Saturday, September 23, 2017

Harrisburg Discovers Valery Gavrilin & his ballet, Anyuta

Anyuta arrives on the promenade
It is now Autumn, officially, the Equinox occurring without our having noticed it on Friday late in the afternoon, without fanfare, without the sense that we have just experienced “a change-of-season.”

And now “the New Season” begins on Sunday – for Market Square Concerts' 2017-2018 Season, that is, our 36th season, as the years fly by. And we open it at 4:00 at Market Square Church with a piano duet of two pianists from Russia, one born in Kharkov, now in Ukraine (well, of course it was always in Ukraine, but now it's an independent country, not just a province of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union) and the other in Moscow, who met in Jerusalem, who teach in Wisconsin and are performing works for piano duet – “four-hand piano,” as it's usually called – by Mendelssohn and Schubert, and, since the world of the piano duet is full of that ability to imitate fuller orchestra-like textures with arrangements of orchestral works by Manuel de Falla and George Gershwin (their own transcription of his “American in Paris”).

And something that might furrow your brow as you try to recall “have I ever heard these names before?” Dances from the ballet Anyuta by Valery Gavrilin.

You can read about the Schubert Fantasy in F Minor, one of the masterpieces for the piano duet, in this post – and then more generally about the rest of the program in an earlier post. This post is about Mr. Gavrilin and his ballet.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Valery Gavrilin
Given the rest of the program, I could quip that Valery Gavrilin is “least but not last,” since he is the least familiar name on the program and figures in the middle of the first half, and though he might be the one voted most likely to require an introduction, there's just not that much to say about him or his music. And that's not meant to be cruel.

After all, one source I read somewhere called him “the last great Russian composer of the 20th Century.”

It is the irony of culture – and cultural politics – that most Americans can probably name only a small handful of Russian (or Soviet) composers writing since the 1940s, at least those they might regularly hear on American concert programs – not counting Rachmaninoff (who died in 1940) or Stravinsky who by then was living in America and became a US citizen in 1945 (and probably those works of his you have heard are his three early ballets, all written before the start of World War I).

Shostakovich and Prokofiev would head the list, easily enough, but beyond that, more experienced concert-goers might recall Kabalevsky and Khachaturian (works by both of them were performed by the Harrisburg Symphony earlier this year), then more recent names like Rodion Shchedrin and Alfred Schnittke (but then, have you heard their music performed live?) and, I'd like to think, Sofia Gubaidulina but I have yet to hear any of her music live. However, don't forget Moise (or Mieczysław) Weinberg who had two chamber works of his performed here in Harrisburg in 2015, thanks to Peter Sirotin's advocacy.

I can hear Danny Kaye revving up his classic “Tschaikovsky? (I lahve Rrrrussian composers!)” But how many of those modern composers listed in that song have you heard in concert or on recordings? Beyond Danny Kaye's song, where the names roll rapidly off the tongue in some demonic patter song after Gilbert & Sullivan, most American classical music lovers have not even seen those names unless you read Wikipedia on nights when there's nothing on TV...

So here's your chance to discover Valery Gavrilin.

He was born in Vologda, an ancient Russian city dating back to the 12th Century, located north of Moscow and about parallel with St. Petersburg to the west. The year was 1939 – picture it! World War II began with Hitler's invasion of Poland just weeks after his birth. When he was three, his father would be killed during the Siege of Leningrad during which Shostakovich composed and premiered his 7th Symphony, called, for obvious reasons, The “Leningrad” Symphony (and I once had a chance to hear the “Leningrad” Symphony played by the Leningrad Symphony, but I digress...).

The fact the Wikipedia entry (and most other biographical squibs I can find) merely says “his mother was imprisoned when he was ten” gives you an idea about life in the Soviet Union under Stalin during the purges of the late-1940s: imagine something so horrid as to be ten years old and have your mother hauled off to prison, and it can be disposed of in such a casual sentence.

After having been sent off to a nearby orphanage, he entered a music school when he was 11 and somehow, by some stroke of luck, a music teacher from the Leningrad Conservatory heard him and sent him off to the Children's School in Leningrad where for the next four years, he studied clarinet, piano – and, already, composition. Whatever happened after that, he was 24 when he graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory with specialties in two areas: composition and musicology.

