Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Out with a Bang: A Percussion Concerto Returns

Composer & Cat
This weekend, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, returns to Harrisburg for a performance of her Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto which the orchestra first played in 2008 with Chris Rose, the symphony's principal percussion player.

That was the first performance by a soloist other than Colin Currie who'd commissioned the piece – he had a two-year exclusivity contract for performances of the concerto – and the result was that the composer also arranged the concerto for wind ensemble so Chris could play it with his “other band,” the United States Marine Band in Washington D.C.

And now, soloist and composer – and conductor Stuart Malina – return, back by popular request, for this weekend's concerts to conclude the Harrisburg Symphony's season. Those performances are Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 3 – a program called Out with a Bang which will also include Aaron Copland's “Quiet City” and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5.

Stuart Malina will be offering the pre-concert talks an hour before each performance and there's the traditional “talk-back Q&Q” afterward. Jennifer Higdon could only be here for the Saturday performance, but considering her busy schedule, we're delighted – not to mention lucky – she could be here. (Unfortunately, Copland and Tchaikovsky are unable to attend.)

You can find out more about the concert at these earlier posts: hear Stuart's pre-season preview of the final concert of the season here and hear video-clips of the Copland and the Higdon concerto; in this post, you can read more about Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony and hear a complete performance of the work by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

You can also read Ellen Hughes' article for the Patriot-News here and read my post about hearing the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto, here.

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It was for that 2008 performance that John Clare invited her to be part of a “live interview” on his program “Composing Thoughts” when he and I both still worked at WITF (in fact, John just started a new gig this past Monday, as program director for KMFA, Austin TX).

A foggy day outside the atrium of the then still new WITF Public Media Center (which unfortunately did little to help filming the program), it also involved a performance of two movements from her “String Poetic” for violin and piano with Joel Lambdin (who frequently plays in the Harrisburg Symphony) and his collaborating pianist, Emi Kagawa.  

So, making my blogging a lot easier, this time, here's the complete interview with Jennifer Higdon and John Clare – and how often do you get to hear a LIVE COMPOSER talking her music?!

Part 1 – Introductions – and three excerpts from different works by Jennifer Higdon

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Part 2 – how did these recordings come about; “String Poetic” and how it came about

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Part 3 – introduction to String Poetic: the composer talks about writing the piece

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String Poetic: performance with Joel Lambdin & Emi Kagawa – Nocturne:

String Poetic: Blue Hills of Mist:

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Part 4 – growing up in a family of artists who liked rock music, how images affect her music and how she'd translate them into sounds: a lyrical excerpt from the Percussion Concerto

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Part 5 – how she creates some of those sounds, writing the concerto and talking about the details of the performer (like, having enough time to get from one set-up to the next in time)

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Part 6 – how many percussion instruments are involved: including the percussion section in the orchestra, about 60-70... other questions from the audience

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Part 7 – a question about her cat, Beau (see photo, above); about words and music

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Part 8 – getting beyond the first performance; how the Philadelphia Orchestra ended up commissioning her Concerto for Orchestra and how her career took off from there – “I pinch myself every day: I think, oh my gosh, I get to get up and write music... how did I get [to do] this?”

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Keep in mind this was recorded in 2008 so other related events mentioned here are already in the past.

But a reminder that this weekend's performances are Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 at the Forum with, once again, Stuart Malina, the Harrisburg Symphony and soloist Chris Rose. Don't forget Stuart's pre-concert talk and the post-concert “talk-back Q&A.”

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It's funny, but posting this on Facebook – Jennifer shared my blog post reminiscing about the concerto's premiere on her page – reminded me that in the past musicologists would write these scholarly works about great composers by reading their correspondence: think the letters between Mozart and his father, or Brahms and Clara Schumann. Or of Beethoven's “conversation books” in which people would write down their side of the conversation so Beethoven, who was deaf, could respond (we do not, unfortunately, have his replies which were not written down).

There was a joke in the 1970s how someone would do a PhD dissertation on “the telephone conversations of Igor Stravinsky” by examining his phone bills.

Now I'm wondering about some future scholar writing about “The Facebook Status Up-dates of Famous Composers in the Early 21st Century.”

It is amazing how we can have access to creative artists today through the wonders of the internet and things like YouTube brought right to the computer in front of you if not into the palm of your hand.

But this is no joke: it still is only a fragment of what art can be. Until you've had a chance to hear the music performed live, you're only having a portion of that experience. So I hope you'll take this opportunity to come and hear this work played live right in front of you and you can experience not only Jennifer Higdon's music and the orchestra's performance, but also the reaction of the audience around you.

Dick Strawser

Monday, May 12, 2014

Out with a Bang: Tchaikovsky's Triumphant 'Fate' Symphony

Tchaikovsky in 1888
This weekend marks the final Masterworks Concert of the season and it's called "Out with a Bang" not just because of Jennifer Higdon's incredible Percussion Concerto with its stage-wide array of instruments for the soloist - there are few bigger (indeed, few noisier) endings for a symphony than Tchaikovsky's 5th. By compensation, the program opens with Aaron Copland's Quiet City, evocative of a night-time scene overlooking a usually noisy New York. HSO's principal percussionist Christopher Rose is once again the soloist for Higdon's concerto. The concerts are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - come an hour before each performance for Stuart Malina's pre-concert talk. If you come Saturday night, you'll get to meet Jennifer Higdon! (Sorry, Tchaikovsky has a previous engagement...)

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The old joke is "Tchaikovsky wrote three symphonies - his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth." It's true, in a way, because they're the only ones performed with any regularity. And there are those who said "he wrote one symphony three different times."

