Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sweet Sounds with the Dolce Suono Trio

If you're like me, you might have taken a look at the calendar and realized, "OMG, Thanksgiving is next week!" and soon you might start freaking out about Christmas being just around the bend (though in some stores, its presence has been around for weeks).

For me, blame it on having spent most of October sick with the flu and then spending November with NaNoWriMo ("National Novel Writing Month") when the goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel's first draft in thirty days.

That's when it dawned on me the next performance with Market Square Concerts is THIS WEEKEND!

Sunday afternoon in fact, November 21st at 4pm at HACC's Rose Lehrman Arts Center. At least the forecast looks like it should be a seasonal fall day. Sorry about losing that Daylight Savings Thing, though...

The ensemble is a trio called "Dolce Suono" which means "Sweet Sound" in Italian, a pleasant name for a pleasant combination of instruments – flute, cello and piano. The Philadelphia Inquirer called them "a stunning ensemble."

We're trying something a little different with some of the concerts this season: pre-concert talks. Mimi Stillman, the flutist and founder of the ensemble, will be giving this one, beginning at 3:00 and it will be held in the "Black Box," the studio theater that's down at the end of the hall on your left as you walk in the front entrance to the Rose Lehrman auditorium.

Tickets are $30, $25 for seniors - College/university age students can purchase $5 tickets and school-aged children get in FREE. Regular concert tickets are also available at 214-ARTS.

About the Program
There's not a lot of music written for this combination which makes programming a challenge. Unlike string quartets or more standard piano trios, there are no great masterpieces by Beethoven or Mozart written for it, but there is a wealth of lesser-known works that prove to be... well, "sweet," like the "Three Watercolors" which Philippe Gaubert composed in 1915 that's on the program (one of them is, appropriately, "Autumn Evening").

The program ranges from Haydn, writing in 1790, to a work composed last year to celebrate Haydn's life during the Haydn Year (officially, the Bicentennial Anniversary of his Death), called "Laus D" and composed by the ensemble's pianist, Charles Abramovic. Incidentally, the title is a play on "Laus Deo (Praise God)" which Haydn traditionally inscribed at the end of his compositions. The music pays tribute to specific works by Haydn as well as his musical spirit.

Carl Maria von Weber may be best known for his opera, Der Freischütz (without which it would be difficult to imagine a Romantic giant like Wagner), but he wrote at least a few works for the more intimate world of chamber music. His last completed chamber work was the G Minor Flute Trio, written two years before Freischütz around the same time Beethoven was getting ready to embark on what would become his "Late Period."

Like many ensembles who find themselves limited by a repertoire not many composers wrote for, the Dolce Suono Trio has made an effort to add to their repertoire by commissioning 21 new works in the past six years. Their most recent world premiere was Richard Danielpour's Remembering Neda.

The composer – who had a work commissioned by Concertante that was premiered in Harrisburg this past May – sat down for a conversation with flutist Mimi Stillman to talk about the piece prior to its world premiere in Philadelphia last month:

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In the program notes, he wrote, "I have kept much of my personal history at a distance from my work as a composer - until now. 'Remembering Neda' is a cry for understanding in this most troubled place in the world. It is a lamentation for the losses incurred during this dark time in Iran. And it is a prayer of hope that this most unfortunate of situations will one day change."

The New York Times wrote this about the composer: "Mr. Danielpour's soothing eclecticism is like an attentive host seeing to his guests' every need." The San Jose Mercury calls him "a brilliant composer who is unafraid to let his emotions show."

Here's the Dolce Suono Trio performing the first movement of the Flute Trio by Ned Rorem (it's not on the Market Square Concerts program, just an example of their playing):
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I hope you'll be able to join us at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center on the campus of the Harrisburg Area Community College, to hear the Dolce Suono Trio this Sunday afternoon at 4:00 -- and please come an hour earlier for the pre-concert talk!

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Trio Solisti Opens the New Season

Market Square Concerts opens its new season with the return of one of the great piano trios in the classical music world today. Trio Solisti performs at 8pm, Saturday, October 9th at Harrisburg's Whitaker Center.

The New York Times called them “consistently brilliant" and The Washington Post referred to their “unrelenting passion and zealous abandon in a transcendent performance.”

A composition they'd commissioned from Paul Moravec, his "Tempest Fantasy," received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2004. They later recorded the work and performed it in Harrisburg – that was one of those blizzard concerts (a "will-it-or-won't-it" weekend) and unfortunately not heard by too many listeners, though everyone in attendance was glad they'd braved the weather.

The good news is – not only is another work by Paul Moravec on this program (they'll be performing his 'Passacaglia'), the weather is likely to be a lot better than that last time...

Perhaps you've heard them at Gretna Music where they've played in past seasons as well, and if you're a fan of Concertante, performing regularly at Harrisburg's Rose Lehrman Arts Center, you already know one of the performers: cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach.

She'll be joined by her colleagues, violinist Maria Bachmann (who appeared a few seasons ago in a recital program, with the world premiere of Philip Glass's new Violin Sonata) and pianist Jon Klibonoff.

The "major work" on the program will be one of Dvořák's piano trios – while the famous "Dumky" Trio may be more frequently performed, the F Minor Trio was a more significant work in Antonin Dvořák's development and is usually considered one of his finest and most heartfelt pieces. (You can hear a recording by the legendary trio with Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky and Leonard Pennario, here.)

Rachmaninoff may be better known for his piano concertos and works for solo piano, so a piano trio by him (even a fairly short one-movement work like his Trio élégiaque No. 1) may seem unusual. Written when he was 19, it's still full of the beautiful melodies and lush harmonies that make all of his music an incredible listening experience. (You can hear the beginning of the trio, performed by the Borodin Trio, here.)

Leonard Bernstein's Piano Trio was also written by a 19-year-old – when Bernstein was a Harvard student studying with Walter Piston. You can hear Central Pennsylvania's own Newstead Trio playing the 2nd movement, here.

Paul Moravec (right) has a long history with Trio Solisti and violinist Maria Bachmann, for whom he's written a number of works. He composed the Passacaglia that's on their Market Square Concerts program in 2006, two years after the Pulitzer-prize-winning "Tempest Fantasy." While I couldn't find an on-line link to the Passacaglia, you can hear Trio Solisti performing his "Tempest Fantasy" here.

A visit to Argentina rounds out the program with "Le grand Tango" by Astor Piazzolla, the "King of the Tango" (considering Johann Strauss was the Waltz King and John Philip Sousa was the March King, why not a Tango King, especially when Piazzolla wrote most of the best ones around?) Most of his music is available in different arrangements – here's one for viola and accordion (and I'm not joking)!

Tickets for Trio Solisti are $30 (seniors $25) with tickets for college and university students $5. School age children are free, thanks to a generous grant from the Derek and Margaret Hathaway Foundation.

The opening concert of Market Square Concert's new season is sponsored by Lois
Lehrman Grass, honoring the memory of Dr. Robert E. Dye.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday at the Mill

It may have been one of the hottest performances at the Glen Allen Mill in recent memory - not just because of the playing: Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir of Florence" sizzled for any number of reasons but it didn't lack for fireworks in case any one was expecting the 1812 Overture to end this summer concert, instead.

But there's one more performance at the mill - Sunday afternoon at 4pm - and the forecast is supposed to be "cooler" than Saturday's near-record high of 95° (though one thermometer in the vicinity of the mill was unofficially reading 98°), somplete with a mind-boggling heat index of 103°. According to some, it could be "around 90°" while other sources say "92°" on Sunday and by comparison to Saturday's temperature, that's definitely cooler (it's all relative).