Shortly after that, he published a collection called “The Russian Notebook” (no further information) that “would make his name,” and he continued to teach at the conservatory.

Then, in the height of summary, without further ado, he died in 1999 at the age of 59 following two severe heart attacks.

In between, however, he must have written sufficient music to warrant being named a People's Artist of the USSR, an Honored Artist of Russia, and the winner of a USSR State Prize in 1983 for his “Choral Symphony” or as it is described in his list-of-works, “Perezvony, a choral symphony of-action [sic] for soloists, mixed chorus, oboe, percussion and narrator” which he'd been working on between 1978 and 1982.

In 1982, he also wrote the ballet Anyuta, the first of four ballets in his catalogue, along with three operas, three fairly early string quartets, some sonatas and other chamber works, a great many songs and choral works, and lots of incidental music for the theater and numerous film scores.

As an example of what to expect when you hear the selections from Anyuta the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo will perform on Sunday, here are the “Tarantella and March” from the ballet, with a YouTube video that is the essence of the piano duet as a social medium, even filmed in somebody's living room (all it needs is a couple of friends sitting on the sofa enjoying their performance):
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

You can immediately hear the “wrong-note humor” of Shostakovich's lighter music, the sarcastic tone distorting what might be, otherwise, a fairly standard dance but with unexpected twists and slips into remote keys – all turned into a caricature.

But to judge Gavrilin on this one excerpt may be trying to figure out why Shostakovich is a Great Composer if you only know the Polka from The Golden Age – and know nothing about its context.

Based on a Chekhov short story published in 1886, the ballet Anyuta – the title is a nickname for “Anna” – can be described as a social commentary on love and marriage during the height of Imperial Russia, the age in which Tchaikovsky was presenting his greatest symphonies and ballets, (his opera, Eugene Onyegin, in 1877, the same year as his 4th Symphony) as well as the Golden Age of Russian Literature with the novels of Dostoievsky (who died in 1881) and Tolstoy (his War & Peace and Anna Karenina, speaking of love-and-marriage, two of the greatest novels ever written, were both published between 1869 and 1877).

Here is a summary of Chekhov's story:
= = = = =
Anyuta, a small, tired girl, lives with Stepan Klotchkov, a medical student, in squalor, serving for him, besides other things as an anatomy model (for studying ribs, among other body parts). She spends her time taking work as a seamstress and talking little, thinking a lot, mostly of how it happens that all of her former student partners have managed to somehow get out of here to some kind of better life while she is stuck in this place… Rather taken aback by his artist neighbor Fetisov's comments upon the 'unaesthetic' conditions he lives in, Klochkov decides to throw Anyuta out, then lets her stay for another week, out of pity.
= = = = =

You can read the entire story, here. And if that is the entire story – which it seems to be (I am unfamiliar with it) – it seems barely longer than the synopsis, a few pages at most, only about 1600 words (honestly, this blog post is longer...). How did Valery Gavrilin turn this into a full-evening's ballet?

Here, then, is the synopsis for the ballet:
= = = = =
Act I
Following the death of his wife, Pyotr Leontievich, a school-teacher in a provincial town, is left with three children on his hands: a grown-up daughter, Anna (Anyuta), and two little boys, Petya and Andryusha. Grieving for the untimely passing away of his spouse, Pyotr Leontievich takes increasingly to the vodka bottle.

Modest Alexeyevich, a middle-aged official, asks for Anna’s hand in marriage. Anna accepts his proposal in the hope her marriage will save her family from poverty and herself from a life of undiluted tedium and semi-starvation. Anna breaks up with her sweetheart, a poor student, and goes to live with Modest Alexeyevich. She realizes only too soon that her marriage will bring her no benefits: her husband, who is close-fisted and cold-hearted, with a practical, pragmatic outlook, has no intention of helping his wife`s relatives.

Act II
At a ball given to celebrate the Christmas holiday, Anna`s youth, intelligence and beauty win the hearts of all the men present. Artynov, a rich landowner, army officers and finally even His Excellency compete for the attentions and sympathy of Modest Alexeyevich`s young wife. They are ready to do anything in order to please Anna.

