Monday, January 11, 2021

A Musical Journey into a New Year: Music for Violin & Cello

Juliette Kang & Thomas Kraines (at home), 2020

As we turn the corner on a year few of us can ever imagine invoking as “The Good Old Days,” Market Square Concerts first program of 2021 – Wednesday, January 13th at 7:30 at Harrisburg's Whitaker Center – will feature violinist Juliette Kang and her husband, cellist Thomas Kraines. They'll be performing a wide range of music from the Baroque of Bach and Handel (by way of late-19th Century Halvorsen), to the early-20th Century of the well-known Maurice Ravel and less-well-known Ernst Toch to 21st Century composers like Anna Weesner, Nansi Carroll, and Thomas Kraines. If that last name looks familiar, reread the caption of the photograph above.

Given the Virus we are forced to live with, those attending the concert will be able to practice social distancing due to the large size of the theater. Additional safety precautions stipulated by Gov. Tom Wolf’s guidelines will also be in place. If you prefer staying home out of caution, the option of purchasing access to high-quality video or audio recordings a week after the concert is also available.

Juliette Kang is an award-winning Canadian-born violinist who became first associate concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2005, having been a soloist with the San Francisco and Baltimore Symphonies and the Boston Pops, not to mention the Czech Philharmonic, the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. She won first prize at the 1994 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and was presented in recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall. She and Thomas Kraines were married in 2001.

Thomas Kraines graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School and, along with performing with Ms. Kang, plays with the Daedalus Quartet, as well as the Philadelphia-based Network for New Music, the Arcana Ensemble and the improvisatory ensemble Great Blue Heron. He has performed his own compositions in collaboration with, among others, Awadagin Pratt (in the locally produced “Next Generation Festivals”) and the English Symphony Orchestra.

"Passacaglia for Violin & Cello" by Johan Halvorsen (after George Frederic Handel)

The Classical Music World is full of “borrowed music” – Bach used Lutheran chorales as the basis of many of his otherwise highly original works; Mozart and Beethoven improvised keyboard variations on famous opera arias of the day just as Franz Liszt would turn them into virtuosic piano fantasies in another generation; 19th and 20th Century composers would “modernize” older music like Bach or even folk songs and dances, bringing them to a wider, more popular audience. Call it “cross-over,” if you want.

And so, a Norwegian violinist recently turned composer and conductor, and freshly returned to Norway after an international career as a soloist and concertmaster from Leipzig to St. Petersburg, took the last movement of George Frederic Handel's Keyboard Suite in G Minor (HWV 432) and turned it into a virtuoso duet for violin and viola.

Technically, it's more than a simple transcription since there's probably more Halvorsen in it than there is Handel. Calling it Handel/Halvorsen is a bit disingenuous, given its “explorative” (some say “exploitative”) nature, so it's often credited as “Halvorsen after Handel.” Whatever it is, it's become a popular show-stopper for string duos around the world.

Card Party at the Griegs (1888)
Written in 1893 for violin and viola, the same year he became principal conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic, it is safe to assume it's the only piece the world knows by Johan Halvorsen. It may not credit his compositional talents, but he was also a son-in-law of Edvard Grieg (in the photo, taken five years earlier, he's in the center, playing cards with Nina and Edvard Grieg on the left, and fellow composers Frederic Delius and Christian Sinding to the right).

As violists are often forced by necessity to commandeer cello repertoire – all it takes, given the tunings of their strings, is to play it up an octave – so in this case, it's fair play for a cellist to take Halvorsen's viola part down an octave.

To begin, here is Handel's original, performed on the harpsichord and here is Halvorsen's adaptation of it, played in a classic performance as an encore following a concert with the Israel Philharmonic in 1997, with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman:

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Three Pieces for Violin and Cello by Thomas Kraines

Thomas Kraines, composer
These are the first pieces of his I'd heard at one of those “Next Generation Festivals,” a series of concerts produced by WITF and organized by Ellen Hughes, back in the day. Every time I hear a new work Tom's written, I keep hoping he'll find more time in his busy career to spend composing. While the Pandemic's lockdown may provide the time and the isolation, it also has its economic impact on the artists' world, which this past year has not been emotionally conducive to positive creative work. I'm just glad he and Juliette are able to bring their “domestic bubble” from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to be able to perform live for us.

The composer wrote these program notes about his “Three Pieces”:

These character pieces are among the first things I ever completed, since deciding, at the end of my 20’s, to start writing music. Of course there was a practical aspect to writing for the combination (I’m a cellist married to a violinist), but I also wanted to explore the obvious similarities and subtle differences between the timbres of the two instruments. In this, I looked mostly to Ravel’s unmatched Sonata for Violin and Cello. Depending on my mood, I sometimes hear my pieces as derivative of the Ravel, and sometimes as an homage.