The heat frustration didn't seem to dampen the players' enthusiasm or the listeners' enjoyment.

The Fry Street String Quartet is back for their 7th season with Market Square Concerts' SummerMusic and they were joined Saturday night by oboist Gerard Reuter and by Harrisburg Symphony musicians Peter Sirotin, the orchestra's associate concertmaster (playing viola in this performance), and principal cellist Fiona Thompson.

On Sunday, pianist Stuart Malina, music director and conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, who'll perform the Oboe Sonata by Camille Saint-Saens with Gerard Reuter as well as Beethoven's C Minor Piano Trio (Op. 1, No. 3) and the Piano Quintet by Robert Schumann with the quartet.

The Glen Allen Mill is located on McCormick Road between Bowmansdale and Lisburn: From Rt. 15 South, take Rossmoyne Rd exit, turn left at light – continue on Rossmoyne Rd to Lisburn Rd – turn right onto Lisburn Rd – a few hundred yards later, bear right at the fork onto Arcona Rd – follow Arcona Rd until it dead ends at McCormick Rd – turn left onto McCormick Rd – the Mill is ¼ mile ahead on the right. Parking is in the meadow behind the Mill – follow the road over the creek – the entrance is on the right.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It's Time for some Summer Music

Summer is definitely here. We've had the 4th of July Weekend, our first heat wave of the season and the awakening of the cicadas (nature's vuvuzelas) to prove it. With any luck, the weather will be less hot and less humid next week.


Because it's time for Market Square Concerts' SummerMusic 2010 beginning July 21st.

In addition to cook-outs and holidays, Summer also means summer music festivals. This year's SummerMusic series includes three programs – one at the home-base of Market Square Presbyterian Church in Downtown Harrisburg, along with two weekend performances at the Glen Allen Mill along the Yellow Breeches Creek.

Tickets for any or all of the concerts – honoring the memory of Jason Litton – are available by calling 717 214-ARTS or at the Whitaker Center Box Office. Remaining tickets will be available at the door.

Space for seating inside the mill is limited so I'd recommend getting there earlier rather than cutting it close to curtain-time.

The Fry Street Quartet and oboist Gerard Reuter return for the series along with Stuart Malina, stepping over from his podium with the Harrisburg Symphony, to play chamber music along with two of his colleagues in the orchestra, associate concertmaster Peter Sirotin and principal cellist Fiona Thompson.

The first concert is Wednesday evening (July 21st) at Market Square Church and begins at 6:00 (yes, that's not a typo – hang around after work, if you're in-town or stop by on your way home).

The program opens with an oboe concerto by Bach – this one in F Major (BWV. 1053 for those of you who keep score by the Complete Works Catalogue) – and continues with a relatively early work of Beethoven's from his first set of string quartets, the D Major, Op. 18 #3.

On the second half, it's a delightful set of Romances for oboe and piano by Robert Schumann and then some very serious music by Felix Mendelssohn, a composer you normally associate with “delightful” (think “Wedding March” or the Italian Symphony). This is one of his very last works, the String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80, and written in memory of his sister Fanny who'd recently died – he called it his “Requiem for Fanny” – and little did anyone know that less than two months later, Mendelssohn himself would be dead at the age of 38. Now, that may sound like a bummer for a summer concert, but this music is very powerful and impassioned rather than somber – an emotional thunderstorm, perhaps – a cathartic moment from a composer's world that yielded a personal solution to the question “how does an artist turn Life into Art?”

Incidentally, to help you digest all that, afterward consider going across the square to Bricco and The Hilton Patio which will be offering 20% off food following the concert (have your ticket stub or program booklet handy).

Then the series moves to the banks of a beautifully pastoral tree-lined stream flowing past an old mill originally built in the 18th Century (see top photo).

Saturday evening's concert – July 24th at 8pm – will feature Mozart's Oboe Quartet, the Serenade for String Trio by Erno Dohnanyi and a serenade for six strings by Tchaikovsky better known as “The Souvenir of Florence,” a very Russian-sounding work despite the location of its inspiration (the work is actually based on themes that came to him while on holiday there, jotted down in a note-book since they didn't fit into the opera he was working on at the time).

Sunday afternoon's concert – July 25th at 4pm – includes another early work by Beethoven (actually, his first completed piece to be published, even though it's No. 3 from the set of Piano Trios, Op. 1), a work that Camille Saint-Saëns wrote when he was 85 (his oboe sonata, Op.166) and a work that Robert Schumann wrote in a flurry of chamber music creativity one summer that saw not only three string quartets, the piano quartet and several other smaller works for various combinations, but also the Piano Quintet they'll be playing that afternoon (one of Schumann's most popular works).

And I should point out it IS air-conditioned after a fashion: they've managed to rig up window-units in the mill to keep it cooler – but it's summer so definitely, the dress-code is casual.

The concerts are inside the mill, so they'll go on rain or shine. If the weather permits, you can picnic along the Yellow Breeches from 6pm on Saturday or after the concert until 8pm on Sunday.

Directions to the Mill which is located on McCormick Road between Bowmansdale and Lisburn: From Rt. 15 S, take Rossmoyne Rd exit, turn left at light – continue on Rossmoyne Rd to Lisburn Rd – turn right onto Lisburn Rd – a few hundred yards later, bear right at the fork onto Arcona Rd – follow Arcona Rd until it dead ends at McCormick Rd – turn left onto McCormick Rd – the Mill is ¼ mile ahead on the right. Parking is in the meadow behind the Mill – follow the road over the creek – the entrance is on the right.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Zuill Bailey's New Bach CD Party in Harrisburg THIS WEEK

Back in February, one of our more memorable blizzards in years managed to put the kaibosch on the original CD Release Party to celebrate Zuill Bailey's just-then-released Telarc disc of the six Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, a major accomplishment in any cellist's repertoire.

The party has been rescheduled for this Wednesday evening, May 5th. The weather promises to be much better - a sunny day with a predicted high of 84°.

The party will be held at the Mid-Town Scholar Book Store at 3rd & Verbeke (a.k.a. Broad) Streets in Harrisburg, across from the Broad Street Farmers Market.

Presented in collaboration with Market Square Concerts and HACC-Midtown, it begins at 6:00 and Zuill will start playing some excerpts from the Bach Suites at 6:30.

A $5 donation is requested. Hors d’oeuvres prepared by HACC’s culinary students and liquid refreshments will be available.

As refreshments for the soul, Zuill will play selections from the Bach Suites. He comes to Harrisburg from other CD release parties in San Francisco and New York, then goes on to Baltimore and other hopefully less snow-challenged locations.

After his November recital here, we're very lucky to have him back in Central Pennsylvania again and especially honored that he chose to have the CD-Party here. His new Bach CD will be available for purchase on the night of the party.

These six suites, some of the most significant repertoire for a cellist, were recorded each in one sitting over a period of one week at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, following years of preparation by Mr. Bailey. He calls the process of recording these suites “such a personal journey for me.”

Zuill was just here this past November for a program at Whitaker Center with Market Square Concerts: you can read about it here and here.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Celebrate the Bard's Birthday with Market Square Concerts

Join us for the last concert of the season as Parthenia presents a program of music and poetry from the days of William Shakespeare. The performance will be held Saturday, April 24th, at 8pm in Harrisburg's Market Square Church.

"Parthenia, hailed by the New Yorker as 'one of the brightest lights in New York's early-music scene,' is a dynamic quartet exploring music from Tudor England to the court of Versailles and beyond. Known for its remarkable sense of ensemble, Parthenia has been presented in concerts across America and produces its own lively and distinguished concert series in New York City.

