Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Summermusic: Two Russian Piano Quintets You've Probably Never Heard Before

 Summermusic 2017 concludes its three-concert tour on Wednesday evening - beginning at 7:30 in Market Square Church - with a Russian program of two Romantic piano quintets: one by a well-known composer; the other by one not-so-well-known in this country. Alexander Borodin, one of the Russian Five (or the Mighty Handful), may be more famous for his “Polovetsian Dances” and Sergei Taneyev is... well, probably better remembered as a teacher and for having been a star pupil of Tchaikovsky's than for being a composer, and yet without him, the transition from Borodin and Tchaikovsky to Rachmaninoff and Skryabin might have been quite different. So let's explore the rarified world of the Russian piano quintet!
A Russian Program

When we think of “Piano Quintets,” we tend to think of a mighty handful of masterpieces by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák and Shostakovich (and possibly Franck), usually in that order. Yet the two quintets on this program do not fall into the “masterpiece” category nor are they by composers well-known for their chamber music. (Well, that's not entirely fair, since Taneyev is hardly known as a composer at all any more, though he wrote a good deal of chamber music including six string quartets over a productive career of thirty-five years.)

It's also curious that, when you listen to them, they sound not terribly dissimilar: the Borodin may seem less complicated only because the Taneyev is longer, more virtuosic and overall more complex. But we might think the same when comparing either the Schumann or the Dvořák to the Brahms quintet, even though 22 years separate Schumann's from Brahms' and 23 years separate Dvořák's from the Brahms.

Borodin's quintet was composed in 1862, even before you could say he'd begun his musical career, and Taneyev's was written four years before he died, in 1911, 49 years after the Borodin.

To put it in another perspective, Tchaikovsky wrote his first published composition in 1867 and died in 1893, eighteen years before Taneyev's quintet. On one hand, Borodin, influenced at the time more by Mendelssohn and Schumann (though he didn't appear to know Schumann's quintet) – and Schumann had died only three years before Borodin traveled to Germany to study – wrote his quintet two years before Brahms wrote his; when Taneyev was composing his quintet, younger composers were gearing up for some considerable stylistic changes for the new century: Stravinsky wrote Petrushka in 1911 after putting aside, at least momentarily, The Rite of Spring, and Schoenberg wrote Pierrot Lunaire. Borodin was 28 with his whole career ahead of him; Taneyev was 55 with his career basically behind him.

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Borodin: Chemist, Composer
Borodin's quintet is in three movements, starting with what is essentially a moderate tempo for a first movement, followed by a scherzo and then a broadly contrasting finale, at times joyful, melancholy but above all songful (like so much Russian music). To those familiar with Borodin's best pieces, his voice is remarkably identifiable: if it shows any influences from the German composers he enjoyed, it is not in the surface level we hear most easily. If it sounds “very Russian” to you, keep in mind he had no real Russian models – the “famous” Russian music, to put it simply, had not yet surfaced beyond the two most significant composers in the generation before him, Glinka and Dargomizhsky.

But he is not quoting Russian folk-songs to get this “Russian sound” as other composers would do later. When I hear Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, for example, I am surprised how many of those tunes are actually folk songs he's quoting, but when I asked Peter Sirotin about Borodin's tunes, he jokingly replied they “just sound like it. He was good at creating faux-folktunes.”

Here is the complete quintet (in one clip) with pianist Alexander Mndoianiz and the Moscow String Quartet. There was not a lot to choose from but this seemed in general more idiomatic, to give you an impression of the piece.

It is interesting to note, of the “Russian influences” in the piece, he saves the impressions of Orthodox church music for the last movement, bringing it to a benedictory close. At times, this finale seems to be working too hard to act like a finale. However, once you realize he was completely self-taught at this time – as far as music was concerned – one can overlook a great deal.

(For more about Borodin's life and the background of his quintet, see below.)

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Tchaikovsky, perhaps the most famous and most popular Russian composer, once said, “Oh Borodin, a good chemist, but he cannot write a proper measure without Rimsky helping him.”

So let's continue with the piano quintet by Tchaikovsky's star pupil, Sergei Taneyev (or Taneev as you might see it, sometimes). I'll write more about his life and career further on.

Just as “amateur” is a word that can carry double meanings, the word “academic” can imply not only a preference for technical skills over “mere emotionalism,” it can also imply a dryness of interest for listeners unconcerned how well you can write a fugue. Brahms was derided at the time as an “academic” composer – one critic, even in 1900, still complained that his lush String Sextet in B-flat Major was “musical trigonometry” – and even Wagner had a back-handed compliment for his “Handel Variations” which ends with an enormous fugue which Wagner thought was very accomplished: “One sees what still may be done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them.”

Prof. Sergei Taneyev
And Taneyev knew how to use them. While compared to most Russian composers – who did not care for such academic niceties whether they could use them or not (and Tchaikovsky certainly couldn't, despite various attempts to include them in his music) – his work may sound more “rigorous” and “complex,” but by the time you get to the end of the last movement, you're probably more aware of the Romantic passion of the music than its dry academic, theoretical, contrapuntal structure.

He described his own compositional methods as first, assembling his themes; then he wrote on them various contrapuntal exercises – canons, imitations – until he had “exhausted their polyphonic possibilities.” Having done that, then, he set about actually composing the piece.

It was an age-old battle – which came first, the mind or the heart? Beethoven wrote on the score of his Missa solemnis (a work bristling with fugues), “From the heart, may it return to the heart.” Considering Bach who had a similar interest in fugues and canons – the epitome of polyphonic writing – and more modern composers like those who composed “according to Schoenberg's 12-tone methods” (serial music) which we tend to over-analyze, it would seem the mind was more important than the heart, and in many less talented composers, it would seem craft became a substitute for imagination (as Allen Shawn says in his biography, “perhaps Schoenberg's work deserves a more superficial treatment than it has hitherto received”).

On that note, let's just say, “listen to Taneyev's quintet and enjoy it as it comes to you.”

Completed in 1911, there are the four standard movements. Though the first movement is marked “Introduction,” it is actually a long intro followed by an even longer, romantically dramatic, often tempestuous fast section. The scherzo is another of those fleet-footed, light-hearted contrasts to all the traditional gloom-and-doom we associate with Russian art. The slow movement, essentially a passacaglia with variations, an old baroque form, is almost a funeral march, a tragic tone-poem on a symphonic scale before the finale with its mix of drama and playfulness boils up into a dramatic conclusion worthy of Brahms.

I'm posting two clips, both with the same pianist, Mikhail Pletnev. The first, despite its idiotic graphic, is the better recording and more intense performance, but the second has the benefit of the score, for those who'd like to follow along and “see” what they're listening to.

Taneyev's Piano Quintet in G Minor (complete) with Mikhail Pletnev, piano; Vadim Repin and Ilya Gringolts, violins; Nobuko Imai, viola; Lynn Harrell, cello:

(complete w/score) Mikhail Pletnev, piano; Alexei Bruni and Sergei Galaktionov, violins; Sergei Dubov, viola; Alexander Rudin, cello (recorded in 2001):

Earlier in this series, I had quoted Charles Ives, known for his typical Yankee cussedness: “Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful.”

Another favorite composer of mine, the American Roger Sessions, himself often described as an overly intellectual composer, once said, “Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart -- as if the one could function without the other.”

Wherever one begins, the end goal is always the same – the combination of the heart and mind into a complete, if not universally satisfying, whole.

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The Russian Five: Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimksy-Korsakov


Alexander Borodin – Dr. Alexander Borodin – is what in this country we would call an “amateur” in the sense he did not make his living by his art (“amateur, from the Latin amo/amas/amat, to love”). Yet anyone familiar with Borodin's music would realize there is nothing “amateurish” about its quality. 

Borodin's day-job was being a chemistry professor. He called himself “a Sunday composer” who, during the winter – teaching season – could compose only when he was home sick. Consequently, his music-friends would greet him not by saying 'I hope you are well' but by saying 'I hope you are ill.'

