Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Summermusic #3: One More French Connection

The Civic Club of Harrisburg
The last of the Summermusic concerts is Wednesday at 6pm (and, yes, that's six o'clock) at the Civic Club on Front Street in Harrisburg, between the Harvey Taylor Bridge and State Street (it's the only building on the river-side of Front Street). Parking is available on the grass beside the stone wall (shown here) or on State Street just around the corner.

It's an all-string program with a sort of additive ensemble, starting with a duet for violin and cello by Ravel, a trio for two violins and viola by Dvořák, then ending with a quintet (written for a string quartet plus another cello) by the Russian Romantic, Alexander Glazunov, with violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Michael Stepniak, and cellists Fiona Thompson and Nadine Trudel.

You can read about Glazunov and his String Quintet in this previous post.

I could, I suppose, include Glazunov in this French Connection since he ended up living in Paris after the Russian Revolution, but this post is primarily about the connection between Maurice Ravel, his Sonata for Violin and Cello, and Claude Debussy and his Violin Sonata heard on the 2nd of this year's Summermusic programs.

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Ravel in 1925
You may be familiar with a lot of Ravel's music but this particular work may be a little different from what you'd expect – not just the leaner texture of two stringed instruments but also lacking the typical harmonic voluptuousness one usually associates with Ravel's earlier music.

With the usual caveat about finding reasonable recordings of good performances with half-way decent sound on-line (if that's even possible), here are the first two movements of Ravel's Sonata. The first movement is from a recording with violinist Carlos Benito de la Gala and cellist Alberto Gorrochategui:

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The second movement with its wild pizzicatos and gnashing sudden dissonances is performed here by the legendary cellist, Paul Tortelier and his son, Yan-Pascal Tortelier. Unfortunately, if they ever did record the rest of the sonata, I can't find it on You-Tube...

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2nd Movement:

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For the remaining two movements, let's return to the first recording more or less by default. Here's the slow movement which starts off with chant-like austerity in simple rhythms, a respite from the scherzo's frenzy.

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In the last movement, the bustling energy returns, imitating a four-part fugue in the pile-up of entrances, even though it's only two instruments:
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Ravel is certainly one of the leading composers of the early-20th Century and is usually paired with Claude Debussy like Mozart-and-Haydn because, presumably, their styles are so similar, right?

Debussy
Not necessarily true. They both started out as “impressionists” though using different means to reach the same end, so to speak. They were, in addition to contemporaries, colleagues as well. They met in the 1890s, Debussy (who was 12 years older) having become recognized with works like the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun which was premiered in 1894, and Ravel, the young piano student at the Paris Conservatoire who had only just started writing his first compositions in 1893, the year Debussy completed his String Quartet.

Ravel, though, was expelled from the Conservatoire in 1895 for not having won any awards over the past three years, then returned a few years later to study with his mentor, Gabriel Fauré, and concentrate on composing rather than performing. Around 1900, he joined a group of “artistic outcasts” known as the Apaches (a French slang term for hooligans – we associate it with a type of usually violent dancing popular in Paris during the early-1900s – and has nothing to do with the Native-American tribe).

It was around this time, Ricardo Viñes, the Spanish-born pianist and a friend of both Debussy's and Ravel's, re-introduced the two composers: they would meet at Debussy's home and play each others compositions – or Viñes would – and they would often attend the concerts together. Eventually, their music would often be played on the same programs.

While they shared many musical influences, they had different approaches to writing music: Debussy was more spontaneous; Ravel more attuned to craftsmanship (the traditional right-brain/left-brain, Romantic/Classical dichotomy).

Eventually, around 1905, the public divided itself into factions which began quarreling as critics attacked one or the other composer. Much of the argument was about who influenced whom and it didn't help that in 1913 both composers produced settings of the same poems by Stéphane Mallarmé. Comparison only shows they are different composers, each with their own individual musical style and personality.

Ravel once wrote that Debussy's “genius was obviously one of great individuality, creating its own laws, constantly in evolution, expressing itself freely, yet always faithful to French tradition. For Debussy, the musician and the man, I have had profound admiration, but by nature I am different from Debussy.”

Elsewhere, he said, “I think I have always personally followed a direction opposed to that of Debussy's symbolism.”

And that is one of the major distinctions between them: the label impressionism aside, Ravel had little sympathy for anything mystical. He was, after all, the son of an inventor of mechanical devices (one of which was a famous circus contraption called “The Whirlwind of Death”). Throughout his life, Ravel was fascinated by clock-work toys and how they worked (a friend told the story of Ravel holding up a mechanical toy bird and saying quite innocently, “I can feel his beating heart!”). When Stravinsky referred to him as “the most perfect of Swiss watch-makers,” it was not meant detrimentally. Ravel's goal was to get as close to perfection as he could, “since I am certain of never being able to attain it,” he said. “The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time.”

Ravel was like a sponge, absorbing influences and placing himself inside, say, a musical voice. Born not far from the Spanish border (his mother was Spanish-Basque), he would create some of the greatest Spanish (or Spanish-sounding) music in the repertoire – his Bolero and the Rhapsodie espagnole just to name two. But he could find inspiration in the gamelan music of Asia, the innocence of childhood or the flexibility of American jazz.

