Wednesday, May 11, 2016

May Masterworks' Season Finale: Shostakovich & the Comedians

Stuart Malina & the HSO (photo: Curt Rohrer)
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina with guest artist, pianist Ann Schein
What: The Suite from Dmitri Kabalevsky's The Comedians; Dmitri Shostakovich's 1st Symphony; the 3rd Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
When: Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm; (with a pre-concert talk by Dick Strawser an hour before each performance)
Where: The Forum in downtown Harrisburg at 5th & Walnut (behind the State Capitol)
Why: Because Ann Schein is back in town to play Rachmaninoff (if you remember her performance of the Chopin 2nd Concerto in 2014) and how many great symphonies are there in the repertoire by composers under 20? Plus, if you've heard “The Comedians' Galop,” have you ever heard the rest of the delightful music that follows it? Probably not.

In this previous post, you can read about Ann Schein and hear her legendary recording of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto made when she was 16.

Shostakovich in 1925
Dmitri Shostakovich and the Rehearsal of Fate

Young Dmitri Dmitrievich arrived at ХОГВАРТС, the great wizardly conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia, when he was 13 and with the support of the headmaster, Alexander Dumbledorovich Glazunov, rose through the ranks to become one of the leading composers of the new Soviet Union, premiering his graduation piece, his first symphony on May 12th, 1926 – ninety years ago this Thursday, by the way.

He was 19 years old at the time.

Throughout his life, Dmitri Shostakovich celebrated May 12th as his “second birthday” – it was the day that would make him famous. By the time he was 20, his Symphony No. 1 had made him internationally famous.

Here is that well-known photograph of the young composer – it was said even at 19 he still looked like a child – and, yes, doesn't he look like Harry Potter, even down to the glasses and tie? Okay, so maybe he doesn't have a scar on his forehead but there is a scar on his soul, born in 1906 and growing up in the midst of the troubled times that finally erupted – “boiled over” might be a better metaphor – into the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing years of the Civil War and the ensuing years after that of privation and general hardship (for instance, his widowed mother gave piano lessons and her students paid her in bread - and I'm not using slang, here).

And while his meteoric rise to the status of Great Composer might seem Potter-esque, he couldn't have managed without the support of ex-boy-prodigy Alexander Glazunov, the head of the Conservatory (who was definitely a Dumbledore-like character in Shostakovich's life, granted without the beard, if Dumbledore had been an alcoholic), writing letters to the Soviet bureaucrats to ensure Shostakovich his scholarship (as well as his rations) which was not always forthcoming, and smoothing over the animosities that often occurred between the highly talented and the averagely talented students (and faculty) who might resent him.

He had begun planning his first large-scale orchestral work – actually, his first large-scale work, period – in July of 1923 when he was 16 but, since his father had died suddenly the year before, he was unable to concentrate on it because of the time required for his studies, majoring in both piano and composition, and his low-paying gig as a pianist in a local movie theater where he accompanied the silent films. He detested the job but it helped hone his improvisation skills, good for any composer, plus he got to practice while working and often tried out new pieces even if the audience didn't like them. One of his favorite film actors, by the way, was Charlie Chaplin – which, when you think about the quirkiness of the symphony's opening, explains a lot: the sad-sack who, in the end, “triumphs” by merely surviving.

At the beginning of the school year in 1924, his faculty advisory committee set him the challenge of composing a symphony for his graduation. He then began serious work on it, completing the first two movements in early-December and the last two movements in late-April, 1925. The orchestration was finished that summer. So technically, the symphony was officially composed while he was 18 years old – it was premiered when he was 19, a little over four months before his 20th birthday.

By all accounts, it is an amazing piece for an 18-year-old – if not an amazing piece for a first symphony by a composer of any age. Perhaps the most amazing thing is how much he already sounds like the “adult” composer he would become. As with any prodigy, mere mortals stand back in wonder, trying to figure out “where did that come from?”

One aspect of the adult Shostakovich you can already hear in this music is the dual world of humor (whether parody or satire) and tragedy as contrasting elements in the same piece.

In this case the first two movements – written when he was still thinking about calling it a “Symphony-Grotesque” – are the humorous movements with a quirky little march and delicious little waltz in the opening movement (despite being in sonata form, basically, it has more the feel of an overture than the first movement of a grand symphony in the manner of the 19th Century) and then the scherzo with its roughshod opening scramble in the cellos and basses (it is written out so it sounds like the basses can't keep up with the cellos) – later on, we hear a kind of suspended animation where this same passage is played much much slower (and still the basses can't keep up) – and its contrasting section that sounds like a religious procession. After the two contrasting ideas in both movements battle it out simultaneously, we move on.

But something happens at the end of the scherzo. The rambunctiousness is gone in a flash. The ending is suddenly downplayed, muted, questioning.

When the third movement, the long-phrased Largo, begins, we are in a different world, full of reminiscences of the world of Wagner, with all its Tristan references, but rather than sounding like a parody, it turns fully tragic. The impish school-boy has become a wise adult who has suffered – who must have suffered – much.

