Friday, November 9, 2018

Playing Composers with Beards (Part 2): Dvořák's Dramatic Flare


The Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio (in that order)
Market Square Concerts' season continues with the return of pianist Michael Brown and cellist Nicholas Canellakis, joined by violinist Elena Urioste to form the aptly-named Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio who will be performing piano trios by Brown-Chausson-Dvořák at Market Square Church on Saturday evening at 8:00.

Brown-Chausson-Dvořák
This weekend's program opens with “Reflections” by Michael Brown and the G Minor Piano Trio of Ernest Chausson (which you can read about in the previous post) and concludes with a piano trio by Antonin Dvořák, the great Czech composer popular for his “New World” Symphony, the “American” Quartet, and, of course, his “Dumky” Trio.

But this time, it's not (for once) the “Dumky” Trio, his 4th Piano Trio – and the difference between that popular one and this one, his 3rd Piano Trio in F Minor, reminds me of a quote which might prove helpful to an audience today listening to music composed 135 years ago in what we no doubt think “a simpler time”:

“Life beats down and crushes the soul 
and art reminds you that you have one.”

If you're like many people this past month, afraid to turn the TV set on to see the latest Special News Report or another political ad (at least those are done for a while) or even catch the weather forecast for fear of hearing the S-Word (they're already talking about “Wind Chill”), much less deal with another grim, rainy day, music – or any art – can be a chance to “get away from it all,” whether it's called entertainment or escapism.

But art can also be cathartic, an emotional journey not always guaranteed a happy ending (think how “America's Favorite Novel,” To Kill a Mockingbird, still ends tragically yet with a gentle ray of hope) but ultimately we feel we've gone somewhere and are, if only for the moment, better for it.

In a sense, something like Dvořák's F Minor Trio, listening to it on a purely “surface” level, can provide us with a variety of contrasts – dramatic, lyrical, light-hearted, tragic – that might reflect our immediate situation, despite having been written 135 years ago. Whatever was going through the composer's mind at the time is still something that can reach us today, if we let it, without even knowing what it was the composer was thinking: it is enough for the performers to follow the directions given them in the score, this system of symbols that somehow translates thought into sound, and we, absorbing this sound and processing it however we might, find solace, inspiration, enlightenment, comfort and, yes, even simply entertainment.

Generally, the idea of a piano trio or a string quartet or a symphony is a “multi-movement work” (usually four) in a particular pattern which reflects a variety of contrasts with certain prescribed ideas about form and structure (which are not necessarily the same thing) in which an opening “sonata-form” movement is followed by two or three contrasting movements before ending with some sense of resolution.

A listener builds up expectations and very often reacts to the music – or to the composer or performers – depending on how those expectations are met. Perhaps we enjoy this piece because “that's how I thought it would go” or maybe we appreciate that one because “that wasn't how I thought it would go.” Within that potential framework, whether we think of it as a formula or not, there are an imponderable number of possible solutions: if there weren't, why do people still read novels? Or sing love songs?

Dvořák's F Minor Trio is in four movements, opening with a dramatic “sonata form” followed by a lighter dance-like movement as a “scherzo,” the contrasting emotional center of the piece in the heart-breaking slow movement, before plunging us back into the drama of the opening before it all resolves with a few surprises before we reach the end.

As Peter Sirotin said in a Facebook post, “Listening to the Dvořák F Minor piano trio is a lot like listening to an older friend’s fascinating life story over a cup of hot chocolate.”

Here is a live performance from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with violinist Benjamin Beilman, cellist Julie Albers, and pianist Gilbert Kalish:

20141023 Dvorak Trio in F minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op 65 from The Chamber Music Society on Vimeo.
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Usually, when a piano trio plays Dvořák, it'll be the ever-popular, tuneful and toe-tapping “Dumky” Trio, more a collection of six very similar dances than an over-all cohesive structure from beginning to end like the F Minor Trio (which doesn't have a catchy nickname). Both piano trios, they're really not comparable works, and while there's nothing wrong with a collection of dances whose sole concern might be to leave the audience smiling, someone looking for a little more “substance” in their music might find them lacking. Perhaps the problem is how frequently it's performed, compared to the F Minor, which most musicians will agree is the “better” piece if one cares to venture into the realm of argument whether an intellectually stimulating work like, say, a symphony, is a better piece of music than, say, a Strauss waltz which may be more popular and more people can hum along with it?

Looking for a recording to include in this post, I went through the usual bevy of performances and recording levels like an old hand at speed-dating, when I found this one, a recent post from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I don't know how many times I've heard the “Dumky” Trio live-in-concert since I first heard it as a high school student, but when I lived in New York City in the late-70s, a pianist-friend suggested we go to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center to hear some friends of hers play, as she put it, “not the Dumky.” They were doing Dvořák's F Minor which I'd never heard before. The pianist was Gilbert Kalish! (Both he and I were younger, then, but hey...)

That was 1978 or '79 – and that was the last time I ever heard it live-in-concert...

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Usually, when writing about Dvořák's music, there are a few different tacks one can take: his stay in America; his folk-inspired music; his searching for a musical voice that would create a Czech national style.

This work doesn't fit in with any of those. There may be Dvořák-sounding turns-of-phrase that resemble Czech folk music (or do we, who probably know nothing about Czech folk music, recognize it only because we've heard it in Dvořák's music?), especially in the 2nd movement, and it was written ten years before he went to live and teach (and compose) in New York City. In his early career, he was an amateur composer trying to make a living as a theater orchestra player (and a violist, at that) who was trying to figure out “how to break into the market.” For a while, he imitated the German Wagner, having played in an orchestra that Wagner came to town to conduct in an all-Wagner program of popular opera excerpts. When that didn't work out (Wagner being not a very good model for someone who also wanted to write symphonies), he turned to the other major composer of the day, Wagner's antithesis, Johannes Brahms in Vienna.

That, at least, bore fruit: in 1874, submitting a variety of works for the Austrian State Prize, his music sparked the interest of one of the judges, Johannes Brahms, who thought it pretty good. Eventually, he would suggest Dvořák to his own publisher and he also suggested, if he wanted to make some money, he should write a bunch of folk-inspired dances for piano duet, like those “Hungarian Dances” of his that, along with something known as “Brahms' Lullaby,” made him a rich man (no, he didn't earn his money from his symphonies and chamber music). Dvořák took his advice, wrote his “Slavonic Dances” and before long not only was he making money as a composer, he was gaining a wider audience beyond his native Bohemia.

A quick aside about politics in the late-19th Century: Vienna was the capital of Austria, the heart of a vast empire that stretched from Prague in the northwest to the Balkans in the southeast. It encompassed people who were ethnically Bohemian, Slovakian, Hungarian, Polish, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, and Serbian, among others, to the point the German-speaking Austrians were a minority in their own Empire. In 1867, the government was forced to accept a political and ethnic compromise with the Hungarian province for a “dual monarchy” which turned Austria into the “Austro-Hungarian Empire” even though the Austrian emperor was also the King of Hungary. Yes, Brahms was a German immigrant originally from Hamburg in the North, but at least he was culturally a German and therefore more easily assimilated into the Austrian idea of German-ness.

Anyway, Bohemia, despite its rich history and its beautiful capital city of Prague, was full of Czech people who were Slavic, and to a nationalist German, therefore, inferior (as they also regarded the Jews and anybody else who was not a German-speaking Christian). When Dvořák found a champion in the conductor Hans Richter who wanted to perform his new 6th Symphony in Vienna in 1880, the orchestra refused: it was purely a matter of racial prejudice!

Curiously, despite the support of musicians like Brahms, Richter, and Josef Joachim, Dvořák found fame more easily in London, where Richter finally performed the 6th Symphony and where a London orchestra commissioned him to write his 7th Symphony, the D Minor, which was premiered there in 1885. His fame was greater in America than in the capital of his own country, and he was hired as the director of the National Conservatory in New York in 1893, a position that would never have been offered him in Vienna. But that's for the future.

Meanwhile, there's this Piano Trio which was written in 1883 in Prague. He had won Brahms' admiration, and was now a respected composer, as far as Prague was concerned. When he applied for that Austrian Stipend in 1874, he lived in a flat shared with five other men, one of whom owned a small “spinet” piano which, when time and everybody's schedules allowed, he could use when he composed. Things had changed.

