Friday, January 20, 2017

Chamber Music with Friends and a 35th Anniversary with Schubert's Trout

A generation ago, it was common for famous musicians, known primarily as orchestral players or soloists, to step onto the concert stage in chamber music programs where the other players for these especially formed ensembles were advertised as friends of the main performer. While it became a bit redundant in the mid-1970s when the New York Philharmonic concertmaster held a “Rodney Friend and Friends” concert, the idea continues today when the Harrisburg Symphony's Stuart Malina plays chamber music with members of the orchestra, an annual series called, simply, “Stuart and Friends.”

For Saturday's special anniversary concert, the current directors of Market Square Concerts – performers in their own rights – decided to celebrate thirty-five seasons of MSC by giving a performance of their own and asking some of their friends to join them.

Jeremy Gill
Composer Jeremy Gill – originally from Harrisburg (his oboe teacher when he was in high school was Thomas Rowe, oboist in the Harrisburg Symphony), he's lived in Philadelphia and now in Boston – is not only a composer, conductor and pianist and a friend of past directors Lucy Miller Murray and the late Ellen Hughes as well as Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang, he is known for being a wonderful cook, and our directors swear that he can make a killer Martini!

His “Duo for Violin and Piano” was commissioned by MSC founding director Lucy Miller Murray and her husband, Martin Murray, for the current directors to perform at this concert: you can read more about in the previous post, here.

Geoffrey Pilkington
Another friend on the program is Geoffrey Pilkington, principal horn of the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center where he recently was involved in a complete cycle of Wagner's Ring with its very demanding horn parts (he had already played it in San Francisco). In the past, he has played in the horn section of the Harrisburg Symphony, starting in 2011, and joined MSC for the Beethoven and Mozart quintets for piano and winds with pianist Stuart Malina for two previous Summermusic festivals. Geoffrey and his wife, Kathryn, just welcomed their second son, Colin, into their family a week ago. Congratulations, Geoffrey and Kathryn!

He'll be joining Peter and Ya-Ting for the Horn Trio by Johannes Brahms, and you can read more about the Brahms in the previous post as well.

The second half of the program adds three more friends to the mix for Schubert's Quintet which was written for an amateur cellist Schubert had met while on a summer holiday, something he could play with his friends. You can read more about Schubert and his “Trout” by scrolling down just a little further...

Stepniak talks about Mozart
Michael Stepniak, a dear friend since Peter and Ya-Ting's Peabody Conservatory days, will return to celebrate MSC's 35th Anniversary on Saturday at Whitaker Center. When Michael is not playing viola, he wears his educator-administrator hat as the Dean of Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia. Michael writes beautifully and gives talks and lectures filled with insight, humor and unexpected revelations on various topics. Michael is a proud father of three beautiful young adults, and enjoys reading, attending arts-related events, and most of all, traveling the world with his wife, Anne, whenever time allows. Here is a video of Michael interviewing American Icon, Wynton Marsalis during his residency at Shenandoah Conservatory.

Fiona Thompson and Zaree
Recently, Michael gave a talk about Albert Einstein and Mozart, before playing Mozart's amazing Divertimento in E-Flat, K.563 with Peter Sirotin and Fiona Thompson at the Hershey Medical Center, part of an MSC "Soundscape" Outreach program earlier this month.

Cellist Fiona Thompson is originally from the UK and is principal cellist of the Harrisburg Symphony, where, a few seasons ago, she was the soloist in Richard Strauss' Don Quixote. When she is not busy performing with the Mendelssohn Piano Trio along with Peter and Ya-Ting or with other musicians in the region, or, in addition to all that, teaching, Fiona enjoys reading, spending time with her husband, Rob and her beautiful horse, Zaree.

Devin Howell in the Mountains
Just two weeks ago, bassist Devin Howell, a Harrisburg native and resident, was the soloist for Nino Rota's Divertimento Concertante with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra where he is also principal bass. Devin plays with many other established orchestras and musicians in the region and teaches privately as well as at several regional universities. One of his students, now attending the Curtis School of Music, recently won an audition for an opening in the HSO bass section and is now her teacher's stand-partner! During the summer, Devin also plays with the Lake Placid Sinfonietta in the Adirondacks where he manages to fit in some hiking. Like many musicians, he also enjoys good food!