In the Elizabethan world, poetry and music were inseparable; poetry was conceived as song and music took its forms and phrasing from poetry. In Parthenia’s concert, dramatic readings of the poetry of Shakespeare and Donne are interspersed with instrumental and vocal musical vignettes.

In addition to her work as a member of the world famous vocal quartet Anonymous4, mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek has a reputation as a versatile and accomplished soloist. Paul Hecht made his Broadway debut in 1968 and has had a varied and successful acting career in theatre, film and television, including “Kate and Allie” and “Law and Order.”

Here's the program for their concert on April 24th... Notice that it's a short but very sweet program on what is believed to be the day after Shakespeare's actual birthday. I hope you find the prospect of hearing words and music from Elizabethan times as exciting as I do." 

- Ellen Hughes

Rosamund Morley, treble viol; Lawrence Lipnik, tenor viol; Beverly Au, bass viol; Lisa Terry, bass viol
with guests:
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, mezzo-soprano
Paul Hecht, actor

When Music and Sweet Poetry Agree
Shakespeare, Donne and their Elizabethan musical contemporaries
(This program will be performed without intermission)

Prelude and Voluntary - bby William Byrd (c. 1539-1623)
The Triple Foole - by John Donne (1572-1631)
It was a lover and his lass - by Thomas Morley (c. 1557-1602)
The Good Morrow - by Donne
Fantasia á4 - by Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger (c. 1575-1628)
Go and Catch a Falling Star - by Donne
Galliard: The Fairy Rownd - by Anthony Holborne (1545-1602)
Come live with me and be my love - by William Corkine (fl. 1610-1620)
The Bait - by Donne
Fantasy on 'All in a garden green'  - by John Jenkins (1592-1678)
The Flea - by Donne
A Mery Conceit: The Queenes delight - by Hume (c.1569-1620)

Can she excuse my wrongs - by John Dowland (1563-1626)
Sonnet XCI: Some glory in their birth - by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Ah, dear heart, why do you rise? - by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
A Lecture Upon the Shadow - by Donne
A Gigge: Doctor Bull’s my selfe - by John Bull (c. 1562-1628)
Sonnet XXIII: As an unperfect actor on the stage - by Shakespeare
Farewell, dear love - by Robert Jones (c. 1577-1617)
Fantasia á4 - by William Byrd
Sonnet CIV: To me, fair friend, you can never be old - by Shakespeare
The Fair young virgin - by Byrd
The Apparition - by Donne
So, so, leave off this last lamenting kisse - by Alfonso Ferrabosco (c.1580-1628)
Fantasia á4 - by Giovanni Coprario (c. 1570-1626)

The Relic - by Donne
Harke, Harke - by Tobias Hume
Death be not proud - by Donne
Hugh Ashton’s Maske - by Hugh Ashton, attrib. (c.1485-c.1558)
Sonnet XXIX: When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes - by Shakespeare
Now, oh now I needs must part - by Dowland
Sonnet LXXI: No longer mourn for me when I am dead - by Shakepeare
Pavan: Paradiso - by Holborne
The Valediction: Forbidding Mourning - by Donne

Monday, April 12, 2010

Jennifer Higdon Wins the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music

This afternoon, the winners of the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes were announced. The winner of the Music Prize is Jennifer Higdon, receiving the award for her Violin Concerto, composed for Hilary Hahn and premiered by her in February 2009.

You can read the announcement as it was posted at The New Music Box where I found it through Facebook.

You can also read her own response to winning a Pulitzer, here, also posted at the New Music Box.

I've also posted more about the Violin Concerto on my blog, Thoughts on a Train, including some comments I'd jotted down while listening to the on-line broadcast of the concerto last June.

This past January, audiences in Harrisburg got to hear two works by Jennifer Higdon. With Market Square Concerts, the Cypress Quartet performed "Impressions," a string quartet that Higdon composed for them. Ms. Higdon was here to talk about the piece before the performance and to meet the audience.

The following week, the Harrisburg Symphony performed the opening movement of "CityScape," a lively overture called 'SkyLine.' In previous seasons, they also performed the Percussion Concerto (a work that won her a Grammy earlier this year) and one of the most frequently performed new orchestral works in the United States in recent years, her Blue Cathedral.

Congratulations to Jennifer Higdon on her Pulitzer Prize!

- Dr. Dick

Photo credit: Candace diCarlo.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Picnic Concert (of sorts) in Reading

Every now and then, I like to pass along some concert info about performers who've appeared recently with Market Square Concerts who are performing elsewhere in the area.

Matthew Bengtson, a Philadelphia-based pianist and harpsichordist who played Bach's Goldberg Variations and several contemporary works (including some by Elliott Carter and Jeremy Gill) for Market Square Concerts in January of 2009, will be performing a harpsichord concerto by Francis Poulenc with the Reading Symphony conducted by Andrew Constantine this Saturday evening, April 10th, at 8:00 in Reading's Sovereign Performing Arts Center.

As Matt explains, Poulenc's concerto “requires a harpsichord in the early 20th century style. I will be playing a William Dowd harpsichord (see left) [that is] the largest Dowd ever built, with eight pedals enabling rapid changes of timbral registration. This instrument formerly belonged to Rosalyn Tureck,” one of the great American harpsichordists of the previous generation.

Francis Poulenc wrote his Concert champêtre in the late-1920s, its title redolent of a rustic picnic in the French countryside, though the composer admits the most 'rustic' he ever got would be considered 'suburban' today. He wrote the work for Wanda Landowska, the great Polish harpsichordist who is credited with bringing the instrument back into modern awareness with her performances in the early decades of the last century, and she gave the concerto its world premiere in 1929.

It's composed in an appropriate mix of styles more native to the instrument's baroque and classical heritage with a touch of 20th Century harmonic spice: at one point, Poulenc may evoke the sounds of the great French keyboard works of Rameau or Couperin, a delicious sicilienne of Italian vintage and a headlong romp straight out of Handel's “Harmonious Blacksmith” (you can hear the final movement here, with Aimee van de Wiele, the Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire conducted by Georges Prêtre.)

Reading's whole season is a musical journey and even though the first half of this concert is a leisurely stop in France, the main destination is Germany for Beethoven's 7th Symphony.

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Soon, I'll be telling you about the last program in Market Square Concerts' current season with music and poetry from the time of Shakespeare – in fact, it's even on Shakespeare's birthday, April 24th.

Join us that evening at Market Square Church as actor Paul Hecht and soprano Jaqueline Horner-Kwiatek (one of the original voices of Anonymous4) join Parthenia, one of the bright lights of New York City's early-music scene.

Also, don't forget, looking ahead to next month, that Zuill Bailey's “CD Release Party” for the Bach Cello Suites has been rescheduled from February's blizzard to May 5th at 6pm at the Midtown Scholars Bookstore on 3rd at Broad Street. Chances are pretty good the weather's bound to be better!

Also, dates are up for SummerMusic2010 – so reserve July 21, 24th and 25th for some great summertime chamber-music-making.

More to come!

Dr. Dick

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photo credits: 'relaxed' portrait of Mr. Bengtson by David Aretz, from the performer's website; of the Dowd harpsichord, supplied by Mr. Bengtson.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Flute Recital with Claire Chase, March 24th

Ellen Hughes, Director of Market Square Concerts, writes about the next program in the series this Wednesday, March 24th at 8pm at Whitaker Center, "One of the first things I did when I began my involvement with Market Square Concerts was to attend the finals of the Concert Artists Guild Competition in New York in October, 2008. Claire Chase was among those finalists, and when I heard her perform with pianist Jacob Greenberg, I knew I wanted to bring them to Harrisburg this season.

