Monday, July 14, 2014

Summermusic 2014: An Inspiration of Chamber Music

Hard to believe that we're in mid-July already and that this season's Market Square Concerts' Summermusic series begins on Friday!

But that's the way the calendar rolls, and that means three different programs of chamber music will take place – in-doors, btw – over the following six days:

Friday the 18th at 8pm: Market Square Church with three string trios by Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.

Sunday the 19th at 4pm: Market Square Church with Schubert's Piano Trio in E-flat and Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat

Wednesday the 23rd at 6pm (yes, six o'clock!): Civic Club of Harrisburg (on Front Street between Forester and State Streets) with C Major String Quintets by Mozart and Schubert

You can read Ellen Hughes' preview of the series in her column in the Patriot-News, here.

Among the performers will be Market Square Concerts' artistic director, violinist Peter Sirotin and executive director, pianist Ya-Ting Chang with pianist Stuart Malina (perhaps you're familiar with him as the conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony), plus violinist Leonid Ferents, violists Michael Stepniak and Nicole Sharlow (a.k.a. Principal 2nd Violinist with the HSO), and cellists Cheng-Hou Lee and Nadine Trudel.

Peter Sirotin (photo by Jeff Lynch)
Peter said, “I am very much looking forward to it because I get to perform some of my absolute favorite pieces of chamber music with wonderful musicians from US, Canada, Australia, Russia and Taiwan.”

On the Facebook page, he explained an idea behind this summer's programs: “Inspiration" - Someone or something that gives you an idea for doing something. (Cambridge Dictionary). MSC Summermusic 2014 concerts will explore how work of one genius becomes an inspiration for another. Mozart inspired Beethoven, Schubert inspired Schumann, Matisse inspired Picasso, Newton inspired Edison... Who or What inspired you?”

“The idea of presenting three programs,” he continued, “exploring how some great works become catalyst for creating others came to me last summer. After presenting two eclectic festivals filled with underperformed great repertoire I thought it would be great to show listeners how some similar ideas are explored by different composers.”

At each concert, he will explain some of his ideas about these inspirational connections.

You can read Peter's own blog-post about the up-coming Summermusic series, here!

It's a fairly narrow range of composers – from Mozart (1788) to Schumann (1842) with stops at only Beethoven and Schubert in between – but it helps point out something many listeners may not be aware of: the interconnectedness of many of our greatest composers and the music they've left us.

While Beethoven studied with Haydn, he did so only because Mozart, whom he'd hoped to study with after leaving his provincial hometown behind him, had died less than a year earlier. Even a friend of Beethoven's, Count Waldstein (who would later have a piano sonata dedicated to him) wrote before his departure, “you go to realize a long-desired wish... if you continue to strive, you may yet receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands.”

And it was primarily Mozart's works that the young Beethoven studied: one example is his Quintet for Piano and Winds which he clearly modeled on Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds, K.452, (both heard in previous Summermusic seasons) following the old dictum, “go and do likewise.” And so, before tackling the string quartet – his teacher Haydn was not only the Father of the Symphony, he was also single-handedly responsible for the evolution of the String Quartet – he wrote a series of string trios as a kind of preparation. And it was Mozart's “Divertimento” K.563 for string trio that served if not as a direct model, at least as... well, an inspiration.

And then there's Schubert as a teen-ager, assigned to write a string trio by his teacher Antonio Salieri. Did Mozart serve as a model? He only wrote one movement (he began a second but abandoned it), but then he had a habit of leaving not just one symphony "unfinished"...

So what is inspiration?

Curiously, Peter's idea for this program was itself an “inspiration,” something we often regard as “an idea out of the blue,” maybe happening when we least expect it, because otherwise it seems inexplicable.

Is it the product of our mind working subconsciously on a kernel of an idea that suddenly appears like the proverbial light bulb (allbeit the old-fashioned pre-swirlie light bulb)?

Any of us can be inspired – by something, someone, an event, a saying, someone's actions: recalling advice a teacher gave you or that your father told you long ago; seeing a story on the news that leads you to volunteer for, say, the food bank; tasting something from a recipe that didn't quite meet your expectations but suddenly you think adding some... what, lemon juice? – may help bring out the flavor you're looking for (I remember somebody telling me, “the first soufflé did not happen by accident”).

Of course, with artists, it can open up innumerable possibilities: a visionary painter (long before Rembrandt) reveals a way light strikes the background and suddenly hundreds of other painters are experimenting with the play of light; a few hundred years later, French Impressionist Claude Monet takes this play to the extreme when painting the facade of a great cathedral and composer Claude Debussy, whose studio was full of those little postcards one can find at art museums, miniatures of great paintings, finds a musical way of depicting this same kind of play of light by breaking through the boundaries of centuries of musical rules.

