Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Grammy Nominees with a Market Square Concerts Connection

Composer Jennifer Higdon has been nominated for another Grammy Award! Her Percussion Concerto which you might have heard when it was performed recently by the Harrisburg Symphony was recorded by the London Philharmonic conducted by Marin Alsop – and it's on the nominee's list for Best Contemporary Composition.

One of the busiest composers on the planet these days, Ms. Higdon will be in Harrisburg for a performance with the Cypress String Quartet, Saturday January 23rd at 8:00, a Market Square Concert that will be taking place up-town at Temple Ohev Sholom. They'll be playing a work she'd written for them called “Impressions,” a response to Claude Debussy's Quartet which opens the program. And she'll be here to talk about the piece at the concert, so you'll have a chance to not only hear her music but also meet a live composer!

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Other nominations of interest can be found in the category “Best Chamber Music Performance.” There's the “Hungarian Album” with the Guarneri Quartet – they played the Kodaly 2nd Quartet from this album on their final performance here in Harrisburg with Market Square Concerts in April 2009.

Frequent visitors to Market Square Concerts, the Emerson Quartet was nominated for their performance of Janáček Quartets, an album on Deutsche Gramophon taking its name from the second of the works, “Intimate Letters.”

And relative newcomers to this starry pantheon of frequently nominated legendary quartets like the Guarneri and the Emerson, the Enso Quartet who've played for Market Square Concerts in past seasons was also nominated - for their Naxos recording of the complete quartets by Argentine composer, Alberto Ginastera!

Glad I don't have to vote for this category!

I've posted a complete list of the Classical Music Grammy Nominees at my blog, Thoughts on a Train.

Dr. Dick

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Survey: Zuill Bailey & Robert Koenig's Recital, Nov'09

For those of you who attended the recital Tuesday evening, November 17th, at Whitaker Center with Zuill Bailey and Robert Koenig, please take a moment and fill out our short survey and let us know what you thought:

Click Here to take survey

I've adjusted the "other comments" field if you'd like to add something: they should be 400 characters or less to be able to fit. If there's more you'd like to say, you can write a comment to THIS POST (see COMMENT link, below).

But still, 400 characters or less - that's more than you get to twitter!

Thank you, very much!

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Brahms & Friends

There are two works by Brahms on the program with cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Robert Koenig, this Tuesday at 8pm at Whitaker Center as Market Square Concerts' season continues. (You can read more about the concert, here.)

Brahms wrote two cello sonatas, the first finished in 1865 and the second in 1886. The second one, Op. 99 in F Major – the same key as his 3rd Symphony which he'd written three years earlier – is usually considered the “brighter” of the two, compared to the E Minor Sonata, Op. 38, which is darker in sound, mostly because of its concentration in the cello's lower, darker register.

It must have been a very contented summer when he wrote the F Major Cello Sonata that concludes Zuill's recital. That same summer, Brahms also composed his 2nd and 3rd Violin Sonatas, plus the 3rd Piano Trio.

And while modern audiences regard the F Major Cello Sonata as “brighter” and cheerier, it didn't exactly meet with much success at the beginning.

Arnold Schoenberg wrote that the opening of the sonata – with its arching cello melody over strong tremolo chords in the piano, very similar to the opening of the F Major Symphony – was “indigestible” to the Viennese audience when he was a teen-ager. (Schoenberg, a budding cello-player himself, loved Brahms' music and much of his own early music – before Verklärte Nacht – shows Brahms' spell.)

Even one of Brahms' closest friends, Theodore Billroth, “confess[ed] the first movement was somewhat dubious to me... But you always know the right way to the purely musical.” He liked the 2nd Violin Sonata much better. Billroth had also had problems when Brahms played through his new 4th Symphony a couple of years earlier.

This 2nd Sonata was written for the cellist in Josef Joachim's string quartet, Robert Hausmann.

(This photograph taken with Brahms and cellist Robert Hausmann probably dates from the 1890s when Brahms was past 60. The woman behind the piano is Maria Fellinger: she and her husband were close friends of Brahms: it was something of a habit that the composer would eat Sunday dinner with them almost every week. The painting on the easel, by the way, is a portrait of Clara Schumann.)

Brahms often took to a musician's sound, not so much to the instrument. It was how the musician played the instrument and how the two components sounded together that was more important than what the instrument could do.

This was not unusual in Brahms' life. Hausmann would prove instrumental in the creation of another work which probably began life as a cello concerto. But while Brahms might have had reservations about pitting the cello against a modern symphony orchestra (keep in mind, there were few cello concertos in the repertoire then and most of those fairly light in texture: Dvořák's was finished eight years later), his reason for turning this into a concerto for both cello and violin may have had more to do with his old friend Joseph Joachim.

They'd been estranged for a few years (you can read about their life-long friendship, its ups-and-downs and more about how the Double Concerto came about in this post I wrote last year) and had he written a new concerto for someone in Joachim's quartet that wasn't Joachim, it might have been looked upon as one more slight to overcome.

After the first run-through of the concerto with the composer at the piano and playing it for Clara Schumann, Brahms remarked “Now I know what has been missing from my life these past few years: the sound of Joachim's violin.”

With that sound back in his ear, Brahms began sketching a new violin concerto, but the public reaction to both the 4th Symphony and now the Double Concerto stifled him and so he destroyed it, along with sketches for not one but TWO additional symphonies, even a second Double Concerto – all consigned to the flames because of his insecurities.

Clara Schumann didn't think the Double Concerto had much of a future. Even his good friend Billroth had called it “sterile.” Brahms, feeling terribly old-fashioned, was beginning to think perhaps he'd written himself out.

After he had decided to retire from composing at the age of 57, Brahms was coaxed back to writing again by the sound of another musician who had captured his imagination: clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld for whom he wrote a trio and a quintet, both in 1891, and a few years later, published two clarinet sonatas with him in mind. When the Clarinet Trio was first performed, Robert Hausmann was the cellist.

While Brahms wrote only two sonatas for the instrument, the cello often got a lot of his finest tunes: all you have to do is think of the third movement of his 2nd Piano Concerto or the opening of the slow movement of the C Minor Piano Quartet.

But Brahms did NOT write the other cello piece of his that's on Zuill Bailey's program, ending the first half of the concert – well, not as a cello piece. A much earlier work than the 2nd Cello Sonata, the Scherzo or “Sonatensatz” (literally, Sonata Movement) in C Minor was originally written for violin and piano but like the 3rd Violin Sonata also works well when transcribed for the cello and who's to argue against a persuasive performance?

When he introduced himself to Robert and Clara Schumann in late September, 1853, Brahms was just 20 years old. In October, the Schumanns' friend Josef Joachim, already a close friend of Brahms, came to town for a performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Schumann's own Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra. Robert was going to conduct.

The rehearsal had been a disaster, Schumann sometimes getting so engrossed in the music he stopped conducting. The concert was a fiasco (only later would they realize it would be the last time Schumann would conduct in public), but the next night there was a special party for Joachim in which he was given a new violin sonata written just for him by a committee of friends.

