Monday, February 15, 2021

"Around the World in 80 Minutes" with the Sinta Quartet: All Aboard!

The Sinta Quartet returns to Harrisburg 

Pandemic Travel Guide
Live concerts and the once seemingly ordinary idea one could attend them have not been the only social casualties during the Pandemic: travel, by and large at least safe travelhas been another. So, when many of us might be paging through Xavier de Maistre's Journey Round My Room for the umpteenth time, here comes a saxophone quartet with an offer to take us on a round-the-world trip in just 80 minutes (not days)! 

We'll go from Schubert's Vienna to Glazunov's Russia (by way of Paris), to Budapest with Ligéti's Bagatelles and Argentina with a Frenchman's Tango, from Ireland to Bulgaria and eventually into the Realm of Science with music inspired by machines and even (Sheldon Cooper would love this) physics.

And you can join us at Whitaker Center on Wednesday night, Feb. 17th, 2021, for the tour's departure at 7:30. Of course, some restrictions, per the usual Covid-19 protocols, apply check the website for details but at least the forecast is hopeful: Wednesday's the one day this week free of this latest round of unending snow, ice, and general wintry crap we've been dealing with lately...

While 2020 felt like an interminable year (and may not, to some, seem over even now), I can't believe it's been six years since the Sinta Saxophone Quartet made their first appearance on a Market Square Concerts program they called “No Strings Attached” (you can read about that, here).

As you can judge from that title, it was a program of transcriptions from the string repertoire: quartets by Shostakovich, Dvořák and Samuel Barber, the “Holberg Suite” of Edward Grieg. I admit I had been a bit dubious about the venture, given the fact a saxophonist – much less four of them traveling in a pack – has little to choose from when putting a concert program together. It is unfortunate that Beethoven died without ever hearing a saxophone (oh wait, never mind...), or that Mahler or Strauss, who might have, never called for one in their orchestras (though Mahler used a mandolin and cowbells; and Strauss tone poems often look like the musical equivalent of Noah's Ark).

Imagine if, being a saxophonist instead of a clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld's playing had inspired Johannes Brahms at the end of his career, what the Old Man might have added to the saxophone repertoire?

But it begs the point: what does a fairly new kind of ensemble (historically speaking) do to find music it can perform? Either it arranges already existing works, the players compose their own original works, or it creates a new and original repertoire by holding competitions for new works or commissioning composers (usually younger and more adventurous) to take up the challenge.

By now, the saxophone quartet is no longer a “new and adventurous” challenge, but still, as a college student writing a duet for friends playing the saxophone and the euphonium in 1970, I was told by more than my composition teacher it was a waste of time unless I could rework it for clarinet and cello! Needless to say, that was its one and only performance, but what the heck, it was fun.

So now the Sinta Quartet returns to Harrisburg with a program including several new works (some of whom might still be considered young; or at least younger than Glazunov), some commissions, some competition winners. At a time when most of us might be considering whether we should spend the evening in the living room or the den, they're giving us a vicarious chance to go beyond our bubble in a program called “Around the World in 80 Minutes.” 

(I am glad, however, given the weather we've been having and it is February, they did not choose to bring along Chris Evan Haas' Polar Vortex: you can listen to its 2nd movement, “Bloodthirsty Blizzard,” here.)

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Seattle-born David Kechley's Rush, a short five-minute curtain-raiser, gets us aboard with a quite literal bustle of adrenaline, as if sorting out tickets, luggage and figuring out where we should settle in for our trip.

David Kechley
Kechley, born in 1947, is Professor of Music Emeritus at Williams College (you can read the details of his performance and academic pedigree here) and his compositions have been commissioned and performed around the world. As Lucy Miller Murray describes the music for Rush in this concert's program notes, “Within its brevity are contrasting moods from the humorous to the ominous.”

There's a similar kind of bustle (and ominousness) in the opening of Franz Schubert's one-movement string quartet known as “Quartettsatz” (which, in basic English, means “Quartet Movement”). Since we'll hear the arrangement at the concert, I chose the original, performed here by the Daedalus Quartet (you might recognize cellist Tom Kraines from January's MSC program):

Having heard the Sinta Quartet's performance of Shostakovich's overly ominous 8th String Quartet the last time, the natural quality of the transcription and their musicality in bringing it off made me wonder if somewhere Shostakovich hadn't somehow written a saxophone quartet of his own. So I'd be looking forward to hearing how they handle Schubert's style this time.