Borodin was largely “un-trained,” another aspect of consideration when bandying about the word “amateur.” True, when he would've been a student, they didn't have music schools in Russia – Anton Rubinstein opened the first official one in St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital, in 1862 and when his brother Nikolai opened one in Moscow four years later, one of his first students was a former law-student named Tchaikovsky.

Borodin & Mendeleyev (center)
Instead, following his scientific interests, Borodin had entered the Imperial Academy of Medicine and Surgery in St. Petersburg in 1850 – a prestigious institution dating back to the days of Peter the Great: one of its later students named Pavlov might ring a bell – and following graduation, he spent a year as a surgeon in a military hospital, then was appointed as a professor of pathology and therapeutics before receiving his Doctorate in medicine and pursuing some post-doctoral work first in Heidelberg, Germany, in the late-1850s, then in Pisa in 1862, the year he published a paper describing the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride. One of his fellow students in Heidelberg, by the way, was a chemist named Mendeleyev who would publish his first periodic chart of the elements seven years later.

While in Heidelberg, Dr. Borodin met a young Russian woman – Ekaterina Sergeievna Protopopova – who was an amateur pianist with a preference for Chopin and Schumann. A woman of weakened health, she had come to Germany for “the cure,” but returned to St. Petersburg in 1862 – as did Borodin – and not long after that they were married.

Borodin's interest in music was awakened, in a sense, by Ekaterina's playing. So is it any coincidence that, while in Italy, he composed the piano quintet we'll hear on Wednesday night's program?

When he returned to Russia, Borodin was appointed a professor of chemistry at his alma mater and he and his new wife set up house-keeping in a spacious and rent-free apartment in the Academy building where domestic life took on a happy if often chaotic domesticity.

One other thing happened in 1862: though he had met a civil servant named Modest Mussorgsky, another would-be composer, a couple of times, it wasn't until he returned to Russia, his musical interests reactivated, that Borodin met composer and teacher Mily Balakirev and began taking lessons from him in his “spare” time. Though Rubinstein had opened his conservatory that same year, a full-time college professor would hardly have time to take regularly scheduled classes and lessons and so continued the age-old tradition of studying, however haphazardly, with a "master."

By then, Borodin had already completed a small number of chamber works – a couple of piano trios, a cello sonata (inspired by Bach), two string trios, a string quintet and a string sextet – before he began his Piano Quintet in C Minor. Once he started working with Balakirev, he jumped right into composing his first symphony.

So technically, if we examine that “amateur” status again, as far as the Piano Quintet is concerned, yes, Borodin was as yet “un-trained.” He finished it before he turned 29.

As life would unfold for Prof. Borodin – who added to his workload by championing education for women and later founded the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg – he found little time to work on his compositions. Living at the academy itself made him accessible, day and night, to students and colleagues. Relatives of his wife's would show up if they needed a place to stay and at any one time someone might be sleeping on a couch or in a spare bed or, as happened one time, on the grand piano, forcing him to abandon plans to get any composing done for the moment.

Plus, in addition to relatives, they seemed to collect stray cats. As his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov noted in his autobiography,

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“Many cats that the Borodins lodged marched back and forth on the table, thrusting their noses into the plates or leaping on the backs of the guests. These felines enjoyed the protection of Catherine Sergueïevna. They all had biographies. One was called Fisher because he was successful in catching fish through the holes in the frozen river. Another, known as Lelong, had the habit of bringing home kittens in his teeth which were added to the household. More than once, dining there, I have observed a cat walking along the table. When he reached my plate I drove him away; then Catherine Sergeyevna would defend him and recount his biography. Another installed himself on Borodin’s shoulders and heated him mercilessly. ‘Look here, sir, this is too much!’ cried Borodin, but the cat never moved.”
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In the 1860s, Borodin was a member of a circle of composers orbiting around Mily Balakirev, along with Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky and a fellow named Cesar Cui whose day-job was being a military engineer and later a music critic. Advocating a "national Russian voice" in their music, they became such a powerful presence in Russian music they were known as “The Mighty Handful,” though the exact words the critic Stasov used to describe them was “Mighty Bunch.” (I have often argued that Cesar Cui, the last to be mentioned and the most easily forgotten, might well be the “Little Finger of the Mighty Handful,” but that's another story.) More often they are referred to as “The Five” but this is something they never used among themselves and something which seemed rarely used in Russia at all (it was mostly a French thing). Rimsky, in his autobiography, always referred to themselves as “Balakirev's Circle.”

This aesthetic viewpoint is important for the development of Russian music (and culture in general). In Russian culture, at this time, there were those who favored the old Russian traditional identity, called “Slavophiles,” and those who preferred the idea of being cosmopolitans, becoming part of Europe both culturally and socially. Yes, technically this division goes back before the days of Peter the Great – Peter I to Russians who, historically, do not always consider him all that great – in the early-1700s when he brought the old Asiatic empire kicking and mostly screaming into the sphere of Western Europe. (I could point you in the direction of several fat books that delve into this topic, if you're interested: Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance and Bruce Lincoln's Between Heaven and Hell; there's also Richard Taruskin's On Russian Music).

The idea was – following developments that had already started happening in Western Europe following the 1848 revolutions – to incorporate the folk-songs and dance rhythms of the people into the music rather than rely on the “imported traditions” of especially German music. They essentially rejected such things as symphonies and concertos and especially the abstract world of chamber music.

Yet this incorporation of the music of the Russian people either as outright quotations or creating melodies in the style of folksong, rather than imitations of German or Italian styles and techniques as had been the norm in Russian history since 1700, goes back to Mikhail Glinka - speaking of amateurs with little if any real training - whose Fantasy on Two Wedding Songs, Kamarinskaya, written in 1848, is (as Stravinsky later put it) “the acorn from which all Russian music grew.”

(Balakirev, himself a brilliant pianist at the start of his career, even made a Lisztian transcription of the piece which I've always had a fondness for.)

As you can hear, the faster tune itself is never "developed" in the German sense, but repeated over and over with ever-changing textures, orchestration and harmonies - a bit like Ravel's Bolero, perhaps, which, when it was first heard in 1928, was considered so radical! This, then, is the dilemma of the folk-inspired composer: how to create a long-form piece out of a few bars of music that defy expansion?

But remember, Borodin's initial endeavors in music were rooted in these early chamber music pieces of his like the Piano Quintet which were so heavily influenced by the style of Mendelssohn (remember, he was in Germany when he wrote most of those pieces). He had no innate Russian tradition to build on. Even later, he would compose two symphonies and two string quartets which his colleagues argued against as being “Un-Russian,” wishing he would spend what limited time he had for composing on more appropriate genres like operas (like his Prince Igor which he started working on in 1868 and still left unfinished at his death twenty years later) and symphonic poems (like his In the Steppes of Central Asia).

And yet this Piano Quintet sounds so inherently Russian with its folk-like themes, it might come as a surprise it is not only such an early work of his (despite its simplicity which one can excuse more as “charming” rather than “amateurish”) but that it was written before he came under the nationalist influence of Balakirev and his circle!

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In between Tchaikovsky and the Russian Five and composers like Rachmaninoff, Skryabin (or Scriabin, if you prefer), and Prokofiev is a whole generation of composers usually lumped under the heading “The Second Generation,” none of whom – except Alexander Glazunov – ever caught the imagination of their audiences to the same degree as their teachers or, ironically, as their own students did. We could mention Lyadov, Lyapunov, Arensky, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Glazunov, Gretchaninov and – before this starts sounding like a song by Danny Kaye – Taneyev.

Young Taneyev
Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev was a child prodigy and had the advantage – unlike any of the Five or of Tchaikovsky – of attending formalized studies from the beginning, entering the Moscow Conservatory at the age of 10 or 11, eventually to study piano, starting at 15, with Nikolai Rubinstein (Tchaikovsky's chief mentor if at times his most savage detractor, if you recall the famous story of his initial reaction to Tchaikovsky's seemingly naïve first piano concerto). At 13, Taneyev began taking theory and eventually composition classes with Tchaikovsky himself. At 19 he played Brahms' D Minor Piano Concerto and was the first student to graduate with first prizes in both performance and composition.

