Friday, November 15, 2013

The Parker Quartet and Jeremy Gill's Capriccio

Saturday night, November 16th, the Parker Quartet concludes their Market Square Concerts program with the Harrisburg premiere of a work by a Harrisburg-born composer, Jeremy Gill, his "Capriccio" which he completed last year. Also on the program will be Franz Schubert's Quartettsatz (which you can read about here) and Mendelssohn's String Quartet in D, Op.44 No. 1. The performance is at 8:00, Saturday, at Temple Ohev Sholom at 2345 N. Front Street, Harrisburg.

While it's unfortunate that neither Schubert nor Mendelssohn were available for this concert, Jeremy Gill will be giving the pre-concert talk beginning at 7:15. So you have a chance to hear a live composer talk about his music - not something we always get to do when attending concerts, these days.

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The Grammy-winning Parker Quartet has a long working relationship with Harrisburg-born composer Jeremy Gill. For one thing, they premiered his “25” which had been commissioned to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Market Square Concerts. So it's not unexpected they'd be collaborating again – this time on a work entitled “Capriccio” which might bring to many any number of associations.

Normally, we think of something that might be light-hearted, “capricious,” and not very lengthy or involved – for instance, Tchaikovsky's “Capriccio italien,” a musical souvenir, or the Caprices of Nicolo Paganini, studies in the ultimate of violin technique from the early-19th Century. Brahms also wrote some Capriccios but I don't think too many people would find them “light-hearted,” as wonderful as they are (at least the ones from Op.116).

As a musical term, “capriccio” originated in the 16th Century with a set of madrigals but the term could also be applied – in that illogical and often confusing sense where the same term can be defined in different ways at different times in music history – to keyboard pieces or something of a “bizarre” nature whether it's for voices or instruments as well as more recent uses of the term more often describing a pieces mood, like Saint-Saens's “Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso” or Dvořák's Scherzo capriccioso (literally, a “capricious joke”).

So I was rather surprised – and then, no, not really surprised – to find out Jeremy Gill's recent “Capriccio” which the Parker Quartet premiered earlier this year is not a particularly light-hearted work nor short. As string quartets go, it clocks in about an hour in length, making it longer at least in duration than any of Beethoven's Late Quartets which are generally considered the Everests of the Repertoire.

His sense of the term is a bit capricious itself, going back to that 1561 original citation and making musical references to other approaches to the term between then and now. It is in several movements – 27, to be exact but they are not the standard length we'd normally associate with a quartet movement – and all of these different movements have different and varied origins as well as “uses.”

at Cumberland Valley High School
Part of the idea was to create a work that could not only operate as a whole in concert but could also be excerpted for use in educational programs. In that sense, this fragmentable nature of the piece came in handy at the educational outreach held earlier today at Cumberland Valley High School, in a program with the composer and the quartet (a program that was co-organized with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra).

Some of these movements are about the “uses” of music which he describes as “religion, love, community and dance.” Music has been used for religious worship, to express romantic emotions, as well as to create a background to dancing (its title, Terpsichore, refers to the Greek muse of dance).

Three other movements deal specifically with musical textures (monophonic or single-line melody, like Gregorian Chant; polyphonic or multi-voiced, where all voices are independent of each other; and a mixture of lines moving either in parallel motion or at slightly different time-intervals).

Most of the movements examine standard playing techniques of the instruments (perhaps more like Paganini's Caprices are “etudes” dealing with specific techniques). There are some focused on harmonics, or pizzicatos, or bowing – one, which you can hear in the interview clip below, they imitate the sound of a guitar and even hold their instruments like a guitar to accompany the cello.

Then this entire span of all these varied movements is bound by an “up-beat” introduction (in music, called “arsin”) and then, at the far end, by a “down-beat” conclusion (called “thesin”). Up! Down! And everywhere in between!

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Here's a radio interview from Minnesota Public Radio with Gill and the Quartet, talking about putting the work together – from the process of commissioning the piece to giving it its first performance – and they play a few different movements by way of a sample.

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The whole interview and performance is about 24 minutes long – the first half talks about Gill's “Capriccio” but you can listen to them play some Dvořák, too.

For the Harrisburg premiere of “Capriccio,” the quartet will play Schubert's Quartettsatz and Mendelssohn's Quartet, Op.44 No. 1, on the first half of the program.

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The Parker Quartet won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance in 2011 with their Naxos recording of works for string quartet by György Ligeti. Here's a video made during the recording session:

Given how most musicians tend to tap their feet when performing music that is especially rhythmic, you can appreciate how the engineers were probably suggesting a practicality and were not making a fashion statement.

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It's a busy year for Jeremy Gill: he was recently at the MacDowell Colony working on an oboe concerto for Erin Hannigan, principal oboist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, another Central Pennsylvania native who graduated from Palmyra High School. Another commission will bring a clarinet concerto for Christopher Grymes (who has appeared with Concertante and with Market Square Concerts these past seasons) to the Harrisburg Symphony in the near future.

This past season also saw the premiere of Before the Wresting Tides, a work for chorus, piano solo, and orchestra setting a poem by Hart Crane and featuring Rubinstein Prize-winning Ching-Yun Hu, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, and the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. The Philadelphia Inquirer called the work “exhilarating,” and remarked: “the ending is a stunner.”

From his website's biography, there's this about his recordings:

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In 2011 Jeremy released his second CD on the Albany Records label, featuring pianist Peter Orth in Book of Hours and Jonathan Hays and Jeremy in Helian. Fanfare Magazine hailed this new release, remarking on Jeremy’s “keen ear for exotic sonorities,” while the American Record Guide deemed it “grand, serious in mood…work of considerable intensity.” Philadelphia City Paper listed it as #4 on their “Best Classical Releases of 2011.” His first CD of chamber music, released in 2008, included the world premiere recordings of his 25 with the Parker Quartet, Parabasis with Mimi Stillman and pianist Charles Abramovic, and Suite for Brass with the Extension Ensemble. Peter Burwasser, reviewing this CD in Philadelphia Music Makers, wrote that “Gill writes with precision and care, intriguing imagination, and a fearless emotional depth,” and the American Record Guide remarked: “Jeremy Gill has imagination, and his music is well worth hearing, reading about, and investigating.”
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If you haven't recent performances in Harrisburg of his song cycle Helian, the organ work “8 Variations and Toccata on Betzet Yisrael,” songs composed to poems by Lucy Miller Murray for Market Square Concerts' 30th Anniversary or “25” premiered by the Parker Quartet for MSC's 25th Anniversary, or his early Symphony No. 1 when it was performed in 2009 by the Harrisburg Symphony, you really should get to Temple Ohev Sholom Saturday night to hear his latest work to be performed here, “Capriccio.”

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Parker Quartet, Franz Schubert and His Unfinished String Quartet

The Parker String Quartet returns to Harrisburg for a concert this Saturday at 8pm at the Temple Ohev Sholom at 2345 N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg. Composer Jeremy Gill will be talking about his new work, “Capriccio,” during the pre-concert talk which begins at 7:15.

