aversion to Wagner which you can hear in his decidedly Mozart-inspired Horn Concerto No. 1, written when he was 17 for his father. But before he started sounding like the Richard Strauss we know, he also went through his Brahms Phase.

When he turned 20, Strauss was just branching out professionally as Hans von Bülow’s assistant conductor in Berlin. He’d just made his conducting debut (somewhat unexpectedly) in Munich and had heard the rehearsals and world premiere of Johannes Brahms’ 4th Symphony.

That might have something to do with the sound of the Piano Quartet he composed at that time. Here’s an ensemble called “Ensemble Raro” performing the first movement. A rare work indeed, there are not many performances available on-line through You-Tube that I could choose from (looking for live performances with good sound).

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However, you might want to check out this recording of it on the Centaur label with the Mendelssohn Piano Trio – Peter Sirotin, Ya-Ting Chang and Fiona Thompson – and violist Michael Stepniak who will be joining them for this Summermusic performance.

One of the fun things in programming something like this series is finding repertoire for various combinations of instruments and musicians, not just standard sonatas and string quartets that would more normally be programmed during the regular season.

Not to mention exploring different and sometimes unfamiliar repertoire.

Certainly, if you know Beethoven's music, hearing unfamiliar early works like the string trios or the Quintet for Piano and Winds will still find you on familiar turf. Even though Strauss' Piano Quartet may not be recognizable as the mature Strauss, at least you know a little of what to expect.

For many in the audience, Bohuslav Martinu might be a discovery. But I know we're dealing with little known composers if they've come up with someone I've never heard of before. In fact, I wasn't even sure what century Erkki Melartin belongs in: 19th, 20th or was he still alive?

Erkki Melartin (1875-1937)
Such is the curse of being Erkki Melartin, a major composer in Finland who would be, no doubt, a lot better known if it hadn't been for Jean Sibelius, a powerful compositional voice who overshadowed every other composer from Finland before or since. In fact, probably only Einojuhani Rautavaara has succeeded in escaping Sibelius' shadow on the international scene.

The String Trio you'll hear on this third concert was written in 1927 - around the time Sibelius's compositional career came to a close - and may sound more out of the Brahmsian Tradition than we might expect. He comes by this naturally: aside from studying with the same teacher who taught Sibelius, Melartin also studied in Vienna with Robert Fuchs, a good friend of Brahms and who, like most lesser Viennese composers at the end of the 19th Century, sounded like pale imitations of Brahms.

Naturally, I couldn't find any recordings of Melartin's String Trio on-line, but this last movement from his last completed symphony, written a few years earlier, might give you an idea what to expect.

- Dick Strawser