Monday, February 23, 2009

Ravel, Enescu & Brahms This Weekend with Maria Bachmann

This Saturday evening’s performance with Market Square Concerts features 2/3's of one of the most famous piano trios in the chamber music world today, Trio Solisti. Violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Jon Klibonoff (see photo below, right) will be playing great sonatas by Johannes Brahms, Maurice Ravel and George Enescu plus the World Premiere of a brand new work by Philip Glass (you can read more about Glass’s Violin Sonata in my previous post). It all takes place at Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg, Saturday at 8:00.

Maria had also played a recital at Gretna Music this past August which I wrote about on my other blog. Joined by pianist Natalie Zhu for that concert, she’ll be playing two of those works this weekend – the Enescu and the Brahms 3rd Sonatas. For those who attended that concert, she also played a sonata by Ravel but not “the” Ravel Sonata – that one was a very early work that had only recently been rediscovered. This weekend, she plays Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G Major, easily one of the best (and most fun) sonatas in the 20th Century repertoire.

Perhaps the main reason it’s so well known is the unexpected 2nd movement, the famous “Blues” Movement. (Here is a performance from YouTube just as an example.) Ravel was quite capable of having fun with flashes of jazz or finding inspiration in folk music from around the world, in particular the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia.

Ravel met George Gershwin presumably around the time he'd completed the Violin Sonata. Gershwin’s “American in Paris” was premiered the next year, in 1928. (Incidentally, 1928 was the same year - thinking of Philip Glass and his use of repetition - Ravel composed Bolero.) Gershwin and Ravel met again during Ravel’s American Tour of 1928 (see photo: Ravel is at the piano and Gershwin is standing on the far right) when they went to hear jazz in some of the clubs in Harlem. This four-month tour also took Ravel to New Orleans. It would be interesting to think how this might have affected the sonata if he’d written it after his American tour.

It hardly sounds like it took him four years to write this sonata, especially the whirlwind of a finale, one of those perpetual motion movements. The first movement is more “classically” oriented – leaner textures, sparer harmonies, in general more abstract than the emotional style we associate with “romantic” music. But there’s also a passage that must have raised some eyebrows among Ravel’s old teachers: though he’d been expelled from the Conservatory more for his failing to win any prizes in the competitions rather than as a “bad student,” he was considered a little too radical for the conservative tastes of the day. One of the things harmony students are forbidden to indulge in is the writing of “parallel fifths,” considered bad form in Mozart’s day and still worth getting the red pencil out in harmony classes today. Well, during one passage of his Violin Sonata's first movement, Ravel writes not one or two consecutive “parallel fifths” but 34 of them! After that, who needed the taste of Blues in the 2nd movement to realize Ravel was not one to bide by the rules!

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The violinist who premiered Ravel’s Violin Sonata was George Enescu, better known today as a composer of music inspired by the folk music of his native Romania though he was one of the finest violinists of his day. Ravel was 22 when he first met the newly arrived Enescu who was about 16 at the time. Enescu’s 3rd Sonata, “after the popular Romanian character” as its subtitle translates literally, was written almost 30 years later, in 1926, the same time Ravel was working on his own sonata. Enescu’s is a work that could only have been written by a virtuoso violinist who seemed to be using every trick in his arsenal to the greatest effect.

It’s a dynamite piano part as well and music that is so over-the-top that it has to be played just as over-the-top to make it work. Fortunately, Maria Bachmann and her pianist at Gretna Music, Natalie Zhu, went all out. While I didn’t think there was much beyond the surface brilliance – and all the special effects imitating gypsy fiddlers and Eastern European folk styles (written, incidentally, around the same time Bartok was integrating similar effects into his own style) – they played it with the commitment as if it’s one of the great sonatas. And maybe it is: one thing, at least, is the question “why isn’t it heard more often?” Not because it’s not a great sonata but maybe because it’s so freakin’ hard to bring off with the right pizzazz?