"She went on to win First Prize in the competition. I loved the way she played, her communicative style with both the audience and her accompanist, her confidence and comfort with her instrument. She's a breath of fresh air. Her program is mostly traditional, but you will hear some new sounds too, and if you are able to come to this concert I believe you will never think of flute music in the same way again."

I was thinking the program would fit into the category of "Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed..." (except I can't find anything particularly blue...). It includes Bach's Flute Sonata in E (BWV.1035), two of Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis and a Suite of Hungarian Peasant-Songs by Bela Bartok; the newer works would be the 1947 Sonatine by Pierre Boulez and a short work by Franco Donatoni called "Filli."

The "borrowed" part would be transcriptions of two works you don't normally find on flute recitals: the 24th Caprice by Nicolo Paganini (one of the great show-cases for solo violin) and Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (famous as an organ war-horse but perhaps originally for solo violin, but here arranged for not just a solo flute, but an amplified solo flute).

A reminder that tickets are $28 and available at the door or in advance at the Whitaker box office,in person or by calling 214-ARTS.

We also offer $5 tickets for college/university students. School-age students are free; you can get those tickets also in the ground floor lobby before the concert.

If you are able and interested, please come to the "Soundscape" educational outreach program designed for school students at 1pm and also at Whitaker Center. This free program will provide you with an introduction to that night's program.

And at 2:30 that afternoon, WITF-FM (89.5) will broadcast an interview with Claire Chase and pianist Jacob Greenberg; they'll be playing excerpts of some of the music on their recital that evening.

Confit French Bistro has offered to provide samples of their French Country Cuisine in the lobby of Whitaker Center before the concert, so you might want to arrive a few minutes early!

Hope to see you there!

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Franz Schubert's "Death & the Maiden" Quartet: Up Close & Personal

This weekend, Brooklyn Rider will be performing a concert of new, very new and old music at their Market Square Concerts performance, Saturday evening at 8pm in the Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg. You can read earlier posts about the ensemble and about Lisa Bielawa's Graffiti dell'amante which will be given its world premiere at this concert. This post is about the “old” music on the program: Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, D.810.

It's called the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet not because of any specific story being told in its music but because Schubert used part of his song, “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden,” D.531, written in February 1817 when he was 20 years old) as the basis for the variations movement in his D Minor String Quartet (D.810, written mostly in March 1824 when he was 27).

He had ocassionally taken material from some works and used them in a few other works, most famously the song “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) in the Quintet in A Major for Piano and Strings generally called “The Trout Quintet” and, less well-known, the song “Sei mir gegrüßt” (“I greet you”) which he used for the variations embedded in the Fantasy in C for Violin and Piano. A phrase from his song, “Der Wanderer” (D.493), has a prominent if largely overlooked role in the second movement of the Fantasy in C Minor for Piano, known as the “Wanderer Fantasy.” A theme from his incidental music for the disastrous play, “Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus,” also became the basis for variations in the D Minor Quartet's companion, the A Minor String Quartet he'd finished the previous month, and so it also is usually known as the “Rosamunde Quartet.” Recycling, you see, is not necessarily a new concept.

While I'm convinced the quotation in the “Wanderer Fantasy” has some personal significance to the composer (see below), the appearance of “Die Forelle” in the quintet was a request from the amateur musician who asked him to write the work, since it was his favorite of Schubert's songs and he thought it would lend itself to a marvelous set of variations. That logic may perhaps be what's behind the selection of the themes used in these two quartets rather than any deeper, psychological reason.


The D Minor String Quartet, however, is more than just its variation movement, just as the Trout Quintet is more than that one famous movement. But let me begin by describing the song which he'd written just days after he'd left his teen-aged years behind him.

First of all, Schubert is regarded as one of the greatest composers of songs or specifically of the German Lied (pronounced “leed”) - keeping in mind that “song” means a setting of a text to be performed with voice and (generally) piano and not in the sense many people use it today to describe any musical composition. When Schubert composed piano pieces, his models were Beethoven or Mozart; when he wrote symphonies and overtures, his models may have been Haydn and Mozart or, more likely, the many contemporary composers who followed the same style but are largely forgotten today. But there really were no role models for a composer of songs: though Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all wrote some, they did not have the depth of emotion and character that was more in style during the early decades of the 19th Century.

While many of Schubert's early piano and orchestral works strike us as derivative, he could be more daring in his songs. It was here that he found his own voice (no pun intended) and it may be why we are surprised to discover, by comparison to the instrumental works he wrote at the same time, these were written by someone so young. Perhaps his most famous songs, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” D.118) and “Der Erlkönig” (“The Erl-King”, D. 328), written when he was 17 and 18, sound like a much more mature composer than the Symphony No. 6 in C Major (known as the “Little C Major”) which he finished shortly after his 21st birthday.

Another curious thing about the songs is how many of them are so assuredly dramatic and yet Schubert, who wanted more than anything to succeed at writing an opera (it's where a composer's fortune could be made, in those days), could not sustain a sense of drama over a longer span of time. Of all the operas he composed (and many were left incomplete), none has as much drama or character insight in them as a song of a only a few minutes' length like “Gretchen am Spinnrade” or “Der Tod und das Mädchen.”

“Death and the Maiden” is a short poem in two parts. The first is the anguished cry of a young girl, anxious at the thought of dying. The second part is sung by Death itself, by contrast serene and welcoming, not to be feared.

Here is a “video” of a recording made with the legendary American alto, Marian Anderson, accompanied at the piano by Franz Rupp, in Schubert's song, “Der Tod und das Mädchen.” I'm not sure when it was recorded: some time in the 1940s, I think.

(That final note she sings, by the way, is a Low D – almost a full octave below Middle C, far lower than female voices can usually manage, in fact a note often considered “low” for tenors!)

It is the second half of this song – Death's consoling serenade – that Schubert uses in the second movement of his String Quartet in D Minor which then gives it the nickname “The Death and the Maiden” Quartet. Here is the variation movement, performed by the Borromeo Quartet.

Here's a fairly literal (and unpoetic) translation of the text of this passage Schubert used in the Quartet:

Give me your hand, you beautiful and sweet image:
I am a friend and do not come to give you pain.
Be of good cheer. I am not harsh.
In my arms you shall gently sleep.

Now, we might think Schubert chose this “melody” (it's hardly much of a tune) because of its potential for variation or because he liked it and it was a popular song of his, no doubt helping with recognition and marketing (things he did, incidentally, keep in mind at times).

But I'm not so sure there isn't more to it.

Schubert had first exhibited the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as syphilis when he was 25 in the autumn of 1822. He had begun the dark and brooding B Minor Symphony (which for some reason he left unfinished after two incredible movements) and then, in the weeks after starting the symphony's full score, he composed the anguished “Wanderer” Fantasy. The music he used from his song “Der Wanderer” is a fragment setting lines in which the wanderer describes the sun as cold, blossoms withered, life old and he himself a stranger everywhere.

Considering this is not a memorable melody or even something that might catch your attention as fodder for variations, what is the implication of the text, given what was going on in Schubert's life at the moment he was writing this?

Whatever the dangers may be of mixing psychology and creativity, knowing what the text was to the music he used here changed the “meaning” of the piece for me: I no longer hear it as simply virtuosic piano-writing but a deeply personal, dramatic catharsis.

Perhaps there is something of that in the Unfinished Symphony as well, written in these gloomy months when it looked like his life would be changed forever, if he would survive at all. Perhaps that might explain why he abandoned the symphony after trying to write a light-hearted scherzo after those two intense movements? Conjecture, of course, since we have no proof anywhere that that was what he said or thought. But how could a young man of 25, given the sentimental age he lived in, not be affected by these thoughts, the Romantic idea of the suffering artist that also plagued his contemporary Beethoven who spent much of his life dealing with his deafness?

