Friday, November 9, 2018

Playing Composers with Beards (Part 2): Dvořák's Dramatic Flare

The Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio (in that order)
Market Square Concerts' season continues with the return of pianist Michael Brown and cellist Nicholas Canellakis, joined by violinist Elena Urioste to form the aptly-named Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio who will be performing piano trios by Brown-Chausson-Dvořák at Market Square Church on Saturday evening at 8:00.

This weekend's program opens with “Reflections” by Michael Brown and the G Minor Piano Trio of Ernest Chausson (which you can read about in the previous post) and concludes with a piano trio by Antonin Dvořák, the great Czech composer popular for his “New World” Symphony, the “American” Quartet, and, of course, his “Dumky” Trio.

But this time, it's not (for once) the “Dumky” Trio, his 4th Piano Trio – and the difference between that popular one and this one, his 3rd Piano Trio in F Minor, reminds me of a quote which might prove helpful to an audience today listening to music composed 135 years ago in what we no doubt think “a simpler time”:

“Life beats down and crushes the soul 
and art reminds you that you have one.”

If you're like many people this past month, afraid to turn the TV set on to see the latest Special News Report or another political ad (at least those are done for a while) or even catch the weather forecast for fear of hearing the S-Word (they're already talking about “Wind Chill”), much less deal with another grim, rainy day, music – or any art – can be a chance to “get away from it all,” whether it's called entertainment or escapism.

But art can also be cathartic, an emotional journey not always guaranteed a happy ending (think how “America's Favorite Novel,” To Kill a Mockingbird, still ends tragically yet with a gentle ray of hope) but ultimately we feel we've gone somewhere and are, if only for the moment, better for it.

In a sense, something like Dvořák's F Minor Trio, listening to it on a purely “surface” level, can provide us with a variety of contrasts – dramatic, lyrical, light-hearted, tragic – that might reflect our immediate situation, despite having been written 135 years ago. Whatever was going through the composer's mind at the time is still something that can reach us today, if we let it, without even knowing what it was the composer was thinking: it is enough for the performers to follow the directions given them in the score, this system of symbols that somehow translates thought into sound, and we, absorbing this sound and processing it however we might, find solace, inspiration, enlightenment, comfort and, yes, even simply entertainment.

Generally, the idea of a piano trio or a string quartet or a symphony is a “multi-movement work” (usually four) in a particular pattern which reflects a variety of contrasts with certain prescribed ideas about form and structure (which are not necessarily the same thing) in which an opening “sonata-form” movement is followed by two or three contrasting movements before ending with some sense of resolution.

A listener builds up expectations and very often reacts to the music – or to the composer or performers – depending on how those expectations are met. Perhaps we enjoy this piece because “that's how I thought it would go” or maybe we appreciate that one because “that wasn't how I thought it would go.” Within that potential framework, whether we think of it as a formula or not, there are an imponderable number of possible solutions: if there weren't, why do people still read novels? Or sing love songs?

Dvořák's F Minor Trio is in four movements, opening with a dramatic “sonata form” followed by a lighter dance-like movement as a “scherzo,” the contrasting emotional center of the piece in the heart-breaking slow movement, before plunging us back into the drama of the opening before it all resolves with a few surprises before we reach the end.

As Peter Sirotin said in a Facebook post, “Listening to the Dvořák F Minor piano trio is a lot like listening to an older friend’s fascinating life story over a cup of hot chocolate.”

Here is a live performance from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with violinist Benjamin Beilman, cellist Julie Albers, and pianist Gilbert Kalish:

20141023 Dvorak Trio in F minor for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op 65 from The Chamber Music Society on Vimeo.
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Usually, when a piano trio plays Dvořák, it'll be the ever-popular, tuneful and toe-tapping “Dumky” Trio, more a collection of six very similar dances than an over-all cohesive structure from beginning to end like the F Minor Trio (which doesn't have a catchy nickname). Both piano trios, they're really not comparable works, and while there's nothing wrong with a collection of dances whose sole concern might be to leave the audience smiling, someone looking for a little more “substance” in their music might find them lacking. Perhaps the problem is how frequently it's performed, compared to the F Minor, which most musicians will agree is the “better” piece if one cares to venture into the realm of argument whether an intellectually stimulating work like, say, a symphony, is a better piece of music than, say, a Strauss waltz which may be more popular and more people can hum along with it?