Other things happened, of course: while he had gotten married and his family began to grow, his mother had died in 1882 and he was watching the slow deterioration of the greatest Czech composer of the day, Bedřich Smetana, who, after having gone deaf, slowly slipped into what we would now call dementia. Though there was a brief period of creative activity in 1882 that lasted for about a year, by October of 1883, his behavior at a private reception “disturbed his friends” (Dvořák was there) and by early-1884, the Hero of Czech Music was often incoherent and violent. Not knowing what else to do, his family placed him in a lunatic asylum where, three weeks later, he died at the age of 60.

It is impossible to ignore the impact something like this might have had on the newly successful Dvořák, then 44, looking up to his idol and sometime mentor and watching all this unfold. And with the death of his mother still fairly fresh in his memory, it is not impossible to imagine his emotional response to this loss. (Remember that Johannes Brahms wrote his Horn Trio as a direct response to his own mother's death and the soprano solo in his German Requiem was supposedly added to the already finished work as a memorial to her.)

Did either of these losses – one past, another pending – influence the nature of the F Minor Trio or even directly inspire the slow movement, the work's emotional core? It's impossible to say, but composers don't work in a vacuum. And whatever someone might say about keeping reality separate from ones creativity, don't forget when Dvořák returned home from New York and heard of the death of his first love, he inserted a touching, indeed heart-wrenching farewell to her at the very end of the Cello Concerto he had just completed.

Indeed, whatever the burden, “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Piano Trio on the Installment Plan: Brown, Urioste, & Canellakis (Part 1)

Brown, Urioste & Canellakis
WHO: The Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Piano Trio with pianist Michael Brown, violinist Elena Urioste, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis
WHAT: Michael Brown's “Reflections”; Chausson's Piano Trio in G Minor, Op.3; Dvořák's Piano Trio in F Minor, Op. 65
WHEN: Saturday evening at 8:00
WHERE: Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg

Part One of "Composers with Beards" features the works of Michael Brown and Ernest Chausson. Part Two will be dedicated to Antonin Dvořák's F Minor Trio (which you can read here).

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An episode of Public Radio's From the Top, back in the day, recorded at Franklin & Marshall's Barshinger Center in 2004 (see below) featured a teenaged pianist playing the music of George Perle which was, in itself, surprising, given Perle's relative lack of familiarity beyond being the composer of music presumed to be difficult to listen to and the writer of books about 20th Century music theory presumed to be difficult to read. What impressed me most was here was this teenager playing Perle's music as if it were Schumann or Mendelssohn: it's amazing how much better music that challenges you sounds when it's played musically! I said, “Here's a pianist to make a note of: I hope to be hearing more of him some day. What's his name? Michael Brown? Okay.”

Michael Brown at the Klavier
Fast forward to 2012, and I was sitting in Whitaker Center, listening to Market Square Concerts' presentation of a new, award-winning young pianist named... Michael Brown, all grown up at 24. Here's my review of that performance.

The biggest take-away was hearing him play a Schubert sonata I'd never cared for because every pianist I'd ever heard (including myself) always made the last movement “sound like child's-play,” as if some child were hacking his way through it for a bunch of visiting aunts and couldn't make sense out of these childish themes. But here was an adult who figured out how to make it sound “child-like” with all the nuance of innocent youth.

Canellakis, Brown & Coffee
In 2015, then, Michael Brown returned with cellist Nicholas Canellakis to play a program ranging from Schumann and Rachmaninoff to Bulgarian Folk Music and a piece by Michael Brown. It did not surprise me a pianist who as a teenager could understand Perle's music would become a composer himself. This particular piece was composed for Nick Canellakis and, given their tongue-in-cheek approach to their on-line music videos, perhaps this interview with “Michael Brown, composer” might be... uhm... well, as my friend Jenna St. Croix would say, “illuminating if you're, like, into that sort of thing.”


One of my favorite definitions of chamber music, not to sound too pretentious about it, is “music for a small group of musicians to be played by friends for friends.” Perhaps these guys are serious about not taking themselves too seriously, but don't let the good-natured camaraderie fool you: the music-making is all about the music.

Elena Urioste (& Alex)
And now we add a third friend to the mix as Brown and Canellakis return to Harrisburg one more time with violinist Elena Urioste in a piano trio logically named the Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio which, if nothing else, solves the problem of “what do we call ourselves” when so few music-related names are left, like the “Allegro Assai Trio”? – or fancy-sounding foreign phrases, like “The Beaux Eaux Trio”? – or some composer whose name hasn't been used yet, like “The Salieri Trio.” (If they're going to return in a few seasons as a Piano Quartet, I think we're going to need a bigger marquee...)

In this BBC interview, filmed for her debut in the UK, you'll hear Elena Urioste, accompanied by Michael Brown, playing Amy Beach's Romance, composed in 1893 for the Women's Musical Congress held at Chicago's World Columbian Exposition (before they were called “World's Fairs”).


(You can also read this August 2018 article in Strings to find out more about her and Alex, her violin. Incidentally, Michael Brown lives with two Steinway D's, Octavia and Daria.)

While they all pursue careers as soloists and appear in various combinations of violin-and-piano or cello-and-piano duos, put them all together and they're a trio, performing here a Piano Trio in E-flat Major by Franz Josef Haydn – No. 29 in Mr Hoboken's big book – recorded in San Diego in 2016.

(Just to be clear, this is considered the last of Haydn's piano trios, also listed as No. 45 in H.C. Robbins-Landon's chronological catalogue. Published in 1797 as his Op.86, No.3, two years after Beethoven performed his Three Piano Trios, Op. 1, in Vienna, it's possible this was one of a series of “late” piano trios Haydn composed in London during the 1793-94 season. Not that any of that matters, since neither of these composers is on the program they'll be performing here, but hey...)

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Their Market Square Concerts program on Saturday opens with a recent work by composer Michael Brown, written for... well, when you have a living, breathing composer who writes his own program notes, why not have him tell you...?

Not only can you read these notes on his web-site, you can also listen to the entire piece from a live concert at New York City's Merkin Hall.

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Reflections for Piano Trio was written for my dear friends and fellow trio comrades, violinist Elena Urioste and cellist Nicholas Canellakis. The work was commissioned by Nicholas and Susan Yasillo and was written in honor of Sharing Notes, an organization that brings interactive classical music performances to Chicago-area hospitals. When I learned about this beautiful organization, which gives companionship and joy to people in need, I became inspired to write a work about friendship and how people interact and develop with each other over time.

I met both Elena Urioste and Nicholas Canellakis while I was a student at the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival in 2008 and 2009. There I played chamber music and became fast friends with each of them. Over the past eight years our relationships have grown musically and personally as we’ve played together in different combinations and traveled all over the world. My piece, Reflections, is my rumination on this time in all of our lives and a portrayal of our closeness. The work is in one-movement and comprised of a Chorale, Five Variations, and Coda. Throughout there is a harmonic evolution from a dissonant and stark beginning to a simpler purity, a musical depiction diagramming the journey of our worlds uniting and growing together over time. After the declamatory Chorale, the first three variations showcase different duo combinations leading into two contrasting trio variations before the coda reprises snippets of musical material heard throughout. It was a pleasure to write this piece in honor of Sharing Notes and for my close friends and musical colleagues.

The world premiere was performed by Michael Brown, Elena Urioste, and Nicholas Canellakis on November 13, 2016 at the Norton Building Concert Series in Lockport, Il.
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Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio (in retrograde order)
Recent generations of musicians were usually either composers who tended to be “composers” or performers who tended to be “performers” which may sound obvious but there was a time when any good performer was also, for better or worse, a composer, and when composers were expected to be performers as well, at least of their own works. In the great days of the reigning virtuosos like Paganini and Liszt, they wrote their own concertos and toured widely performing their own music. Many composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were also fine pianists, playing concertos, solo works and chamber pieces they'd written for themselves, but for various reasons focused on their creative sides (and of course, with no recordings to survive them, often their reputations as performers faded with time). But there's also the Chopin Risk, writing only for your instrument. Even Franz Liszt, one of the greatest pianists of all times, wrote (and usually struggled with) symphonies and operas, but today, aside from a symphonic poem or two, he is primarily known for his piano works.

Not that anyone today would expect Itzhak Perlman or Martha Argerich to be performing music they'd also composed. In fact, through much of the 20th Century, composers were lucky if any performers at that level were performing new music, whether it was written for them or not.

So the idea of a “composer-performer” – equally adept at both – is fairly rare even as we're already well into a new century. The problem, as it would be for any composer in today's busy world where earning a living and family might be part of the daily reality, not to mention Facebook and Twitter, is how to balance the time and concentration needed to compose with the performer's needs not only to concertize but also to spend hours practicing and rehearsing.