While it might be simplistic to say that Schubert “recovered,” his health had seemed more on the mend a year later, in the fall of 1823. Friends wrote that he was more himself, was seen more often (once again) in the company of his friends but usually accompanied by a Dr. Bernhardt, hired by Schubert's friend Spaun to make sure Schubert didn't “over-do it.” The “dratted doctor” (as Schubert described him in a letter) was also an amateur poet who had submitted an opera libretto to him for his consideration. Schubert, having dealt with the debacle of “Rosamunde” that same season (the amateur poet Helmine von Chezy's play was universally reviled though some critics thought to mention the music was nice) and his on-going failure to get not one but two of his recent operas staged, rejected it, no doubt having had enough of the theater and of amateur poets for a while.

But not long after New Year's Day, 1824, and his 27th birthday party (which saw Schubert unconscious before it broke up around 2:30am), he became ill again. Dr. Bernhardt prescribed a strict diet of cutlets one day and a pastry made of flavored bread and water the next, all washed down with vast quantities of tea. It was during the following month he composed the Octet in F and the first two of what he had planned as a trio of string quartets: the two he finished were the ones in A Minor and D Minor. 

The A Minor Quartet was played soon after it was finished by Ignaz Schuppanzigh (see right) and his quartet at a concert for the Society of the Friends of Music, while Schubert continued working on the D Minor Quartet. It's also interesting to note that Schupannzigh, a friend and champion of Beethoven, had premiered the Razumovsky Quartets in 1808 and had arranged for another Russian nobleman, Prince Nikolai Galitsin, to commission some new string quartets from Beethoven in 1823. It was in 1824 that Beethoven would begin composing the Quartet Op.127, the first of his "Late Quartets."

But during this time, Schubert's state of mind appears to have verged on what was until recently called “manic-depression.” In a letter written on March 31st, 1824, to a friend then staying in Rome, he writes,

“I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again and who in their despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing, to whom the joy of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, at best, whose enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for all things beautiful threatens to vanish, and ask yourself, is he not a miserable, unhappy being?”

He then quotes a line of poetry:

“My peace is gone, my heart is sore; I shall never find peace again, never again.”

That is a famous line from Goethe's poem, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” which he used as a refrain, setting it to music ten years earlier.

He concludes this paragraph with

“I may well sing [this] every day now, for each night, I go to bed hoping never to wake again, and each morning only tells me of yesterday's grief.”

While the letter goes on with news that “I have tried my hand at several instrumental works... two quartets... an Octet and I want to write another Quartet; in fact that is how I want to work my way towards composing a grand symphony.” (By that, he meant a large-scale symphony: no mention of the B Minor he had left unfinished...)

His plans are hardly those of one who expects to die any day now, but still, it is difficult to read some of this without wondering how it affected the music he was composing at the same time, especially the reason he may have chosen the consoling words of a comforting Death as the basis for his current quartet's slow movement. The whole quartet is certainly a dark and dramatic work from beginning to end, but it is the balance Schubert finds between his pain and his hope that keeps the tragedy from becoming unbearable.

It should also be noted that the recipient of that March 31st letter wrote to his fiancé and summed it up by saying “Poor old Schubert complains to me that he is ill again,” and leaves it at that.

Here is a “video” posted at YouTube of the Alban Berg Quartet's recording of Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, the quartet known as “Death and the Maiden.”

How much of the quartet was finished in that first month of March 1824, we don't know. The Otto Deutsch catalogue (which lists Schubert's music with the letter D and a number: for example, D.810) lists the work as composed between March 1824 and January 1826, then adds it "was finished or revised in January 1826."

Schubert usually composed very quickly, so any work left unfinished would probably never be returned to, given his past history. We should also notice the letter I'd quoted above, written on March 31st, 1824, that said "I have tried my hand at several instrumental works... two quartets... an Octet..." which would imply that by then these two quartets were already complete.

We know he attended rehearsals for the quartet on January 19th and 30th, 1826, so the possibility of some revisions would make more sense than his coming back to finish the work at that time.

The quartet was given its first performance on February 1st in a private concert at the home of tenor Josef Barth, a member of the Court chapel choir (he lived in an apartment in Prince Schwarzenberg's winter palace) but an old friend of Schubert's. A little later, the work was given another private performance, this time at the home of composer Franz Lachner, another old friend from Schubert's school days, and now conductor of one of the major theaters in Vienna. (Presumably, the quartet was not performed by Schuppanzigh, this time: his name would certainly have been mentioned if it had been.) The first public performance of the quartet, however, didn't take place until five years after Schubert's death.

About some of the  pictures: The header photo is a famous watercolor portrait of Schubert by his friend, August Wilhelm Rieder, painted in May, 1825, about a year after he began the D Minor Quartet. The story goes that Rieder lived in a house once lived in by the great composer, Christoph Willibald von Gluck and Schubert told his friend how inspiring it would be to be able to compose there. Unfortunately, Rieder did not own a piano. So he went and "hired" a new square piano and put it in one of the rooms, telling Schubert if he came by and saw a particular window's curtains open, he could come in without knocking and go straight to the piano; if the curtains were closed, Rieder was busy painting and did not wish to be disturbed.

The two images of "Death and the Maiden" are from different eras: Hans Schwarz's woodcut dates from 1520, and Marianne Stokes' lunette from 1900.

- Dr. Dick

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lisa Bielawa's Graffiti dell'amante: A World Premiere in Harrisburg

The string quartet that calls itself “Brooklyn Rider” will be performing a program this weekend at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg ranging from the 1820s to the newest of the new, the world premiere of a work commissioned by Market Square Concerts just for this occasion. Philip Glass's 2nd String Quartet (“Company”) from 1984 adds to a program that includes “Achilles' Heel” by the ensemble's second violinist, Colin Jacobsen, and “Lachrymosa” by the Uzbek-born composer Dmitri Yanov Yanovsky.

The program concludes with one of the great quartets from the 19th Century, the Quartet in D Minor by Franz Schubert, known as the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet because it quotes from one of his songs as the basis of a set of variations in the slow movement.

To give you a little information about the world premiere – Graffiti dell'amante by Lisa Bielawa – I'll just quote from Ellen Hughes' press release about the concert.

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Composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa’s Graffiti dell’amante will receive its world premiere in a concert by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider with Ms. Bielawa as vocal soloist at 8 pm on Saturday, February 20, 2010 presented by Market Square Concerts at Market Square Church (20 S. 2nd St., Harrisburg, PA).

Written in Rome, where stories of love echo across centuries of art and poetry, Graffiti dell’amante is an open-ended song cycle for string quartet and soprano, in which the segments (called “Figures”) that are performed at each concert are selected by the audience members.

Ms. Bielawa explains, “Originally inspired by Roland Barthes’ playful yet poignant collection of poems A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, the piece uses various declarations of romantic Love to enact what Barthes calls the “Figures” of the Lover (“Absence,” “Devotion,” “Ravishment,” “Remembering,” etc.). The poems describe a great variety of subjects and narrators: male poet writes to a female Beloved; male poet writes a love poem from a woman’s point of view; female novelist (with a male pseudonym) writes dialogue for a male character in love; male poet secretly writes taboo love poetry to another man. The Lover declares him/herself to, from, and through so many faces!”

Each performance of Graffiti dell’amante can include a different subset and arrangement of the Figures, resulting in a different piece every time – which might be any length, containing any combination of possible predicaments in any order.

Because the audience selects the Figures to be performed, the piece will become a portrait of that group’s combined attitude toward love at that moment.