And then, of course, there was the war.

Because he was only 5'3” and already 40 years old, he was found “not suitable” for military service, rejected also as an aviator. Instead, he enlisted as an ambulance driver at the Battle of Verdun, one of the longest battles of World War I with an estimated 741,231 casualties on both sides and considered “one of the most horrific battles” in history.

(It was around the time the battle finally ended, that December, 1916, when Stravinsky agreed to compose a set of delightful pieces for piano duet which was heard on the first of these Summermusic concerts.)

The impact was quite different on Ravel, having experienced such a battle first-hand, if the pall it cast over Paris, 160 miles away, wasn't depressing enough. Then, his beloved mother died the following year. He retired from the war exhausted, lacking any creative spirit.

In May of 1917, Claude Debussy premiered his Violin Sonata which was played on the second of our Summermusic programs – you can read more about this, here.

That would prove to be Debussy's last completed piece and his last public appearance: he died of cancer on March 25th, 1918.

Ravel
Then, Ravel turned to the music of one of France's great Golden Ages and the music of François Couperin. Le Tombeau de Couperin seems, at first, a pleasant evocation of the Baroque Era, dance movements built on the clean lines and simpler harmonies of the age. It is often overlooked that each movement was sketched for solo piano during the war and dedicated to the memory of a friend of his who had died in it: it is not so much a tribute to France's past as it is a personal remembrance, tombeau in the sense of a memorial, not a grave-stone. After the war, he took several of these and orchestrated them. At the same time, he reworked the earlier orchestral Waltz, set in pre-war Vienna, and named it La Valse and though it might seem, on the surface, a grand orchestral waltz, it is, not far below the surface, a seething nightmare of the change that will come once the war, its horrors still fresh in the audiences' minds, brings down the curtain on the pre-war age of opulence and pleasure.

Ravel's House (1921-1937)
With Ravel's gradual return to creativity, it is not surprising there should be a work originally intended as a Tombeau de Debussy. This became the “Sonata for Violin and Cello,” completed in 1922.

Always one to work things out during a lengthy gestation period – before the war, he explained he had completed the Piano Trio which now lacked only the notes – this duo sonata posed several problems including the idea of treating two independent instruments without having the rich harmonies a piano could provide. It is a much sparer work, more contrapuntal though hardly in the old-fashioned academic sense. It is also a much more violent work – perhaps not only the war, but the pre-war discovery unleashed by the premieres of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire – reveling in slashing chords, sudden dissonances and constantly mounting tension that make one wonder if it really is in A Minor and C Major.

He wasn't necessarily adopting the stylistic ideas of his colleagues – they were already moving on, themselves – but realizing he must “move with the times,” he began to explore things that might make his style timely. Otherwise, as the older generation, now, he would find himself being ridiculed much the way he and Debussy had treated Camille Saint-Saëns.

In this way, the creative crisis brought on by his war experience and the death of Debussy – and with them, the passing of his youth – Ravel found a new voice in which to move on. While he would still compose many great works – the gypsy mask in Tzigane, the Violin Sonata that is more than just its “Blues” movement, of course the over-familiar Bolero as well as two great piano concertos written simultaneously, not to mention the Don Quixote songs, his last works, and the earlier Chansons madécasses – the last years of his life are clouded in ill-health, especially neurological issues possibly brought on by an automobile accident in 1932 which resulted in the theory he was suffering from a brain tumor. The operation in December of 1937 found no tumor and he died nine days later, having regained consciousness only briefly following the surgery.

Ravel (l), Gershwin (r)
There is a famous story that when Ravel met George Gershwin in 1928, the young American approached Ravel about studying with him. There are two responses, both of which may be apocryphal (Gershwin told similar stories about Schoenberg and Stravinsky) but either is believable.

In one, Ravel asked him why he would want to be a second-hand Ravel when he's already a first-class Gershwin. In the other, Ravel asked Gershwin how much money he'd made the previous year, after which Ravel thought perhaps he should study with Gershwin, instead.

Ironically, Gershwin went into a coma in July, 1937, and was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. The operation to remove it proved unsuccessful and he died a few hours later, five months before Ravel died.

Not a pleasant way to end a story, but it is what life deals us and, in these cases – also remembering Debussy's final years – how it affects the music they have left us.

- Dick Strawser

Summermusic #3: A String Quintet by a Russian Romantic

Glazunov at 21
This evening, the Strings of Summermusic 2013 will perform three works - a duo by Maurice Ravel, a trio by Antonin Dvořák and a quintet by Alexander Glazunov - at the Civic Club on Front Street in Harrisburg. The concert time is earlier than usual - 6:00 - so be aware of that.

(You can read about Maurice Ravel's Sonata for Violin & Cello, here.)

For those unfamiliar with the Civic House, it's a new venue for Market Square Concerts and the room has a great view over the Susquehanna River toward the West Shore. It's the only building on the river-side of Front Street, by the way, and it's between the Harvey Taylor Bridge and State Street (don't forget, you can't make a left turn onto Front Street from Forester!!! You'll need to turn up 2nd Street and then take the first available left to reach Front Street). As for parking, it's minimal at the building itself though people do park on the grass in the park just south of the Civic Club's brownstone walls, but you can also park on State Street which is just around the corner on the right.