Given there's a second movement Schubert started and then abandoned mid-phrase, technically that makes this the “Unfinished Quartet.” If you've ever wondered what it'd be like to ask long-dead composers some questions about the music that's so familiar to us, here is my “fantasy interview” with Franz Schubert (1797-1828) reposted from 2013:

(w/apologies to an unknown artist)
Dr. Dick: Good evening and welcome to Dr. Dick's Market Square Concerts Blog Live. I'm sitting here with Franz Schubert, one of the world's most favorite composers. Welcome to the blog, Mr. Schubert. Your Quartettsatz in C Minor is usually described these days as a one-movement string quartet – which isn't exactly the case, is it?

Franz Schubert: Well, no, not really. You see, I had this habit of leaving things incomplete for one reason or another. You know, my friends used to joke I was so lazy, if I dropped a page while I was writing, I'd just start composing the next piece I had on my mind.

Dr. Dick: They said you composed like an apple tree bears fruit. And yet we're so glad to have at least a few of the windfalls...

Schubert: (What's that supposed to mean...?)

Dr. Dick: Uhm, while your most popular symphony is undoubtedly your “Unfinished Symphony,” there are actually several symphonies you left incomplete, in one way or another – at least four others including one you were working on at the time of your death, not just the famous B Minor Symphony. 

Schubert: Yeah, dying is a pretty good reason for leaving something unfinished, but I'd started working on that B Minor Symphony in the fall of 1822.

Dr. Dick: The popular argument is you realized the work was superb enough to stand on its own as a two-movement piece...?

Schubert: Where do you come up with these things? I mean, that's a nice argument, thank you, except there's a sketch for the start of the 3rd movement, a scherzo – and I just suddenly stopped working on it. I don't know why, I just thought it was, you know... maybe not good enough, I guess. 

Dr. Dick: And the same is true of this “Quartettsatz” – you started a second movement, an Andante in A-flat Major of, what...? 41 measures, and it, too, just stops.

Schubert: Yeah, well, I had this problem with concentrating, I guess. (He takes a sip of beer.) By the way, these dumplings are really very good – could you get me the recipe? (He reaches for another one.)

Dr. Dick: So this single, brief quartet movement – the first movement of a most likely four-movement work in the traditional manner – was written in December of 1820 when you were a month or so short of turning 24... 

Schubert: Who are you calling “short”?

Dr. Dick: I mean, when Beethoven was 24, he hadn't written his first symphony or a published string quartet!

Schubert: That was Beethoven's problem, you know – he was too... uhm, what... methodical? Sketching and sketching... he'd spend months, years working on these ideas of his. Me? I'd rather knock off a few songs and then go out drinking with Schober and the guys...

Dr. Dick: But curiously enough, there's one of these “unfinished symphonies” you were working on at the same time as the “Quartettsatz” – along with another opera that also remained incomplete. This symphony's in D Major (given the Deutsch Catalog No. 708a, and it was only discovered in some Viennese library in the 1970s) – you started it in December of 1820 also and then abandoned it sometime after the New Year. And then, a few months after that, you began another one – also left incomplete – but that one would have been on a much grander scale, judging from you did write down of it.

Schubert: (Shrugs his shoulders) Like I said...

Dr. Dick: And then there was the matter of Teresa Grob's wedding on November 21st, 1820. You wrote some of your first songs for her when you were teenagers and were apparently, well... quite the item in the neighborhood. But her father thought you were an unlikely husband for her, being just a poor musician and teacher. So what happened?

Schubert: Oh, her father found her some master-baker and they finally got married – right there in the church where she first sang my music... 

Dr. Dick: And then a few weeks later, you wrote this “Quartettsatz,” right? It makes you wonder what was going through your mind at the time...

Schubert: Right. (Say, are you going to eat the rest of those dumplings...?) 

Dr. Dick: I'm sorry we're out of time, now, so thank you, Franz – may I call you Franz? – for stopping by to talk about your music. This has been Dick Strawser for Dr. Dick's Market Square Concerts Blog

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Gabriel Pierné

Gabriel Pierné may be a less familiar name than Schubert's – for most of my life, the only thing of his I think I'd ever heard was a trifle called “March of the Little Lead Soldiers” which is something that could color your attitude about anything else he might've written – but his “Introduction et Variations sur un Ronde Populaire,” written in 1936 for Marcel Mule's quartet, has survived to become a staple of the saxophone quartet repertoire. The introduction is interrupted by brief glimpses of the “ronde theme” which then becomes a full-out dance on which Pierné builds a series of delightful variations. 