On Schumann’s suggestion, the thematic tie that binds the work together was a motive based on what Joachim called his “life motto” – Frei aber einsam, “Free but lonely” – turned into the musical pitches F, A and E. Consequently the work is known to history as “The F.A.E. Sonata.”

Among the guests at the party was Bettina von Arnim, who'd been a friend of both Goethe and Beethoven and who was the widow of the collector of the folk tales known as “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (the Youth's Magic Horn). She was there with her daughter Gisela von Arnim from whom Joachim was recently “free (but lonely).” In what must have been a rather awkward moment, Gisela, dressed in a peasant costume, presented Joachim with a gift basket of flowers in which they'd hidden the copy of the sonata. Sight-reading it with Clara at the piano, he was supposed to guess the identities of each movement's composer. He figured it out quite easily: Albert Dietrich, a close friend and associate of Schumann’s, wrote the first movement; Schumann himself, both the Intermezzo and the Finale; and Brahms, the Scherzo. Brahms' share of the piece was the only movement from this composite work that would survive in the repertoire.

- Dr. Dick

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photo-credit: Zuill Bailey's photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Cellist Zuill Bailey Returns to Harrisburg on Nov 17th

Not too many years ago, Central Pennsylvania was introduced to Zuill Bailey as part of the "Next Generation Festivals" that Ellen Hughes organized with pianist Awadagin Pratt through WITF with support from numerous schools, contributors and organizations across the region.

Since then, he's performed on some other stages you may have heard of, like the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall, the 92nd Street Y, not to mention also Carnegie Hall.

He has gotten great reviews around the country, like"Bristles with rare virtuosic fire" - Chicago Tribune; "Nothing short of transcendent" - Buffalo News; and from Lima, Peru's El Comercio, "One of the premier cellists in the world."

Announcing that Zuill Bailey has just been signed to an exclusive contract with Telarc Recordings, the company's president, Robert Woods, commented: 'Zuill's musical talent is world-class, and he is a delightful throwback to artists who possess charisma and entertain an audience while being true to music in every way."

Joined by pianist Robert Koenig, Zuill Bailey will be playing works by Stravinsky, Mendelssohn and Brahms on Tuesday, November 17th, at 8pm on the stage of Harrisburg's Whitaker Center.

The program opens with Claude Debussy's Cello Sonata, one of the last works he composed but a work that is, despite his illness and the time he wrote it in (surrounded by the bad news of World War I), full of humor. It's not what we normally think of with Debussy and his "Impressionism" - it's actually a very spare work, Neo-Classical in style.

Given the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn this year, if one needs an excuse to program his music, his 2nd Cello Sonata concludes the first half of the program.

From the classically-lined works of Debussy and Mendelssohn, then, the concert concludes with two full-blooded Romantic works by Johannes Brahms: an early work, the Scherzo he wrote for the F.A.E. Violin Sonata (arranged here for cello and piano) and a fairly late piece, his 2nd Cello Sonata in F Major, Op.99. (I've written more about these pieces, here.)

In this video, a TV interview from WUSA in Washington DC, he talks about his cello, made in 1693 by Matteo Goffriller and formerly owned by Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet. It's an instrument that was 17 years old when Bach wrote his cello suites. Then he plays the Prelude to the G Major Suite by Bach.

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Here's another video, this one from Telarc, promoting Zuill's most recent recording "Russian Masterpieces" which was released earlier this year. He talks about the influences of the great cellist Rostropovich and the music of Tchaikovsky (his Mozart-inspired "Rococo Variations") and Shostakovich (his 1st Cello Concerto). Based on the little clip of the Shostakovich I heard in this video, I plan on adding this disc to my own collection: it's a very dramatic, incisive work and I think he hits everything just right in his approach to it, both musically and emotionally.
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As Ellen wrote to concert-goers on the e-mailing list:

One of my first acts as new director of Market Square Concerts was to arrange for Zuill Bailey to come to play his cello in Harrisburg. I'd met him when he played chamber music in WITF's former Next Generation Festival, and I was impressed, not only with his phenomenal strengths as a musician, but also with his ability to communicate that music visually. He's a fabulous argument in favor of attending live performance because of his communicative gifts as well as his musical ones.

I hope you will be able to come to his concert on Tuesday, November 17 at 8 at Whitaker Center. His accompanist is Robert Koenig, much sought-after as a collaborative pianist with a following of his own. They'll be playing sonatas by Debussy, Brahms and Mendelssohn, and you can find out more about it at our website,

Tickets are $28 and are available at the BOX that night or in advance at 717 214-ARTS. For this concert we are able to offer $5 tickets for college/university students and faculty. School-age students are free.

A lot of people want to know how to pronounce Zuill's name. It rhymes with cool!

- Ellen

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I'll second that! Hope to see you there!

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Poll for the Parker Quartet Concert, Oct. 11, 2009

Let's try this and see if it works (I'm such a Luddite, anyway).

If you attended the Parker Quartet's concert that opened Market Square Concerts 2009-2010 Season, let us know what you thought by filling out this brief survey:

Click Here to take survey

If you'd like to leave a comment about the concert or the program, click on the post's title, then write in the comment form at the bottom of the post. These will appear on the blog once they've been approved.

Dr. Dick

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Parker Quartet: Bartok's 1st Quartet

The Parker Quartet will perform at the first concert of the season with Market Square Concerts on Sunday, October 11th at 4pm at Whitaker Center. Their program includes Beethoven's Quartet in D Major, Op. 18 No. 3 and the quartet Mendelssohn wrote several months after Beethoven's death, his Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13. I'd written about both of these works in the previous post. This post is about another first quartet on the program, Bela Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 7.
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Regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, Bela Bartók's first published quartet is nominally in A Minor. That doesn't mean it sounds like it's the A Minor you might be familiar with from Mendelssohn's quartet on the second half of the program or even the famous opening of Wagner's “Tristan und Isolde.” By 1900, the idea of what keys you could move to within a piece – the home or central tonality that makes it a Something in A Minor – was very different from the choices composers had in 1700 or even 1800. All of this weakened the hold of the "central tonality" as a structural force in the music. Mozart, in his Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, written in 1788, moved so quickly through so many possibilities at one point in the finale, listeners then must have become dizzy because they had no idea what “key” they were in, everything whizzing by so fast. In fact, some writers in the 20th Century pointed to this as an early example of “atonality.”

It's not that the music was becoming more dissonant: it's that the harmonic dissonance, increasing the tension between the chords, was beginning to fracture the confidence a listener might have knowing what key-center or tonality the music was in at any given moment.

While most concertgoers would be more familiar with Bartók's 3rd, 4th & 5th Quartets, the first of the six may come as a surprise, but I guess you could say the same to someone who'd only ever heard Beethoven's Late Quartets and had never, somehow, managed to hear any of the Op. 18 Quartets. What a difference twenty years can make!

Bartók (seen here in a photograph taken in 1903) was 27 when he composed his first string quartet, writing most of it in 1908 (he finished it in January the next year). At the same time, Schoenberg was working on his 2nd Quartet, the one with the soprano in the final two movements, the last of which is famous for being the first “atonal” composition, more or less. (I blogged about this work for this summer's Gretna Music performance by the Momenta Quartet.)