Here's a short video of the ensemble rehearsing the Glazunov Quintet with violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Michael Stepniak and cellists Fiona Thompson and Nadine Trudel.

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Alexander Glazunov may not be a very well known or highly respected composer today, not like his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov or his student Dmitri Shostakovich. Unfortunately, he is more remembered as the alcoholic conductor who ruined the premiere of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony and as an old-fashioned past-his-prime relic who ran the St. Petersburg Conservatory in the years around the Bolshevik Revolution before falling out of favor with the new Soviet ethic.

Glazunov & Rimsky-Korsakov
Yet in Russia in his youth, he was regarded as a major composer, a prodigy who'd written his first symphony when he was 16, the darling of the nationalists until he became too much a cosmopolitan academic. Today, his ballet “The Seasons” survives in a dance world starved for works from the Golden Age of the Russian Imperial Ballet, his Violin Concerto (once very popular) is still occasionally heard in the concert hall, and saxophonists play his concerto simply because there's not much else to play, is there? In this country, few if any of his symphonies and little of his chamber music ever get dusted off.

Again with the usual caveat of finding reasonably good performances with decent recordings and half-way acceptable sound on You-Tube, here's the String Quintet in A Major, Op. 39 by Alexander Glazunov: recorded on August 20th, 2011 in Chandler Hall. Randolph, Vermont, as part of the Central Vermont Chamber Music Festival – with violinists Arturo Delmoni and Cyrus Beroukhim; violist Michael Roth; and cellists Peter Sanders and Allistair MacRae.

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1st Movement

2nd Movement

3rd Movement

4th Movement

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Glazunov's style is usually regarded as a mix of his mentors' folk-song-inspired nationalism with a dash of the romantic aura of Orientalism (most famous in Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherezade) combined with the cosmopolitan absorption of Western European elements also heard in Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky that in itself was a kind of mash-up of Liszt on the one hand and Mendelssohn on the other.

In one of those impossible comparisons everyone likes to make about something you may not know in terms of something you might, he's often referred to as “The Russian Mendelssohn” which is partly true in his coming from a well-to-do family and also in being precocious and that his style is a mixture of various, often conflicting influences – the stylistic dialectic of Nationalist Romanticism on the one hand combined with a sense of the European Classical Past on the other, hoping to find some common ground. Otherwise, it's basically like saying Glazunov “tastes like chicken,” but it's not a bad place to start.

And if this piece might compare to anything, it might be to much of the chamber music Mendelssohn composed (always excepting the Octet which is incomparable). It might never stand up to the Schubert Quintet as a masterpiece - but then, what can?

When Glazunov wrote his String Quintet, he was in his mid-20s and in between writing the 3rd and 4th of his eight symphonies as well as the 3rd and 4th of his seven string quartets.

Glazunov in 1895
1892 was a productive year: in addition to the String Quintet, he composed his Carnaval Overture for large orchestra and organ, a brass quartet called In modo religioso, a number of waltzes and salon pieces as well as the bombastic Triumphal March composed for the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (its use of The Battle Hymn of the Republic especially at the end should please lovers of the 1812 Overture who might be looking for suitable American-inspired fireworks music for the 4th of July). One critic thought this Triumphal March sounded a bit more British than American (I hear lots of Wagner, myself), yet in 1892, who in the United States even knew what American music sounded like?


If you're not familiar with Glazunov's music, take a few minutes at least to sample these more representative pieces:
- his 1st Symphony (1881)
- the Violin Concerto (1904)
- his 2nd Piano Concerto (1917)
- the Saxophone Concerto (1934) 

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Glazunov composed with legendary facility and his music was generally greeted without much concern or controversy (beyond the initial debut when people refused to believe a 16-year-old could write a symphony like that and accused his well-to-do parents of paying someone to write it for him).

But around the time he turned 40, this ease came to a grinding halt. Part of this may have been the responsibilities of taking over the St. Petersburg Conservatory from his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov in 1905 after he ran afoul of government during the political upheaval that almost became a revolution. His alcoholism worsened – though it had already played a very likely part in the disaster of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony in 1897: it was enough that he didn't care for the piece and made comments about not understanding it. He was finding himself a man-out-of-touch with what was going around him, musically.

Lyadov, Glazunov & Rimsky-Korsakov in 1904
In the 25 years from his first published works to the 1905-1906 Season when he completed his last symphony, there are 85 opus numbers in his catalog. In the remaining 30 years of his creative life, there are only 24 works, mostly inconsequential by comparison even though they include both his piano concertos (the 2nd, in B Major, is one I've always liked and wondered why no one plays), the last two string quartets (the last one, subtitled “Hommage au passé”) and the Saxophone Concerto which one occasionally hears as much because there aren't many Romantic-style concertos for the instrument (despite its being composed in 1934) as it's the last major work he composed.

If his teaching responsibilities didn't have a serious enough impact on him – whether or not the alcoholism was a symptom or a contributor to his creative decline – the political and social climate of the new 20th Century certainly undermined everything he as a conservative held dear, both socially and musically. Though he stayed after the Communists took control of the government and lived through the privations of the 1st World War, the two 1917 Revolutions and the ensuing Civil War, he never really regained the status he had enjoyed as a young man in the Imperial Age.

