Monday, March 21, 2011

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

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