Monday, May 20, 2013

Stuart & Friends 2013: Bloch, Mozart & Arthur Foote

Chamber Music is something I like to describe as “music made by friends for friends.”

This year’s edition of “Stuart & Friends” combines conductor Stuart Malina with principal string players of the Harrisburg Symphony – violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Julius Wirth and cellist Fiona Thompson – for works by Ernest Bloch, Mozart and Arthur Foote.

The program is Tuesday evening, May 21st, at the Rose Lehrman Center at the Harrisburg Area Community College, beginning at 7:30.

Ernest Bloch, born in Geneva, Switzerland, became an American citizen in 1924 and his being given the first prize in a competition for American composers three years later turned out to be a controversial decision. His best-known work is the Hebraic Rhapsody Schelomo, a meditation on the biblical figure of King Solomon for cello and orchestra, written in 1916 in the midst of World War I. While writing this work, Bloch first came to the United States and finished the piece in New York City. It was premiered in Carnegie Hall the following year with the New York Philharmonic’s principal cellist, Hans Kindler, as the soloist.

After he was appointed director of the newly formed Cleveland Institute of Music, Bloch wrote another work inspired by his Jewish heritage, the Three Sketches for Cello & Piano known as “From Jewish Life” which he dedicated to Kindler. It is part of a series of works generally referred to as his “Jewish Cycle” which included Baal Shem for Violin & Piano (with its famous movement, Nigun), the Méditation Hébraïque for Cello & Piano (both also composed in Cleveland).

Here is a performance by Wassili & Nicolai Gerassimez. It’s in three movements – Prayer, Supplication and Jewish Song.

Critic Erik Levi suggests it is important to remember that "Bloch's Jewishness derived from an inner impulse, not through a conscious absorption of Hebraic folk elements." The composer himself said, "it is neither my purpose nor desire to attempt a reconstruction of Jewish music, nor to base my work on more or less authentic melodies... I am not an archaeologist; for me the most important thing is to write good and sincere music."

This question of “cultural identity” – especially considering Switzerland had no outward identity of its own, being part-German, part-French, and part-Italian – is something that has informed a lot of soul-searching among American artists as well. When Antonin Dvořák advised his students in New York City in the early-1890s to look to their folk music to find their “American Voice,” the question was “what is American folk music?” It may have worked for the nationalists in Europe who, after centuries of “high art” with their music, painting and literature, by the mid-19th Century became conscious of their ethnic heritage, particularly in countries that weren’t German, French or Italian.

When you listen to many of the composers writing in America during the 19th Century, it’s hard to hear anything we would consider “American.” Being a nation of immigrants, much of this cultural identity came with them from the Old Country. Amy Beach, writing a symphony two years after Dvořák wrote his “New World” Symphony, found her inspiration not in American folk songs but in those of her own Scots-Irish heritage, giving it the nickname, the Gaelic Symphony.

For Arthur Foote, it was enough for him that he was the first composer born in America to be fully trained in America. When he graduated from Harvard in 1874, he was among the first class of students that didn’t have to go to Europe to get advanced training in composition.

Yet his music, to us, still sounds a great deal like Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvořák, not surprising since Brahms, especially, was the most imitated composer with most American and English composers at the end of the 19th Century.

His Piano Quintet in A Minor was composed in 1897, the year Brahms died. For anyone not familiar with Foote’s name, he predates most of the more innovative composers who would later eclipse his fame – composers like the Yale graduate Charles Ives or, ironically, Aaron Copland who, dissatisfied by his studies with one of Dvořák’s students, chose to go to Europe anyway and became the first of a long string of American students working with Nadia Boulanger in Paris during the years following World War I.

Here is a recording of Foote’s Piano Quintet with pianist Mary Louise Boehm, violinists Kees Kooper and Alvin Rogers, violist Richard Maximoff, and cellist Fred Sherry, a recording currently available on the Albany label but which I’d owned years ago on the Vox label. It’s in four movements which was posted on YouTube in three clips:

1st Mvmt

2nd Mvmt

3rd & 4th Mvmts

You can read more about Foote and his Quintet in this post at my blog, Thoughts on a Train.