When he left the Soviet Union for the West, he did so “for reasons of health” rather than as a political refugee like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev or Stravinsky: if nothing else, this allowed his music to still be performed “back home.” But he spent the last eight years of his life as an exile in Paris, a man without a country (or even a culture) and, ironically for a man as “cosmopolitan” as he was, musically, little musical inspiration.

He was deeply suspect of New Music at the time. He told a colleague that Stravinsky's Petrushka was not music though skillfully orchestrated. Looking at Debussy's “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” he thought it was “orchestrated with great taste,” then wondered “Could it be that Rimsky and I influenced the orchestration of all these contemporary degenerates?”

Dmitri Shostakovich, the leading symphonist of the Soviet era, owed a great deal to Glazunov the teacher and administrator. His recollections in Semyon Volkov's highly questionable memoir, “Testimony,” include stories of Glazunov's legendary memory.

We owe the Overture to Borodin's Prince Igor to that memory since Borodin, a busy chemist and professor as well as composer, did not live to complete the opera or jot down anything for the overture. He'd played through it at the piano for his friends: Glazunov had heard one of these performances and was able to write it down later.

Another story was how the composer Taneyev had come to Belyayev to play his new symphony at the piano for him: meanwhile, the teen-aged Glazunov had been hidden in an adjacent room, listening to the performance. When it was over, Belyayev called Glazunov into the room as if he'd just arrived and said, as it happened, this young man was going to play through his new symphony as well. And he sat down and played Taneyev's symphony back to him, note for note.

Shostakovich, Student
While there is also the famous story of Glazunov keeping a bottle of vodka in his desk drawer, a rubber hose hidden in his coat connecting to the bottle so he could sip on it during his lessons, it's perhaps kinder to end with the fact – whatever he thought of “new music” – Glazunov arranged the premiere of his student Shostakovich's 1st Symphony with the Leningrad Philharmonic in the same hall where his own 1st Symphony had been premiered 44 years earlier and had created just as much of a stir when the teenaged composer walked out on-stage to accept the cheers of the audience.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Summermusic #2: A Kind of a French Connection

The second concert of this summer's Market Square Concerts series takes place on Sunday at 4pm in the air-conditioned Market Square Church and features works by Claude Debussy, Richard Rodney Bennet and Johannes Brahms with Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina playing the Debussy Violin Sonata, and oboist Gerard Reuter and pianist Ya-Ting Chang joining violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Michael Stepniak and cellist Fiona Thompson for Bennet's oboe quartet, "Arethusa" and the Brahms Piano Quartet in C Minor . This post is about the first two composers.

Two of the works on this program are by familiar composers of the traditional classical pantheon; the third composer may not be that well known in this country though you may have heard his music without knowing it.

Richard Rodney Bennet (see below for photo credit)
Richard Rodney Bennett's Arethusa, written for oboe and strings in 1989, is inspired by the ancient legend of a nymph transformed into a fountain to escape from a pursuing river god. 

An English composer who spent much of his career living in New York City, Bennett was at home in various musical languages. You might have heard some of his film scores (like Four Weddings and a Funeral released in 1994 or Far from the Madding Crowd in 1967), several of which were nominated for Oscars. He is well-known as a jazz performer and singer. He studied privately with one of the most formidable presences in 20th Century music, Pierre Boulez, which might be where he began his mature musical life, though, like many composers, his style changed to take on a more lyrical quality without “dumbing down” or rejecting his earlier approach. His opera, The Mines of Sulphur, written in 1963, is one of the most riveting operas I've heard (it is often performed but not anywhere I've been able to see it since I first heard the recording when it came out in 2005 – you can hear samples here). He can write miniatures of exquisite beauty regardless of style and he has been influenced by many strands of the 20th Century – from Claude Debussy to jazz to the complex serialism of Boulez.

To celebrate his 75th birthday in 2011, you could've heard a double concert at London's Wigmore Hall which included one of his Debussy-inspired pieces, the Sonata after Syrinx on the first concert with Bennett and singer Claire Martin performing from “The Great American Songbook,” with his own arrangements of songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, among others, on the second concert.

Comfortable in any of these “musical dialects” he chooses, he rarely writes what we'd call “cross-over” pieces. Yet he composed a saxophone concerto for jazz giant Stan Getz which, according to Tom Service of the British newspaper The Guardian wrote in his excellent “Guide to Richard Rodney Bennett's Music,”

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...isn't about a Third-Stream kind of blend of improvisation and classical conventions; instead, as Susan Bradshaw wrote about the piece, it's about putting "jazz harmonies in conjunction with the composer's own free-flowing serial technique". It's a work whose tensile rigour and utterly compelling musical momentum couldn't have happened without Bennett's structural thinking, but that also sings and stomps with expressive and stylistic freedom.
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You can read Service's complete article, here: it was published in July of 2012. Bennett died on Christmas Eve, later that year.

Here are some examples of the different voices of Richard Rodney Bennett:
- from his Clarinet Quintet (1992) 
- his Five Impromptus for Guitar (1968) 
- from his 1995 Partita (you can hear sample clips, here)
- and music from his 1974 film score for Murder on the Orient Express one of those scores nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film Score

In this largely unedited interview, he talks primarily about writing a new piece for two pianos for the 2008 Dranoff Competition, but between 9:54 and 15:36, he talks about what it's like to be a composer, how he starts writing a new piece, dealing with things like writer's block and what his ideas are of success.

