Sunday, March 27, 2011

Zdeněk Lukáš' Viola Concerto at the Harrisburg Symphony

The man (see photo, left) composed “nearly 400 compositions – six operas, seven symphonies, four dozen concerted works” (that is, for soloist and orchestra), “a wealth of chamber and piano music, scores for radio plays, songs, accompanied and a cappella choral pieces and many arrangements,” according to Richard Rodda’s program note, and yet it was probably safe to say no one in the Forum last night, listening to the Harrisburg Symphony, its principal violist Julius Wirth (see photo below, right) and conductor Stuart Malina performing the Viola Concerto by Zdeněk Lukáš, had ever heard a note of music by this man or even knew his name.

In fact, before they planned the program for this month's concert, neither had conductor and soloist. Along with other applications of modern technology in today’s artistic life, we in Harrisburg owe this performance of Lukáš’ concerto to iTunes – because that’s how they found out about it.

And it became what is presumably not only the first performance in Harrisburg but the North American premiere – in fact, the second performance ever of the piece.

According to Julius’ comments at the post-concert “talk-back,” the concerto was composed, premiered and recorded in 1983, then everything – score and the orchestral parts – was shelved in a library in Prague. When the orchestra’s librarian, Linda Farrell, tried tracking it down, it took numerous phone calls and letters to locate it (with the help of a translator) and, since there was no time to produce new parts, they photocopied the original hand-written parts – published but never engraved – and mailed them off to America for only its second performance!

Such is every composer’s nightmare – if not to gain an audience in the first place, then to be forgotten after death.

How, exactly, was it “discovered”?

Well, like America and Columbus, “discovered” may not be the right word – perhaps an allusion to Indiana Jones is more appropriate, tracking down and unearthing a possible treasure in the Ark of Lost Manuscripts. Well, except the concerto wasn’t exactly “lost,” either. I mean, it had been recorded and it was the fact the recording company had decided to reissue it as a CD which happened to end up on iTunes which led to this “discovery.”

Stuart tells the story that he had decided he wanted principal violist Julius Wirth to be a soloist during the 2010-2011 Season. When they began discussing possible repertoire – the viola does not have the wealth of options to choose from like the violin or the piano – and since one after the other didn’t pique Stuart’s interest, he decided to do what most internet savvy people do these days: check out iTunes.

So he did a search under “viola concertos,” checked out those he wasn’t familiar with and, based on those 20-30 second sound-bytes they offer you as samples, thought this one by somebody named Lukáš sounded “really cool.” So he decided to download it (Julius chimed in at this point, “and it was only 99 cents!”) and once the two of them finally managed to connect via e-mail, the violist agreed with the conductor. Not only did he not know the piece or the composer, he didn’t know how to do a search on iTunes, so now that that’s been remedied, the next phase of the quest was on.

There’s not much information available but, judging from the Wikipedia entry, this is not an unknown composer waiting to be discovered: the viola concerto (1983) is Op.185, meaning it’s the 185th work he published (opus is Latin for ‘work’) – and there’s a piano trio entitled “Rotlevův šlojíř” dating from his last year, 2007, that is Op.354. Considering Beethoven’s last work to be sent to his publisher was Op.135, it would appear Zdeněk Lukáš is a prolific composer with a supportive publisher.

His publisher’s representative is Boosey, a major international publishing house – you can read their bio of him at their website, here - where you can read a ‘snapshot’ (short bio) or a more detailed account (click on ‘biography’).

The name is pronounced ZDEN-yĕk LOO-kahsh (the accent on the á is not a quantitative accent as we think of it, but indicates a longer vowel than the shorter, almost neutral-sounding vowel it would be otherwise, for example the way Americans pronounce Lukas Foss) and is maybe of Hungarian origin, ethnically, but he is clearly a Czech composer.

