Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Andrei Ioniţă and the Strategies of a Solo Cellist

Who: cellist Andrei Ioniţă
What: works for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, Zoltan Kodály, Brett Dean, and Svante Henryson (not necessarily in that order)
When: Wednesday, Feb. 12th, at 8pm
Where: at Temple Ohev Sholom (directions) at 2345 N. Front Street (below Seneca & Front Streets)

Before you fear mispronouncing his name, it's quite simple when you can print those diacritical markings (otherwise known as “funny little marks”) like ö, ř, ç, and å – and know how they sound: though it's usually printed “Ionita” for lack of those marks, it's really “Ioniţă” where in Romanian the “ţă” is pronounced “tsuh.” Now, put the accent on the second syllable and it's “yuh-NEE-tsuh.” (Close enough.)

So, let's introduce you to our soloist for February's Market Square Concerts' program, Andrei Ioniţă, who won the Gold Medal in the Cello Division at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition:

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(This video begins with Brahms' E Minor Cello Sonata, recorded here in 2017, two years after the pianist, Yekwon Sunwoo, won the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn competition.)

Here's a promotional video about his debut recording, “Oblique Strategies,” where you can sample some of the Kodály sonata, the Bach suite, and Henryson's “Black Run” which are on this MSC program. The title comes from Brett Dean's “Eleven Oblique Strategies,” but I'll get to that a little later.

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And if you need another example of his playing, here's Andrei Ioniţă, after winning the Gold Medal, playing the finale of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, recorded at the Winners' Concert of the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra:

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Page 1 of Bach's Suite No. 1 in G
Like his Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Bach also wrote Six Suites for Solo Cello. Though “partita” and “suite” are essentially interchangeable, a collection of dances, here, the idea of a “sonata” was a little more weighty: apparently Bach chose to stay on the lighter side of things with the cello (even though the weightiest of the violin pieces is undoubtedly the Chaconne from the D Minor Partita, still originally a dance piece). There are no fugues for solo cello, not even the same kind of three-voice counterpoint you'd find in the violin works. But if you took the constant arpeggiations of the cello suites and “blocked” them into chords, you'd find essentially the same thing, just “broken up” into arpeggios played one-note-after-the-other rather than as single chords. This is a French style from around 1700 called style brisé or “broken style,” especially suited to instruments like the lute. It can be applied to the cello more than the violin for acoustical reasons: given its lower register, the cello's texture would be too muddy to be playing such dense chords. Also, given the span it would take for the fingers to play them, it would also be more tiring. That's why the Cello Suites sound “lighter” than the contrapuntal Violin Sonatas and Partitas: our ear, despite sensing the harmonies, hears single notes in a running thread – called monophonic. One musicologist referred to these suites as “Monophonic music wherein a man has created a dance of God.”

Here, Andrei Ioniţă plays the first three movements from Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major, the “Prelude,” “Allemande,” and “Courante.” (I guess this is what it might be like if your day job is playing Bach at your desk...)

Usually, I talk about the “biography behind the music,” leading up to the work's composition, but as is typical with Bach, we're not sure when he wrote them: sometime while he was responsible for the chamber music at Cothen, between 1717 and 1723 (when he became the choir director at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig). Since the manuscript of the violin pieces is dated 1720 and given the style of the cello pieces by comparison, it's assumed the Cello Suites were written first. There is also a question whether they were all written as a set or individually over the years, then collected at some point into a volume ready to be published.

That said, another problem exists in that the only manuscript copy (see photo, above) is not in Bach's own handwriting but his wife, Anna Magdalena's, who herself was a singer and served as a copyist in the “family business,” as Bach churned out new cantatas for his demanding job in Leipzig's main church. That is, when she found time to copy his music, not only raising her stepchildren from Bach's first marriage but having thirteen – thirteen!!! – children of her own. By the way, in 1723, when they moved to Leipzig, the new Frau Bach was 21 years old.

For a while, there was a theory that she was actually the composer of the cello suites, though the grounds for such an assumption were more than flimsy – yes, women composers were frowned upon and it's not unusual for their music to be presented under their husbands' names. But most Bach scholars have trounced this theory, studying manuscripts and other works and finding nothing in the least bit comparable to them anywhere else in the collection. If there's a discrepancy in the styles between the cello and the violin pieces, it may also have to do with the fact Bach himself played the violin but not the cello. Any possible wrong notes or “mistakes” in harmony as have been suggested as proof Bach could not have composed them could also be the result of copyist errors (it has been known to happen...).

But what of “Life After Composition” for our six cello suites?

