Thursday, April 7, 2011

Beethoven with Miriam Fried & Jonathan Biss

If it seems that spring will never get here, April showers aside, let me point out Market Square Concert’s last program of the season is Tuesday, April 12th, at Whitaker Center when violinist Miriam Fried and pianist Jonathan Biss will perform four Beethoven violin sonatas – including the “Spring” Sonata.

That concert begins at 6:00 pm, earlier than the traditional starting time, so let me stress that 6pm is not a typo.

Why? Well, every now and them someone wonders if it wouldn’t be a good idea to have something available earlier in the evening so people leaving work at 5:00 would have a concert they could go to after work but before they go home and get settled in for the evening, putting off the homeward-bound rush-hour traffic. We’ve tried it a couple of times for the SummerMusic series and it seemed to work.

But this is the first time with one of the subscription series and, in this case, the reason’s a little different.

Concert dates are determined by what artists the presenter wants to present, trying to find a date in the mutual calendars of the presenter’s series and the artist’s schedule. This can often be a tight fit, depending on availability (and this is why winter concerts are such a bear because we can’t just postpone it till next week because of snow because, quite possibly, the artist will be playing in California or England that night and so isn’t available).

Ellen Hughes really wanted to bring young pianist Jonathan Biss and one of the great violinists in the world today, Miriam Fried, to Harrisburg and the only time it could work out, wouldn’t you know, was in between other engagements. Mr. Biss is substituting for Murray Perahia in a Chicago Symphony-sponsored recital there on Monday and has to be in Boston for a rehearsal on Wednesday morning with the Boston Symphony, playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto there – and in order to get there in time, he has to catch a flight from Harrisburg Tuesday evening, hence the earlier-than-usual start time. (I suspect this means there probably won’t be any time for an encore…)

This may be the first time Jonathan Biss appears in Harrisburg but it is not the first time Miriam Fried has been here: I last saw her in January of 1984 – speaking of snow dates. She played the Beethoven Violin Concerto on a very snowy night and it was one of those occasions where – aside from being unable to postpone the Tuesday night concert – two players in the orchestra were unable to make it. Unfortunately they were the bassoon section which meant the William Schuman Symphony No. 3 sounded a bit funky, especially in the long bassoon solo in the last movement’s fugue where we heard 8 measures of silence before the bass clarinet came in.

This presented a problem in the Beethoven concerto because not only are there some wonderful bassoon solos for the principal player, there’s a lot of wind section texture where the second bassoonist plays the all-important bass part. Lacking both of them would sound very strange and so I spent the first half of the concert conflating both bassoon parts into a single bass clarinet part – a solo here, the bass of the wind band there – and then Jim Dunn, our bass clarinetist at the time, sight read the part. It may have been the oddest sounding Beethoven Violin Concerto Miriam Fried ever played but it would’ve sounded odder with those missing bits… oh, well…

Jonathan Biss is Miriam Fried’s son, but this will also be a chance for me to hear the third generation of this musical family. In March of 1963, I attended my first Harrisburg Symphony concert when cellist Raya Gárbousova played the Dvořák Cello Concerto. She was the cellist for whom Samuel Barber composed his Cello Concerto and an artist Pablo Casals once called “the best cellist I have ever heard.” Her son, violist Paul Biss married Miriam Fried.

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For their Market Square Concerts program (did I mention it begins at 6:00?), they will be performing a program of four violin sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven:

Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op.23
Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96
Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 12, No. 2
Sonata No. 5 in F, Op. 24 (“Spring”)

Unfortunately for us, Beethoven’s interest in the violin sonata didn’t match his creative output throughout his career like his symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas. The first nine sonatas were all written in a four-year period early in his career and then one more came along as a “special occasion” during his Middle Period. His most famous (if not his greatest) sonata was for an African-English violinist named George Bridgetower – they gave it its premiere (the composition so hurried that Beethoven had to summon his copyist at 4:30am to have the violin part ready in time) but then later had a falling out (a disagreement over a woman, the story goes), so when it was published a few years later, it was dedicated to the great French violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer who, it turned out, never played the piece. Beethoven had been hoping for some exposure as a result of this dedication.

