Friday, March 9, 2012

Zuill Bailey & Awadagin Pratt, Together Again (Part 2)

Awadagin Pratt
This weekend, two good friends with ties to Central Pennsylvania – cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Awadagin Pratt – come back for a performance with Market Square Concerts at Whitaker Center, Sunday at 4pm EDT.

As personnel manager for the Harrisburg Symphony back in the mid-1980s, I’d hired Awadagin Pratt, then a student at Peabody in Baltimore, as a substitute in the orchestra’s 1st Violin section for a concert. (Yes, that’s right – the violin section.) During a break between rehearsals, he wanted to know if there was a piano around he could practice on – “juries” were coming up, performance exams for conservatory students – and I figured, well, I knew several violinists who’d be lucky to find Middle C on a keyboard. The only piano available that time was the old clunker grand (in much need of repair) kept in a cluttered storage room backstage at the Forum: it didn’t even have a bench. So I left him there and went to discuss business with the conductor in the Green Room next door. Suddenly, we heard the opening of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto and Larry Newland, the conductor then, asked me “who’s playing that?” I remember saying something stupid like “I dunno, I left Awadagin in there a few minutes ago…”

We went over and peeked in the door. Yes, there was Awadagin, playing away, dreadlocks swaying, and sitting on an upturned five-gallon bucket, a cluttered dusty storage room turned momentarily into Carnegie Hall.

The next concert I hired him for he said would be the last one he could play. After the juried exam, his piano teacher told him if he wanted to pursue the piano as his career, he would need to cut back on other things, like the time he spent playing the violin. Yeah, well… I could understand that…

In 1992, he won the prestigious Naumberg International Piano Competition and two years later, an Avery Fisher Career Grant. So it was great to see him come back to play some recitals in the area and then play the Grieg Piano Concerto as a soloist with the orchestra, not as a member of the 1st Violin section.

Then Ellen Hughes started the Next Generation Festival through WITF in 1996 and invited Awadagin Pratt to be its music director. He brought in friends of his among other rising young musicians worth taking note of and introduced Central PA to some incredible performers and some amazing music making. For instance, there was the Cypress String Quartet, then a new group, and they’ve also been returning frequently to the region for concerts ranging from the Pennsylvania Academy’s summer music festival to residency concerts with Lebanon Valley College and, of course, Market Square Concerts. In fact, they’ll be returning for a concert with MSC next month at Whitaker Center.

Zuill Bailey
Another one of those brilliant musicians Awadagin brought to play for us was a cellist named Zuill Bailey. If the music making was of a very high level with these concerts, the electricity between Awadagin and Zuill was even more exciting. I was hoping their careers would take off for them – they certainly deserved it.

Awadagin soon had a recording contract with EMI and started teaching at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. And in 2009, he played at the White House.

The last time Zuill was in town, he had a “CD Party” to celebrate the release of his Telarc recording of the Bach solo cello suites, and he’s been busy as a performer and also director of chamber music festivals in El Paso TX and in Alaska. Both of their professional accomplishments make my head spin to read them. Amazing!

Recently, Zuill and Awadagin collaborated on a recording for Telarc that includes both of Brahms’ cello sonatas as well as other works arranged for cello and piano. They’ll be playing the first of those sonatas on their program here, along with a work chosen for sentimental reasons: the first piece they played together at their first Next Generation Festival collaboration was Beethoven’s A Major Cello Sonata.

Ellen Hughes had a chance to catch up with both of them for her interview in the Patriot-News.

And you can read more about this Sunday’s program in Part 1 of this post which includes the video about making their Brahms recording as well as videos and background for Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and the Beethoven sonata.

Here are Jacqueline Du Pré and Daniel Barenboim recorded in 1968 playing the complete E Minor Cello Sonata of Johannes Brahms in four clips (the poster apologizes for having to break the 1st movement into two bits):
1st Mvmt Part 1
1st Mvmt Part 2

2nd Mvmt

3rd Mvmt

The summer of 1862 must have been an especially good one for Johannes Brahms – he had just turned 29 and was spending time with good friends. He was staying with fellow composer and Schumann protégé, Albert Dietrich, best remembered if largely unheard as the composer who wrote the first movement of the committee-written F.A.E. Sonata for Joseph Joachim, sharing a house somewhere under the Ebernburg Castle (not in a camper: see photo, below). Not far away, taking the cure at Bad Münster-am-Stein, was Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann’s widow and one of the greatest pianists of the day.