In one sense, that's almost true, as unfair as it is. These three symphonies are all about Man contending with Fate much in the way we often think of Beethoven's 5th (Beethoven himself described the opening motif as "Fate Knocks at the Door").

In his 4th, Tchaikovsky has a fanfare that represents fate which recurs throughout the symphony. In his 5th, it's an out-and-out theme, very dolorous at the opening but turned into a raucous triumphal march in the finale (a bang, indeed). In fact, both symphonies - if they express fate slightly differently and how the 'hero' responds to it - end triumphantly. It is the 6th, subtitled the Pathetique, that ends with one of the saddest endings in the symphonic repertoire: reminding us that the hero is not always victorious.

(You can read more about the 4th and the 6th symphonies in other posts of mine.)

In this performance of the complete symphony, Herbert von Karajan conducts the Vienna Philharmonic:
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Tchaikovsky's Fifth is one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire but when the composer was writing it, he was unsure of its quality, in fact was having difficulty writing it. Even after it was done, having warmed up to it only as he was finishing the piece, Tchaikovsky wrote “There is something repellent about it... This symphony will never please the public.”

Tchaikovsky was always a fairly insecure composer. Four years after he finished law school, he quit his job as a government clerk and began to study at the new music school Nicholas and Anton Rubinstein founded in St. Petersburg. Though Tchaikovsky had been playing the piano for years and loved improvising for dances, he didn’t know very much about the simple details of music nor was he aware of how many symphonies Beethoven had written, since he’d not had the chance to hear any of them. One of the first graduates of the Rubinsteins’ school, he moved to Moscow where Nicholas Rubinstein recruited him to teach at the new music school he’d just opened there, feeling he was barely one step ahead of his students. Any confidence would have been severely damaged when his former teacher declined to premiere his first symphony, a refusal he never forgave, though he always thought highly of Anton Rubinstein otherwise (“it is just that he does not care for my music, that my musical temperament is antipathetic to him”).

There are certainly wonderful pieces in these early works, but the music we would consider his greatest began appearing when he was in his mid-30s: the 1st Piano Concerto, the ballet “Swan Lake” (a failure at its premiere), the opera on Pushkin’s “Eugene Onyegin,” the 4th Symphony, and the Violin Concerto (famously reviled at its premiere as music that “stinks in the ear”). All of these works, now considered masterpieces, were composed over a four-year span.

In the midst of composing “Onyegin,” Pushkin’s tale of a young woman who contemplated suicide after writing a love letter to an older man who patronizingly rejected her, Tchaikovsky received a love letter from one of his own students, Antonina Miliukova. He couldn’t even remember who she was but, perhaps feeling a bit like Onyegin, agreed at least to meet her. Even though he felt no love for her, he decided to marry her because, as a homosexual when it was against the law to be one, he felt it would please his family and stop any rumors.

The marriage turned out to be a disaster and it was the older man, in this case, who contemplated suicide. Only days into their honeymoon, Tchaikovsky realized this had been a huge mistake, that they had nothing in common: following a nervous breakdown, he waded into a freezing river hoping to catch pneumonia. His younger brother Modeste took Tchaikovsky away to Petersburg and then, after arranging a separation from Antonina, took him to Switzerland to recover. Technically, the couple never divorced but they also never saw each other again during the remaining sixteen years of his life (she would spend the last twenty years of her life in an asylum).

At this same time, however, Tchaikovsky met another woman. Well, not actually “met.” Nadezhda von Meck was the widow of a wealthy railroad tycoon who liked Tchaikovsky’s music (keep in mind, of that list of works I’d mentioned, only the Piano Concerto had been written so far) and wanted to subsidize him so he could quit teaching and devote himself entirely to composing. The only stipulation was that they should never meet, just write letters! He later described his 4th Symphony, already underway at the time of his marriage, as “our symphony” in a famous letter to her, describing it as a “musical confession” echoing the intense despair he felt at that time of his life. He detailed a story about how the opening fanfare represented fate, an invisible force you will never overpower. After detailed accounts of each movement, he ends with a P.S. in which he mentions how impossible it is to “put into words and phrases musical thoughts and ideas.” Clearly, he is looking back over the work – “I was down in the dumps last winter when the symphony was in the writing, and it is a faithful echo of what I was going through at that time” – and trying to find words to explain the music, rather than saying “these are my thoughts from which I composed the music.”

The 5th Symphony seems to have a similar program – instead of a fanfare, a whole full-blown theme that first appears as a dirge which later is transformed into a triumphant march – but he never quite put it into words. There exists in his notebooks a ‘verbal sketch’ for a new symphony he would begin a month later:

"Introduction. Complete submission before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro. Murmur of doubt, complaints, reproaches to XXX. To leap into the embrace of faith??? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out". (In his private writings, “XXX” or “Z” appear frequently, usually referring to his inner secret – his homosexuality. )

While it’s possible the symphony may have begun with another personal crisis, the music that evolved from it, however intelligently designed, transcends the in-the-moment reality of the composer writing it as well as the people making or listening to it.

So what “personal crisis” inspired these thoughts in April of 1888?

First of all, it was now ten years after he completed the 4th Symphony. Despite the immense successes, the busy and often harrowing social schedule (always a trial for a shy person) and the acclaim he received from meeting the likes of Brahms (with whom he found little in common), Grieg and Dvorak (whom he liked a lot), he had not found much consolation in a three-month European tour in which much of his recent music – the piano and violin concertos, the Serenade for Strings, the 3rd Orchestral Suite, and the 1812 Overture – was performed to great acclaim. It was, however, not reported in the Russian press: no one at home knew how he and his music were being received in Germany or Prague, Paris or London, and yet he was representing all of Russian art for which no one at home cared a bit.

