Friday, November 15, 2013

The Parker Quartet and Jeremy Gill's Capriccio

Saturday night, November 16th, the Parker Quartet concludes their Market Square Concerts program with the Harrisburg premiere of a work by a Harrisburg-born composer, Jeremy Gill, his "Capriccio" which he completed last year. Also on the program will be Franz Schubert's Quartettsatz (which you can read about here) and Mendelssohn's String Quartet in D, Op.44 No. 1. The performance is at 8:00, Saturday, at Temple Ohev Sholom at 2345 N. Front Street, Harrisburg.

While it's unfortunate that neither Schubert nor Mendelssohn were available for this concert, Jeremy Gill will be giving the pre-concert talk beginning at 7:15. So you have a chance to hear a live composer talk about his music - not something we always get to do when attending concerts, these days.

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The Grammy-winning Parker Quartet has a long working relationship with Harrisburg-born composer Jeremy Gill. For one thing, they premiered his “25” which had been commissioned to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Market Square Concerts. So it's not unexpected they'd be collaborating again – this time on a work entitled “Capriccio” which might bring to many any number of associations.

Normally, we think of something that might be light-hearted, “capricious,” and not very lengthy or involved – for instance, Tchaikovsky's “Capriccio italien,” a musical souvenir, or the Caprices of Nicolo Paganini, studies in the ultimate of violin technique from the early-19th Century. Brahms also wrote some Capriccios but I don't think too many people would find them “light-hearted,” as wonderful as they are (at least the ones from Op.116).

As a musical term, “capriccio” originated in the 16th Century with a set of madrigals but the term could also be applied – in that illogical and often confusing sense where the same term can be defined in different ways at different times in music history – to keyboard pieces or something of a “bizarre” nature whether it's for voices or instruments as well as more recent uses of the term more often describing a pieces mood, like Saint-Saens's “Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso” or Dvořák's Scherzo capriccioso (literally, a “capricious joke”).

So I was rather surprised – and then, no, not really surprised – to find out Jeremy Gill's recent “Capriccio” which the Parker Quartet premiered earlier this year is not a particularly light-hearted work nor short. As string quartets go, it clocks in about an hour in length, making it longer at least in duration than any of Beethoven's Late Quartets which are generally considered the Everests of the Repertoire.

His sense of the term is a bit capricious itself, going back to that 1561 original citation and making musical references to other approaches to the term between then and now. It is in several movements – 27, to be exact but they are not the standard length we'd normally associate with a quartet movement – and all of these different movements have different and varied origins as well as “uses.”

at Cumberland Valley High School
Part of the idea was to create a work that could not only operate as a whole in concert but could also be excerpted for use in educational programs. In that sense, this fragmentable nature of the piece came in handy at the educational outreach held earlier today at Cumberland Valley High School, in a program with the composer and the quartet (a program that was co-organized with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra).

Some of these movements are about the “uses” of music which he describes as “religion, love, community and dance.” Music has been used for religious worship, to express romantic emotions, as well as to create a background to dancing (its title, Terpsichore, refers to the Greek muse of dance).

Three other movements deal specifically with musical textures (monophonic or single-line melody, like Gregorian Chant; polyphonic or multi-voiced, where all voices are independent of each other; and a mixture of lines moving either in parallel motion or at slightly different time-intervals).

Most of the movements examine standard playing techniques of the instruments (perhaps more like Paganini's Caprices are “etudes” dealing with specific techniques). There are some focused on harmonics, or pizzicatos, or bowing – one, which you can hear in the interview clip below, they imitate the sound of a guitar and even hold their instruments like a guitar to accompany the cello.

Then this entire span of all these varied movements is bound by an “up-beat” introduction (in music, called “arsin”) and then, at the far end, by a “down-beat” conclusion (called “thesin”). Up! Down! And everywhere in between!

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Here's a radio interview from Minnesota Public Radio with Gill and the Quartet, talking about putting the work together – from the process of commissioning the piece to giving it its first performance – and they play a few different movements by way of a sample.

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The whole interview and performance is about 24 minutes long – the first half talks about Gill's “Capriccio” but you can listen to them play some Dvořák, too.

For the Harrisburg premiere of “Capriccio,” the quartet will play Schubert's Quartettsatz and Mendelssohn's Quartet, Op.44 No. 1, on the first half of the program.

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The Parker Quartet won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance in 2011 with their Naxos recording of works for string quartet by György Ligeti. Here's a video made during the recording session:

Given how most musicians tend to tap their feet when performing music that is especially rhythmic, you can appreciate how the engineers were probably suggesting a practicality and were not making a fashion statement.

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It's a busy year for Jeremy Gill: he was recently at the MacDowell Colony working on an oboe concerto for Erin Hannigan, principal oboist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, another Central Pennsylvania native who graduated from Palmyra High School. Another commission will bring a clarinet concerto for Christopher Grymes (who has appeared with Concertante and with Market Square Concerts these past seasons) to the Harrisburg Symphony in the near future.

This past season also saw the premiere of Before the Wresting Tides, a work for chorus, piano solo, and orchestra setting a poem by Hart Crane and featuring Rubinstein Prize-winning Ching-Yun Hu, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, and the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. The Philadelphia Inquirer called the work “exhilarating,” and remarked: “the ending is a stunner.”

From his website's biography, there's this about his recordings:

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In 2011 Jeremy released his second CD on the Albany Records label, featuring pianist Peter Orth in Book of Hours and Jonathan Hays and Jeremy in Helian. Fanfare Magazine hailed this new release, remarking on Jeremy’s “keen ear for exotic sonorities,” while the American Record Guide deemed it “grand, serious in mood…work of considerable intensity.” Philadelphia City Paper listed it as #4 on their “Best Classical Releases of 2011.” His first CD of chamber music, released in 2008, included the world premiere recordings of his 25 with the Parker Quartet, Parabasis with Mimi Stillman and pianist Charles Abramovic, and Suite for Brass with the Extension Ensemble. Peter Burwasser, reviewing this CD in Philadelphia Music Makers, wrote that “Gill writes with precision and care, intriguing imagination, and a fearless emotional depth,” and the American Record Guide remarked: “Jeremy Gill has imagination, and his music is well worth hearing, reading about, and investigating.”
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If you haven't recent performances in Harrisburg of his song cycle Helian, the organ work “8 Variations and Toccata on Betzet Yisrael,” songs composed to poems by Lucy Miller Murray for Market Square Concerts' 30th Anniversary or “25” premiered by the Parker Quartet for MSC's 25th Anniversary, or his early Symphony No. 1 when it was performed in 2009 by the Harrisburg Symphony, you really should get to Temple Ohev Sholom Saturday night to hear his latest work to be performed here, “Capriccio.”

- Dick Strawser

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