Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Canellakis-Brown Duo: Nick and Michael's Excellent Adventure

Canellakis-Brown Duo (Serious Pose) credit, Beowulf Sheehan
[tap tap tap] Testing - One. Two. Three. Is this thing on? [tap tap]

Okay. So, I'm really excited to get a chance to hear these guys Nick Canellakis and Michael Brown on Saturday night at Market Square Church because they're really great musicians for one thing – plus they'll be playing some great Romantic music by SchumMendelRacháček, some Bulgarian Folk Music and even something written by the pianist himself – but they're also, like, web celebrities!

And having spent too many years in radio arguing about how somebody's name should be pronounced, I know how important it is to be right-ish. So here's it is, straight from the cellist's mouth:

Their program is really eclectic which is a word commentators like me resort to using when they can't figure out why these pieces belong on the same program except there's a lot of variety, it's all great music and I bet they probably have a lot of fun playing it.

This post is about the works on the first half of the program. You can read the Rachmaninoff post, here.

Robert Schumann wrote most of his chamber music during 1842, his very busy “Year of Chamber Music,” but the “Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70” wasn't one of them. He wrote this one a few years later, after all those string quartets, the piano quintet and quartet and some other things that don't get played as much (do they?) and besides, he originally wrote it for horn and piano, by the way. Apparently, Schumann's publisher didn't think it would sell very well, so he directed that the horn part could be played by either a violin or a cello (can you say “Brahms Viola Sonatas”?).

Schumann's Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70” with Mischa Maisky, cello, and Marta Argerich, piano:

The year was 1849 – picture it, Dresden (where Schumann and his family were living) was in flames and composer Richard Wagner was one of the rabble-rousers and I'm not talking about his music (he would later be charged with treason once the revolution was put down). There's a story about how Schumann was composing a piano piece while you could hear gunfire down the street – this was for his “Album for the Young,” such innocent music! Finally, they decided they had to get out of town: walking out through the back garden gate, Schumann (leaving with Clara and their 7-year-old daughter) barely avoided being forcibly drafted. They caught a train and then walked several miles to a friend's house about 13 miles south of Dresden. But get this: while Schumann was composing the “Spring Song” from his “Album for the Young” that evening, Clara, with two other women, walked back to Dresden to retrieve the other three children (aged 6, 4 and 1) left behind with neighbors, then after arriving home at 3am, turned around and walked all the way back (this, while Clara was seven months pregnant).

Cool story, but it has nothing to do with the music of this “Adagio and Allegro” which was completed in four days in February, about ten weeks earlier.

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The next piece on the program is an old favorite of mine, one I accompanied my Eastman roommate in back in the early-'70s (before he found himself in the Cleveland Orchestra cello section) – Leoš Janáček's Pohádka.

Now, speaking of how-to-pronounce-things, let's start with the “funny marks” and the fact the á here is not a stress accent as most English-speakers would assume. In Czech, words are usually (if not always) accented on the first syllable, so it's LAY-ōsh YAH-nah-check (without the á, it would be YAH-nuh-check which could make a big difference to someone who's Czech), and the title of this little piece for cello and piano is pronounced “POH-hahd-kuh.” Literally, it means “A Tale” in the sense of a fairy tale which is how it's usually translated.

Leos Janacek: Pohadka (Fairy Tale), David Finckel and Wu Han from David Finckel and Wu Han on Vimeo.

Sometimes it's called a “Sonata for Cello and Piano” but that's not an appropriate use of the term. Yes, it's a three-movement piece and yes, there's a sonata-like balance to the movements which have some similarities of moods and motives. The first two are kind of like versions of the same ideas – both are marked “Andante” (a walking tempo) but the second one has a brighter mood and comes off more like a scherzo. The lively third movement is, one would imagine, the “happy ending,” even though at the end it sounds like the story-teller is trying not to wake the child who's finally fallen asleep.

If the composer hadn't given it a “figurative” title, he could also have called it “Three Pieces for Cello and Piano.” Bor-ing...

So, what's the fairy tale? It was inspired by some vast epic poem by the Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky who died in 1852. I can't find any information about “The Tale of Tsar Berendey,” but it was apparently inspired by the same fairy tales that gave rise to a play about the Snow Maiden which inspired Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, Snegúrochka – and involves lots of magical transformations, mostly to avoid capture by somebody presumably evil. Somebody changes into a bee, a fish and, if I remember correctly, a church? Got me...

Whatever that has to do with this piece of music, I think it's best just to think of it as a “piece in the mood of a fairy tale.” Which may be why Janáček called it “A Tale” rather than “The Story of Tsar Berendey and the Princess Who Turned Right into a Church.” (ba dum bump).