That sense of marketing is also behind the dedication of the first set of violin sonatas which appeared in 1799, composed over the two years before that, and dedicated to the highly esteemed composer Antonio Salieri, one of the most powerful musicians in Vienna’s very tight musical world. We think of Salieri today (wrongly) as Mozart’s Murderer (great theater, though it is) but in his day he was a leading court composer and his approval meant good things for young musicians, especially a young 28-year-old from the German provinces. Beethoven studied briefly with Salieri – the art of setting Italian words to music – and these sonatas (although nothing to do with what he learned from the man) could be seen logically as dedicated out of gratitude to his one-time teacher. And, after all, the first set of six string quartets, written around the same time, were dedicated to Franz Josef Haydn, his primary teacher but also a wise move, politically: it was as if, having accepted the dedication, these great artists were putting their stamp of approval on the young composer who was just beginning his career.

Unlike Mozart, who wrote spontaneously, Beethoven’s was a creative struggle, judging from his notebooks. Sketches for the Op. 12 Sonatas appear in some notebooks going back to 1795, meaning he was thinking about if not actually working on them a few years before they were completed and sent to the publisher.

The first and last sonatas on this program form one of Beethoven’s contrasting pairs – for instance, the dramatic 5th Symphony followed by the bucolic 6th, justifiably nicknamed the “Pastoral” which he worked on at the same time and which were premiered together (their numbers, reversed). These sonatas were intended to be Op.23, Nos. 1 & 2, but due to an engravers error were each given separate numbers.

The A Minor is the dramatic one, turbulent and dark at times with more lyrical contrasts that usually end up subsumed by the drama.

The F Major is the “bucolic,” more relaxed one, if not exactly Pastoral in mood. Its sense of lightness and benign qualities have earned it the nickname “Spring,” a reminder that Beethoven enjoyed his summer trips to the countryside in order to compose in peace.

Both of these works were written more or less simultaneously in 1801. It is interesting to note that a year later, Beethoven would spend much of the summer and fall in the Viennese suburb of Heiligenstadt which any reader of concert program notes would immediately recognize as the place where Beethoven wrote his heart-rending “Heiligenstadt Testament,” describing his fears of losing his hearing: the symptoms had been increasing over the past few years, yet this never seemed to affect his music.

The last sonata to be composed came 10 years after its predecessor, the “Kreutzer.” It is usually overlooked because it does not seem to be an advance on the magnitude of the concerto-like 9th Sonata but there may be a practical reason for this. For whatever reason Beethoven did not continue writing violin sonatas as he did piano sonatas, the 10th was written for another French violinist, Pierre Rode, who was visiting Vienna in 1812 – a fateful year for Beethoven as well as Napoleon – and who, apparently, requested a sonata from the now well-established Beethoven.

It was written at the end of the year Beethoven completed the 7th and wrote the 8th Symphonies, during which time he (we assume) wrote his letter to the Immortal Beloved (whoever she may have been), met her (we assume) at a spa in Bohemia that summer and (we assume) broke up with her before he returned to Vienna (stopping off, by the way, to annoy his brother who was living with his girl-friend without having married her: you can read more about how Beethoven’s personal life intertwined with his creative life that year in this post at my blog, Thoughts on a Train).The bust (see right) was made by Klein in 1812, the likeness taken from a "life mask."

He returned to Vienna in November, then wrote the G Major Sonata for a concert in late December with Rode, aware that Rode, though four years his junior, was somewhat past his prime (as the story goes). The composer Ludwig Spohr, a great violinist in his own right, indicated when he was in Vienna in 1812 that Rode was already past his prime, finding later that Rode’s technique had deteriorated substantially that the man put aside playing the violin to focus on teaching and composing.

This may explain the lack of bravura in Beethoven’s last violin sonata. He wrote to his patron and student, the Archduke Rudolph, that “I did not make great haste in the last movement [of the G Major Violin Sonata] for the sake of mere punctuality, the more because, in writing it, I had to consider the playing of Rode. In our finales we like rushing and resounding passages, but this does not please R and — this hinders me somewhat.”

However, Spohr, who was in Vienna at the same time – essentially competing with Rode for audience – did leave an account of his acquaintance with Beethoven that would also lead us to believe that, because of his deafness, the composer was past his prime as a performer: Spohr heard a private performance of Beethoven playing the “Ghost” Trio that was “by no means an enjoyment.”