For people who love Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsodies (at least the first one gets played a lot), it’s not a big step to this piece except for the lack of big memorable tunes. I think the impact of the piece is more significant than whether you can hum the tunes. The second movement is full of those “night music” sounds familiar to listeners of Bartok – the repeated single notes in the piano not unlike the sounds of tree frogs and cicadas going on outside the Gretna Playhouse, the kaleidoscopic wisps of phrases in the violin here and there, not to mention all the different colorings created by bowing techniques, harmonics, bending the pitches by quarter-tones or playing with the mute – creating a canvas of beauty beyond the merely hummable.

(You may frequently find Enescu's name spelled in the French style, Georges Enesco, since he spent a great deal of his career living in Paris. It seems the original Romanian form of his name meant something not terribly suitable for mixed company in French and so it was re-spelled with a less scatalogical o...)

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The last of Brahms’ violin sonatas, written when he was in his mid-50s and close to “retirement,” is the most dramatic of his sonatas and certainly the most symphonic. It was sketched right after the premiere of his 4th Symphony (which pro-Brahmsian critic Hanslick called “a dark well”), during the same summer he composed his 2nd Violin Sonata (bright, sunny and song-like), the 2nd Cello Sonata and the C Minor Piano Trio, all, basically, positive works (as one friend said of the trio, “better than any photograph, for it shows your real self”).

The next year, when Brahms had turned thoroughly gray, suddenly aging, he sent the now-finished 3rd Violin Sonata to Clara Schumann, herself troubled with problems of age and illness, compounded by one family tragedy after another. She liked especially the third movement, the modest little scherzo, which she wrote was “like a beautiful girl sweetly frolicking with her lover – then suddenly in the middle of it all, a flash of deep passion, only to make way for sweet dalliance once more.”

Brahms responded that, going over the score at his desk and thinking of the “sonata flowing gently and dreamily beneath your fingers,” “in my thoughts [I] wandered gently with you through the maze of organ-points [in the first movement], with you still beside me, and I know no greater pleasure than this, to sit at your side or, as now, to walk beside you.” While they played piano duets frequently during their long friendship, perhaps there was something of a “sweet dalliance” that they both, in their increasing age, remembered fondly? For the past year, they had been negotiating the return of their letters to each other: Brahms sent his off without rereading them but Clara, reading them again, was unable to bring herself to part with them.

There is nothing “autumnal” about this sonata, an adjective usually attached to these last years’ works. As an example, here’s the dramatic last movement in a performance I found on YouTube with violinist Sergei Khachatryan and his sister, pianist Lusine Khachatryan.

Balance is always a problem with Brahms’ piano parts, by the way. An exceptional pianist despite his lack of interest in rehearsing, Brahms wrote monster piano parts for his sonatas and chamber music and it would not be difficult for a pianist with the chops to play this music to swamp some poor hapless string player. There’s a famous story about Brahms rehearsing one of his cello sonatas with a less than adequate musician: in desperation, the struggling cellist stopped to mention cautiously he thought he was working too hard to be heard over the piano. Brahms replied “Yes, and I can still hear you!”

(The famous photograph above with Johann Strauss Jr. on the left and Johannes Brahms on the right was taken in 1894, six years after Brahms completed his D Minor Violin Sonata. Strauss is actually eight years older than Brahms.)

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(And on a completely different note, for a less than factual story about Brahms and Robert Schumann, check out my collection of stories at “Stravinsky’s Tavern,” when the comedy team of Schumann and Brahms entertained a tough crowd with their classic routine, “Who’s on First?)

- Dr. Dick

A World Premiere in Harrisburg: Philip Glass's New Violin Sonata

This weekend, a new violin sonata by one of the major composers in the world today will receive its first performance anywhere in the world in Harrisburg, PA, a city not exactly known as a hot-bed of new music.

Philip Glass, who’s written numerous operas (like the ground-breaking “Einstein on the Beach”), chamber music and film scores (ranging from the equally ground-breaking “Koyaanisquatsi” to the Oscar-nominated score for “The Hours”), wrote his “Duo No. 1 for Violin & Piano” for violinist Maria Bachmann to perform on the stage of Whitaker Center this Saturday evening at 8pm as part of Market Square Concert’s 2008-2009 Season.