A few weeks ago, I was flipping around the TV dial while looking for something worth watching and landed in the midst of an episode of “House” in which one of Dr. House's colleagues was talking with his wife over dinner when she announced the news they've gotten the Parker Quartet to play for the gala. Now, not being a regular viewer, I don't know what the gala was all about to know if I should “get” this, but I thought it was cool a real live string quartet was mentioned rather than their writers having made one up (“the Arglebargle Quartet,” say) or used an obviously famous one (say, “the Juilliard Quartet” which might seriously challenge their gala budget).

But the Parker Quartet has garnered more professional success than a passing mention in a mainstream television program (as an example of product placement in the arts goes). True, the New York Times hailed the quartet as “something extraordinary,” and the Boston Globe has acclaimed their “pinpoint precision and spectacular sense of urgency.” In addition to winning several major competitions, being awarded the Cleveland Quartet Award from Chamber Music America brought them, among more prestigious places across the country, to Harrisburg's Market Square Concerts' series, and now they return as one of the more sought-after quartets in a very crowded field.

They've been appointed as Artists-in-Residence at Harvard next year and they've already collected a Grammy Award, winning the “Best Chamber Music Performance” Grammy in 2011 for their second recording which featured the complete works for string quartet by György Ligeti.

They've also had a long working relationship with one of the composers on this concert's program: no, not Schubert who died in 1828 or Felix Mendelssohn who died in 1847 – but Harrisburg-born and still young and healthy Jeremy Gill. They premiered his recent “Capriccio” earlier this year and will be performing it along with works by those other guys I mentioned.

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The Parker Quartet's program begins with a famous work by Franz Schubert, his “Quartettsatz” or “Quartet Movement” in C Minor. A bustling, energetic and above all dramatic work, here's a performance by a quartet who will be appearing on the Market Square Concerts series in April, 2014, the Daedalus Quartet:

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Dr. Dick: Good evening and welcome to Dr. Dick's Market Square Concerts Blog Live. I'm sitting here with Franz Schubert, one of the world's most favorite composers. Welcome to the blog, Mr. Schubert. Your Quartettsatz in C Minor is usually described these days as a one-movement string quartet – which isn't exactly the case, is it?

Franz Schubert: Well, no, not really. You see, I had this habit of leaving things incomplete for one reason or another. You know, my friends used to joke I was so lazy, if I dropped a page while I was writing, I'd just start composing the next piece I had on my mind.

Dr. Dick: They said you composed like an apple tree bears fruit. And yet we're so glad to have at least a few of the windfalls...

Schubert: (What's that supposed to mean...?)

Dr. Dick: Uhm, while your most popular symphony is undoubtedly your “Unfinished Symphony,” there are actually several symphonies you left incomplete, in one way or another – at least four others including one you were working on at the time of your death, not just the famous B Minor Symphony.

Schubert: Yeah, dying is a pretty good reason for leaving something unfinished, but I'd started working on that B Minor Symphony in the fall of 1822.

Dr. Dick: The popular argument is you realized the work was superb enough to stand on its own as a two-movement piece...?

Schubert: Where do you come up with these things? I mean, that's a nice argument, thank you, except there's a sketch for the start of the 3rd movement, a scherzo – and I just suddenly stopped working on it. I don't know why, I just thought it was, you know... maybe not good enough, I guess.

Dr. Dick: And the same is true of this “Quartettsatz” – you started a second movement, an Andante in A-flat Major of, what...? 41 measures, and it, too, just stops.

Schubert: Yeah, well, I had this problem with concentrating, I guess. (He takes a sip of beer.)

Dr. Dick: Around the time you'd begun working on your 6th Symphony – the one in C Major normally known as the “Little C Major” to distinguish it from the bigger and greater “Great C Major” Symphony – it's like you wanted to go in a different direction. Earlier, in 1816, you were scathingly critical about Beethoven, but a few years later, you were talking about expanding the form of not only symphonies but also piano sonatas and string quartets – just like Beethoven was doing.

Schubert: Don't tell Beethoven about that – we all change our minds as we grow up (I was still a teenager then). But you've got to remember that between 1815 and 1820, Beethoven was going through quite a rough patch. He'd already written his 7th and 8th Symphonies by 1812, his latest string quartet, Op.95, was in 1810 (but it wasn't published until 1816). And he didn't get out of this slump of his – in large part, no doubt, thanks to that nephew business – until he began his “Hammerklavier” Sonata in 1819. He'd already begun his 9th Symphony during this period, but it was going slowly around 1817 and he didn't finish it until 1824. Those incredible Late Quartets? They didn't start taking shape until the early-1820s, you know. So, yeah, it was a pretty challenging time for both of us: he was in his mid-40s to around 50 and I was, like, in my early-20s.

Dr. Dick: But while he was also working on “expanding the form” in his later works, it's curious that you weren't following his lead: you were in a sense anticipating him, weren't you? The only problem is, you never completed any of these “experimental” works of yours from this time. Even when you completed your first two expansive quartets, the Rosamunda and the Death and the Maiden Quartets, Beethoven had just begun work on his Op. 127, the first of his Late Quartets!

Schubert: Well, yeah... but, you know, it was a small town, Vienna. It's just most of the successful composers were making a killing in the opera business. I mean, that's what I really wanted to do, was, like, make my name as an opera composer, you know?

Dr. Dick: We'll get to that, later, but...

Schubert: By the way, these dumplings are really very good – could you get me the recipe? (He reaches for another one.)

Dr. Dick: So this single, brief quartet movement – the first movement of a most likely four-movement work in the traditional manner – was written in December of 1820 when you were a month or so short of turning 24.

Schubert: Who are you calling “short”?

Dr. Dick: I mean, when Beethoven was 24, he hadn't written his first symphony or a published string quartet!

Schubert: That was Beethoven's problem, you know – he was too... uhm, what... methodical? Sketching and sketching... he'd spend months, years working on these ideas of his. Me? I'd rather knock off a few songs and then go out drinking with Schober and the guys...

Dr. Dick: But curiously enough, there's one of these “unfinished symphonies” you were working on at the same time as the “Quartettsatz” – along with another opera that also remained incomplete. This symphony's in D Major (given the Deutsch Catalog No. 708a, and it was only discovered in some Viennese library in the 1970s) – you started it in December of 1820 also and then abandoned it sometime after the New Year. And then, a few months after that, you began another one – also left incomplete – but that one would have been on a much grander scale, judging from you did write down of it.

Schubert: (Shrugs his shoulders) Like I said...

Dr. Dick: Let's listen to the Emerson Quartet play this incomplete Andante which was intended to be the 2nd Movement of a full-length String Quartet in C Minor, D.703...

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(By the way, you can listen to the most complete movement of the symphony D.708a which Schubert began (and abandoned) around the same time, starting here.)

Schubert: That's nice, but you know, every time I hear something like that, I keep thinking what else I could have done instead. That's probably why I left so much unfinished...

Dr. Dick: Now, you grew up in a music-making household. So why did you stop writing string quartets in 1816 or so, and then only write four more – this “Quartettsatz” and the last three masterpieces from 1824 to 1826?

