Friday, October 1, 2021

Back to the Concerts: The Arianna Quartet Begins the New Season

The Arianna Quartet (photo credit: Justin Lee)

Who: The Arianna Quartet

What: Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 18, No. 3; Gabriela Lena Frank's Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout; and Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor

When: Wednesday, Oct. 6th, at 7:30

Where: Whitaker Center's Sunoco Performance Theater in downtown Harrisburg.

As we begin Market Square Concerts' 40th Anniversary Season opening with a work celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Beethoven's Birth, let's hear a little bit about the ensemble presenting Wednesday's opening concert at Whitaker Center: the Arianna Quartet.

(As often happens, there has been a personnel change between the appearance of this 2010 video and our 2021 concert.)

Certainly, the list of events, of things, of whatever we might consider normal life that were not affected by the Pandemic is far smaller than the list of what was affected by it. Those of us involved in the Arts, whether performers, concert-goers (and -presenters) as well as music-lovers-in-general, might consider the impact of the virus catastrophic in this one area among so many others affecting us all. 

Which reminds me, as the Pandemic continues to continue, "Mask wearing is required to attend this performance regardless of the vaccination status." Thank you.

But another casualty added to the list would be the celebration (or at least the observation) of the 250th Anniversary of the Birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. While we still have ten weeks until we observe his 251st birthday on December 16th, 2021, let's consider this performance at least a token of that anniversary event, no doubt one of the most influential composers in the history of Classical Music if not one of its greatest and most popular composers. (Incidentally, our November concert will also include Beethoven's own trio arrangement of his break-out hit, theSeptet Op.20, written concurrently with this string quartet.)

I don't think the typical concert-goer needs a lot of background on Beethoven. Yet I feel remiss, in this Anniversary Year (or what's left of it), not to write reams of material even if it's already been pored over so thoroughly in everything from my own past blog posts to the 1,000-page biography Jan Swafford published in 2014 appropriately subtitle “Anguish and Triumph.” 

Beethoven (portrait dated 1801)
You can read about the Young Beethoven in this previous post, how an “emerging composer” arrived in Vienna hoping to have studied with Mozart but, following Mozart's death the year before, was able to study with Haydn instead. It may seem it took him a long time to develop into the composer of the Early Quartets if they weren't ready until 1801, Beethoven just turning thirty. By our usual perceptions, he was a bit of a late-bloomer (Mozart, after all, wrote The Marriage of Figaro at 30, the 492nd work in Köchel's catalogue).

And while there's a lot to cover in the evolution of his style, “early” or not, Beethoven's first six quartets, written as a set, are not “imitations of Haydn.” To a contemporary listener, these would've been a world away from what Haydn had composed (if anything, they grow more out of what Mozart had been writing). It's only in hindsight, after the “Razumovsky” Quartets and especially the Late Quartets of the 1820s, not to mention everything from the Eroica Symphony on, that makes us today consider them “Haydn-like.” Influenced by, certainly; imitations of, no.

Mozart made giant strides in his own approach to the quartet with the six he'd composed in honor of his friend Haydn, and the quartets he wrote after them advance the medium even further. Yes, Beethoven may have inherited much from the hands of Haydn after all, Haydn set the pace for the Classical Style but his tenuous relationship with his teacher aside, most of what we identify as “Beethoven's Voice” probably had been received from the heart of Mozart.

The quartet on this program, the Quartet in D Major, Op. 18 No. 3 – which is actually the first of the six to be composed (he revised the order for publication) and completed when he was 29 – is certainly the most “genial” and lyrical of the set. Two things are important to note with these quartets, however: the awareness of harmony and structure in the long run is more involved that it might be in Haydn (not that Haydn wasn't harmonically imaginative!); and already, Beethoven is beginning to shift the “center of gravity” toward the end of a work, something Mozart had already been doing in his last two symphonies and which Beethoven would certainly have achieved with the finales of his 3rd, 5th, and 9th Symphonies.