But he was also something of a theorist/musicologist, one might say, specializing in “theoretical counterpoint” in the music of Bach but also Palestrina, Josquin and Lassus, composers “so old,” many of his fellow students wondered why bother (keep in mind, Rimsky-Korsakov complained of a program Balakirev conducted with symphonies by Haydn on it, wondering why they were playing “such ancient music”).

Considering the Romantic ethos of his teachers, it is telling that Taneyev quoted Leonardo da Vinci on the title page of his magnum opus, twenty years in the making, Imitative Counterpoint in Strict Style: “No branch of study can claim to be considered a true science unless it is capable of being demonstrated mathematically.”

When not teaching, composing, performing or writing, he liked to relax with books about natural and social science, history, mathematics and with the philosophy of Plato and Spinoza.

Taneyev, looking very much the Russian Brahms
Because everybody not well known has to be described in more familiar terms, Taneyev is usually called “The Russian Brahms” and if his piano quintet has any roots in those “famous quintets” I mentioned, it would be closer to the Brahms than anything else. It is interesting, though, that the Shostakovich, which would be written almost 30 years after Taneyev's, would include a fugal movement after a long-lined, meditative introduction (just like a Bach Prelude & Fugue, come to think of it), and other somewhat “learnéd traits” for a Soviet composer already in trouble with Stalin's regime for writing “formalist” (that is, “Westernized,” specifically “Germanic”) music.

Taneyev became a close friend and confidant to his teacher Tchaikovsky. At the age of 19, he also gave the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto, much to the composer's delight so that Tchaikovsky decided to write a second concerto specifically for Taneyev to premiere. At 22, Taneyev took over Tchaikovsky's teaching position when (courtesy of Madame von Meck's stipend) Tchaikovsky could retire to concentrate solely on composition. After Tchaikovsky's death, Taneyev completed his sketches for another piano concerto he'd decided instead to turn into his still unfinished 7th Symphony, thus realizing a 3rd Piano Concerto.

Tchaikovsky, notoriously lacking in self-confidence, felt comfortable taking advice from his former pupil whom he admired for his honesty even if, at times, it was occasionally negative, even brutal. Yet the younger man had his humorous side and wrote a little ballet for Tchaikovsky's birthday, once, something with an absurd scenario and music that was “a contrapuntal pot-pourri” of themes from Tchaikovsky's works. There were also several parodies (like “Quartets of Government Officials”), comic fugues and variations as well as “toy symphonies”!

While Borodin lived two entirely separate lives – chemist and composer – Taneyev's world was similarly divided between creativity and scholarship (which, as one biographer noted, “would have awed a medieval monastic”), not to mention his outside interests in mathematics and science. While it could be mentioned that Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rubinstein, and Glazunov were “Homeric drinkers,” surpassed only by the unfortunate Mussorgsky, Taneyev was uncharacteristically a teetotaler. Not surprising.

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Summermusic: Next Stop, Latin America!

It's true that one of the best souvenirs a traveler can bring home is a broadened perspective. After a night of American piano trios on Friday, the second stop on our three concert tour Sunday afternoon at 4:00 takes us through Latin America with the Brasil Guitar Duo featuring music by composers from Cuba, Argentina, as well as Brazil.

The Brasil Guitar Duo in performance
Their varied program opens with “Zita” by Astor Piazzolla, perhaps the best-known name among Latin American composers today with audiences in the United States, but also Leo Brouwer of Cuba and Egberto Gismonti of Brazil on the first half with an all-Brazilian second half with more Gismonti plus Jacob do Bandolim, Marco Pereira and Paulo Bellinati.

The duo – João Luiz and Douglas Lora – met as teenage guitar students in São Paulo and have been performing together for more than fifteen years. Lora received his Masters at the University of Maimi and Luiz (who has also arranged several pieces for their duo) received his from the Mannes College in NYC, currently pursuing his doctorate at the Manhattan School, and is head of the guitar department at SUNY-Purchase.

They have performed a wide-ranging repertoire from Bach and Scarlatti to a number of world premieres including a Concerto for Two Guitars by one of the composers on tonight's program, the São Paulo-born Paulo Bellinati, and a sonata for two guitars and two cellos by Leo Brouwer they premiered with Yo-Yo Ma and Carlos Prieto in Havana. Their recording of the complete works for two guitars by Brouwer, available on the Naxos label, was nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best New Composition.

Here are a few video clips available on YouTube of three of the works on their Harrisburg program: “Zita,” a movement from the Suite Troileana by Piazzolla,

“Bom Partido” by Paulo Bellinati,

and Sete anéis (“Seven Cycles”) by Egberto Gismonti (as arranged by João Luiz):

For a complete performance of the Sonata for Two Guitars by Leo Brouwer, scroll down...

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There is a famous anecdote that almost sounds like it could be apocryphal but certainly speaks volumes of truth for many composers, not just Astor Piazzolla. In 1954, he left Buenos Aires – at the urging of Argentina's leading “classical music” composer of the day, Alberto Ginastera – to study with one of the most influential teachers in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, who taught most of the leading American composers of the day who flocked to The City of Light to study with her, ranging from Aaron Copland, Walter Piston (who was Bernstein's teacher at Harvard) and Elliott Carter to Burt Bacharach and Joe Raposo (more famous for the songs he wrote for Sesame Street). Another of her students, by the way, was Egberto Gismonti, whom I'll get to in a moment.

In the early-1940s, Piazzolla, growing up in the world of the tango in Argentina and a bandoneon player in major dance bands in the capital city, met the pianist Artur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who urged him to study with Ginastera, studying the scores of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, listening to orchestra rehearsals by day and playing the dance clubs by night. By 1950, he gave up his own band, now, to concentrate on composing “serious” music and in 1953 his “Buenos Aires Symphony” won a competition and was given its premiere.

A fight broke out in the audience between people who were enjoying the piece and those who were offended by having two bandoneons in the orchestra! (Remember how offended Paris critics were when Cesar Franck included an English horn in his D Minor Symphony...?) Regardless, Piazzolla won a scholarship as a result of that concert which allowed him to travel to Paris to study with Boulanger.

Nadia Boulanger with her student, Astor Piazzolla
By then 33, Piazzolla played through a number of his “classically-inspired” pieces for his new teacher with little response. It wasn't till he started playing one of his tangos – Triunfal – that she reacted: “This,” she said, “is the real Piazzolla!” Dismissing the pile of “serious” works, she said “this” was what he should focus his efforts on.

(Another version of the story has him feeling despondent after she did not respond favorably to his "classical" works and so, no doubt feeling homesick, went off in some other part of the building and began playing some tangos. Boulanger heard this, listened for a while, and then told him “This is the real Piazzolla!” Either way, it gets to the truth of a composer's identity.)

So he primarily studied counterpoint with her – it was, according to Carter, what she was most brilliant at – and it would, in fact, become a major feature in the development of his “New Tango” style. It was the synthesis of the “serious” which he'd started to learn with Ginastera, with the “popular” element he'd grown up with and which was such an important aspect of his environment.

It is an old argument, this “serious” versus “popular.” If the story sounds vaguely familiar, remember that another young American composer in his late-20s with his feet firmly planted in American popular music went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger as well, only this time she refused to take George Gershwin on as a pupil.

So here we have another great “What If...?” game to play: if Piazzolla had stayed with his “serious” side, would as many people today know the name and hum his music if he instead wrote symphonies and operas and string quartets like his mentor Alberto Ginastera? Would his “serious” music have had the same sincerity his tangos have?

This would also become the major struggle in the creative life of Leonard Bernstein but that's for another time, perhaps.