But before all that, he had spent a month with a dying friend, witnessing his deathbed struggles and feeling totally powerless to help, a time which the composer described to Mme von Meck as “one of the darkest periods” of his life. A sister and a niece were also mortally ill at the time and he felt “a sort of weariness with life... a sad apathy, the feeling that I myself must die soon, and because of this nearness everything that I had held to be important and essential in my life now appears to me trivial, insignificant and utterly pointless."

So he returned home where the effects of his success quickly wore off and thoughts of mortality continued to linger, settling into a period of quiet months at his country estate where nothing seemed to come to him. He was concerned about being “written out.” A month after sketching the idea about “submitting to Fate,” he began work on a symphony that did not progress smoothly. In his letters to Mme von Meck and his brother Modeste, he wrote more about his discussing poetry with Grand Duke Constantine, the tsar’s nephew, and about the enjoyment he got from planting flowers and watching them grow and blossom. He was approached with the possibility of an American tour which would bring in $25,000 (this, in 1888) which he considered a princely sum. But about the new piece, he remained despondent, proclaiming to Mme von Meck, "There is something repellent about it... This symphony will never please the public." In early August, he tells her that signs of age are beginning to bother him (he is now 48 years old), tiring easily and no longer able to read at night. Half of the new symphony, however, is orchestrated. That fall, in Petersburg to conduct the premiere, he was busy making corrections and changes in the score. It seemed to be a popular success though not well received by the critics. Other successes followed and he took it on another European tour which similar results, but still Tchaikovsky had doubts.

While finishing the new symphony, he had written to the Grand Duke disagreeing with him on his assessment of Brahms’ music: “in the music of this master (for one cannot deny he is a master) there is something dry and cold that repulses me.” But he had met Brahms on his tour the year before and liked Brahms the man. Now in Hamburg, he found that Brahms was staying at the same hotel – in the next room, in fact – and had stayed an extra day before returning to Vienna so he could hear this new symphony, something that greatly touched Tchaikovsky. Afterwards, Brahms was very frank about his reaction, liking everything but the noisy finale (earlier, a German orchestra asked to drop the 1812 Overture from the program because of its “noisy finale”). Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew that the symphony was magnificently played and “I like it far better, now, after having held a bad opinion of it for some time.” The press was hailing him as a Second Wagner but he also notes that news of these successes were again ignored in Russia. The only disappointment, it seemed, was the fact the dedicatee was unable to attend the concert.

During the tour before he’d begun the 5th Symphony, Tchaikovsky met the director of Hamburg’s Philharmonic Society, Count Theodore Ave-Lallemant who was in his 80s. He told Tchaikovsky he could not understand his music, especially its noisy orchestration, but felt he had in him “the makings of a really good German composer” if only he would leave Russia and settle in Hamburg where classical conventions and traditions would correct his faults. They managed to part good friends. The following year, Lallemant’s frailty and illness kept him from hearing a symphony dedicated to him but one wonders what he would have made of such an un-German, untraditional and overall noisy piece!

The year after it was composed, Tchaikovsky’s 5th was performed in New York: "In the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony ... one vainly sought for coherency and homogeneousness ... in the last movement, the composer's Calmuck blood got the better of him, and slaughter, dire and bloody, swept across the storm-driven score." - New York City "Musical Courier" March 13, 1889

A few years later, still a piece of fresh contemporary music, it was performed in Boston: "Of the Fifth Tchaikovsky Symphony one hardly knows what to say ... In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian steppes. The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker. Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!" – Boston “Evening Transcript” Oct 24, 1892.

Really, they just don't write reviews like that any more...

Dr. Dick

Out With a Bang: How to End a Season

The last Masterworks concert of the season is this weekend – Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 with Stuart Malina offering the pre-concert talk an hour before each concert (as if he doesn't have enough to do before a concert – and don't forget to hang around for the traditional post-concert Talk-Back Q&A, too).

Chris Rose - offstage (waaay offstage)
On the program, Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto is back for a repeat performance: since principal percussionist Chris Rose played with the orchestra in 2008, Stuart says this has been the "the single most requested work for a second performance I've ever had -- a compelling piece.”

You can hear an interview Ms. Higdon recorded with John Clare when she was here in 2008, an episode of “Composing Thoughts: Live” in which she talks about her music in general and the concerto specifically – there are questions from the audience, recorded musical samples and a live performance of two movements from a beautifully evocative work for violin and piano called “String Poetic.”

In this post, I write about having heard the Percussion Concerto at its world premiere in Philadelphia in 2005, including a lot of comments about the piece she'd made in a pre-concert talk.

The symphony on the second half is Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony, one of the most popular in the standard repertoire. You can read about the music, going behind the scenes during the composer's life when he wrote it – and hear a complete live-concert performance with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

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For a concert called – for obvious reasons from these two works – “Out with a Bang!”, the program opens with a whisper – a nocturne of sorts by Aaron Copland called Quiet City.

Back in September, 2013, Stuart Malina gave a “pre-season preview” at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, introducing the music on each of the Masterworks programs. Here's the episode for the May concert this weekend, joined eventually by Chris Rose who's the orchestra's principal percussionist and the soloist for this concert:
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Copland in 1940
Aaron Copland may be associated with that "wide-open American sound" we've become familiar with in Western ballets like Billy the Kid and Rodeo, but he's really a Brooklyn boy, as he called himself.

Probably anyone who's ever lived in New York City – or just visited friends who lived there – probably spent some time standing on the rooftop of an apartment building enjoying the view over one of the most amazing cities on earth. That's the image behind the first piece on the program, initially composed for a small ensemble as incidental music in 1940: a young, lonely man standing on the rooftop of his New York apartment building, listening to the sounds of the city at night (trust me, it's not always this quiet) and playing his trumpet – and answered by a distant voice, almost an echo, in this case played by an English horn (composers have, for some reason, occasionally used the “alto oboe” to suggest an off-stage trumpet).