Here is a recording with the Endellion Quartet playing the D Major Quartet, Op. 18, No. 3, complete with score. It's in the usual four movements: after the contemplative, even leisurely opening, the slow movement, with its hymn-like simplicity that in a lesser hand could easily have become “pedestrian and commonplace,” begins at 7:27; the third movement, marked neither “minuet” nor the new-fangled “scherzo,” just Allegro, at 14:52; and the finale, which bears influences from Haydn's recent Clock and Military Symphonies, the most “classical” of the quartet, at 17:49.


While we think of these quartets as “Classical School,” in the style of the 18th Century with Haydn and Mozart, we tend to forget piano sonatas like the Pathetique, the Moonlight and the Pastoral sonatas, all sounding essentially Romantic in mood and spirit (setting the tone for 19th Century Romanticism), were composed in 1798 (when he began the quartets) and in 1801 (when he finished the quartets), with the Tempest, the Waldstein, and the Appassionata published between 1802 and 1805. (Keep in mind, while Beethoven implied Shakespeare's Tempest as an inspiration for the first movement of the D Minor Sonata, he didn't give it the subtitle; and Moonlight was supplied five years later by a German critic.) 

It's always difficult to “pigeon-hole” Beethoven as either a Classical or a Romantic composer, as if he couldn't be both (which in fact he most often was): even in these early quartets, one hears the focus on craft (which is Classical logic) and the beginnings of those emotional bounds (perhaps less so in No. 3) he was already exploring in his piano sonatas. As a first quartet in the shadow of Haydn, it shouldn't be surprising to be the most classical of the set, as well. Soon, Beethoven would branch out on a "new path," as he wrote to a friend, and every journey starts somewhere.

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Gabriela Lena Frank
The term “diversity” is bandied about a great deal these days – and justifiably so: the enrichment of our culture, beyond the general society and work-place issues we associate with it, by examining and accepting elements outside our traditional comfort-zones is an on-going, rewarding process. In the past, music-lovers had difficulties with, for one, Dvořák incorporating Bohemian (which to the Viennese was basically the same as “back-woods”) folk-music into his concert works, or for that matter any of the other late-19th Century's “nationalist” identities in Russia, Hungary or Norway, rather than imitating the status-quo of Germanic traditions.

And so, composer Gabriela Lena Frank, born in Berkeley, California, in 1972 at a time when she might have been identified as a “woman composer” (while no one would ever think to call Beethoven a “man composer”), is herself the product of cross-cultural influences, given her father's Lithuanian Jewish roots, born in the Bronx, and her mother, born in Peru of Chinese descent. They met while her father was in the Peace Corps in Peru during the 1960s.

While Frank's best known work might be her “Three Latin American Dances” of 2003 – which the Harrisburg Symphony performs at their opening concert this weekend – the piece we'll hear on the Arianna Quartet's program is called Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, written in 2001 when she was 29, originally for string quartet but also available for string orchestra in an adaptation she made two years later. With such an extensive note from the composer about her piece, why try writing something else about it? So, here is the composer in her own words:

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Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout (2001) mixes elements from the western classical and Andean folk music traditions, drawing inspiration from the idea of mestizaje as envisioned by the Peruvian writer Jose María Arguedas, wherein cultures co-exist without the subjugation of one by the other.

"Toyos" depicts one of the most recognizable instruments of the Andes, the panpipe. The largest kind is the breathy toyo, which requires great stamina and lungpower and is typically played in parallel fourths.

"Tarqueada" is a forceful and fast number suggestive of the tarka, a heavy wooden duct flute that is blown harshly in order to split the tone. Tarka ensembles typically play in casually tuned fourths, fifths, and octaves.

"Himno de Zampoñas" takes its cue from a particular type of panpipe ensemble that divides up melodies through a technique known as hocketing. The characteristic sound of the zampoña panpipe is that of a fundamental tone blown flatly so that overtones ring out on top.