And I wasn’t surprised to hear hints of Czech folk music and Czech composers like Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček at various points throughout the concerto, all part of his cultural heritage, but also other Central European composers almost any Central European composer in the 20th Century either embraced or ignored, the Hungarian Bela Bartók and the Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski (I could add Wojciech Kilar but that’s more likely because (a.) I know some of his music and (b.) he’s more heavily influenced by Bartók and Lutosławski than Lukáš).

In addition to outright quotation from folk-songs or imitations of them, there is also the use of an octotonic (or eight-note) scale, common to many Eastern European folk cultures – instead of the traditional 7-note C Major scale. based on a standard pattern of whole-steps and half-steps,

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

or the C Minor scale,

C – D – E-flat – F – G – A-flat – B-natural – C

This folk-based eight-toned scale (heard in many works by Bartok and Stravinsky, among others) would be a different configuration of alternating whole-steps and half-steps, like

C – D – E-flat – F – G-flat - A-flat – A-natural – B – C

This often gives it that exotic sound, slightly gritty, tinged with the minor mode as opposed to the brighter major mode.

But it also, significantly, lacks the all-important “dominant” note G which forms the basis of the most satisfying harmonic cadence that defines classical tonality – the G chord (dominant) resolving to the C chord (tonic). This, then, gives it a unique harmonic sound distinct from what “urban, trained” composers were writing in what we normally think of as Western Music (classical or otherwise).

Like Bartók and Dvořák before him, Lukáš studied folk music and, like them, not only arranged it but eventually incorporated the hallmarks of the music into his own to create a style that is identifiable in its nationalism.

Dvořák did this primarily because this was the music he grew up with, a butcher’s son from a small village outside Prague. But when he wanted to be accepted by the wider world (that is, the Austrian Empire who controlled his native Bohemia), he shed these influences to write in an acceptable Germanic style, especially in the manner of first Wagner, then Brahms. It was only later, having made the necessary professional break, that he returned to the folk-song style that so identifies him today.

Bartók began a systematic study of true Hungarian folk music – up till then, most people confused it with the popular music of the gypsies – but not purely out of nationalist pride during the early years of the 20th Century when Austrian control of Hungarian politics and culture was weakening: he did it because, as time would prove, these songs and their ancient traditions were being forgotten by the younger generations who, moving to the city, no longer needed to make their own music and could listen to radio and recordings, instead.

It was a similar political action to the Austrian occupation of Bohemia and Hungary that turned Lukáš from an arranger of folk-songs into a composer with a more serious intent: the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and the brutal repression of the uprising of 1968 known as “Prague Spring.”

When I was listening to the first two rehearsals on the concerto this past week, my first response regarded these past voices as they’d pop up – wishing he’d listened to a little more Bartók than Dvořák. There were these crunchy tone-clusters in the strings that reminded me of Lutosławski, especially the way they were used like punctuation and sometimes resolving that crunchiness to an open and more pure-sounding major triad. But eventually, as the piece progressed, I was becoming aware of the composer’s voice, blending all these elements into his own style – and then the influences of these other composers became more the influence of what influenced them: the folk songs and rhythms, their shapes and turns-of-phrases, their ornamentation, especially in the gorgeous chorale-like tune that opens the slow movement. Between that and the fanfares of the last movement, I was wondering if these were original themes that sounded like folk songs or more likely quotations from actually folk melodies.

As conductor and soloist tried to cajole the orchestra into playing this music “less classically” (less “nicely”) and more roughly (“pesante,” in the manner of the rougher outlines of folk music as opposed to the niceness associated with urban culture) – “there should be blood on the stage” – I began to hear something that speaks to a lot of Czech composers, an historical event that defines their cultural heritage: the Battle of the White Mountain (then outside Prague) in which the Bohemian and Germanic Protestants lost to the Catholic Hapsburgs of Austria in 1620, the start of the Austrian occupation of the area that lasted until Europe was redesigned following World War I in 1918, almost 300 years later. Beneath this defeat, Czech (or Bohemian) pride continued to survive from one generation to the next like a rallying cry not to forget, just as, if the British had succeeded in crushing the Revolution at Bunker Hill, Americans would have waited and waited, hoping for a time when, somehow, they would no longer be a British colony.