If you check his website, Michael Brown's earliest compositions on this extensive list date from 2002-2003, with a fair number of works written when he was a teenager. He has also composed (and performed) his own piano concerto in 2014 and as the Composer-and-Artist-in-Residence with the New Haven Symphony for 2017-2019, he is working on a newly commissioned Symphony to be premiered there next year (no pressure).

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Michael Brown w/Christopher O'Riley
Okay, now for a trip in the Way Back Machine and a rare opportunity to embarrass an artist by posting a photo and a link to a performance recorded when he was a teenager. Imagine influences on a budding composer, and here we are, stepping out on a road into the future.

I started this post by mentioning the From the Top episode recorded at Barshinger Center in Lancaster PA in 2004. You can follow this link to hear the segment with host Christopher O'Riley (a pianist who has performed on Market Square Concerts in seasons past himself), with Michael Brown at 17 (before the beard) playing three of the Celebratory Inventions by George Perle, written between 1981 and 1995, the first one honoring Ernst Krenek at 85; the fourth, Gunther Schuller at 70; and the sixth, Leonard Bernstein, also at 70.

Moving ahead ten years, here is the New York Times review of a performance by Michael Brown that was part celebration of Perle's music (he had died in 2009 at the age of 93 and his Centennial was just around the corner in 2015) and part Release Party for Brown's new CD on the Bridge label of several works by George Perle, including the complete "Six Celebratory Inventions."

Now, listen to his Reflections on our concert this Saturday at Market Square Church! (Reflections, indeed.)

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Ernest Chausson, four years after the Trio
The second work on the program is a rarely-heard work by a composer who came to the serious study of music fairly late as most composers go. He was given piano lessons probably as many of us endured during our childhood with little thought to it as a career option, and it wasn't until after he'd pursued a law degree and gotten a job as a lawyer with the Court of Appeals that he realized this also had no real interest for him. Being from a wealthy middle-class family, the idea of a profession wasn't as strong a necessity as it would have been for some of his contemporaries like Gabriel Fauré and Cesar Franck, both of whom earned their livings as organists, pushing their available time to compose into the background. It has also given rise to the view Chausson was a dilettante – and Paris in the Belle Époch was full of them. (Many thought Marcel Proust was one, until he published his seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time.)

As a young man in Paris with nothing better to do, he “hung out” at various salons, listening to people talk about their art, so since many of his new friends were painters, he tried his hand at drawing. Inspired by Ivan Turgenev, the Russian novelist who was something of a Salon Lion, Chausson even wrote a novel. Playing piano duets with various musician-friends in turn prompted him to start composing his own music, including a rather sizable cantata for soloists, chorus, and orchestra! But of course, not knowing how much he needed to know, he jumped right in: why not?

At the age of 22, the same year he was sworn in as a lawyer in 1877, he wrote his first piece of music, a song called “Lilas.” After a trip to Munich two years later where he first heard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, he decided to take music seriously enough to begin attending classes at the Conservatoire with Jules Massenet, one of the leading opera composers of the day. But when he tried out for the famous Prix de Rome in 1881 and failed – a prize that also eluded Claude Debussy, initially – he dropped out of Massenet's class. His teacher crossed off his name on his list of students and wrote in the margin, “After his failure to gain admission to the Prix de Rome competition, he wanted nothing more to do with the Conservatoire. Very intelligent. Independent,” underlining this last word.

However, he continued to study “unofficially” with Cesar Franck and that summer began this Piano Trio in G Minor which he finished in mid-September while vacationing in Switzerland. He was 26.

This YouTube “video” is the Beaux Arts Trio's recording on the installment plan: the first movement begins with a slow introduction, followed by the main Allegro movement:


2nd Movement: Vite, the scherzo


3rd Movement: Assez lent, the slow movement


4th Movement: Animé

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So yes, Op. 3 when it was published – following a set of piano pieces and some songs – would make it an “early” work (it is essentially still a “student composition”), yet it shows signs of a mature talent and a recognizable voice in the making (despite influences primarily of Franck). While he never really wrote that much – there are only 39 published works and a handful of unpublished and unfinished works – it is unfair to think of him as a dilettante the way we normally dismiss an amateur, a young (and still inexperienced) composer finding his way. It is, after all, his first large-scale work since he started taking composition lessons two years earlier!

We tend to think of Mozart and Schubert as two composers who started young and wrote “as an apple tree bears fruit” – Mozart had completed 39 pieces listed in the Köchel Catalogue by the time he was 11; Schubert, though the Deutsch catalogue is a little vague on the dates of some of his earliest (and sometimes incomplete) works, probably wrote his D.39 when he was 13. But then Mozart died at the age of 35 and Schubert, 31, so it's good they were prolific, not waiting till they hit their stride.

(Admittedly, the older I get, I like to think how old some composers were when still composing, long after someone in a more “normal” profession would have retired: Elliott Carter finished his last complete work – his first Piano Trio, no less – three months before what would've been his 104th birthday, had he lived another five weeks...)

But then one beautiful afternoon in 1899, while staying at “one of his country retreats” in early June, Ernest Chausson went for a bike ride and apparently had some kind of accident, slamming into a brick wall at the bottom of a hill, and died instantly. He was 44.

He is often described as a bridge between the Late-19th Century Romanticism of Cesar Franck and the Impressionism of the next generation of Debussy and Ravel. So remember, when you're listening to Chausson's Op. 3 Piano Trio, you've just set foot on that bridge with no idea where it will lead.

– Dick Strawser

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Brandenberg Concertos, Together Again

Rehearsal for Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 (photo by Kyle Fink)
Market Square Concerts opens its new season with something of a special experience – not that all concerts aren't special – the chance to hear all six of Johann Sebastian Bach's “Brandenburg Concertos” in one evening. And with Artistic Director Peter Sirotin performing with 18 colleagues from the Harrisburg Symphony and joined by harpsichordist Arthur Haas, it's probably the largest cast assembled on a Market Square Concerts stage since its founding in 1981.

Join us at 8pm on Tuesday, October 9th, at Market Square Church. Jeff Woodruff, executive director of the Harrisburg Symphony, will be giving the pre-concert talk starting at 7:15, joined by harpsichordist Arthur Haas and trumpeter Scott Sabo. Other members of the ensemble, in addition to concertmaster Peter Sirotin, will include principal flutist David DiGiacobbe and principal oboist Andreas Oeste.

J.S. Bach (?) (see below)
Since Bach is considered one of the Greatest of the Great Composers – the “3 Bs” business aside – and the Brandenburg Concertos are considered collectively one of his most famous works, I asked Peter what it's like getting ready to play all six of them back-to-back.

“Other than being simply very challenging technically and musically,” he told me, “playing these pieces in one evening reminds me just how illusionary the idea of 'historical development' in music is when you think in terms of quality. Music really hasn’t gotten any better than this in the last three hundred years, it just grew in variety exponentially.

“Bach is complete in his command of musical language as means of communicating nuanced human emotions. There is a magnificent range of atmospheres in these pieces, from hunting scenes and royal military displays to youthful boisterousness of a country fair and deep reminiscing of old age. The combination of elegance, eloquence and depth this program offers can only be found in a handful composers to the same degree.”

In addition to this, if one needs an occasion, it's the 300th Anniversary of the music you'll be hearing, give or take a few years (I'll get into that, later) – it is difficult to be very precise with a lot of Baroque music, anyway – and it's all the more amazing, I think, when we realize that in 1718, Bach was 33 years old.

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Whether you read music or not, you might enjoy listening to all six of the concertos in this video while watching Bach's original manuscript copy – Bach's own handwriting!


This performance is with an ensemble much larger than what Bach would've expected but still smaller than what one might have heard a generation ago when they'd be played by a full modern orchestra.

It's only been in the past 30 years or so, with the rise of “Period Instrument Groups” or the idea of “historically informed performance practice,” that music of the Baroque and even from the Classical repertoire has practically disappeared from the standard orchestral repertoire.

While this is one way to perform (and interpret) Bach's music, it is not the only way you might hear these concertos done, these days. And I admit, I really chose this video primarily because of Bach's manuscript: there's just something about even seeing his handwriting that adds to the experience of such incredible music that's been around for 300 years!

If you want to listen to all six, just “let it roll.” If you're interested or have only a little time for one or two right now, the 2nd concerto begins at 0:17:35; the 3rd Concerto, at 0:28:25; the 4th Concerto, at 0:40:05; the 5th Concerto, at 0:54:52; and the 6th Concerto, at 1:14:16.