"Chasqui" depicts the chasqui, a legendary runner from the Inca times who sprinted great distances to deliver messages between towns separated from one another by the Andean peaks. The chasqui needed to travel light, so I imagine his choice of instruments to be the charango, a high-pitched cousin of the guitar, and the lightweight bamboo quena flute, both of which influence this movement.

"Canto de Velorio" portrays another well-known Andean personality, a professional crying woman known as llorona. Hired to render funeral rituals (known as velorio) even sadder, the llorona is accompanied here by a second llorona and an additional chorus of mourning women (coro de mujeres). The chant Dies Irae is quoted as a reflection of the llorona's penchant for blending verses from Quechua Indian folklore and western religious rites.

"Coqueteos" is a flirtatious love song sung by men known as romanceros and is direct in its harmonic expression, bold, and festive. The romanceros sang in harmony with one another against a backdrop of guitars, which I think of as a vendaval de guitarras (storm of guitars).”

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As is often the case with on-line videos, the combination of a good performance with a decent recording is often challenging. Unable to find one of the complete string quartet version, here are the last three movements (in separate videos) with a recording by the Del Sol Quartet:

4th movement, “Chasqui” 5th movement, “Canto de Velorio” 6th movement, “Coqueteos”

One could say she came to music late. Her childhood piano teacher often urged her to create little pieces (improvisations, mostly) combining things she was working on with folk music and especially Andean elements courtesy of her mother's background. Interested in pursuing Russian studies in college (growing up during the final years of the Soviet Union), she attended a music camp her senior year in high school which opened up a whole new musical world (especially for a young woman born with profound hearing loss). “I had written my first piece down on paper,” she said, “and heard it come to life at the hands of other kids my age and younger, and I was hooked, instantly. Instantly.”

So instead, she studied composition at Rice University in Houston, then earned her doctorate at the University of Michigan in 2001. She considers herself something of a “musical anthropologist.” In a 2017 interview, she said the Andean influence “changes just because it has to mix and blend with my psyche, which was formed here, was formed in the United States. I’ve spent most of my time here, in my home country. For me, again, I feel like that’s very American. We bring in a lot of cultures, eat it up and make it into something new. We’ve been doing that for centuries.”

In 2017, she founded her own school to promote emerging composers' opportunities to work with established performers. Last year, she received the 25th Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities for her work “weaving Latin American influences into classical constructs and breaking gender, disability and cultural barriers in classical music composition.”

Last year, the New York Times wrote extensively about her, what it was like when she was first able to hear with the help of hearing aids, and especially about her non-traditional approach to her school in northern California where the schedule might include few musical events but lots of nature hikes and discussions.

“We get rid of the shame of wrong notes,” she said. “We make good food and I say, ‘You get to make mistakes here.’”

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Tchaikovsky (1874)
When Tchaikovsky was an aspiring music student (yet another "emerging composer") in the wilds of remote Russia – remote as far as the cultural capitals of Western Europe were concerned where all the action was in the first half of the 19th Century (Vienna, Paris, perhaps Berlin) – the influence of someone like Beethoven was marginal. A few knew about him, some dilettantes (music-lovers if not musicians themselves) owned scores of a few of his works. The story goes that when Tchaikovsky began his 1st Symphony when he was 26, he not only had never heard a Beethoven Symphony, he didn't even know how many he'd written. After all, the Giant Whose Tread Terrified Johannes Brahms' 1st Symphony had died only 39 years earlier (if this were counted from Today, that would be like 1982: how long ago was that?) and Brahms' symphony wouldn't see the light of day until another 10 years had passed.

The String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor, Op.30, written when he was 35, may or may not bear much resemblance to the quartets of Beethoven – curiously, the first three of Beethoven's Late Quartets owe themselves to a commission from a Russian Prince, Nikolai Galitsin (alas, soon to be bankrupt). 