Whether these two “songs” – the 2nd Movement’s hymn and the 3rd Movement’s fanfare – refer to the White Mountain (now a part of the city of Prague) or not, I have no idea, but it gave me a deeper sense of what this Czech composer was about, writing in an emotionally charged nationalist style only 15 years after the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring of 1968.

I was not surprised, then, to read this line in the publisher’s biography:

“After the tragic year of 1968, Lukáš turned to a sort of intuitive aloneness and directed his creative energy to developing a personal melodic and rhythmic style, the sources of which are comparable to the inspirational background of Carl Orff – the Czech language, Czech folklore and pre-classical music.”

This event also infused Czech-born composer Karel Huša who was living in the United States at the time and watching the events unfold on the international TV news as Soviet tanks rolled through Prague’s ancient streets – his family still lived in Prague and he could not contact them to find out how they were. His “Music for Prague 1968” which I heard barely a year later is still one of the most powerful compositions I’ve ever heard. I could here the essence of this YouTube excerpt – essentially a call to the barricades – echoed in the opening of the last movement of Lukaš’ Viola Concerto, though perhaps an echo going back to the even older battlements of the White Mountain.

At 4:03 into the Huša excerpt and especially from the hair-raising build-up at 5:30 to the end, you can hear the start of the 15th Century chorale, Ye Who are Warriors of God – which every Czech would know, just like Americans know their “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The hymn-tune also figures into the nationalist tone-poems of Bedřich Smetana's Ma Vlast, "Tabor."

(In the “relevance” sub-topic for classical music, think also of what we’ve been seeing lately in current events from North Africa and the Middle East.)

I was amused to discover that Lukáš spent much of his career working for a Czech radio station in Plzen (better known as Pilsen, a town famous more for its beer), hired there in 1953 as an editor and literary manager until 1964, where he also founded a choir “Česka Pisen” (Czech Song) for whom he arranged many folk songs.

So, my conjectures and associations aside, here is a viola concerto that needs to be heard – especially by viola players looking for something outside the usual Bartók-Hindemith- Stamitz-Telemann cycle - not because those works are tired or trite, just because they are so few.

While it’s not a perfect piece – there are questions of some awkward transitions that could be harmonic issues that need worked out by the performers or could’ve been edited more clearly by the composer; and, frankly, the ending is kind of odd for a concerto (the soloist doesn’t get much of a build-up to that final high note and then there’s a long orchestral paragraph before the work ends fairly abruptly) – it’s certainly a welcome addition to the repertoire and I hope other adventuresome violists and conductors will take up the cause.

And hey, what about some of the other 340-some works he published? What are they like?!

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Orchestras Feeding America: Harrisburg, March 2011

This weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony are part of the League of American Orchestra's national drive, "Orchestras Feeding America."

Please consider bringing non-perishable food items to the Forum for Saturday night's or Sunday afternoon's concert.

Donate to the cause: help support the Harrisburg Symphony supporting this national food drive.

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Had you read the book or seen the film, "The Soloist"? Then you know what inspired this drive.

There are probably few free-lance musicians I've known - myself included - who haven't at one time or another had nightmares about something like this: I'm sure the Forum stage is filled with talented musicians who feel very close to this, whether they make their living full-time as a free-lancer or hold down a day job that supports their choice to make music for you.

Dreams don't quite come true, despite the training, the talent; the gigs don't pay enough the make a living, pay the rent, put food on the table; governments cutting support for the arts don't take into account the human toll for those people who are the artists in our community, bringing a very important contribution to the table that helps identify who we are as a society, help make our lives more fulfilling.

And in today's economy, how many people do you know - from your friends, neighbors, those schoolmates you wonder "where are they now," perhaps even yourself - who have not had these same fears or concerns, no matter what their profession?