Schubert: What can I say? From the time I was 13 and I'd started composing seriously, my family was very supportive. I mean, Dad loved to play the cello and my big brother Ferdinand was really a very fine violinist. Another brother also played the violin so I ended up, by default, playing the viola – which was actually a lot of fun, you know, sitting there in the middle of the harmony, listening to the melody on one side and the bass-line on the other. I mean, it was good enough for Mozart, right?

So, yeah, I wrote maybe 14 string quartets, give or take, in a period of, what... six years? And my dad, he insisted we play all of them. So we'd get our instruments out and play them for friends who'd come by – little music parties. I guess these were the first of the Schubertiads...

Dr. Dick: So why did you stop writing quartets so often? It would've been nice to have a few more from you.

Schubert: It would've been nice to live a little longer, too, right? But hey... I didn't do too badly for a guy who died when he was 31. After all, not to knock Beethoven, but if he died that young, we'd only have two symphonies and the first six of all those quartets he wrote. (He shakes his head in disbelief.)

Anyway, that was when I moved away from my father's home, went out on my own. There was less reason to write amateur quartets for us to play after that. And I didn't have that many professional friends who were just dying to play my stuff, either... It was a tough town, Vienna...

Dr. Dick: So that was when you began focusing primarily on songs (which were easier to get performed and distributed) and trying to make a name for yourself as a composer of opera.

Schubert: Right. In Vienna then, the true path to financial and professional success was in the opera world. Now, in the months before December, 1820, I'd had two operas in rehearsal and one was such a harrowing experience – all those last-minute changes – it didn't help it turned out to be a failure. I mean, what do these people want, you know? I even started another opera, one I thought might do better with the producers, at least, but, no, they thought it was too... well, I don't know – they didn't like it, either, so I put that one aside, too.

Dr. Dick: Now, there's one other event from 1820 I want to mention. You'd met Teresa Grob back in 1814 when you were 17 years old.

Schubert: (he sighs and takes another sip of beer.) She was a young girl I'd seen in the neighborhood, the daughter of a successful merchant, and she was a soprano in the church choir – lovely voice, too. So I wrote this Mass which the choir was going to perform and I wanted her to sing the soprano solo: I'd written it with her in mind. I was such a dweeb...

Dr. Dick: And you wrote a few other things for her as well, like a little song called Gretchen am Spinnrad...?

Schubert: Everybody says that was one of my best – and she loved it, too.

Dr. Dick: Let's listen to it, here, with Dawn Upshaw, the soprano...

Schubert: Not bad for 17, huh...? (a long sip of beer, here.) Well, I was head over heels in love with Teresa and we wanted to get married, she and I, but you know how it is – her father, a successful merchant like I said, didn't think I, a lowly would-be musician, would ever amount to much, right? Besides, in 1815, the Austrian government had passed a law that prohibited men from marrying unless they could prove they had the means to support a wife and family. Can you imagine that? I mean, there were lots of young men who were going to be forced into celibacy or into, well... gross sensuality – you know, “commercial sex” – and I think if they'd repealed that law and I could've married her, I might not have contracted syphilis and almost died from it when I was 25 years old – that was around the time I wrote my B Minor Symphony and the “Wanderer” Fantasy, too. I really poured my heart out in those pieces... Well, anyway, after I got shot down for that teaching job in Laibach in 1816, I knew there wasn't a chance in hell her father would let us marry. I mean, I was happy not to be teaching – I hated being a teacher, like my dad was – so here I was, then, free to focus on becoming a composer.

Dr. Dick: So, what did Teresa do...?

Schubert: Oh, her father found her some master-baker and they finally got married – on November 21st, 1820, right there in the church where she first sang my music...

Dr. Dick: And then a few weeks later, you wrote this “Quartettsatz,” right?

Schubert: Right. (Say, are you going to eat the rest of those dumplings...?)

Dr. Dick: I'm sorry we're out of time, now, so thank you Franz – may I call you Franz? – for stopping by to talk about your music. This has been Dick Strawser for Dr. Dick's Market Square Concerts Blog. See you Saturday night at 8:00 at Temple Ohev Sholom. Have a great evening.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Jasper Quartet, Stuart Malina and Shostakovich's Piano Quintet

Saturday – the official Last Day of Summer – marks the beginning of Market Square Concerts' new season with the Jasper String Quartet and pianist Stuart Malina, at Market Square Church on Saturday, September 21st at 8pm.

You can read Ellen Hughes' “Art & Soul” column from the Patriot-News here.

The Jasper Quartet – based in New Haven but founded at Oberlin's school of music, starting their professional career in 2006 – are the 2012 winners of the Chamber Music of America's prestigious Cleveland Quartet Award.

In addition to one of Haydn's last quartets - the D Major, Op. 76 No. 5 - they'll also play one of the later string quartets by Antonin Dvorák that's not the famous “American” Quartet but which deserves to be heard more often. The “American” is No. 12, Op. 96, but the Jasper Quartet will be playing No. 13, Op. 106 in G Major, written shortly after he returned from his stay in the United States in 1895.

This post is a close-up of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet which concludes the program. Stuart Malina, music director and conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, joins them for this performance.

There are basically four great piano quintets in the modern repertoire. The first of these chronologically would be the one by Robert Schumann, followed by the one by his protege, Johannes Brahms which itself is then followed by the only published one by his protege, Antonin Dvořák. And then, there's the one by Dmitri Shostakovich. Others might add the one by Cesar Franck but, frankly, I have only ever heard this one live once, and the others come around sometimes with too much frequency, as if no one else has ever written a quintet for piano and string quartet.

Dmitri Shostakovich
For this concert, it is Shostakovich's turn.

It's a work in five movements – at many of the initial performances, the third and fifth movements were encored, giving rise to the quip “the quintet is a work in five movements of which there are seven.” It opens with a grand flourish in the piano which is eventually answered by the strings' entrance. If the opening proceeds like a Bach prelude, keep in mind the first two movements are, in fact, labeled “Prelude & Fugue.” In that sense, I often think of this as a single opening movement which happens to be in two parts: one does not make sense without the other.

Here is a performance of the opening with Glenn Gould at the piano with four unfortunately uncredited string players (so far as I could find). Gould, of course, is perhaps best known for his rather idiosyncratic performances of Bach (especially the Goldberg Variations), and he finds a much more lyrical approach to this opening than most other pianists.

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(A little later, I'll include a video of the complete quintet with Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet so you can also get a more unified sweep of the piece in one of the finest performances available. Then, in an accompanying post on my blog, Thoughts on a Train, I'll include clips of the individual movements from the 1949 recording the composer himself made with the Beethoven Quartet for whom he'd originally composed it.)

The next movement is called a Scherzo (pronounced skair'-tzoh) which is Italian for “joke.” Beethoven had begun using the term to replace the more stately minuet of his teacher's generation with something a little more down-to-earth. In either case, these third movements were intended to be light-hearted. But frequently they became more dramatic, even demonic (Brahms' C Minor Piano Quartet's scherzo is hardly light) and with Shostakovich, very often his scherzos can be cynical and violent.