Lisa Bielawa is a 2009 Rome Prize winner in Musical Composition and is based at the American Academy in Rome until August 2010. Ms. Bielawa has written numerous works for voice, including her piece Chance Encounter, conceived with the soprano Susan Narucki, for twelve migrating instrumentalists and singer. Chance Encounter uses overheard speech and is meant to be performed in public places. It was premiered by Ms. Narucki and The Knights in Manhattan’s Seward Park, and was performed again at the Whitney Museum in February. The work has been recorded by Grammy Award-winning producer Adam Abeshouse for release on the Orange Mountain Music label.

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Ms. Bielawa has also been blogging from Rome - Lend Me Your Ears - not entirely about the composition we'll be hearing but her wide range of topics and interests will give you an insight into the time she was writing it and experiencing life in the Eternal City. The posts are at the WQXR website but they don't have a single link to the entire blog, so here are the four posts, listed in chronological order:

When in Rouen (November 16, 2009)
Extravagant Stories (November 30, 2009)
Voices from Above and Beyond (December 18, 2009)
Musicians Without Borders (January 25, 2010)

Okay, you might be thinking "that's not a lot of blogging," but after all she was living in Rome and supposed to be spending most of her time composing!

Brooklyn Rider: Commuting to Harrisburg

This weekend – which according to the weatherguessers looks like it might be snow-free - a string quartet called “Brooklyn Rider” comes to town. They'll be performing at the Market Square Church this Saturday at 8pm. An added bonus is the OPEN REHEARSAL, free and open to anyone, between 1:30 and 3:30 at the church that afternoon!

They'll be performing some very new works – including one so new it's the World Premiere, a work commissioned by Market Square Concerts. I'll be telling you more about Lisa Bielawa's Graffiti dell'amante in a separate post. In addition to works by quartet violinist Colin Jacobsen and a Silk-Road colleague, Dmitri Yanov Yanovsky, there's Philip Glass's 2nd String Quartet  ("Company," written in 1984) and one of the great quartets by Franz Schubert, the one known as “Death and the Maiden” which will also be the subject of a subsequent post.

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Considering it's probably the first thing an audience gets to know about a new ensemble, a group's name is a very important part of its identity.

It used to be easy to name yourself after your location or home-base (the Budapest or Tokyo Quartets) or after a famous violin maker (the Guarneri Quartet), perhaps a favorite composer who was a feature of your repertoire (the Beethoven or the Amadeus Quartets), a benefactor (the Juilliard Quartet, founded by and in residence at the school of music) or, less commonly in these days of greater equality, after the quartet's first violinist (the Busch Quartet).

But once many of the best or most obvious names have already been taken, then you need to go a little further afield. The Emerson Quartet chose the New England poet because of a common bond with his transcendental aesthetic.

More recently, the Daedalus Quartet took its name from the inventor in Greek mythology who fashioned wings that allowed him to fly and thus obtain his freedom, so it's a good metaphor for an artist looking to soar through this wonderful creation we call art (on the other hand, I don't believe anyone has ever called themselves the Icarus Quartet).

The Enso Quartet takes its name from a Japanese zen painting of a circle “that represents... perfection as well as imperfection, the moment of chaos that is creation, the emptiness of the void, the endless circle of life, and the fullness of the spirit.”

Names, then, become a kind of mission statement. Many of them create a sense of mystery (“I wonder what that means?”), something hopefully catchy in this age of intense marketing and box-office accountability.

The string quartet calling itself “Brooklyn Rider” (and not, at least officially, the “Brooklyn Rider String Quartet”) combines the obvious and the metaphysical. Yes, they're from Brooklyn but even if “The Brooklyn Quartet” wasn't already taken, it didn't really seem to cut it with a group that had its roots in Yo-Yo Ma's “Silk Road Project.” Their repertoire spans all styles and centuries of the quartet's legacy, standard and otherwise, infused with a sense of world music and international guests they'd worked with on “the road.” And since “Musicians Without Borders” already belongs to another organization, they had to find some middle-ground between the historical context from the 18th and 19th Century string quartet to its present-day relevance in the 21st Century.

So, is the “Rider” in deference to a Haydn quartet by that nickname? Not exactly. Is it evocative of the New York City subway system because they are frequent commuters between home and performance venues (as most musicians in New York City are)? No. Despite the fact it makes it sound like an Indie Rock Group, it's actually updating an early 20th Century interdisciplinary concept promoted by a Munich-based group of eclectic artists who combined painting and music, calling themselves “The Blue Rider” or “Der Blaue Reiter” which in turn took its name from a 1903 painting by Wassily Kandinsky. One composer associated with them was Arnold Schoenberg, who was both composer and painter (later, you can read my post about his ground-breaking 2nd String Quartet and its relationship to paintings as well as his not-exactly-suitable-for-Valentine's-Day personal life).

In this spirit, Brooklyn Rider has created an art gallery on their website showcasing the work of some of their friends in which the proceeds are used to support new commissioning projects.

While more traditional quartets might add a pianist for the Brahms Piano Quintet or another cellist for the Schubert C Major String Quintet, “Brooklyn Rider” is more likely to add one of their colleagues from “The Silk Road Project,” like the Chinese pipa virtuoso, Wu Man or the Persian composer and kamancheh player, Kayhan Kalhor. They also draw inspiration from the exploding array of cultures and artistic energy found in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, a place they also call home.

I hope you'll be able to join us for the wonderful, wide-ranging program Saturday at 8pm at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg. And please consider taking advantage of that open rehearsal – it's free, too – especially considering it gives you the opportunity to become a little better acquainted with brand new and very likely unfamiliar repertoire.

Dr. Dick

Monday, February 8, 2010

Zuill Bailey's New Bach CD - A Party in Harrisburg! POSTPWND


Given the impending forecast for the possibility of another foot of snow by Wednesday evening, Ellen Hughes sent out this e-mail this morning:
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Dear Friends -

After speaking to many of you, it's clear that the prudent decision is to reschedule tomorrow's CD release party in light of the forecast. Although there is no date in mind for the moment, we're talking about sometime in the spring.

Many thanks to all of you for all of your good advice and willingness to help. It's too bad that the weather is the only element that has not cooperated.

I'll be in touch as soon as we can settle on another date, with the hopes that it will fit in to everyone's schedule.


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Given the recent snowfall in Central Pennsylvania, I thought this particularly spring-like photograph of Zuill Bailey would not only remind us it's only 41 Days till the Spring Equinox, Zuill's new CD Release Party is just days away - Wednesday, Feb. 10th, beginning at 6pm. POSTPONED (2-09-2010) NEW DATE TBA...

Zuill's new CD is a Telarc recording released just last week of the six Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, a major accomplishment in any cellist's repertoire.

The party will be held at the new location of the Mid-Town Scholar Book Store at 3rd and Verbeke (Broad) Streets in Harrisburg, across from the Broad Street Farmers Market.

Presented by Market Square Concerts in collaboration with HACC-Midtown, it begins at 6:00 and Zuill will start playing some excerpts from the Bach Suites at 6:30.

A $5 donation is requested. Hors d’oeuvres prepared by HACC’s culinary students and liquid refreshments will be available.

As refreshments for the soul, Zuill will play selections from the Bach Suites. He comes to Harrisburg from other CD release parties in San Francisco and New York, then goes on to Baltimore and other hopefully less snow-challenged locations.

After his November recital here, we're very lucky to have him back in Central Pennsylvania again and especially honored that he chose to have the CD-Party here. His new Bach CD will be available for purchase on the night of the party.

These six suites, some of the most significant repertoire for a cellist, were recorded each in one sitting over a period of one week at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, following years of preparation by Mr. Bailey. He calls the process of recording these suites “such a personal journey for me.”