Incidentally, there's always a question – one of many – about the order to program all six of these in: Bach numbered them specifically 1 through 6, but did that mean he expected them to be performed that way? No. Did he expect them to be performed as a complete set? Unlikely. So what to do?

Peter told me they're going with this order: the 3rd, 4th, and 1st on the first half, and the 5th, 6th, and 2nd on the second.

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So, what are “The Brandenburg Concertos”?

This is a collection of six works, each one different from the other, and scored for (as Bach wrote himself on the dedication page) “diverse instruments.” They're not all Violin Concertos, say, the way Vivaldi wrote “The Four Seasons,” and they're not like those sets of six or a dozen concertos for the same instrumental soloist as most composers did at the time.

Each one seems to examine the question “what is a concerto?” or more specifically “what can a concerto be?” This is not a concerto as we tend to think of it in the modern concert-hall sense like those by Beethoven or Brahms or Chopin or Rachmaninoff, where the composer places one soloist in front of an orchestra. The standard idea of “concerto” since, say, the early-1800s is a chance for the soloist to display his or her virtuosity in “competition” with the orchestra (hence, one critic's complaint that Brahms wrote concertos “for piano versus orchestra” rather than “and”...).

In fact, the word “concertare” means “to compete,” but not in the sense we often think of it as “a struggle to win over other competitors.” There's a qualifying subtlety lost in translation that needs to be clarified: “to compete as brothers” (one's concept of sibling rivalry aside). More often, as the idea evolved in the late-1600s, it was a contrast in sounds: it could be winds and strings, it could be two groups of strings playing contrasting music, and it could be a small group as distinguished from a larger group. The idea of an out-and-out solo concerto as we know it was only just becoming popular in the 1720s – Vivaldi's “Four Seasons,” incidentally, was published in 1725 – and it was Vivaldi's music that struck Bach as something new and refreshingly innovative at the time.

But none of the Six Brandenburg Concertos are “solo” concertos: they are examples of what in the Late-Baroque Period was called a “concerto grosso,” or a “concertate” with a group of instruments called the concertino contrasting with a larger group called the ripieno which later came to be “the orchestra.”

So, the 4th and 5th Concertos are closer to what we think of as “concertos” – in the 4th, a violin with two flutes; in the 5th, the most famous of the six, a violin, a flute and the harpsichord.

In the 2nd, perhaps the most popular of the six, the “group of soloists” consists of a violin, a flute, an oboe and a trumpet – quite a diverse and seemingly unbalanced quartet but where their individual lines weave in and out of the texture like a brilliant fabric. Sometimes it breaks into two duos – oboe and trumpet (as winds) compared with the more gentle sounds of the violin and recorder.

The 1st, the largest of the set, pits a large “small group” against the strings but sometimes members of the soloist group blend in to form part of the “orchestra.” By the nature of the instrument, the two horns tend to stand out, often playing roisterous hunting calls. There are three oboes, two of which appear to be “more soloist” than the third (or is it the first two are concertino and the third is ripieno?). There is a bassoon that chugs along playing the bass-line but sometimes has its own moments in the spotlight. And there is also something curiously labeled violino piccolo, a smaller than usual violin pitched a third higher than the standard violin, but which these days is usually played on a regular violin regardless.

Incidentally, the 1st is the only one in four movements. The usual pattern in the other five is “fast – slow – fast” but Bach adds a stately minuet (with three decidedly un-stately contrasting bits with strings only in the middle and winds alone on either side) for its conclusion.


(You could argue that the 3rd Concerto is really only in two movements, separated by two chords with a fermata or pause; but that was also a way of marking a possible cadenza which could be improvised by the first violinist or harpsichordist, and not always taken. Even so, it would only feel like a prolonged cadence, not a complete movement. But musicians love to argue about the least little thing...)

Well, then, the remaining two concertos don't appear to be “concertos” at all. There are no solo instruments “in a group” or otherwise, but it harks back to the “older” concertate idea, a contrast of sonorities rather than the display of a soloist's skills.

The 3rd, the shortest of the set specifies the largest string group: three violins, three violas, three cellos and the ever-present basso continuo (I'll explain that in a moment...). But yet, each of the three violins have separate parts and occasionally trade back and forth between being a soloist and part of the ensemble or ripieno.

(With any luck, you won't get one of YouTube's ubiquitous ads interrupting the flow from the end of the first movement into that cadence or possible middle movement...)

The 6th contrasts the past and the future of music, it would seem, by placing two “modern” violas and a cello against two violas da gamba and a violone. The modern viola was initially referred to as a viola da braccia ("to be held with the arm") as opposed to the older viola da gamba ("to be held between the legs"). The butt of viola jokes even back in the 1700s, violists were often violinists who couldn't play the violin well enough to be in the ensemble. Perhaps Bach was making a socio-political statement in this concerto about artistic equality by including no violins in this one? Or maybe he just like the sound of it...

Without the range of flutes much less the brilliance of the horns and trumpet and, of course, the solo violin, this concerto comes off a bit “darker” sounding for its lower register. Again, a contrast of its own given the variety we've heard in the other concertos.

Keep in mind what we think of as stringed instruments were fairly recent developments, in Bach's day: though violins existed in the 1550s, it wasn't until the late-1600s they become more widely played, and the most famous violin-maker, Antonio Stradivari, created most of his violins after 1700. Before that, the most frequent stringed instruments were viols, with a different number of strings and tunings, with frets on the fingerboard like a guitar, and with an entirely different kind of bow. In fact, the new violin bow gave a better, more precise attack and was considered better for dance music. The viols were more often used by amateurs but also were considered better suited for sacred music. “Modern” violins worked better to express the clarity of the more complex textures of the music from Bach's end of the Baroque Era, from the early-1700s to his death in 1750.

(Considering the rise of the violin family, let's say if this were happening today and Bach's concertos were hot-off-the-press, the violin would still have been considered a new-fangled instrument for classical musicians in, say, the Reagan Era and it was only during the Clinton Administration it began to replace the viol as the instrument of choice. Yes – that long ago!)

Unfortunately, today, with the lack of viol players, most performances use modern cellos instead of the gambas, losing the contrast between old-fashioned viols and the modern strings. But that was one idea of “contrast” in this concerto.

Here's an “authentic” performance of the 6th Concerto using the viols and setting them up as opposing sound-worlds: the new violas on one side, the old gambas on the other. Even the cello and the old violone sit on opposite sides of the keyboard!


(I'm reminded of a violist friend who got to play the 6th Concerto with real gamba players back in the mid-1970s and was so excited to be playing it the way Bach intended it. "Yes," I said, recalling his big round sound full of vibrato and heavy on the dynamics, "but not if you're still playing your part as if it's Brahms...")

By the way, while I'm very fond of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra's performances of the Brandenburgs, I love their videos, here, because they were recorded in the Mirror Hall at Castle Köthen. Not only is this a nice Baroque location for the backdrop, Bach was the kapellmeister at Köthen between 1717 and 1723 and whether these works were ever performed in this room or not – it's possible some of them were written earlier than 1717 – it was from Köthen that Bach sent his six concertos out into the world in 1721, mailing them off to the Margrave of Brandenburg – hence the name, “Brandenburg Concertos,” by the way – in hopes of perhaps finding a job in his court.

It didn't happen – in 1723, he moved to Leipzig where he would spend the rest of his life once he was finally was offered the job at the St. Thomas Church. But that's another story...

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Oh, and what about the harpsichord? I'd mentioned the basso continuo which was a common feature of almost all Baroque music. Basically, music then consisted of a “melodic” layer and a “harmonic” layer which meant the all-important bass-line of a chord progression. And since a violin and a cello could not easily fill in the missing notes of any given chord, enter a chord-playing instrument. In the early-Baroque days of Monteverdi, this could be any kind of lute or keyboard that could play chords: that was the purpose. You reinforced the “bass line” of the harmony by doubling that with whatever “single-line bass instrument” was handy or appropriate.

Now, in a church for sacred music, the organ was the obvious choice for the keyboard (there was already one there); in the court, where the music was secular, you would have a harpsichord. As the “single-line bass instrument,” if your ensemble was primarily wind instruments, you'd double it with a bassoon; for stringed instruments, a cello or bass (Bach specifies a “violone” or old-fashioned bass viol not to be confused with the modern “double” bass in the 6th Concerto). In a really large space, maybe a cello and a bass – or maybe using the cello in the concertino passages and the bass in the ripieno (orchestral) passages. It was all about sound and balance: nothing was set in stone.