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This idea of labeling music “serious” or “popular” is another product of the 20th Century. I always hated both terms in the “either/or” pigeon-holing of art when I was growing up in the '60s – does that mean that, say, Dave Brubeck or the Beatles were not serious? Wouldn't that then make “classical” music “unpopular”?

Brahms wrote his “Hungarian Dances” inspired, in part, by hanging out with friends in smoky taverns where gypsy bands played. They were also, he knew, his bread-and-butter: between them and his little Lullaby, he was probably the richest living composer in an age when most composers we can think of were struggling to stay alive. He was a big fan of Johann Strauss who would be considered the closest thing to a “pop icon” of the day but who today is another famous “classical” composer, not that many conductors would consider programming a bunch of Strauss waltzes and polkas on the first half and Brahms' 1st Symphony on the second. And yet Brahms incorporated his “Hungarian” music in the finales of his Violin Concerto or the G Minor Piano Quartet as if it were perfectly natural and while there were always critics who disliked anything Brahms ever did, I don't recall that being a major controversy. He simply absorbed it as another “thing” in his environment which he could make use of in creating his own voice.

Ginastera, in Argentina, wrote music based on “indigenous folk-music” because that's what European composers did – if it wasn't Brahms' ethnic heritage, the idea of incorporating folk songs and dances from his own native Bohemia was the one thing that finally put Dvořák on the musical map, after having imitated first Wagner and then Brahms so long, he despaired of ever finding a style of his own. It was what Dvořák told his American students to do when he taught in New York City in the mid-1890s, how to find their own American voice: take American folk-songs and build your music on them. Curiously, he thought that would be the spiritual songs of African slaves.

While that was easy for a Russian composer like Rimsky-Korsakov or a Hungarian composer like Bartók or even an English composer like Ralph Vaughan Williams, what did that mean to an American? Especially an American who didn't need Ancestry.com or a DNA-test to know his grandparents or parents came from England or Italy or Russia or Spain – or from any of the parts of Africa that most other people were almost totally unaware of? How did an Irish-American composer who'd grown up on reels and shanties create a natural-sounding American voice out of the songs of the Native Americans?

And folk music in Latin America was always divided between the indigenous cultures and the colonial cultures. Yet we (as “Americans” – even that is, technically, a loaded term: aren't Canadians and Venezuelans “Americans” also?) tend to overlook the fact that Latin America is as much a melting pot as the United States: from colonization supplanting the “native” or indigenous culture and then the wider spread of European immigration, we forget that Piazzolla, for instance, is originally an Italian name, his grandfather growing up in Southern Italy's Apulia; that Paulo Bellinati is a Brazilian, not an Italian composer despite the ethnicity behind his name; or that Egberto Gismonti's mother was from Sicily and his father from Beirut, Lebanon.

After a time Ginastera – and Villa-Lobos in Brazil – made the transition from folk-inspired music to “abstract” music – “abstract” (the “most serious” of “serious” music, I suppose) in the sense it was not based on a story and not employing folk songs and rhythms simply for the sake of color, “abstract” like the symphonies of Brahms or the string quartets of Beethoven. Going beyond the native, popular influences resulted in more universally translatable works like Ginastera's opera, Bomarzo, set in Renaissance Italy, and Villa-Lobos' numerous suites called Bachianas brasilieras, composed “as if Bach were a composer living in Brazil today.”

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Leo Brouwer is an Afro-Cuban composer whose great-uncle was Ernesto Lecuona who wrote a little something called “Malagueña” and whose cousin Margarita Lecuona wrote “Babalú,” already famous in this country before becoming the signature tune of Desi Arnaz's bandleader character in “I Love Lucy.”

With that family legacy, it would not be surprising young Leo would show musical talent: his father, a doctor, was an amateur guitarist and by 17, Leo was performing and composing.

Leo Brouwer
Brouwer came to the United States to study at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT, and then at Juilliard, studying with Vincent Persichetti and Stefan Wolpe. In 1970, he played in the Berlin world premiere of El Cimarrón by Hans Werner Henze and for a 1979 competition in Hungary he wrote a work for 200 guitars. In addition to the songs and rhythms of his native Cuba, Brouwer was influenced by the aleatoric aesthetic of Iannis Xenakis and the serial music of Luigi Nono. But he was fluent in enough musical “languages” to comfortably transcribe Beatles songs for solo guitar and write music for over one hundred films, including Like Water for Chocolate. In addition to three string quartets and numerous other chamber combinations, he has also composed eleven guitar concertos.

In 1990, he composed a sonata for English guitarist Julian Bream and in 2009, he composed the sonata for two guitars the Brasil Guitar Duo will be performing on their program today, the “Sonata de Los Viajeros” which, at least metaphorically, reflects the journeys of someone who is widely traveled.

It is in four movements and though I could find no translations available (and I do not speak Spanish), their titles might be (1.) Primer Viaje a Tierras Heladas (The first journey to the Land of Ice); (2.) El Retablo de las Maravillas; La Venus de Praxiteles (The Altarpiece of Wonders. The Venus of (the ancient Greek sculptor) Praxiteles); (3.) Visita a Bach en Leipzig (Visit to Bach in Leipzig); (4.) Por el Mar e las Antillas (By the Sea and the Antilles).

This performance of the Sonata with the Brasil Guitar Duo, recorded at Teatro Martí in Havana, begins about 1:20 into the clip.

At the end of the video, the composer, sitting in the front row, stands up to take a bow. This concert also included the world premiere of Brouwer's El arco y la lira for two cellos and two guitars which I highly recommend!

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Egberto Gismonti was born in Rio de Janeiro where he began studying piano at the age of 6 and then, after 15 years of study, went to Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger who encouraged him to combine “the collective Brazilian experience” with his own musical style. (Notice, this was a slightly different response than the advice she gave Piazzolla.) He also studied with Jean Barraqué, a serialist who'd studied with Webern and Schoenberg.

Gismonti in Buenos Aires, 2017
Self-taught as a guitarist, Gismonti returned to Brazil and began designing guitars with more than the usual six strings, expanding the possibilities of the instrument. “Approaching the fretboard as if it were a keyboard, Gismonti gives the impression that there is more than a single guitar player.” This recent photograph of him shows him playing his ten-string guitar.

Gismonti's sojourn in the Xingu region of the Amazon basin made a lasting impression. “Brazilian culture,” he says, “is the basic fountain or source that drives my music.”

“Gismonti is one of those musicians that is at one and the same time a shining light in the music of one particular country, and the music of a totally original human being who defies nationalistic categorisation,” guitarist Derek Gripper writes of his experience with the composer's music. “In many respects his music is quintessentially Brazilian, but at the same time it reaches so much further than the music of one nation or history possibly could. ...He just showed me what music could be.”

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Of the three remaining composers on the program, I am running out of time – courtesy of various excuses, an overly helpful cat (which reminds me that Leo Brouwer composed a piano trio entitled El triángulo de las Bermudas) and resulting computer issues we don't need to get into. Besides, it's not my habit necessarily to write extensively about every piece on the program - and some lend themselves to "extensivity" moreso than others...

Together, all these create a varied sampling of the many “dialects” of the Latin American musical language – as varied as one might expect to find when comparing European composers from different countries and eras or even American composers from different backgrounds in our own country.

Earlier, in the previous post, I'd mentioned the old argument about “what constitutes an American composer?” – is it a composer who reflects “the American experience” (whatever that is) or someone who is, basically, born and trained in America?

When I started writing this post, I decided to check for some generic information about “Latin American Music” and found this, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“The music of Latin America refers to music originating from Latin America, namely the Romance-speaking countries and territories of the Americas and the Caribbean south of the United States."

And while that may seem self-evident, rather than building walls perhaps it's really all we need to consider when trying to define something so richly complex as music?

