Monday, January 15, 2018

Start the New Year with a Celebration

The Cleveland Quartet in the '70s
Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts, introduces the first concert of the new year – and on a weekend that promises to be a bit of a January Thaw, however brief – with this letter:

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On Sunday, January 21, at 4 pm at Market Square Presbyterian Church, we will celebrate 20 years of the Cleveland Quartet Award given biannually to a young, promising string quartet by eight presenting organizations in the US, including Market Square Concerts and Carnegie Hall.  Two former winners, the Jasper and Jupiter Quartets, will join forces for a program featuring three masterpieces in classical, modernist and romantic styles. Mozart’s D Minor string quartet, which will open this program, combines emotional intensity and depth with elegance and poise, a true masterpiece of the classical era. Debussy’s Quartet in G Minor is widely considered to be a watershed moment in the history of chamber music and represents a young composer’s rebellion against constraints of generally accepted rules of composition in his day. One of the greatest modernists of the 20th century, Pierre Boulez, said that Debussy freed chamber music from "rigid structure, frozen rhetoric and rigid aesthetics." After intermission, both ensembles will share the stage for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet composed when he was just 16 years old and considered to this day one of the most exciting and intricate works in chamber music.

...I hope you will join us for a celebration of the award which has launched the performing careers of some of the finest string quartets performing on stage today.

Best regards,
Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director
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Over the years (at least since I was a student), I've often heard concert-goers wish they could hear [insert name of famous artist here] rather than these young unknown performers on the program. There is, of course, one outstanding reason those famous artists appear less frequently: economics. “Small-town presenters” (which in this country means anybody outside New York City) don't have the budgets to pay their fees even if they can find an opening in their usually far busier touring schedules. Yes, younger, less experienced musicians are “cheaper” (in terms of their fees) but then it should be obvious that at some point even Itzhak Perlman and the Juilliard Quartet were young and inexperienced.

The Jasper Quartet
And how does a “young” chamber music ensemble become experienced and, hopefully, famous? By winning lots of prizes, by garnering a string (no pun intended) of respected venues to add to their bios and, at least in the old days when a major label's contract was even possible, a list of critically acclaimed recordings. It's a process not measured in years but in decades and it is an unfortunate fact the average shelf-life of your typical chamber music ensemble is usually somewhat shorter.

So one of those “great and famous” string quartets, the Cleveland Quartet, new in 1969 – I'd grown up as a student listening to their recordings and putting their stylishly hippy-ish appearance together with their Brahms and Beethoven back in the '70s – has left behind a legacy not only of performing, recording and teaching before they retired in 1995, but also of a “Prize” that every other year has given much-needed boosts to young quartets judged capable of making that leap into wider acceptance and growing fame.

How many of these will become the “great and famous” quartets of the future is anyone's guess. But it's an important step in the on-going cycle of the Arts – in this case, performance → reputation → teaching → new performers in the next generation – that has kept generating that future for longer than anyone in our audience is likely to remember.

And so this year is the 20th Anniversary of Market Square Concerts wisely (and foresightedly) jumping onto the Cleveland Quartet Award's bandwagon when Lucy Miller Murray, MSC's indefatigable founder, raised the necessary money with the help of like-minded forward-thinkers to ensure that each prize-winner would appear in Harrisburg – as well as seven other locations, guaranteeing a wider exposure in places ranging from Carnegie Hall in New York City to Kansas City MO.

(You can view the list of the ten award-winning quartets here.)

This concert brings together two of those winners: the Jasper Quartet (formed in 2003, winner of the Cleveland Quartet Award in 2012) and the Jupiter Quartet (formed in 2001, winner of the award in 2007).

The Jupiter Quartet will open the program with Mozart's D Minor Quartet from the “Haydn” set, K.421. Then the Jasper Quartet will play Debussy's Quartet. After intermission, they will combine to play the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings.

(You can read the article in The Burg here; and Lucy Miller Murray's program notes, here.)

As a celebration of “young quartets,” it is appropriate the music they'll be performing is by “young” composers – that is, those great and famous composers in Classical Music's pantheon, writing when they were young.

Of course, Mozart, who died at the age of 35, is always young, but his D Minor Quartet was written when he was 28 and in particular awe of a set of new quartets the era's Grand Old Man, Franz Josef Haydn, had just published.