Incidentally, a "ronde" (literally, something "round") is a Renaissance-era country dance, a "round-dance" as opposed to the neither French nor Renaissance thing called a "square-dance."

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From Vienna and Paris, we're off to Budapest and the music of György Ligéti (in Hungarian, that would be pronounced zhorzh LIH-geh-tee despite the accent mark). With his Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (arranged communally by the Sinta Quartet), it would seem, first of all, we're on closer ground, transcription-wise, than we'd be with the Schubert: at least it's wind instruments to wind instruments (it's also, interestingly, from a group of five down to a group of four). It would also seem to be another bit of “light music,” since the usual idea of a “bagatelle” is a miniature, some kind of trifle. But as often happens with music – like the Schubert – there is more here than meets the ear.

Ligeti in Middle-Age
Consider that Ligéti, a Hungarian Jew born in what is now the Romanian part of Transylvania, was called up for military service in 1944 by Hungary's Stalinist regime toward the end of World War II when he was 21. Shortly afterward, his 16-year-old brother was sent off to a Nazi concentration camp; both his parents were deported to Auschwitz. Only his mother survived.

After the war, Ligéti resumed his studies in Budapest and began a string quartet around the time he turned 30. Knowing it would be banned, he wrote it, as composers who write for themselves rather than popular appeal often say, “for the desk drawer.”

As Lucy Miller Murray notes, “It is this part of his life that caused Alex Ross, in his recent and brilliant TheRest is Noise, to group Ligéti with composers who produced 'artworks that answer horror by rejecting it or transcending it.' Despite the horrors of World War II, Ross said, Ligéti 'found it in him to write music of luminosity and wit.'

Writing these “bagatelles” just before the dark times of another historical calamity to haunt Hungarian history, the Revolution of 1956, Ligéti was now a professor of theory at the Budapest Conservatory where one of his own teachers had been Bartók's friend Zoltan Kodály. With these groundings, it's not surprising to hear bits of Hungarian folk song plus the stylistic stamp of Bartók and Stravinsky.

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We'll end the first half of our tour with a stop in Ireland and two “traditional tunes” arranged by Dan Graser, Green Groves of Erin/Flowers of Red Hill.

Without going into detail about the fascinating use of folk music as a source of inspiration to composers – it goes back to Medieval times when one could argue many Gregorian chants employed well-known tunes-of-the-day to bring a sense of familiarity to illiterate worshipers unused to this idea of liturgical music – so, if you're looking to expand your repertoire (say, for saxophone quartet), folk songs are as good a “source material” as anything and if nothing else are guaranteed to be copyright free.

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Glazunov in Paris
Alexander Glazunov is credited with composing the first quartet originally written for saxophones in 1932 (though you might want to check out Jean Baptitse Singelée's quartet of 1857, here, as far as historical accuracy is concerned). The Sinta Quartet will be playing just the 2nd Movement, a set of variations on a Russian Hymn (speaking of using “found material” as a starting point), but it gives us a chance to experience a visit to Russia by way of the Paris where Glazunov was living at the time (even though, like many emigrees after the Russian Revolution and its horrific Civil War, it is doubtful he ever considered it “home”). 

When Glazunov died in 1936, it was remarked this took many people by surprise since he had been out of the musical limelight so long and his music was so old-fashioned, most everyone thought he had died long ago. As if the Russian chant doesn't give it a sense of timelessness already, even here, in one of his last works, two variations are written specifically “in the style of” Schumann and Chopin.

(in this video, they play only three variations, including “Chopin” but not “Schumann”.)

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Thierry Escaich
French composer and organist Thierry Escaich, born in 1965, was a student at that bastion of conservatism, the Paris Conservatoire, and succeeded the great Maurice Duruflé as organist at one of the great churches of Paris. Four years before that prestigious appointment, he composed his Tango Virtuoso, a brief five-minute work he described as a “pedagogical work” (which, I suspect, means it was written for a performance competition). It's far from a student piece!

Whatever Duruflé might have thought of it, it's not the first work a Frenchman has composed inspired by things Spanish or Latin-American.

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One of the things composers have learned from Bela Bartók was not only how to use folk music in a classical format, but how to use folk music's basic fingerprints to create your own completely original material, what he referred to (when he used it in his own string quartets, for instance) as “imaginary folk music.”