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Summermusic: Friday Night on the Town with Cafe Music

This summer's series is a quick three-concert tour that takes us to three continents and covers five countries in the space of six days, starting of with Piano Trios “Made in America” Friday night at 8, then Latin American Guitar Duos with composers from Cuba, Argentina and Brazil on Sunday afternoon at 4:00, before ending up on Wednesday evening at 7:30 in Russia with piano quintets in the grand Romantic tradition by Borodin and by Tchaikovsky's star pupil, Sergei Taneyev.

If you're looking for a theme for this first program of Summermusic2017 beyond that – other than “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight (Hey, it's inside and it's air-conditioned!)” – you might call it “College Memories and Night Life.”

After all, Bernstein's trio was written when he was a college senior at Harvard (Class of 1939, cum laude) and Charles Ives (Yale student, Class of 1898, not so laude, aspiring composer and star athlete, a pitcher for the university baseball team) reminisced over experiences from campus life (a philosophical lecture; a rowdy student party; a Sunday church service), in his piano trio, regardless when he actually completed the piece.

Then, Kenji Bunch's Swing Shift is a celebration of the 24/7 open-all-night lifestyle of Manhattan which, then, brings us to the conclusion of the program, a little something called Café Music by Paul Schoenfield which, beyond saying it was inspired by his turn as a substitute “house pianist” at a steak house in Minneapolis, hardly needs any more explanation for your enjoyment.

(You can read about the first three works in earlier posts – Bernstein & Bunch, here; the Ives, here – complete with video clips of the complete pieces. There are also posts about the second program's Latin American guitar duos and eventually the third program's Russian piano quintets.)

Paul Schoenfield
It's always great when you can have something directly from the composer about their piece, not something you can always do with the likes of Beethoven or the notoriously tight-lipped Brahms. So here's what Paul Schoenfield (who celebrates his 70th birthday this year) has to say about his work:

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“The idea to compose Café Music first came to me in 1985 after sitting in one night for the [regular] pianist at Murray’s Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Murray’s employs a house trio that plays entertaining dinner music in a wide variety of styles. My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music – music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall. The work draws on many of the types of music played by the trio at Murray’s. For example, early 20th-century American, Viennese, light classical, gypsy, and Broadway styles are all represented. A paraphrase of a beautiful Chassidic melody is incorporated in the second movement.

“Café Music was commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and received its premiere during a SPCO chamber concert in January 1987.”
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He certainly has succeeded in writing music that might just find its way into the concert hall. It's quite likely Café Music is his best known and most frequently performed work. There, for a while, it seemed almost every trio I know was performing it on their way through Central PA and it put in a regular appearance on the radio back when one could hear classical music on the radio on a daily basis.

Here's something else you can't do with the likes of Beethoven and Brahms: hear the composer play his own music. This performance, recorded live in concert by the Gabrielli Trio in 1990 – just three years after the premiere – is by violinist Andrew Jennings, cellist Michael Haber, and pianist... Paul Schoenfield.

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In the earlier posts, I had pointed out how Bernstein's eclecticism was evident in the sponge-like absorption of interests evident in his student trio, not unlike what most students might compose who are busily exploring different styles and coming to terms with various “aesthetic” approaches as well as technical skills, whether its counterpoint or writing themes that are developable (one of the necessities of writing anything on a larger scale in classical music) or creating a harmonic flow that pushes (or drives) the music forward.

You can judge Ives' use of tension and release a little differently in that scherzo of his trio, joke or not, where the texture and dissonance builds primarily through a sheer piling-on of one strand after (and over) another, the release at one point being an almost gunshot-like silence in the midst of the chaos.

Aside from the sheer brilliance of Schoenfield's “material” – whether they're original themes or remind you of songs you know (or think you know) before they veer off into something else (oh, sorry... no) – it's this whole “pop” ethos of its entertaining aesthetic that sounds contradictory (if you let it) when you consider, yeah... isn't that sonata form? Isn't that what anybody writing a “classical” piece of chamber music might do if their material sounded more like... well, Beethoven or Brahms?

This is the mature Bernstein's eclectic mash-up polished to a high and highly sophisticated degree. But is it so original? Isn't this what composers like Dvořák were doing, mixing in standard “classical” themes with folk-like tunes, whether in his Slavonic Dances (which Brahms had already done in his Hungarian Dances) or incorporated into the whole fabric of his chamber music like the Dumky Trio or the Piano Quintet (and which Brahms also did, in his own way, in the “gypsy finales” of, say, his G Minor Piano Quartet or the Violin Concerto)?

In the slow, bluesy second movement, reflections of Brahms' A Major Violin Sonata, of Gershwin's “Summertime,” maybe of “Bali Ha'i” from South Pacific and a few other tunes all float around in the not-quite-foreground of your mind as you listen to Schoenfield's music unfold.

Schoenfield might even be borrowing, intentionally or not – though he did play the Ives trio (see the end of the previous post for a post-Café Music recording of it) – from Ives' tumultuous cacophony to suggest the overflowing camaraderie that evokes a happy night-on-the-town. On occasion patrons might hum along (you can certainly imagine them tapping their toes) and perhaps have a little too much to drink (or is it the musicians?) as the music, especially in the last movement, starts to veer off in written-out miscalculations, a few wrong-notes, a slip-shod modulation (whoops) here and maybe even some memory slips, there. A brief passage in the last movement (12:50-13:05) sounds like it might break into a “fugue” but is really more like three musicians trying to figure out where the hell they are (one could imagine Ives himself smiling mischievously at that one).

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Born in Detroit in 1947, Paul Schoenfield seems to have pursued the standard route of musical training most performing composers take: Bachelor's, Master's, DMA. He taught in Toledo, OH, but then he moved to a kibbutz in Israel where for a few years he taught mathematics to high-school students. Returning to the United States, he became a free-lance composer and pianist in the Minneapolis area and then returned to Israel, living in a town near Haifa.

Though he has written an impressive list of works, he said, after he gave up performing, “I don’t consider myself an art-music composer at all. The reason my works sometimes find their way into concert halls is at this juncture, there aren’t many folk music performers with enough technique, time or desire to perform my music. They usually write their own anyway.”

I admit Café Music is the only work by Paul Schoenfield I'm familiar with, but in tooling around the internet, looking for some biographical information on him, I found this, from an article by Neil W. Levin you can read in its entirety at the Milken Archive, here:

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'Schoenfield has been compared with Gershwin, and one writer has asserted that his works “do for Hassidic music what Astor Piazzolla did for the Argentine tango.” Although he has stated, “I don’t deserve the credit for writing music—only God deserves the credit, and I would say this even if I weren’t religious,” his inspiration has been ascribed to a wide range of musical experience: popular styles both American and foreign, vernacular and folk traditions, and the “normal” historical traditions of cultivated music making, often treated with sly twists. In a single piece he frequently combines ideas that evolved in entirely different worlds, delighting in the surprises elicited by their interaction. This, as Schoenfield has proclaimed, “is not the kind of music for relaxation, but the kind that makes people sweat; not only the performer, but the audience.”
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In 1990, he composed a Trio for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano for clarinetist David Shifrin, realizing his long-standing desire “to create entertaining music that could be played at Hassidic gatherings as well as in the concert hall. ...Each of the movements is based partly on an eastern European Hassidic melody.” Listen to the first movement, “Freylakh,” here.

When Schoenfield was presented with the Cleveland Arts Prize's Music Award in 1994, music commentator Klaus George Roy said:

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'Paul Schoenfield writes the kind of inclusive and welcoming music that gives eclecticism a good name. In the tradition of Bach, who never left German soil but wrote French suites, English suites and Italian concertos, and in the tradition of Bartók, who absorbed and transformed not only Hungarian music, but that of Romania, Bulgaria and North Africa, Paul draws on many ethnic sources in music, assimilating them into his own distinctive language. As Donald Rosenberg wrote in the [Cleveland] Plain Dealer, reviewing Paul’s recent and nationally cheered compact disc recording of three concertos, “the composer’s grasp of music history joins hands with popular and folk traditions of America and beyond. This is cross-over art achieved with seamless craftsmanship.”