Think about this:

In 2008, 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 32.4 million adults and 16.7 million children.

In 2008, 17.1 million households were food insecure, increased from the 13 million households in 2007.

In 2008, households with children reported food insecurity at almost double the rate for those without children, 21 percent compared to 11.3 percent.

In 2008, 2.3 million households with seniors were food insecure.

Feeding America provides emergency food assistance to approximately 4.5 million different people in any given week.

Please consider bringing non-perishable food items with you to the Forum for Saturday night's concert at 8pm or Sunday afternoon's concert at 3pm.

And then listen to music Bach composed for the good citizens of Leipzig, hanging out in Zimmermann's Coffee Shop listening to him conduct his 3rd Orchestral Suite (especially its famous 'Air') with the Collegium Musicum, the town's closest thing to an orchestra in a public concert hall - yes, even before it was fashionable to play in 'alternative venues' and before there was Starbucks, Bach was playing in coffee shops!

And music of Beethoven who once was arrested as a vagrant by the Viennese police because of the way he was dressed, a man we normally think of as a Titan Among Men, writing this sublime music but who, during the years he was writing his 8th Symphony, was having trouble making ends meet because the aristocratic patrons who were supporting him financially were unable to make their contributions due to the failure in the economy after the French army took over Vienna.

You can find out more about the concert - which includes the orchestra's principal violist, Julius Wirth, playing a viola concerto by the Czech composer, Zdenek Lukas - by listening to the podcast of the recent conversation Stuart Malina and I had.

Read more about Beethoven and his 8th Symphony in these posts:
Getting Behind the Music
Life Behind the Music
That Old Odd/Even Conundrum: Listening to Beethoven's Symphonies

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Beethoven's 8th Symphony: Getting Behind the Music

Beethoven conducted the first public performance of his 7th and 8th Symphonies in 1814. Stuart Malina conducts the 8th Symphony this weekend with the Harrisburg Symphony, part of the Masterworks program that also includes Bach's 3rd Orchestral Suite, Ives' "Unanswered Question" and a viola concerto by Czech composer Zdenek Lukas with the principal violist of the orchestra, Julius Wirth.

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

You can hear the conversation I had with Stuart about the concert in this podcast (the link takes you to his website - click on the 'podcast' link under the post title).

(Don't forget, this weekend's concerts are part of the nationwide drive "Feeding America," sponsored by the League of American Orchestras. Please bring non-perishable food items to the Forum for either concert. For more information, click here.)

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Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 is often overlooked in the sequence of his nine symphonies even though Beethoven himself had a special fondness for it (calling it "my little one") and preferring it to the 7th.

(You can read more details – or at least my thoughts on the matter – in a parallel post at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train, here.)

Since we normally think of a composer finishing one work before moving on to the next, I’d like to point out that Beethoven was a highly accomplished multi-tasker, writing several works if not concurrently, at least working out certain details simultaneously, often making great use of that back burner.

Look at the dates of all nine symphonies – not just when they were completed or premiered, but when they started showing up in his sketch books:

Symphony No. 1 in C: 1794 or 1795 to 1800
Symphony No. 2 in D: 1801-1802
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat (“Eroica”): 1802-1804
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat: around 1804 (while working on Fidelio) to 1806
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor: sketches between 1800-1804, begun in 1804 and completed in 1808

So far, everything looks fairly continuous, finishing one symphony before going on to the next. But it still goes against the conception that there were two years between symphonies while he concentrated on other works.

Keep in mind that between 1802 and 1804, in addition to the “Eroica,” Beethoven was also working on the opera Fidelio, the “Waldstein,” “Appasionata” and “Kreutzer” Sonatas – but also, during this time, sketching material that would eventually be part of the 5th Symphony which he put aside on a number of occasions in order to complete the 4th Symphony as well as Fidelio, the three Razumovsky Quartets, the 4th Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto and the Mass in C.