Anna is quite swept off her feet by her rapid ascent to fame. The attentions and love bestowed on her by the upper crust of society in a provincial town cause her to forget everything: her hateful, boring, dull-witted, as he now seems to her, husband, her drunkard father, her wretched, half-starving brothers, her former sweetheart.

Modest Alexeyevich, who immediately realizes that he stands to gain from his wife`s popularity, encourages her love affairs. His career and position in society come first for Modest Alexeyevich. Very soon he is awarded the order of St. Anne and he waits impatiently for new favours from his wife`s suitors.

Pyotr Leontievich is declared bankrupt. His few remaining belongings are confiscated and, on a frosty New Year`s Eve, he and his children are turned out into the street.
= = = = =

By comparison, it seems almost unrecognizable to the original Chekhov, but that's theater for you: they do it in adaptations of large-scale novels to films as well, adding background material, additional characters, or eliminating unnecessary characters and sub-plots almost to the point the original is no longer recognizable. Here, it's just the reverse, fleshing out Chekhov's take by giving Anyuta a wholly different lifestyle and Klotchkov's episode with her as a now-distant love affair becomes romanticized with a nameless “Student.”

I found two clips to post of Gavrilin's ballet: the first includes scenes between Anyuta and the Student, the balletic equivalent of an operatic love-duet, filmed at an outdoor concert in Red Square with two of Moscow's iconic landmarks in the background:
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

Though you may not have time before the Sunday concert, I would recommend coming back to this afterward, if you want to watch a Soviet-era film of the complete ballet made the same year as the premiere:
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

The satirical nature of the music – and a typical Soviet approach especially to satirizing Russian bureaucracy (Imperial perhaps, but any Russians in the audience would know it could just as easily be applied to Soviet bureaucrats, too) – becomes clearer, once you can see how the music is choreographed. The opening waltz, a kind of promenade, is one thing but I highly recommend watching the segment from 9:06 to 12:12, where Anyuta's future husband, a mid-level bureaucrat in this provincial town they live in, hands out the day's assignments to his clerks who, in the process of processing official papers, are interrupted by the arrival of “His Excellency,” a provincial official (not the Tsar, as you might think, from the regalia and due deference!) – and then try to get Monty Python's “Minister of Silly Walks” out of your head...

Whatever may have been Chekhov's initial “meaning” behind his character, Anyuta, the ballet fashioned for Valery Gavrilin certainly expands the whole idea of social commentary with its mixture of old-fashioned romanticism and entertaining if cold-hearted satire.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Schubert and the Social World of the Piano Duet

Schubert in 1825
Join us Sunday at 4:00 at Market Square Church for the first concert of the new season with the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo playing music by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Falla, Gavrilin, and Gershwin. 

If you're just joining us, you can read the first post in this series here, where you can also hear video-clips of a live performance of the Mendelssohn Allegro brillante that opens Sunday's program and a recording of Gershwin's An American in Paris which closes it. (“Really, do I need to hear the Gershwin, it's so familiar,” you might wonder, but then it's from a piano roll made by the composer himself, playing his own four-hand arrangement – all four hands – for the rarified world of the player piano.) For the post about Valery Gavrilin's Anyuta on the first half of the program, check out this third post in the series.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

As you scan over the program for an up-coming concert, does your mind react in a certain way when you see familiar composers' names on the list – and then pull up with a mental question-mark when you see someone you've never heard of before? For many of us, that can point out the possibility of adventure, the excitement of discovery; for others, there's a sense of fear at the unknown.

Now, you don't have to be a Grade-A Classical Music Expert to realize names like Bach, Beethoven or Mozart – or, considering this Sunday's program with the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duet, Mendelssohn, Schubert and perhaps even Manuel de Falla – to realize you're dealing with some of the standard names in classical music. If you're like most concert-goers, certainly Mendelssohn and Schubert are up there with the Most-Familiar-and-therefore-Most-Satisfying-Names-in-the-Business (Schubert particularly ranks high on most “Favorite Composer” Lists).

But who is Gavrilin and what is Anyuta?

Well, I'll get to that in a separate post. First, the familiar: Schubert.