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Throughout his life, Bennett was inspired by the music of Claude Debussy. For instance, he wrote Dream Dancing in 1986. In a program note, the composer wrote:

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The late works of Claude Debussy have always been of the utmost importance to me. Dream Dancing is the fifth in a series of works based on Debussy's Syrinx for solo flute, the others [including] After Syrinx I for oboe and piano, [and] After Syrinx II for solo piano.

At the end of his life Debussy was planning a series of six sonatas, of which he only lived to complete three - the violin sonata, cello sonata and the sonata for flute, viola and harp. The fourth was to have been for oboe, horn and harpsichord, the fifth for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, piano and double bass, and the six for an ensemble made up of all the instruments used in the previous five sonatas. This is in fact the ensemble which I have used in Dream Dancing (with certain doublings) - flute, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harpsichord, piano/celesta, harp, violin, viola, cello and double bass.
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Which brings us, then, to the work that opens this Summermusic program, the Violin Sonata Claude Debussy composed in 1917. In the order of these proposed six sonatas, it was the third but, unfortunately, the last work he completed. It also marked his last public appearance – he was the pianist for its premiere in May, 1917. He died in March the following year, in the midst of the German bombardment of Paris which marked the eventual end of the First World War.

It is with the awareness of the war that Claude Debussy described himself on the cover of these sonatas as “un musicien français.”

Here is a compelling performance of Debussy's Violin Sonata – which will be played on the program by Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina – with Janine Jansen and Itamar Golan recorded in Paris's Salle Pleyel in 2011.

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1st Movement:

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2nd Movement:

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3rd Movement:

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You can read more about this sonata in a more detailed follow-up post on my other blog, Thoughts on a Train, here.

- Dick Strawser

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Photo credit: portrait photograph of Richard Rodney Bennett by Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Summermusic 2013: Mozart at His Best

Friday night at 8:00 at Market Square Church, "Summermusic 2013" gets underway with the first of three concerts. You can read more about the whole series and especially the other works on that program in this previous post. This post is about Mozart and his Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds, K.452, which concludes the concert.


This photograph was taken last summer when concert-goers heard the Quintet for Piano and Winds by Ludwig van Beethoven with pianist Stuart Malina, oboist Gerard Reuter, clarinetist Christopher Grymes, bassoonist Peter Kolkay and hornist Geoffrey Pilkington.

So it should come as no great surprise that the same performers have returned this summer to perform another quintet for the same combination of instruments – the one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed in 1784. It was a very good year: Mozart, at the age of 28, was just coming into his prime - at least as far as Vienna and this newest phase of his career. And he thought it was the best thing he'd ever composed.

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Marianna Shirinyan, piano; Rachel Bullen, oboe; John Kruse, clarinet; Etienne Boudreault, bassoon; Joke Wijma, horn – at the 13th Esbjerg International Chamber Music Festival in Denmark, 2011
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Mozart certainly thought highly of the piece and Beethoven so admired it, he decided to write one himself, using Mozart's as the model.

Could you imagine if Brahms, who loved Beethoven and Mozart, would have written one of his own as a tribute to both? What if the guy who asked Schubert to write the “Trout” Quintet had played the bassoon instead of the cello?

There are not a lot of works for an ensemble like this – certainly not by top-shelf composers like Mozart and Beethoven. An on-line search brings up a composer named Fritz Spindler whom I've never heard of, yet his quintet was published in 1888 as his Op. 360.

Nor can I imagine a more recent one by Elliott Carter would ever show up in the general repertoire.

Yet the scarcity of such works hasn't exactly made Rimsky-Korsakov's quintet (which replaces the oboe with a flute) a less infrequently heard piece than it already is.

Mozart was 25 when he quit his much-hated job with the Archbishop of Salzburg's household staff. Having been unable to find a position with any other aristocratic court (the most frequent employer of musicians in the 18th Century), he decided to try his luck as a free-lance performer, composer and teacher in the imperial capital of Vienna in 1781. It was not easy and not without its challenges, but having caught the ear of Emperor Joseph II, Mozart became the “new hot thing,” to turn a phrase.

Two things happened by the time Mozart composed this quintet. For one, he had gotten married in 1782 and (finally) returned to his hometown in late-July, 1783, with plans to introduce his bride Constanze to his father and sister. I should say his disapproving father and sister: the trip was more to convince them to accept her. Though we know little of what did happen during the three months he spent there, we do know there were no public concerts and no stimulation for new works. The one performance mentioned (without comment) in his sister Nannerl's diary indicates that Constanze sang the soprano solo in a mass by Mozart (he'd been working on the great C Minor Mass which he left incomplete at this time but it was more likely one of his earlier and less extensive masses included in the service). His visit seemed almost to be a non-event.

We don't know much about Mozart's daily life from this period but it's not difficult to imagine that, having seen what life in Salzburg might still be like had he stayed, he attacked Vienna with a new vigor. And apparently with a little more self-assurance (something it's hard to imagine Mozart ever lacked).