Annika Socolofsky (photo by Emory Hensley)

In this case, composer and vocalist
Annika Socolofsky, the youngest composer on the program (born in 1990), says of her brief (but for all its brevity, intense) work for saxophone quartet, “Bulgarity”:

“Inspired by the rhythmic ferocity of Bulgarian dance music and the Bulgarian saxophone legend Yuri Yunakov, Bulgarity is energetic explosion of virtuosity. Pulsating meters, dense ornamentation, and wandering modes make this piece distinctly Balkan in character. Although passages are reminiscent of the folk idiom, all material is original.” It is also the winner of the 2013 Sinta Quartet Composition Competition.

An American composer born in Edinburgh, Scotland, her interest in classical and folk music as a teacher at Boulder's University of Colorado campus goes beyond the traditional boundaries of both worlds: her research encompasses “country music” as well.

“For me in particular,” she says, “Dolly Parton is a master of combining text with vocal sensitivity in her songwriting. I learn something new every time I listen to her. Folk music isn't always looked at in the same regard as classical music, but I've never felt that way. When I'm writing or performing my pieces, I'm thinking of them in the same way I experience country music: how can I tell this story most directly, most personally so that it will touch real people out there in the world?"

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And what can be more “out there in the world” today than technology? While the pun on “ex machina” goes back to the theatrical world of Ancient Greece, machines have ruled modern imaginations for... well, long before the days of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of things like the loom, ever since Man dreamed of finding ways of lessening his workload. More recently, especially with the advent of robots and computers, we might think about machines “taking over” the world and not just in the world of science fiction.

In the mid-1920s, Soviet composer Alexander Mosolov wrote a mercifully brief piece called “The Iron Foundry,” which you can check out,here (if you think that's loud, you should be sitting in front of the brass and percussion sections), a style often referred to as “futuristic brutalism,” taking Beethoven's descriptive “Pleasant Impressions upon arriving in the Countryside” from his Pastoral Symphony into a whole new world barely 120 years later. As another example, consider Gunther Schuller's delightfully chaotic “TwitteringMachine” from his seven pieces inspired by Paul Klee (it even winds down).

Marc Mellits on a balcony
No ear-plugs will be needed for Baltimore-born, Chicago-based Marc Mellits' set of seven machines for saxophone quartet he calls “Ex Machina.” They'll be performing four of them; this video by the Sinta Quartet includes two you can hear on their Whitaker Center concert, the 1st and last (“funky” – nothing like a funky machine, right?). 

In them, you can hear some of the same musical traits you could hear in those works by Mosolov and Schuller: steady ostinatos and patterns (relentless in the Mosolov but going a bit awry in Schuller's account of the Twittering Machine) and periodic but sometimes subtle shifts and contrasts but not the standard sense of “development” or even necessarily the “digression and return” we would expect in more traditional Classical Music. These sounds, not surprisingly, are also part of the modern landscape in the musical style usually referred to as “minimalism” (but I will digress). Commentators have described Mellits' music as “an eclectic combination of driving rhythms, soaring lyricism, and colorful orchestration.”

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So, as we began with a rush to get on board, let's end with the briefest bit of the fastest way to travel today – well, if you were a molecule working at the Hadron Collider. And in this case, specifically, the sub-atomic particle known affectionately as Z(4430). If you can't understand that, don't worry: you don't need to to enjoy this piece of music by Roger Zare. In fact, it will probably take longer for you to read that Wikipedia entry, to say nothing of understanding it, than it would be to listen to the entire piece. The music, despite the physics behind its inspiration, is nothing so nearly scientific as that, even for Wikipedia. Just think of it as the 21st Century answer to "The Flight of the Bumblebee"...

Roger Zare
As the Quartet's website describes it, this was “originally written as an encore to Zare's larger work for saxophone quartet, LHC. Z(4430) is just over a minute long. It depicts the short life of the subatomic particle named Z(4430), discovered in 2014 by the LHCb experiment at CERN, as it explodes into existence, moves around unpredictably at extremely high frequencies (clearly heard in the soprano part), and explodes back out of existence.”

The composer uses the motive E-E-D#-C as the main motive for this briefest of pieces depicting the short life and intense velocity of this particle. By applying numbers to the pitches of a chromatic scale starting on C with C as 0, you will find the D is 2, E is 4 and so on up to B as 11. In that sense, the numbers of the particle, 4430, become E, E, D#, and C – hence the motive that brings our little particle to life and sends it on its existential way.

And which, then, brings us maybe not back to our point of departure “by a commodius vicus of recirculation,” but to the end of our tour (and concert) all the same.

– Dick Strawser