Schoenberg's 1st Quartet had been premiered in 1907 in Vienna, though I doubt Bartók would've had a chance to hear it by the following year. Even if they don't sound very much alike, they share a common sense regarding disintegrating tonality and interestingly also a tie with the past for all their looking into the future, wondering where the tonality of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Mahler was headed in the first decade of the 20th Century.

Bartók's first movement sounds little removed from the fugue that begins Beethoven's C-Sharp Minor Quartet, Op. 131, slow and meditative but also timeless. (Hear the opening movement of Beethoven's quartet here, in this YouTube “audio” with the Takacs Quartet.)

A little later, I'll mention another influence on the sound of the opening of Bartók's quartet.

You can listen to a young quartet playing the first movement of Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 7, in this YouTube video. I don't know the name of the quartet or if they're students or a professional group, but it's a very solid performance. The musicians credited are Audrey Wright & Alanna Tonetti-Tieppo violinists; violist Jim Larson and cellist Ji-Eun Lee.
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Bartók probably didn't know much about Schoenberg's music in Vienna. I suspect he might have known “Transfigured Night” written in 1899 with the score published in 1904 (you can hear a section of that string sextet here, in this YouTube Video – and here you can listen to Schoenberg's 1st String Quartet (also his Op. 7) at the Schoenberg Jukebox!).

But he did find out what Debussy had been doing in Paris. His friend and fellow-composer Zoltan Kodály had just returned from a trip to France with several scores of Debussy's works. (You can hear the influence of Debussy beginning at 6:00 into the clip). It's such a sudden change from the rest of the movement, it almost sounds like Kodály dropped by with a score of Debussy's Quartet the day Bartók was composing this passage... (Here's a link to a video of the Cypress Quartet playing the opening of the Debussy String Quartet which they will play for Market Square Concerts in January.)

There was one more discovery from the year 1908, though you won't hear it in the 1st movement (and I couldn't find a clip of the 3rd movement, so you'll have to come to the concert to hear it). In 1904, he was at a summer resort and heard a teen-aged peasant girl from the nearby rural area singing folk-songs unlike anything he'd heard before. But it wasn't until 1908 when Kodály, who had already started studying the folk music of Hungary, introduced his collection to Bartók. This then began his systematic study of not only Hungarian folk music but also a great deal of folk music from across Eastern Europe and northern Africa.

In Europe, Hungarian music really meant “Gypsy Music.” This was what Franz Liszt, born in Hungary but cosmopolitan by nature, introduced to the world in his Hungarian Rhapsodies and what the very German Brahms incorporated into his Hungarian Dances and the dance-like finales of works like the 1st Piano Quartet or the Violin Concerto. He'd heard this music as a young man, accompanying a Hungarian violinist named Eduard Reményi.

Basically, this was the urban pop music of the day and, like jazz fans in New York City in the Roaring Twenties, people in Vienna went to smoky taverns to hear gypsy bands play the night away (the good Dr. Brahms had his favorite haunts with bands he followed like any jazz fan). (Speaking of which, the photo, left, was taken during a rehearsal of Bartok's "Contrasts," written for clarinetist Benny Goodman.)

Bartók first incorporated some of this real folk-song style in the last movement of 1st String Quartet, writing several piano pieces based on it that year as well. The photograph of Bartók (below) was taken in 1908, in fact, as he recorded Czech peasants in rural Bohemia singing into an Edison recording machine! Later, the common structure of much of this folk music would inspire him to create a harmonic and melodic vocabulary unlike standard classical tonality. When he used this in his own original works, he referred to it as his “imaginary folk-music.”

I couldn't find anything that wasn't overly arranged (either too New Agey or just rocking out in a pop-rock style), but here's an example of a quiet love song that will give you an idea. (If you ever get a chance to hear one of those Nonesuch “Explorer” recordings (many of them have been transferred to CD), you're in for a definite ear-opener!)

So the first major work of his to include these folk elements was the last movement of his String Quartet No. 1. Just as Schoenberg was finding his future voice in his first attempts at writing atonality in 1908 with the last movement of his 2nd String Quartet, Bartók was finding his in the realm of folk-song with the last movement of his 1st String Quartet written the same year.

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There was one other event in Bartók's life at this time.

In 1907, he had fallen in love with a violinist named Stefi Geyer (this photograph of her is dated 1905: she would have been about 17, then). Apparently it was mostly a one-sided relationship, whether completely unrequited or not. Being a composer, naturally Bartók wrote her a violin concerto but when she broke off the relationship the following year, he suppressed the work which was not published until after they had both died. However, after they'd broken up, he did use the first movement as the first of Two Portraits, re-naming it “Ideal,” even three years later adding a dissonant, ironic second portrait labeled “Grotesque.” He uses a sonority of a minor chord with a major 7th superimposed on it – F#-A-C#-E# which he referred to as his “Stefi Chord.”

Emotionally, he was strongly affected by this rejection and his friends worried about the state of his health. After he'd begun work on a new string quartet, he wrote to her that it opened with what he called “my funeral dirge.” If this event signaled the end of one aspect of his life – before the year was out, he married one of his piano students, apparently on the rebound: it was not to be a happy relationship – the quartet ends with another sound that would become his future voice, its inspiration found in the folk songs of his ethnic heritage, something only recently discovered within him, resonating in his innermost soul, and which would form the foundation of his mature musical voice.

In 1984, Hungarian conductor Zoltan Rosznyai was the guest conductor for a Harrisburg Symphony concert that featured concertmaster Julie Rosenfeld of the Colorado Quartet, then in residence with the orchestra, playing the Two Portraits. I remember Rosznyai explaining to the orchestra how he'd known the Geyer family and had met Stefi Geyer late in her life at a sanatorium in Switzerland where she'd spent most of her life.

As I recall Rosznyai's explanation, Bartók was just too unpredictable for her and presumably not regarded as a good match by her father. She was also only 19 at the time; Bartók, recently appointed a junior teacher at the Budapest Conservatory, was 27. Not long afterward, she married a Viennese lawyer, presumably a more stable personality and a more securely established professional. After he died during the Flu Epidemic of 1918, she married composer Walter Schulthess and moved to Zurich where she taught and performed. She died there in 1956.

The violin concerto Bartók had composed for her wasn't discovered until after she died, and first heard in 1958. The famous and rather large-scale concerto Bartók wrote in 1937 now had to be re-christened the Violin Concerto No. 2 to make room for this slighter, less mature early work inspired by unrequited love. Its aftermath became the starting point for the first of his six string quartets, a collection regarded as monumental to the 20th Century as Beethoven's were to the 19th.

- Dr. Dick

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Parker Quartet: Beethoven & Mendelssohn

As Ellen Hughes wrote to Market Square Concerts's e-mailing list, reminding them that the first concert of the new season is upon us:

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Dear Concertgoer-

The New York Times called the Parker String Quartet “something extraordinary,” The Boston Globe hailed its “fiercely committed performances” and The Washington Post declared it “a quartet that deserves close attention.”