Looking for a recording to include in this post, I went through the usual bevy of performances and recording levels like an old hand at speed-dating, when I found this one, a recent post from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I don't know how many times I've heard the “Dumky” Trio live-in-concert since I first heard it as a high school student, but when I lived in New York City in the late-70s, a pianist-friend suggested we go to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center to hear some friends of hers play, as she put it, “not the Dumky.” They were doing Dvořák's F Minor which I'd never heard before. The pianist was Gilbert Kalish! (Both he and I were younger, then, but hey...)

That was 1978 or '79 – and that was the last time I ever heard it live-in-concert...

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Usually, when writing about Dvořák's music, there are a few different tacks one can take: his stay in America; his folk-inspired music; his searching for a musical voice that would create a Czech national style.

This work doesn't fit in with any of those. There may be Dvořák-sounding turns-of-phrase that resemble Czech folk music (or do we, who probably know nothing about Czech folk music, recognize it only because we've heard it in Dvořák's music?), especially in the 2nd movement, and it was written ten years before he went to live and teach (and compose) in New York City. In his early career, he was an amateur composer trying to make a living as a theater orchestra player (and a violist, at that) who was trying to figure out “how to break into the market.” For a while, he imitated the German Wagner, having played in an orchestra that Wagner came to town to conduct in an all-Wagner program of popular opera excerpts. When that didn't work out (Wagner being not a very good model for someone who also wanted to write symphonies), he turned to the other major composer of the day, Wagner's antithesis, Johannes Brahms in Vienna.

That, at least, bore fruit: in 1874, submitting a variety of works for the Austrian State Prize, his music sparked the interest of one of the judges, Johannes Brahms, who thought it pretty good. Eventually, he would suggest Dvořák to his own publisher and he also suggested, if he wanted to make some money, he should write a bunch of folk-inspired dances for piano duet, like those “Hungarian Dances” of his that, along with something known as “Brahms' Lullaby,” made him a rich man (no, he didn't earn his money from his symphonies and chamber music). Dvořák took his advice, wrote his “Slavonic Dances” and before long not only was he making money as a composer, he was gaining a wider audience beyond his native Bohemia.

A quick aside about politics in the late-19th Century: Vienna was the capital of Austria, the heart of a vast empire that stretched from Prague in the northwest to the Balkans in the southeast. It encompassed people who were ethnically Bohemian, Slovakian, Hungarian, Polish, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, and Serbian, among others, to the point the German-speaking Austrians were a minority in their own Empire. In 1867, the government was forced to accept a political and ethnic compromise with the Hungarian province for a “dual monarchy” which turned Austria into the “Austro-Hungarian Empire” even though the Austrian emperor was also the King of Hungary. Yes, Brahms was a German immigrant originally from Hamburg in the North, but at least he was culturally a German and therefore more easily assimilated into the Austrian idea of German-ness.

Anyway, Bohemia, despite its rich history and its beautiful capital city of Prague, was full of Czech people who were Slavic, and to a nationalist German, therefore, inferior (as they also regarded the Jews and anybody else who was not a German-speaking Christian). When Dvořák found a champion in the conductor Hans Richter who wanted to perform his new 6th Symphony in Vienna in 1880, the orchestra refused: it was purely a matter of racial prejudice!

Curiously, despite the support of musicians like Brahms, Richter, and Josef Joachim, Dvořák found fame more easily in London, where Richter finally performed the 6th Symphony and where a London orchestra commissioned him to write his 7th Symphony, the D Minor, which was premiered there in 1885. His fame was greater in America than in the capital of his own country, and he was hired as the director of the National Conservatory in New York in 1893, a position that would never have been offered him in Vienna. But that's for the future.

Meanwhile, there's this Piano Trio which was written in 1883 in Prague. He had won Brahms' admiration, and was now a respected composer, as far as Prague was concerned. When he applied for that Austrian Stipend in 1874, he lived in a flat shared with five other men, one of whom owned a small “spinet” piano which, when time and everybody's schedules allowed, he could use when he composed. Things had changed.

Other things happened, of course: while he had gotten married and his family began to grow, his mother had died in 1882 and he was watching the slow deterioration of the greatest Czech composer of the day, Bedřich Smetana, who, after having gone deaf, slowly slipped into what we would now call dementia. Though there was a brief period of creative activity in 1882 that lasted for about a year, by October of 1883, his behavior at a private reception “disturbed his friends” (Dvořák was there) and by early-1884, the Hero of Czech Music was often incoherent and violent. Not knowing what else to do, his family placed him in a lunatic asylum where, three weeks later, he died at the age of 60.