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Mozart probably never thought much about “cultural identity” which was more of a 19th Century Romantic issue. He was, culturally speaking, German who grew up in Salzburg, one of hundreds of city-states in German-speaking Europe, that was allied with what we now think of as Austria in what was at the center of some vague political identity known as the Holy Roman Empire (neither Holy nor Roman) which, after centuries of existence, would collapse a generation later under the weight of Napoleon’s political force. Mozart wrote operas in Italian because that was the language of aristocratic culture; German operas were more for the popular appeal.

Here is the ensemble known as the Faure Piano Quartet performing Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, K.493:
1st Mvmt

2nd Mvmt

3rd Mvmt

Between October, 1785, and April, 1786, Mozart focused on his newest opera, Le Nozze de Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”) based on a French play that already showed the cracks in the ancient regime of the aristocracy. Though the Austrian Emperor enjoyed Mozart’s music and saw the need to reform the aristocracy before his nation, too, would go the way of France – its Revolution which would begin only three years later – the noblemen of Vienna found little sympathy with Mozart’s opera or his music.

The fact it was not a financial success proved a problem for Mozart who had just turned 30 and was realizing the economic situation was getting a little tight.

A few weeks after Figaro’s premiere, Mozart composed his Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K.493, for the publisher Hoffmeister. It’s not certain exactly why he wrote this piece: the previous year, Hoffmeister had approached him for three piano quartets – then, a new and unfamiliar instrumental combination – and the first one Mozart submitted, the G Minor Quartet, K.478, proved to be so challenging and difficult for amateur musicians to play, Hoffmeister released Mozart from the agreement.

This G Minor Quartet was one of the reasons Mozart was generally considered a composer of “difficult music.” Not just difficult to play, but difficult to listen to – the way many people in the 20th Century (and still today) react to, say, Schoenberg or Elliott Carter. We may think of it as one of the great works of the chamber music repertoire, but we forget that in Mozart’s day, the primary market for his music was not the concert hall (which, technically, did not yet exist) but amateurs playing in their homes not for large audiences but for a handful of friends and family. This music was far too dramatic and challenging for such a situation and Hoffmeister saw no point in publishing something that would make no money.

Given the failure of this work – completed shortly before he began composing Figaro – it’s unclear why Mozart would write another one except perhaps to prove to Hoffmeister he could write something that would have more popular appeal.

While neither of them proved very popular with Viennese public, the reception in other parts of Germany was a little different: here's a critic writing in 1787.

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The cry soon made itself heard. ‘Mozart has written a very special Quartet and such and such a Princess or Countess possess and plays it!’ and this excited curiosity and led to the rash resolve to produce this original composition at grand and noisy concerts and to make a parade with it… Many another piece keeps some countenance even when indifferently performed; but this product of Mozart’s can in truth hardly bear listening to when it falls into mediocre amateurish hands and is negligently played. – Now this what happened innumerable times last winter… What a difference when this much-advertised work of art is performed with the highest degree of accuracy by four skilled musicians who have studied it carefully, in a quiet room when the suspension of every note cannot escape the listening ear and in the presence of only two or three attentive people?
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The only surprising thing – at least to us – might be “if Mozart was aiming at an amateur audience, why did he overestimate them and risk losing this income?” Naturally, we would (these days) assume everything Mozart touched, regardless of its target demographic (to use modern attitudes), would have been a work of the highest art. But is this really music for amateurs?

This Quartet was only the first of a string of new works Mozart produced following the unsatisfactory success of Figaro which he admitted to writing for the need of making money, including the String Quartet in D, K.499, written specifically (again) for Hoffmeister the publisher, written that August. But at the same time, he composed the Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, K.498, the famous “Kegelstatt” Trio, which he tossed off for a musical evening with some of his closest friends without any thought to financial success or posterity.

In the meantime, he began planning a tour of Germany and England for the Lenten Season in 1787 for the purpose of increasing his income. For various reasons, this fell through, replaced then by a trip to Prague which he felt could prove monetarily lucrative. By December 6th, he’d completed a new symphony for them known today, logically, as the “Prague” Symphony, K.504. Later that year, he would write a new opera for them, following his success there: Don Giovanni.