In this performance, pianist Martha Argerich, violinists Joshua Bell and Henning Kraggerud, violist Yuri Bashmet and cellist Misha Maisky play the Scherzo as an encore:

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It will be interesting to compare this tempo and overall energy of this interpretation not only with what you'll hear with Stuart Malina and the Jasper Quartet, but also with the Richter recording and the composer's own interpretation from 1949 (see the conclusion of this additional post). Sometimes, listeners might be bowled over by the speed and intensity of a performance and find anything slower “staid and dull” by comparison. Of course, ask any artist about playing something “faster and louder” to obtain a desired effect...

By contrast, the Intermezzo is understated, a return to the seriousness (if not the somberness) of the fugue.

Ask most Americans about Russian music and they will find its common denominator being untold sadness. I once asked a well-known Soviet ethno-sociologist who was visiting the University of Connecticut where I was then teaching a course in Russian Music, “why does Russian music sound so sad?” She replied as if she'd never thought about it before: “I don't know – perhaps it's the long winters?”

Here's a clip of Shostakovich at the piano with the Borodin Quartet, recorded in 1949:

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After all this – and keeping in mind the expectations of a finale following the triumphal march we usually associate with the 5th Symphony and the “flippant hilarity” of the 6th's finale – this finale is at times light-hearted but not vulgar, often more wistful than sad and the ending is almost like a movie's final scene where the characters walk slowly into the sunset as the light fades.

For this, I'd like to return to Glenn Gould's performance:

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After the intense symphonies Shostakovich would later compose and the complexities of his personality, not to mention the complexity of his personal situation as an artistic spokesman to the world for official Soviet art, and especially after the still controversial posthumous memoir published as Testimony by Semyon Volkov (largely discredited but frequently discussed and difficult to dismiss), it is always tempting to go back to his music to look for “hidden programs.”

What a composer “thinks” while he is composing can only be proven if, somewhere, he writes or has said “this is what I was thinking when I wrote this music.”

Beethoven might tell us, in order to understand the mysterious opening of the D Minor Piano Sonata, “read Shakespeare's Tempest” (which is why it's called the Tempest Sonata), but he also was watching a rider go galloping past on a horse and then turned to improvise the last movement of the same sonata (we know this because one of his students was there to witness this: the sonata could also be called “The Rider Sonata”).

But because Beethoven never said anything about moonlit nights pertaining to his C-sharp Minor Sonata, we cannot say “Beethoven was thinking of moonlight when he wrote the opening of the Moonlight Sonata” – the kind of “sounds-like” thinking we often use to explain the inexplicable that could lead to the last movement giving it the nickname “The Thunderstorm Sonata.”

So we don't know what Shostakovich “meant” by this finale. One writer hears a “kindly babushka” (the quintessential Russian grandmother) consoling us that everything will be alright in the opening theme. The second theme, we are told, with its little fanfares and sprightly melody, is actually an inversion of a traditional fanfare used to introduce the clown acts into the Russian circus (and please let's not call it the Send in the Clowns Quintet...).

One thing that came to mind while listening to Stuart Malina playing it with the Enso Quartet in a past performance with Market Square Concerts, was a film image.

This would not be too far-fetched, as conjectures go, since Shostakovich earned money as a pianist for the silent films in Leningrad movie theaters when he was a child. One of his favorite actors, he'd said, was Charlie Chaplin. So instead of Babushkas (but maybe clowns), this music brings to mind the inspiration of Chaplin's “Little Tramp.”

It would not be a big leap from here to a discussion on Shostakovich and the traditional Russian view of the “Village Idiot,” the urodivi or simpleton which is better translated as the “Holy Fool.” The most famous example of this to a Western audience is the character in Mussorgsky's historic opera, Boris Godunov where (if you end with the Revolution Scene and not Boris' death) it is the Holy Fool who is left lamenting the fate of the Russian People.

Boris Godunov & the Holy Fool
Earlier in the opera, in a scene frequently cut from Western productions for some reason, there is a confrontation between the Simpleton and the all-powerful Tsar (who reportedly had had the rightful heir to the throne murdered so he could ascend the throne). After the children had stolen his last penny, the Simpleton asks Boris to punish the children, to kill them – like he did the Tsaryevich (the rightful heir). But Boris stops his soldiers from arresting the fool – instead, he asks the fool to pray for him. Russians believed that such people were closer to God and could intercede for them and therefore were given more leeway than ordinary people might be granted.

Oh, I should mention that, in 1939, between completing the 6th Symphony and beginning work on his Piano Quintet, Shostakovich did his own re-orchestration of Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov.

But that's a possible influence and a coincidence of timing that is purely conjecture to tie it into the Quintet's finale.

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Here is a complete performance of the Piano Quintet by Dmitri Shostakovich with pianist Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet recorded live in 1983 in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory:

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Again, you can read a continuation of this post, more detail about the historical background to the Piano Quintet, including several quotes from first-hand sources about Shostakovich's performances of the piece, at my blog Thoughts on a Train, here.

– Dick Strawser

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Season Preview with Market Square Concerts 2013-2014 Season

The New Season of Market Square Concerts is ready to start, even if the last month of Summer felt like the start of Autumn.

Yes, the 2013-2014 Season is already upon us! (Time flies whether you're having fun or not...)

Six concerts span the season, starting on September 21st (which may seem early for some people: don't be fooled – there's nothing that says the first concert has to be in October) and ending on April 29th, 2014 – and before you know it, it will be Summermusic again!

Our first concert – on September 21st at 8pm at Market Square Church – brings the Jasper Quartet to Harrisburg to perform one of the string quartets in the last complete set Haydn ever composed, the Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5. Here's the Jasper Quartet playing the first movement:

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The Jasper Quartet – based in New Haven but founded at Oberlin's school of music, starting their professional career in 2006 – are the 2012 winners of the Chamber Music of America's prestigious Cleveland Quartet Award.

They'll also play one of the later string quartets by Antonin Dvorák that's not the famous “American” Quartet but which deserves to be heard more often. The “American” is No. 12, Op. 96, but the Jasper Quartet will be playing No. 13, Op. 106 in G Major, written shortly after he returned from his stay in the United States in 1895.

Here's the first movement, recorded by the Alban Berg Quartet:

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While the “American” Quartet, composed in Spillville, Iowa, during a summer holiday in 1893, is a very exuberant piece of music, it has to be said Dvorák was so happy to be back home in his native Bohemia that a few months after he returned, this quartet practically spilled out of him.

The last work on the program was intended by its composer to be his ticket to getting away from his native country, at least to perform it with the quartet he wrote it for on some international tours. Unfortunately, that dream was never realized, thanks to World War II, and Dmitri Shostakovich remained at home in the Soviet Union. It was written in 1940 and was so successful after its premiere, it won the Stalin Prize (the nations highest artistic honor) the following year.

It's become one of the few great piano quintets in the repertoire, along with those by Schumann, Brahms and Dvorák.

Here's a live performance recorded in 2006 at the Lugano Festival with pianist Martha Argerich and Renaud Capuçon, violin; Alissa Margulis, violin; Lyda Chen, viola; and Mischa Maisky, cello – with the Quintet's dramatic opening Prelude:
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Each concert, I'll be posting more information about the music on each program and that's when I'll include a life performance of the complete Quintet with Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet recorded live in 1983.

