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

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