Maynard Solomon points out in his biography of Mozart that

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“For three or four years, Mozart had tasted the freedom of being his own master, of being a concert promoter who reaped the profits of successful ventures. Now, once again, he was at the mercy of the concert promoters and theater managements who controlled the avenues through which music reached audiences in Vienna. Once again, he was compelled to rely for his living primarily on fees from producers, publishers and patrons. Although he did not yet know it, Mozart’s [happy] impresario period had come to a close.” [Maynard Solomon, Mozart, HarperCollins New York 1995, p.304]
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Listening to it as it unfolds so effortlessly and flawlessly, one could hardly imagine the reality just beyond the doorstep.

- Dick Strawser

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Mother's Day Treat: Hear the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra

There are three concerts this month: the last Masterworks of the season featuring Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony (which you can read about here) on May 18th and 19th; this year's edition of "Stuart & Friends" which comes up right afterwards on Tuesday, the 21st at 7:30 at HACC's Rose Lehrman Center; and this weekend, the symphony's Youth Orchestra will be giving its spring concert on Mother's Day - this Sunday at 3pm at the Forum.

The program includes a suite from the "wild west" ballet by Aaron Copland, Billy the Kid, which the Harrisburg Symphony played last season on a program of musical tales called "The Don's Deeds" which also featured Strauss' Don Quixote, the "Don" in question. You can read more background about Copland's ballet in this earlier post which also includes video clips of a recording of the suite.

Also, there are two very lively pieces to open and close the program: in keeping with the perhaps completely fortuitous tradition of programming lots of Russian and Slavic music (Borodin's and Tchaikovsky's 2nd symphonies, Dvorak's New World Symphony among shorter works), Woodbridge has chosen an overture by the Soviet-era composer Dmitri Kabalevsky (best known in the West for his light-hearted "Comedians" Suite). The story of Colas Breugnon takes place in 16th Century France rather than having anything to do with Stalinist politics, but you don't need to know any of that enjoy a thoroughly good romp when you hear it.

Here's a recording by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Vasili Sinaisky from their Chandos disc:

The program concludes with a popular work by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, his Danzón No. 2.

Gustavno Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra from Venezuela in this performance recorded at the London Proms: this orchestra is itself a youth orchestra, the "apex of the nation's system of Youth Orchestras" in the world-famous arts program known as El Sistema.

Katy Downs
This year's winner of the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition is Katy Downs who'll be playing Cecile Chaminade's Concertino for Flute and Orchestra with her colleagues of the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra, conducted by Gregory Woodbridge.

Katy has been a member of the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra for two years. She has also been a part of Cedar Cliff High School’s wind ensemble, marching band, and orchestra. Katy has spent three wonderful summers at the Luzerne Music Center in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. In tenth grade she attended District Band and then State Band playing piccolo. This year she earned first chair in the PMEA All-State Wind Ensemble. Although music is a huge part of her life, Katy also likes to relax with British television: Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, or Sherlock.

Outside of school, Katy has been a part of many other musical ensembles. She went to Europe with American Music Abroad and was featured on piccolo in Sousa’s famous march, Stars and Stripes Forever. In 2011, she was selected to be in the NAfME All-National Honor Ensemble and was first chair. She was also selected to be a part of the 2013 American High School Honors Performance Series, an honor which sent her to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Katy hopes to graduate from a music conservatory with the ambition of being a member of a professional orchestra.

Cecile Chaminade
Cecile Chaminade wrote this brief concerto (a concertino rather than an actual, all-out "concerto") in 1902 as a competition piece for students at the Paris Conservatoire when she was 45. Though she wrote a great many short piano pieces and songs and was very popular in her day, she had been largely forgotten by the time she died in 1944 at the age of 86.

This concertino is probably her most frequently performed piece and is available as a work for flute and piano as well as in other arrangements.

Given how difficult it is to find sometimes reasonable performances or recordings on YouTube, I decided to choose this video by the Hong Kong Wind Philharmonia with soloist Matthew Wu:

The concert is at the Forum this Sunday, May 12th, at 3pm. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students.

Hope you can join us and realize how the future of classical music is in good hands.

And thanks, of course, to all the musicians for their hard work, to their teachers for all their guidance and inspiration, and especially to the students' parents and family who have supported them in their studies, in their practicing and in just schlepping them around to lessons, rehearsals and concerts!