I hope you'll be able to join us Sunday, October 11 at 4 PM at Whitaker Center for the first concert of our 2009-10 chamber music season to hear this quartet, which was awarded the coveted Cleveland Quartet Award earlier this year. They're playing early Beethoven and Bartok and also Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 2, a work that's both a tribute to Beethoven and full of youthful romance, as Mendelssohn is said to have fallen in love just as he was writing this quartet.

What a perfect way to spend a fall afternoon, listening to this music played by a vibrant, award-winning quartet. Tickets are available at The BOX, 717 214 ARTS, or at the door.
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In addition to earning the Cleveland Quartet Award, the Parker Quartet has received high praise for its debut CD from 2007 (on the Zig Zag label) with Bartok's 2nd and 5th String Quartets:

“The Parkers’ Bartok spins the illusion of spontaneous improvisation…they have absorbed the language; they have the confidence to play freely with the music and the instinct to bring it off.” (Gramophone).

Their recent recording for the Naxos label, the complete string quartets of the late György Ligeti, was released this past March. An album of Haydn quartets follows for Zig Zag.

You can hear them in this broadcast from a live recording made at WGBH Boston last year, playing Dvorak's String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 51 (not the "American" Quartet).

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Having performed here a few seasons ago for the 25th Anniversary season with Market Square Concerts, the Parker Quartet returns for the first concert of the 2009-2010 Season on Sunday, October 11th (4pm at Whitaker Center) with a program of "firsts" - in this case, the first quartet Beethoven completed for publication; the first quartet by Bela Bartok, and the first "mature" quartet that Felix Mendelssohn composed and (eventually) published.

That doesn't mean they're the first quartets these composers ever wrote. I don't think there are any unpublished quartets in Bartók's catalog – none have been added to the six he did publish – but there was at least one that Mendelssohn wrote as a child, including at least one String Quartet when he was 14, around the time he was writing all those string symphonies. (If you want to read more about Mendelssohn, you can check out the website for a Mendelssohn educational project Odin Rathnam and I devised for the John Harris High School this past month, a kind of Mendelssohn-and-his-(and-our)-Times.”)

There are no string quartets rattling around in Beethoven's juvenalia closet that I'm aware of, not that he wouldn't have tried his hand at something like this as a part-time violin- and viola-player when he was growing up in Bonn. When he was in his early-20s, Beethoven planned on going to Vienna to study with Mozart: unfortunately Mozart died at the age of 35 before it could happen. So Beethoven did the next best thing: he went to Vienna to study with Haydn who was, at the time, enjoying his laurels as the greatest living composer in Europe, having just completed his first trip to London and was in the midst of writing the last and perhaps greatest of his symphonies and string quartets. Mozart, at least in his musical temperament, might have been better suited to Beethoven's goals, but certainly there was something to gain in calling himself Haydn's pupil. The publicity was good but it also came at a price: anything he composed would also be compared to his teacher which may explain why Beethoven waited until he was almost thirty to release both his first symphony and his first string quartets.

Of the six published as Op. 18 – the “Early” Quartets as they're universally known – the first one he completed ended up becoming the third of the set. He often worked on a number of compositions at the same time, unlike Mozart who, working as quickly and effortlessly as he did, would dash off one before moving on to another. Beethoven must have known how uncharacteristically long it took Mozart to complete the half-dozen quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn, learning the craft of the style from Haydn's own works as if he studied with him himself. We can see in Beethoven's sketchbooks a number of ideas written down that ended up in various quartets over the two years he worked on them. We can also see how hard he worked to find the best ideas: for instance, there are eight versions of the opening them of the 1st Quartet – only in the 9th take did he find the one he decided to use.

The D Major Quartet (No. 3) has the spirit of his teacher hovering over it: the opening reminds you of Haydn's “Sunrise” Quartet and the “Clock” and “Military” Symphonies aren't far away in the quartet's finale. It's clear that Haydn's sense of humor was closer to Beethoven's own rather than the “urbane gaiety” of Mozart. Despite their official dedication to Prince Lobkowitz, these really are Beethoven's “Haydn” Quartets.

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Whether or not Beethoven was consciously looking at Haydn's quartets and symphonies as models, I don't know, though he apparently did use Mozart's A Major Quartet, K.464, as a model for his own A Major Quartet, Op. 18. No. 5.

Mendelssohn, on the other hand, was looking specifically at some of Beethoven's later quartets as models for his own. He had studied works by J.S. and C.P.E. Bach to learn the art of counterpoint which were useful he was writing out-right fugues like he did in his string symphonies but which also came in handy when he wrote two of his most famous works – the Octet for Strings and the Overture to “A Midsummer Night's Dream” – both when he was still in his mid-teens.

At the time, Beethoven was still alive and had been composing his last string quartets. His music was quite “contemporary” in the sense we often think it today – new, controversial and not necessarily liked by everybody in the audience. In fact, Mendelssohn father, Abraham Mendelssohn, one of the most important bankers in Berlin, didn't care for Beethoven's music at all, preferring the craftsmanship of the Bachs over the wild Romantic irregularities of Beethoven.

When he was 21, Mendelssohn wrote to his sisters how

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“Father was continuously in the worst mood and scolded Beethoven and all the Romanticists. Often he saddened me and made me impatient. Something new had come into the world and my father could not quite stomach that. It frightened him a little. As long as I insisted on talking about Beethoven and praising him, his temper grew worse and worse, and if I remember rightly, he once ordered me to leave the table.”
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Considering how poorly these late quartets of Beethoven were regarded at the time - Ludwig Spohr, one of the great violinists of the day (and a more popular composer than Beethoven was in the 1820s), had little understanding for these quartets, calling them “indecipherable horrors” - one can only imagine Abraham Mendelssohn's reaction when he discovered his son going over to the dark side to actively imitate these “horrors.”

Only about seven months after Beethoven had died, an 18-year-old Mendelssohn composed a string quartet inspired directly by at least three of Beethoven's quartets: Op. 95, the “Serioso,” the A Minor Quartet, Op. 132, and the very last one, Op. 135, which hadn't even been to the printers yet when Beethoven died in March, 1827. Considering Beethoven's death was current news to a young fan like Felix Mendelssohn, his copy of Op. 135 was literally hot off the press.

The most obvious influence is the motto that Mendelssohn uses in his own quartet. Beethoven began the last movement of Op. 135, labeled "Der schwer gefasste Entschluss [The hard-won Decision]" with two distinct motives: one, questioning and tentative which he labeled “Muss es sein? [Must it be?]” and the other, affirmative and joyful, labeled “Es muss sein! [It must be!].” (You can see a performance of this movement with the Hagen Quartet on YouTube: the question occurs at the beginning (0:37) and the answer comes in at 1:54.)