Any of the technical and scholarly problems that exist can also be traced to the lack of an authoritative original manuscript. And since the old man's library was divided between his composing sons, much of the collection was dispersed. Wilhelm Friedemann, the oldest, never much of a success and unfortunately an alcoholic, sold many of the ones he owned because he was always in need of money. Some of Carl Philip Emanuel's portion, overlooked in a Berlin library, was stolen by the Soviets after World War II and has since disappeared.) Subsequent copies and what was eventually published were also not without discrepancies. In fact, they were not published until they were “rediscovered” in 1825, 75 years after Bach's death (and four years before Mendelssohn's famous revival of the St. Matthew Passion).

Regardless, they were basically ignored. Mozart and Beethoven never wrote concertos for the cello – at least Beethoven wrote five sonatas for it – and very few, other than Boccherini, himself a cellist, paid the instrument much attention. It was an “acoustical” thing, that was the primary excuse, and even though Brahms wrote two sonatas and half of the “Double Concerto” for it, he was so surprised to hear how well Dvořák avoided these issues in his new Cello Concerto in 1895, he was sorry he had not tried one himself but now felt it was too late to bother (he would die two years later). Imagine...

So, meanwhile, in Barcelona. Picture it: 1889, in a dusty second-hand book shop, a 13-year-old cello prodigy named Pablo Casals found a tattered copy of six suites for solo cello by Bach in one of the bins. He bought them – one wonders for how much! – took them home and worked on them every day. Still, it wasn't till another 13 years passed he felt ready to perform them in public (that would make it 1902). And even then, he waited until 1936 when he was 60 to record them.

And now, fast forward to 1915, in Budapest, in what was then the dying years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where there was a young composition professor who'd only received his first public performances five years earlier. In 1907, he'd spent six months traveling through Berlin, then Paris, returning with a bunch of scores, most notably music by Claude Debussy. He and a friend had already begun their excursions into the Hungarian countryside, studying the true folk music of the region (not the “gypsy stuff” popularized by Liszt and Brahms), and all of these influences apparently coalesced into a series of pieces written once the start of the “Great War” (as World War I was called until there was a second one) curtailed not only their folk music collecting trips but also had other impacts on their creative and daily lives.

In 1915, Zoltan Kodály, then 32, wrote his Sonata in B Minor for Solo Cello, now considered the first major work for solo cello to be written since Bach composed his six suites some two centuries earlier.

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Zoltan Kodály
Kodály's sonata is in three movements: a strong, dramatic opening Allegro, an expansive Adagio with “great expression,” and a rip-roaring finale marked Allegro molto vivace. The overall style reflects significant melodic influences from Hungarian folk music and also his friend and fellow folk-music-researcher, Bela Bartók, but from the tonal and harmonic language he'd heard in Paris with Claude Debussy as well. In terms of its texture, it's what we'd call “homophonic,” primarily a melodic line with an accompaniment, but not contrapuntal in the way Bach had used chordal acccompaniments in his violin sonatas and partitas. Certainly, Bach's suites – indeed, the whole ethos of 18th Century Baroque music – will seem remote from Kodály's sonata and its intensity.

Incidentally, Kodály has the cellist tune the two lower strings down a half-step, from the standard G and C to F-sharp and B which gives the lower pitches a different color and contributes to the generally darker sound of the music. Instead of writing it in B Minor, why didn't Kodály just write it in C Minor and save the cellist (especially any with perfect pitch) the extra hassle? But then it wouldn't sound like the same piece, would it?

Here is Swedish cellist, Jakob Koranyi, recorded in Stockholm in 2010, with the complete Solo Cello Sonata by Zoltan Kodály: the Adagio begins at 9:10, and the Finale at 21:04.

As a listener interested in inspirations and influences, what makes me a “forensic musicologist,” I can't help but wonder where this piece comes from! I mean, if no one was writing solo cello music to inspire you, to make you think, “ooh, I want to write one of those,” again recall that the Dvořák Cello Concerto was barely a decade old when Kodály wrote this sonata.

When he was in Paris in 1907, did Kodály hear Pablo Casals play Bach? I've heard it mentioned he had – he was there, after all, most of his six months on-the-road; was Casals? – but I can find no "factual evidence" that he did. Or did he bring back a copy of the score for the six suites? Considering the style of the Bach, I'm thinking a performance of them, with its immediacy and direct emotional connection, especially by someone like Casals (one can only imagine what his performances were like in 1907, judging from that 1936 recording), might have had a more lasting impact on a young composer like Kodály.