So, what's it about? It's about 12 minutes or so.

Janáček was fascinated by the “tonal inflections” of the spoken voice and he often wrote down normal speaking – once, a minister's sermon – as if it were sung recitative (or "recitation") for an opera. This gave his “sung speech” a very natural flow and rhythm to it (and which must be hell for his translators). You can hear this, in a way, in the instrumental melodic lines here – they're not really tunes but doesn't it sound like someone talking to you, telling you a story? And then there's the opening's “Once upon a time” image and all the repetitions as if trying to get your attention before settling into the tale.

Curiously, for such a short piece, Janáček spent a lot of time finishing it. He wrote the “first version” in 1910 (he was 56) when it was intended to be part of a larger work. Then two years later he added a fourth movement which was supposed to represent the Tsarina singing a lullaby but in 1923 (he was now 68) he decided to delete this, return to the original three movements, and revise some spots along the way before it was premiered that spring.

It was also performed in London a few years later for his first appearance there: he wrote home to Kamila Stösslová (now there's a long story!), how his “nice music” was “just made for these calm Englishmen. They eat a lot here!”

Five days later, the concert at Wigmore Hall included his wind sextet “Mladi,” the 1st String Quartet (the one inspired by Tolstoy's short story, The Kreutzer Sonata), the Violin Sonata and Pohádka and it took place just after a General Strike was called so there was no publicity, no public transportation and the few people in the audience were those who could walk to the concert or who owned cars. There were also no reviews. (Been there, done that...)

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An even more lyrical interlude, next, with two pieces by Felix Mendelssohn, very short in the manner of those “character pieces” so popular in the mid-19th Century whether they have fanciful titles like the Romantic Schumann gave his (think "Blind Man's Bluff" or "Dream's Confusions") or abstract titles like the Neo-Classical Mendelssohn gave his. (By the way, Schumann dubbed his friend Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the 19th Century.”) You're probably not going to come up with stories to go along with something called “Assai tranquillo” (very tranquil) but you might wonder what the implied words could be to a “Song without Words.”

There are eight “books” of Songs without Words for solo piano that Mendelssohn published during his career, each book containing six “songs.” These were primarily geared to the amateur market and a big fan was Queen Victoria who enjoyed playing many of them. A few of them have fanciful titles like “Venetian Gondola Song” or the ever-popular “Spring Song,” but this one for cello and piano (which was published after Mendelssohn's death – apparently he didn't give it its title, either) is unrelated to the piano pieces. I just like telling you about those piano pieces.

Now, Mendelssohn was one of the great prodigies in music and perhaps one of its happiest, though that didn't keep him from dying at the age of 38 (Mozart only made it to 35). He was a brilliant pianist (his sister, Fanny, was considered by those who had a chance to hear her as more brilliant – she was also a very fine composer except in those days being a “woman composer” was more than just frowned upon, speaking of long stories...) and as a child Felix also played the violin. His brother Paul who decided to go into the family banking business (one of the reasons Felix could afford to be happy) was also a credible amateur cellist. It would be a good guess these pieces were originally composed for him to play at some family musicale.

Here's Steven Isserlis and Melvyn Tan (playing a piano from Mendelssohn's time)

and here's... well... somebody playing the Op. 109 Song without Words (perhaps the Sine Nomine Duo?)

And it probably took you longer to read all that than it did to listen to both pieces.

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So we could get all technical about that “eclectic” programming and say the program is beautifully shaped according to the key scheme, for all you theory geeks, starting with Schumann in A-flat, Janáček in a whole lot of flats (like six of them) but sounding more like he's in D-flat Major at the beginning (making the Schumann's A-flat the dominant of the Janáček's opening) though he never really settles down in any one key for very long but ends up finally in G-flat Major. Then there's Mendelssohn in B Minor (which if the Janáček were in F-sharp Major instead of G-flat would be another dominant-to-tonic relationship) and then to the D Major of the second Mendelssohn piece, the relative major of B Minor.

If you didn't get that, it'll just sound really nice, one after the other. Trust me.

Now, next on the program is a work by the pianist, Michael Brown, who, obviously, must also be a composer. He might not be great with titles because I think you could come up with something more interesting than “Two Movements for Cello and Piano.” Of course, lots of composers like Schubert and also Schoenberg wrote piano pieces called “Klavierstücke” which means “Piano Pieces.” Not very imaginative, but hey...