It is impossible to ignore the impact something like this might have had on the newly successful Dvořák, then 44, looking up to his idol and sometime mentor and watching all this unfold. And with the death of his mother still fairly fresh in his memory, it is not impossible to imagine his emotional response to this loss. (Remember that Johannes Brahms wrote his Horn Trio as a direct response to his own mother's death and the soprano solo in his German Requiem was supposedly added to the already finished work as a memorial to her.)

Did either of these losses – one past, another pending – influence the nature of the F Minor Trio or even directly inspire the slow movement, the work's emotional core? It's impossible to say, but composers don't work in a vacuum. And whatever someone might say about keeping reality separate from ones creativity, don't forget when Dvořák returned home from New York and heard of the death of his first love, he inserted a touching, indeed heart-wrenching farewell to her at the very end of the Cello Concerto he had just completed.

Indeed, whatever the burden, “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Piano Trio on the Installment Plan: Brown, Urioste, & Canellakis (Part 1)

Brown, Urioste & Canellakis
WHO: The Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Piano Trio with pianist Michael Brown, violinist Elena Urioste, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis
WHAT: Michael Brown's “Reflections”; Chausson's Piano Trio in G Minor, Op.3; Dvořák's Piano Trio in F Minor, Op. 65
WHEN: Saturday evening at 8:00
WHERE: Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg

Part One of "Composers with Beards" features the works of Michael Brown and Ernest Chausson. Part Two will be dedicated to Antonin Dvořák's F Minor Trio (which you can read here).

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An episode of Public Radio's From the Top, back in the day, recorded at Franklin & Marshall's Barshinger Center in 2004 (see below) featured a teenaged pianist playing the music of George Perle which was, in itself, surprising, given Perle's relative lack of familiarity beyond being the composer of music presumed to be difficult to listen to and the writer of books about 20th Century music theory presumed to be difficult to read. What impressed me most was here was this teenager playing Perle's music as if it were Schumann or Mendelssohn: it's amazing how much better music that challenges you sounds when it's played musically! I said, “Here's a pianist to make a note of: I hope to be hearing more of him some day. What's his name? Michael Brown? Okay.”

Michael Brown at the Klavier
Fast forward to 2012, and I was sitting in Whitaker Center, listening to Market Square Concerts' presentation of a new, award-winning young pianist named... Michael Brown, all grown up at 24. Here's my review of that performance.

The biggest take-away was hearing him play a Schubert sonata I'd never cared for because every pianist I'd ever heard (including myself) always made the last movement “sound like child's-play,” as if some child were hacking his way through it for a bunch of visiting aunts and couldn't make sense out of these childish themes. But here was an adult who figured out how to make it sound “child-like” with all the nuance of innocent youth.

Canellakis, Brown & Coffee
In 2015, then, Michael Brown returned with cellist Nicholas Canellakis to play a program ranging from Schumann and Rachmaninoff to Bulgarian Folk Music and a piece by Michael Brown. It did not surprise me a pianist who as a teenager could understand Perle's music would become a composer himself. This particular piece was composed for Nick Canellakis and, given their tongue-in-cheek approach to their on-line music videos, perhaps this interview with “Michael Brown, composer” might be... uhm... well, as my friend Jenna St. Croix would say, “illuminating if you're, like, into that sort of thing.”

One of my favorite definitions of chamber music, not to sound too pretentious about it, is “music for a small group of musicians to be played by friends for friends.” Perhaps these guys are serious about not taking themselves too seriously, but don't let the good-natured camaraderie fool you: the music-making is all about the music.

Elena Urioste (& Alex)
And now we add a third friend to the mix as Brown and Canellakis return to Harrisburg one more time with violinist Elena Urioste in a piano trio logically named the Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio which, if nothing else, solves the problem of “what do we call ourselves” when so few music-related names are left, like the “Allegro Assai Trio”? – or fancy-sounding foreign phrases, like “The Beaux Eaux Trio”? – or some composer whose name hasn't been used yet, like “The Salieri Trio.” (If they're going to return in a few seasons as a Piano Quartet, I think we're going to need a bigger marquee...)

In this BBC interview, filmed for her debut in the UK, you'll hear Elena Urioste, accompanied by Michael Brown, playing Amy Beach's Romance, composed in 1893 for the Women's Musical Congress held at Chicago's World Columbian Exposition (before they were called “World's Fairs”).

(You can also read this August 2018 article in Strings to find out more about her and Alex, her violin. Incidentally, Michael Brown lives with two Steinway D's, Octavia and Daria.)

While they all pursue careers as soloists and appear in various combinations of violin-and-piano or cello-and-piano duos, put them all together and they're a trio, performing here a Piano Trio in E-flat Major by Franz Josef Haydn – No. 29 in Mr Hoboken's big book – recorded in San Diego in 2016.

