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

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