Peter Sirotin & Food
So, other than doing the administrative work to run Market Square Concerts, practicing, performing, teaching and traveling, what else do our directors like to do?

As you might gather from his Facebook posts, Peter Sirotin has a massive sweet tooth. During his first two months in the US as a graduate student, he had sampled all flavors of ice cream available at a grocery story near the Peabody Conservatory. Peter also loves to read, write and have conversations with friends and family about current issues.

Ya-Ting Chang cooking food
As for Ya-Ting Chang, our executive director, her #1 dream is for there to be 48 hours in each day. She would then be able to find time to enjoy cooking, tending to her orchids, spending time with their 14 year-old cat, Tiger, and visiting her 4 year-old niece, Clarissa.

Occasionally, over the years, Market Square Concerts has offered prefatory performances by young performers. This concert will officially begin with a 14-year-old pianist playing the Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor by Frederic Chopin. Pianist Zev Malina is also a composer – his setting of a favorite children's book, Robert McCloskey's “Blueberries for Sal!”, for narrator and chamber ensemble, was performed as part of a Bar Mitzvah project to benefit the Dauphin County Library System. You can hear the entire work in this YouTube video in which Zev is the narrator. Among the performers you might recognize violinist Peter Sirotin, bassist Devin Howell, and pianist Stuart Malina, the composer's father. And in addition to dealing with homework and other realities of being a 14-year-old, Zev also plays the bassoon and is a member of the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra where his sister, Sara, is the principal cellist.

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Here is a performance of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet with a Hungarian ensemble that, for lack of space, could be called "Zoltan Koscis and Friends" recorded in 1982. Pianist Koscis is certainly the one internationally known member of the group. He would later also become well known in Europe as a conductor and composer (he died this past November at the age of 64).

The Quintet, scored for piano, violin, viola, cello and bass - because the strings include a double bass rather than a second violin to make it an actual string quartet, officially it can't be called by definition a "Piano Quintet" - is in five movements, the fourth of which is a set of variations on one of Schubert's most popular songs, Die Forelle or - the Trout!

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Schubert's Quintet was written following a delightful summer vacation in an old Austrian city located between two idyllic rivers in eastern Austria. It has nothing to do with the joy of trout fishing and no one plays an instrument called "the trout" (though there is an instrument called "the serpent" which is not used here, either.) Let me explain...

In 1815, Schubert, then 18, met the singer Johann Michael Vogl, a baritone who sang major roles at one of Vienna's major opera houses: the year before, he had created the role of the villain Pizzaro in Beethoven's latest revision of Fidelio. Reluctantly agreeing to meet the young composer, he sang through of a pile of songs, his reactions going from “not bad” to “you have something special in you, but as yet you are too little of the actor and showman; you have fine ideas but should make more of them.”

Vogl was a tall and imposing man. Schubert was about 5'1”. One of Schubert's friends drew a wicked caricature of the two, reflecting Vogl's stature in the arts community and Schubert's relative insignificance.

In those days, singers didn't give “song recitals.” Composers – even Mozart and Beethoven – wrote songs primarily for the domestic market, meaning amateurs to perform at home, back in the days before the invention of stereos, radios and TVs when people made their own entertainment rather than watched or listened to it. If you read any novels of the time – like Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, written in 1813 – there will likely be references to the young unmarried daughters of the house who would play the piano and sing for their friends and family: a girl's talent was considered a marriageable trait.

These, then, were the performers Schubert's contemporaries had in mind except Schubert often wrote songs setting “deeper” poems with more difficult piano accompaniments and requiring more vocal technique. Vogl appreciated this and took Schubert and his songs around to his friends and sang this music for them. Without being published, Schubert would build a reputation as a composer of songs. It was, however, not a very good kind of reputation: opera was “where it was at.”

And that's probably why Schubert's friends arranged for Herr Vogl to meet their young friend. Money was to be made not in writing songs for pretty daughters to warble after dinner but in getting operas performed. That was the mark of a professional composer. In 1820, Vogl would sing the parts of twin brothers in Schubert's opera Die Zwillingsbrüder, written just for him. One of the few operas Schubert would complete or even see on the stage, it was a failure. One of music's great mysteries is that Schubert, an expert dramatist in the miniatures he wrote – Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, for instance, written when he was 16 – seemed incapable of finding the dramatic moment in extended scenes on the operatic stage.