And probably lasting, in the sense, since it wasn't until 8 years later he began the sonata. Given the limitations of the War in Budapest, it's probably more practical Kodály was focusing on chamber music for strings than, say, orchestral works and operas (considering politics and life in Hungary at any point in the first half of the 20th Century were sufficiently stable to support a thriving and happy artistic climate). He had written his first string quartet by 1909, plus a cello sonata with piano completed in 1910. By the time the War started, he wrote a Duo Sonata for Violin and Cello (no piano) in 1914, followed the next year by a work for just one of those instruments: solo violin music was not uncommon, there might have been more of a market for it, so why did he choose the cello? Perhaps the cellist who eventually premiered it, Jenő Kerpely, whose quartet would premiere the first four of Bartók's quartets, was pesky enough to keep nudging him: “why don't you write me something for solo cello?” And perhaps the Duo Sonata had been a way of paring down the texture, in a way, from having written a quartet which has its own challenges, not to mention historical baggage, before attempting a solo cello piece which, in addition has certain challenges a violin piece would not have, has very little if any historical baggage to hang over his head?

Curiously, 1915 was also the same year Max Reger finished a set of three suites for solo cello.  Completed in January, 1915, they were published and performed almost immediately (Kodály's sonata wasn't premiered until 1918 or published until 1921, mostly because of the War): while Reger's suites were completed before Kodály's sonata, it's unlikely a composer isolated in war-torn Hungary would be aware of what Reger was writing in Leipzig to be influenced by them. But all you have to do is listen to the opening minutes of Reger's 1st Suite, also in G Major, to realize it was not only influenced by Bach, it was close to being more than an “homage” or pastiche (how you say, “rip-off”?), sounding far more derivative than original, like Kodály's sonata. But I digress. Nonetheless, it was Kodály's Sonata that would go on to become one of the major works in any modern cellist's repertoire. I'm not sure how many (insert snide tone-of-voice here) are performing Reger's suites today with (or without) any regularity.

Regardless, suddenly the 20th Century eventually began taking an interest in writing for solo cello, perhaps as a result of more cellists performing the Bach Suites, inspired by Casals. Rostropovich inspired Benjamin Britten to write three suites for him. There's a solo sonata by György Ligéti and... well, you can check this “List of Works for Solo Cello” which, as extensive as it is, fails to include either of the two remaining works on this program, the “Eleven Oblique Strategies” by Brett Dean from Australia, and “Black Run” by Svante Henryson from Sweden!

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To our Harrisburg audience: if someone asked you what you knew of Australian classical music, what would you say?

It's a country with many parallels to the development of American classical music: a dominant colonial culture (likewise British), a displaced and downtrodden indigenous population (the Aborigines) and numerous other immigrant nationalities (both European and Asian). Most of us would be hard-pressed to name an Australian composer, though Carl Vine's 4th Piano Sonata was performed on a program here several seasons ago. While many have imitated their British heritage (also true of many American composers, especially those who studied in Germany in the late-19th Century and sound more like Brahms than what we'd consider “American,” whatever that means), Peter Sculthorpe, who died in 2014, was an important advocate for combining classical and aboriginal influences. This list of Australian composers – some 278 of them – may startle the average American music-lover: who knew?

(One name not on this list is Melissa Dunphy, a Chinese-Australian-born composer, now an American, who was a colleague of mine here at WITF back-in-the-day before she went on to study in the Philadelphia area where, fully doctored, she's now based, having written a large number of works that have received performances all over the country, proving that a day-job is a day-job and sometimes you need to break loose and follow your dream, even if you have no idea where it will take you.)

Brett Dean
Brett Dean is a composer I've only become familiar with when I watched his new opera Hamlet in an internet broadcast live from Glyndebourne at its premiere in 2017. He is also familiar to audiences of the Doric Quartet, frequent visitors in past seasons to Market Square Concerts, who've already recorded his first two string quartets and just recently premiered his 3rd String Quartet, “Hidden Agendas” (also performed at Carnegie Hall last week as part of their current American tour). Also a violist, Dean joined the Doric for Beethoven's Op.29 String Quintet on the same program his new quartet was premiered.

Dean's “Eleven Oblique Strategies” was originally composed for the 2014 Emanuel Fuermann Cello Competition and was inspired by... well, let me just quote the composer (from his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes', website):
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The term "oblique strategies" was coined jointly by British musician Brian Eno and German-born British visual artist Peter Schmidt to describe a series of printed cards they developed throughout the 1970’s. The cards had their origins in sets of uncannily similar working principles that both artists had established independently, and featured aphorisms intended as a means of triggering inspiration or providing useful stimulus during the creative process, particularly when encountering difficulties of fatigue or time constraint.