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The second concert of the season will be on November 16th at 8pm and will be held at Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg. This concert brings the Grammy-winning Parker Quartet back to town with a new work by Harrisburg-born composer, Jeremy Gill, who'll be presenting a special pre-concert talk about his piece, “Capriccio,” completed just last year.

The New York Times, no less, called them “something extraordinary.” They began touring professionally in 2002 and in 2009 won the Chamber Music of America's Cleveland Quartet Prize. In 2011, their Naxos recording of quartets by György Ligeti won them the Grammy Award in the Best Chamber Music Performance category.

Their program here will open with the famous “quartetsatz” by Franz Schubert, the first movement of a projected string quartet that he never completed (yes, there's an “Unfinished” String Quartet, too).

Here, it's performed by the Amadeus Quartet.
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They'll also play the D Major Quartet, Op. 44 No. 1, the third of the six quartets by Felix Mendelssohn, written when he was in his late-20s. Here's a performance of the 1st movement with another Grammy-winning string quartet, the Pacifica, who've also played in Market Square Concerts' past seasons.

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By the way, here's a clip from the Parker Quartet rehearsing Jeremy Gill's “Capriccio,” just one example of the problems of rehearsing at home. I assume Bodie will not be joining them for this performance...
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A few weeks into the new year (by the calendar) – Thursday, January 23rd, 2014, 8pm, at Temple Ohev Sholom – we'll hear a group I'd never heard of before so I figured they must be fairly new. Much to my surprise, they've been around for the past 25 years! They're a staple in the European concert scene, especially their native Amsterdam.

They call themselves ”Calefax and they're a reed quintet but not your grandfather's woodwind quintet. Calefax consists of an oboist, a clarinetist, a saxophonist, a bass clarinetist and a bassoonist. There's not much written for such an ensemble, not surprisingly, and they've created several arrangements of works for themselves, two of which they'll play here: Bach's Goldberg Variations and Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin.

Here's a great way to introduce them to you, with their TED Talk, presented by the bassoonist in the group. The rest of the ensemble arrives at 3:30.

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Our next artist gathers slightly less mileage for his concert at Whitaker Center on Wednesday, February 26th at 8pm. Violinist Ray Chen and pianist Julio Elizalde will be coming all the way from Philadelphia to play works by Mozart, Sarasate and Beethoven's epic “Kreutzer” Sonata.

Originally from Australia, Ray Chen was awarded first prize at the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin International Competition, the 2008/2009 Young Concert Artist's International Auditions and the 2009 Queen Elisbaeth International Violin Competition. Here he is playing the 5th Caprice by Nicolo Paganini, recorded in 2011 when he was 22:

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Here are Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich playing the opening of Beethoven's great “Kreutzer” Sonata.
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(alas, not the complete movement... you can hear the rest of it, here and here)
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Beethoven wrote it for an African-English violinist named Bridgetower (only the first two movements were ready for the premiere, so he decided to use a finale he'd discarded from an earlier sonata) but when it came time to publish the work (and he and Bridgetower had a falling out), he chose to dedicate the sonata to the great French violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer. Unfortunately, Kreutzer didn't care for the piece and never played it, though it is how his name is generally still remembered in the general music world today.

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A special program will take place on Saturday March 29th at 8pm at Whitaker Center when Ann Schien will perform a program of Beethoven and Chopin sonatas, plus works by Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. In addition to this program, she'll be performing the Chopin F Minor Piano Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina the previous weekend at the Forum.

While she's a former teacher of Ya-Ting Chang's and a mentor to her and Peter Sirotin's Mendelssohn Piano Trio, she is internationally famous as a teacher as well as a performer.

Here, she's playing Ravel's Sonatine which you can hear on her program in March, recorded last summer at Aspen:

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Here's an interview with Ann Schein with the Aspen radio station WJAX talking primarily about her life as a musician and teacher:

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The final concert of the season (except for the Summermusic programs) will bring the Daedalus Quartet back to Harrisburg on Tuesday, April 29th, at 8pm in Market Square Church. They'll be joined by tenor Rufus Müller in their own arrangement of Benjamin Britten's song cycle (originally with piano), “Winter Words” which is just receiving its first performances this month.

As part of the Britten Centennial, they'll also be playing the first of Britten's three published String Quartets. Here, they are performing the finale live at the chamber music festival in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico:
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In addition to works by Britten and Purcell, they'll play Beethoven's Quartet in B-flat Op. 130 with the original “Grosse Fuge” finale.

Here's a 2003 recording with the Guarneri Quartet playing the Cavatina from Op. 130:
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Those are just some highlights from each concert this season: check back in for a profile on each individual concert with more excerpts or complete videos (where available).

- Dick Strawser

Kicking Off the New Season (pardon the sports metaphor...)

Labor Day is now past, summer may not yet officially be over (but might as well be), kids are back to school, and Rosh Hoshana (early this year) was earlier this week.

Autumn officially begins on Sunday, September 22nd at 4:44pm EDT – so that makes the first concert of the New Season the official Last Day of Summer (whatever the weather may feel like).

But this Sunday – the 8th at 3pm – there's a special program at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore at Third & Verbeke (a.k.a. Broad) Streets – just across from the old Broad Street Market.

Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts, and I will be talking about the New Season – what performers you can hear, what music they'll be playing – and also how he and Ya-Ting Chang, MSC's Executive Director, put a season together, where they find these performers, and what it's like “putting on a concert.”

So we hope you'll drop in and join us (and bring your friends) – listen to our conversation, hear samples of some of the music and the performers, maybe have some coffee or tea from the café and hang around to check out the place if you haven't been there before (the Music Books are on the second level over the front entrance, facing the view across the store).

You can read about the entire season in a preview post, here!

And then get ready to join us for the first concert of the season with the Jasper Quartet playing Haydn and Dvorák – then Stuart Malina, the Harrisburg Symphony's music director, will join them for Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Quintet.

If you're thinking most concerts begin their seasons in October, then this one's "early" - it's on Saturday, September 21st 8pm at Market Square Church.

– Dick Strawser

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Summermusic #3: One More French Connection

The Civic Club of Harrisburg
The last of the Summermusic concerts is Wednesday at 6pm (and, yes, that's six o'clock) at the Civic Club on Front Street in Harrisburg, between the Harvey Taylor Bridge and State Street (it's the only building on the river-side of Front Street). Parking is available on the grass beside the stone wall (shown here) or on State Street just around the corner.

It's an all-string program with a sort of additive ensemble, starting with a duet for violin and cello by Ravel, a trio for two violins and viola by Dvořák, then ending with a quintet (written for a string quartet plus another cello) by the Russian Romantic, Alexander Glazunov, with violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Michael Stepniak, and cellists Fiona Thompson and Nadine Trudel.

You can read about Glazunov and his String Quintet in this previous post.

I could, I suppose, include Glazunov in this French Connection since he ended up living in Paris after the Russian Revolution, but this post is primarily about the connection between Maurice Ravel, his Sonata for Violin and Cello, and Claude Debussy and his Violin Sonata heard on the 2nd of this year's Summermusic programs.

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Ravel in 1925
You may be familiar with a lot of Ravel's music but this particular work may be a little different from what you'd expect – not just the leaner texture of two stringed instruments but also lacking the typical harmonic voluptuousness one usually associates with Ravel's earlier music.