At least, that's the story as I normally read it in liner notes – and it certainly works for the piece, here, by itself. In the original context, the lonely man “abandoned his Jewishness and his poetic aspirations in order to pursue material success by Anglicizing his name, marrying a rich socialite, and becoming the president of a department store. The man, however, was continually recalled to his conscience by the haunting sound of his brother's trumpet playing.”

Either way, here is the recording of Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops posted on YouTube with, somewhat incongruously, pictures of Los Angeles but another busy city seen as you've probably never seen it – empty! And, therefore, quiet.
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As for Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto, you can read her own program notes for the piece here, in addition to reading the other posts I linked to (above) – though I highly recommend the “Composing Thoughts: Live” with John Clare (or at least Parts 4, 5 and 6 of the 10 short clips). After all, how often do you get to hear Beethoven or Tchaikovsky talk about their own music before you go hear it on a concert?

By the way, she'll be here for the Saturday night performance – her schedule doesn't allow her to hang around for Sunday's, unfortunately, but in addition to writing lots and lots of music – her biggest project so far is the recently completed opera based on Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain which will premiere in Santa Fe in 2015 and then be performed in Philadelphia in February of 2016 – she's put in a lot of traveling miles attending performances around the globe. 2010, for instance, was a great year for her: not only did her Percussion Concerto win a Grammy for Best New Contemporary Composition,, the Violin Concerto she composed for Hilary Hahn, premiered in 2009, won her the Pulitzer Prize in Music. And that's all since she was here the last time!

Now, there are always problems trying to find decent performances and recordings of classical music on YouTube. That said, the Percussion Concerto, performed here by the University of British Columbia Orchestra with soloist Jeremy Lawi who'd won the school's concerto competition in 2012 (the orchestra is conducted by Raffi Armenian), is unfortunately recorded at such a low volume level, I'm not sure you'll get a good overall idea of the piece which is based so much on colors and dynamic contrasts (it's frustrating: I keep trying to crank my computer up higher...). It will, of course, be much more vibrant hearing it live.

However, you'll at least get an idea of what the percussionist will be doing all over that stage. There are “four stations” of different types of percussion instruments – between 22 and 26, depending on who's counting (including what the members of the percussion section are playing, that's about 60 instruments on stage). Small wonder that the original performer – Colin Currie, for whom it was composed – wore black sneakers instead of the more traditional dress shoes for the performance!

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For a performance of the Tchaikovsky, please check out the next post, Tchaikovsky's Triumphant Fate Symphony to watch a video with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

If you don't have time for the whole symphony (or find Karajan a bit old-fashioned and stodgy), here's the ending of the ending of Tchaikovsky's 5th - anything but stodgy - with Gustavo Dudamel and Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra recorded about 5 1/2 years ago.
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While Stuart's interpretation may well be different (the hair, at least), this is the kind of energy you can expect in the Forum this weekend as we go "out with a bang!"

So, join us this weekend – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum – for the final concert of the Masterworks Season. And don't forget Stuart Malina's pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. And don't forget one of the composers on the program will be there for the Saturday night concert – hint: it won't be Tchaikovsky or Copland.

- Dick Strawser

Stuart & Friends: Vaughan Williams Steps Out on the Path

This Tuesday evening at 7:30 in HACC's Rose Lehrman Arts Center, it's this season's episode of Stuart & Friends which presents two works. On the first half, a mature but less-often-heard work by the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg: his Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Minor with Stuart and concertmaster Peter Sirotin. On the second half is an early and probably unknown work by the English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams: his “Piano Quintet in C Minor,” adding other principal players of the Harrisburg Symphony string section into the mix – violist Julius Wirth, cellist Fiona Thompson, and bassist Devin Howell.

(You can read the earlier post about Grieg's Sonata here.)

RVW & Friend
If Grieg is better known for some of his relatively early successes – the Piano Concerto, written when he was 24, and music for Peer Gynt written in his early-30s – Vaughan Williams is better known for works written after 1910, a long list of works that ended with his 9th Symphony completed just months before his death at 85.

However, if Vaughan Williams had lived only as long as Schubert, for instance, this piece would be one of the last things he'd've composed and it's unlikely we would even remember his name today – unlike Schubert.

Vaughan Williams was, as he admitted, a late-bloomer despite having composed his first music when he was 6, a good age for the advent of prodigyhood. It's just that he never developed that way. Even as a composition student in London in the 1890s in his 20s, his compositional skills were slow to appear. He wrote the usual kind of “student stuff” but was never particularly successful in creating anything more than “beginnings” (or on occasion, “endings” – one of his unfinished student works was a finale for string quartet). This is not unusual – one could say the same of Gustav Mahler.

His teachers were not particularly compelling – a whole generation of pseudo-Germanic composers who imitated Mendelssohn and, more recently, Brahms. Perhaps the most original of this generation of English composers was Arthur Sullivan who, having tried his hand at symphonies and choral works, found financial success in his association with William S. Gilbert.

English music at this time was of two natures, basically: German and serious or English and light-hearted, the difference between, say Schubert or Wagner on the one hand, and dance-hall comedy on the other. Even though he detested it, young Gustav Holst, a would-be composer making a living as a trombonist, played in one such “Light Orchestra” even though his friend Vaughan Williams saw it as the foundation for his orchestral writing – and certainly the composer who created The Planets cannot be faulted for poor orchestration. It may be hard to hear the dance-hall origins in “Mars, the Bringer of War,” but there's more to a composer than his finest flowerings. There is also a good deal of fertilizer...