(Just to be clear, this is considered the last of Haydn's piano trios, also listed as No. 45 in H.C. Robbins-Landon's chronological catalogue. Published in 1797 as his Op.86, No.3, two years after Beethoven performed his Three Piano Trios, Op. 1, in Vienna, it's possible this was one of a series of “late” piano trios Haydn composed in London during the 1793-94 season. Not that any of that matters, since neither of these composers is on the program they'll be performing here, but hey...)

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Their Market Square Concerts program on Saturday opens with a recent work by composer Michael Brown, written for... well, when you have a living, breathing composer who writes his own program notes, why not have him tell you...?

Not only can you read these notes on his web-site, you can also listen to the entire piece from a live concert at New York City's Merkin Hall.

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Reflections for Piano Trio was written for my dear friends and fellow trio comrades, violinist Elena Urioste and cellist Nicholas Canellakis. The work was commissioned by Nicholas and Susan Yasillo and was written in honor of Sharing Notes, an organization that brings interactive classical music performances to Chicago-area hospitals. When I learned about this beautiful organization, which gives companionship and joy to people in need, I became inspired to write a work about friendship and how people interact and develop with each other over time.

I met both Elena Urioste and Nicholas Canellakis while I was a student at the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival in 2008 and 2009. There I played chamber music and became fast friends with each of them. Over the past eight years our relationships have grown musically and personally as we’ve played together in different combinations and traveled all over the world. My piece, Reflections, is my rumination on this time in all of our lives and a portrayal of our closeness. The work is in one-movement and comprised of a Chorale, Five Variations, and Coda. Throughout there is a harmonic evolution from a dissonant and stark beginning to a simpler purity, a musical depiction diagramming the journey of our worlds uniting and growing together over time. After the declamatory Chorale, the first three variations showcase different duo combinations leading into two contrasting trio variations before the coda reprises snippets of musical material heard throughout. It was a pleasure to write this piece in honor of Sharing Notes and for my close friends and musical colleagues.

The world premiere was performed by Michael Brown, Elena Urioste, and Nicholas Canellakis on November 13, 2016 at the Norton Building Concert Series in Lockport, Il.
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Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio (in retrograde order)
Recent generations of musicians were usually either composers who tended to be “composers” or performers who tended to be “performers” which may sound obvious but there was a time when any good performer was also, for better or worse, a composer, and when composers were expected to be performers as well, at least of their own works. In the great days of the reigning virtuosos like Paganini and Liszt, they wrote their own concertos and toured widely performing their own music. Many composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were also fine pianists, playing concertos, solo works and chamber pieces they'd written for themselves, but for various reasons focused on their creative sides (and of course, with no recordings to survive them, often their reputations as performers faded with time). But there's also the Chopin Risk, writing only for your instrument. Even Franz Liszt, one of the greatest pianists of all times, wrote (and usually struggled with) symphonies and operas, but today, aside from a symphonic poem or two, he is primarily known for his piano works.

Not that anyone today would expect Itzhak Perlman or Martha Argerich to be performing music they'd also composed. In fact, through much of the 20th Century, composers were lucky if any performers at that level were performing new music, whether it was written for them or not.

So the idea of a “composer-performer” – equally adept at both – is fairly rare even as we're already well into a new century. The problem, as it would be for any composer in today's busy world where earning a living and family might be part of the daily reality, not to mention Facebook and Twitter, is how to balance the time and concentration needed to compose with the performer's needs not only to concertize but also to spend hours practicing and rehearsing.

If you check his website, Michael Brown's earliest compositions on this extensive list date from 2002-2003, with a fair number of works written when he was a teenager. He has also composed (and performed) his own piano concerto in 2014 and as the Composer-and-Artist-in-Residence with the New Haven Symphony for 2017-2019, he is working on a newly commissioned Symphony to be premiered there next year (no pressure).

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Michael Brown w/Christopher O'Riley
Okay, now for a trip in the Way Back Machine and a rare opportunity to embarrass an artist by posting a photo and a link to a performance recorded when he was a teenager. Imagine influences on a budding composer, and here we are, stepping out on a road into the future.

I started this post by mentioning the From the Top episode recorded at Barshinger Center in Lancaster PA in 2004. You can follow this link to hear the segment with host Christopher O'Riley (a pianist who has performed on Market Square Concerts in seasons past himself), with Michael Brown at 17 (before the beard) playing three of the Celebratory Inventions by George Perle, written between 1981 and 1995, the first one honoring Ernst Krenek at 85; the fourth, Gunther Schuller at 70; and the sixth, Leonard Bernstein, also at 70.