Eventually he completed the 5th while working on the 6th which were then premiered together at the same concert. Some of the 5th's sketches go back to the notebooks of 1800. Though most of the work was done between 1804 and 1808, the first two movements were largely complete by 1805 when he put it aside to compose the 4th. So, by some quirk of Fate (pun intended), for whatever reasons he chose to put the C Minor aside rather than wait to begin the new B-flat Symphony, the most epic of Beethoven’s heroic symphonies almost became an even-numbered symphony.

Symphony No. 6 in F (“Pastoral”): sketches appear as early as 1803, written between 1806-1808
Symphony No. 7 in A: sketches in 1809, completed 1812 (some sources say April, others “Summer”)
Symphony No. 8 in F: sketches in 1809, written between completion of 7th and August or October, 1812
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (“Choral”): sketches in 1815 & 1817 (including an idea for another symphony in B-flat), then 1822-23 (first three movements complete), last movement finished in 1824.
Symphony “No. 10” in E-flat (left unfinished): fragments of ideas unrealized, found within the sketchbooks for the 9th (1822-24) – at one point, Beethoven mentioned the 9th would be an instrumental symphony, the “Ode to Joy” a separate cantata, but the 10th would end with a choral movement)

While Mozart and Schubert were spontaneous composers who sometimes seemed to write things down as fast as they heard them in their head (part of Mozart’s creative process, apparently, was to work things out in his head even before he put pen to paper), Beethoven struggled with new works over a long gestation period, as can be seem from the dates between some of the earliest sketches and the date of completion.

It’s unlikely, if he waited until he’d completed the 7th, Beethoven might have composed the 8th in a month or even four months as is usually stated. If he wasn’t actively working on it, the fact there were sketches for ideas made concurrently with the 7th – ideas that did not fit into that particular work – it’s very likely this new symphony was gestating similarly to the way he composed the 5th and the 6th, two remarkably contrasting works.

Therefore the 8th is to the 7th as the 6th is to the 5th – and presumably as the 10th might have been to the 9th. (Barry Cooper’s controversial realization of the 10th’s sketches are so disappointing by comparison, we have to remember that an unfinished 9th symphony realized from sketches before 1822 would have become a very different composition.)

Ironically, Beethoven was setting up his own odd/even conundrum.

If anything, Beethoven not only compartmentalized his creativity, working of contrasting works simultaneously, he compartmentalized his life from his creativity. While we could say the 5th is “about” his personal struggle with his deafness, the music manages to transcend that to a universal level that can be appreciated as the struggles of an archetypal hero or perceived as the listener’s own struggles with adversity, some immediate crisis that, through Beethoven’s music, we might find inspiration to overcome.

(This is essentially the way we interpret Tchaikovsky’s 4th, 5th and 6th Symphonies, except the hero doesn’t always win. You can read more about his three “Fate” Symphonies here, here and here.)

The 7th is often described as a public work, easy to access and appreciate (uncomplicated). The 8th is considered more abstract without the dance-like enthusiasms heard in its companion. Perhaps, as a more “aristocratic” or “courtly” work, it comes off as a throw-back to Haydn’s era, therefore old-fashioned, nostalgic. Yet there are many parallels between them: the joyful smiles of both opening themes (once past the 7th’s slow introduction), the rhythmic pulse of the 2nd movements, the dance of the 3rd movements or the humor and exuberance of the finales.

Except in the 8th, it’s not as overt – again, perhaps more subdued by comparison, a citified person as opposed to one letting his hair down in the countryside, but both having a good time.

There is a stronger differentiation between the 2nd movements mostly because the 7th’s is in the minor mode and, at the tempo it’s usually taken, comes off like a funeral march. But the 7th’s is marked “Allegretto” and the 8th’s “Allegretto scherzando,” instead of the traditional slow movement, marked “andante” or “adagio.” (Andante is a leisurely walking tempo, but Adagio is slow – Lento, even slower. But Allegretto is not as slow as Andante but not as fast as Allegro, a fast, more lively tempo, the traditional tempo for a symphony’s first movement.)