Schubert's original "fair copy," a page from the secondo part of the Fantasy in F Minor's finale
And not just any Schubert. The “Fantasy in F Minor” for Piano Duet – listed as D.940 in the list of Schubert's works – was written between January and March of 1828 and was intended for the only public concert of his music he ever gave (outside the private homes of his friends and fans) but he was unable to have it copied out in time. Instead, a few weeks later, he played at a friend's home along with the composer Franz Lachner when it was well-received. Who knew, that May 9th, that in six months and ten days, Schubert would die at the age of 31?

It's been called one of Schubert's finest works and certainly one of the greatest works for piano duet, elevating the usually mundane mode associated with “salon music” to a level of artistry and sophistication, and indeed seriousness, rarely achieved in the medium since.

While there might be greater performances to offer you, I've chosen this live performance of the Fantasy primarily because, of those videos with varying levels of musicianship available, I wanted you to see how performers interact. They are the Dutch brothers, Lucas and Arthur Jussen, recorded at a 2014 concert in Korea when Lucas was 21 and Arthur, 18 (yes, they do the whole “twin” thing very well, don't they?). I think Lucas is playing primo to Arthur's secondo, or is it the other way around...? Anyway, this is music from another world, far removed from the sociable salons of 19th-Century Vienna and even most concert halls around the world.

= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

My favorite performance available on-line is an audio file only but I highly recommend it, with the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter and the English composer Benjamin Britten, recorded live at Britten's Aldeburgh Festival in 1965.

Some might call Richter and Britten's performance “too classical” compared to the Jussens whom others could call “too romantic” – but then Schubert is definitely on the boundaries of both as was Beethoven, whatever such boundaries mean for such composers. It is also worth noting that, when Schubert composed this, it was almost a year after he had been a pall-bearer at Beethoven's funeral in March of 1827, speaking of “deep thoughts”...

Though we associate “fantasy” with something free-wheeling and formless, synonymous with “rhapsody,” Schubert's fantasies are usually large-scale four-movement works. Why didn't he call them Sonatas? Because a sonata meant a specific pattern of movements with particular expectations (one might call it “baggage”) as to how the musical material was to be handled. In that sense, these fantasies are freer in form but still multi-movement sonata-like works all the same: consider the “Wanderer” Fantasy and the C Major Fantasy for Violin and Piano, both of which quote phrases from his own songs.

The F Minor Fantasy opens with this seemingly unassuming phrase that builds through varieties of contrasts to clearly emotional depths (and heights) all without those clear-cut lines between what is one movement or another. Moments of dramatic outbursts, of lyrical outpourings, of light-hearted nostalgia (perhaps) all come full circle when at the end we return to the opening - and he turns that one lyrical theme into, of all things, an old-fashioned but immensely powerful fugue. Curiously, Schubert is often criticized for the weakness of his finales – a common problem in “multi-movement-forms 101” – but in this instance he captures something beyond the usual living-room performance of a piano duet with its amateur players and audiences waiting to be entertained. We are left, after that final cadence, to ponder where art can lead us and what, in the context of our daily lives, music can mean.

The Mozart Family

Speaking of “family acts,” while Mozart and his sister Nanerl (as she is always known, though her name was officially Maria Anna) frequently played music for two pianos as well as four-hand duets – documented in this 1780-ish family portrait of Nanerl and Wolfgang at the keyboard with their father, violinist Leopold Mozart and their late mother, Anna Maria, included through her portrait – Mozart, as well as Haydn and Beethoven, composed little for the piano duet format.

Part of this, you can see, has to do with the size of the pianos in those days, which did not comfortably accommodate two players like a modern instrument with 88 keys. Even later, one could argue that women's fashion did not always bode well for the piano duet: witness this photograph of a Victorian wife playing a piano in the family parlor. (On the other hand, we can marvel at the fact that Nanerl Mozart's hair is almost as voluminous as our anonymous Victorian wife's skirt...)