Is there much difference between what inspires a composer and what influences a composer? It depends on how deeply you wish to split hairs. Certainly, the time a composer lives in can “influence” that composer's individual voice, just as the events of daily life can. But this very often might not appear in the music: Beethoven, who spent long periods of time finishing a composition, could “compartmentalize” himself so everyday reality might have little bearing on what he wrote that day. You would hardly know, when he was writing his 2nd Symphony's riotous finale, he was experiencing such severe symptoms of deafness that his Heiligenstadt Testament reads at times like a suicide note. This was happening the same summer he wrote the Tempest Sonata and the three violin sonatas of Op. 30, one of which is in his favorite dramatic key of C Minor and another is the G Major, one of the most cheerful pieces he composed.

In the 18th Century, composers produced (some might say “turned out,” since composers were considered craftsmen or artisans rather than artists as we do today) several works at a time – a half-dozen string quartets or a dozen violin concertos, each of which would be expected to be, in some ways, different. There was no sense of the artist sitting around waiting to be inspired. And one work would be dramatic, another lyrical, another “learnèd” – without any influence from the composer's mood du jour.

But of course, that was easier when a concerto might normally be 10-15 minutes rather than 45 minutes long.

It was the idea of Beethoven and his deafness that gave rise to the 19th Century image of the “suffering artist.” And it certainly worked for others: Schubert, dying in poverty at 31 (looking back on Mozart who, with his poverty, died of some unidentified disease at 35), or Robert Schumann and his madness (who until fairly recently was described as “manic-depressive” and is now considered “bi-polar”).

In a sense, we can impose our own attitudes on how composers work – and one of the biggest problems is that we so rarely don't understand that not all composers work the same way all the time. Yes, Beethoven may be inspired to write his 6th Symphony, “Pleasant impressions upon arriving in the countryside” and all that, but he also needed to produce pieces to earn his bread-and-butter – inspiration or the influences of the day might have had a hand in the creation of Wellington's Victory, but it came about as a commercial venture and in that, however crass people since then have considered it, it succeeded. Not likely to be considered among his masterpieces, it served its purpose and played to the crowd, making Beethoven a popular composer at a time when his reputation had slumped and his income (and self-confidence) all but disappeared.

A more recent composer had a different view of this inspiration thing. Elliott Carter whose music usually strikes the average listener as overly intellectual never really thought about some point of inspiration generating a new piece. He would be commissioned to write something and, whatever it was, it would create some “problem” that required a “solution.” How to solve it and how to turn that solution into music was then where the inspiration came in.

Maurice Ravel, by the way, when writing his Piano Trio, announced to a friend that, after struggling with what he wanted to do in the piece, he'd just completed the piece – “now all that remains are the notes.” You can make of that what you want.

If Beethoven could write Wellington's Victory to earn money and cash in on the political euphoria of the day – the imminent defeat of Napoleon after two decades of constant warfare – Elliott Carter tells the story how he was giving a talk and mentioned the commission he'd received for his “Variations for Orchestra” and the amount of time he spent writing it amounted to his earning, basically, 25¢ an hour.

At this point, a matronly woman bedecked in jewels and furs, stood up and sniffed “Mr. Carter! You mean to tell me you write for money!?”

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

Jennifer Higdon
Jennifer Higdon has had chamber works on recent seasons with Market Square Concerts, most recently with the Cypress Quartet to talk about her “Impressions” which was on that program.

More recently she was in Harrisburg to hear Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony and soloist Chris Rose play (for the second time) her Percussion Concerto.

(Added 7/24: She's won a number of awards already, including a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy. It was announced she's receiving the Distinguished Arts Award from the "Governor's Awards for the Arts" in Pennsylvania.)

Jennifer has often told the story how she grew up in a house with no classical music. Her parents listened to the folk and rock music most people in the '50s and '60s listened to. But her father was an artist and his sense of his art was a profound influence on her, whether she was conscious of it or not.

She would say how, after another premiere, her dad would come up to her, shaking his head and ask “Where does that come from?” Considering she had little opportunity to hear classical music when she was growing up, this might seem a logical question.

Before the premiere of her Concerto for Orchestra with the Philadelphia Orchestra, one critic I'd found described her – in that way we try to describe an unknown quantity in terms of something known – as “Bartók on Speed.” But she admits that Ravel and Samuel Barber are perhaps bigger influences on her though the kind of energy that is one of her hallmarks is definitely more Bartók than what I'd usually associate with Barber or Ravel.

Another trademark of her style is her sense of instrumental colors – just to mention the Percussion Concerto, everything thing from the trio of woodblocks (the “woodpecker attack”) near the cadenza to the use of the Chinese opera gong (with its delicate clown-like poing)  and of course the ethereal sound of vibraphones played with bows – and she's explained how she'd hear something in George Crumb's music and either borrow it or come up with something similar. Crumb is another very colorful composer – his “Ancient Voices of Children” was one of those major ear-opening influences for me when I first heard it back in the '70s – and someone she studied with.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, an English composer usually associated with a fairly bucolic style and who, briefly, studied with Ravel around the time he had discovered English folk song, making the transition from being an imitator of those established English composers imitating Brahms to someone who found substance in the music of England, both in its folk songs and the church music of the English Renaissance, eventually discovering his own voice.