Because this was Beethoven's last quartet - not that he knew that at the time - it is sometimes assumed the question is about life and death. Schindler tells the story, perhaps apocryphal, that Beethoven was often annoyed by his housekeeper waiting on Saturdays for her pay: he would sing to her the phrase, Muss es sein? and she would sing back, Es muss sein! True or not, it appears at least once in one of the conversation books. A more reliable source was from a violinist friend who told him a joke about someone needing to pay up on a bet, and Beethoven, amused by the incident, composed a humorous canon using these words and motives.

In Mendelssohn's case, his motive was set to the words, “Ist es wahr? [Is it true?]” which sounds deeply philosophical. But he borrowed it from a song he'd composed earlier that year which began “Is it true you are waiting for me in the arbor by the vine-clad wall?" The poem describes a budding love affair with the young man hoping to meet his beloved at the garden gate.

Perhaps Mendelssohn had actually become involved in a budding romance at the time he wrote the quartet (or at least the song), but this is more likely an old legend with nothing to substantiate it - a lovely story, all the same. And in that era, it was not uncommon for young people to live vicariously through poetry and to sigh longingly for someone who barely knew they existed.

Unlike Beethoven who used his motto only in the finale of Op. 135, Mendelssohn chose to incorporate his motto in every movement of his quartet.

Here's the first movement of Mendelssohn's A Minor String Quartet with its slow introduction that concludes with this “Ist es wahr?” motive – you can hear it at 1:20 just before the more tempestuous main section of the movement begins. In this performance, it's the Cavani Quartet.
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The one movement that has little to do with Beethoven is the third movement. It's the middle section (beginning at 1:43) of this brief Intermezzo that is typical Mendelssohn, bringing to mind some of the fairy music from “A Midsummer Nights Dream” written the year before and the justly famous scherzo of the Octet written the year before that. (As often happens on YouTube, not every performance posted is of commendable value. I couldn't find many recordings of the Mendelssohn - and none of the Beethoven on the program, but this will give you an idea of what to expect when you hear it live with the Parker Quartet on October 11th.)
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The last movement is the one most seriously inspired by Beethoven's Op. 132, in particular the transition between the march-like 4th Movement and the finale. Out of nowhere, Beethoven writes a full-formula operatic recitative with the 1st Violin as the prima donna, setting up the start of the last movement. This is exactly how Mendelssohn begins his tempestuous finale, copying the operatic convention to a T.
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At 8:21, the opening movement's slow introduction returns, expanding the “Ist es wahr?” motive (at 9:00) and bringing the whole quartet to a well-rounded close (except for the guy who stands up in front of the camera to take some snapshots).

By the way, though this quartet is published as Op. 13, it was written two years before the one published as Op. 12, listed therefore as No. 1, and two years after the Octet for Strings which was published even later as Op. 20! He wasn't particularly concerned about seeing every work into print nor getting them there in convenient chronological order.

The Parker Quartet's program on October 11th will also include Bartok's 1st Quartet, but I'll write about that in a separate post, since I can just hear Ellen telling me to write shorter...

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cypress Quartet's "Beethoven" CD

Things have been busy – if not productive – at Dr. Dick, Inc, between Mendelssohn's World (writing 60,000 words, mostly in 2 weeks), getting caught up on composing, posting the latest installments of “The Schoenberg Code” and getting things ready to start writing a new parody, “The Lost Chord,” based on Dan Brown's latest, “The Lost Symbol.”

Meanwhile, I've been listening to the Cypress Quartet's first Beethoven CD, the start of a complete series which was released this summer and, at the rate of one disc a year, it seems, should be finished around 2015 or so... not sure I can wait that long but it's not the kind of situation where they go into a studio and – wham! - knock out all 16 quartets in a week or two.

They'll be playing on the January concert with Market Square Concerts – Saturday Jan. 23rd, 2010, at 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom – and this week, they're playing at Lebanon Valley College's Blair Music Center, Thursday evening at 7:30. On the Annville program, they'll be performing one of the quartets from this new Beethoven CD – Op.135 – along with Griffes' Two Sketches on [Native American] Themes and Dvořák's “American” Quartet.

It was back at the very first of WITF's “Next Generation Festival” programs – was it in June of 1997? Ellen would have to help me with the date – that I first heard the Cypress Quartet. They performed Beethoven's A Minor Quartet, Op. 132, the one with the famous “Heiliger Dankgesang” (Holy Song of Thanksgiving) in the slow movement which at times can seem glacial and remote. Aside from feeling how well they were able to capture this moment of suspended animation, my fondest memory of this whole performance was watching a young boy (could he have been 10 or 12 years old?) sitting in the front row in rapt attention, leaning forward, his chin on his hand but his eyes intent on the players in front of him, then sitting back at the end, looking over at his mom with one of those wide-eyed “wow!” expressions you see too rarely combined with listeners of any age and classical music.

Obviously, these musicians had something to be able to capture the attention of this largely new audience, when you consider the reputation Late Beethoven Quartets have, usually spelling trouble for even the most experienced adult audiences' attention spans. What impressed me even more was, afterward, realizing this was the end of the quartet's very first season together. Such cohesion of concept and singular communication, translating four people into one organism, is rare in all but the most exceptional quartets who've been playing together for years, not only used to how they play individually but how they think.

So it seems natural they should begin their Beethoven Cycle not chronologically with the (supposedly) easier Early Quartets of Op. 18 but with the psychologically more challenging Late Quartets, the Himalayas of Chamber Music, beginning with perhaps the most difficult one to make work, the C-sharp Minor, Op. 130, and the very last of them, in F Major Op. 135.

I don't know if, as one reviewer said somewhere, "They have looked into Beethoven's soul," it's clear they've been looking into their own souls and finding a lot of in-put to shape their own interpretations of this music.

Let's just say – since I hate writing reviews in the first place, especially reviews of friends of mine – I like this recording a lot. I've listened to it just as I would listen to it in a concert, I've listened to it while following the score and I've compared it to a couple of other recordings I have with the Juilliard and Guarneri Quartets. In many ways, I can't really tell the difference between them: they may be a little different in the subtlety of their details, but basically, they all sound to me as of one level.

One of the great things about great art is the many different ways you can interpret it – on a technical level, on a philosophical or aesthetic level, on a personal level – and it's still the same work of art.

Basically, I listen to a recording or a performance and judge it on whether it works for me, expressing what I feel the composer was trying to say in the piece. There's not much to quibble with in the Cypress's recordings of these two great quartets.

Beethoven, for all his specificity in markings, still leaves questions that need to be settled: agreed upon if not answered. Writing the notes – and learning them – is only part of the music.

As an example, take the slow movement of Op. 135, marked “Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo [very slow, singing & tranquil].” It's a short hymn-like theme with four variations, the second, in C-sharp Minor, is marked “Piu lento [more slowly].” The last variation is similar, with a filagree over the theme's implied framework.

Of the three recordings I've listened to, the Cypress clocks in at 7:18; the Juilliard (from 1996), at 7:58; the Guarneri (a reissue of their late-1960s cycle, recorded in the first four years of their existence), at an incredible 8:42.

And yet it's all the same music, no repeats, no cuts: they're all playing the same notes. How slow is “slow”?

