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

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