Vaughan Williams, for his part, had other ideas among the few options available to a young English musician. The son of a vicar, he was headed on the church organist path. He was also descended for the family of the famous potter Josiah Wedgewood and one of his great-uncles was Charles Darwin. Technically he didn't need to work for a living whereas his friend Holst could barely support himself as a trombonist (there's a joke there, somewhere) when he decided what he really wanted to do was be a composer, as if he wasn't poor enough already.

Vaughan Williams and Holst met in school in 1895 – the Royal College of Music in London – where most students said it wasn't so much what their teachers taught them but what they learned from each other. They would critique each others' music and discuss everything “under the sun from the lowest note on the double bassoon to the philosophy of Jude the Obscure” (then the latest literary controversy in England).

Vaughan Williams, c.1911
One of the things Holst was interested in was folk song. We think of this “folk-song movement” in which composers like Bartók and Kodaly would roam the countryside writing down songs they heard sung by Hungarian peasants as being new and revolutionary, though Rimsky-Korsakoff and other Russians did this in the 1880s. Bartók began his study in 1907 and is often considered the “father of 20th-Century folk-song composers.” But Holst and Vaughan Williams had already started this quite by accident during their “walking holidays” through the English countryside even before 1903.

I mention 1903 specifically because that's when Vaughan Williams wrote down his first bona fide English folk-song, something called “Bushes and Briars.” The following year he would compose a short (possibly one-movement) string quartet based entirely on the folk song, “As I Walked Out.”

The other reason I mention 1903 is because that's when he composed this “Piano Quintet” we're going to hear.

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Start your day with a Cup of Ralph
It is a rare treat for me to hear for the first time a work I've never heard before by someone who's been a favorite composer of mine since I was maybe 14 years old (in fact, between Britten and Vaughan Williams – not to mention my grandmother's own English origins – I would've said “a favourite composer”). This was sometime in 1963 and only five years Vaughan Williams' death. My first hearing was of his ubiquitous “Fantasy of Greensleeves” which I decided I would add to my own collection. Also on that LP (for those of you who remember LPs) was his “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” which I remember as being one of those amazing experiences where I sat there, mouth gaping, at something so beautiful and so unlike anything else I was familiar with.

This dates from 1910, only 7 years after this unknown quintet.

Like many composers, their early works get lost in the back of the closet after their mature works make their career. It would be hard to call a work by a 31-year-old composer “juvenalia,” but that's basically what this is, compared to the symphonies and choral works he would compose later. 1910 is really where “the real Vaughan Williams” begins – not just the Tallis Fantasia but also his “Sea Symphony,” a work begun in 1906 that, beyond its opening, curiously still leaves me chilly, if not cold.

And in the interim, sometime during 1907-08, he went to Paris and studied with Maurice Ravel, even it's only for 3 months. The first work he composed after returning from Paris was his String Quartet in G Minor which clearly shows the influence of Ravel's style. (How different does this sound compared to the Quintet you can listen to, below?)

It is a student's job, basically, to devour everything in sight and, discarding what doesn't fit, find enough ideas that do which, once absorbed into the system, become the composer's own voice. This is not something that happens as soon as a composer begins composing: it evolves over time, if the composer's lucky.

And with Vaughan Williams, it started while he was writing this Quintet!

Listen to the opening movement with Trio Logìa & Friends:
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To my ear, it reflects what Vaughan Williams was “absorbing” at the time – certainly Brahms as filtered through his English sycophants and quite possibly Faure's 2nd Piano Quartet (also in C Minor) There are few touches that make me think of the mature Vaughan Williams I know and love. In fact, the first time I listened to this clip, I thought, “ugh, well, every student starts somewhere.” Just another derivative student piece. But hang in there.

However, the first thing you'll notice is this not a typical Piano Quintet in the formation of String Quartet and Piano. It's one violin and an added double bass (or, plainly speaking, just “bass”). Does it look familiar? Think Schubert on a fishing expedition during one of his own “walking holidays” when he and his friend, the singer Vogl, stopped in Graz where a keen amateur cellist wanted Schubert to compose something for this unusual combination because he owned the score of a similar kind of piece by Hummel and this would give them something to play on the program. Since the cellist (and more importantly, local business baron) loved one of Schubert's more famous songs, he wanted a movement of it to be a set of variations on that – and so it became the “Trout” Quintet.

Did Vaughan Williams choose this combination because friends of his – perhaps he played in the group, too: he was a violinist and violist as well – were playing the “Trout” and wanted a companion piece for a program? Unfortunately, I can find no reference to such an origin, but it's always possible (sheer right-brained conjecture on my part, future googling-scholars who find this on-line).

Regardless, it sounds very heavy – especially given the lower registers of viola, cello and bass – even without the dense textures beloved of Brahms and his imitators.

The movement begins with a “fiery allegro” but turns quite calm and much slower by the end. The second movement is officially the slow movement but it's far more lyrical than the first. The piano opens up into a hymn-like expanse of what started off sounding like a Germanic (if not Brahmsian) song.

Here's a Polish ensmble, Kameraliści Rzeszowscy, playing the Andante:
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It might bring to mind something by Elgar who had only just become a successful composer at the age of 42 (speaking of late-bloomers) when his Enigma Variations which just premiered in 1899 in London. Until then, Elgar himself was trying to find his voice and not doing too well.

No wonder Richard Strauss who conducted in London in the 1890s (Holst played in one of those orchestras) went home to Germany and announced that England was “The Land Without Music.”

Anyway, Vaughan Williams takes this hymn/song and expands it, does some typically Brahmsian things to it, all very beautifully – if you're not trying to figure out who the real composer is – and then ends without anything particularly note-worthy beyond its own beauty.

