Saturday, April 24, 2021

Stuart & Friends, Part 1: Mozart, Bloch, and Malina

Who: Stuart Malina (pianist), Alexander Kerr and Peter Sirotin (violinists), Michael Strauss (violist), and Julian Schwarz (cellist); and Young Artist Program performer, Zev Malina (pianist and composer)

What: Mozart's Violin Sonata in B-flat, K.454; Bloch's Suite hebraïque for Viola and Piano; Korngold's Suite, “Much Ado About Nothing” (arranged for cello and piano by Julian Schwarz); Korngold's Piano Quintet Op. 15; Zev Malina's “Schemin',” an homage to Zev Confrey.

When & Where: Wednesday, April 28th, 2021 at 7:30pm at Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg

(This post will cover works by Zev Malina, Mozart, and Bloch. For the two works by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, you can read Part 2, "Meet the Talented Mr. Korngold.")

Programs called “Stuart & Friends” have long been part of the Harrisburg Music Scene with Harrisburg Symphony Music Director Stuart Malina playing chamber music with members of the orchestra. Chamber music is an integral part of Stuart Malina's life, both musical and personal. It also has a specific impact on his relationship with the orchestra: every time I hear him play a concerto – whether it's Mendelssohn, Mozart, or Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue – conducting from the keyboard (a skill-set of its own), it's like watching and listening to chamber music on a grand scale, not just three or four other players but maybe 50 or 60.

This time, the cast of “Stuart & Friends” includes musical friends, violinist Alexander Kerr and violist Michael Strauss. Kerr has appeared as a soloist several times with the orchestra (currently concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, he was also concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam the first time I'd heard him play here) and played Jonathan Leshnoff's Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra with violist Michael Strauss and the Harrisburg Symphony in 2015 (with Stuart, a reunion of three friends from their days as students at Curtis).

Kerr will play a Mozart Violin Sonata, K.454; Strauss will play the Suite hebraique by Ernest Bloch; cellist Julian Schwarz will play his own arrangement of Korngold's Suite from Much Ado About Nothing – the common denominator being the pianist, Stuart Malina – and then, joining all four of them for the Piano Quintet by Korngold will be Peter Sirotin, not only Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts but also the concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony, a friend and colleague and frequent musical collaborator with Stuart.

And the program also opens with one of those “Young Artist Program” performers giving a spotlight to a young performer to help nurture a future career. In this case, the artist will be Zev Malina, pianist and composer. If you're not already aware of it, he is the son of Stuart Malina. And as Stuart said at the opening of the 2019 Season with the orchestra, when he conducted his son's “Suite for Orchestra,” “People always ask me who my favorite composer is and I'm like... I don't know, the one I'm working on at the moment?” Beethoven, Brahms... those are some of the anticipated responses. “But now I know who my favorite composer is – Zev Malina.”

So let's begin this post there.

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Zev Malina, born in 2002, the official biography reads, “started composing at age eleven, writing short piano works. In 2014, he received the first Young Composer’s Award of the Double Bass Coalition for his Double Bass Quartet, which he wrote for the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music. As a fund-raising project in 2015, Malina composed a setting for narrator and chamber ensemble of Robert McCloskey’s children’s book Blueberries for Sal, which has raised over $50,000 for Harrisburg area libraries and was used for several educational concerts by the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra. In 2017 and 2019, he won the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra’s National Young Composers Challenge. Malina attended the summer composition program at the Interlochen Arts Academy in 2017 and the Brevard Music Center Summer Festival the following year. He currently works with composer Jonathan Leshnoff. Zev Malina has studied piano since 2006 with Josefina Melgar and Ya-Ting Chang [executive director of Market Square Concerts], and bassoon since 2014 with Kimberly Nolet.”