As Eno and Schmidt wrote in their introduction to the first edition in 1975:

They can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case, the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.

I chose eleven of Eno and Schmidt’s strategies, ordering them in a way that revealed to me a logic and potential inter-relatedness within a hitherto disparate set of single ideas I had assembled for solo cello, each of them in turn a reflection upon the commission’s initial purpose of creating a test piece for the 2014 Emanuel Feuermann cello competition.

It’s my hope then that the resultant composition may provide not only an interesting test of the competitors’ talents but also offer the interpreter an opportunity to reflect upon the delights and pitfalls of creativity as he or she comes to terms with the various musical and technical challenges to be found within these ten minutes of music for solo cello.
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The set includes such tantalizing titles – tantalizing to a composer with creativity and concentration issues, at least – as “Listen to the Quiet Voice,” “A Line Has Two Sides,” “Don't Stress One Thing More Than Any Other” (good advice to anyone, I suspect), and “Don't Be Frightened to Show Your Talents,” plus “Disciplined Self-Indulgence” (which seems a bit of an oxymoron). Some of the pieces are around 2 minutes long, a few are less than a minute. Each is, by nature, introspective.

Born in Brisbane, Australia, in 1961, Dean originally came to composition in 1988 through experimental film and radio as well as improvisational projects but by then he was already a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic (no shabby day-job, that) leading one to wonder why, then, he left the orchestra after eleven years to focus more on composing. A series of high-profile premieres, commissions, and awards following that would indicate he's made the right decision. I'll mention, given the timeliness, in addition to the recent 3rd String Quartet with the Doric Quartet two weeks ago, a new Piano Concerto receives its world premiere in Stockholm with Jonathan Biss (who has also appeared with Market Square Concerts), on Thursday, this week.

Quoting from the Wikipedia entry, “Dean's compositional style is known for creating dynamic soundscapes and treating single instrumental parts with complex rhythms. He shapes musical extremes, from harsh explosions to inaudibility. Modern playing techniques are as characteristic for his style as an elaborate percussion scoring, often enriched with objects from everyday life. Much of Dean's work draws from literary, political or visual stimuli, transporting a non-musical message. Environmental problems are the subject of Water Music and Pastoral Symphony, while Vexations and Devotions deal with the absurdities of a modern society obsessed with information.”

The title The Lost Art of Letter Writing may seem curious when you consider it's really a 38-minute violin concerto – but didn't the title grab you more than if you just saw the name “Violin Concerto” on a list of works? It includes, among its inspirations, the letters of Brahms and Clara Schumann, of Vincent van Gogh, and, in the finale, the dramatic pleas of an Australian bushranger from 1879 reflecting a sense of impending catastrophe.

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Svante Henryson & Cello
Svante Henryson's story – not just his music – is also indicative of “following one's dream.” Born in Stockholm in 1961 but who grew up in Umeå, in northern Sweden, Henryson began playing bass in a rock band at age 12, and heard Stan Getz at Umeå's jazz festival one summer which made him want to become a musician. And then he heard the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on one of their tours and that was the final impulse: he studied bass and after playing in the World Youth Orchestra in 1983, became a member of the Oslo Philharmonic bass section under Mariss Jansons through the mid-80s.

Then, another turn: he picked up his bass guitar, joined a rock band in the late-80s and taught himself the cello. He started composing and by the mid-90s, had written several works for cello and orchestra, an “Electric Bass Concerto” (the first of two), then proceeded into the new century with two cello concertos, numerous choral and chamber works, mixing up all these influences from his classical, rock, and jazz background.

In 2001, he wrote a suite of three pieces called “Colors in D” for solo cello. The first movement is “Black Run,” composed in 2001. The second movement is “Green,” dating from 1996, to which he eventually added “Blues Chaconne” in 2008. On this program, Andrei Ioniţă plays “Black Run” and this performance video was posted last year:

Here, by the way, is the composer performing it, from a performance in 2008,

which goes to show (if nothing else) you can be self-taught and still wail!

And if you want something that sounds down-home Americana written by a Swedish classical/rock/jazz composer in 2001 played by a Romanian-born cellist who won Russia's Tchaikovsky competition in 2015 who now lives in Berlin and who'll be playing this at his Market Square Concerts' program at Temple Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg on a program with an 18th-Century German, a 20th-Century Hungarian and a 21st-Century Australian – it doesn't get much more “globally cosmopolitan” than that.

Dick Strawser