The work was commissioned by Martin Murray as a special birthday gift for his wife, Lucy Miller Murray, celebrating her 70th birthday and her 27 years as the founding director of Market Square Concerts. In addition to this concert’s celebration, there will be a special tribute following the last concert of the season with the legendary Guarneri Quartet (near the end of their final tour before the group officially retires) which I’ll be telling you about in a future post.

The whole program includes three other sonatas – one from the early-20th Century by Maurice Ravel (with its famous “Blues” movement) and one of the great sonatas of the repertoire which Johannes Brahms wrote less than 40 years earlier, though a world of difference away. Less well known is the music of Romanian-born George Enescu (often known in the French-form of his name, Georges Enesco) who was one of the great violinists of his day (he even premiered Ravel’s Sonata) but also composed a great deal of music, most of it overshadowed by his 1st Romanian Rhapsody. I’ll tell you more about these works in my next post (you know, they want me to keep these a little shorter than I usually write over at my own blog, Thoughts on a Train).

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We live in a time when musical styles are changing, similar to what happened in music history between the end of the 19th Century and the early decades of the 20th. What they will change to is still in our future, the same way someone living in 1909 who might be concerned about the state of music following Brahms’ death might have no clue that a few years later, two very important and very radical works would be composed: Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.”

Philip Glass is one of the few composers active today to be as well known internationally as some of the great composers of the last century, like Igor Stravinsky who was often described as “The Greatest Living Composer” in his time (when he died in 1971, there was no one standing in the wings to be automatically hailed as his successor). While Stravinsky was one composer who helped change the musical landscape, Glass was among a generation of composers born in the 1930s who have changed the landscape of American Classical Music and one who himself has had a major impact on music around the world.

In a nutshell, while the second half of the 20th Century’s university-centered, universal style-of-the-day followed the atonal and serial language of Arnold Schoenberg, Philip Glass and others developed a more direct, tonal style rooted (so to speak) in the simple triad. Adding that to the simplicity of its textures and harmonies, what set it off from other music being written in the ‘70s and ‘80s was its use of repetition, giving it the convenient term, “minimalism.” It must have sounded a lot like that new style of those Italian composers who invented opera around 1600, seeking to return to the simpler ideals of Ancient Greece (though no one knows, even today, what their music sounded like) compared to the highly intellectual and lavishly “maximal” music of the Late Renaissance.

Glass himself or at least his musical style is perhaps changing a bit, now that he has passed the 70-year-mark. From his earliest “reductive” works of the mid-1960s (inspired in part by meeting the Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar who also influenced the Beatles) to his most recent works – the “Songs and Poems for Solo Cello” premiered a year ago and now this new violin sonata – he may be looking at different ways to handle his own musical language. For many composers, new and different approaches to a musical voice, inspired by the “aging process” or more realistic events in life or history, may come naturally and often automatically (I’m thinking of those handy pigeon-holes “Early, Middle & Late” that can be applied to Beethoven or Stravinsky). It’s not that the music will sound radically different from one work to the next and it may only be evident to some listeners over a period of time. It’s more like subtle shadings or variations on those details we may think of like musical finger-prints.

That’s one of the exciting things about a world premiere: no one knows where this work will be in the composer’s development and no one knows where it will stand a decade or more from now. For all the works a composer writes during his or her lifetime, there are some pieces that will succeed and others that will not – and, you could add, not succeed now but perhaps be rediscovered later and find success in the future (Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is just one example of that). So there’s this sense of a gamble that adds to the excitement.

The “Duo No. 1 for Violin & Piano” (or “Violin Sonata” as the composer refers to it on his web-site) is a substantial piece lasting about 25 minutes. It’s in a standard-looking three-movement format – the outer movements are fast, the middle movement is slow – though the title and each movement indicate a fairly abstract piece, no emotional external suggestions with fanciful or picturesque descriptions. In fact, the movements are indicated not even in the traditional tempo indications (allegro or adagio) but merely with metronome markings (like the 1st movement’s “Quarter Note = 120"). And while you could describe Glass’s music in general as “classical” in its clarity of texture and design, it’s not without its emotional impact. Often, the hypnotic repetitions build to an emotional awareness you wouldn’t expect from looking at the music on the page, getting beyond the constant rhythmic pulse which many first-time listeners find annoying (I know: I was one of them). Even though I haven’t seen the score or heard the recent cello piece, what I’ve read about his latest music sounds like there’s a more emotional drive in the style, perhaps a synthesis of the old “minimalist” style with a more directly emotional Romanticism of traditional tonal music.