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“…in the first place, the pianoforte was woefully out of tune which, however, troubled Beethoven little, since he could hear nothing of it, and, secondly, of the former so admired excellence of the virtuoso, scarcely anything was left, in consequence of his total deafness. In the forte, the poor deaf man hammered in such a way upon the keys that entire groups of notes were inaudible, so that one lost all intelligence of the subject unless the eye followed the score at the same time. I felt moved with deepest sorrow at so hard a destiny… Beethoven’s almost continual melancholy was no longer a riddle to me now.” – Ludwig Spohr (Autobiography)
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Conversing with Beethoven, when they met at a restaurant, was unpleasant as Spohr had to speak “so loud as to be heard in the third room off.” They met frequently, both at Spohr’s home and at the restaurant. He found Beethoven “a little blunt, not to say uncouth; but a truthful eye beamed from under his bushy eyebrows.”

After Beethoven had been absent from the restaurant for several days, Spohr inquired if he had been ill? Beethoven replied, “My boot was and as I have only one pair, I had house-arrest.”

Such was Beethoven’s life at the time he composed this pleasant, genial violin sonata written for Rode – Spohr’s “rival” – but which, like the Piano Trio in B-flat Major written the year before, was dedicated instead to the Archduke Rudolph who, we should remember, was the only patron Beethoven had who always supplied him with funding even in difficult economic times like 1812.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, April 4, 2011

Last Concert of the Season: Beethoven, Biss & Fried

The final concert of Market Square Concerts 2010-2011 season is Tuesday night, April 12 at 6 p.m. at Whitaker Center.

(Yes, that’s 6pm – as in SIX p.m. – and that is not a typo! It is earlier than the usual start time of 8:00, so be warned!)

This recital features the charismatic and accomplished violinist Miriam Fried and her son, Jonathan Biss, whose career as a recitalist and orchestral soloist has taken off into the stratosphere. Jonathan Biss is coming to Harrisburg from Chicago, where he's substituting on Sunday for Murray Perahia in a Chicago Symphony sponsored recital.

Our concert on the 12th begins at 6 p.m. because he has to bolt to Boston immediately afterwards, where he'll begin rehearsals the next morning to play Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with the Boston Symphony.

It’s Beethoven on the program in Harrisburg, in between – Fried and Biss will play four of Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano, a rare opportunity to enjoy a juxtaposition of examples of this music in a single recital.

I’ve posted more information about the music on the program here.

As Ellen Hughes writes in the press release, “This is the last concert with me as Market Square Concerts' Executive Director. My successors are the young, energetic and talented couple Ya-Ting Chang and Peter Sirotin as Executive and Artistic Directors respectively. Although they officially begin July 1, they'll be at the concert for you to meet on the 12th.

“The board of Market Square Concerts invites you to have a glass of bubbly to celebrate this happy transition at a reception after the concert. Brochures about our next season will be available at the concert."

Oh, and did I mention the performance begins at 6:00pm?

Lee Hoiby (1926-2011): Where the Music Came From

A week ago – Monday, March 28th, 2011 – Ellen Hughes forwarded an e-mail to me announcing that American composer Lee Hoiby had died that afternoon at the age of 85.

If you attended the Market Square Concerts program in March, 2009, you heard Hoiby’s “Sextet for Winds & Piano” with Stuart Malina joining the Dorian Wind Quintet and perhaps had a chance to meet the composer who’d driven down from his Catskill home for the performance. Most people I talked to after that concert were convinced his birth date in the program was a typo – no way was this jovial, vital man 83 years old!

You can read the post from Sequenza21 here which includes the official obituary, and a reminiscence by a friend in this post at New Music Box, here.

In addition to being a composer I have long admired, Lee was a friend whom I’d corresponded with occasionally since I was in high school, but I haven’t been able to bring myself around to writing about it on my own blog – soon, perhaps.

But you can read my accounts of his visit to Harrisburg two years ago here with a follow-up post about other works by Lee Hoiby I'd recommend for people in the audience who, liking the sextet, wondered what else was out there they could listen to. Also, these posts about dinner with Lee before that concert and then this one about some inspiring songs for composers or listeners, including one of Lee’s more famous songs, “Where the Music Comes From.”

As often happens when composers die, their music lives on – as if they’ve never really left us. It’s just sad knowing there will be no more music coming from where that music came from…

- Dick Strawser