Ebernburg Castle
Following the Lower Rhine Music Festival that June, Brahms and Dietrich spent two weeks there, busily composing, taking walks through the countryside, and spending the evenings making music with Clara.

As Brahms wrote to Joachim, unable to join them, “Now I am sitting in a tavern under the Ebernburg. Dietrich is in the next room belaboring his bride. The bride in question being a ballade for choir and orchestra.”

Dietrich, for his part, wrote to his wife how his friendship with Brahms increased the more time they spent together. “His nature is equally lovable, cheerful and deep,” adding however that Johannes had an impish side, teasing the women which was often misinterpreted, at least by Clara who missed the joke and reacted with indignation, though Brahms had a twinkle in his blue eyes.

For her part, Clara wrote to Joachim, “he made life with him almost unbearable.”

At the end of the two weeks, Brahms and Dietrich took an extensive walking tour visiting friends in Landau and Karlsruhe, then stopping in Baden-Baden where they saw Anton Rubinstein, the Russian composer who was another great pianist of the day. By the end of August, he was back home in Hamburg.

Before leaving Ebernburg, Brahms gave Clara a pile of manuscripts to look at – he always valued her opinion and frequently sent her his latest efforts, something he did through much of his career. Included in the box was the first movement of a symphony in C Minor – minus its introduction, what would eventually become the opening of the 1st Symphony he didn’t feel satisfied with until 14 years later.

This, of course, overshadowed everything else: Brahms was writing a symphony! Even when she had first met Brahms, a 20-year-old who showed up on their doorstep in Düsseldorf, his piano sonatas and string quartets struck her husband as “veiled symphonies.” She had been urging him ever since to compose a symphony: that was the path to success and acceptance. The earliest sketches for this symphony dated back to the mid-1850s, not long after Robert had attempted suicide, that February, by jumping into the Rhine.

But also there was a string quintet in F Minor (with two cellos) and three movements of a cello sonata in E Minor, minus its finale.

Three summers later, in 1865, Brahms rented a couple of quiet rooms (“unbelievably cheap,” he wrote to his father) on the top floor of a quaint house on a hillside near Baden-Baden, consisting of a small but comfortable bedroom and the “Blue Salon,” as he called it, with its blue-and-gold wallpaper. From the window, he could see the mountainside and the road to Baden. He enjoyed these rooms and this area and returned here for several summers.

His schedule was simple: he would wake up at dawn, make strong coffee, take a long walk to mull over what he was working on that day, then before lunch spend four hours composing. After having lunch at a nearby inn he would join Clara Schumann and her children who were staying nearby, walking with them before having more coffee at 4:00, then back to their place for dinner before returning to the Blue Salon.

That first summer, Brahms completed the last movement of his G Major String Sextet and the fugal finale to his E Minor Cello Sonata, deciding eventually to discard its original slow movement which may or may not have ended up in the F Major Cello Sonata composed over twenty years later.

Something that engaged his mind that summer was a keening theme, strongly reminding him of Schumann’s musical sentiments: sitting among the fir trees near the house where he was staying, Brahms began what became the Horn Trio. His mother had become increasingly ill that previous winter, Brahms arriving a few days too late in early February to see her before she died of a stroke. After the funeral, he returned to Vienna where a friend, a singing teacher and amateur cellist named Joseph Gänsbacher, found Brahms playing through Bach’s Goldberg Variations for solace. In tears, Brahms told his friend about the death of his mother, but never stopped playing.

By April, he had composed three movements of his German Requiem, the second of them (the “All flesh is as grass” movement) containing ideas he had sketched shortly after Robert Schumann had attempted suicide 11 years before.

After finishing the sextet and the cello sonata, he sent them to his publisher, Simrock, who declined them. Next, Breitkopf and Härtel likewise rejected them. Leipzig had never been fond of Brahms’ music and Carl Reinecke, a successor to Mendelssohn at the Gewandhaus, considered the sextet “vile,” the kind of music that should be suppressed.