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

An anonymous piano duet
Technically, a “piano duo” is a pair of pianists and we usually think of them playing one piano each and there, Mozart did compose several works, including concertos, for two pianos. But when we use the term “piano duet,” this is the “two-on-a-bench” kind of thing where they both share a single piano. While there are examples of such pieces before 1764 when an 8-year-old Mozart appeared in London playing keyboard duets with his older sister – their father claimed “no one has ever written a four-hand sonata before” – it did not become popular as either a musical format or a social phenomenon until considerably later. “Schubert was the one great composer to write extensively for the medium,” as Grove's Dictionary puts it. But then, during Schubert's lifetime, no one considered him a “great composer.” He was merely trying to make a living and he enjoyed writing often convivial music for his friends to play at social gatherings whether they were called Schubertiads or not.

"A Schubert-Evening at Joseph von Spaun's" by Moritz von Schwind

One of the ways a composer could make a living in Schubert's Vienna was to publish music for the “amateur market” (which I mentioned in the previous post) where the performances took place in family parlors rather than in concert halls. This involved reams of dances and variations geared to less accomplished performers, perhaps, but which afforded a sense of accomplishment to the non-professional and proved, one hoped, entertaining to their friends.

Schubert rarely got to write music specifically for a bona fide concert-level pianist. One of his most famous was the “Wanderer” Fantasy – written in 1822 after having put aside his Symphony in B Minor (which he then left unfinished). Unfortunately, the fantasy turned out to be beyond Schubert's own abilities to play it. But that doesn't mean his other piano music is generally “amateurish” in our modern view of the word.

Schubert was easily the shortest of the Great Composers, standing barely five feet tall (some sources say he was 1.52 meters tall which converts to 4' 11.8424”; others say 1.56m, which would be 5' 1.4172”) – his friends sometimes called him Schwammerl or “Little Mushroom” – and that may have something to do with his being shy and, certainly, insecure compared to, say, Beethoven (who would easily rank as one of the least shy and least insecure of the Great Composers). At parties when the dancing started, Schubert preferred to play the music rather than dance, and would improvise for hours, much to the delight of his friends. Then he would write some of these down and send them off to his publisher, usually as strings of little piano pieces like 36 Waltzes or 17 Ländler. But he also wrote a number of more substantial dances for piano duet and these were more often meant as “performance pieces” in the parlor rather than music to be danced to.

Schubert was also probably the poorest of the Great Composers, looking back on it, always dealing with poverty, and always trying to make ends meet, often dependent on friends for lodging and the frequent financial loan. On the other hand, one can also blame these same friends for the kind of lifestyle that may have contributed to his early death – taking him out drinking with them against his doctor's orders, for one thing – but that's beyond the limits of this post.

So an actual job presented itself to Schubert through one of his fans, a teacher at a prestigious school for aristocratic sons and the father of a soprano who would eventually sing at the premiere of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. In one of the few successful examples of “networking” in Schubert's life, this is how Schubert, then 21, became something of a composer-in-residence with Count Johann Karl Esterházy at his summer estate in Hungary, a small town in the Galánta region called Zselis (now in Slovakia). But this is not the same kind of gig Haydn had, in charge of his own orchestra, running the opera house, and being responsible for everything from church services to dinner music. This Count Esterházy was a poorer, more distant cousin of Haydn's Prince. In fact, the sum total of Schubert's duties involved giving the count's two daughters musical instruction and composing pieces for them and their family to perform in the evening as well as arranging music for special occasions like the visit of a small handful of fellow aristocrats. For them, over a period of two summers, he wrote a number of songs and “part songs” – songs for two singers or more, in some cases like small choruses (one-on-a-part) in which everybody gathered around the parlor piano and sang while Schubert or one of the daughters accompanied them – as well as numerous piano duets, some with more challenging primo parts for himself to play, others with less demanding parts intended for both sisters together.

the Esterházy estate in Zselis as seen today
His first visit ended in mid-November when he returned to Vienna, happy enough with the job if a little lonely and feeling isolated not only from his friends but – as Haydn also felt – far removed from the musical circles that inspired him. He was also no doubt happy enough with the money he had in his pocket. Through the winter, he continued to give the young countesses their music lessons either at the Esterházy town house or their suburban estate (poorer than Haydn's Prince, but not too shabby, compared to what Schubert was used to), but if he were invited to return to Hungary the next summer, he may have declined because of the potential of having one of his operas produced and realizing that, comfortable or not, it was not realistic to while away the summers in a nobleman's distant country estate when so much career potential existed in the Imperial capital. It was clearly a different world than Haydn's had been.