Then comes the third movement which has an entirely different sound at the beginning: listen to this “Fantasy,” a set of five variations on this opening theme:
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What is different about this? The strings play a single-line tune phrase by phrase which is then restated, harmonized, by the piano, again very hymn-like. But the harmony is different: the tune wanders around in an almost haphazard way and the piano pins it down with a standard chord progression. Only in the second phrase do we start hearing some “modal” tinges in the melody – outside the normal bounds of the major/minor tonality on which most of classical music is built on for the last three centuries.

At 1:20 is the first sign of the “real Vaughan Williams.” Just a glimpse – a chord progression that is so typically English that it's immediately recognizable as “an RVW fingerprint.”

Then he immediately turns this into a very Germanic variation! Well, you have to start somewhere.

For one thing, despite the occasional outbursts, this is generally a very placid movement for a finale and might bring to mind the English mood if not thesound of the “pastoral school” or what Americans derided as the “Cow-Looking-Over-the-Fence” School of Music (someone more into the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern also referred to it as the “Cow Patty” School of Music).

It isn't until we reach 6:10 – after a series of transformations ranging somewhere between amateurish and “having potential” – that a new sound begins to unfold. There are bell-like sounds in the piano (one things one could hear, walking through the English countryside, would be distant church bells). This extended coda is perhaps one of the finest moments in the whole half-hour-long piece – and it seems to come out of nowhere, complete with the tolling of bells, the change-ringing so beloved by English church-goers (the descending scales in the piano toward the very end).

Holst & RVW tramping the countryside looking for folk songs

Now, remember in 1903 how Vaughan Williams and Holst had gone walking through the country and they wrote down some folk songs they heard? “Bushes and Briars” – which, as he wrote it out, is in F Minor but not a very good “academic” F Minor. You can't harmonize this in text-book fashion.

Vaughan Williams jots down a folk song in 1903

The quintet doesn't use that tune but a tune of similar style. While many composers did quote folk-songs verbatim in their music (for example, Tchaikovsky in his 4th Symphony), many absorbed the characteristics of folk-songs but created their own original folk-song-like themes (even Bartok would do this). And I'm no expert in English folk songs (indeed, I'm no expert, period) to be able to recognize it as an actual song, so I'm assuming it's something inspired by the folk-songs he'd heard at that time. Nothing in what little literature there is that mentions this piece (at least, that I've found) would indicate its specific origin. But the opening theme, here, certainly has it roots if not in this song, at least in this experience – and I suspect this walking tour happened at some point between his completing the 2nd Movement and beginning the 3rd.

Again, that's sheer conjecture, but music and composers' lives do not exist in a vacuum (though they can be appreciated that way).

It is of no significance whatsoever to those who just want to enjoy some nice music. But to someone who wonders why this piece doesn't sound much like the Vaughan Williams they know – then, this may scratch the surface.

This is, perhaps, the acorn from which the might oak of Vaughan Williams' later career grew.

Vaughan Williams had already written some of his better-known songs - his first published piece was the song "Linden Lea," in 1901. It was after his discovery of "Bushes & Briars" that he composed some of his most beloved songs in the cycles The House of Life and Songs of Travel. He also wrote his 1st Norfolk Rhapsody and In the Fen Country, two strongly folk-inspired beauties, in 1904.

Now, also in 1904, Vaughan Williams the church organist began another project: editing the English Hymnal. And now he's scouring through old English music to find hymns that befit England and its historical traditions rather than sounding like Victorianisations of German chorales (keep in mind Victoria, who was queen until her death in 1901, was descended from a line of German princes who became Kings of England in the 18th Century and only took the name of “Windsor” after the start of World War I and they wanted to sever ties with their German ancestry).

In addition to writing some of his own hymn-tunes like the famous Sine Nomine ("For All the Saints") in 1906, one of the pieces Vaughan Williams discovered, poring over dusty manuscripts in old libraries, was a psalm-tune called “Why fumest in fight?” by the Renaissance composer, Thomas Tallis, back during the days of the Tudor kings and queens. It was this tune that Vaughan Williams felt inspired by the write what I consider his first mature English-sounding piece, the “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” in 1910, only seven years after he'd completed this quintet.

It's recorded in 1974 and conducted by Leopold Stokowski who, incidentally, was a close friend of his fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams back in their school days in 1890s London:
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Though hinted at before, the theme appears at 1:00 into the clip.

What a difference seven years can make!

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Stuart & Friends: Edvard Grieg and the Road to his 3rd Violin Sonata

Stuart Malina
Tuesday night at 7:30 at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center of Harrisburg Area Community College, Stuart Malina puts the baton aside to play piano with members of the orchestra he conducts.

It's the annual tradition known as “Stuart and Friends.”

Peter Sirotin
He'll be joined by principal string players for an evening of chamber music. What is "chamber music," you may ask? It's music for smaller combinations of performers, sometimes a soloist, sometimes a quartet or more, and intended for more intimate settings than large concert halls. I like to think of it as music for friends played by friends. In this case, concertmaster Peter Sirotin and Stuart will play Edvard Grieg's not-often-heard Violin Sonata No. 3 in C Minor.

Then, joined by violist Julius Wirth, cellist Fiona Thompson and bassist Devin Howell, they'll play the almost-never-heard Piano Quintet by Ralph Vaughan Williams. (You can read about the quintet, here.)

Here is Kyung-Wha Chung & Robert MacDonald playing Grieg's sonata, recorded at a music festival in Korea:
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Grieg in 1888
Edvard Grieg is probably best known as a composer of miniatures, especially the incidental music to Ibsen's play Peer Gynt and various folk-inspired dances and character pieces (like the “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen”).