But the first movement of Brown's “Two Movements” is titled “Improvisation” and the second one is called “Dance.” So, what's wrong with “Improvisation and Dance”? Anyway, it got a pretty good review in the New York Times when it was premiered in late-August last year:

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'Michael Brown’s impressive “Two Movements for Cello and Piano” is the product of a confident young composer with a talent for precision. The first, “Improvisation,” is deliberately free of structure, and leaves the cellist (Nicholas Canellakis) to struggle fruitlessly. “Dance” was inspired by Bach’s gigues, and if it drops their characteristic rhythms, it keeps and develops a keen propulsion, despite quirky interruptions. Mr. Brown’s music looked forward, while David Del Tredici's “The Last Violin,” written for Bargemusic’s director, Mark Peskanov, was charmingly Schumannesque.'
(David Allen, New York Times, Aug. 28th, 2014)
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Here's an earlier piece Michael Brown wrote in 2009 called “5 AM (after Allen Ginsburg)” with the composer at the piano and cellist Nick Canellakis:

And here's the first of those “Conversations with Nick Canellakis” with guest Michael Brown, talking about his also being a composer:

I suspect leaving "the cellist to struggle fruitlessly" is the composer's pay-back for being second banana in all these videos.

By the way, in all seriousness, Michael Brown won a 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant which is a big deal for a young classical artist. Check out this post from 2012 when he first appeared on the Market Square Concerts series as a solo pianist, playing Beethoven and Schubert sonatas. I usually don't do reviews, but I was just so amazed by his performance (and since no one in this town bothers to review classical music programs other than the symphony), I just had to do it.

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That brings us to – wait, how many pieces are we talking about on this program? Anyway, this one ends the first half of the program. Don't worry, many of them are pretty short, so it's not a marathon.

Classical music is generally considered “concert music,” what “cultured people” listen to dressed up in their evening finery in big fancy concert halls listening to music performed by people dressed like penguins. We talk of edification, spiritual enlightenment and sometimes, peripherally, enjoyment and even, running the risk of losing our elitist credentials, entertainment.

Folk music is what the peasants come up with to amuse themselves.

When a classical composer like Mikhail Glinka introduced some Russian folk songs into his operas, the good people of St. Petersburg said that was stuff their coachmen would listen to, not them. It was not considered “nice.”

But then, by the mid-19th Century, composers who were not German, French or Italian began trying to figure out how to sound different from the Germans, French or Italians who dominated the concert halls, people like Smetana and Dvořák in what is now the Czech Republic, Rimsky-Korsakoff and friends in Russia, and eventually Bartók and Kodály in Hungary in the early-20th Century. They “discovered” the folk music of their own ethnic heritage and gradually moved from arranging it for classical instruments to incorporating it into their own “serious” music, eventually moving on from actual quotations of it to writing original melodies imitating it.

You could call this the “Let Me Sing You the Song of My People” Movement.

Granted, there have not been a lot of composers from Bulgaria who've made it big in modern concert halls, but the Hungarian Bela Bartók was one composer who found its folk music fascinating. Compared to almost any other European folk culture, it has easily the most complex metric (or rhythmic) structure: instead of being able to march to something in 4/4 or waltz to something in 3/4, Bulgarians dance to something in seemingly ever-shifting groups of 2s and 3s, like the folk dance that Nick Canellakis arranged for him and Michael to perform in concert. Called “Gankino Horo,” the “Horo” is the type of dance and it basically means “Ganka's Dance” and Ganka can dance to something in 2+2+3+2+2 which is really 11/8 divided into 5 not always equal beats, right? Yeah, easy for you...

It's real toe-tapping music if you don't dislocate your toe in the process of trying to figure out where the beat is.

If you don't believe me, here's a dance group from Northern Bulgaria dancing... Gankino Horo!

Now, you try it!

(Disclaimer: I used to play those Nonesuch “Explorer Series” recordings of Bulgarian folk music for my percussionist roommate when I was teaching at UConn in the mid-'70s and enjoyed watching him respond to the beat but then go nuts trying to figure it out only to have it change to something completely different by the time he thought he got it. And he called himself a rock drummer...)

Here's another one they've posted on YouTube which I'll include just because it so fu... darn cool: another Horo, this is labeled simply “Wild Bulgarian Folk Dance.” Yeah.

And then there's Rachmaninoff on the second half.

Since this post is becoming a marathon, I'm going to save that for another one, so check back in, soon.

Again, the concert is this Saturday at 8pm at Market Square Church on the Square in downtown Harrisburg.

Come get your chamber groove on!

No? Well, how would you say it, then...?

Oh, okay...

(aaaand fade...)

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- Dick Strawser

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