If Paul considers himself essentially a folk musician, it is surely a highly sophisticated one. His rich and multi-branched musical tree grows from strong and well-nourished roots. What he communicates to us is marked by exuberant humor and spontaneous freshness, however arduous the process of composition may actually have been. His work rises from and returns to those fundamental wellsprings of song and dance, of lyricism and physical motion, and often of worshipful joy, that have always been the hallmarks of genuine musical creativity.'
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Among other works of his you could check out are his “Camp Songs,” settings of poetry written in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 (I'm unable to locate any audio clips on-line) and the 1st Movement of his Viola Concerto from 1998. 

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A New England Summer: Charles Ives' Piano Trio

Before there was LOL, IMHO, and TTYL, there was TSIAJ.

And for those of you who thought you were familiar with internet acronyms, that one dates back to at least 1904, possibly earlier, and is the creation of a recent college grad named Charles Edward Ives. He applied it to what became the middle movement of his Piano Trio and it means “This Scherzo Is A Joke.”

Star Athlete, Charlie Ives (l.)
(BTW, for anyone not in on the joke, scherzo is the Italian word for what is usually a light-hearted movement in symphonies and sonatas that composers of all nationalities have used since around 1800 and which means, quite literally, “joke”.)

But we'll get to that in a minute.

FWIW, this is the second post about Market Square Concerts' Summermusic series which gets underway on Friday at 8:00 at the air-conditioned Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg. It's a program of piano trios by American composers performed by the West Garden Trio, in residence at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but on the road this week (because who wouldn't want to get out of Washington once in a while, after all?).

These include the trio Leonard Bernstein composed when he was a 19-year-old student at Harvard and a trio inspired by the 24/7 lifestyle of NYC that Kenji Bunch wrote in 2002 and called Swing Shift, dedicated to “anyone whose business stays open all night.”

(ICYMI, you can read the first post – about the Bernstein and Kenji Bunch trios – here and the third post about Paul Schoenfield's Café Music, here. You can also read about the second program with its Latin American guitar duos here; and eventually the third and final concert with two Russian piano quintets, as well.)

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Charles Ives, Yale Senior
This post is about Charles Ives' Piano Trio and while he started work on it in 1904, it's quite possible it began as a set of short works – at least the famous (or infamous) second movement – written when he was still at Yale where he graduated Class of 1898. (And yes, he was a BMOC but not as a musician or composer, nor as a scholar, but as the pitcher for the Yale baseball team - the photo above was actually taken the year his grammar school team beat the Yale freshman team but then that fall, Charlie Ives was a Yale freshman!).

We don't know how much of the trio he actually composed by 1904 since he often sketched some ideas, put them aside, came back to them later, fiddled around with them some more. It's not uncommon for Ives to take old pieces of his and incorporate them into something new: the 1st String Quartet is in fact made up from three previously existing hymn settings for organ and strings. So who knows what the trio might have looked like when he “finished” it in 1910 or so is anybody's guess, and how much he revised it by 1915 or so is another “unanswerable question.”

Still (typical with Ives), it wasn't given its first public performance until 1948 at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio (though Ives vaguely remembers a private performance of the TSIAJ movement, having since misplaced the program note he had written for the occasion). Given that history, the work wasn't published until 1955. The composer had died the year before, never having heard the piece performed in public.

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There's probably no more American a composer than Charles Ives, born in Danbury CT in 1874, and who studied at Yale with one of the stalwarts of the New England School of Composers, Horatio Parker. Some have considered him a “primitive” – untrained – because of the... well, frankly inexplicable things he was coming up with: who could have written anything like that, his colleagues must have wondered if they heard any of these pieces. It's true Ives was experimenting with things in 1905 that Arnold Schoenberg didn't “invent” until 1921 or so, but in addition to being a stubborn Yankee, Ives was also something of a visionary who had little patience for “the little old ladies of both sexes” who didn't have the ability (or willingness) to understand his music.

(This helps explain why so little of his music was performed or published in his day, but I'll get to that a little later.)

But he was far from “untrained” or an amateur, even though his own teacher may have chalked Charlie Ives off as one of those students you just never get through to. A star baseball player as a grammar school and college student, nobody took his interest in music too seriously – except his father, a Civil War bandmaster who taught him how to “stretch his ears” by teaching him how to sing in one key and play the accompaniment in another; how to conduct one meter in one hand and a different meter in the other; how one could notate the sound of hearing two brass bands marching down the street in different directions, playing different tunes in different keys, meters, and tempos. But unfortunately, shortly after Charlie'd gotten himself settled at Yale, word arrived his father had died.

What Charles Ives was was determined. Yes, he composed some pieces for his composition lessons that would appease the old-fashioned sense of what he was expected to learn – he'd written on one of his assignments, “Organ Fugue for Prof. H.W. Parker, a stupid fugue on a stupid subject” – and then there were things like his setting of Psalm 67 (originally dating from 1894, even before he went to Yale, but finalized in 1898, his senior year) in which the women sing in C Major and the men in G Minor, often creating amazing dissonances that few people would not have thought more than just “wrong notes” (though Jan Swafford, in his highly recommendable biography of Ives, describes the psalm's effect as “a cosmic barbershop choir”). His father had tried it out and thought highly of it; his teacher, not so much...

I'll offer one frequently mentioned quote from the mature Ives (writing in 1920) which may set the stage (if not the unacquainted ears) for the experience of hearing his Piano Trio, especially if it's your first time:

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“Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently, when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.”
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And so we come to the Piano Trio Charles Ives may have begun as a college student in 1896 but certainly worked on and revised until he was 40 years old.

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Ives' original sketch for the Piano Trio's 1st movement
The opening movement's initial sketch consists of a single page (above: a photostat copy of the original manuscript, posted on-line courtesy of the Charles Ives Collection of Yale University's Music Library).

When you listen to the music, you'll hear it begins with the cello and the piano playing only with the right hand which sounds like a “first theme.” This is then followed (at 2:14 in the clip below) by a passage that could be a “second theme” with the violin and the piano playing only with the left hand. It isn't until they start playing together – violin, cello, and both hands of the piano (at 4:00) – that we realize we are now hearing the cello and right hand phrase being played simultaneously with the violin and left hand phrase! And they do not sound in the least bit arbitrary (at least to someone familiar enough with Charles Ives' music). (Talk about “learn your counterpoint, boy!”)

Ives: Piano Trio – 1st Movement (Moderato) with the Stockholm Arts Trio (1987)

This brief and rather stentorian introduction sets up the second movement in much the way a philosophical discussion might be answered by the students' less than serious responses. In traditional musical terms, it might be called a quodlibet; today, we'd refer to it as a “mash-up.”

As Ives' wife, Harmony – yes, her name was Harmony Twitchell – wrote in 1948 in response to a request for program notes for the trio's belated premiere,

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“...the Trio was, in a general way, a kind of reflection or impression of his college days on the Campus now 50 years ago. The 1st Movement recalled a rather short but serious talk, to those on the Yale fence, by an old professor of Philosophy – the 2nd, the games and antics by the Students on the Campus, on a Holiday afternoon, and some of the tunes and songs of those days were partly suggested in this movement, sometimes in a rough way.”
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In the manuscript, he had subtitled TSIAJ as “Medley on the Campus Fence.” In fact, Ives described the entire Trio on its title page as

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"Trio Yalensia & Americana - for Violin Cello Piano - Fancy Names" 
"Real Names = Yankee jaws - at Mr. (or Eli) Yale's School for nice bad boys!!"
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It is fun, of course, to play “name that tune” with so much of Ives' music since he frequently quotes or suggests “pre-existing” material – in this case, popular songs of the day – the way other composers would quote folk songs. One could mention “Marching Through Georgia,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” the “Pig Town Fling,” “Sweet By and By,” and “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.” As most student parties go, it is a rowdy event and, musically – certainly to the genteel listeners of Ives' day – sheer, maddening chaos! Not to mention, then, that nose-thumbing cadence at the end with its chuckle of a dominant-to-tonic chord (after all that!)...

