Monday, October 31, 2016

Turn the Corner and it's November - and the Escher Quartet!

Who: The Escher Quartet
What: Mozart's Quartet in B-flat, K.589 – Bartók's Quartet No. 2 – Dvořák's Quartet in G, Op.106
When : Wednesday, Nov. 2nd, at 8pm (with a pre-concert talk by Dick Strawser at 7:15)
Where: Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg (parking in the adjacent parking garage free w/your “get-out-of-garage” ticket picked up at the concert)

The Escher Quartet (photo by Sophie Zhiu)

Stuff happens.

And when you plan your career a couple years in advance – like concert tours and important milestone events – sudden stuff can be the worst.

And so it happened, barely two weeks before our November concert, that the Heath Quartet was forced to cancel their American Tour – including our concert and their Carnegie Hall debut – for reasons of health! Some scrambling ensued with flurries of e-mails and phone calls while MSC directors Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang were hosting MSC's 35th Anniversary Trip to London, resulting in finding another string quartet who could fit our date into their schedule!

And not just any quartet. While I was eager to hear the Heath Quartet which has been making quite a name for itself in England – especially with their performances of Michael Tippett's five string quartets, which I love (the 5th was on their program, here) – we will hear instead the Escher Quartet, a quartet that has been “in residence” with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center where I've been following them for the past few years. They have won numerous prizes of their own, and they're currently on tour around New York State, able to fit us in between Stony Brook University (where they were joined this past Friday by Eugene Drucker of the Emerson Quartet) and Vassar College (next Sunday). To accommodate their current tour's repertoire, we've traded in “Middle Haydn” for “Late Mozart” and Bartók instead of Tippett: the Dvořák Op.106 remains as the sole survivor.

M.C. Escher: Relativity (1953)
Formed in 2005 and taking their name from the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher (indeed, the life of a touring musician must seem like walking into one of Escher's dimensionally-challenged lithographs), they've been championed by the Emerson Quartet and have appeared as “Season Artists” of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, frequently streaming concerts live on the Internet (and available on-demand through YouTube). In residence at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, they will be returning to Wigmore Hall in London and to Tel Aviv this season as well as touring China with the CMS. In 2013 they were one of the few ensembles to win an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Here are a few selected videos with the Escher Quartet, beginning with the Quartetsatz of Franz Schubert (the opening movement of what could be called The “Unfinished” Quartet):

Since they're playing one of Mozart's “Prussian” Quartets on our program, here one of Mozart's “Haydn” Quartets, the first movement of the D Minor, K.421:

And while personnel changes can also be listed among “stuff that happens,” here's a Chamber Music Society program from Lincoln Center (where they were performing “in the round”) with their previous cellist in the finale of Prokofiev's 2nd Quartet:

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Since I'll be giving the pre-concert talk at 7:15 – and focusing more on how these composers developed their creative voices – here's a sample of each work to give you an idea of those “voices” by looking at how each one handled the “dance movement” in their quartets. In this case, a courtly 18th Century Minuet; the 19th Century replacement with a “scherzo” (literally, “joke”) often a more earthy dance and, in nationalist composers like Dvořák, inspired by folk dances rather than courtly ones; and then a 20th Century dance (Bartók labeled it Allegro molto capriccioso though “caprice” remains in the ear of the beholder) in which folk music starts – at least in Bartók's later style – to morph into something more abstract than the recollection of pleasant wanderings amongst the countryfolk.

Mozart Minuet from K.589:

Dvořák Scherzo from Op. 106 (an energetic folk-like dance contrasting with gentler, more lyric contrasting dances, not unlike the “dumki” which was one of his favorite dance forms, constantly contrasting sections of energy and lyricism):

Bartók's 2nd Quartet, middle movement – Bartók had only recently discovered true Hungarian folk music. Before, most people thought the Hungarian Dances and Rhapsodies of Brahms and Liszt were based on folk songs but they're actually what we'd call the “urban popular music” of the Gypsies (who are not, technically, of Hungarian origin). But here, Bartók uses folk ideas he'd collected while traveling further afield – specifically, Northern Africa! Again, strong contrasts often alternate between fragments and more complete segments with one section sounding more like a whoozy (and decidedly European) dance band tune. It ends in a whirlwind.

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The idea of attending a concert can be augmented by additional opportunities to enrich the listening experience. Of course, many people go to concerts to relax, because they enjoy classical music and you don't need to do anything beyond that just to enjoy a performance, whether you listen to how you enjoy the music or how the composer creates what it is you're enjoying or how the performers interpret what the composer wrote so you could enjoy it.

There are program notes by Lucy Murray which I always highly recommend, giving you some background about the composer's life, a description of what to expect with the work itself and perhaps critical responses to the music, how the music was received by listeners when it was “new music,” all bringing you different insights into what you'll be hearing.

A pre-concert talk may focus on different aspects of the program ranging from the “heads-up” variety with musical examples of “what to listen for” to deeper background and a more intense examination of the composers' lives and the music they'd composed at that point in history. Sometimes, it may be a different way to listen to, say, a familiar piece or, with an unfamiliar one (“new music” or just “new to you”), ways of processing things to make them more accessible.

Taking the opportunity to experience anything that's available to you may enhance the “experience” of attending a concert, making the “listening” more enjoyable in the long run.

Years ago, a friend of mine argued against the need for such things (“why can't I just listen?”), one of the problems he had with the “overly technical” demands made by classical music on its listeners. He told me they don't need to do this for a football game, so why do it with classical music?