Both “slow” movements are fueled by a pulse – in the 7th, by the steady quarter and two eighth notes, then two quarter notes, like a march – bummm bum-bum bumm bumm ; in the 8th, the bup-bup-bup-bup in the winds are 16th notes but pervade the texture much in the same way the 7th’s march-like rhythm underpins everything.

Whatever Beethoven may have intended (if anything) in his 2nd movements, the steady pulse in the 8th’s comes originally from a humorous canon he’d jotted down as a joking tribute to Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, the inventor of a metronome-like device that helped musicians systematize tempos. This was, however, only Mälzel’s latest invention to cross Beethoven’s path: earlier, in 1808, he invented an “ear trumpet” which Beethoven tried to help overcome his deafness; for something called a “panharmonicon” which was a kind of musical juke-box, a contraption that could imitate the sounds of an orchestra, Beethoven originally conceived his “Battle of Vittoria” (eventually known as “Wellington’s Victory”), reworking it for orchestra when the mechanical device proved to be less than adequate. Mälzel also invented a mechanical chess-player, but that’s another story…

The 7th is propelled by its rhythms – many of the “themes” grow out of nothing more than repeated notes in a given rhythm. The 8th is more tuneful in the traditional sense – for instance, the not-quite-a-minuet (the old-fashioned 3rd movement before Beethoven replaced it with a scherzo or “joke”) compared to the wild country dance of the 7th.

Rhythm is a driving force behind the finales, as well. The 7th's may be more like “composing under the influence” compared to the 8th’s (see below), but there are still unexpected turns (the sudden changes in dynamic, the sound of the timpani playing in octaves – interesting sound when you consider Beethoven was probably too deaf to appreciate it – and the overall genial humor).

But the finale of the 8th is fascinating for another reason. So far, this symphony is very short compared to the rest of them and this at a time when Beethoven was working towards elongating the forms he was using.

Traditionally, the “sonata form” that forms the basis of sonatas and symphonies was in three parts – the Exposition (where, as a student of mine once said, “the composer exposes himself” – or rather, states the movement’s main themes), the Development (where these ideas are taken and ‘developed’ or expanded or dissected and discussed – like a debate, the exposition might be the statement of the topic, the development becomes the “argument”) and then the Recapitulation (where these ideas are put back together again, rounding off the discussion with resolution).

To the exposition, a composer could add more themes or more transitional material between themes. To make sure the listener was well aware of the materials, this exposition was usually marked to be repeated. In the development (which in some composers is often brief, almost perfunctory; in others, the meat of the movement), a composer can just keep spinning out this material, creating more drama and more tension before it resolves into the recapitulation. But after this “recap,” composers started adding a “coda” (literally, “tail” in Italian) which extended the drama of the resolution. Haydn’s might be fairly brief but Beethoven turned them into “second development sections” where listeners might think “here we go again.”

In the 8th, it seems just when you think the movement is over, he begins a coda – and then when you think that’s over, there’s another section (or another coda) until, eventually, when you do reach the end, he gives you no less than 23 measures of final chords – the traditional V-I cadence, that dominant-to-tonic stamp that seals the final resolution, but here with not one final tonic chord but 15 of them! As if to say, “yes, it’s officially over! Really! Seriously! No, I’m not kidding, this time! That’s it! Done!”

Here is Tafelmusik (an early music group from Canada) conducted by Bruno Weil performing the last movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8.
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And I haven’t even begun to get into what was going on in Beethoven’s life when he was writing this symphony!