One thing was certain: the basso continuo part was at least two players. This makes for the rather odd idea that a Trio Sonata for two violins and continuo actually required four performers...

Think of it also like a jazz band: the piano may be the key instrument but there's always a bass and a drum set (because you need rhythm as well as harmony). Even in a rock group, there's still the standard idea of lead guitar, bass guitar, maybe an organ or synthesizer, and a drum set. They basically all function in a way similar to the old basso continuo.

Now, in each of Bach's concertos, he requires the standard continuo part with a harpsichord or cembalo which is a more generic name for a keyboard instrument. Except in the 5th Concerto, he calls it a cembalo concertante with the understanding it's one of the soloists – it even gets the big cadenza near the end of the 1st movement (and yowza! at that...) – and then, when it plays in the ripieno bits, it sits back as the continuo part. Given the prominence of its solo bits, the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is often considered the first keyboard concerto.

Here's the cadenza by itself (recorded with just the harpsichordist on stage) creating a world of harmonic tension that drives you from beginning to end until – aaaaah! – you arrive at the harmonic resolution of all that activity (and, in the full context, when the rest of the instruments would come back in to play the final phrase at 3:25.) Who says Baroque Music lacks drama?!


Here's the complete 1st Movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra:

or if you'd prefer a different performance, you can also check out Sigiswald Kuijken's “La Petite Band” here

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So I mentioned this performance with Market Square Concerts celebrates the 300th Anniversary of the Brandenburg Concertos.

While it's not possible to say exactly when these were composed, we know two things: the date on the letter that accompanied the manuscript to the Margrave was dated March 24th, 1721, three days after Bach's 36th birthday. We also can assume he did not compose these in 1721. Being a typical recycler, it's more likely he compiled them in 1721, but from historical evidence and internal stylistic evidence - how Bach would handle particular phrases here or this bit of counterpoint there - it's probable several if not all of them predate his years at Köthen. While we'd hardly need an excuse, let's say of the years he might have composed them in, 1718 makes a convincing mid-point to use for a tricentennial celebration.

Bach himself copied all of them out in his own hand – no copyists, here – and it's very likely they were all written out with this distinct project in mind: supplying the Margrave with some examples of his art which he had promised to do after having met (and presumably performed for) him when he'd visited Berlin two years earlier when he'd gone there to buy a brand new harpsichord for his employer's court in Köthen, most likely the one he intended to feature in the 5th Concerto.

Margrave of Brandenburg
Now, the Margrave – Christian Ludwig – was the youngest son of the “Grand Elector” of Brandenburg and his older brother became the first King of Prussia (of which Brandenburg became a considerable part), King Frederick I (also the grandfather of King Frederick the Great). Without going into all the confusing dynastic detail which would make a Who's Who of Downton Abbey seem like a nursery rhyme, suffice it to say the Margrave of Brandenburg was no petty aristocrat with a tiny city-state. He was also a music-lover, maintained a court of his own in Berlin, not just his “home seat” of Brandenburg – by the 1720s, anyway, the “Margrave of Brandenburg” was a title more like the Prince of Wales than the Earl of Grantham – and certainly getting a job there would've meant Bach would go to Berlin. That would be, say, like a musician in Harrisburg applying for a job in New York City but then having to settle for a church gig in Philadelphia.

Why he didn't get the job is another matter. As they say, stay tuned...

The other thing we know is that Bach didn't sit down and write these concertos specifically for the Margrave and then sent them off with his resumé. They all existed in one form or another before that. Since there was a kind of unspoken agreement – call it “protocol” or “court etiquette” – Bach would not have written something for his employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, and then dedicated it to some other nobleman. It just “wasn't done.” So, having written a number of instrumental works as well as cantatas and the like at his previous job in Weimar, he probably went through those and either salvaged them verbatim or, more likely, reworked them into something more suitable.

For instance, we know the 1st Concerto is cobbled together from different cantata movements – and from different cantatas – including the secular “Hunting Cantata” which was first performed in 1713 at Weimar. The slow movement would later be used as the opening chorus of another secular cantata which he first performed in 1726 in Leipzig (replacing the horn parts with easier-to-find trumpets).

The style of the 3rd Concerto also reflects what Bach was writing at Weimar before 1717. Speaking of recycling, Bach would use the 1st movement for a 1729 cantata in Leipzig, adding oboes and horns.

Again, in Leipzig, when Bach was running the “Collegium Musicum” between 1729 and 1739, he performed instrumental concerts at Zimmermann's Coffee House – in lieu of any public concert hall in the city – and occasionally performed some keyboard concertos, all of which were probably originally something else, whether violin or oboe concertos previously written and performed in Köthen or Weimar. The earlier versions have been lost but we know the F Major Keyboard Concerto (BWV.1057) with its two obbligato recorder (or flute) parts is an adaptation of the G Major Concerto (BWV.1049), a.k.a. Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.

Once again, back to the Hall of Mirrors at Köthen with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra for the 1st Movement of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto:

(Incidentally, Bach calls for two “flauto d'echo” which would imply recorders; when he wanted what we think of as a flute, he referred to it as a transverso, the modern “transverse flute.”)

The 5th Concerto seems to figure in a famous “musical duel” scheduled in Dresden in 1717 between Bach and the great (though now forgotten) Louis Marchand, though Marchand, after realizing who he was up against, skipped town. If not associated with the Dresden concerts – and probably not written specifically for that occasion, either – if the 5th Brandenburg Concerto didn't exist in some form or other then, it very well might have been written for the glorious new harpsichord Bach purchased in Berlin in 1719, when he officially met the Margrave of Brandenburg and who asked him to send him a few things...

While there's nothing duel-like (nor grand) about the slow movement of the 5th Concerto, let's hear another performance with Freiburg: the unusual tempo indication is Affetuoso, less of a tempo than a mood, certainly – though it very likely has nothing to do with this music, it reminds me that Bach's wife Maria Barbara died in 1720 – and Bach writes for just the three soloists, no “orchestra,” a moment of texture as another form of contrast in Bach's sound-world.


While we're talking about manuscripts that are around 300 or more years old, here, keep in mind a great deal of Bach's works have been lost for one reason or another. Not the least lamentable is the fact that, upon his death, Bach's library was divided between three of his sons and the oldest, Wilhelm Friedemann, was an unsuccessful musician with a severe drinking problem who ended up selling a large portion of his inheritance – after all, the Old Man was definitely old fashioned, so who'd really care, right? And then, a good chunk of No. 2 Son's legacy, inherited by Carl Philip Emanuel who was a court composer, himself considered old-fashioned, for King Frederick the Great in Berlin, was stolen during the final days of World War II, presumably carted off by the Soviet Army and hidden in a cave in Kiev, so the story goes – but that is another tale for another time...

So if there were other copies of the Brandenburg Concertos or their originals sources, we have no idea. We're talking long before the days of photocopies and backing things up to The Cloud, here...

Yet if they did exist during the remaining 29 years of his life, there is no record that Bach himself ever performed them again.

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And the kicker is, neither did anyone at the Court of the Margrave of Brandenburg, a man who is remembered today solely because Bach dedicated these concertos to him!

What happened?

Well, no matter how much the Margrave loved music, his older brother the King did not and so there weren't the resources or quality of performers even in Berlin, then, to perform works as difficult and brilliant as Bach's concertos. Presumably, he also didn't have the resources at his home in Brandenburg (which, after all, was not where he spent most of his time, anyway, just as the Prince of Wales doesn't live in Wales). So, whatever he may have thought of the works, since he could make no use of them, they merely gathered dust on some library shelf until he died in 1734 – Bach was still alive, by the way; would it have hurt the man to pay the postage and “return to sender”??? – and they were sold to someone for the equivalent of $24. They were not discovered until 1849 when a theorist and teacher named Siegfried Dehn found them in the Brandenburg Archives! Can you imagine opening up a dusty pile of papers and finding this??! Anyway, he managed to publish them the following year, a hundred years after Bach's death.

Could you imagine if Dehn never rummaged around that dusty old library, never found these sad looking papers, and we would have lost this music, never had a chance to hear any of it? Much less all six of them in one evening?

So with that, let's conclude with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in Köthen and the 2nd Concerto with its “concertino” of violin, recorder, oboe, and trumpet. Again, in the slow movement, it's scored for just the solo violin, recorder, and oboe with the continuo – the trumpet-player gets a well-deserved rest.