While Valentine's Day is around the corner and it's only 42 days till Bach's Birthday, don't forget the next concert with Market Square Concerts will be the first appearance in Central PA of Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet who'll be playing Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, Philip Glass' 2nd String Quartet ("Company") among other new works including the world premiere of a piece written by Lisa Bielawa. She's been in Rome as a winner of last year's Rome Prize writing a new work commissioned by Market Square Concerts. You can hear this exciting concert on Saturday, February 20th at 8pm at Market Square Church. There will be an open rehearsal between 1:30 and 3:30 that afternoon.

I'll be posting more about that concert in the near future.

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, January 31, 2010

GRAMMY WINNERS with Market Square Concerts Connections

Jennifer Higdon, in town last week for a Market Square Concerts performance of her "Impressions" with the Cypress String Quartet, won a Grammy Award tonight in the Classical Music category "Best Classical Contemporary Composition" for her Percussion Concerto, a recording conducted by Marin Alsop with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and soloist Colin Currie, for whom the work had been composed. The Percussion Concerto had been performed in March 2008 by the Harrisburg Symphony with conductor Stuart Malina and the orchestra's principal percussionist, Chris Rose, the soloist.

The winner of the Best Chamber Music Recording is the Emerson Quartet, frequent visitors in past seasons with Market Square Concerts, for their Deutsche Gramophon CD of Janaček and Martinu quartets called "Intimate Letters."

For a list of the winners of the Classical GRAMMYs, go to Thoughts on a Train.

- Dr. Dick

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Meeting Composers: Jennifer Higdon Comes to Town

This weekend, you get to hear a real live composer when she joins the Cypress Quartet for Market Square Concerts, Saturday evening at Temple Ohev Sholom.

So far, mid-state Pennsylvanians have heard Jennifer Higdon's music live with “Blue Cathedral” and her Percussion Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony and the 2nd movement of “CityScape” entitled “river sings a song to trees” with the Lancaster Symphony in the past few years. The opening movement of “CityScape,” called “SkyLine” opens next week's Harrisburg Symphony concert, January 30th and 31st at the Forum. Several of her recordings, including "Blue Cathedral" and the “Concerto for Orchestra,” had been heard on WITF-FM including interviews with her on “Composing Thoughts” and “New Releases.”

The Telarc recording of the Concerto for Orchestra had been nominated for three Grammys including Best Contemporary Composition and won one for Best Engineered Recording. This year, the London Philharmonic's recording of the Percussion Concerto has been nominated for Best Contemporary Composition: we'll find out Sunday night when the Grammy winners are announced. (I'll be posting the winners on my blog, Thoughts on a Train.)

In addition to these two large-scale works, I've also heard the premiere of “Singing Rooms,” a very unusual combination of violin concerto and choral work. This past year, there've been two new concertos premiered, a Piano Concerto and a Violin Concerto (written for Hilary Hahn, which I heard in a radio-internet broadcast from the BBC when it was performed and recorded in London). There was a concerto for the cross-over group, the classically-trained Bluegrass string trio calling themselves “Time for 3,” a work she called “Concerto 4-3.” She's writing another concerto for the new music ensemble, “eighth blackbird,” which is set to premiere this June and there's an opera on her work-desk, due for a premiere in San Francisco in 2013!

Judging from that list of works, all composed within the past 8 years, you might be surprised that she writes a lot of chamber music, too. And that's how we'll hear her this weekend.

Jennifer Higdon is one of the most performed living composers writing today. Ellen Hughes described her as “the busiest composer on the planet” when she announced Jennifer Higdon's string quartet “Impressions,” written for the Cypress Quartet, will be on their program when they perform with Market Square Concerts – and not only that, the composer, despite her busy schedule, will be here to talk with the audience about the piece, what it was like writing it.

That program is this weekend – January 23rd, Saturday evening at 8pm, at the Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg, located on Front Street a few blocks above the Governor's Mansion.

Claude Debussy and Samuel Barber, whose quartets are also on the program, regret that they will be unable to attend.

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You don't often get a chance to hear a live composer talk about the music he or she has written (well, true, you never get to hear a dead one, either, but you know what I mean). With music from the past, there are people who've written about the composer, about the music, about the times they lived and created in. But they can't usually tell us what was going on in composers' minds when they were composing those pieces.

New music – and “Impressions” was written in 2003 so that certainly still qualifies as “new” in the Art World – usually takes a few years or generations before that body of “context” can be... well, for lack of a better word, “historicized.” The context for New Music is all around us: it was written in our own time, times most of us have experienced and remember, it reflects things going on in our world (either artistically or historically) today.

In many cases, composers can be an esoteric bunch and there can be very little more boring for most people than listening to a composer talking to other composers about the “expert” details that lie beyond the comprehension or interest of most listeners. It would be the same, though, if you wanted to hear about space travel from a famous scientist who's come to town and ends up talking to other scientists about the finer points of physics. For most of us, the mind would probably quickly glaze over. (Actually, that happens to me when I hear “experts” talk about baseball, but hey...)

One of the things that I've always liked about Jennifer Higdon since I first met her back at the premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra in 2002, is how genuine she is as a person and how direct she is as a communicator, both reflected in the way she writes her music and in the way she talks about it.

(As an example, you can watch this video in which she and Hilary Hahn talk about the Violin Concerto.)

There is none of this scholarly mumbo-jumbo meant to impress other experts nor is it so vague (as others try to peel away the mystery of creativity) as to be pointless. Her music appeals to a broad range of listeners without being difficult enough to leave people wondering what they're listening to nor simplistic enough (as we expect genuinely popular works to be), empty of intellectual content for someone who wants something to sink their brain into.

If the role of an artist is to make it look easy, making us forget how much hard work and talent (not to mention luck) goes into what they do, listening to Jennifer Higdon talk about how she composed a piece of music might even leave you thinking, “Hey, I could do that!”

And she'd tell you, “you know, you're right!”

If only...

True, we all have the spark of creativity within us – it just takes some coaxing to bring it out and turn it into something. But there is still something intangible about turning it into something so tangible as a work of art.

So I hope you'll take this opportunity to come hear one of the best composers I know and one of the most talked about and performed composers today – you'll hear her music and find out that she hasn't so far, like so many dead composers, been turned into a marble bust fit only for reverence. She's just another normal human being. Who happens to write incredible music.

Dr. Dick

Monday, January 18, 2010

Claude Debussy's Quartet: Up Close & Personal with the Cypress Quartet

The Cypress Quartet will be playing in Harrisburg this Saturday evening at 8pm – not at the usual downtown locations for Market Square Concerts but at Temple Ohev Shalom in uptown Harrisburg at Seneca and Front Streets, a few blocks above Maclay Street and the Governor's Mansion.

The program will include two “only” string quartets – the only one written by Samuel Barber (the original home for his Adagio for Strings, better known in its version for full string orchestra) and the only one written by Claude Debussy.

In between, there's a more recent work written in 2003 specifically for the Cypress Quartet by Jennifer Higdon who will be present to talk about both her work and its relationship to Debussy's Quartet since she was called upon to write a “response” to it. Its movements are entitled "Bright Palette," "Quiet Art," "To the Point," and "Noted Canvas," all painterly terms (well, you get the impression...).

"Watch This Space" for an up-coming post about Jennifer Higdon and her string quartet, too.

This post is specifically about the Debussy Quartet, recycling an earlier post from Thoughts on a Train following a performance the Cypress Quartet gave at Lebanon Valley College in September of 2008.