If you had a chance to hear this concert which opened Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary Season with the orchestra – it seems so long ago, and a celebration sadly cut short by the pandemic – you heard music Zev Malina composed during his mid-teens. For full orchestra. And while each movement was a tribute to some aspect of the world of the Hollywood film (including Erich Wolfgang Korngold whose music concludes this program), the imitation is not just a form of musical flattery, but deeply genuine and completely sincere – and more heart-felt and accurate than a lot of mature composers who try to capture this style. 

While many young composers imitate composers or pieces they like, Malina – and here I'm referring to the composer since it seems odd to officially call him Zev, in this context (I mean, I wouldn't write “and then Wolfgang wrote...” talking about Mozart, would I?) – anyway, Malina absorbs everything that makes these composers and these pieces tick with an uncanny and completely innate grasp most fully doctored, middle-aged composers would kill for. And he wasn't even out of high school, then! If there's a stylistic equivalent of “perfect pitch” that intuitively allows one to automatically find the right note, he's got it.

I suspect Zev Malina might have been attracted to the piano works of Edward Elzear Confrey – known to the world as Zez Confrey – initially because of their first names. Referred to as a “novelty pianist,” Confrey's works, over a hundred of them, are not the typical fare for young pianists growing up today. Probably his most famous works are such delightful classics as “Kitten on the Keys” and “Dizzy Fingers” and so Malina's tribute entitled “Schemin'” fits right in.

Here's a piano-roll performance made of Zez Confrey playing “Dizzy Fingers” (since it's always good to know what's being “homaged”) written in 1923 – and I find it interesting to hear the composer's choice of tempo, not nearly as fast as people I know who've tried to take the “dizzy” part of it a little too literally.


To give you an idea of Zev Malina the pianist, here's a bit of an in-home recording for a piano recital which ended with a four-hand piano duet encore of three movements from Astor Piazzolla's “The History of Tango” with Zev Malina playing the primo part, and Stuart Malina playing the secondo part. Which I guess makes the duet “Malina and Dad.”

I'm probably not the first person looking forward to a series of concerts called “Stuart and Son.” 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Sonata in B-flat, K.454 

in 1785
One might as well begin with the famous anecdote about this work which is, given the limited time and space usually assigned to introductions, all one ever hears about it. At its first performance – incidentally, April 29th, 1784 (237 years ago almost to the day) – Mozart played the piano part from a blank manuscript, even turning pages. The Emperor – Joseph II, he of the famous “too many notes” quip – was in attendance and, by judicious use of his opera glasses, noticed this. Afterward, he called Mozart up to him, asking him to bring along the manuscript; and there it was: blank. How do you explain this?

Sheepishly, Mozart said he'd not had time to write down the piano part, barely getting the violin part copied out for the performance and so he played it “from memory.” Whether it was a trick like those devised by the young composer's father to show off his son's genius back in the old days when Mozart, a boy not yet 12, was paraded around Europe like a musically-trained monkey, or the results of serious time constraints as he admitted, it sounds perfectly logical given Mozart's personality as much as his creative abilities. It wasn't that he was “making it up” (or “filling it in”) as he and the violinist played the sonata, because Mozart would've had the complete work completely finished in his mind, a feat of memory for some of us but not a challenge for the likes of Mozart.

(David Oistrakh & Paul Badura-Skoda, 1974)

The thing is, this story also exists regarding the previous violin sonata, K.379, written back in 1781, completed the month before Mozart, quite literally kicked out of the Archbishop of Salzburg's employ, decided to become a free-lancer in Vienna (a then unheard of path to success for a professional composer). Perhaps it's true in both cases, or maybe Mozart just had a thing about completing violin sonatas in a timely fashion. Certainly, given the Emperor's involvement, the story is likely true as far as K.454 is concerned since the earlier sonata would've been performed before the Archbishop who couldn't've cared less whether Mozart's manuscript was blank or not. And while the Emperor's reaction has been described as either annoyed or amused – annoyed he'd been pranked; amused maybe there really was something of the genius about this “quirky,” self-confident young man his other court musicians couldn't quite match – I suspect it was probably a bit of both.