It was not until 1824 that Schubert accepted another invitation to Zselis. In between, the success he had hoped for eluded him – his opera was a failure and new ones were refused – his publisher Diabelli was losing interest in his music and what royalties he earned showed Diabelli's disdain. Plus he was dealing with bouts of ill health, particularly syphilis in 1822 and again in early-1824, so perhaps the reasons that kept him in Vienna in 1819 were no longer that important and the idea of a few months in the country might be the vacation he needed (not to mention a guaranteed income).

By this time, Countess Marie, the younger of the two daughters, was becoming an accomplished pianist with a good soprano voice. Though Karoline, the older daughter, had a weak contralto voice and was less proficient at the keyboard (she was “a useful accompanist”), she was more passionately interested in music and Schubert found himself falling in love with her.

Countess Karoline von Esterházy
How serious this budding relationship was, we can't really say but he did make a verbal declaration to her, at one point, as witnessed by Baron Schönstein, one of the guests there and a fan of Schubert's music. He later recounted how she could not return whatever the young composer felt for her – class distinction aside: she would later marry Count Karl de Crenneville-Poutet but not until 1844) – and chided him that so far he had not dedicated a single work to her. Schubert responded, “What does it matter? Everything is dedicated to you anyway.”

Though this time his salary had increased by 25%, Schubert was treated more as a family friend who stayed in the main house rather than as one of the servants living in the estate agent's quarters. He wrote more songs, dances, and piano duets, including the one called the “Grand Duo” in C Major, D.812, a large-scale sonata that for generations many saw as the sketch for the Grand Symphony he had talked about writing (especially the legendary “Gastein” Symphony supposedly written in 1825). Schönstein also relates how the part-song Gebet (“Prayer”), D.815, came to be written: at breakfast one early-September day, one of the other guests asked Schubert to compose a song for them all to sing, setting a poem she was particularly fond of. That evening, after dinner, less than ten hours later, they all gathered in the music room to sing it through, reading from the manuscript – daughter Marie, the soprano; mother and daughter Caroline, the alto; Schönstein, the tenor; Count Esterházy, the bass; Schubert at the piano – a song of 209 measures, almost 11 minutes in this performance. They performed it then “with more assurance” the next evening after Schubert had a chance to copy out their individual parts. Other nights would find them reading through sections of Haydn's Creation or the Mozart Requiem. Schubert seemed happy enough.

But when Schönstein later announced he would be leaving in mid-October, Schubert suddenly begged him to take him back to Vienna with him, a month earlier than he was scheduled to leave. One could imagine at least one reason for his frustration, this time.

Though he wrote a great deal of music after his return – the first thing, apparently, was another attempt at making some money, a sonata for a newly invented instrument that, given Schubert's luck, never caught on and made his effort useless, some hybrid thing called an arpeggione – his Fantasy in F Minor wasn't written until early 1828, a little over three years later. He had written other piano duets since he'd left Zselis, but this one is, in so many ways, different. Plus, he dedicated it to Countess Karoline Esterházy. Which may, perhaps, explain... well, who knows...

By the way, that famous drawing of Schubert playing the piano surrounded by his friends I'd posted above? It was drawn by one of his closest friends, Moritz von Schwind, in 1868, recollecting a “musical evening” spent at their friend Joseph von Spaun's home (he called it “a Schubert-Evening”). It is a gallery of over thirty of the composer's friends – the singer Vogl sitting next to Schubert at the piano, Spaun just to the right; only Franz von Schober, one of Schubert's closest friends (who also supplied the poem for An die Musik) and an indefatigable prankster, seems disinterested in Schubert's playing – he is in the middle row, far right, facing away from the piano, flirting apparently with a young woman who would later become his wife.

But presiding over the room – more likely Schwind's artistic license rather than in any reality – is a portrait directly looking over the piano.