Tchaikovsky's work is in the standard four movements, though between conception and publication, he shifted the order of the two interior movements, placing the intense slow movement third. This is an Andante funebre that, much like the Andante cantabile of the 1st Quartet, became popular (at least momentarily) on its own. Conceived as a tribute to a colleague, the violin teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Ferdinand Laub, it was played several times independently of the quartet within months of its premiere. 

Given the simplicity of the material at the opening of the finale opening with a burst E-flat Major jubilation, Tchaikovsky wrote to Mme von Meck in July, 1878, about some themes he liked, simple and based on scales, others simply triadic: “could there be anything more banal,” he wrote, “than the following melody?” He then wrote out the opening of the Finale from Beethoven's 7th Symphony. “And yet what splendid musical structures Beethoven... raised on [this] theme!”

Here is a video with a performance by the Borodin Quartet of Tchaikovsky's 3rd, complete with score. The scherzo, a light intermezzo, begins at 15:44; the Andante funebre, the heart of the quartet, at 19:26; and the finale, at 30:26.

When Tchaikovsky got his first job as a music teacher in Moscow, amidst the chaos to finish his schooling before graduation and then moving from the vibrant St. Petersburg, Russia's Imperial capital, to the stolid old capital of Moscow, one of the first works he completed was a string quartet, one in B-flat Major. Part of the chaos he was experiencing not only involved the move, finding a place to live (a place he could afford on his less-than-meager salary), but also adjusting to the idea of being a teacher. When Nikolai Rubinstein decided to open a branch school in Moscow, his first choice for Professor of Theory turned down the offer to move to the more provincial Moscow, so there weren't many others to choose from. In fact, apparently, there was no one. And so Tchaikovsky, with only a few years of musical training and barely one step ahead of his new students, got the job, not the first time someone with no experience started teaching, but one he had only dreamed of a few years earlier when he quit an unpromising career in law to focus on his dream: becoming a composer.

He'd been 19 when he graduated Law School and started life as a low-ranked civil servant at the Ministry of Justice. Two years later, he began attending music theory classes through a Music Society that didn't exist when he'd graduated, but became the foundation for the conservatory Anton Rubinstein (Nikolai's older, more famous brother) opened a year later. Tchaikovsky, ex-civil-servant, graduated with the Class of '65, the first graduating class of any music school in the Russian Empire.

Russia had a long history of just importing “foreign talent” when it needed them: St. Petersburg was designed primarily by Italian architects and with them came musicians who wrote very Italianate music trying to make sense out of what they considered a very crude language. There is nothing Russian about the music these “temporary immigrants” composed for the Russian court. When Catherine the Great decided Russians needed to expand their intellectual horizons, it was her friends Voltaire and Diderot who supplied the sources: by 1812, when Napoleon and the French invaded Russia, very few Russian aristocrats could speak Russian – their first language was French and politically this became a liability.

Music was never anything more than an entertainment and with no professional reason to become a musician, Russia was a nation of dilettantes. Even its first recognized composer, Mikhail Glinka, dubbed the “Father of Russian Music” because somebody had to be first, was primarily an amateur and even studied with a theory teacher in Berlin through a correspondence course (the second recognized composer, the now-forgotten Dargomizhsky, essentially learned composition by borrowing Glinka's notes). Other than private teachers for different instruments, there were no organized schools and no interest in teaching aspiring would-be composers like Tchaikovsky how to compose.

Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky may have taken piano lessons at the age of 5 and may have been considered precocious, but even his piano teacher saw no reason to encourage the 15-year-old boy who showed no signs of brilliance to become a concert pianist much less a composer. But that was his dream. So he went to law school (which is what most young men in Russia – and Europe – who wanted to get ahead in the real world, did): even in those days, it was felt any musician needed a day-job.

With the advent of the more liberal-minded Alexander II, there was finally some interest in the late-1850s to generate “native talent” rather than always relying on “imported talent.” And so, with the help of a music-loving Grand Duchess (who herself, like Catherine the Great, was German-born), Rubinstein's Musical Society came into being. And with that, Tchaikovsky found a foothold to realize his dream. Not that anyone held out much hope for him at the time.