But perhaps his most famous piece if his Piano Concerto which he showed to none other than Franz Liszt in April, 1870, while he was visiting Rome. Liszt had already written a letter of recommendation for the young Norwegian and was much impressed with his 1st Violin Sonata. Meeting the composer's new concerto, Liszt sat down and sight read it (with the orchestral part where needed) which much impressed a bunch of musicians who were listening to this informal gathering (though Grieg, then 26, mentioned that Liszt, the greatest pianist of the day, did play the first movement too fast). It had been composed two years earlier and had already been performed twice in Copenhagen and what is now called Oslo. It would be published two years later.

I mention this because both works on this program are tied into early works and more mature works – in Vaughan Williams' case, we're hearing an early, most likely unknown work to most of the people in the audience who will probably be familiar with more mature works like his “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” (written only seven years later) or his “London Symphony” completed in 1914 and which the Harrisburg Symphony performed four years ago.

In Grieg's case, it is earlier works (if not exactly “early” works by a not yet mature composer) that are more familiar than the Violin Sonata on the program. The Piano Concerto is from 1868 (he was 24) and Peer Gynt was composed in the mid-1870s when he was still largely unknown, a composer in his early-30s. Today, you can hardly run across a cartoon sunrise that didn't have Grieg's “Morning Mood” as its soundtrack (though of course every on-line reference I googled is actually that other famous cartoon morning song, from Rossini's “William Tell” Overture – except for a scene from the movie, Soylent Green which is something else, again (sigh)...).

However, the 3rd Violin Sonata was composed when he was 44, begun two years after he'd written the Holberg Suite originally for piano, which he then arranged for string orchestra. Shortly after the sonata, he prepared a concert suite of four excerpts from Peer Gynt which now made its way into the concert halls as we're more familiar with it today (a second suite would be released four years later).

We don't usually associate Grieg's name with “abstract” music – that is, music that doesn't tell a story, isn't inspired by folk-songs or -dances. This would be the symphonies, string quartets and concertos that form the bread-and-butter of the repertoire for Beethoven or Mozart or Brahms. But yet, despite the popularity of his lone (and early) piano concerto, Grieg avoided the “academic” forms like the Sonata and Symphony. Yes, there's an early symphony, begun when he was 20, which he thought was dreadful and destroyed it (though a copy survived).

Grieg, the Student
Of course, he was given “good German training” for a boy from such a remote world as Norway (which had been a province of Denmark until 1814, and then part of Sweden – it would not become an independent country until 1905, the year after Grieg's death). He was assigned to write string quartets and overtures without really understanding the whole Germanic “abstract” formal thing that was at the root of classical music in the German-speaking world.

Remember, Grieg began his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1858 when he was 15 and studied piano with a friend of Robert Schumann's – this was only two years after Schumann's death – and he heard Clara Schumann play her husband's piano concerto. Brahms had not yet materialized as anything beyond Schumann's prophecy of being the Heir of Beethoven.

The composer he studied with in Copenhagen, Niels Gade, was regarded as the Danish Mendelssohn and, in general, what cultural life there was in Norway was very conservative. Christiana (later renamed Oslo) was a backwater and most artists looked to nearby Copenhagen as the closest cultural center (despite the political union with Sweden: it was easier to get to than Stockholm which, by itself, wasn't much better, then).

When Grieg returned to his hometown of Bergen which at least had an orchestra, he performed a few of his earliest published works as well as Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet and later Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto. He also played Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata in a recital.

So he went to Copenhagen seeking advice from Gade who treated him kindly if with some disdain as a Norwegian provincial. Gade assigned him to write a symphony but without giving much guidance: it was what one was expected to do, write symphonies and sonatas and quartets. Grieg just didn't have a grasp of the form or how to develop anything beyond the simpler miniatures that came so easily to him.

Two years later, during a summer holiday, he wrote two sonatas – a piano sonata in E Minor (here's a link to a recording by Alicia deLarrocha) and his first violin sonata, a youthful, almost exclusively sunny work. Gade thought less of his more dramatic second violin sonata, written in 1867, saying it was “too Norwegian,” meaning, basically, it wouldn't fly in the wider Germanic world of true art. Grieg declared his next sonata would be even more Norwegian, then.

This was a challenging time for Norway's cultural identity: poets and artists were trying to break away from the Germanic, even the centralized idea of a Scandinavian identity to create something specifically Norwegian. By 1865, Ibsen wrote his play Brand (“Fire” in the Scandinavian languages), a philosophical tragedy about an idealistic young priest who wishes to save the world. Two years later, he wrote Peer Gynt, an often satirical comedy, in which the good-for-nothing Peer, for all his adventures, is probably the quintessential Norwegian boy longing for a place in the world.

Grieg's 2nd Violin Sonata and some ninety minutes of music for Peer Gynt were composed in the same year. The following year, he wrote his Piano Concerto which many have compared to Robert Schumann's – both are in the same key and have similar openings, but beyond that, Grieg is quickly finding his own voice: this is clearly a Norwegian concerto, not a German one.

It was twenty more years till Grieg composed his next violin sonata, the one Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina are playing on this concert. In between he wrote songs, piano pieces, some incidental music, but nothing “abstract” (Germanic) until he started writing a piano trio in 1877 – which he never finished. But he did complete a string quartet the next year which he said “is not intended to bring trivialities to market. It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written." (Here's a link to the first movement.) Curiously, the last movement, while still inspired by a dance, is based on the Italian saltarello (similar to a tarantella).  Grieg, clearly, in a more international mood: the work was written for a German quartet and was premiered by them in Köln.