It is a portrait of Countess Karoline Esterházy, absent from the gathering of friends, perhaps, but apparently present in more ways than one.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The New Season Begins: the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo

Who: The Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo
What: works for “Piano Four-Hands” by Mendelssohn and Schubert, Falla, Gavrilin and Gershwin
When: Sunday, September 24th, 2017, at 4pm
Where: at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg.

Tickets to all of our performances are $35, $30 for seniors, and free for K-12 age children with $10 tickets available for one accompanying adult. We also offer $5 tickets to college students with valid school ID.

You can buy tickets here - and through our website  – plus tickets will be available at the door.

This post introduces the performers and explores the Piano Duet. It includes video clips of Mendelssohn's Allegro brillant and Falla's "Spanish Dance," plus the four hands of George Gershwin playing his own transcription of An American in Paris! (Well, through the magic of the piano roll.)

The second post will focus on Franz Schubert and his Fantasy in F Minor, certainly one of the masterpieces of the piano duet repertoire - and then a third one introduces a composer who will no doubt be unfamiliar to an American audience as Schubert is familiar: Valery Gavrilin and his ballet Anyuta.

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

The “new year” is upon us – at least, it seems like a new year, even if it's actually September, not January. Like fiscal years, arts seasons have for some reason never followed the calendar, giving us a cumbersome “2017-2018 Season.” But after the end of summer (not official until Friday at 4:02 EDT) turning over a new if not yet brightly colored leaf, after the kids go back to start a new grade at school, after the holiday of Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year (observed this year beginning at sundown on Wednesday), getting ready for the first concert of the season always seems like another form of “new year.”

And so Market Square Concerts first program of this new season is this Sunday afternoon at Market Square Church, starting at 4:00. So often, those first-concerts-of-the-new-season often don't usually start until October, so this news might catch you unawares.

We begin the season with a piano duet – technically, they call themselves the “Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo” since they play repertoire for two pianos as well as what we call “piano four-hands” or “piano duet,” something which, years ago, I'd heard someone clarify as “two-on-a-bench.”

The fact there are two pianists and only one piano at Sunday's concert has nothing to do with space – or with budget cuts.

The program includes a brilliant work by Felix Mendelssohn – his Allegro brillante – and perhaps the masterpiece of the duet repertoire, the Fantasy in F Minor by Franz Schubert that makes us forget the whole idea of the piano duet began as home entertainment, gathered around the parlor piano in the days before there were TVs and stereo systems.

This lighter side of the duet repertoire is represented by arrangements of the Spanish Dances from Manuel de Falla's La vida breve and their own transcription of George Gershwin's orchestral souvenir, An American in Paris.

In between, there's something of a rarity: “Pieces from the ballet Anyuta” by the Russian composer Valery Gavrilin and it's quite possible Peter Sirotin will be the only person in the audience familiar with this delightful score! (More about this music a little later.)

Stanislava Varshavski hails from Kharkov, Ukraine – also Peter Sirotin's home town – and Diana Shapiro was born in Moscow. While both of them studied music at home, it was in Israel where they were both pursuing advanced training at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem that they met. In 1998, their teacher suggested they play as a duet – and that's how they got started.

They now live and teach in the United States, taking time to perform around the world.

Here's a video of their performance of their own arrangement of the “Russian Dance” from Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka – originally an orchestral work that began as a work for piano and orchestra and later became the first of Three Pieces the composer arranged for piano solo (for no less than Artur Rubinstein).

As you can see, once the camera pans down to their hands, there is a certain issue about “space” here and sometimes it seems arrangers often try to have some fun with the idea of who plays what, where.

Normally, with two people sharing the bench, the one playing the upper register (called the primo part) covers the melody (assuming the melody is in the upper register) and the one playing the lower register (called the secondo part) handles the bass and the harmony, generally recognizing “Middle C” as a boundary point. This at least maintains the typical body posture of the performer's hands and arms in relation to the placement of the body but limits the reach to only half the 88 keys.

But often the “other body” creates logistical problems: “if I'm to play that note, how do I get enough elbow room there?” This is one reason “piano four-hand” music is rarely so virtuosic with arms flailing in dramatic gestures – before somebody gets a nose broken or an eye poked out.

