Monday, May 4, 2015

Stuart & Friends 2015 - Haydn, Prokofiev & Weinberg

Stuart & Friends from Seasons Past
In the 19th Century, it wasn't unusual to find chamber music interspersed in orchestral concerts with the maestro accompanying the soloist in a short instrumental work or perhaps a singer in a couple of songs – a bit of variety and change in texture for the evening.

In the 20th Century, it was sufficient for conductors to “play the baton” even though at one point they might have been orchestral musicians before graduating from the ranks or had, as students, played the piano.

This season's annual “Stuart & Friends” program honors the idea of the conductor as performer and, in this case, in chamber music made with members of the orchestra.

Tuesday evening at 7:30 at HACC's Rose Lehrman Arts Center, Stuart Malina puts his busy baton aside just days after the last Pops concert of the season to play a Haydn trio, a Prokofiev sonata and a quintet by a composer you've probably never heard (or even heard of).

(The annual concert Stuart & Friends is underwritten by Marilynn R. Kanenson in memory of Dr. William Kanenson.)

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Keeping in mind these posts can be read before or after the concerts, let's just say, without getting into the musicological much less the music-illogical details of the 18th Century piano trio's history, that by definition a piano trio consists of three instruments – a violin, a cello and a piano.

Haydn ponders a conundrum...
And while Haydn wrote a great number of such trios, mostly for amateur performers, there are three that were specifically written for flute instead of violin. Not that it can't be played with a violinist – in Bach's day, it wasn't unusual to be very vague about the instruments needed for a particular piece: what were called “trio sonatas” (but which weren't piano trios – in fact, they weren't even for three performers, part of the music-illogical aspect of classical music) were written with two melody parts, a keyboard to supply the harmony and a bass instrument to beef up the all-important bass-line of the harmony (so that's four players in a trio sonata - count 'em, four). These could be two violins, a harpsichord and a cello – or two flutes, an organ and a bassoon – or even one violin and one flute and... well, anyway, you get the idea.

So these three Haydn trios-with-flute often end up being performed in standard piano trio format with a violinist. In fact, here's a recording I can recommend!

To be even more confusing, there are lists of the complete Haydn Piano Trios which say there are 26 – no, 31... wait, here's one that says 45 (and just because it's Wikipedia doesn't mean it's wrong).

Anyway, while there are many performances by students and amateurs to choose from on-line and most of the flute ones are either “period” instruments (from Haydn's day) rather than modern instruments or not well recorded, I've chosen the Beaux Arts Trio (with violin) to give you an example of the first movement you'll hear at this year's “Stuart & Friends.”

Charles Rosen, in his detailed book on The Classical Style dedicates a whole chapter to Haydn's trios. But he only mentions these three flute trios in passing which he considers “pleasant works of no great interest.”

Of course, there's a lot of music that's pleasant. And music that's crafted by an expert like Haydn, well... hey...

It's not like music can't be enjoyed: the whole idea of most of the music written in this period was to entertain whether it was the Prince who was your boss or the amateurs who gathered around their household pianos for an evening of music-making whether they were playing for their own enjoyment or that of their friends.

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In the midst of World War II, Sergei Prokofiev wrote a sonata for flute and piano which is usually more frequently performed in its arrangement as a violin sonata. So it's kind of similar to the situation with the Haydn trio except here, the great violinist David Oistrakh heard the flute sonata and strongly urged the composer to adapt it for the violin. And what composer, even one as respected as Prokofiev was then, could say “no”?

Again, the choice of performances of You-Tube leaves a lot to be desired, but I've chosen this one by the Russian flutist Denis Bouriakov with pianist Naoko Ishibashi recorded in Tokyo four years ago.
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1st Movement

2nd Movement (Scherzo)

3rd Movement (Andante)

4th Movement (Finale)

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Listening to the first and third movements, the word “serene” is one of the first words to come to mind. Consider, though, this was written in the midst of World War II which the Soviets called “The Great Patriotic War,” fending off the Nazi invasion.

Sergei Prokofiev
Evacuated to safer locations east of Moscow, away from the invading forces, composers like Prokofiev were able to continue composing ostensibly with Soviet Ideals in mind. In fact, Prokofiev wrote several war-inspired works during this period including three piano sonatas normally grouped together as The War Sonatas. But for every war-ravaged suite, “The Year 1941” or “The Ballad of an Unknown Boy” (in which a boy avenges the killing of his parents by the Nazis), there was something like “Cinderella” (conceived while he was originally sketching the piano sonatas) or, for no reason other than he thought the flute was an underutilized instrument, his Flute Sonata in D Major.

Written in 1943, it was one of a series of sonatas he composed during these war-filled years: in addition to the piano sonatas (begun in 1939 but finished during the course of the war), there was also a violin sonata. No wonder Oistrakh coveted the Flute Sonata – it would make a wonderful companion, a pair of contrasting violin sonatas.

I don't remember when I first heard the violin sonata – probably when I was a teen-ager – and I've always loved it, so perfectly suited to the instrument. I was a college student before I discovered that the Flute Sonata was not an arrangement but the original – and there aren't many flute sonatas in the repertoire that can equal it.

This time, you'll get a chance to hear principal flutist David DiGiacobbe play it with Stuart Malina at the piano.