Here they are, performing the first movement of Debussy's Quartet in G minor:

The Debussy Quartet was on their very first program twelve years ago, violinist Tom Stone had said in remarks before they played it. There was so much in the piece they discovered while first working on it – though he said jokingly, looking back at his colleagues, “that first performance was... uh, was kinda rough...” And ever since they’ve kept coming back to it and discovering more.

However many times they’ve played it in the years in between - and recorded it - this was the first time I’d heard them play it. It sounded to me like they were approaching it with the same excitement they’d have after having just discovered it for the first time. Except for one thing: they weren’t playing it like everybody else. They were bringing to this overly familiar war-horse something that often gets lost in the “yet-another-performance” syndrome that affects many performances and listeners – the “here-we-go-again,” “dig-out-the-tried-and-true” approach that, regardless of technical flawlessness, never manages to get beyond the surface of the music.

It’s not one of those things you can easily put a finger on, much less describe in words (not that that’s going to stop me). Without a score in front of me, could I say they were doing it correctly when others were not? Or were they adding things not in the composer’s written-down intentions that other groups hadn’t thought of? How much of this was their own interpretation – and how much “interpretation” is beyond what the composer called for or, at least, implied?

Ever since I was a kid learning to play the piano, I’ve heard the expression “the music lies between the notes.” It’s not just getting your fingers in the right places at the right times, playing the right notes in the right rhythms. Learning how to make music out of all that, finding what’s between those notes, is the performer’s real challenge, and then completing the equation by communicating that to the listener.

Rather than examine the score (the printed music, what the composer wrote), too many performers today listen to recordings (how what the composer wrote is interpreted) and then pick and choose what they feel best suits them. Imitating a performance might let a student know how it could go – since there’s really no single way it SHOULD go – but it doesn’t help a student figure out WHY it could go that way.

That’s what I liked about what I heard the Cypress Quartet doing with the Debussy.

Too many performances and recordings I’d heard play the piece as a lushly romantic wash of pretty sounds: Debussy, after all, was an Impressionist, a pigeon-hole he never liked but since it reminded people of those Impressionist painters of the day, there was no way to avoid it.

Debussy (see right, a photograph taken in 1893, with the composer at the piano, the year he wrote his Quartet) was also a slow, painstaking composer who agonized a long time over whether to use this chord or that chord. It’s got to be more than he was just unwilling to make a commitment: he was probably looking for the best sonority for that moment, not just slap-dashing notes down on the page because “oh, that sounds nice!”

Debussy has never been an easy composer for me to love: certainly, I like a lot of his music but it never really spoke to me. Part of this may be because he is, despite his dislike of the painterly term, most often inspired by the visual element and I am not. Most of his pieces have titles that suggest or prompt certain images in the listener’s mind, whether it’s a garden in the rain or a child’s toy. I am not a visually oriented person so it’s quite possible that’s why much of his music eludes me. As a like-minded friend of mine once put it, “I like La Mer: every time I hear it, it’s like hearing it for the first time,” but in the context and tone of voice implying it is also immensely forgettable.

But his only String Quartet, written in 1893 (the same year Brahms was writing his last piano pieces, Op. 118 and Op. 119, by the way) is simply that – an abstract string quartet where the movements are indicated by tempos like Animé et très décidé, not “Reflections of Moonlight on the Steps of the Temple.” But then, this is considered “Early Debussy” despite the fact he was 30 – making, I guess, derivative juvenalia like his Piano Trio written at 17 “Pre-Early” – yet all that is fairly relative when you consider when he wrote two of his more famous pieces: the piano piece Clair de lune from the Suite Bergamasque predates the quartet by four years; the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was written the following year. Between these picturesque pieces, a string quartet, considered a German form in late-19th Century France, could seem the Odd-Piece-Out.

The Sonata Form was also essentially a German Form. And French composers felt, perhaps out of patriotism as much as anything, that it needed to be adapted their own way. French taste shied away from such Germanic things as fugal counterpoint (what Satie called “sauerkraut”) and the obsessive development one finds in so much German music: they preferred melody and color, perhaps, over rigidity of form and harmony.

But this is also part of the French Personality, more laid back and laissez-faire compared to the German (and specifically Prussian) attitude toward detail, exactness and promptness (a friend of mine from Berlin would be pointing excitedly at his watch because we were now two minutes late) . Ned Rorem would break everything down to be either French or German along similar guidelines, even other national stereotypes: the Japanese, to him, are German and the Chinese, French! (Think about it...)

So the French took their Sonata Form and put less emphasis on the development section and crafted memorable melodies that would come back in other movements – forgetting that Beethoven had done the same thing in a few key works like his 5th and 9th Symphonies – something they called “cyclical form,” even though it’s not really a form but a structural device to unite a multi-movement work. Part of the problems Germanic listeners have with this technique is that “it’s just the same tune!” They expected something to have “happened” to the theme by then, becoming transformed – you know, the way Mahler does in his symphonies (“good German symphonies, Mahler,” you could almost hear them adding).

So it’s surprising to realize that Debussy builds almost everything in this four movement work out of four basic pitches – G -F - D- F# – a motive which lies behinds the themes rather than being the theme itself. Consciously or not, these various themes will all sound different but still connected. There’s a subtly here that manages to create a great deal of variety while using the same material – things keep coming back in slightly different ways but it all sounds like something cut from the same cloth.

Debussy was famous for having flunked his harmony class at the Conservatoire – giving generations of students, including mine, the courage to say “if Debussy could do it...” What these same students forget is that his teacher, after marking up his papers with tons of corrections and comments, could still admit “everything is wrong but he is talented, there can be no doubt about that,” a qualification that could not always be made about my students who also forgot that at the time Debussy was 12. He had, certainly, even then, his own ideas about things, but that doesn’t mean he discarded the use of Rules completely, just Those Rules.

People sometime object, consciously or not, to the “impressionistic” music of Debussy because it doesn’t sound like the music they’re more familiar with, not that it’s “ugly and dissonant,” just “unsettling.” Dissonant, perhaps, but in the sense that chords that (according to the old rules) need to resolve in certain expected ways do not. When you are using a scale that is not the same as the traditional major or minor scale, you create harmony that does not move in the same expected ways: if it’s the whole-tone scale which doesn’t include that interval, the perfect fifth, which is at the root of all Classical Harmony, you create chords that don’t even sound like they need to go ANYwhere. And so performers create a sound that becomes static and directionless, as if “forward motion” in music could not be accomplished in other ways.

What the Cypress Quartet does, examining the printed music in front of them, is find the ways that Debussy replaces these traditional “classical” expectations with his own, how he moves the harmony forward by creating certain consistencies (whether or not he’d think of them as “rules”) and how he builds toward climactic points, using rhythm, tempo, texture, even the register the instruments are playing in and of course elements of contrast. Suddenly I’m hearing “structure” where before it was just pretty shapes and images, as if this “skin” were not holding together muscles and bones.

And I’m sitting there thinking, “huh, Debussy with structure! Who knew?!” This is the first time I’ve heard the piece where I thought it was worth listening to. (But then, there may have been some “French” listeners in the hall who were squeamish because to them it was too pedantic, too... German!)

It’s not like this is a revolutionary way of looking at music. “Analyzing” is a term I dislike because it implies the psychological obsession with detail (as in “he’s so totally anal”) that so often loses the overall picture to focus on the minuscule. It’s not like other groups don’t do this: they just find something different or maybe, if they find nothing compelling, they just play it the way they’ve heard other people play it.

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You can hear them perform the Debussy Quartet along with Jennifer Higdon's “Impressions” and Samuel Barber's Quartet on Saturday, Jan. 23rd, at 8pm at Temple Ohev Shalom in uptown Harrisburg with Market Square Concerts.

- Dr. Dick