With the usual caveat about finding reasonable recordings of good performances with half-way decent sound on-line (if that's even possible), here are the first two movements of Ravel's Sonata. The first movement is from a recording with violinist Carlos Benito de la Gala and cellist Alberto Gorrochategui:

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The second movement with its wild pizzicatos and gnashing sudden dissonances is performed here by the legendary cellist, Paul Tortelier and his son, Yan-Pascal Tortelier. Unfortunately, if they ever did record the rest of the sonata, I can't find it on You-Tube...

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2nd Movement:

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For the remaining two movements, let's return to the first recording more or less by default. Here's the slow movement which starts off with chant-like austerity in simple rhythms, a respite from the scherzo's frenzy.

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In the last movement, the bustling energy returns, imitating a four-part fugue in the pile-up of entrances, even though it's only two instruments:
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Ravel is certainly one of the leading composers of the early-20th Century and is usually paired with Claude Debussy like Mozart-and-Haydn because, presumably, their styles are so similar, right?

Not necessarily true. They both started out as “impressionists” though using different means to reach the same end, so to speak. They were, in addition to contemporaries, colleagues as well. They met in the 1890s, Debussy (who was 12 years older) having become recognized with works like the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun which was premiered in 1894, and Ravel, the young piano student at the Paris Conservatoire who had only just started writing his first compositions in 1893, the year Debussy completed his String Quartet.

Ravel, though, was expelled from the Conservatoire in 1895 for not having won any awards over the past three years, then returned a few years later to study with his mentor, Gabriel Fauré, and concentrate on composing rather than performing. Around 1900, he joined a group of “artistic outcasts” known as the Apaches (a French slang term for hooligans – we associate it with a type of usually violent dancing popular in Paris during the early-1900s – and has nothing to do with the Native-American tribe).

It was around this time, Ricardo Viñes, the Spanish-born pianist and a friend of both Debussy's and Ravel's, re-introduced the two composers: they would meet at Debussy's home and play each others compositions – or Viñes would – and they would often attend the concerts together. Eventually, their music would often be played on the same programs.

While they shared many musical influences, they had different approaches to writing music: Debussy was more spontaneous; Ravel more attuned to craftsmanship (the traditional right-brain/left-brain, Romantic/Classical dichotomy).

Eventually, around 1905, the public divided itself into factions which began quarreling as critics attacked one or the other composer. Much of the argument was about who influenced whom and it didn't help that in 1913 both composers produced settings of the same poems by Stéphane Mallarmé. Comparison only shows they are different composers, each with their own individual musical style and personality.

Ravel once wrote that Debussy's “genius was obviously one of great individuality, creating its own laws, constantly in evolution, expressing itself freely, yet always faithful to French tradition. For Debussy, the musician and the man, I have had profound admiration, but by nature I am different from Debussy.”

Elsewhere, he said, “I think I have always personally followed a direction opposed to that of Debussy's symbolism.”

And that is one of the major distinctions between them: the label impressionism aside, Ravel had little sympathy for anything mystical. He was, after all, the son of an inventor of mechanical devices (one of which was a famous circus contraption called “The Whirlwind of Death”). Throughout his life, Ravel was fascinated by clock-work toys and how they worked (a friend told the story of Ravel holding up a mechanical toy bird and saying quite innocently, “I can feel his beating heart!”). When Stravinsky referred to him as “the most perfect of Swiss watch-makers,” it was not meant detrimentally. Ravel's goal was to get as close to perfection as he could, “since I am certain of never being able to attain it,” he said. “The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time.”

Ravel was like a sponge, absorbing influences and placing himself inside, say, a musical voice. Born not far from the Spanish border (his mother was Spanish-Basque), he would create some of the greatest Spanish (or Spanish-sounding) music in the repertoire – his Bolero and the Rhapsodie espagnole just to name two. But he could find inspiration in the gamelan music of Asia, the innocence of childhood or the flexibility of American jazz.

And then, of course, there was the war.

Because he was only 5'3” and already 40 years old, he was found “not suitable” for military service, rejected also as an aviator. Instead, he enlisted as an ambulance driver at the Battle of Verdun, one of the longest battles of World War I with an estimated 741,231 casualties on both sides and considered “one of the most horrific battles” in history.

(It was around the time the battle finally ended, that December, 1916, when Stravinsky agreed to compose a set of delightful pieces for piano duet which was heard on the first of these Summermusic concerts.)

The impact was quite different on Ravel, having experienced such a battle first-hand, if the pall it cast over Paris, 160 miles away, wasn't depressing enough. Then, his beloved mother died the following year. He retired from the war exhausted, lacking any creative spirit.

In May of 1917, Claude Debussy premiered his Violin Sonata which was played on the second of our Summermusic programs – you can read more about this, here.

That would prove to be Debussy's last completed piece and his last public appearance: he died of cancer on March 25th, 1918.

Then, Ravel turned to the music of one of France's great Golden Ages and the music of François Couperin. Le Tombeau de Couperin seems, at first, a pleasant evocation of the Baroque Era, dance movements built on the clean lines and simpler harmonies of the age. It is often overlooked that each movement was sketched for solo piano during the war and dedicated to the memory of a friend of his who had died in it: it is not so much a tribute to France's past as it is a personal remembrance, tombeau in the sense of a memorial, not a grave-stone. After the war, he took several of these and orchestrated them. At the same time, he reworked the earlier orchestral Waltz, set in pre-war Vienna, and named it La Valse and though it might seem, on the surface, a grand orchestral waltz, it is, not far below the surface, a seething nightmare of the change that will come once the war, its horrors still fresh in the audiences' minds, brings down the curtain on the pre-war age of opulence and pleasure.

Ravel's House (1921-1937)
With Ravel's gradual return to creativity, it is not surprising there should be a work originally intended as a Tombeau de Debussy. This became the “Sonata for Violin and Cello,” completed in 1922.

Always one to work things out during a lengthy gestation period – before the war, he explained he had completed the Piano Trio which now lacked only the notes – this duo sonata posed several problems including the idea of treating two independent instruments without having the rich harmonies a piano could provide. It is a much sparer work, more contrapuntal though hardly in the old-fashioned academic sense. It is also a much more violent work – perhaps not only the war, but the pre-war discovery unleashed by the premieres of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire – reveling in slashing chords, sudden dissonances and constantly mounting tension that make one wonder if it really is in A Minor and C Major.

He wasn't necessarily adopting the stylistic ideas of his colleagues – they were already moving on, themselves – but realizing he must “move with the times,” he began to explore things that might make his style timely. Otherwise, as the older generation, now, he would find himself being ridiculed much the way he and Debussy had treated Camille Saint-Saëns.

In this way, the creative crisis brought on by his war experience and the death of Debussy – and with them, the passing of his youth – Ravel found a new voice in which to move on. While he would still compose many great works – the gypsy mask in Tzigane, the Violin Sonata that is more than just its “Blues” movement, of course the over-familiar Bolero as well as two great piano concertos written simultaneously, not to mention the Don Quixote songs, his last works, and the earlier Chansons madécasses – the last years of his life are clouded in ill-health, especially neurological issues possibly brought on by an automobile accident in 1932 which resulted in the theory he was suffering from a brain tumor. The operation in December of 1937 found no tumor and he died nine days later, having regained consciousness only briefly following the surgery.