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Mieczyslaw Weinberg
You've probably heard Dmitri Shostakovich's famous Piano Quintet composed in 1940, the year it won the Stalin Prize (the Soviet equivalent of the Pulitzer, I guess) – quite an improvement over the circumstances that brought about his 5th Symphony which the orchestra plays at the next (and last) Masterworks Concert of the Season, subtitled “A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism.”

You may never have heard of composer Mieczysław Weinberg.

In fact, until last month's concert with Market Square Concerts when the Amernet Quartet played his 5th String Quartet, I'd never heard any of his music live. Though there is a great deal of it available on-line, I'd heard none of it till I began researching my blog-post for that concert. I highly recommend his 4th Quartet which I included since there were no recordings of the 5th available.

First of all, how do you pronounce that name? He was born in Poland, so his first name would be myeh-CHEE-swoff but in Russia, it might be written in its Jewish equivalent, Moisei or Moise (moy-SAY or MOI-sheh). His nickname among friends (as Sasha is to Alexander) was Metak.

The last name would be pronounced VINE-bairg since it's initially Germanic (or Yiddish) in origin. In Russian, it's spelled phonetically and then re-translated into English as Vainberg.

Born in 1919 in Warsaw, his parents were members of the Yiddish Theatre. Just out of conservatory, he fled Poland as the Nazis invaded from the west, heading to Moscow. But he lost his entire family who stayed behind, later dying in the Trawniki concentration camp.

As the war followed him, the newly-arrived Weinberg – like many Soviet composers – was evacuated to safer points east of Moscow, in Weinberg's case Tashkent where he later met Dmitri Shostakovich.

They became good friends – Shostakovich was 13 years Weinberg's senior – but Weinberg was never his student, as many assumed. The story is told that they met frequently and played each other their latest compositions. Certainly this became a regular part of their lives after the war when both of them lived in Moscow.

Weinberg wrote later that meeting Shostakovich changed his life. Certainly he had been a talented student in Warsaw but he had not yet written anything comparable to a mature work. That began to change.

Here is the Piano Quintet he composed in 1944, a busy year for him (having returned to Moscow), despite the war-time privations, when he also wrote his 3rd Quartet, his 2nd Violin Sonata, two sets of Children's Notebooks for piano, and a set of Jewish songs. He completed his 4th Quartet early in 1945.

It's in five movements and lasts, in this performance with the ARC Ensemble, 45 minutes. It may, in places, remind you of Shostakovich's more popular Piano Quintet which, after all, was a very popular piece that had been written only four years earlier. But you may hear a lot of other "voices" in the course of the work, for a composer who was only in his mid-20s: Bartok comes to mind in the scherzo and is that some Irish fiddling in the finale?

If Prokofiev considered Shostakovich's Quintet "a safe piece" ("he never takes a single risk"), I wonder what he might have thought of Weinberg's Quintet? It doesn't strike me as being entirely "safe" or risk-free.

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Weinberg was a prolific composer with 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, a half-dozen violin sonatas and another half-dozen piano sonatas in his catalog along with 7 operas and some 40 film scores, but in The West he remained virtually unknown. Only recently have works like his Piano Quintet, a Piano Trio and some of the cello pieces been heard in European and American concerts.

Ironically, Harrisburg has heard two of his works performed within 10 days and that's largely due to Peter Sirotin, growing up in the former Soviet Union where he was familiar with Weinberg's works. The 5th Quartet was in the Amernet's repertoire because their first violinist also grew up in the former Soviet Union and knew this music and couldn't understand why his colleagues here had never heard it much less played it.

Though Jewish himself, the Jewish musical voice was only one of the influences on Weinberg's musical style. He has been described as a “conservative modernist” in the manner of Shostakovich who, along with Bartók, was probably the major influence on his music.

Weinberg remained one of Shostakovich's closest friends during the dark days after the Zhdanov Decree – you can read more about this in my Market Square Concerts post – and it's quite possible that Shostakovich's association with Weinberg introduced him to a great deal of Jewish music which he incorporated into his own works directly or indirectly at this time. In a way, he might have seen (or heard) Jewish music as a sound-image for himself:

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“Jews became a symbol for me. All of man’s defenselessness was concentrated in them. After the war, I tried to convey that feeling in my music. It was a bad time for Jews then. In fact, it’s always a bad time for them.”
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And the period after the war, from Zhdanov's Decree in 1948 to Stalin's death in 1953, was a bad time for Shostakovich.

It was also a bad time for Weinberg. His father-in-law, a leader of the Jewish community in Russia, was murdered, it turned out later, on Stalin's orders in 1948. Weinberg himself was arrested in connection with the infamous “Doctor's Plot” in 1953 when Shostakovich wrote to the chief of the police in his friend's defense. Weinberg was released only because Stalin suddenly died and, in the aftermath of the purges and years of paranoia, it was determined there was not enough evidence for a case against the composer and he was released.

In 1964, Shostakovich dedicated his 10th String Quartet to Weinberg and one of the last things he did was gather up what strength he had a few months before he died to attend the premiere of his friend's new opera in Leningrad, The Madonna and the Soldier, in 1975. Weinberg wrote his 12th Symphony in his mentor's memory.

Weinberg died as recently as 1996 but we are only now beginning to discover his music here.

- Dick Strawser

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