Even though I like the Cypress's slow movement very much, I quibble with their phrasing of the theme's second half, taking a breath between sub-groups of the phrase (m. 7-10, for you geeks with scores). The logic may be in taking a breath while dropping back from the crescendo to the initial piano [soft] dynamic but I feel by actually “breathing” there, they've interrupted the line of the phrase. Beethoven does this automatically in the hesitant C-sharp Minor variation, but they still add a 16th-note rest in their breath-taking. They don't do it at similar structural spots in the other variations, but then there are no “crescendos dropping back to piano” there, either.

The Juilliard stretches the phrasing at those points, too, but not so much: the bows don't seem to stop the sound as much, either.

Though the Guarneri's tempo is so slow it's hard to feel the subdividing 16th notes evenly, they play it “straight through” the phrase, no breathing but still stretching the tempo a tad. Curiously, they also go back to the much slower tempo of the 2nd Variation for the last one, even though Beethoven marks no change in tempo (now, that is a real quibble).

None of this “changes” the piece nor certainly “ruins” it – they're just different ways different performers hear it, at these moments in time.

It's things like this – and intonation – that keep quartets busy during rehearsals. It's not just playing the piece over and over again until you get it right: it's trying to find solutions (or perhaps a better word would be “realizations”) that make for a cohesive interpretation and overall sound. It's what makes a quartet want to come back and re-examine a piece they've played before, perhaps find new insight or try something different to see how it might work.

It's also what keeps the music from getting stale over the years. It's what keeps musicians alive by being able to look at the same landscape at different times but notice something they hadn't seen before and marvel at the richness of what could seem familiar to someone else.

Let's say I'm looking forward to hearing the rest of their Beethoven Cycle and I'm looking forward to hearing them play Op. 135 live Thursday evening at Lebanon Valley College.

I'm also looking forward, hopefully, to hearing them perform and maybe re-record them a decade or so from now: it would be fascinating to hear how their perceptions change and mature with them.

And of course, I'm looking forward to hearing them play Debussy and Barber and music by one of my favorite composers out there today, Jennifer Higdon, when they're in Harrisburg in January: should be a great way to warm up on a cold winter's day.

- Dr. Dick

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pennsylvania's Budget: Sales Tax & Ticket Sales

Last Friday, Pennsylvania's long-delayed budget process got a little bit closer to reaching some kind of resolution. It hasn't been approved yet – they're planning to vote on it this Saturday – but one of the more controversial items came as something of a surprise: adding sales tax to the cost of tickets for arts and entertainment venues.

The $14.5 million dollars allocated for the arts in Pennsylvania has been reduced to $10 million – still better than one proposal that had eliminated it completely. But the likely impact of this sales tax, whether it's fair or not in light of movies and sporting events being excluded from it, is not likely to help the already beleaguered arts communities across the state when ticket revenues, even in the best of times, are already barely able to keep presenters and performers afloat financially.

Here are some recent articles and reactions to this new proposal, including one that appeared on Tuesday.

In an editorial from Harrisburg's Patriot-News, it is mentioned that Rep. Jake Corman (R-Centre and Republican appropriations chairman) considers adding this sales tax only to “professional” arts organizations and that such a ticket represents “the ultimate discretionary buy,” adding that “people could avoid it if they liked.” (I would imagine they could also avoid seeing the latest block-buster movie at the local cineplex, gambling at the casino or buying smokeless tobacco products, but I digress...)

The proposal expects this to bring in a $120 million in tax revenues. Some argue that some of this money will go into a “rainy-day” fund for the arts, though so far there seems to be no such thing.

Sports events had initially been included in this possible sales tax proposal but in the end were not included in the proposal. Considering that would add another $64 million in tax revenues, it doesn't make a lot of sense to drop it.

As the editorial continues, “Instead of the Steelers and Phillies helping close the budget gap, nonprofit organizations, such as the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Harrisburg’s Market Square Concerts, seem slated for that.”

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UP-DATE: Dr. William Murray, president of the Harrisburg Symphony's Board of Directors, writes the "As I See It" column in Thursday's Patriot-News.
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This post is also intriguing, from a Philadelphia-base financial blog, “It's Our Money.

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'Get mad that it was necessary in part because of a big tax break for corporations…one that will cost you and other taxpayers nearly $100 million, the same amount to be generated by the so-called “culture tax.”

'The “Single sales factor “ is essentially a technical change that will mean big bucks for corporations like Hershey Foods and U.S. Steel – companies based in Pennsylvania that do most of their business elsewhere.'
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Check “Save the Arts in PA” for information as well – like Rep. Corman's explanation that this is designed as a “user fee” - or this re-post of Karen Heller's article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Who in Harrisburg Needs the Arts?”

There's also this article that appeared in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Another area of concern was what arts people viewed as an unfairness in the budget proposal - that it would extend the sales tax to cultural venues but not sports events and movies.

City and state officials said yesterday that applying the sales tax to pro sports teams would be difficult if not impossible, due in large part to past agreements under which the state helped finance new stadiums in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for the Eagles, Phillies, Steelers, and Pirates.

Barry Ciccocioppo, a spokesman for Gov. Rendell, said no law prevents the state from extending its sales tax to pro sports events. But such a move, he said, would hit those two cities hard.

Here's how: When the state agreed to help finance the new stadiums, the teams agreed, in return, to guarantee millions in annual tax revenue to the state. In the Eagles' case, for example, that is $2.5 million annually.

If more taxes are collected from sports tickets via a sales tax, the financially strapped city would have to pick up the difference, Ciccocioppo said.
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It continues by urging “members of the cultural community to blitz legislators and inform patrons in an effort to stop the tax extension.”

While there seems to be no plan to collect the tax retroactively for tickets already purchased, you might want to consider getting that season subscription before the budget is officially signed and implemented.

- Dr. Dick

(The opinions expressed in this post are those of its author, Dick Strawser, and do not necessarily reflect those of the management of Market Square Concerts or its Board of Directors.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Getting Ready for the New Season

Summer is over – officially, as of Tuesday, Sept. 22nd at 5:18pm – and that means the New Season is about to begin.

It may seem far away before you turn the page on the calendar but if time is marching ever faster for you, then you should know the 2009-2010 Season at Market Square Concert begins in a just a couple of weeks.

SUNDAY, OCT. 11th, 2009, at 4pm, Whitaker Center

The New York Times called the Parker String Quartet “something extraordinary,” The Boston Globe hailed its “fiercely committed performances” and The Washington Post declared it “a quartet that deserves close attention.” Earlier this year, they were awarded the Cleveland Quartet Competition Award.

They're playing a program of “early” quartets by Beethoven, Bartok and Mendelssohn.

Beethoven's String Quartet in D, Op. 18, No. 3, was actually the first he completed of the Op. 18 set (it just got published in a different order). It sounds like it's rooted in the past generations' masters – Haydn and Mozart – but may not seem to indicate (at least on the surface) the quartets Beethoven would write twenty years later.