In her notes for the program, Lucy Miller Murray writes,

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“Yet repetition is only one facet of the Duo. Others are the inventive and daring harmony that marks the first movement and the moving melodic quality of the second movement. The third movement, with its soloistic passages for both instruments, is singular in its powerful effectiveness. Unexpectedly, Glass chooses to end the wonderful work with a simple and quiet chromatic statement only hinted at earlier in the movement.”
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You don’t get a chance to hear a brand new work by a major composer in your own back yard very often – unless you live in one of the major arts centers of the world – so this becomes very exciting. Not only do the performers not have any other performance or recording to go by in shaping their interpretation of the piece, the audience doesn’t have any idea what to expect. There is no review to read, no advance buzz about what other critics and listeners feel about it. In fact, WE become the first audience to react to this music. I wonder if that’s very different from how it worked in 1888, a little over 120 years ago, when people in Budapest sat down to hear Brahms’ 3rd Violin Sonata for the first time?

Ellen Hughes, the new Director of Market Square Concerts, told me several people are coming down from New York City to hear the premiere here, rather than wait for the inevitable, already scheduled New York performance. She also wrote, the concert will be “followed by a reception hosted by Martin Murray where you can meet the players. We expect an especially enthusiastic turnout for this concert, which is indeed an event of note for Harrisburg and for chamber music, as there are already plans for a second and third hearing of Glass's Sonata in Colorado and in New York City.”

I hope you’ll be able to join us on Saturday evening – 8pm at Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg – when Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff perform the World Premiere of the brand new Violin Sonata by Philip Glass.

- Dr. Dick

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


One of the most important things an arts organization can do, beyond presenting the best quality art it can to its community, is to connect with young people to introduce them to the arts and hopefully build a future audience. Today’s students will not only have a more enriched life as a result, they will also be the potential audience and contributors for the arts years into the future.

Over twenty years ago when I was involved in a Harrisburg Symphony “Tiny Tots” concert and practically everybody in the room was like three feet tall and sprawled all over the floor, I remember one of the older adults with the group of first graders talking about growing up in one of Pennsylvania’s coal towns during the depression. His introduction to classical music had a touch of magic about it. His teacher had brought in some records and a record-player – not something many of the families would’ve had in their living rooms, probably – and he remembered sitting there, absolutely transfixed by hearing the sound of a full orchestra coming out of this box. Ever since, he’s been a life-long lover of classical music. He wondered, looking around at these first-graders, whether hearing 25 members of an orchestra playing live in front of them could even approach that sense of magic he’d felt so long ago, considering how much “experience” there is for today’s kids, between TV, movies and videos (one could add computer games, now) and all the other sounds and sights that stimulate and assault us every day. How can you make a difference, any more?

One of the projects Market Square Concerts has implemented recently is a program called “Soundscapes” which takes classical music to the students, live presentations tied into an up-coming concert that work in two parts.

I had the opportunity to do one for January’s concert with pianist Matthew Bengtson, talking to the students of the Capital Area School for the Arts about Bach’s Goldberg Variations and a few of the contemporary pieces on the first half of the program. That was Part 1.

Part 2, then, was taking the students over to Whitaker Center to hear the pianist himself talk about what he was going to play and then to play a little for them. In this particular instance, he also had a guest with him, one of the composer’s on the program, Jeremy Gill, who talked about his own piece of music and then Bengtson played it for the students.

Passes and discount tickets are made available to the students and their parents to attend the concert so in effect it becomes a three-part opportunity. In this way, students may become introduced to music they might never hear otherwise.

The students at CASA are already on the path to becoming artists – dancers, actors, painters, film-makers as well as musicians. Still, the opportunity to hear live classical music is not always easily available to them. It may inspire them, reinforce their own sense of direction, perhaps even impact their own sense of artistic values by giving them something that those of us on the outside might only guess at. But otherwise, it’s possible they might never find out about it.