Ravel (l), Gershwin (r)
There is a famous story that when Ravel met George Gershwin in 1928, the young American approached Ravel about studying with him. There are two responses, both of which may be apocryphal (Gershwin told similar stories about Schoenberg and Stravinsky) but either is believable.

In one, Ravel asked him why he would want to be a second-hand Ravel when he's already a first-class Gershwin. In the other, Ravel asked Gershwin how much money he'd made the previous year, after which Ravel thought perhaps he should study with Gershwin, instead.

Ironically, Gershwin went into a coma in July, 1937, and was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. The operation to remove it proved unsuccessful and he died a few hours later, five months before Ravel died.

Not a pleasant way to end a story, but it is what life deals us and, in these cases – also remembering Debussy's final years – how it affects the music they have left us.

- Dick Strawser

Summermusic #3: A String Quintet by a Russian Romantic

Glazunov at 21
This evening, the Strings of Summermusic 2013 will perform three works - a duo by Maurice Ravel, a trio by Antonin Dvořák and a quintet by Alexander Glazunov - at the Civic Club on Front Street in Harrisburg. The concert time is earlier than usual - 6:00 - so be aware of that.

(You can read about Maurice Ravel's Sonata for Violin & Cello, here.)

For those unfamiliar with the Civic House, it's a new venue for Market Square Concerts and the room has a great view over the Susquehanna River toward the West Shore. It's the only building on the river-side of Front Street, by the way, and it's between the Harvey Taylor Bridge and State Street (don't forget, you can't make a left turn onto Front Street from Forester!!! You'll need to turn up 2nd Street and then take the first available left to reach Front Street). As for parking, it's minimal at the building itself though people do park on the grass in the park just south of the Civic Club's brownstone walls, but you can also park on State Street which is just around the corner on the right.

Here's a short video of the ensemble rehearsing the Glazunov Quintet with violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Michael Stepniak and cellists Fiona Thompson and Nadine Trudel.

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Alexander Glazunov may not be a very well known or highly respected composer today, not like his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov or his student Dmitri Shostakovich. Unfortunately, he is more remembered as the alcoholic conductor who ruined the premiere of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony and as an old-fashioned past-his-prime relic who ran the St. Petersburg Conservatory in the years around the Bolshevik Revolution before falling out of favor with the new Soviet ethic.

Glazunov & Rimsky-Korsakov
Yet in Russia in his youth, he was regarded as a major composer, a prodigy who'd written his first symphony when he was 16, the darling of the nationalists until he became too much a cosmopolitan academic. Today, his ballet “The Seasons” survives in a dance world starved for works from the Golden Age of the Russian Imperial Ballet, his Violin Concerto (once very popular) is still occasionally heard in the concert hall, and saxophonists play his concerto simply because there's not much else to play, is there? In this country, few if any of his symphonies and little of his chamber music ever get dusted off.

Again with the usual caveat of finding reasonably good performances with decent recordings and half-way acceptable sound on You-Tube, here's the String Quintet in A Major, Op. 39 by Alexander Glazunov: recorded on August 20th, 2011 in Chandler Hall. Randolph, Vermont, as part of the Central Vermont Chamber Music Festival – with violinists Arturo Delmoni and Cyrus Beroukhim; violist Michael Roth; and cellists Peter Sanders and Allistair MacRae.

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1st Movement

2nd Movement

3rd Movement

4th Movement

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Glazunov's style is usually regarded as a mix of his mentors' folk-song-inspired nationalism with a dash of the romantic aura of Orientalism (most famous in Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherezade) combined with the cosmopolitan absorption of Western European elements also heard in Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky that in itself was a kind of mash-up of Liszt on the one hand and Mendelssohn on the other.

In one of those impossible comparisons everyone likes to make about something you may not know in terms of something you might, he's often referred to as “The Russian Mendelssohn” which is partly true in his coming from a well-to-do family and also in being precocious and that his style is a mixture of various, often conflicting influences – the stylistic dialectic of Nationalist Romanticism on the one hand combined with a sense of the European Classical Past on the other, hoping to find some common ground. Otherwise, it's basically like saying Glazunov “tastes like chicken,” but it's not a bad place to start.

And if this piece might compare to anything, it might be to much of the chamber music Mendelssohn composed (always excepting the Octet which is incomparable). It might never stand up to the Schubert Quintet as a masterpiece - but then, what can?

When Glazunov wrote his String Quintet, he was in his mid-20s and in between writing the 3rd and 4th of his eight symphonies as well as the 3rd and 4th of his seven string quartets.

Glazunov in 1895
1892 was a productive year: in addition to the String Quintet, he composed his Carnaval Overture for large orchestra and organ, a brass quartet called In modo religioso, a number of waltzes and salon pieces as well as the bombastic Triumphal March composed for the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (its use of The Battle Hymn of the Republic especially at the end should please lovers of the 1812 Overture who might be looking for suitable American-inspired fireworks music for the 4th of July). One critic thought this Triumphal March sounded a bit more British than American (I hear lots of Wagner, myself), yet in 1892, who in the United States even knew what American music sounded like?

If you're not familiar with Glazunov's music, take a few minutes at least to sample these more representative pieces:
- his 1st Symphony (1881)
- the Violin Concerto (1904)
- his 2nd Piano Concerto (1917)
- the Saxophone Concerto (1934) 

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Glazunov composed with legendary facility and his music was generally greeted without much concern or controversy (beyond the initial debut when people refused to believe a 16-year-old could write a symphony like that and accused his well-to-do parents of paying someone to write it for him).

But around the time he turned 40, this ease came to a grinding halt. Part of this may have been the responsibilities of taking over the St. Petersburg Conservatory from his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov in 1905 after he ran afoul of government during the political upheaval that almost became a revolution. His alcoholism worsened – though it had already played a very likely part in the disaster of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony in 1897: it was enough that he didn't care for the piece and made comments about not understanding it. He was finding himself a man-out-of-touch with what was going around him, musically.

Lyadov, Glazunov & Rimsky-Korsakov in 1904
In the 25 years from his first published works to the 1905-1906 Season when he completed his last symphony, there are 85 opus numbers in his catalog. In the remaining 30 years of his creative life, there are only 24 works, mostly inconsequential by comparison even though they include both his piano concertos (the 2nd, in B Major, is one I've always liked and wondered why no one plays), the last two string quartets (the last one, subtitled “Hommage au passé”) and the Saxophone Concerto which one occasionally hears as much because there aren't many Romantic-style concertos for the instrument (despite its being composed in 1934) as it's the last major work he composed.

If his teaching responsibilities didn't have a serious enough impact on him – whether or not the alcoholism was a symptom or a contributor to his creative decline – the political and social climate of the new 20th Century certainly undermined everything he as a conservative held dear, both socially and musically. Though he stayed after the Communists took control of the government and lived through the privations of the 1st World War, the two 1917 Revolutions and the ensuing Civil War, he never really regained the status he had enjoyed as a young man in the Imperial Age.