Dick Strawser

Monday, March 21, 2011

March Masterworks: Revelations & Discoveries

The Masterworks Concert this weekend features Bach's 3rd Orchestral Suite and Beethoven's 8th Symphony along with the orchestra’s principal violist, Julius Wirth, playing a concerto probably no one in town has ever heard before by a composer, Zdenek Lukas, many here have probably never heard of. Also on the program is a short work by American composer, Charles Ives. To say it’s a “varied program” may be an understatement, so that was one of the first things conductor Stuart Malina and I addressed in our podcast about the program.

You can listen to it, here (follow the link, then click on ‘podcast’ underneath the post heading at Stuart’s blog).

The concert is Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. There's a pre-concert talk with Alexander Kahn, director of orchestral activities and bands at Gettysburg College, an hour before each performance - they're open to any ticket-holder for the concert.

And keep this in mind, if you would:
National Hunger Facts

In 2008, 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 32.4 million adults and 16.7 million children.

In 2008, 17.1 million households were food insecure, increased from the 13 million households in 2007.

In 2008, households with children reported food insecurity at almost double the rate for those without children, 21 percent compared to 11.3 percent.

In 2008, 2.3 million households with seniors were food insecure.

Feeding America provides emergency food assistance to approximately 4.5 million different people in any given week.

Please consider bringing some non-perishable food items along with you to leave with the ushers when you enter the Forum for the Harrisburg Symphony concerts this weekend, Saturday March 26th and Sunday March 27th.

- Dick Strawser

Stuart & Friends, March 23rd

A few hours before a rehearsal for this year’s “Stuart & Friends” concert, Stuart Malina took some time to chat about the concert you can attend Wednesday evening at 7:30 at the Rose Lehrman Center at Harrisburg Area Community College – in which Stuart joins friends and colleagues from the orchestra for an evening of chamber music.

There are three works on this year's concert – the suite, “Baal Shem” (Pictures of Hassidic Life) by Ernest Bloch; a piano trio by Beethoven, the one known as the “Ghost” Trio; and the Piano Quartet of Robert Schumann – in which Stuart will collaborate with concertmaster Odin Rathnam, principal 2nd Violinist Nicole Diaz, principal violist Julius Wirth and principal cellist Fiona Thompson.

Listen to the podcast, here (click on 'podcast' underneath the post heading on Stuart's blog).

(We also had a chance to talk about this weekend's Masterworks Concert - featuring Bach & Beethoven, a little Ives and what's probably an unfamiliar concerto by an unfamiliar composer played by Julius Wirth: you can listen to that podcast, here.)

Just a reminder, for those of you who are used to habit – usually, the “Stuart & Friends” program was scheduled the week after the March subscription concert but this year, it’s a few days before (in fact, the day before the first rehearsals for the weekend concert). In the past, they’ve been held at Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg, but this time it’ll be on the uptown campus of HACC at the Rose Lehrman Center – just so you’ve noticed that.

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The Swiss-born composer Ernest Bloch started studying violin when he was 9 and later studied with one of the great violinists of the early 20th Century (if not of all time), Eugene Ysaÿe. He wrote his “Baal Shem – Three Pictures of Hassidic Life” in 1923, dedicated to the memory of his mother, originally for violin and piano while teaching in Cleveland, the year before he became an American citizen. He’d settled in the United States after 1916 (during the course of the First World War), moving to Cleveland in 1920 to become the first director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, before moving in 1925 to San Francisco for a similar position, then living in a small town on the Oregon coast from 1941 until his death in 1959.

Bloch is perhaps best known for works inspired by his Jewish heritage, particularly Schelomo, a musical meditation on the biblical King Solomon, and the underperformed “Avodat Ha-kodesh (Sacred Service),” a setting of the Sabbath morning liturgy, which he completed in 1934 as anti-Semitism in Europe continued to grow toward the Second World War.

The suite, Baal Shem, is in three movements – the first is a prayer, the second (the frequently performed “Nigun”) is an intense meditation, the emotional high point of the work, and the third movement is, by comparison, a light hearted dance which reminds us that Jewish Music does not always have to be on the edge of despair or the riddled with doubt.