It's a surprisingly cohesive and fairly bold work, considering Grieg wrote few larger-form works. Yet he never seemed to follow up on it and the work has never maintained much popularity.

What might have brought on this interest in trying “sonata-form pieces” again, got him thinking about this Germanic, abstract long-forms? In 1876, he was in Bayreuth, attending (and reviewing) the world premiere of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung – hardly an abstract, academic work, but something he found activated his creative interests.

Shortly after he completed the quartet, though, he experienced one of those fallow periods brought on by increasing ill-health (having suffered from tuberculosis as a young man, he was often in and out of treatment and recuperation for respiratory ailments throughout his life). A year later, he played his Piano Concerto in Copenhagen (the Danish royal family were patrons of the concert) and by 1880, he was back to composing again and became conductor of the Bergen orchestra.

Then in 1883, after putting aside sketches for a second piano concerto – imagine! – Grieg composed a cello sonata which had been commissioned by a Leipzig publisher and which found inspiration in the composer's brother, Johan, an amateur cellist and was premiered in Dresden.

Rather than dealing with academic forms and the standard developmental procedures, he went more for emotional contrast with themes that could be robust and dramatic or lyrical and often folk-like: the second theme of the first movement and the whole second movement could never have been written by a German composer! And while many composers wrote ethnic-inspired dance movements for their finales (Brahms used Hungarian dances in his Violin Concerto, the 1st Piano Quartet and the Double Concerto; Ludwig Spohr wrote a polonaise for the ending of a Clarinet concerto), not many would have bothered with Norwegian dances the way Grieg did.

Still, even though the piece proved to quite successful, he gave “abstract formalism” a wide berth – until 1886 when he had started sketching a piano quintet – imagine! – and after putting it aside, began work on his third violin sonata.

Unlike the earlier violin sonatas which were written in a few weeks – and now perhaps because he felt he'd found a way of handling larger forms, this one took several months to complete. Again, it contrasts dramatic and lyrical themes and they're often built out of folk-song-like motifs.

These lyrical themes appear, on their own, like perfectly shaped miniatures within a wider formal context.

While the last movement is clearly based on folk-music, the dance that is the main theme is given the full “Germanic” treatment yet without putting it through the typical development process.The drama is in the contrast between the themes.

Though written at Troldhaugen, his home outside Bergen (he and his wife had moved there the year before), it was given its premiere in Germany, like his other “abstract” works – Leipzig, to be exact, with the great Russian-born violinist Adolph Brodsky and the composer at the piano.

In preparation for the premiere, Karel Hoffmann, a Czech musician, wrote, "despite his neuralgia, rheumatism and many health problems, Grieg was an excellent pianist who played with incredible temperament. He played the fast parts wildly, then wanting extremely slow expressive sections."

Despite its reliance on folk-motifs and -rhythms, Grieg described the 2nd Sonata as “the Norwegian one.” The 3rd he considered "the one with the broader horizon."

Like many composers who came of age in the 1850s and '60s on the outskirts of the cultural centers of Europe, Edvard Grieg found himself caught up in the idea of creating a “national voice” for his music. This period of 19th Century “Nationalism” is more familiar with the works of Bedrich Smetana in Bohemia (particularly his suite depicting his homeland, Ma Vlast with its familiar “The Moldau”) and the Russian handful known as “The Five.”

Tchaikovsky, three years older than Grieg, also had to contend with the heritage of German art versus the finding this national voice and while he was considered a “cosmopolitan” beside his colleagues like Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky, many of his “abstract” symphonies – like the 5th Symphony which the orchestra will perform later this week on the last Masterworks Concert of the Season – were still considered “too Russian for German audiences.”

Grieg & his wife, Nina
Grieg, it seems, managed to compartmentalize himself and, first of all, understand his own strengths: he knew how to write a good tune and melodies inspired by his Norwegian heritage flowed easily for him. But when he needed to be (or perhaps wanted to be) “cosmopolitan,” he could pull it off. It just wasn't as important to him. His music – like most folk-music – is based on short phrases and repetition, something that is difficult to develop in the way Beethoven might take a small fragment of a motive (like the opening of his 5th Symphony) and turn it not only into a longer theme but a whole movement (much less a whole symphony). This was something Grieg was never comfortable with.

Still, after the 3rd Violin Sonata, he completed no more long-form pieces: there are sketches for two movements of another string quartet from 1891. Other unfinished works include a violin concerto and another symphony, but I haven't found any reliable references to when they were sketched.

But Grieg was recognized internationally as a composer, including honorary degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge. He had met Brahms (who was 10 years his senior) and when it looked like a dinner with Brahms and Tchaikovsky (two bitterly opposed personalities as well as artists) would turn chilly, Grieg volunteered to sit between them.

When a friend came backstage during a performance of his that Brahms was attending and told him Brahms really admired his piano-playing, Grieg laughed and said “Ah, that's just one of his jokes.” It got him out of having to comment on what he thought of him as a composer.

Tchaikovsky, on his part, wrote that he thought highly of Grieg, praising his music's originality, beauty and warmth.

Still, in a world so familiar with music from Peer Gynt and despite the Piano Concerto's popularity, we are often surprised to discover not only did Grieg write “abstract chamber music” but wrote it rather well. True, it's not the way Brahms or Beethoven might have handled it, but that's not his fault: it wasn't a question of just finding a national, Norwegian voice for his music, but finding his own.

The second half of the program features an early work of Ralph Vaughan Williams – a quintet for piano and strings for a “Trout”-like combination – that might be the reverse of this journey: Vaughan Williams, an Englishman growing up in a largely Germanic tradition, had not yet broken out of his heritage to discover the folk-songs of his own nation's musical identity.

I'll get into that in the next post which you can read, here.

Dick Strawser