Here is the Cleveland Quartet – since we're celebrating their legacy – with the complete Quartet K.421:
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While the program would seem to be the standard “Classical – Romantic – Modern” formula, the Debussy Quartet might be considered a staple of the 20th Century Repertoire, but it was composed in 1893 when its composer was 31.

While Debussy was a slow and pains-taking composer who often abandoned or destroyed unpromising works, this Quartet is still an early work in his out-put compared to Mozart who, at the age of 31, was writing Don Giovanni. (Mozart would die four years later...)

I like the comment Peter quoted in his introduction, how French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez said Debussy 'freed chamber music from "rigid structure, frozen rhetoric and rigid aesthetics."' This is very true, especially considering the year Debussy composed his Quartet (one of two he had planned at the time), Brahms was writing his Op.118 and 119 piano pieces in the midst of those chamber works with clarinet (he died four years later). Curiously, Boulez is the composer who might be credited, then, with locking 20th Century French music back into the “rigid structure, frozen rhetoric and rigid aesthetics” of his uncompromising total serialism not only through his international fame but also given his political power in the Parisian arts scene that hampered non-believers like Henri Dutilleux all his life (unable to get French commissions without Boulez's aesthetic approval). But that's another story (and besides, the mensch is dead...).

Here is the Cleveland Quartet's recording of the complete Debussy quartet, from their Telarc CD:
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Mendelssohn, in this case, wins the “Youth Prize” for his Octet for Strings, written originally as a birthday present for his violin teacher who played first violin at the premiere, one of those legendary Sunday morning musicales at the Mendelssohn Family's mansion in Berlin (the composer deferentially played 4th Violin).

The Octet is one of those masterpieces that transcends the category “of chamber music” to be recognized as one of the most flawless works ever composed (not my own hyperbole). While the scherzo is perhaps the most famous excerpt of the whole work, if the opening doesn't amaze you, the finale is even more amazing, with all that constant energy and then – OMG – that sudden “pause” in the forward motion before spilling you on toward the ending!

And Mendelssohn was 16 at the time...

Here is a video of the Jupiter and Jasper Quartets playing the first movement of the Mendelssohn Octet this past June in Rockport, ME.
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And since I gave you that tease about the finale, here's the Cleveland Quartet (again) with the Meliora Quartet which they mentored during their years of teaching at the Eastman School of Music (whose motto is “Meliora” – Latin for “Ever Better”):
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Not a bad way to end a concert, no? – and certainly not a bad way to end a concert dedicated to celebrating the legacy of one of the great and famous string quartets of the 20th Century, twenty years after their retirement still perpetuating that Classical Music they loved so well and which so many people have been saying has been “dying” for... well, for as long as people have been playing “Classical Music.”

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A personal foot-note, if I may (you, of course, have the option of ignoring it).

Back in the mid'70s, I missed out on the Cleveland Quartet's residency at Eastman, finishing my course-work for my doctorate in 1974, two years before they arrived to teach there. But the school had had many fine string teachers – if not its own string quartet – not to mention chamber music coaches.

I remember, a few years later, running into a newly graduated violist from Eastman who had been a freshman my last year there as a teaching assistant (he sometimes sat in on my 9:00 theory class if he missed his regular 8:00 class). It was, I think, the fall of 1978 which would mean I'd just moved into New York City (it might have been a year or so earlier during a visit), but I ran into Larry somewhere around Broadway and 72nd, give or take a few blocks, and he told me he had recently started a quartet with some friends of his and that it was so far a very good experience. They'd just “turned pro.”

I asked him what they called themselves and he said “We'd decided on 'Emerson'!” “Very cool,” I said, and I wished him a long and happy quartet-life.

So far, over 40 years later, Larry Dutton is still the violist in the Emerson Quartet which has certainly gone on to become one of those “great and famous” quartets! And I remember standing on that street corner back in 1978 just a day or so after having had a tiresome discussion over lunch with some “older” acquaintance (younger than I am now) worrying over “what was classical music coming to!?” “Classical Music is dying,” he'd whined, “young people don't go to concerts, and where are the new performers going to come from? And the composers – God, don't get me started on the composers!” Something to that effect.

Odd – I've forgotten who that was. I wonder what ever became of him?

- Dick Strawser