It’s always difficult posting clips from YouTube to give you an example of what the piece sounds like – not just finding a good performance but one that can withstand various criticisms, one way or the other (nothing can ever be definitive) – but I thought I’d include these two: I admit to not knowing violinist Nachum Erlich but of many of the recordings (audio or video, whether a studio recording or captured on a cell-phone), I thought his performance of “Nigun” was intense enough (his mannerisms aside) to give you an idea, when many other performances lacked a comparable level of emotional involvement or only the occasional reference to satisfactory intonation. For me, frankly, in a piece like this, emotion trumps technical accuracy.

There are maybe hundreds of “Niguns” (for better or worse) to choose from on-line. Not so with the dance-like final movement, “Simchas Torah,” performed here by violinist Axel Strauss.

Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio is a work that’s often overlooked (though I’ve heard a few live performances in recent years, this will be the second in the five weeks here in Harrisburg). The nickname comes from the spooky second movement and though I doubt it originated with Beethoven (the “Moonlight” Sonata was christened by a well-meaning critic who, on the other hand, could have focused on the last movement and called it the “Thunderstorm” Sonata, instead), the nickname is not only appropriate, it’s fairly close. The music for this movement came from sketches Beethoven originally made for an opera project that had recently been discarded, setting Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” - this excerpt originally for the scene with the Three Witches.

The outer movements, however, are pure abstract music. My favorite moment in the first movement is that unexpected note sustained in the cello even before the opening phrase is completed – Beethoven rushes everyone up the scale and then not only hits what seems like the wrong note (an F-natural instead of the expected F-sharp) which then seems like it’s going to resolve to a different key completely (and too soon) before – oh, okay – slipping up to F-sharp and doing what you’d expect it to do. This happens periodically throughout the piece and often tends to head off into other harmonic directions (perhaps a sly wink to his teacher Haydn, famous for such unexpectancies).

Here’s a performance with three young performers (at the time) – pianist Daniel Barenboim, violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Jacqueline du Pre. Note the text that is included at the beginning of the video clip, recounting a reaction from the world premiere, when violinist (and composer) Ludwig Spohr (or Louis, as he often styled himself) heard Beethoven playing the piano:

‘It was not an enjoyable experience. First of all the piano was dreadfully out of tune, which did not trouble Beethoven in the least, since he could not hear it. Little or nothing remained of the brilliant technique which had been so much admired. In loud passages the poor deaf man hammered away at the notes crashing through whole groups of them so that without the score one lost all sense of the melody. I was deeply moved by the tragedy of it all. Beethoven's almost continual melancholy was no longer a mystery to me.’

Here’s the second movement – perhaps a bit “over-played” considering its Shakespearean inspiration – with Martha Argerich at the piano, violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Misha Maisky.

After that, the opening of the third movement (here, with Barenboim, Zukerman and du Pre, again) is a return to Haydnesque normalcy but instead of playing with the pitch, Beethoven creates an unexpected tension by hanging onto the rhythm, very similar to his inside joke in the first movement. In that context, I sit there wondering where that second movement came from – it’s one of those unanswerable questions about inspiration and what connections composers make in the process of following their creativity. Perhaps he’s playing on his audience’s expectations – the playing aside, I wonder what Spohr made of that second movement (speaking of "continual melancholy") in comparison to the outer two movements?

By the way, there’s more Beethoven on the concert this weekend when Stuart Malina conducts his colleagues (with the rest of the Harrisburg Symphony) in Beethoven’s 8th Symphony.

I’ll add something later about the Piano Quartet by Robert Schumann which hardly needs an introduction. Here’s the beautiful slow movement of the piece, which the composer described as a love song to his wife, Clara, the pianist for whom it was composed.

Here’s a “video” (with score) of pianist Emanuel Ax joining members of the Cleveland Quartet in the third movement of Schumann’s Piano Quartet.

- Dick Strawser