Bartok's first quartet doesn't sound very close stylistically to the quartets he'd write twenty years later, either. It's nominally in A Minor and when he was writing it (mostly in 1908), he had just discovered two things: the music of Claude Debussy and the authentic folk-music of ethnic Hungarians. Both gave him a kind of creative release from the omnipresent Germanic style that was officially sanctioned in Imperial Vienna and provincial Budapest. Still, many passages seem to spring right from some of Beethoven's last quartets, especially the C-sharp Minor, Op.131. Meanwhile, in his personal life at this time, there was his unrequited love for a beautiful violinist named Stefi Geyer to whom he also dedicated a violin concerto he later suppressed.

Mendelssohn – born 200 years ago – was also much influenced by the late quartets of Beethoven who had just died a few months before Mendelssohn wrote his first “mature” quartet. Beethoven's music was still quite contemporary (in fact, Mendelssohn's father couldn't stand Beethoven's music) and it was Beethoven's A Minor Quartet, Op. 127, that served as the catalyst for Mendelssohn's A Minor Quartet, his Op. 13. Just as Beethoven had begun his last quartet's finale with a question (Must it be?), Mendelssohn quoted a song he'd written a few months earlier with its own questioning motive: “Is it true?” There are also passages that clearly indicate he'd been studying the “Serioso” Quartet, Beethoven's Op. 95, as well. This is really the 1st of the published quartets he'd composed but the second got to the publishers first, so it's officially String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13..

Though these are considered “early” quartets, Beethoven was pushing 30 when he worked on the six quartets of Op. 18. Bartok was 27. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, was all of 18.

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TUESDAY NOV. 17th, 2009 at 8pm, Whitaker Center

There's Mendelssohn on the second concert with cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Robert Koenig, the second of his cello sonatas, composed at the ripe old age of 34. Also on the program is one of Igor Stravinsky's backward glances, the Suite Italienne which is based on music from the ballet, Pulcinella, much of which incorporates music he thought was by the Barqoue composer, Pergolesi. Brahms also wrote two cello sonatas, and his 2nd Sonata in F Major concludes the program.

Zuill Bailey may be familiar to Central Pennsylvania audiences who've heard his recordings on WITF-FM or having seen him in some of the Next Generation Festivals of years past with Awadagin Pratt and friends. The San Francisco Sentinel described him as a “triple threat of gifts of splendid virtuosity, elegant technique and theatrical flair. The Chicago Tribune says his playing “bristles with rare virtuosic flare.”

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SATURDAY, JANUARY 23rd, 2010 at 8pm, Temple Ohev Sholom, Harrisburg

Midstaters first heard the Cypress Quartet during their very first season together when they also appeared with Awadagin Pratt at the very first Next Generation Festival. Since then, they've been back numerous times with recitals throughout the region, including a regular residency at Lebanon Valley College and, just this past summer, with the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster.

This year, they'll be bringing us a recent work composed specifically for them by Jennifer Higdon, a Philadelphia-based composer whose music may also be familiar to midstaters from performances with the Harrisburg Symphony (her Blue Cathedral and the Percussion Concerto) and the Lancaster Symphony (river sings a song to trees, from “CityScape”). Ms. Higdon will be in Harrisburg for this performance and will also be involved in an educational program in the city schools.

Her string quartet “Impressions” (which they've recorded for Naxos) was composed as a response to one of the great works of the “Impressionist” era, Claude Debussy's String Quartet which is also on the program. Higdon's work includes movements entitled “Bright Palette,” “Quiet Art,” “To the Point” and “Noted Canvas.” You'll get a chance to hear a Live Composer talk about the creative process not only in terms of Debussy's work as a starting point but also the ideas of transforming a painting style into music.

The performance also includes the String Quartet by West Chester native, Samuel Barber, a work perhaps better known as the home of the original version of the Adagio for Strings.

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SATURDAY, FEB. 28th, 2010, 8pm, Market Square Church

While they may not be your grandmother's string quartet, the Brooklyn Rider was “born out of a desire to use the rich medium of the string quartet as a vehicle for borderless communication,” whether they're performing in traditional concert venues or not (like Joe's Pub or a temple in Japan). Their innovative programming spans the new and unusual to the standard. Not surprising since some of the musicians have been involved with Yo-Yo Ma's cross-cultural Silk Road Ensemble.

On this program, they'll mix Schubert's great “Death & the Maiden” Quartet with works by Philip Glass (whose Violin Sonata was given its World Premiere last season with Market Square Concerts) and two Silk Road colleagues, Colin Jacobsen and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovksy. Also featured will be a Market Square Concerts commission, a work that is being written “as we speak” - meaning it will be “hot-off-the-press” at its world premiere on this concert, a brand new work by composer and soprano Lisa Bielawa who'll perform it with the quartet. (You can read more about the background of this new work in a previous post.)

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WEDNESDAY MARCH 24th, 2010, 8pm, Whitaker Center

Flutist Claire Chase, winner of the 2008 Concert Artists Guild International Competition, brings an eclectic program to the March concert with music ranging from Bach and Schumann to Debussy and Boulez. There are original works as well as transcriptions. While hearing Schumann's 3 Romances on the flute instead of the oboe is not much of a stretch, hearing Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor played by solo flute (even amplified) might be. We know it as an organ work – and, officially, it might not even be originally by Bach – but apparently it was originally a work for solo violin, so this performance might give us an idea of a familiar work's unfamiliar beginnings!

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SATURDAY, APRIL 24th, 2010, 8pm, Market Square Church

Having traveled through familiar 19th & 20th Century repertoire to music of the 21st Century (including a piece that hasn't even been finished yet), the season ends with a trip back to Elizabethan times with the timeless poetry of William Shakespeare and John Dunne and music by their contemporaries with a group the New Yorker Magazine called “one of the brightest lights in New York's early music scene,” Parthenia. They'll be joined by actor Paul Hecht and soprano Jacqueline Horner for this program, on the date usually considered Shakespeare's Birthday. So come and join the party!

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Check out the website or call 717 221-9599 for details, especially about tickets. And keep in tune with us on Facebook.

Thanks to the Season Sponsor, Capital Blue Cross.

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cypress Quartet's New Beethoven CD Launched

It's official - the Cypress String Quartet, who'll be performing in January as part of the new 2009-2010 season with Market Square Concerts, launches their latest recording, the first in a series of the complete string quartets by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven.

And Volume 1 consists of the String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op.131, and the very last one, the Quartet in F Major, Op.135.

Today, cellist Jennifer Kloetzel was interviewed on Vpype which I was able to access (at least for the brief time I was able to) through Facebook.

But if you couldn't watch the video live yourself, they've posted it on-line so you can view it whenever you want. So, since you're here now, click on this and, with any luck, it should work:

Watch this live broadcast from Jennifer Kloetzel (at Vpype Broadcaster)

If it doesn't, er... as it didn't the first time I posted it - try THIS LINK.

Vpype - which they pronounce V-pipe (I was trying to make something tongue-twistingly Slavic out of it - v'PEE-yeh... wrong...) - is another new format for broadcasting live on the internet. At the moment, it's "in Beta" and I'm gathering may only be available to Facebook Users -- so, uhm... well, it may be another reason to join the gazillion other people who are wasting lots of their time on-line there, and then add Market Square Concerts to your page! AND the Cypress Quartet, too!