And if you could see the original manuscript (here's the first page, completely filled in), you could see the violin part written in one shade of ink, the piano part added in a different shade and frequently crammed in to fit measures whose length had been determined by the notes in the violin which were written down first. 

The sonata was requested by a famous Italian violinist, Regina Strinasacchi. Mozart wrote to his father, "We now have here the famous Strinasacchi from Mantua, a very good violinist. She has a great deal of taste and feeling in her playing. I am at this moment composing a sonata which we are going to play together on Thursday at her concert in the theater." This was a time "when few women performed on the violin public." Also a guitarist and a composer, she was a graduate of that orphanage school where Antonio Vivaldi once taught, the famous Ospedale della Pietà.

(György Pauk & Petr Frankl, with the published score

Still, if Mozart completed the sonata on April 21st and the performance before the Emperor wasn't until the 29th, why, during the week in between, didn't he have time to finish writing out the piano part?

The Spring of 1784 turned out to be the peak of Mozart's popularity in Vienna. Financially, it was his most profitable year, bringing in a total of 3,720 florins. Whatever a florin would be worth by today's economy, in January 1782 Mozart wrote to his father Leopold (who had his own fixations with money) that with 1,200 florins “a man and his wife could live quietly and in the retired way which we desire” [as he hoped his disapproving father would believe (he did not)] and the year after this violin sonata was composed, Leopold noted “if my son has no debts to pay, I think he can now lodge 2,000 florins in the bank,” thinking his son was doing quite well in this new adventure. But in other letters Leopold complained of the Mozarts too-fashionable neighborhood or the high rent he was paying with all its fine furniture. For in fact Mozart believed “one must not make oneself cheap here – that is a cardinal point – or else one is done. Whoever is most impertinent has the best chance.” Hoping to impress aristocrats, his intended demographic after the Emperor, he needed to live among them and live well enough to impress them.

The begging letters Mozart would later send to his Masonic friends, hoping for a loan, would still be in the future, after his popularity had begun to wane and the sales of tickets for his concerts or of newly published scores dropped off considerably. Except for 1785 when he earned 900 florins from publications, he still earned only 180 in 1784, compared to an average of 243 between 1786 and his death in 1791. But he earned 1,200 from various concerts and 1,800 from “salon appearances” alone in 1784, and Mozart must have felt quite the success!

Given he died at 35 and we think of him begging for money from friends and being buried in a pauper's grave (except for the aristocracy, most people were buried in unmarked graves; it was the custom in Vienna), it is pleasant to remember the Good Times like the Spring of 1784 – the Lenten Season, the busiest concert-time in the city – when listening to music composed in the midst of so much achievement. No wonder he was so confident. Everything, especially the music, just came to him so easily. But that, with Mozart, was always the case.

And I haven't even begun writing about the sonata itself!

As usual, it's in three movements – fast, slow, fast. Or in this case, not usual, is the slow and stately introduction (harking back to the Baroque days, perhaps a nod to his conservative colleagues at the court – this was his first violin sonata performed for the Emperor).

Not usual also is the relationship of the keyboard and the violin. It never makes sense to anyone familiar with sonatas from Beethoven on that these two would not be of equal rank even if we still think of the pianist as the accompanist (grrr) but in Mozart's day (and even Beethoven's earlier efforts), the premise was a “sonata for piano with the accompaniment of the violin” even if the piano part was clearly secondary to the status of the violin. So here, rather boldly going where few if any composers had gone before, we have an instance where the musical material is shared equally by two equal parts.

We also tend to overlook Mozart, better known to us as a pianist from his Vienna days, playing his concertos at public concerts, was primarily a violinist as a teenager in Salzburg, writing five violin concertos for himself to play when he was 17 to 20 years old (his father, after all, was one of the leading violin teachers in Europe). After arriving in Vienna, Mozart never wrote (nor played) another violin concerto but wrote 15 piano concertos for the city he'd described in letters home as “The Land of the Piano.” 