Here is a live (and lively) performance by a no doubt ad hoc ensemble called the TSIAJ Trio with violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell (now a member of the JACK Quartet with its own acronymic title) and pianist Conrad Tao:

Ives: Piano Trio – 2nd Movement (TSIAJ) – Presto

In later years, the composer recalled (in a collection of Memos quoted by Jan Swafford) how these “serendipitous quodlibets” came about:

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“While in college, some things were written and played by the Hyperion Theater Orchestra... Some had old tunes, college songs, hymns etc – sometimes putting these themes or songs together in two or three differently keyed counterpoints (not exactly planned so but just played so) – and sometimes two or three different kinds of time [meter, like ¾ or 4/4] and off-tunes, played sometimes impromptu [presumably throwing in your own spontaneous mistakes]. ...The pianist (who was I, sometimes) played his part regardless of the off-keys and the off-counterpoints, but giving the cue for the impromptu counterpoint parts etc. … Some similar things were tried in the [fraternity] shows but not very successfully as I remember … – though Prof. Fichtl, in the theater orchestra, would get students in the audience whistling and beating time (sometimes) to the off-key and off-time tunes.”
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It is also interesting that, while the manuscript bears the inscription TSIAJ, his wife mentioned in her note for the premiere in 1948, “he isn't quite sure about the TSIAJ over the 2nd movement – he thinks it hardly anything but a poor joke...”

Subsequently, the longer third movement comes like an atonement, “partly a remembrance of a Sunday service on the campus – Dwight Hall – which ended near the 'Rock of Ages.'” There are moments of sheer Romanticism that would remind one of Schumann (and at one point, I can almost hear Tchaikovsky - for instance, at 6:44 into the clip below) that, then, suddenly veers off into harmony neither Schumann nor Tchaikovsky could ever even have imagined, but all with a kind of beatific fervency about it – until we get to “Rock of Ages” (at 10:28)  which (too soon) concludes the trio in a mood of utter transcendence, complete with the distant tolling of bells and echoing overtones.

Ives: Piano Trio – 3rd Movement (Moderato con moto) with the Stockholm Arts Trio (1987)

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It is interesting to recall one unexpected glimmer of support in the career of a composer who gained little if any public recognition for his music.

As a student of Horatio Parker's, Ives was expected to take German poems that had been set to music by the likes of Schumann and Brahms – and so we have Charles Ives writing highly Romantic settings of “Ich grolle nicht” and “Feldeinsamkeit.”

George Whitefield Chadwick, one of the leading composers in America, teaching in Boston, and a former mentor of Parker's, had come to New Haven for a visit and Parker invited him to sit in on a composition class. After hearing these two songs Ives had composed for this assignment, Parker said he preferred “Ich grolle nicht” since it was closer to the Schumann model; he didn't care much for “Feldeinsamkeit” which he thought “modulated too much.” (Swafford calls “Ich grolle nicht” by comparison “a stodgy song.”)

Chadwick, however, said he preferred “Feldeinsamkeit”: “The melodic line has a natural continuity – it flows – and stops when [rounded out] as only good songs do... In its way, it's almost as good as Brahms.” Then, winking at Parker, he added “That's as good a song as you could write.”

Granted, these are overly Romantic pastiches, but one could imagine how a college senior, soon to be thrust into the wider world, must have responded to that bit of an endorsement! True, both Parker and Chadwick would have fainted dead away had they heard any of those “theater orchestra medleys” like the one that turned into the Piano Trio's TSIAJ movement. As it was, Parker had an already low opinion of Ives' penchant for quoting hymn tunes since he already considered the hymns of Lowell Mason “vulgarity tempered by incompetency” and railed how they “had no place in music” – “Imagine,” he once lectured, “in a symphony hearing suggestions of street tunes like 'Marching Through Georgia' or a Moody and Sankey hymn!”

Instead of going to Germany to finish his studies as Parker suggested, Ives got a job as a church organist in New Jersey within commuting distance of Manhattan where he and several of his Yale friends rented an apartment, and he found work as a clerk in a Mutual Life Insurance office. Later, he and a friend would form their own insurance company and become successful businessmen as a result.

The details of Ives' musical career – or, rather, the lack of it – is a sad but complicated story, surprising only from the respect his music has earned him posthumously, something that would no doubt flabbergast him, if he knew. So many respected musicians refused to consider what he wrote music – one, the former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic who claimed he was a friend of Richard Strauss (and therefore well attuned to “contemporary music”), ran out of the house practically screaming after looking at two of Ives' violin sonatas.

What could've been a big break almost came in 1911 – Ives was then in his mid-30s – when Gustav Mahler, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, accidentally noticed a manuscript copy of Ives' rather tame 3rd Symphony and took it with him back to Europe, intending to perform it. Unfortunately, Mahler died soon after he returned, before that ever came about: imagine what might have happened if Ives had found a champion in a conductor like Mahler?

Charles Ives, 1942
(This photograph, perhaps the most famous image of Charles Ives, then 68, was taken in 1942 by Eugene Smith. Initially, Ives was "terrified" of Smith's camera. Grandson Charles Ives Tyler said "that's the way he looked when he was getting ready to play a joke on someone.")

Considering the melee of popular tunes in Ives' scherzo, I thought it might be interesting to offer this performance of the complete trio, since the work to conclude this concert of American piano trios is Paul Schoenfield's “Café Music,” which I'll save for the next post. Schoenfield's title basically explains all you need to know to enjoy his lively piece, written in 1987, and inspired by his turn as a substitute “house pianist” playing at Murray's Steak House in Minneapolis.

Here, then, is Ives' Trio, recorded live in 1989 with the Gabrielli Trio, consisting of violinist Andrew Jennings, cellist Michael Haber, and... pianist Paul Schoenfield!


- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Summertime: Let the Music Begin

Who: (1.) The West Garden Trio;
(2.) The Brasil Guitar Duo;
(3.) Stuart Malina, Ya-Ting Chang, Peter Sirotin, Blanka Bednarz, Michael Stepniak, and Fiona Thompson
What: (1.) American Piano Trios by Leonard Bernstein, Kenji Bunch, Charles Ives and Paul Schoenfield;
(2.) Latin American Guitar Duos by Astor Piazzolla, Leo Brouwer, Egberto Gismonti and others;
(3.) Russian Piano Quintets by Alexander Borodin and Sergei Taneyev
When: (1.) Friday, July 21st, 8pm;
(2.) Sunday, July 23rd, 4pm;
(3.) Wednesday, July 26th, 7:30pm
Where: (1., 2., & 3.) Market Square Church (where it's air-conditioned!) in downtown Harrisburg.

Summermusic 2017 is a three-day musical journey – suitable for a summer holiday – through piano trios by American composers for the first program; then Latin American composers' guitar duos from Cuba, Argentina and, mostly, Brazil; and then two Russian piano quintets by composers not known for their chamber music (or, in Sergei Taneyev's case, not known at all, mostly, at least in this country). So not only is it a musically entertaining journey, it can also be a journey of discovery. Some of the names may be familiar – certainly, Bernstein, Borodin and Astor Piazzolla – but the music you'll hear by them may not be. And so our musical cruise becomes a chance to both explore and enjoy the familiar and the unfamiliar.

To begin with – a very good place to start – we have the West Garden Trio who are the resident ensemble for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where they've been performing thematic programs for exhibits and special events at the gallery since they were formed nine years ago.

The first of my posts about these concerts covers the first half of Friday night's program which will also feature Charles Ives' Piano Trio and the more familiar Café Music of Paul Schoenfield on the second half. (You can read about the Ives Trio here; and Café Music, here.) 

And so let's start with piano trios by a young Leonard Bernstein and a then almost 30-something Kenji Bunch, a name probably less familiar to you but one who is as attuned to his own time as Bernstein was to his.