When he left the Soviet Union for the West, he did so “for reasons of health” rather than as a political refugee like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev or Stravinsky: if nothing else, this allowed his music to still be performed “back home.” But he spent the last eight years of his life as an exile in Paris, a man without a country (or even a culture) and, ironically for a man as “cosmopolitan” as he was, musically, little musical inspiration.

He was deeply suspect of New Music at the time. He told a colleague that Stravinsky's Petrushka was not music though skillfully orchestrated. Looking at Debussy's “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” he thought it was “orchestrated with great taste,” then wondered “Could it be that Rimsky and I influenced the orchestration of all these contemporary degenerates?”

Dmitri Shostakovich, the leading symphonist of the Soviet era, owed a great deal to Glazunov the teacher and administrator. His recollections in Semyon Volkov's highly questionable memoir, “Testimony,” include stories of Glazunov's legendary memory.

We owe the Overture to Borodin's Prince Igor to that memory since Borodin, a busy chemist and professor as well as composer, did not live to complete the opera or jot down anything for the overture. He'd played through it at the piano for his friends: Glazunov had heard one of these performances and was able to write it down later.

Another story was how the composer Taneyev had come to Belyayev to play his new symphony at the piano for him: meanwhile, the teen-aged Glazunov had been hidden in an adjacent room, listening to the performance. When it was over, Belyayev called Glazunov into the room as if he'd just arrived and said, as it happened, this young man was going to play through his new symphony as well. And he sat down and played Taneyev's symphony back to him, note for note.

Shostakovich, Student
While there is also the famous story of Glazunov keeping a bottle of vodka in his desk drawer, a rubber hose hidden in his coat connecting to the bottle so he could sip on it during his lessons, it's perhaps kinder to end with the fact – whatever he thought of “new music” – Glazunov arranged the premiere of his student Shostakovich's 1st Symphony with the Leningrad Philharmonic in the same hall where his own 1st Symphony had been premiered 44 years earlier and had created just as much of a stir when the teenaged composer walked out on-stage to accept the cheers of the audience.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Summermusic #2: A Kind of a French Connection

The second concert of this summer's Market Square Concerts series takes place on Sunday at 4pm in the air-conditioned Market Square Church and features works by Claude Debussy, Richard Rodney Bennet and Johannes Brahms with Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina playing the Debussy Violin Sonata, and oboist Gerard Reuter and pianist Ya-Ting Chang joining violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Michael Stepniak and cellist Fiona Thompson for Bennet's oboe quartet, "Arethusa" and the Brahms Piano Quartet in C Minor . This post is about the first two composers.

Two of the works on this program are by familiar composers of the traditional classical pantheon; the third composer may not be that well known in this country though you may have heard his music without knowing it.

Richard Rodney Bennet (see below for photo credit)
Richard Rodney Bennett's Arethusa, written for oboe and strings in 1989, is inspired by the ancient legend of a nymph transformed into a fountain to escape from a pursuing river god. 

An English composer who spent much of his career living in New York City, Bennett was at home in various musical languages. You might have heard some of his film scores (like Four Weddings and a Funeral released in 1994 or Far from the Madding Crowd in 1967), several of which were nominated for Oscars. He is well-known as a jazz performer and singer. He studied privately with one of the most formidable presences in 20th Century music, Pierre Boulez, which might be where he began his mature musical life, though, like many composers, his style changed to take on a more lyrical quality without “dumbing down” or rejecting his earlier approach. His opera, The Mines of Sulphur, written in 1963, is one of the most riveting operas I've heard (it is often performed but not anywhere I've been able to see it since I first heard the recording when it came out in 2005 – you can hear samples here). He can write miniatures of exquisite beauty regardless of style and he has been influenced by many strands of the 20th Century – from Claude Debussy to jazz to the complex serialism of Boulez.

To celebrate his 75th birthday in 2011, you could've heard a double concert at London's Wigmore Hall which included one of his Debussy-inspired pieces, the Sonata after Syrinx on the first concert with Bennett and singer Claire Martin performing from “The Great American Songbook,” with his own arrangements of songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, among others, on the second concert.

Comfortable in any of these “musical dialects” he chooses, he rarely writes what we'd call “cross-over” pieces. Yet he composed a saxophone concerto for jazz giant Stan Getz which, according to Tom Service of the British newspaper The Guardian wrote in his excellent “Guide to Richard Rodney Bennett's Music,”

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...isn't about a Third-Stream kind of blend of improvisation and classical conventions; instead, as Susan Bradshaw wrote about the piece, it's about putting "jazz harmonies in conjunction with the composer's own free-flowing serial technique". It's a work whose tensile rigour and utterly compelling musical momentum couldn't have happened without Bennett's structural thinking, but that also sings and stomps with expressive and stylistic freedom.
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You can read Service's complete article, here: it was published in July of 2012. Bennett died on Christmas Eve, later that year.

Here are some examples of the different voices of Richard Rodney Bennett:
- from his Clarinet Quintet (1992) 
- his Five Impromptus for Guitar (1968) 
- from his 1995 Partita (you can hear sample clips, here)
- and music from his 1974 film score for Murder on the Orient Express one of those scores nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film Score

In this largely unedited interview, he talks primarily about writing a new piece for two pianos for the 2008 Dranoff Competition, but between 9:54 and 15:36, he talks about what it's like to be a composer, how he starts writing a new piece, dealing with things like writer's block and what his ideas are of success.

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Throughout his life, Bennett was inspired by the music of Claude Debussy. For instance, he wrote Dream Dancing in 1986. In a program note, the composer wrote:

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The late works of Claude Debussy have always been of the utmost importance to me. Dream Dancing is the fifth in a series of works based on Debussy's Syrinx for solo flute, the others [including] After Syrinx I for oboe and piano, [and] After Syrinx II for solo piano.

At the end of his life Debussy was planning a series of six sonatas, of which he only lived to complete three - the violin sonata, cello sonata and the sonata for flute, viola and harp. The fourth was to have been for oboe, horn and harpsichord, the fifth for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, piano and double bass, and the six for an ensemble made up of all the instruments used in the previous five sonatas. This is in fact the ensemble which I have used in Dream Dancing (with certain doublings) - flute, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harpsichord, piano/celesta, harp, violin, viola, cello and double bass.
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Which brings us, then, to the work that opens this Summermusic program, the Violin Sonata Claude Debussy composed in 1917. In the order of these proposed six sonatas, it was the third but, unfortunately, the last work he completed. It also marked his last public appearance – he was the pianist for its premiere in May, 1917. He died in March the following year, in the midst of the German bombardment of Paris which marked the eventual end of the First World War.

It is with the awareness of the war that Claude Debussy described himself on the cover of these sonatas as “un musicien français.”

Here is a compelling performance of Debussy's Violin Sonata – which will be played on the program by Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina – with Janine Jansen and Itamar Golan recorded in Paris's Salle Pleyel in 2011.

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1st Movement:

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2nd Movement:

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3rd Movement:

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You can read more about this sonata in a more detailed follow-up post on my other blog, Thoughts on a Train, here.

- Dick Strawser

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Photo credit: portrait photograph of Richard Rodney Bennett by Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian.