Thursday, January 19, 2017

Celebrating 35 Years with the Music of Brahms, Schubert, and a World Premiere by Jeremy Gill

Ya-Ting Chang & Peter Sirotin; Jeremy Gill
This Saturday at 8:00 at Whitaker Center – with no blizzards on the horizon, this year – a special performance celebrates thirty-five seasons with Market Square Concerts as the current directors Artistic Director (and violinist) Peter Sirotin and Executive Director (and pianist) Ya-Ting Chang are joined by several friends for a concert with the music of Schubert and Brahms and the world premiere of a work by a composer familiar to Harrisburg, Jeremy Gill, commissioned for the occasion by the founding director of Market Square Concerts and her husband, Lucy and Martin Murray.

Gill had been commissioned to compose a string quartet to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Market Square Concerts, a work he called, understandably, “25”, performed here in 2007 by the Parker Quartet. For the 30th Anniversary, his “Three Songs About Words,” setting poems by Lucy Miller Murray, were premiered in 2012.

And so, in keeping with the tradition, as the 35th Anniversary came around, Lucy and Martin Murray commissioned a new work for violinist Peter Sirotin and pianist Ya-Ting Chang, the current directors of Market Square Concerts, for this weekend's concert!

In an interview with WITF's Cary Burkett, performer Peter Sirotin and composer Jeremy Gill talked about the new piece, how it was inspired by a passage in Claudio Monteverdi's "Vespers" written in 1610, something composed over 400 years ago. (Think "if it's over 200 years since Beethoven composed his Eroica Symphony, Monteverdi's "Vespers" was written 200 years before that!").

"The movement itself has a single soprano voice," Gill says, "and she sings 11 times the same phrase, 'Saint Mary, hear us.' Never changes the pitches, rarely changes the rhythm, but all around her the instruments are changing textures constantly. For me there's this implication if you have the soprano singing over and over again the same thing. And it's a request, right?  'Saint Mary, hear us.' Why does she have to say it so many times and in the same way? There's this implication of desperation there. She's not being heard."

Expanding on this sense of an unanswered prayer, Gill makes the desperation and longing even more pronounced.

"I used those notes that she sings and the rhythms in which she sings them in the violin part. That, towards the end of the work creates a pretty dramatic climax in which by the end she's just sort of screaming out this invocation. And there's never a satisfying answer."

This sense of communication - or lack of it - is no doubt something today's audiences could relate to.

(You can hear the entire interview, here.)

Gill's Duo for Violin and Piano, completed well ahead of schedule – no last-minute “will-he-finish-it-in-time” worries, here – is only the latest work of his to be heard in his hometown: his Capriccio was enthusiastically received when the Parker Quartet performed it here in 2013 before they recorded it for the Innova label. (You can read about that concert in this earlier post on the Market Square Concerts blog.) Before that, the Harrisburg Symphony performed his Clarinet Concerto (officially, the Notturno Concertante) with Christopher Grymes in 2014 (you can read my blog-post about it, here), his Symphony No. 1 from 1999 which they performed in 2009, and before that, having commissioned “Novas,” premiered it in 2002. 

You can also read my interview with Jeremy here, talking about his life as a composer both when he wrote that 1st Symphony and ten years later when it was being performed by his home-town orchestra. A great deal has happened in the eight years since then, too, the work being premiered this weekend only the latest in a longer string of works we in Harrisburg have had a chance to hear, following his career.

In addition, there was a large-scale song cycle, Helian; the comparatively diminutive “Eliot Fragments (for Carter)”, a piano solo inspired by lines of T.S. Eliot to commemorate the 100th Birthday of American composer Elliott Carter; his “Variations” for String Quartet premiered by the Cassatt Quartet on a Market Square Concerts program in 2001; and the Eight Variations and Toccata on 'Betzet Yisrael' for organ, given its premiere here in 2011.

I'm probably forgetting a few, but you get the picture. By following the links to Gill's website, you can hear samples from these and other works, as well as find out information about recordings and more up-coming performances.

Rehearsing Mozart (or was it Beethoven?)
Composer Jeremy Gill is only one of the Directors' Friends on the program. Among those friends performing will be hornist Geoffrey Pilkington, familiar to symphony goers for the performance of the Schumann Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra with Stuart Malina and the orchestra, but also from two different series of Summermusic concerts in which Pilkington joined pianist Stuart Malina and clarinetist Christopher Grimes, oboist Gerard Reuter, and bassoonist Peter Kolkay for the two quintets for piano and winds by Mozart and by Beethoven. (That's Pilkington on the far right...)

Pilkington is now a principal horn with the Washington National Opera Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Last season, he was heavily involved (as any principal horn player would be) with the opera company's “Ring Cycle” (actually, the second one he's performed: the other, in San Francisco), all four operas of The Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner. Here's an interview with WETA's David Ginder (speaking of local connections, for those who remember the early days of WITF-FM when David Ginder was a familiar voice of classical music here in Central Pennsylvania).

He will be joining Peter and Ya-Ting for a performance of Johannes Brahms' “Trio in E-flat for Violin, Horn and Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 40,” more lovingly known as the Horn Trio. In fact, one could say The Horn Trio.

For the second half of the program, Peter and Ya-Ting will be joined by violist Michael Sheppard, a frequent collaborator of theirs and one often heard at past Summermusic performances; cellist Fiona Thompson, principal cellist of the Harrisburg Symphony who completes the Mendelssohn Piano Trio with Peter and Ya-Ting; and bassist Devin Howell, principal bassist of the Harrisburg Symphony with whom he was soloist two weeks ago in the delightful “Divertimento Concertante” (a concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra in all but name) by Nino Rota.

You can read a little bit more about the performers on the next post, here, which also includes some information about the work that concludes the program.

The celebration concludes with a perennial favorite and one of the most charming masterpieces in the chamber music repertoire (as one cannot always pair “charming” with “masterpiece”), the “Quintet for Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello and Bass in A Major, D.667” by Franz Schubert, a work better known simply as “The Trout Quintet.” Do not ask who plays the Trout.

I have written occasionally about The Trout Quintet: I'll repost the one from Summermusic way back in 2009 where, I discover, all the video clips have, like so many fish hung out to dry, expired. So check out the next post, here, for information about the Schubert as well.

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

This post, then, continues with the Brahms Horn Trio, a work Peter Sirotin told me was one of his favorites. There are many performances available on YouTube with the usual caveat about recording sound or video quality, but one of my favorites, despite its old mono sound, is this amazing 1957 recording with the incomparable Dennis Brain, one of the greatest horn players ever, recording shortly before his death in an automobile accident. Though you may not have heard of his colleagues, pianist Cyril Preedy and violinist Max Salpeter, I hope you'll find the performance as vital as I did when I first heard it years ago. Alas, it is only available in individual movements:

= = = = = = = =
1st Movement (Andante)

2nd Movement (Scherzo)

3rd Movement (Adagio)

4th Movement (Finale)

= = = = = = = = =

Brahms in the mid-1860s
Johannes Brahms had moved away from his native Hamburg to become – eventually – a famous composer and pianist in Vienna but, like a good son, he kept in touch with his family, especially his mother whom he idolized, particularly after his father, following 34 years of marriage, decided to move out. Not much is known about Christiane Brahms except she was 17 years older than her husband, a seamstress who was otherwise “hardly known outside the house.” Brahms interrupted his summer in 1864 to return home for a visit, helping his father set up a new place to live (and, incidentally, finding him a job as a bass player in the Hamburg Philharmonic) and consoling “two weeping women,” his disconsolate mother and her dependent elder daughter, Elise, the only one of the three children still living at home.

The youngest child, Fritz, long supported himself as a pianist who taught and performed in Hamburg, even playing Brahms' “Handel Variations” in public which Clara heard and reported were “totally beyond him.” (Small wonder: I could say the same of many pianists I've heard play them...)

Christiane Brahms in 1862
The following winter, Christiane wrote a long rambling letter to “Hannes,” worried about her weakening eyes and her hands becoming unsteady (a major concern for any seamstress, even one now in her mid-70s).

Three days after she'd mailed the letter, Fritz sent his brother a telegram: “If you want to see our mother again, come at once.” He hurried home to Hamburg but arrived two days after she had died suddenly of a stroke.

He wrote to his friend, Clara Schumann, who volunteered to come to Hamburg if she could be of any help, but Brahms hardly knew what to do himself, after getting his sister situated with friends (she, who never had a job, never had anything of her own beyond a tiny allowance from her mother, never knowing what to do without her mother telling her). When he returned to Vienna a week after the funeral, a friend stopped by to visit and found the composer playing Bach's Goldberg Variations. Without stopping, through his tears he told his visitor about his mother's death – and then after that rarely spoke of her publicly again.

Meanwhile, Clara, after taking a treatment for her arthritic hands called “animal baths” (“plunging her hands into the entrails of some freshly killed creature” – who knew?!), resumed her concertizing, a London tour because she needed the money. As he often did with a new work, Brahms sent her some sketches for “a so-called German Requiem” but not one setting the traditional liturgical text. Coming so soon after his mother's death, it would be easy to assume it was written in her memory but he had been thinking about it for some time. Even the melody he had used for the movement, “All Flesh is as Grass,” was a sarabande originally from his first attempt at a symphony (if you can imagine that sombre dance as the substitute for a scherzo!) begun shortly after his mentor Robert Schumann, Clara's husband, threw himself into the Rhine a decade earlier (that symphony's opening theme had already found a home in the first movement of his D Minor Piano Concerto).

Then it was time for his annual summer vacation – a working vacation when Brahms, just turned 32 and recently moved to Vienna where he'd become the director of the Vienna Singverein, escaped the urban distractions in order to compose. This summer he chose a village outside Baden-Baden, a quaint town near the Rhine deep in the Black Forest, mostly because Clara Schumann and her family were there and had recommended it. His day consisted of a fairly predictable schedule, awaking at dawn, then taking a walk after some strong coffee, followed by four hours of composing, then lunch either at Clara's or at a local inn, more work, then more coffee, and another visit to the Schumanns' where he usually stayed for dinner. From the windows of his rooms, he could see the forest-covered mountains just beyond the road into town.

the modern "French" Horn
While he finished two works that had been on the front burner for a couple of years – the G Major String Sextet and the E Minor Cello Sonata – the new work he began in those rooms, between walks and coffee, looking out over that forest, was a trio for horn, violin and piano, not a very typical combination for chamber music. The way most composers made their money, now that the days of being a paid employee of some wealthy, music-loving aristocrat had passed, was writing works that could be purchased and performed by amateur musicians in their own homes, not necessarily by professional musicians in concert halls. There would be little demand for a piece like this, Brahms knew, especially since he specified it should be played on the old-fashioned natural German waldhorn (or forest horn) which without valves had a limited range of possible notes it could play, already made obsolete by the modern valved instrument we know for some reason as the “French” horn, capable of playing everything within the chromatic scale. As it is, beyond its premiere, the work is rarely performed as Brahms intended though horn players today are sensitive to the differences between the instruments, especially the “color” of the tone when playing what are called “stopped notes.”

Natural Horn (with a bunch of crooks)
In order for the natural horn to play notes outside its single overtone series – a horn in E-flat was limited only to notes within the E-flat Major scale or those in common with a key like, say, G Major – the player would then have to add a length of tubing to the instrument called a “crook” to change the home key of the horn so it could now play in that key. But this left out any quick modulations between keys because one would have to take out one crook, put it quietly aside, then insert the next crook and then re-tune the instrument (a risky venture mid-performance). So either the composer would change only to keys the horn could play in with its few possible pitches the keys had in common – or did without the horn in the new key. In some orchestral works, two pairs of horn-players, pitched in different keys, could solve the problem, but Haydn, for instance, always tried to avoid such a solution because it was an added expense which the Prince frowned upon.

This is the reason why all four movements of Brahms' trio are in E-flat, rather than branching off into any number of possible related keys for variety's sake, meaning once set-up and tuned, the horn player didn't have to deal with additional, extraneous lengths of pipe. Now, while a horn could play the pitch G in the key of E-flat Major, it could not play the pitch G-flat which you'd need for E-flat Minor. But in order to manage this and other such notes, a horn player would insert his hand deeper into the instrument's bell and “stop” the pitch, which required additional control of the emboucher (the pressure of the lips on the mouthpiece) in order to “lower” the played pitch. This gave the note a distinctly darker tone, one the modern valved (“French”) instrument would not have. But Brahms wanted this effect specifically and it is most tellingly used in the third movement, the slow, mournful movement in E-flat Minor.

A scene in Germany's Black Forest
There is a natural (no pun intended) sound especially in the opening movement if we remember that the dawn of German Romanticism in the early-19th Century often evoked hunting calls from deep in the German forests (like the mysterious Black Forest around Baden-Baden) – think of the whole story behind Carl Maria von Weber's opera Der Freischütz with, its sinister elements aside, all those hunting choruses full of the folksy sound of men's voices and the more prevalent sound of the horn both as a solo instrument and as a quartet. Bringing such an instrument into a small concert space – much less a family's living room – would have been very different from having a violin or a piano imitating these very sound effects. But it is only in the finale that Brahms lets the horn “go,” romping through the woodlands – off on the hunt! – with a barrage of traditional horn-calls.