Perhaps Schubert's most popular song is Die Forelle, “The Trout.” He wrote this during the spring of 1817. There's a famous story that, in the midst of drinking a good deal of wine on a Saturday night, Schubert sat down and (while everybody else was talking) wrote Die Forelle. The manuscript certainly looks like it, but the truth is, he was visiting a friend whose younger brother very much liked Schubert's songs, and so Schubert sat down and from memory wrote out a copy of this one for him – it was the third time he'd copied out this same song, but keep in mind it was also in the days before there were photocopiers.

This video (with nice pictures) of Schubert's song and the lyrics is sung by the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with his equally incomparable collaborator, Gerald Moore:
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In 1819, Vogl was going on an extended vacation to his hometown of Steyr, an industrial town about 2/3s of the way between Vienna and Salzburg (it would celebrate its 1,000th Anniversary in 1980) and he decided to take his young friend Schubert with him. Schubert stayed at the home of a “cultured lawyer” who had three sons and eight daughters and whose nephew, Anton Stadler, an old school friend of Schubert's, also lived there. He would meet Vogl for meals at the home of Josef Koller, an iron merchant whose daughter was a talented pianist named Josephine. It was there Schubert, Vogl, Josephine and Stadler performed Der Erlkönig as a trio (Schubert sang the part of the father). That month, Schubert also wrote a piano sonata just for Josephine – the Sonata in A Major, K.664. Another piece of music associated with that vacation was a little cantata written for Vogl's 51st birthday – Schubert was again one of the singers – and performed at the Kollers' house.

More public music making took place at the home of a wealthy mining official, Sylvester Paumgartner, a bachelor who was a local patron of the arts and an amateur wind player and cellist. The best musicales in Steyr took place either in the music room or the larger 2nd floor salon of his home on the city's town square (see photo). Vogl, sort of a local hero having gone off to a great career in the Big City, was the center of attention and being a bit of a prima donna would not always feel like singing: on occasion Paumgartner had to get down on his knees and beg him to sing. Schubert was very much in the “back seat,” sitting at the piano, but still, people admired his songs, though they more openly enjoyed Vogl's singing of them. One of the favorites was Die Forelle. Paumgartner owned a copy of Johann Nepomuck Hummel's Septet in an arrangement for the unusual combination of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass (the first 'real' and enduring piano quintet, consisting of the now standard string quartet plus piano, wasn't written until Schumann wrote his in 1842). In order to have something else for this group to play, he asked Schubert to write a little something for him and, if he wouldn't mind, include a set of variations on the song Die Forelle as one of the movements. And so that's how Schubert came to write this Quintet in A Major for Piano & Strings - which has always been known as “The Trout Quintet.”

Since the original manuscript is lost and no one (not even his school friend Stadler) ever mentioned the performance in a letter or subsequent memoirs, it's hard to say when it was written or premiered. The going story is that he wrote it then and there and in a matter of days everybody played it and loved it.

Unfortunately, that's not true. There were two other visits to Steyr – 1823 and 1825 – but because of the style of the piece compared to its contemporaries, it's more likely it was written after this first visit when Schubert was 22.

What actually happened was that the request was made before Vogl and Schubert left, the piece was composed that autumn in Vienna, Stadler copied the parts and sent them back to Paumgartner. Unfortunately, Schubert overestimated Paumgartner's abilities as a cellist: apparently, the work was played through (perhaps not even performed), then put away on the shelf. It wasn't published until 1829, a year after Schubert died at the age of 31. Today, it is probably one of the most popular pieces in the chamber music repertoire.

So, ironically, Schubert's friends' attempts to accelerate his career as an opera composer, introducing him to one of the leading singers in Vienna at the time, didn't work out, at least in the sense of any operatic success (of course, what might have happened had Schubert lived to be in his 60s, one can only imagine). But it did produce a great champion of Schubert's music, especially his songs, and someone who managed to introduce this music to an audience that might not otherwise have heard it.

Oh, and there was one instrumental work we can thank this friendship for: without Vogl's introduction to an amateur cellist he knew, we would never have had the "Trout" Quintet.

- Dick Strawser

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