There were about 70 students from CASA there on Inauguration Day when I spoke to them in the sanctuary of old Salem Church where the school meets in rooms spread out across the building. My session was done in two parts – a more general introduction for all the students, perhaps tying things in with different arts and their viewpoints; then a more specific one geared toward the music students. We had thought perhaps 20 minutes or so would be a good length for each half, but the students seemed so attentive, I lost track of the time. The whole presentation went past the hour mark but they didn’t seem to notice the time. I certainly didn’t.

The second part was held on Friday, before the concert, on stage at Whitaker Center. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this one, but Ellen Hughes told me afterward it was “very cool” with 122 students in all. In addition to the CASA students, there were 40 from St. Stephens and 9 from the Nativity School, all very attentive. “You could see their attention increasing as the presentation continued” during the course of an hour, the same thing I’d noticed at my presentation a few days earlier.

Matt went into more detail about how the three etudes by Gy├Ârgy Ligeti are “put together,” the way the composer combines pitches into non-traditional chords or creates layers of sound that, in effect, move in independent tempos and create a different kind of texture than we’re used to in the standard-operating-procedures of classical music.

Jeremy was about 20 minutes late, unfortunately – the result of an accident that tied up traffic on the Schuylkill Express, coming up from Philadelphia – but he and the performer talked not only about the music but about the rare opportunity a performer has when working with a living composer, asking questions that you can’t ask Bach who’s been dead for almost 260 years.

Matt said he doesn’t want too much information, though, because it limits some of his own interpretation. Very often, what a composer will do – unless the performer is just so far off the mark – is make suggestions or comment about the vaguer details if, perhaps, the mood isn’t quite what he had in mind, perhaps bringing something more into focus that the performer might not have considered.

Recently, I heard Elliott Carter, one of the other composers on this program, discussing his music with some performers. As complex as his music is, he doesn’t seem to bother much about how exact they are – the right notes, the right rhythms. He’s more concerned about the shape of the line and the proportion of this tempo to that tempo, for instance, rather than stating “that’s too fast” or too slow. He allows the performer to bring his or her own interpretation to the piece and only made reference to things that would augment what they were doing with the notes he had written down on paper.

For many people, it’s always a mystery how somebody writes something down and then someone else can look at that, learn to play it and turn it into something you can sit back and listen to. Another mystery is how that same piece of music can be brought to life in so many different ways. De-mystifying that helps make it more accessible to new listeners, making them more comfortable with what’s happening around them.

With any luck, it will be a positive experience that will make it easier for them to enjoy a concert, whether it’s this one or a later one – or even one a few years from now. Such an opportunity is like planting seeds in a garden: some of them will take root now, some maybe later, maybe others not at all. It’s a big gamble, in a way, if you’re looking at today’s bottom line, to hope for a return on this investment of time (and money) at some point in the future. But to ignore it is only going to ensure that classical music will be heard by smaller and smaller audiences in years to come.

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The next program with Market Square Concerts will feature violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Jon Klibonoff and there is another “Soundscape” presentation for this performance as well. This time, Truman Bullard, professor emeritus of music at Dickinson College, will return to CASA to talk about the music they’ll have a chance to hear live. He had done the first “Soundscape” of the season last November when Antares came to town with a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time: Truman did the introductory presentation, giving them the back-story on Messiaen’s war-time work, a piece composed and premiered in a prisoner-of-war camp in World War II – and then a few days later, the students had a chance to hear the four musicians of Antares describe and play excerpts from the work.

One of the special things about this next program – Saturday, February 28th, which I’ll be blogging about in a few days or so – is the world premiere of a brand new Violin Sonata written by one of the leading composers in the world today, Philip Glass. That’s right, a world premiere by a major composer right here in Harrisburg!

And our students will get a chance to experience this in a more personal, behind-the-scenes kind of way when the performers offer their part of the Soundscape the day before the concert, something that can only enhance the experience of hearing it live in concert.

- Dr. Dick