One of the first works he composed after accepting the position in Moscow was this B-flat Major String Quartet. It was performed, then three of its movements disappeared, whether the composer destroyed them or they were just lost (it appears occasionally on lists as “No. 4” but it's really the first one he tried to compose). Shortly after that, Anton Rubinstein commissioned him to write a setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy for the graduation concert which Tchaikovsky, a bundle of nerves, declined to attend. One assumes the cosmopolitan Rubinstein knew Beethoven's setting of it in his 9th Symphony, but did Tchaikovsky? It was around this time a dance of his was performed in a public concert conducted by none other than Johann Strauss II, the world-famous Waltz King. The young man felt it would be a big break. Despite the uncertainty of his future – especially the near-poverty wages he'd be looking at in Moscow – things must've seemed hopeful. His friend and fellow-graduate (and soon to be colleague), Herman Laroche wrote to him as he arrived in Moscow, “in you I see the greatest – or rather the sole – hope of our musical future... not so much for what you've done but what the force and vitality of your genius will one day accomplish.”

Thinking primarily about Tchaikovsky's official three quartets, the first one he completed and published, then, the D Major, Op.11, with its famous Andante cantabile, didn't appear until early 1871. A second quartet, in F Major, came out three years later, his Op.22. He considered it (to date) his finest creation in a letter to his mysterious friend, Nadezhda von Meck – but that story is another novel in itself.

Two years after that, then, he wrote his 3rd Quartet in 1876, the same year Brahms finally completed his first Beethoven-haunted Symphony. Quickly composed in February, it was premiered in early-March; the cellist in the quartet would premiere the Variations on a Rococo Theme the next year. Incidentally, he had finished his 1st Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor the year before the quartet. So certainly, only nine years after his arrival in Moscow, Laroche's words were coming true.

The composer, fresh off the disappointments from his 3rd Symphony, the so-called “Polish” Symphony, wrote to his brother Modeste he had started sketching it in Paris but worked on it more seriously once he returned so he could then focus his attention on a new commission already underway, a ballet called Swan Lake. By the way, when he accepted that Moscow teaching post, his salary was 50 rubles a month (even less than he'd been making as a low-ranked civil servant fresh out of school): the commission for the ballet would pay him 800 rubles.

Tchaikovsky & his wife
Other things going on his life at the time included his disastrous marriage to the much maligned Antonina Miliukhova, a former student who had a crush on him and sent him a love-letter much like the heroine of the opera, Evgenny Onyegin, he was composing at the time. He proposed in June, they were married in July, 1877, and he attempted to commit suicide by drowning himself in the Moscow River not long afterward (sources indicate this may be more myth than fact – he had certainly threatened to do it). Clearly he was in a state of great mental distress. The marriage had been an ill-conceived attempt to squelch rumors of his homosexuality: the personification of his wife, however briefly they were together, as a “reptile” (perhaps more family damage-control) is not entirely fair. Whatever her failings as a wife suitable for an artistic temperament like Tchaikovsky's aside, it wasn't that she was “the wrong woman” for him: marriage, as one writer put it, was the “wrong institution.”

Anyway, that – with the 4th Symphony and the Violin Concerto written shortly afterward – comes later in Tchaikovsky's story, in the immediate aftermath of his 3rd Quartet. He recovered by leaving Russia (and his wife) behind at least for a while, touring through Western Europe, taking his 3rd Symphony and the new quartet with him, various performances adding to his success (he was saddened his Romeo & Juliet Overture was hissed in Vienna and Paris). But it was with the works written in the violent wake of this marriage, shortly after the quartet, that would seal Tchaikovsky's role as an internationally acclaimed Russian composer. 

And so we think back, listening to this piece, to a man in his mid-30s facing middle age, worried he was “writing himself out” after the failure of his 3rd Symphony, who would not long afterward, recalling his friend Laroche's words, finally realize his dream.

Dick Strawser