If you listen to this trumpet part – and it's hard to miss it – you might wonder whatever happened to the art of trumpet playing when you hear what orchestral trumpet players have to do in most of the repertoire from Mozart and Haydn up to the late-19th Century. Why this skill of handling the old Baroque trumpets – especially the variety called clarino which we hear here – died out, no one seems able to explain; much less how anyone learned to play these instruments again in the 20th. And the performer in this ensemble uses “emboucher trills” (or “lip trills”) rather than relying on keys or valves which makes it even more fascinating as an element of control, especially for one who barely moves at all when he's playing.

The manuscript was very nearly lost again toward the end of World War II when a librarian was transporting them out of Berlin for safe-keeping and the train came under bombardment. The story goes the librarian stuffed them under his coat and made a dash for the woods... talk about a war-time thriller (if you're a music-lover).

So, as you're listening to this music – which has become so ubiquitous its familiarity has sometimes worked against it (“oh, the Brandenburgs again – those old things...”) – remember it's not only old, it's been through a lot!

Dick Strawser

P.S. The Portrait of Bach included early in the post is traditionally regarded as a portrait painted when Bach was the concertmaster of the Court of the Duke of Weimar (or at least one of them; to go into why there were two ducal courts in one city would be just too confusing, here). Anyway, after one period of employment there before leaving for two other short-term positions, he returned in 1708 and in 1714 was appointed to the title "concertmaster" (not just a performer but an organizer of concerts rather than the court composer who was an old man too ill and feeble, apparently, to maintain many of his duties). However, things deteriorated quickly after Bach returned from Dresden and that "duel-business" with Marchand: he was fired weeks later, imprisoned (!) for challenging his termination, and shortly after his release was hired by Prince Leopold at Köthen.

Unfortunately, while things seemed to go well for Bach there, the prince was forced to economize which may have been the reason Bach went to Hamburg in 1720 specifically to audition for an organist post there and then eventually to Leipzig where he moved in 1723. Small wonder the concertos he sent to Brandenburg in 1721 were more than just a courtesy.

Regardless of all that, back to this portrait: there are few authenticated portraits of Bach and this one had long been touted as Bach-in-Weimar, presumably between 1708-1717, though if he were specifically designated as "Konzertmeister" Bach, that would narrow it down to 1714-1717, a period of three years when Bach was between 29 and 32. However, scholars studying a photograph of the original portrait rather than the restored version came to realize that the restorer actually made adjustments to the portrait-subject's face to make it  conform to the later, authenticated portraits of Bach painted in the late-1740s. So the jury is still out, officially, whether this portrait is Bach or Not Bach or maybe Johann Somebody-Else Bach (since it was a very large family of musicians, then).

If you care to read more about these portraits, this site will offer as concise an account as possible, possibly.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The New Season Begins: 2018-2019 at a glance

Market Square Concerts, Part 1: October, November & January

Labor Day has passed and with it, presumably, the end of Summer (though it really has felt like Autumn now and then). The kids were already back in school before September went into fast-forward and now it's October: Hallowe'en is in the air and Christmas stuff is already on the shelves...

And with that, the New Season is ready to begin: if you attend the Harrisburg Symphony's Masterworks Concerts, their first concert is this weekend, October 6th and 7th – and then the following Tuesday, October 9th, you can hear several members of the Harrisburg Symphony with the opening concert of Market Square Concerts 2018-2019 Season!

The program consists of something you might normally think of as “orchestral” – they're concertos, after all and there is the business with contrasts between soloists and orchestra, right? But even in Bach's eye, this was still chamber music: these pieces were written for a small group of performers, so we might use the term “chamber orchestra” but the truth of the matter is, they're closer (by our standards) to a “larger chamber music ensemble” than the usual string quartet.
A Baroque "orchestra" with audience interspersed

And “these pieces” are the Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach, six works each one different from the others not only in the instruments needed to play them but in their solution to the question “how to write a concerto?” Or, perhaps, “what can a concerto be?” – at least as far as the 1720s were concerned.

I'll be posting more about them shortly in a separate post, but the first concert of the season features performers who might be familiar to you as members of the Harrisburg Symphony – including Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts but also the Concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony. He will be joined by eighteen of his colleagues though they don't all play in any one of the concertos, and then in different combinations.

And they will be joined by harpsichordist Arthur Haas, especially evident as one of the soloists in the 5th Concerto, often described as the “first keyboard concerto” even though the harpsichord is only one of three soloists in the work, along with violin and flute. Here is Mr Haas, who played the 5th Brandenburg Concerto with the HSO a few seasons ago, playing Bach's “Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue”:


Since this post is a sampler of the season, I'm just going to include one of them, here, the 2nd Concerto, which features flute, oboe, violin and trumpet as the solo group with an “orchestra” of strings and harpsichord. In this performance, Claudio Abbado conducts Orchestra Mozart with soloists Giuliano Carmignola (violin), Michala Petri (recorder), Lucas Machias Navarro (oboe), & Rheinhold Friedrich (trumpet) with an orchestra of 12 string players plus the harpsichordist playing continuo. Not that one needs that large a “band” or a conductor (in Bach's day, the concertmaster would have been the “leader” of the ensemble: conductors as such didn't come along till later).

(The complete performance ends at 11:20 – the encore begins at 13:40, ending at 16:15 and worth the view!)

The performance is Tuesday at 8pm, October 9th. Jeff Woodruff, Executive Director of the Harrisburg Symphony, will be giving the pre-concert talk for this program, beginning at 7:15.

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Looking ahead to the rest of the season, the November 10th concert features a piano trio, 2/3s of which we've heard in years past: Michael Brown played a solo recital in January 2012 and then more recently, Brown and cellist Nicholas Canellakis included some Schumann, Janáček, and Rachmaninoff on their program with a piece by Michael Brown.

So now we add violinist Elena Urioste to form the logically named Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio: here, accompanied by Michael Brown, she plays Amy Beach's Romance for this BBC Interview:


Though they'll be playing trios by Ernest Chausson and Antonin Dvořák in addition to Michael Brown's “Reflections” (a work from 2016), here's a clip of them playing a Haydn trio – the one in E-flat Major a.k.a No.45 – live from San Diego:


For this sample, I've chosen the legendary Beaux Arts Trio's recording of the 2nd Movement, the scherzo, from Ernest Chausson's Piano Trio in G Minor:


This concert is at 8pm on Saturday, November 10th, at Market Square Church.

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If your summer vacation seems like only yesterday, it's possible next year feels like it's so far away, but shortly after the new year begins – Wednesday, 8pm, January 9th, 2019, at Market Square Church – local audiences will be introduced to a young Spanish violinist, Francisco Fullana, and the pianist Jiayi Shi in a program of works by Enesco and Bartók (his 2nd Rhapsody) and sonatas by Beethoven and Debussy.

The Violin Channel's“Twenty Questions” video gives you some personal insights into the performer,

and this video of the Granados Violin Sonata was recorded just this past March, announcing the winner of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, with pianist Jiayi Shi.


If you need more to convince you, check out this live concert with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony in Caracas with the Violin Concerto of Johannes Brahms.

Market Square Concerts, Part 2: February, March and April

In February, the Doric Quartet returns for a concert on Wednesday, February 20th at 8pm – this concert will be held at Temple Ohev Sholom – and a program with three very different quartets: Haydn's Op.33/4, Bartók's 5th, and Mendelssohn's Op.44/2.

In this conversation, filmed while recording a set of Haydn quartets, they discuss the challenges of using “classical bows” rather than the more heavily-weighted modern bow, and how it helps them realize a cleaner “classical” sound – classical in the sense of the time of Mozart and Haydn but also the music's clarity with its leaner textures (as opposed to those of a "romantic" style):

Here's the finale of Haydn's Op.20/6 in A (the Fugue with Three Subjects) recorded at London's gorgeous Wigmore Hall in 2013:


Not using “classical bows” in this one, here's their performance of the 4th movement scherzo from Bartók's 4th Quartet :

(Every time I hear this, I recall a former colleague describing this as “down-home music,” which may make you think you're in for something rustic or folksy, until I remembered he was a 2nd-generation Hungarian...)

I'll be giving the pre-concert talk for this one at 7:15 that night – meanwhile, you can catch up on their previous appearance here from 2016.

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The latest “hot new young” quartets travel through Harrisburg every season, and we're one of only eight locations across the country who get to hear each of the winners of the legendary Cleveland Quartet Award as part of their prize's package tour. (The latest winner is the Rolston Quartet who'll be performing next month at Market Square Church.)