I don't think the 'chat text' will be visible when you view it, but during the live broadcast, viewers could write in questions to ask Jennifer. You'll hear her say hello to me, in fact, when I asked my question about how many CDs and how long this project may take before all 16 quartets have been released.

It was at that point, the phone rang again - I never get any calls, so of course during the brief interview, I get two of them... - and by the time I got back to the computer, it was over! So I definitely want to tune in and hear the whole thing.

Tonight, there's a "release party" at their home base in San Francisco celebrating the launch! I'm going to celebrate by listening to the CD myself, back here in Harrisburg, and I'll post a 'review' here in a couple of days. I already listened to it once and I can tell you it's very good. Stay tuned to find out how good.

It's tough reviewing your friends - I've known them since they first appeared here with the first of the Next Generation Festivals Ellen Hughes, now Director of Market Square Concerts, had organized at WITF. The quartet'd been together less than a year but have come back to the area frequently since then, between subsequent Next Generation Festivals, residency concerts with Lebanon Valley College and just this past summer, one at the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster. They're beginning their 14th Season together next month!

So, check out the Vpype interview (whether you can pronounce it or not), check out their website for more details about the CD (where you can also listen to samples) and check back in a couple of days for something kind of like a review right here.

And while you're at it, put Saturday, January 23rd, 2010, at 8pm on your calendar now for their Market Square Concerts performance - which will be held at Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg. They'll be playing the string quartets by Claude Debussy and Samuel Barber and a recent work composed for them by Jennifer Higdon who will be here for the performance!

- Dr. Dick

Friday, July 31, 2009

Looking Back on Summer Music 2009

Since the last of the three Summer Music concerts this past Sunday had stuffed more people into the Glen Allen Mill than I'd ever seen there before, Stuart Malina announced they were re-naming the final work of the afternoon (one that left little room on the stage), Schubert's Trout Quintet, the “Sardine.”

There had also been a lot of great music-making packed into those three different concerts. I'll be writing more about the music itself, but this post is primarily about this year's Summer Music experience.

I'm not sure how many years the Fry Street Quartet has been appearing here but over the past several years, their “residency” here has been fascinating to follow, both in terms of what they play as well as how they play it. A regular audience begins to feel a regular affinity developing between performer and listener, and we (on our side) begin to establish a kind of proprietary relationship as we watch and hear them grow and develop or return to familiar repertoire to allow some new insights or discoveries.

Concentrating on Beethoven has also been a big part of Summer Music's programming from the beginning. There are 16 Beethoven quartets to go around but with only 3 days to program, so it may be a few years before anything needs to be repeated. On the other hand, being that they're Beethoven string quartets, it's likely not to matter very much if they do.

Add a pianist to the string quartet and you have the much more limited repertoire of the Piano Quintet. There may be lots of piano quintets out there but few of them are on the level of those by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák, Shostakovich, Fauré and, with its slightly different configuration, Schubert's “Trout,” something that creates more of a programming challenge. In addition, there's the wider availability of sonatas as well as all those piano trios and piano quartets that can involve members of the string quartet.

Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, now getting ready for his 10th season with the orchestra, has also been playing regularly with Summer Music for several years, now, initially for the Wednesday night concert at Market Square Church; then more recently on the weekend's concerts as well, since they've figured out how to squeeze a grand piano into the Glen Allen Mill and keep it air-conditioned. This year, Stuart joined with the Fry Street Quartet to play the Shostakovich Piano Quintet and, joined by bassist Donovan Stokes, Schubert's “Trout” Quintet, opening and closing the festivities.

In between, violinist Odin Rathnam (and concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony) was joined by Michael Sheppard (a Baltimore-based pianist who played Chopin's 2nd with the Lancaster Symphony in January) to play Ernest Chausson's rarely heard Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet.

 Another regular guest has been oboist Gerard Reuter who adds his customary variety and sense of discovery to each of the three concerts. While the standard repertoire for the oboe may seem somewhat sparse, there's a lot out there that isn't well known, and Jerry has brought a great deal of less familiar music to these programs over the years. This year included a work by a composer I'd never even heard of before – Leone Sinigaglia – and two others I haven't heard live in decades, Loeffler's Two Rhapsodies and a Bach concerto for the oboe d'amore.

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Summer concerts, by their nature – especially when in nature – have different kinds of issues than concerts during the “regular” season. We can worry about snow storms in January, so the question about heat and humidity is always up front when looking at the third week of July. Not than one can do much about it, especially when it comes to the weekend's concerts at the Glen Allen Mill along the Yellow Breeches Creek.

This beautiful old mill was initially built around 1749, the present foundation laid in the 1790s and then bricked in as we see it today in the 1830s. Among the graffiti painted on the interior walls is the signature of someone named Washington Trout, dated 1875. Somehow, listening to music written in the early 1800s seems appropriate, here, especially a piece inspired by trout fishing.

After spring-like mildness and a round of monsoons lasting into July, warm summery weather arrived just in time for Summer Music. The air-conditioner units fitted into the mill's windows (on all four sides) had now become a necessity. It's only been recently that these have been added but there is still one draw-back: in order for the musicians to be heard, the a/c has to be turned off during the concert! Still, a huge improvement over the saunas of yore.

It's not just the heat or the much maligned humidity making things uncomfortable. If you can work up a sweat just listening to a performance, imagine performing it, then. I've seen players stand up to take a bow looking like they've just stepped out of the pool (one intermission image at the Sunday concert: a member of the quartet splayed across the front of a window a/c unit, arms raised for maximum coverage).

All of this has an impact on the musicians and their concentration, even their instruments. Wood swells, strings can stretch and an oboe's reeds can become as responsive as kleenex. Wiping brows and fingerboards is a common visual detail. Hands sweat not because of nerves: wiping them on already soaked clothing probably doesn't help much.

Though insects are less of an issue at the mill, now, something that might have been a moth and, depending on your perspective, about the size of a B-52, added an unexpectedly extensive choreographic moment to the finale of Chausson's Concerto Saturday night, with concerned musicians and audience members scanning about, worried where it might land. Thinking of the old joke (“Maestro, there was a fly on my music and I played him”), I was hoping it wouldn't be on some fiendishly difficult 16th-note passage obliterating the high-point of the piece...

Yet none of this seems to have any impact on the performance: Market Square Church might have a higher ceiling and the seats at Whitaker Center are certainly more comfortable, but even with acoustics that are clearly limited – not what you might think the first time you walk into it, though – there is something about the camaraderie that makes one overlook these issues.

Performances, despite the occasional heat-induced intonation problems, are just as intense as they might be in an air-conditioned venue; the audiences responds just as warmly, if not more, than they might after ninety minutes spent listening in the plush comfort of a standard concert hall.

It is, after all, summertime and whether or not the living is easy doesn't matter. More casual, yes; any less involved, no.

While the weather had been iffy at best for Sunday, I am glad to report that Jupiter Pluvius put in only a passing appearance.

- Dr. Dick