Not to mention who controls the pedal. Is it the “melody” person because isn't that the most important thing (primo, after all)? Or is it the “harmony” person because that really is what needs to be audibly clarified by the pedal, since the melody can be phrased by good “right hand” technique? And so on...

So, you see, you have to be good friends to play piano duets. It's more than just being in such close proximity to the other performer.

Given the players' proximity, it's interesting to note the history of the “Piano Duet” as a social phenomenon – Social Music as a medium from a time when most people made their own music (unless you were an aristocrat and could afford to hire musicians to make it for you).

Probably all of the music being published for piano duet in the late-18th, early-19th Centuries was intended for the “amateur market” of the growing middle class, for “household music-making” (a different approach to “house music” than we're used to today). This was a time when respectable young ladies were expected to be able to play the piano and sing as well as sew and do other things commendable to future wives (cooking, however, was usually relegated to a hired servant in those days, even for the middle class).

If you saw the recent BBC/PBS series Victoria, you might recall the scene where the young queen of England plays a Mendelssohn piano duet with her cousin (and future husband), Prince Albert. Though this photo doesn't really show much of the piano in question, it certainly gives you an idea that there was more than just musical entertainment in this scene...

Very often the primo part was designed for the more advanced player, the secondo, chugging along with the accompaniment, more for the less-experienced player.

And while much of this music was amateurish in its own way – collections of dances and simple tunes to give the impression of artistic accomplishments – some of it was designed with a higher quality of “amateur” player (keeping in mind amateur meant someone who didn't make a living at it but does it for the love of it, considering the Latin amo/amas/amat, for “love”).

But other works were conceived for players of equal talents – and might give those of us today a different view of the word when “amateur” has taken on a more pejorative blush.

Mendelssohn certainly didn't compose his Allegro brillant for just any amateurs. He wrote it on short notice for a benefit concert in 1841 for newly-married friends of his who were having legal problems – the great pianist Clara Wieck who had only recently married the composer, Robert Schumann. As part of the concert, Mendelssohn played secondo to Clara's primo, elevating a popular form of domestic music-making to a higher professional level, but one that would have been quite familiar to its audience, at least in style if not substance.

Here's a Russian piano duo – Alexander Bakhchiev and Elena Sorokina to play Mendelssohn's scampering scherzo: note that the “second part” is no second fiddle and sometimes even has its own solo.
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

One of the chief objectives of the piano duet was to offer “regular people” the sense of joy and accomplishment that artists (who, for argument's sake, may not be all that regular) get all the time from their playing, an experience that can be both satisfying on a personal level as well as entertaining for their family and friends.

And so, much of the repertoire one could buy in the music shops included arrangements of popular pieces or melodies – or variations and fantasies on them. In that sense, something like the Spanish Dances from Manuel de Falla's La vida breve (“The Short Life”) on this program, though a little later than the early-19th Century, would serve its purpose.

In this video, the camera-work gives you an opportunity to see how the hands of Carles and Sofia divvy up the keyboard, an element which also provides a good deal of the visual entertainment.
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

Another aspect of this “amateur market” was the education – or perhaps, better, the “familiarization” of a would-be concert audience with the symphonic repertoire. Throughout the 19th Century, symphonies regularly appeared in four-hand arrangements so someone going to a concert – a special event in days when you couldn't buy a recording to listen to it or hear it on-line – could purchase a duet-score and play through it, get to know the tunes, see and hear what the composer was doing in the development section, know what to expect with the work's highlights.

And then, after the concert, considering it could be years before they might hear that piece “live” again, it would be a chance to reacquaint themselves with it whenever they wanted to.

Certainly four hands at the piano would better imitate a full orchestra than two.

But what was behind Gershwin's own “recording” of An American in Paris on a 1933 piano roll in which the composer played both parts of a four-hand arrangement? Just as people might not be able to hear live concerts of the piece that often, and maybe they didn't have a record player to deal with those cumbersome 78rpm records, imagine having George Gershwin himself to play your own player piano for you whenever you wanted, just at the flip of a switch?

Stay tuned for Part Two as we get a chance to hear Franz Schubert's incredible Fantasy in F Minor and find out who Valery Gavrilin is!

- Dick Strawser