Moving ahead ten years, here is the New York Times review of a performance by Michael Brown that was part celebration of Perle's music (he had died in 2009 at the age of 93 and his Centennial was just around the corner in 2015) and part Release Party for Brown's new CD on the Bridge label of several works by George Perle, including the complete "Six Celebratory Inventions."

Now, listen to his Reflections on our concert this Saturday at Market Square Church! (Reflections, indeed.)

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Ernest Chausson, four years after the Trio
The second work on the program is a rarely-heard work by a composer who came to the serious study of music fairly late as most composers go. He was given piano lessons probably as many of us endured during our childhood with little thought to it as a career option, and it wasn't until after he'd pursued a law degree and gotten a job as a lawyer with the Court of Appeals that he realized this also had no real interest for him. Being from a wealthy middle-class family, the idea of a profession wasn't as strong a necessity as it would have been for some of his contemporaries like Gabriel Fauré and Cesar Franck, both of whom earned their livings as organists, pushing their available time to compose into the background. It has also given rise to the view Chausson was a dilettante – and Paris in the Belle Époch was full of them. (Many thought Marcel Proust was one, until he published his seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time.)

As a young man in Paris with nothing better to do, he “hung out” at various salons, listening to people talk about their art, so since many of his new friends were painters, he tried his hand at drawing. Inspired by Ivan Turgenev, the Russian novelist who was something of a Salon Lion, Chausson even wrote a novel. Playing piano duets with various musician-friends in turn prompted him to start composing his own music, including a rather sizable cantata for soloists, chorus, and orchestra! But of course, not knowing how much he needed to know, he jumped right in: why not?

At the age of 22, the same year he was sworn in as a lawyer in 1877, he wrote his first piece of music, a song called “Lilas.” After a trip to Munich two years later where he first heard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, he decided to take music seriously enough to begin attending classes at the Conservatoire with Jules Massenet, one of the leading opera composers of the day. But when he tried out for the famous Prix de Rome in 1881 and failed – a prize that also eluded Claude Debussy, initially – he dropped out of Massenet's class. His teacher crossed off his name on his list of students and wrote in the margin, “After his failure to gain admission to the Prix de Rome competition, he wanted nothing more to do with the Conservatoire. Very intelligent. Independent,” underlining this last word.

However, he continued to study “unofficially” with Cesar Franck and that summer began this Piano Trio in G Minor which he finished in mid-September while vacationing in Switzerland. He was 26.

This YouTube “video” is the Beaux Arts Trio's recording on the installment plan: the first movement begins with a slow introduction, followed by the main Allegro movement:

2nd Movement: Vite, the scherzo

3rd Movement: Assez lent, the slow movement

4th Movement: Animé

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So yes, Op. 3 when it was published – following a set of piano pieces and some songs – would make it an “early” work (it is essentially still a “student composition”), yet it shows signs of a mature talent and a recognizable voice in the making (despite influences primarily of Franck). While he never really wrote that much – there are only 39 published works and a handful of unpublished and unfinished works – it is unfair to think of him as a dilettante the way we normally dismiss an amateur, a young (and still inexperienced) composer finding his way. It is, after all, his first large-scale work since he started taking composition lessons two years earlier!

We tend to think of Mozart and Schubert as two composers who started young and wrote “as an apple tree bears fruit” – Mozart had completed 39 pieces listed in the Köchel Catalogue by the time he was 11; Schubert, though the Deutsch catalogue is a little vague on the dates of some of his earliest (and sometimes incomplete) works, probably wrote his D.39 when he was 13. But then Mozart died at the age of 35 and Schubert, 31, so it's good they were prolific, not waiting till they hit their stride.

(Admittedly, the older I get, I like to think how old some composers were when still composing, long after someone in a more “normal” profession would have retired: Elliott Carter finished his last complete work – his first Piano Trio, no less – three months before what would've been his 104th birthday, had he lived another five weeks...)

But then one beautiful afternoon in 1899, while staying at “one of his country retreats” in early June, Ernest Chausson went for a bike ride and apparently had some kind of accident, slamming into a brick wall at the bottom of a hill, and died instantly. He was 44.

He is often described as a bridge between the Late-19th Century Romanticism of Cesar Franck and the Impressionism of the next generation of Debussy and Ravel. So remember, when you're listening to Chausson's Op. 3 Piano Trio, you've just set foot on that bridge with no idea where it will lead.

– Dick Strawser