He often said that he “likes” a piece – thinking of it in an almost Facebook sense of the word – by how much he wants to “crib” from it. Hearing Puccini's Turandot, he went home and added tuned gongs to the orchestra for his 8th Symphony.

It was Stravinsky (accused of ripping off Bach's 3rd Brandenburg Concerto when he wrote “Dumbarton Oaks”) said “Good composers borrow; great composers steal.”

Now, when she was here in May, Jennifer mentioned that her dad died just recently. In tribute, she posted one of his paintings on her Facebook page.

Until then, I had not seen any of her father's artwork. Being a not very visually oriented person, myself, I hadn't thought much about his possible influence aside from seeing her give her works “colorful” titles – the Piano Trio has movement entitled 'Pale Yellow' and 'Fiery Red'; the string quartet “Impressions” (a slightly different musical view of impressionism) has a movement called 'To the Point' which was inspired by the pointillistic style of Suerat, while the others are called 'Bright Palette,' 'Quiet Art' and 'Noted Canvas.'

But this explained a lot to me:

Bird Journal by Kenny Higdon
(posted with Jennifer Higdon's permission)

That,” I said, “is where this comes from.” I see many elements of her musical style in her dad's painting style – from the sense of colors and the way he uses them, the textures, even the brush strokes which give it a real energy, and, of course, the picturesque title for an abstract work. Even if that's the only painting of his I'd see, I would say Jennifer is very much her father's daughter – translating his visual art into her music (which is, after all, “aural art”).

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

Now, going back to what I'd said earlier about composers and who they studied with – and Beethoven receiving the spirit of Mozart from Haydn's hands – I wanted to look at who Jennifer Higdon studied with.

When I was working on my novel, The Lost Chord, one of the characters is a successful composer who studied with John Corigliano and who'd written an opera that is essentially a re-take of the Faust Legend set in a modern corporation – called Faustus, Inc.. The fact he's murdered early on is one thing, but solving his murder and retrieving the stolen score in time for the opera's premiere is central to the plot.

There's one scene where an old composer, Howard Zenn (clearly patterned on Elliott Carter), explains the importance of continuity in art, and the role of teachers in a composer's legacy even if they're not directly an influence. I was able to take John Corigliano's “Teacher Tree” back to Johann Joseph Fux and his treatise on counterpoint, Gradus ad Parnassum which was a major influence in music theory since it was first published in 1725.

Admittedly, I had to fudge one link in the chain when I found someone without any references to a teacher but, since he was at the Prague Organ School at the same time Dvořák was, I assumed he might have studied with one of Dvořák's teachers. All's fair in love and fiction...

So I decided to do the same with Jennifer Higdon – by way of her one teacher, George Crumb and see how far back I could take this. Here is a list of her Reverse Begats:

= = = = = = =
Jennifer Higdon studied with (among others)
George Crumb (1929- ) who studied with
Ross Lee Finney (1906-1997) who studied with
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) who studied with
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) who studied with
Camile Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) who studied with
Fromental Halévy (1799-1862) who studied with
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) who studied with
Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802) (a tune of his is quoted in the dinner scene of Mozart's Don Giovanni) who studied with
Padre Giovanni Battista Martini (1706-1784) (who also gave 'lessons' to Mozart and JC Bach; Salieri was a grand-student of his) who studied with
Giacomo Perti (1661-1756) (who also taught Torelli) who studied with
Giuseppe Corso (or Corsi) (b.? - d.1690) (then, a leading composer in Rome but largely unknown today) who studied with
Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) (in the 9 pages he occupies in Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians, I can find no mention of anyone he studied with but he was very much influenced by Monteverdi and was offered the position at St. Mark's Venice to succeed him. Among numerous works, he is credited with writing one of the first oratorios, Jepthe, around 1650.)
= = = = = = =

It may seem astounding to come up with an unbroken line connecting a composer writing today whose music you may have recently heard live and whom you may have had the chance to meet and who – Kevin Bacon aside – can follow twelve degrees of separation back some 375 years to her 10x-great-grandteacher through composers most of us today may not be familiar with but who were, in their own right, either major composers of the day or famous and sought-after teachers!

Obviously, this may not be as important to her music as composers whom she has studied with directly or have listened to, studied, or even stolen from. But still, it points to the amazing continuity of this art we call classical music and the fact that, no matter how new it may sound to some of us, there are roots in the past that still continue to exist if not nourish us today.

So, in a much broader sense, think about who or what has inspired you in the past and how this may still nourish you to have become the person you are today.

In that sense, also, prepare to listen to music Mozart composed which inspired Beethoven and Schubert to write string trios; that Schubert composed that inspired Schumann; and how Schubert, at the very end of his life, found inspiration in something Mozart composed a generation earlier.

Stay tuned...

- Dick Strawser

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