(For subsequent programs, you can read about Sunday's Latin American Guitar Duo Program, here and - eventually - the Russian Piano Quintet program as well.)

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With the Bernstein Centennial next year (officially – he was born Aug 25th, 1918), it's always interesting to dig into “where that talent came from” as we listen to those mature, famous works everybody knows, as diverse as West Side Story, Candide, and the Chichester Psalms and maybe a few not so well known like his three symphonies (I have an especial fondness for the Third, the “Kaddish” Symphony) or the magnificent Serenade based on Plato's Symposium (a violin concerto in all but name). Of course, to a certain generation, he was The Conductor and, especially through his Young Persons' Concerts, The Music Educator par excellence who'd introduced so many children into the mysteries of the concert hall. In addition to also being a pianist, Bernstein was the closest thing classical music in this country ever had to A Celebrity.

Bernstein, graduating from Harvard
This piano trio is an early work, composed by a 19-year-old student then studying at Harvard and learning his craft from Walter Piston (who himself learned the rigors of compositional technique from Nadia Boulanger in Paris). As students should be doing, he explored and absorbed much of what's out there to find what stylistically might become a comfortable fit and eventually to discard what might not. There are times when this trio sounds very academic – “learn your counterpoint, boy” – and other times when you can hear the future composer not that far away (especially in the last movement – I'm thinking particularly of the phrases you can hear around 12:50 and 13:48 into the clip below).

There are three movements. The first opens with a slow introduction pitting string counterpoint against a soulful but chordal piano solo before he attempts to develop this material into a traditional sonata form. The second movement is a set of variations on a quirky march (thinking that the mature Bernstein would write much that could be described as quirky) which might bring Shostakovich to mind, but remember, Shostakovich's 5th Symphony was written the same year Bernstein wrote his trio and hadn't been premiered by then. After an introduction that sounds like it's going to rehash the 1st movement (but then, didn't Beethoven do the same thing a few times?), he launches into a dance-like finale that borrows from folk and especially Jewish motives (again, there's Shostakovich, but his E Minor Piano Trio and the horrors of the war that inspired it were a few years into the future). There is a distinctly Russian sound to one theme which might, consciously or not, be borrowed from his parents' reminiscences of the world they'd left behind – the western region of modern-day Ukraine – before coming to America and settling in the Boston area where their son would become a part of that great cultural melting pot that was America in the 20th Century.

Here's the Australian Piano Trio in the performance of Bernstein's Piano Trio from 1937:

Frankly, I doubt this work would be played much if it weren't by the young man who grew up to become Leonard Bernstein, one of the most important and influential musicians on the American Scene in the 20th Century. He was, if anything, an eclectic composer who absorbed so many influences he was perfectly comfortable writing music that hardly seems “classical” at all – West Side Story or On the Town, for instance – and yet, later in his career, would sacrifice this natural sincerity heard in so much of his “pop” side for the “serious,” often overly-complicated music he composed later in his career, like his “Jubilee Games” (a.k.a. the “Concerto for Orchestra”) which led to increasing disappointment when, for all his talent both as composer and conductor, he could never quite fit in with “the big boys” he so often tried to champion. But that, in itself, is another story entirely and years away from the teenager's curiosity you can easily hear in this piano trio.

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When Aaron Copland started including jazz influences in his music in the 1920s-and-30s, it was considered “daring” and “controversial.” Leonard Bernstein, of course, included jazz as just another part of the palette of influences he could choose from, just as he chose from his Jewish heritage and the pop-world of 1950s rock-n-roll. Today, these pieces might be considered “cross-over” if they didn't seem so much a part of our mainstream classical vocabulary.

And so, with all the different “types” of pop music available these days, it's no wonder younger composers who grew up in the late-20th Century have such an eclectic style, able to borrow – guilt-free – from Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th Century to today's concept of World Music, all of which, for all its nine centuries of history, has more in common with modern New Age music and minimalism than the standard classical fare, the “bread-and-butter” of Classical Music from the 1700s to the 20th Century. It's all fair game to a composer creating new music in this new century – and millennium – we're still getting used to.

Kenji Bunch, now in his mid-40s, may well be the “new guy” to the audience here, though he's written a good deal of music that has been widely acclaimed. Born in 1973 in Portland, Oregon, after growing up in the Portland Youth Orchestra, he attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York and earned masters degrees in 1997 in both viola performance and composition. It was his experience as a new New Yorker that lead to the work commissioned for the Ahn Trio five years later.

Kenji Bunch & Coffee
“I’ve never been a night owl,” Bunch wrote about Swing Shift, “but living in New York City seems to encourage everyone to stay awake a few hours longer. The music of Swing Shift is an attempt to capture the unique essence of the city at her most exciting time of day — the hours between dusk and dawn. This is the New York of Edward Hopper’s collective loneliness: smoky clubs, the reflection of streetlights on rain-soaked pavements. It is dedicated to anyone whose business stays open all night.” Originally conceived for a dance work with original choreography, he later reworked the music into a concert suite in six movements “played for the most part without pause.”

Here is the Ahn Trio's recording of Kenji Bunch's Swing Shift – unfortunately, they couldn't post it as a single clip, so here is the entire piece “on the installment plan,” one after the other!
#1. Prelude

#2. Night Flight

#3. Interhour

#4. Club Crawl

#5. Magic Hour

#6. Grooveboxes

It's interesting to note that when Bunch returned to his hometown where he currently teaches both viola and composition (and is the resident theory teacher for the Portland Youth Orchestra), the youth orchestra premiered his work entitled “For Our Children's Children” and then he joined the younger members of the orchestra for a performance of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, the work he played with them as a child which inspired him to become a composer.

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While there is much talk about “Made in America,” make no mistake that this program is all about American Music. I remember growing up with much discussion in classical music circles about “What Is American Music?” The popular sentiment seemed to side with Aaron Copland who used American folk-songs in his most famous works and who single-handedly created what we call “that American sound” of open harmony with its sense of simplicity and expansiveness. Or George Gershwin, whose music is strongly influenced by jazz (or is it “jazz music strongly influenced by classical”?). And Leonard Bernstein whose West Side Story is certainly an American work even if it's based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In fact, today, you can hear “All-American Programs,” especially those broadcast on PBS, who rarely get beyond those three composers.

And yet Elliott Carter, a native New Yorker, whose complex music with its complicated rhythms, layers of tempo, and its “non-tonal harmonies” is certainly an American style, one (actually) of many, adapting for his own uses the complexities of “serious” European composers. What were the 19th Century American composers like John Knowles Paine or Horatio Parker but composers who studied in Europe and adapted for their own uses the complexities (as they were perceived in those days) of no less serious a composer than Brahms?

Antonin Dvořák lived here for only a few years but wrote his “New World” Symphony here, a work that appears on “All-American Programs” because he had told his students to build their voices on “American folk-songs” without being able to define what exactly an American folk-song was, even if the ones he wrote for his last symphony sound more like songs and dances from his native Bohemia.

Was being IN America sufficient to BE American? Would that make composers displaced by events in Europe like Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Schoenberg or Bartók “American composers” after they found a new home here?

Leonard Bernstein was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but his parents had come over from Russia before the 1st World War (or, for Russia, more importantly, the turmoil leading up to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution). Kenji Bunch was born in Portland, Oregon, but explains (when asked) that his mother was Japanese (Kenji is a Japanese name) and his father was of English/Scots ancestry (asked if that meant he speaks Japanese, he says “no, but I'm fluent in half-Japanese”).

It is the American Experience that inspired the music on our first program and nothing can be 'more American' than the Yankee Charles Ives with his hymn tunes and patriotic songs, listening to the New England world around him and absorbing this into something we now call “Ivesian.”

And now, on to the Ives Piano Trio - and Paul Schoenfield's Café Music as well as the rest of the Summermusic concerts - in subsequent posts.

- Dick Strawser