The first movement is a gentle boat piece in an asymmetrical meter (so the boat rocks a little more to one direction than the other), structured as a simple A-B-A with the return to the A section slightly altered. I clearly remember the feeling of the accompaniment figure under my hand at the keyboard; it doesn’t lie as well on the string instruments, but still has a certain charm.

The second movement began life as a solo cello piece. I wrote the opening melancholy melody, then couldn’t figure out where it might go until it became clear that another voice was necessary. An impassioned melodic fragment which shows up later in the movement came from a setting I was considering making of the Randall Jarrell poem Well Water.

This movement is also notable for some daring, perhaps ill-advised experiments with left-hand pizzicato. The final movement was inspired by our dog at the time, Preston the terrier. Structurally the movement is similar to the first, but in character wildly different: manic, neurotic, and playful. Preston died at a ripe old age in 2014, and was a much slower (though still neurotic) dog for the last few years of his life, but this piece still reminds me of his adolescent personality.”

Thomas Kraines

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Divertimento for Violin and Cello, Op 37, No. 1 by Ernst Toch

Ernst Toch was a prolific composer born in Vienna who today is known largely for a “musical joke,” a pleasant diversion for speaking chorus from 1930 called The Geographical Fugue (I remember “singing” this in high school – it would be perfect for a flash-mob, btw).

Born in 1887 into a non-musical family, he was a child prodigy who was not surrounded by music from birth, unlike Mozart or Mendelssohn, and remained largely self-taught. In 1909, he won a prize that allowed him to study in Germany – his first-ever composition lesson went something like this: “his teacher stammered, 'you wanted to study with me? I was going to ask if I could study with you!'” (He was 21). Shortly afterward, he was appointed a Professor of Composition in Mannheim where he was interrupted by World War I, drafted into the Austrian army, serving at the Italian Alpine front. Afterward, he returned to Germany to teach, then went to Berlin in 1928.

Then, most “brief bios” will mention “in 1933, he left Germany for the United States.” This overlooks the fact Toch, born a Jew, escaped Germany during the early years of Hitler's emerging control when the Nazis were already persecuting Jewish artists. When he (and incidentally Richard Strauss) represented Germany at an International Conference in Florence, Italy, instead of returning to Berlin Toch fled first to Paris, where he sent his wife an “all-clear” telegram that read, simply, “I have my pencil.” She was able to join him and then, by way of London, they went to New York where he taught, and then to Hollywood in 1936 when his friend George Gershwin arranged for him to write music for a film (talk about good luck!). Given the “eeriness” of his “modern style,” he was soon typecast as a “specialist” in horror films and chase scenes...

But all of that postdates the music on our program: after writing a cello concerto and his 11th String Quartet, he composed two divertimenti for string duos in 1925. Op. 37/1 was for Violin and Cello and Op. 37/2 was for Violin and Viola. Ostensibly, I imagine, these short works could be played consecutively by members of a string quartet (had he been Darius Milhaud, he would have written them so they could also be played simultaneously). Shortly after them, he composed a piano concerto. Honing his craft writing a great deal of chamber music and more assured in his style, he was now beginning to branch out into larger-scale orchestral works. He did not begin the first of his seven symphonies until 1950.

The Divertimento for Violin & Cello (Op.37/1) is in three short movements with divertingly alliterative titles: Flott, Fliessend, and Frisch (or “Afloat,” “Flowing,” and “Fresh”).

Among Toch's students, in addition to André Previn, is Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Richard Wernick who later taught at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia between 1968 and 1996. The Network for New Music in Philadelphia held a concert this past Saturday (Jan. 9th) to celebrate Wernick's up-coming 87th birthday and the program began with his Suite for Unaccompanied Cello performed by Thomas Kraines.

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"Sudden, Unbidden" by Anna Weesner

Anna Weesner at work
Growing up in New Hampshire, Anna Weesner currently lives in Philadelphia, where she is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She'd studied flute as an undergraduate at Yale and composition there with Jonathan Berger and Michael Friedmann. She went on to complete a D.M.A. at Cornell University, studying with Steven Stucky, Roberto Sierra and Karel Husa and also with John Harbison and George Tsontakis. (Just to keep track, Stucky, Husa, and Harbison are also Pulitzer-Prize-winning composers.)

Written in 1998 originally for string quartet, Ms. Weesner's “Sudden, Unbidden” has been adapted for violin and cello. Juliette Kang and Thomas Kraines recorded it in their living room this past July:

Like a constantly unfolding quilt-like fabric, the piece is built up of a handful of contrasting and constantly juxtaposing elements, fragments that appear and reappear, often dramatic or suspended in nature – technically you could call it “moment form” or “cellular” – where gestures (rather than melodies or chord progressions) create their own psychological contexts that will, as they progress, remind the listener of previous moments or cells, reflections giving it an overall unity which the first-time listener might overlook.