The brighter, more out-going F Major Sonata of 1886, a great deal of it written for the instruments upper register, was written for the cellist of Joachim’s quartet for whom he would also write the cello part of the “Double” Concerto. The darker, internal E Minor Sonata, dwelling more in the lower register of the instrument, was dedicated to an amateur cellist friend, Joseph Gänsbacher, the same friend who had stopped by to visit the composer after his mother’s death. The famous story about the sonata’s first performance, almost too good to be true, makes one wonder if Brahms had misgivings about that decision.

Now, one of the most difficult things about writing for cello and piano is maintaining the balance between the two since the cello, especially in the lower register, can easily be swamped. Considering Brahms’ typically dense textures, it was no wonder Gänsbacher was struggling to be heard, especially in the fugal last movement. At one point, he presumably said to the Maestro that he could barely hear himself at all.

To which Brahms presumably replied, “Lucky for you!”

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Zuill Bailey & Awadagin Pratt, Together Again (Part 1)

This Sunday, cellist Zuill Bailey returns to Harrisburg and Market Square Concerts for a performance at Whitaker Center with friend and frequent collaborator, pianist Awadagin Pratt in a program featuring sonatas by Beethoven and Brahms and the three Fantasy Pieces of Robert Schumann as well as some of Brahms’ songs transcribed for the cello.

This performance is Sunday afternoon at 4pm EDT – and I stress the “EDT,” there, because Sunday, March 11th is also the first day of Daylight Saving Time! So if you forgot to “spring forward” not only will your entire Sunday be off, you’ll be showing up an hour late for the concert. So… consider yourself reminded!

Both performers are well known to Central Pennsylvania audiences: Awadagin Pratt played the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony back in the ‘90s and, having appeared in recitals throughout the region, returned in 1996 as the Music Director of the “Next Generation Festival” which Ellen Hughes had founded through WITF. With musicians from Awadagin’s wide-ranging circle of friends and colleagues, “Next Gen” gave us a chance to hear the Cypress Quartet a few times when they’re were still a “new group” – they’ll be returning to Market Square Concerts again for a performance next month on April 28th – as well as Zuill Bailey.

Zuill’s last appearance at Market Square Concerts was in November of 2009 – you can read about it here – when he and Robert Koenig played Brahms' 2nd Cello Sonata.

Since then, he and Awadagin have recorded the “complete” Brahms cello music and then some (including the Scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata originally for violin, one of Brahms’ earliest surviving works, and seven song transcriptions ranging from the gorgeous “Wie Melodien zieht es mir” to the universally beloved “Lullaby” or “Cradle Song” which you can hear in this unfortunately bad sounding live recording (possibly pirated) with Christa Ludwig and Leonard Bernstein at the piano).  

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The program opens with the three Fantasy Pieces originally for clarinet but which Schumann also adapted for violin or cello (the publisher’s assumption was there weren’t as many clarinetists around, but more string players would mean more sales). He originally called them “Night Pieces” written in just two days during February of 1849.

The term “Fantasiestücke” or “Fantasy Pieces” was something he’d used before – specifically a set of piano pieces from 1837, published as Op.12 – a generic approach to those short character pieces which offer, in a brief amount of time, a musical “image” sometimes with poetic or literary titles (think “Scenes from Childhood” and its famous Träumerei) or something merely suggestive of a mood without benefit of a guiding title. The earlier pieces each bore titles – Aufschwung (Soaring) or Traumes Wirren (Dream’s Confusion) – but these, only tempo marks that are more like emotional descriptors: Tender, with expression; Lively, light; Quick, with fire.

Here’s a young Armenian-born cellist, Narek Hakhnazaryan, recorded at a Ravinia Festival Master Class when he was 19 or 20, playing the three Fantasiestücke on Zuill and Awadagin’s program:

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Beethoven wrote five cello sonatas. There are 32 piano sonatas written throughout his career but all but one of the 10 violin sonatas were written before he completed his Eroica Symphony. The first two cello sonatas (Op.5) are early works and the last two (Op.102) were composed in an otherwise dry spell in 1815 just as the period of his “Late” Sonatas was taking shape. The middle one – a single work – was composed mostly in 1808, shortly after he completed a pair of symphonies (No. 5 and No. 6) and while he was working on a pair of piano trios (Op. 70) including the well-known “Ghost” Trio.