Because in February, 1784, came the second, seemingly minor event: he started keeping a record of his compositions, entering them into a thematic catalog when they were completed, along with a brief quote of the opening bars and its instrumentation. This is clearly the work of someone more concerned about the future – and in those days, artists very rarely thought about posterity. It may be nothing more than merely organizational paperwork, keeping track of what he had written, having found himself without a symphony on this trip. But why the change in procedure, now?

Whatever the reason for this sudden turn at a more organized life (itself a new idea, given Mozart's lifestyle, almost in the manner of a modern-day new year's resolution), the first works he entered into it were these:

Piano Concerto in E-flat (K.449) – February 9th, 1784
Piano Concerto in B-flat (K.450) – March 15th, 1784
Piano Concerto in D (K.451) – March 22nd, 1784
Quintet in E-flat for Piano & Winds (K.452) – March 30th, 1784
Piano Concerto in G (K.453) – April 12th, 1784
Sonata in B-flat for Piano & Violin (K.454) – April 21st, 1784

The two piano concertos of March – K.450 and K.451 – were performed on the same concert with the Quintet (K.452) on April 1st, the day after he completed the quintet. Mozart was the pianist for all three works on the program.

Afterward, a very happy Mozart wrote home to his father that the Quintet “called forth the very greatest applause: I myself consider it to be the best work I have ever composed. How I wish you could have heard it! And how beautifully it was performed!” Then he added, “To tell the truth, I was really worn out at the end after playing so much – and it is greatly to my credit that my listeners never got tired.”

Curiously, the quintet is written with a clarinet in the ensemble, though the winds in the orchestra for the two concertos includes a flute but no clarinets. There is, of course, the old story that Mozart didn't much care for the flute, but for all practical purposes, why not include it in this piece instead of bringing in a clarinetist (perhaps his friend, Anton Stadler, for whom he'd later write a concerto, the clarinet quintet and the “Kegelstatt” Trio)?

This was a busy time for Mozart: in the nine weeks around the time he composed these four works, he was involved in “no less than 24 performances” according to Volkmar Braunbehrens' Mozart in Vienna.

It's also interesting to note that, whenever he might have composed it (and for whatever reason), his friend Stadler performed the earlier Serenade for 13 Winds, generally known as the Gran Partita (the title is not Mozart's), K.361. Judging from the watermarks on the paper, scholars assume it was composed in 1781; others think it might have been written sometime between his leaving Salzburg and his starting to keep the thematic catalog.

The important thing is, Stadler's concert was on March 23rd, 1784. Mozart completed the Quintet on March 31st and performed it the next day.

Though this is purely conjecture on my part, I can just imagine Mozart being so delighted with hearing this piece - especially since he thought so highly of Vienna's excellent wind-players - he might have decided to add another wind piece to the concerto program and dashed it off in the following week. If that's the case, then how could he not include Stadler?

Another famous anecdote (speaking of hectic) involves the Violin Sonata, K.454, which Mozart completed three weeks later and performed with the famous violinist Regina Strinasacchi (who turned 20 that year). He had not had time to write out the piano part and played it “from memory” (no, as some tellers of the tale put it, he did not improvise it: it was completely composed in his head – it just wasn't written down, yet). When the emperor looked at the score afterward, he was dumbfounded to see only the violin part inked in: the entire piano part of the score Mozart was playing from was blank!

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While I don't know what a florin from the 1780s would be worth today, it is estimated (see Maynard Solomon's biography of Mozart) that in his first year in Vienna, Mozart earned between 1,084 and 1,284 florins; in 1782, between 2,174 and 3,074 florins. In 1783, his income was down – less than 2,408 florins – but then he spent at least three months in Salzburg and did not return to Vienna until several weeks later. In 1784, a year that began so productively, he earned about 3,720 florins, the most he would earn until 1791 when he made between 3,672 and 5,672 florins.

Part of the reason for this decline in his income was the fickleness of the Viennese public: while Mozart was confident of his fame, he did not count on the fact that sooner or later (and unfortunately, sooner than he expected), Vienna began looking somewhere else for the “new hot thing.”

Mozart was not very practical when it came to money – his gambling problem developed later – always feeling the need to “keep up appearances” (he felt, in order to impress the aristocracy, one needed to be well dressed and present an image of affluence), always living just beyond his means. But that is an issue for a later time.

However, with Mozart, there isn't a lot of time “for later.” We tend to forget, given this steady stream of divine music which he seemed to produce so effortlessly, that he had only seven more years to live. He wrote this Quintet when he was 28 – he would be dead before his 36th birthday.

Music lovers are always playing "What if...?" especially with Mozart. What if he had lived as long as Haydn? As hard as it is to imagine, he would have outlived Beethoven and Schubert and died in 1833, the year Brahms was born.

It is too easy to fantasize about what might have been but it does make the music we have all the more amazing to contemplate, especially when Mozart himself thought this piece was the best he had offered - so far.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, July 15, 2013

Summermusic 2013: Opening Night (The French Connection)

In case you hadn't noticed, it is definitely summer and if the forecast for this third week of July is any indication, with yet another heat wave on the way, it's a good thing the three programs of Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2013 are all inside in air-conditioned comfort.