Yet, coming back to that odd slow movement where the player has to “stop” the note to play the darker minor third of the key – the G-flat – that is the very pitch Brahms chose to end the movement with and he would not have done that if he didn't specifically want that “veiled” tone (he could just as easily have ended the horn on an E-flat and avoid this different sounding note). The whole movement is a mournful dirge and though he may not have specifically said so, how could it not have been inspired as a gentle memorial to his mother who'd died only six months earlier?

And why the horn in the first place? His publisher would only agree to the piece if he allowed an “alternate” version with a viola instead of a horn since, viola-jokes aside, there were more violists for family musicales than there would be horn-players. The same thing would happen almost 30 years later when his late Clarinet Sonatas also entered the world as Viola Sonatas despite originally being inspired by the brilliant playing of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld for whom he'd composed them (as well as the Clarinet Trio and that indescribable Clarinet Quintet, another masterpiece of the chamber music repertoire), sounding so different when played with a viola (no matter how well) instead.

As far as I can tell, there is no mention of a famous horn player to inspire Brahms to write this trio in 1865, like the musician Josef Leutgeb for whom Mozart composed at least five concertos in the 1780s.

So why did Brahms choose to write a Horn Trio? Why not a Piano Trio (he had already written at least one of those)? He had already completed two Piano Quartets (the third, begun earlier, wasn't finished for another ten years), not to forget the unforgettable Piano Quintet, another masterpiece, published the previous year (it was originally a sonata for two pianos before it became a string quintet before Brahms decided it should really be a quintet for one piano and strings!).

Or, if he were writing a tribute to his mother and he was now the conductor of the finest choir in Vienna, why not a choral work? Ah, yes, well... there's the German Requiem (for a time, he considered calling it “A Human Requiem”) which would find its final form three years later when he added the last movement to be composed, the soprano solo setting the text “You now have sadness” and ending with “I will comfort you as one whom his mother comforts.”

Perhaps – and this is only a matter of conjecture since Brahms never mentioned the connection and would likely have scoffed at the suggestion (he usually brushed off any reference to his mother's death inspiring such music in the first place) – it is because, when Brahms was a child, his father played the old natural horn and taught his son Hannes how to play it as well (in addition to the piano, the boy also took cello lessons). There are few surviving references to his mother in the family history anyway, but perhaps there was some memory, something he recalled – did she like the way he played the horn? something he played on it that she especially enjoyed? – that made the connection a personal one, not just the idea “why, I think I'll write a horn trio”?

Brahms who loved his family now saw his family in a shambles: his father had left his mother and not long after that, coincidentally one assumes, she died. His elder sister Elise needed caring for but his younger brother Fritz was not so inclined and so it was Hannes, writing from Vienna, who made what arrangements she needed and sent money to her. Not long after their mother died, he and Fritz (never close) had a further falling out and rarely communicated.

Perhaps the loss of his family is more behind the Horn Trio than just the death of his mother? Again, pure conjecture – but what goes through one's mind in the quiet times of such situations?

Who has not been there, metaphorically in Brahms' shoes, receiving a long and loving letter only to find out it is too late to respond? Such news rocks the very foundation of our world and those things you think of, things you should have done, could have done, perhaps put off doing, maybe recalling an argument or something that could have been better handled, even a chance to say good-bye, continue to haunt us. But now it is too late.

In October, then, back from Baden-Baden with a completed Horn Trio in his suitcase, Brahms receives a three-page letter from his usually tongue-tied father. In a long round-about way, Johann Jakob introduces Karoline Schnack, the woman he has cautiously asked to marry him (he is 59; she is 18 years younger). Brahms, fortunately, took the news gladly and developed a warm relationship with his new step-mother, soon even calling her “Mother.” Her own son, also named Fritz, with his frail health was a special concern for her and, calling him “the Second Fritz,” Hannes in his quiet generosity saw to it he was also cared for.

Clara Schumann, of course, had dealt with the death of her husband Robert nine years earlier, kept from seeing him during the last years of his life after that horrible afternoon when he suddenly threw himself off that bridge and was then locked away in an asylum outside Bonn which might as well have been half a world away.

Later, Brahms had returned to Vienna after his mother's funeral when Clara wrote to call off an intended visit. He'd half-expected the news, he replied, joking how he'd even cleaned up his room, bought new coffee cups, cleaned the plates and ordered fireworks and preserves (!). That she was well and “bracing [her]self with all sorts of edifying things such as philosophy” was, however, good to hear, even if he meant it ironically.

“The world is round,” he continued, “and it must turn; what God does is well done; consider the lilies [the equivalent of “stop to smell the roses”], etc; or better still, don't think at all, for things cannot be altered and a wise man repents of nothing.”

– Dick Strawser

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