And each year, we hear these and wish them the best and wonder if they'll eventually become one of The Great Quartets we remember, performing around the world to great acclaim, winning awards with their latest recordings, becoming the standard the next generation of “hot new young quartets” will model themselves after.

2019 will mark 25 years since the Pacifica Quartet first got together, winning the Naumburg Award four years later and, in 2002, the Cleveland Quartet Award followed in 2006 by an Avery Fisher Career Grant. And so on...

Now, they return to Harrisburg with an all-Shostakovich program – the 1st, 3rd, and 7th Quartets – on Sunday, March 24th at 4pm at Market Square Church. At 3:15, Truman Bullard offers insights into this complex composer and these very personal works.

In this sample, the Pacifica plays an excerpt from Shostakovich's 7th Quartet, part of a “Tiny Desk Concert” that was originally broadcast live from NPR:


Cellist Brandon Vamos talks about the Shostakovich quartets:


Here is the 4th Movement of Shostakovich's first quartet with the Pacifica Quartet:


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And so the season ends with an introduction to the latest Cleveland Quartet Award winner, the Rolston Quartet who'll perform Haydn's “Sunrise” Quartet, Ligeti's 1st Quartet, and Brahms' 2nd Quartet (and it's been a long time since we've heard a Brahms String Quartet at Market Square Concerts, for some reason!). It's the last of the subscription concerts on Wednesday April 24th, at 8pm at Market Square Church.

Giving you an idea of the quartet, here's their introduction to a performance in Montreal this past June:

followed by this earlier conversation, with a previous configuration:


Though they'll be playing Haydn's Op. 76/4, here's their performance of his Op.77/1 (1st Movement) from the 2016 BANF competition, one of the more prestigious chamber music competitions in the world:


Here they are playing the 1st Movement of Mendelssohn's Quartet Op.44/#1:


And then we can sit back, wait a few years to see if they become one of the more durable quartets so we get to say “Ah, yes, we heard them when...”

So check back to see (and listen to) more detailed posts about each concert as the season continues, with background information on the composers, their music, and the times they were written in, as well as a chance to hear samples of the music on the program.

As the season begins, help us celebrate live music-making. Hope to see you there!

Happy Listening!

- Dick Strawser 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Summermusic 2018: The Russians Have Landed - Tchaikovsky & Taneyev, Together Again

What: Summermusic 2018's 3rd Concert with an All-Russian program with works by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Taneyev
When: Wednesday evening at 7:30 (note the slightly earlier start time, here)
Where: at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg
Who: Violinists Peter Sirotin & Leonid Ferents; Violists Blanka Bednarz & Michael Stepniak; Cellists Cheung Chau & Fiona Thompson

With any luck, I can make it through this post about works by two Russian composers without alluding to current events. It is times like this I find this quote helpful: “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” 

While politics may have little to endear itself between the United States and Russia over the past century or so, it is good to remember Russian literature and music, art and architecture, theater and dance which are sometimes difficult to disconnect from Russia's usually dark and often disturbing history.

And yet the Art survives – and flourishes – leading us quite often to glimpse what we think of as “The Russian Soul.”

And so the third concert of Summermusic 2018 includes two works by connected composers, both 19th Century Romantics in style (though the one was completed in 1901, it is hardly a “20th Century” work in anything else), one the teacher and mentor of the other.

Tchaikovsky, 1888
Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer to gain international fame and he is, to most Americans, the first name that comes to mind when someone says “Russian music.” His symphonies, ballets, and operas – or at least some of them – are popular mainstays in this country, and where would American concerts be without his “1812 Overture” or “The Nutcracker Suite”? Chamber music, on the other hand, was a small part of his musical interests and it's little known and not often heard in this country – except for the string sextet, the Souvenir of Florence, on Wednesday's program.

Sergei Taneyev, on the other hand, will leave most American concert-goers scratching their heads. His name occasionally appears in program notes about Tchaikovsky's music, but otherwise... who? Chamber music is a large part of his output and we heard his 1911 Piano Quintet at last year's Summermusic.

Not that hearing the first of his two string quintets this summer is (as far as I know) part of a larger Taneyev Festival or the start of a Taneyev Revival (one has to have a “vival” before one can have a “re”vival), but it gives us an opportunity to hear a different aspect of Russian music beyond what we're already familiar with.

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To enjoy some of the connections between this program and the other two concerts in this year's Summermusic series, I'll mention that Brahms' String Quintet from Sunday's concert was composed in the summer of 1890 following a holiday in Italy, and that Tchaikovsky's String Sextet on Wednesday's concert was composed in June of 1890, following a three-month stay in Florence, Italy.

While Sergei Taneyev's String Quintet was completed in 1901, the composer graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1875 – the same year Dvořák wrote the piano quartet we heard on the first program earlier this month – as a student of Tchaikovsky, in fact giving the first Moscow performance of his teacher's recent Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor that December when he was 19. And in 1878, when Tchaikovsky resigned from the Conservatory to compose full-time (thanks to a generous stipend from his patron, Nadezhda von Meck) – when Gabriel Fauré was working on his 1st Piano Quartet – Taneyev became a member of the conservatory's theory faculty where he continued to teach until 1905.

Oh, and I'll tell you about the dinner Tchaikovsky attended in Leipzig while “traveling abroad” in 1888, where Johannes Brahms was one of the other guests – but first, let's hear this string sextet he called “Souvenir of Florence.”

Tchaikovsky in front of his hotel in Florence, 1890
He'd already written three string quartets but in 1887 had tried getting a string sextet off the ground. It didn't fly. Once it finally took off, he wrote it in a matter of 18 days (talk about “flying”) and the work we have is his most popular piece of chamber music. It's in the standard four movements: a spirited Allegro with an ear-grabbing opening – ready or not – followed by one of Tchaikovsky's wistful adagios, a pas de deux suitable for choreography, complete with a brief interruption by some scurrying winds in the middle section. The third movement isn't so much a scherzo or minuet as an Intermezzo built around an elegiac folk-song with some contrasting dance elements – it was typical that Tchaikovsky would be criticized for writing symphonies that were too much like ballet and for writing ballets that were too symphonic – but then he does it one better in the finale, a rousing Allegro vivace, with his most Russian theme yet for this supposed Italian souvenir, and then, of all things, turns it into that most German of academic exercises – a fugue!

Here is a live performance from a recent Utrecht Festival with violinists Janine Jansen & Vilde Frang, violists Lawrence Power & Julian Rachlin, and cellists Nicolas Altstaedt & Jens Peter Maintz:
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And if you were wondering how Tchaikovsky – master of the epic finale with an orchestra blasting away at full force – was going to end a chamber work for six players, there you have a perfect example of the tried-and-true formula for “how to end a concert” – “fast and loud” which then becomes “faster and louder.”

But this music didn't come about quite so effortlessly as it sounds.

In June, 1887, while staying in Borzhom, a town in the Caucasus not far from the provincial capital of Tiflis (or Tblisi), the composer noted in his diary: "Composed a little (start of a sextet)" and then four days later wrote to fellow-composer Ippolitov-Ivanov, "I jotted down sketches for a string sextet, but with little enthusiasm... I haven't the slightest inclination to work. ...Because I have only a passing desire to compose, I'm beginning to fear that I am losing my powers of composition, and becoming angry with myself." 


The previous autumn, he had promised friends of his in the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society he would write them some piece of chamber music as a way of thanking them for selecting him as a member, but meanwhile he was preoccupied with other things. When he did start what would become this sextet, it was a difficult process and several times, he laid it aside. In 1888, writing to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, he was “thinking of a new symphony [his 5th] and a string sextet,” but otherwise, it is not mentioned again until the spring of 1890 when he is staying at his home in Frolovskoye near Moscow, beginning work on it on June 12th and finishing the rough draft on June 30th, though he admits he wrote it “with great difficulty” – not for lack of ideas, he pointed out, but because of the “novelty” of writing for six stringed instruments – but in the end he wrote he was “quite pleased with myself.”

(It intrigues me he decided to write a sextet and then had difficulty coming up with solutions “how to write a sextet” rather than start writing something – a 4th String Quartet, say – before realizing, “no, this material really needs more players” and add a viola or a cello or both.)

Now, the sextet is usually called the “Souvenir of Florence” (usually in French) and, depending on where you read about it, you will discover it was written in Florence, it was inspired by Florence, it is a collection of his impressions of Florence – in other words, “Holiday Snaps from my Vacation in Florence, Italy” captured in music – yet he had begun it in the Caucasus so it could have become “Caucasian Sketches” (oh wait, that was used by Ippolitov-Ivanov a few years later) and most of the sextet was composed the summer after he returned home to Russia and staying at Frolovskoye, not far from Moscow.