The first concert takes place this Friday at Market Square Church at 8:00 and features music for piano and winds.

The second concert will be on Sunday afternoon at the church as well – this time, 4:00 – and features music for piano and strings.

The final concert in the series will be on Wednesday evening, July 24th, and will be held at the Civic Club on Front Street (between the Harvey Taylor Bridge and State Street). With music for strings, it begins earlier than we're used to, so it's not a typo when it says “6:00.” Yes, that's six o'clock!

(You can read Ellen Hughes' "Art & Soul" column for Harrisburg's Patriot-News here.)

In addition to pianists Stuart Malina and Ya-Ting Chang, the first program marks the return of the wind players who joined Malina last year for the Beethoven Quintet. This summer, they'll be performing the Quintet for Piano and Winds that Mozart thought was the best thing he'd ever composed so far (he was 28 at the time) and which Beethoven thought so highly of, he used it as a model for his own quintet.

We'll hear oboist Gerard Reuter, a regular at these summer concerts, joined by clarinetist Christopher Grymes, bassoonist Peter Kolkay and hornist Geoffrey Pilkington.

Most of our string players get the first night off, but will be in full force for the last two programs. In addition to pianists Stuart Malina and Ya-Ting Chang, we'll hear violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Michael Stepniak and cellists Fiona Thompson and Nadine Trudel.

In addition to the Mozart quintet, this first program includes some light-hearted, witty music by Igor Stravinsky and Bohuslav Martinu – a quality you might not immediately associate with the composer who gave us The Rite of Spring a hundred years ago or with a name which might be unfamiliar to you.

Camille Saint-Saëns, famous for his popular Carnival of the Animals and the “Organ” Symphony, offers us a little-heard Bassoon Sonata that was the last piece he composed when he was 86. Hearing this work for the first time only a few years ago, I was reminded how one of those concert companion books I grew up with as a child included Saint-Saëns in a chapter called “French Composers of the Charm School.”

Sunday's second concert opens with Debussy's Violin Sonata and a quintet by the late Richard Rodney Bennet for oboe and strings entitled “Arethusa,” and concludes with Brahms' Piano Quartet in C Minor.

It's all-strings at the Civic Club on Wednesday, the 24th at 6:00, with the Sonata for Violin and Cello by Ravel, the string trio Dvořák composed for two violins and viola, and a String Quintet by the Russian composer, Alexander Glazunov. (Did I mention this concert begins at six o'clock?)

This post will be about the opening concert but with the Mozart on a separate post.

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Stravinsky's suite consists of five brief movements – each barely over a minute long: after an opening Andante, there's an evocation of Spain called “Española,” a bit of nostalgia from his native Russia with “Balalaika” (a strummed string instrument that accompanies a folk-like tune), then a jaunty Italian souvenir “Napolitana,” before winding up in Paris with a riotous “Galop” that would do Poulenc proud.

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Igor Stravinsky's Five Easy Pieces

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Stravinsky by Picasso, 1917
There are two small sets of pieces Stravinsky composed for piano duet – two pianists sharing one piano – both initially meant for him to play with his young son. The first set of three pieces, written in 1915, just two years after The Rite of Spring was premiered in Paris, has a simple accompaniment (the “left” hand) and a more involved melodic part (the “right” hand). In these “Five Easy Pieces,” written two years later, it is the accompaniment which is more complex while the melodic part, though not as simple as the easy part from the earlier set, is still less technically demanding.

Stravinsky wrote these for a Parisian princess who wanted to publish his Three Pieces for String Quartet, the first thing he completed after The Rite of Spring and already something in a markedly different, more “classically”-lined, even intimate style. But Stravinsky didn't want to publish them and talked her into publishing a few shorter, newer pieces instead, including these Five Easy Pieces which he hadn't even written yet. Stravinsky, then living in Switzerland, wrote each of the pieces in one day, adding the “Española” just before he mailed them off to his publisher.

If you think Stravinsky was imitating Francis Poulenc, especially in the last movement's visit to a Parisian dance-hall, Poulenc first surviving composition was written in 1917 which, later that year, would be shown to Stravinsky who would later help the young man publish it.

On a more serious note, placing these delightful pieces in their historical context, at the time the princess asked Stravinsky about publishing some of his music, the four-month-long Battle of the Somme was coming to a close where it is estimated over one million men died or were wounded, making it one of the bloodiest battles in history.

1917 was also the year Claude Debussy completed his last composition: the Violin Sonata which will be performed on the second of our Summermusic concerts. A year later, Claude Debussy died of cancer in the midst of the aerial bombardment of Paris, part of the Germans' final spring offensive, his funeral winding through the deserted streets of this great city that has seen its share of violent history but has also given the world so much beautiful, light-filled and even light-hearted art.

Listening to these pieces, it's difficult to imagine they could have been written in the midst of such horrible times.

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Martinů at 5
Paris would also become home to the Czech-born composer, Bohuslav Martinů, who was raised in a small-town church tower in an apartment 193 steps above the street (talk about a “walk-up”...). He gave his first violin recital when he was 14 but since the age of 10 he'd been focused on becoming a composer. He played in the 2nd Violin Section of what became the Czech Philharmonic after the nation's independence, following World War I, but in 1923, now in his early-30s, he received a scholarship that allowed him to study composition in Paris where he remained for the next 17 years, making a living as a “poor, starving musician” – a true Bohemian! With the outbreak of World War II, he managed to escape before the Nazi Occupation of Paris and settled in the United States. It was here that he wrote the Quartet we're going to hear on this program.