Plus he noted he could make more money being a performer and teacher as a pianist than he would as a violinist. Still, there are at least 16 complete violin sonatas, many written for the amateur market, dating from Vienna, added to the 16 or so written in Salzburg, the first ones when he was all of 6 years old. 

This one, then, would be considered “Vintage Mozart.” He was 28. 

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Ernest Bloch: Suite hebraïque

Since Ernest Bloch began piano lessons at 9 and began composing shortly afterward, he probably rates being considered a “prodigy” in the common sense of “beginning early,” but compared to the quality of works written by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, or Shostakovich through their teens, the word may be a bit of an overreach. In this case, “precocious” is probably better, not that anything's wrong with that (some of my best friends were precocious).

And since the work on this program was written by Bloch after he turned 70, an age few prodigies live to reach, perhaps we should create a special term for composers who are still creative after reaching retirement age (led by Elliott Carter who was still composing two months before he died shy of his 104th birthday, but I digress).

Anyone familiar with Bloch's music would soon mention the strong Jewish influence in his style, not just because he wrote things like Schelomo (a Hebraic Rhapsody for cello and orchestra inspired by the biblical king, Solomon) or a magnificent setting of the Jewish liturgy in his Sacred Service (written in the dark years before World War II) which Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony performed with several choirs a few seasons ago (back in the Good Old Days before the Pandemic).

There are six works usually referred to as his “Jewish Cycle,” written between 1911 and 1916, before he left Europe to settle in the United States. He had not left these Jewish influences back in the Old Country, but composed his well-known suite, Baal Shem, in Cleveland in 1923, and the Sacred Service a decade later, most of it written in Switzerland.

He had also written a suite for viola and piano in 1919 in New York (he was teaching composition at the Mannes School of Music then) and it was the orchestra arrangement of this work, played by Milton Preves, principal violist of the Chicago Symphony, at a Chicago celebration of the composer's 70th birthday. Preves was inspired to request a new suite from the composer, something similar to his “Hassidic Suite,” Baal shem.

Bloch responded with five pieces he eventually divided into two separate works: three of them – Rhapsody, Processional, and Affirmation – became the Suite hebraïque and the remaining two became the “Meditation and Processional.”

Rhapsody (Matthew Lipman & Henry Kramer, 2018)

Processional (with Gerard Causse, orchestral version) Affirmation (with Paul Neubauer & Margo Garrett

Just as many composers of the mid-to-late-19th Century were finding their musical roots outside the standard German, French and Italian centers – whether it was Dvořák in Bohemia, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky in Russia, or Vaughan Williams in England, Ernest Bloch was finding his own in the music of his Jewish faith. Perhaps his father's hopes of becoming a rabbi had some influence on this or it was his own deeply felt religious life. 

The question of an artist absorbing his racial heritage into his art, involves, in this case, more than using those “exotic scales and intervals” (exotic to Western Christian Europeans unfamiliar with folk music or religious music from outside their own experiences), things that are by and large on the surface. It is more than just applying one's inner ear to attune itself to the culture, imitating what one finds, but absorbing the soul of it into that essence illuminating the artist's soul to find its reflections in the listener's.

Call it “diversity in music” for some of us or identifying what makes us “us,” but these days – beyond the Virus affecting all of us – perhaps this inclusiveness helps define this awareness as a way of bringing the world into us – and vice-versa.

Incidentally, looking back from our times, it's interesting to note that “in 1963, [Milton Preves, the violist who asked Bloch to write his Suite] resigned as conductor of the Oak Park-River Forest orchestra, because Carol Anderson, a talented black female violinist whom Preves had recruited for the symphony, was pressured to resign because of her race.” After the Board President apologized and asked Preves to return, he did not.

Music, whether it entertains us or inspires us (or both), has always had this capacity to bring us all together if we'd listen to it. And out of this past, we somehow find our future.

Dick Strawser

(to be continued...)

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