Tchaikovsky (center), Dec. 1890
The trip to Florence, however, was over a span of three wintry months in early 1890 where he went to focus on his new opera based on one of Pushkin's tales, The Queen of Spades (or, as it's usually known in French, Pique Dame because English-speakers are too chicken to refer to it as Pikovaya Dama). The photograph, here, with the composer in the center and two of the opera's lead singers, was taken in St. Petersburg, December of 1890, before the opera's premiere and around the time his String Sextet was given its first, private read-through at the hotel where he was staying.

One of the stories I'd grown up with was, while staying in Florence, every tune Tchaikovsky jotted down that couldn't fit into the opera was set aside in a special notebook. When he returned from Italy, he used these themes and ideas for the Sextet – thus, they are “souvenirs” of his creative time spent in Florence. While his Capriccio italien captures many musical reminiscences of his stay in Rome, there is nothing so literally programmatic in the Souvenir of Florence.

As “Russian-sounding” as this piece is, it's interesting to note that at least we know (from one of his letters) the basic idea of the violin and cello duet in the 2nd Movement was originally intended for The Queen of Spades (a Russian story set in 18th Century Imperial Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great) but didn't fit, so, yes, it was written in Florence. The first movement was largely outlined in 1887, incidentally. And while Tchaikovsky was “pleased” with the finale after he'd completed it, he was so depressed after the first read-through that December in Petersburg he completely rewrote the Fugue in the finale and the middle section of the third movement, touching up other spots as well. And then he made one last round of revisions which he completed in January, 1892, while in Paris (he would bring back a souvenir from Paris: the celeste he would use in the Nutcracker's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy). Only then would he allow the sextet to be published in December, 1892.

Tchaikovsky at his summer home in Frolovskoye, 2 weeks after completing the Sextet there

Tchaikovsky was never a fan of Brahms. He referred to him – “that scoundrel Brahms” – in his dairies in disparaging terms and even refused the nickname “Tragic Symphony” for his 6th because Brahms had written a “Tragic Overture” and that will never do. (Tchaikovsky was a huge fan of Georges Bizet's Carmen which premiered in 1875.)

Brahms had little interest in Tchaikovsky's music though he never took him seriously enough to consider him “a rival” as he did Wagner and Liszt or Anton Bruckner. (Brahms was a big fan of Johann Strauss whose Die Fledermaus premiered in 1874.)

As it happened, both composers were in Leipzig at the same time in January of 1888, Brahms to conduct his Double Concerto and play the C Minor Piano Trio; Tchaikovsky to conduct a concert of his works and attend a program of his chamber music (the Op.11 Quartet and the Piano Trio). The concertmaster of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra decided to throw a dinner for them which was also attended by Edvard Grieg and his wife (Grieg's Peer Gynt premiered in 1875; his Holberg Suite would be completed in 1888).

Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modeste about the performance of the Double Concerto the night before – “What I suffered during the evening cannot be described” – but that he and Brahms were thrown together quite a lot during the past few days. “We are ill at ease because we do not really like each other, but he takes great pains to be kind to me. Grieg is charming.”

That said, Mrs Grieg ended up being seated between Brahms and Tchaikovsky. At one point, she jumped up and said “I can't sit between these two any longer, it makes me so nervous!” Her husband gallantly (and quickly) slipped around the table to take her place: “I have the nerve!” 


That photo of Tchaikovsky at the head of this post? Check the autograph: it's inscribed to Frau Grieg, 3rd Jan. 1888 Leipzig.

Tchaikovsky later described Brahms in his diary as “that self-inflated mediocrity.”

Clearly there would be no collusion between them when, two years later, they each wrote the two pieces you'll hear during this year's Summermusic series...

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Sergei Taneyev
Once Tchaikovsky's “star pupil” and a close friend till his mentor's death in 1893, Sergei Taneyev divided his career between being a soloist, a teacher, a theorist and scholar (famous for his treatises on counterpoint and fugue), and also a composer.

Composition came slowly to him and he described how he would take his ideas, explore their potential with all manner of possibilities, and only then begin putting them into a piece.

Using the less frequent “two-cello” set-up compared to Mozart's and Brahms' preference for the “two-viola” set-up (even though, perhaps, the most famous or at least most frequently performed string quintet is Schubert's C Major with two cellos), Taneyev began his first string quintet in 1900 and completed it the following year. 


It's in three movements, with an opening gesture that seems to look in different directions (much as one might think about with the beginning of a new century). There are times it's masquerading as Mozart or Mendelssohn which then contrasts with more Romantic-sounding textures and thematic turns. I would say the Development Section looks forward to the future – or at least acknowledges Wagner's music might indeed be the eventual path the 20th Century would take. Curiously, the sound of the Mozart-like “Classical” style, especially in the Recapitulation, brings to mind what Richard Strauss would begin to sound like with his Post-Salome, “neo-classical” style a decade down the road.


The scherzo, brief as it is, Vivace con fuoco (“very fast, with fire”), returns to pure 19th Century romanticism and the interplay of musical gestures (and yes, fugal writing is one way of prolonging the “development” of these ideas). It is not without its surprises – two of them coming very near the end of the movement, with an unexpected resolution after the harmonic build-up followed by a dash off stage as if, oh well, I'm running out of time...
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The finale is a set of variations, each one self-contained like little character pieces in contrasting moods or natures. Given Taneyev's skills in counterpoint – that most German of techniques – it's not surprising one of them becomes a fugue (at 14:00). Like his teacher – and Tchaikovsky loved to write variations (check out the last movements of the 3rd Orchestral Suite or the Piano Trio and of course, in relation to Taneyev's style here, his “Rococo Variations”) – Taneyev enjoyed exploring the possibilities, like the rather stern one beginning at 7:38, dominated initially by pairs of cellos and violas. A sizable 20-minute movement (well, part light-hearted intermezzo, part finale), it could, conceivably, go on a lot longer, the way he keeps spinning them out. Yet it's all of the same fabric we've heard in the first two movements and a testament to what he is best remembered for: his craftsmanship.
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(These performances are taken from a recording by the Taneyev Quartet with cellist Beynus Morozov.)
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The second string quintet, his Op. 16, might make you think he then went on immediately to compose a companion piece, but it actually dates from three years later. Like I said, composition came slow for him and, like any teacher and scholar, there were other things frequently getting in the way of his creative time.

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Taneyev, like Glazunov, is one of those “between-the-generations” composers, taught by their teachers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, and famous for their pupils, like Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and later the two giants of the Soviet Era, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. This whole generation is overshadowed by the past and the future, ironically, but in Taneyev's connection with Tchaikovsky, let me examine one aspect of this connection with the past.

Taneyev playing Tolstoy's piano (c.1895)
Once Taneyev rescued Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto from a potentially disastrous Moscow premiere by replacing the original soloist, Tchaikovsky was so impressed, he dedicated his tone poem, Francesca da Rimini, inspired by Dante, to Taneyev in 1876. When the intended soloist of his 2nd Piano Concerto died before the premiere, Taneyev again gave the work its Moscow premiere in 1882. Then, when Tchaikovsky himself died before realizing what to do with his one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto – it had started out as his 7th Symphony – Taneyev edited two other works to create a full three-movement 3rd Concerto which is even less often heard than the 2nd.

During this friendship, Taneyev was one of the few people Tchaikovsky could turn to for musical advice and, being notoriously thin-skinned when it came to criticism, often regretted it but realized it was intended honestly and often true to the mark. Taneyev could get away with making comments that none of Tchaikovsky's other friends would dare consider, leading to a kind of “fear” the older composer had when he did ask for it (and which often resulted in the response, “well, he asked for it...”).

One of Taneyev's later students wrote about this aspect of his relationship with Tchaikovsky: “I think [Tchaikovsky] was unnerved by the overt frankness with which Taneyev reacted to [his] works: Taneyev believed that one must indicate precisely what one finds to be 'faults,' while strong points would make themselves evident. He was hardly fully justified in his conviction: composers are a nervous lot and they are often particularly dissatisfied with themselves. Tchaikovsky was just such a person: he worried himself almost sick over each work and often tried even to destroy them...”

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 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.

If anything, however, today we might wonder if perhaps that isn't what's missing from his music...

- Dick Strawser

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To read more about Taneyev, check the second half of last summer's blog-post regarding Taneyev and Borodin's Piano Quintets.