Of course, when classical music becomes as commonplace and ubiquitous as sports in this country – will weathermen preface their forecasts by saying “it's a great night for going to a concert”? – that may be, but then I point out those interminable pre-game panels on TV broadcasts where experts discuss the various teams' and their individual players' stats and past histories, not to mention the post-game wrap up where experts analyze the game's play-by-play highlights. (At least some people live in towns where they still can read a review of a concert they might have attended).

Just be thankful we don't talk over the music to tell you “and now Lapointe's taken the theme and runs off into the key of – wait, is that E-flat Major? What's he doing in E-flat Major?!”

(...with all due respect for Peter Schickele's classic “concert-casting” skit with Beethoven's 5th, “New Horizons in Music Appreciation.”)

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Curiously, this program features two “next-to-last” quartets by Mozart and Dvořák, therefore presumably at their peak of creativity, as well as one of the earlier quartets before Bartók reached his stride with his most famous quartets of the 1920s and '30s.

Mozart composed his three “Prussian” Quartets in 1790 for a visit to Berlin, hoping to find a reasonable gig at the court of the King of Prussia (or at least make some money in the process) – in the fairly short long run, he failed at both (considering he died the next year) – and there's no coincidence that, given the king's skill as an amateur cellist, the cello is strongly featured in these works. Rather than just being stuck playing the harmonic bass-line with the occasional tune thrown in, very often the cello plays the melody in its uppermost register (unfamiliar territory for the typical chamber musician of the day).

Given the role the Emerson Quartet has played in the Escher's history, here's the Emerson Quartet describing what it's like to record these works. The clip begins with the finale from the 2nd Quartet, K.589, and concludes with the finale from the 3rd, K.590.

With different quartets to play each individual movement, let's begin with the Avalon Quartet who performed here in Market Square Concerts' 2014-15 Season with the first movement, Allegro:

For the slow movement, Larghetto, here's the Hagen Quartet:

Another take on the Minuet from the Amadeus Quartet which would seem to be a natural selection for a performance of Mozart:

And then, for the finale, the Quatour Mosaïques:

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While you could listen to these in any order, I've chosen to move along chronologically, from Mozart in 1790 to Dvořák more than a century later, a quartet he began sketching while still living and teaching at the National Conservatory in New York (having composed his “American” Quartet on a summer holiday in 1893), leaving town mid-semester in '95 when the school's money ran out and it couldn't meet his paycheck. He didn't actually commit this new quartet to paper until the fall after he'd re-acclimated himself in Prague, dating the last measure December 9th, 1895. By the end of the month, he'd also put the finishing touches on his last quartet, the A-flat Major, Op.105. In case you missed that, Quartet No. 13 is Op.106 and Quartet No. 14 is Op.105. It's not that math wasn't Dvořák's long-suit: that's just the order he decided to publish them in. By the way, in between his departure from New York and these two home-grown quartets comes the Cello Concerto, Op.104.

Once again, here's the Emerson Qt to play the entire Dvořák Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Op.106, in four separate clips:

1st Movement, Allegro moderato (“moderately fast”)

2nd Movement, Adagio ma non troppo (“not too slow”)

3rd Movement, Molto Vivace (“very fast”), a scherzo with two trios (here, slower interludes):

4th Movement, Allegro con fuoco (“lively with fire”) after a brief slow introduction:

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When Bartók composed his 2nd quartet (begun 20 years after Dvořák's last quartets, but almost a century ago, now), he had already written some significant works but, being a “modern composer” in conservative (and Germanic-oriented) Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was having trouble getting anything performed. So far, he had not attained anything like international recognition: in fact, if you've heard any of the recent pieces by Bartók performed here in Central PA in the past few months – Ya-Ting Chang & Stuart Malina playing his “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” at Messiah College for a September 11th Memorial Concert, or the Harrisburg Symphony's opening concert with Sara Davis Buechner and one of Bartók's last almost-completed pieces, the 3rd Piano Concerto – it's difficult to argue Bartók had ever attained the level of international fame he has since, even though he is still often overlooked as one of the major “original voices” of the 20th Century.

Still, in this early work, written during the years of World War I – it was composed between 1915-1917 but not premiered until 1918 and published finally two years later – one hears different influences as a young composer absorbs his past to create what will, later, become recognizable as “Bartók's Voice.”

The first movement might remind one that, in 1907, Bartók discovered the music of Claude Debussy whose “impressionism” – and its ambiguous tritone interval – helped find a different way of creating a sound-world outside the standard classic tonal system.

The second movement, as I mentioned above, is a wild folk-dance, though rather than identifying himself as a Hungarian Nationalist (he refused to speak German at home in opposition to the Austrian domination of his native Hungary), he incorporated ideas he'd found on a folk-music collecting trip to Northern Africa, his trip to Algeria in 1913 his last field-trip before the War. While he labeled this “Allegro molto capriccioso,” a compelling performance emphasizing the hypnotic drum-beats of its rhythms might seem more “barbaric” than “capricious.”

This, by the way, is the voice we most automatically recognize as Bartók's: the other movements strike us today as "derivative" of his early influences. 

The third movement is an odd and unsettling contrast: keep in mind, this was written in the midst of war. His friend Zoltan Kodály saw this whole quartet as a series of “life episodes” with the brooding intensity of the ending as “suffering.” As far as a 19th Century German would've been concerned – tonality aside – this would have been the slow movement, requiring a finale of whatever emotional impact to conclude the work satisfactorily.

Here's a 1961 recording with the Hungarian Quartet, accompanied with the score:

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Perhaps, after that – and with intermission in between – the pleasant world of Dvořák, a composer once again happy to be back in familiar territory after years of unsettling adventure in the Wilds of the New World, makes a more satisfying conclusion to a concert as we head home after our musical experience.

- Dick Strawser