In her program notes for this concert, Lucy Miller Murray writes, “a challenging work, it is a thoroughly modern piece bearing a certain darkness suggested in its title. Along with that darkness and modernity, however, is a rhythmic excitement and an emotional impact we associate with earlier music. Its virtuosic challenges are impressive.”

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"Spiritual" for cello solo by Nansi Carroll

Nansi Carroll on the cover
American composer Nansi Carroll is Music Director of St. Augustine Church in Gainesville, Florida, Artistic Co-Director of A Musical Offering, and a faculty member at the University of Florida, Stetson University, and The Walden School. Her brief “Spiritual for Cello Solo” might be described as a theme and variations because of its tempo and character changes throughout. One might also perceive it as a fantasy because of its freedom of form and improvisational nature.” – Lucy Miller Murray.

While I couldn't find anything on-line pertaining to the solo cello piece she wrote entitled “Spiritual,” several other works based on or arranging spirituals by her surfaced, and I'm quite taken with this one, a more substantial work that I recommend you “check out.” It's a duo for soprano saxophone and bassoon in three movements which also deals with many of the same compositional concerns explored in the violin and cello duets on this program. 

[Added later: As sometimes happens, I'll do a "search" for something and find nothing. And then, when you least expect it, that thing you were searching for shows up a couple weeks later completely out of the blue: and it had been posted in April, 2020. So here, even though it's technically "after-the-fact" as far as this recital is concerned, is Tom Kraines playing Nansi Carroll's "Spiritual for Solo Cello," based on Gonna Tell God All My Troubles.]

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Two Two-Part Inventions by Johann Sebastian Bach

It's hardly necessary to go into biographical detail about Bach or his music in general, especially with two short works that probably don't last more than 4 or 5 minutes, combined. Suffice it to say, speaking of exploring the challenges of writing two separate linear parts – in this case originally for a keyboard (the right hand versus the left hand) – Bach wrote his Inventions (the 3-Part ones are called Sinfonias) as teaching pieces for his two oldest sons who would grow up to become composers themselves: Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philip Emanuel – not just in how to play two independent parts like this but also how to compose them.

On this program as a kind of “palate cleanser” before the Ravel, we'll hear two of them played by violin and cello: here, in the keyboard original, is No. 8 with Andras Schiff or Glenn Gould; and No. 6 with Schiff or Gould. Take your pick or listen to both: they're very short – and very different interpretations of the same notes.

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Sonata for Violin and Cello by Maurice Ravel

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

Ravel (at home) 1921
This is clearly a neo-classical work, partly because of the nature of its medium – a violin and cello duet giving it a limited texture, considering what we're used to with Ravel's piano or orchestral music, even his string quartet writing. Plus the work belongs to the period immediately following his horrendous experiences on the battlefront of World War I, written between 1920 and 1922. The first movement initially appeared under the title “Duo: Tombeau de Debussy.” Dedicated to the older composer's memory – he'd died of cancer during the German bombardment of Paris in 1918 – Ravel then added three more movements.

Ravel's lean and, as one writer described it, “ruthlessly linear” style picked up the tone and economy of Debussy’s last works, particularly the cello sonata and the violin sonata, both with piano. Ravel wrote of his own tribute, a sonata without piano, “the music is stripped to the bone. Harmonic charm is renounced, and there is an increasing return of emphasis on melody.”

In this performance, we hear members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Yura Lee (who, contrary to the video's billing, is playing a violin) and cellist Jakob Koranyi.
It opens with quiet arpeggiations of alternating minor and major triads which becomes a recurring element throughout the entire piece: like a “theme,” it will be heard in various guises in each of the four movements. A secondary motive, consecutive sevenths (at 0:54 of the video) will also be featured prominently in all movements. In a Classical or Romantic sense, there might've been full-blown tunes, recognizable and even hummable, something a listener could easily recognize. But in the 20th Century, themes like this became less significant and the growth of a work – its form – could more often be built on a more cellular level with short motives that might not be “recognizable” but might be sensed as “something I've heard before” which then binds the work together, at least sub-consciously.

Wild pizzicatos and gnashing, sudden dissonances characterize the second movement; the slow third movement starts off with chant-like austerity in simple rhythms, a respite from the scherzo's frenzy.

In the last movement, the bustling energy returns, imitating a four-part fugue in the pile-up of entrances, even though it's only two instruments.

Given the times we're living in right now, inside another kind of war where we watch the death toll from the Pandemic mount steadily on the daily news – not to mention what we saw unfold on live TV, January 6th at the Capitol – remember what Ravel had witnessed during World War I as well as his having lived through the Pandemic of 1918-1919, the so-called “Spanish Flu.”

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

Two years later, he began composing this music.

– Dick Strawser