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Bohuslav Martinů's Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello and Piano, with Members of the Czech Nonet:

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Martinů in 1945
Martinů was a prolific and seemingly effortless composer. A great deal of his music seems to have this overall happy sense of well-being, usually energetic and often optimistic. It's not that his life was necessarily well-adjusted: aside from the poverty of his Paris days (recognition came slowly, if at all), when he fled the approaching Nazis who had already black-listed his music (which, I suppose, was a kind of recognition, though it was primarily for his role in the Czech Resistance), he was forced to leave most of his manuscripts behind and had difficulty booking passage to America, first finding refuge in Southern France, then Lisbon. It took almost a year to get a boat to New York City where he arrived speaking no English and bringing with him only the few scores he'd composed in the past year.

It was Serge Koussevitsky in Boston who came to his rescue – much as he did with another war-time immigrant from Central Europe, Bela Bartók (the result, there, was his famous Concerto for Orchestra). And so, Martinů composed his 1st Symphony for the Boston Symphony, gained some recognition and re-gained some much-needed confidence before setting off to write four more symphonies and several concertos over the next five years. After the war, he was invited to return to Prague to teach at the conservatory there, but the new Communist regime blocked his passport and he now found himself stuck in America.

That summer, he was appointed to the faculty at Tanglewood (another Koussevitsky save) but he was unable to fulfill it because of a serious fall from a balcony which affected his hearing and his nerves, not to mention hitting him with serious medical bills.

It was during this time he composed his Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello and Piano, a work that hardly reflects the reality of the context it was written in.

Later, he taught at the Mannes School of Music in NYC and then at Curtis in Philadelphia – his students included Alan Hovhannes and Burt Bacharach – even after he returned to Europe, where he spent much of his time in the South of France, also teaching at the American Academy in Rome. But he was still beset by financial insecurity: Paul Sacher, a noted Swiss conductor and patron to many famous composers, invited Martinů to live on his estate in Switzerland, where he died two years later at the age of 68.

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Saint-Saëns, prodigy
By comparison, Camille Saint-Saëns had it easy: a prodigy who began composing at the age of 3 (?!), he could play all of Beethoven's piano sonatas from memory when he was 10. Hector Berlioz heard a symphony Saint-Saëns composed when he was 17, and wrote, “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.”

In 1886, he produced his two best-known works, the witty (and mostly irreverent) Carnival of the Animals and the grandest of French symphonies, his Third, the famous “Organ” Symphony which he dedicated to the memory of his friend, Franz Liszt, who had just died.

The Bassoon Sonata is one of three wind sonatas composed in his final year. It is amazing to hear it, once you realize it was written in 1921 and recall how, at the first concert performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring a year after its premiere, he famously stalked out of the hall shortly after the music began, complaining about the composer's misuse of the bassoon in its famous opening solo.

As usual, finding performance videos on You-Tube can be a daunting search – locating a good performance with a good recording and a reasonable interpretation I can recommend. While there are several videos of this work on-line, most of them are poorly recorded or have annoying background audio issues. This performance almost didn't make the cut simply because it may possibly be the worst backdrop for a recital I've ever seen, so please don't let that influence the music or its interpretation!

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Saint-Saëns' Bassoon Sonata in G, Op.168 with bassoonist Marcin Orlińaki and pianist Hanna Sosińska-Kraski

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When Saint-Saëns was young, he was considered a progressive, championing the more radical styles of Liszt and Berlioz. Born eight years after Beethoven's death, his early career ran parallel with the mature Chopin and Mendelssohn. He was considered “the most German of all French composers” mostly because he often wrote with a sense of counterpoint – writing independent lines that worked melodically as well as harmonically rather than in the standard melody-plus-accompaniment approach – which was considered an academic German technique. When they called him “The French Beethoven,” it was not always meant as a compliment.

En route to California, 1915
By the end of his career, he was regarded as uselessly old-fashioned, especially by Debussy and Ravel (whose music will appear on the second and third programs of this year's Summermusic). Even though he may have been the earliest-born pianist to make a recording of his playing and the first major composer to write for the film (in 1908), he fought against the influences of new music either by Debussy or Richard Strauss. He (like many of his contemporaries) considered Stravinsky “mad.”

Saint-Saëns at his best is usually regarded today as a composer of great facility while the music of his last decade is generally overlooked if not dismissed. That, however, is only in the context of what was being written around him. If an old dog cannot be expected to learn new tricks, why should we begrudge a composer in his 80s for waxing nostalgic over the Good Old Days rather than writing like Stravinsky or Schoenberg because that's what was all the rage (in more ways than one)?

Rossini and Sibelius are two famous composers who chose to stop writing at the peak of their careers rather than adopt the latest trends, spending their final decades in silence. We often wonder “what if...?” Saint-Saëns at least kept on going, right to the very end.

Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds concludes this first program, but that will be the subject of the next post.

- Dick Strawser