- Dick Strawser

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Photo credits for the Youth Symphony musicians: Stephanie Dutton

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Weekend in the Country: Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony

Beethoven, walking in the countryside
Hard to believe the end of the season's already here, but here’s Stuart Malina talking about the three works on May’s Masterworks Concert: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s “Millennium Fantasy” and Franz Liszt’s 1st Piano Concerto (both with soloist Jeffrey Biegel) and the Sixth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Pastoral Symphony, which starts off with a movement called ‘Pleasant Impressions on Arriving in the Countryside,’ continues with a ‘Scene by the Brook,’ a ‘Merry Gathering of Country-folk’ (interrupted by a thunderstorm), then concludes with a ‘Song of Thanksgiving After the Storm.’

The performances are Saturday (May 18th) at 8:00 and Sunday (May 19th) at 3:00 in the Forum with a pre-concert talk an hour before each concert. Don’t forget Student Tickets are available at a 50% discount (and this is a great concert to take young listeners to) and Student rush tickets are available for $5 a half-hour before the concert begins.

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Last fall, Stuart Malina offered a “pre-season preview” at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore where he talked about each concert on the up-coming Harrisburg Symphony season. After talking about the three works on the last program of the season, Stuart responded to a listener in the audience who said this music was “like heaven” and that he was listening to a recording of it in his car.

“As great as it is on a recording,” Stuart responded, agreeing with him that this was indeed “heavenly” music, that, still, “nothing can compare to hearing it live.” Turning to the rest of us, he continued, “if you like what you’re hearing, you need to come to the concert – because it’s apples and oranges. There IS no recording as good as a performance… doesn’t exist… even if it’s a great performance. Once it happens, it’s over. You make the recording and that experience of ‘creation in the moment’ is gone. When you’re in the audience, you’re an active participant in the creation… or rather the re-creation of art… Every time we re-create it and breathe human life into it, that’s when the magic happens. And the audience is part of that.”

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I wasn’t able to find a recording of Zwilich’s Fantasy on-line but Stuart plays enough of the opening during the video to give you an idea what to expect.

Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto probably needs no introduction: it’s often played and very much liked, though a lot of Liszt’s critics didn’t care for it at first – one took exception to the [over]use of the triangle and called it a Triangle Concerto; a famous art-loving lawyer in New York wrote in his diary in 1870 that “the Liszt [first piano] Concerto is filthy and vile.” Since he went on to write “it suggests Chinese orchestral performances as described by enterprising and self-sacrificing travelers” (considering what sense Westerners could make of music from China at the time), here is a performance of the concerto with Yundi Li and the Beijing Philharmonic conducted by Zuohuang Chen:

To us, it may not seem at all problematic, listening to it today, but in the 1850s, Liszt’s “Music of the Future” was a far cry from what most people thought music ought to be – given that musical tastes in much of Europe were far more conservative than we’d think given Wagner’s popularity today (keep in mind, Liszt premiered his concerto five years after Wagner’s Lohengrin first saw the light of day).

While we might think Beethoven’s “Pastoral” is a “kinder, gentler” symphony than his dramatic 6th or his titanic Eroica, there is one comment I found in Nicholas Slonimsky’s excellent collection of bad reviews, The Lexicon of Musical Invective, that in 1823, a couple of years before the premiere of his 9th Symphony, thought the 6th was too long:

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“Opinions are much divided concerning the merits of the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven, though very few venture to deny that it is much too long. The Andante alone is upwards of a quarter of an hour in performance and, being a series of repetitions, might be subjected to abridgement without any violation of justice, either to the composer or his hearers.” (anonymous critic in London, June 1823)
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For those people with shorter attention spans, perhaps this version of the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral – which introduced many young listeners to the beauty of Beethoven’s symphony (myself, included) – seen through the eyes of Walt Disney’s amazing animators, will suffice. It may take the countryside around Vienna which inspired Beethoven’s music and places it for some reason in mythological Greece, it is still beautifully choreographed animation: I always smile when the little pegasuses – pegasi? – dive into the water at 3:44 to 4:04).

LvB6th: Fantasia – 1st Mvmt

For a complete performance (it is so difficult finding a decent performance and recording on YouTube to embed in these posts, and this would not be my top choice for “definitive performance”) here is the legendary Carlos Kleiber with the Bavarian State Orchestra recorded live in 1983:

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One can argue about taking Beethoven’s own metronome markings so literally (the metronome being fairly new and apparently not very consistent technology at the time), but it still better than many performances out there.

Dick Strawser