Zuill discusses recording Beethoven’s works for cello and piano with the pianist on this project, Simone Dinnerstein:

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This recording of the A Major Sonata by the legendary Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim was recorded in 1970 and even though it is accompanied by a still photograph, I want to share this live performance with you:
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Narek Hakhnazaryan is back again for the final movement (with its slow movement/introduction) accompanied by pianist Michael Mizrahi, also from Ravinia.
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Considering it’s such a sublimely noble-sounding work with such a joyful conclusion, Beethoven inscribed the dedication copy of the A Major Cello Sonata Inter lacrymas et luctus (“amid tears and sorrow”) when he presented it to his friend, the amateur cellist Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein in 1809. One of the closest of Beethoven’s friends at the time, Gleichenstein had helped him negotiate the settlement of his annuity a few days earlier, one which guaranteed him an annual income of 4,000 florins contributed by three of his principle patrons, Princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky and the Archduke Rudolph.

Much of the past year had been taken up with thoughts about the reality of his financial security in Vienna, not having any official position but relying, to turn a phrase, on the kindness of aristocrats.

In the fall of 1807, around the time he presumably began work on the cello sonata, he petitioned the Imperial Royal Court Theater (whose board included several of his biggest aristocratic fans) to offer him an “employment contract” with a fixed annual income of 2,400 florins in return for his writing a new opera every year in addition to other works! In the absence of a favorable response, he rather heavily hinted that he would have to consider leaving Vienna to find better conditions – perhaps Paris .

By the end of the year, the minutes of that Board meeting read “Beethoven is not to be engaged.”

Original Manuscript for the A Major Cello Sonata
While working on the Pastoral Symphony and the cello sonata – finishing both during a summer spent in Heiligenstadt, a place that had proven so traumatic a few years earlier – Beethoven considered several possible operatic topics, including a setting of Macbeth (music sketched for the Scene with the Witches eventually found its way into the “Ghost” Trio). The possibility of the subject The Founding of Pennsylvania may more likely come from 1820 or later, but Beethoven knew, despite the failure of the public to appreciate Fidelio, this was where composers made their fortunes – in the opera houses.

Perhaps it was a consolation that they offered the theater to him for his benefit concert of December, 1808, a marathon program lasting four hours which saw the premiere of his two latest symphonies, the 4th Piano Concerto and movements from the recently completed C Major Mass, among others.

Perhaps the “tears and sorrow” Beethoven alluded to in his dedication had less to do with the time the sonata was written than the time of the official dedication in early 1809? In February, his doctor, Johann Schmidt, who’d been treating him since 1800 – he was the doctor mentioned in the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 – and Beethoven was deeply affected by this loss as much as he was concerned about the prospect of finding a new doctor, one could help him find a cure for his deafness. It was Gleichenstein who suggested Dr. Johann Baptist Malfatti.

There are also unproven rumors that, between 1806 and 1810, Beethoven was “secretly engaged” to Teresa von Brunswick (for more if not too much more information on Beethoven relationships with women, read an earlier post, here). It appears he may also have been having an affair with Countess Anna-Marie Erdödy in 1809 – he had been renting rooms in her palace in Vienna (as earlier, he had lived in the palace of Prince Lobkowitz as a lodger) – and he dedicated the two Op. 70 piano trios to her: they were first performed at a concert in her house. Whatever details of the affair’s ending may be, involving an unpleasant scene with one of her servants, they did not become friends again until 1815, at which point Beethoven dedicated his two new cello sonatas (Op. 102) to her.

At any rate, in March 1809, shortly after handing his friend Gleichenstein his dedicatee’s copy of the A Major Cello Sonata, no doubt in thanks for helping him arrange his annuity, Beethoven wrote to him that he had another task for him: having helped him find a doctor, now he asked his help in finding him a wife – preferably one “who would now and then grant a sigh to my harmonies.”

Some of the sources I have refer to his newest love interest then as the daughter of and others as the niece of Dr. Malfatti – Theresa Malfatti. The next year, Beethoven was riding in a coach with her one afternoon and apparently blurted out without any other overt form of courtship that he would like to marry her. He was refused.

Ironically, Gleichenstein married her older sister, Anna, in 1811.

I’ll continue with a separate post about the Brahms Cello Sonata that concludes this Sunday’s program.

- Dick Strawser