Even the finale is not the triumph over adversity you would expect from a standard "fate" symphony like Beethoven's or Mahler's Fifths. It's not heroic except when you recall it was heroic merely to survive during these awful years – for a period of time, Shostakovich's student rations consisted of two spoons of sugar and a half-pound of pork every two weeks – and little did anyone know what the future would hold but whatever it was, the view from where many Russians stood was bleak.

I'll be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each of this weekend's performances, talking about the private world of a young composer that helped shaped the composer he would become.

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You would think there would be more performances of Shostakovich's 1st to choose from on YouTube whether they're live concerts or “audios” with a recording only (usually a collage of graphics, most of which have little to do with the music). While I'd go a great distance to avoid Valery Gergiev, I found two I'll post here: one, with the Soviet conductor, Kirill Kondrashin (best known in the West for being the conductor when Van Cliburn burst on the scene, winning the first Tchaikovsky Competition in 1959), a 1972 recording made in the presence of the composer (the photograph is of Shostakovich and Kondrashin examining the score); the other is with Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony recorded in a concert from 2015.
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(In this one, the performance ends c.34:30 – the rest is applause & bows.)
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Nikolai Malko, 1927
Keep in mind, when Student Shostakovich played through his new symphony for Nikolai Malko who would eventually premiere the piece, it was a 25-minute piece. Even Toscanini, generally regarded as a conductor prone to fast tempos, played it in 26:45. Most performances today clock in between 32 and 34 minutes. While some musicians on my Facebook page questioned the composer's tempo indications, I regret to inform them that, whatever they're imagining, it's probably even faster. But ultimately that's up to the conductor to decide – how accurate are Shostakovich's metronome-markings? Or for that matter, how realistic?

When conductor Malko (supported by Shostakovich's composition teacher, Steinberg, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov's) balked at a couple of things they thought were unplayable at the given tempo, Shostakovich went to a couple of his friends who played in a movie theater orchestra and they played it perfectly (and they weren't conservatory students), proof, the composer said, his tempos should not be changed. Shostakovich wrote a friend something he would always later tell his students, that “practicalities should be learned from performers, not from academics.”

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Dmitri Kabalevsky and the Rise of the Comedians

Dmitri Kabalevsky
The other day, talking about the up-coming concert, Peter Sirotin, the concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony who was born in Kharkiv (now in Ukraine) and studied in Moscow, told me he had once met Dmitri Kabalevsky. Peter was in the first grade and about 7 years old at the time, but he remembered “playing trains” with the composer who would then have been in his mid-70s.

“He had come by to work with my father who was arranging music from his 'Comedians' Suite for string quartet.” The Gavotte in particular works very well for quartet and these arrangements, he added, are quite popular in Russia today.

While it's amusing to think of a 76-year-old famous composer sitting on the floor, playing with toy trains with a boy of 7, consider the origins of this music for “The Comedians”: It was commissioned by the same children's theater in Moscow that, two years earlier, had first produced a little something by Prokofiev called Peter and the Wolf.

There are 10 short movements in the Suite which lasts about 15 minutes, total. The most famous is the 'Galop,' the second movement, easily Kabalevsky's most famous piece perhaps on the same Ubiquitous Scale as Khachaturian's 'Saber Dance.'

Here's a Chandos recording with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Vassili Sinaisky:

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The original play was by a young Jewish author, Mark Daniel, called “The Inventor and the Comedians,” about Johannes Gutenberg and a group of traveling buffoons. It was composed in 1938-39 and first performed in 1940 – at the beginning of the 2nd World War, to give you some historic perspective. As it turns out, Daniel “died young” the following year. While I can find no information about the playwright, when you put “Jewish,” “died young in 1941” and “the start of World War II” together, a simple statement about “Mark Daniel dying young” becomes far more ominous: the Nazis already occupied Ukraine in 1941, killing nearly 34,000 of Kiev's Jews at Babi-Yar one night in late-September, 1941; the next month, Romanian troops killed 50,000 Jews in Odessa.

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Dmitri Kabalevsky was born on December 30th, 1904, just days before what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” the protest-turned-massacre that started what became known as the “Revolution of 1905.”  Shostakovich was born a little over a year later, during the midst of this wave of strikes, protests, and outright rebellions which quickly went far beyond the Imperial capital of St. Petersburg. Both composers grew up during those unsettled years that foreshadowed the two revolutions of 1917 which led to the fall of the Russian Empire in February and the establishment of the Soviet Union in November.

Kabalevsky in the 1940s
Kabalevsky too played piano in the movie houses, but attended the Moscow Conservatory instead, which was, stylistically, more adventuresome and European-oriented than the stodgier St. Petersburg Conservatory where Shostakovich was a student (in fact, at the time he was working on his 1st Symphony, Shostakovich wanted to 'transfer' to Moscow to complete his studies because he thought the atmosphere there might be better for him, musically - didn't happen).

While politics and art are always a risky combination, Kabalevsky embraced Stalin's policy of “socialist realism” (something that is very hard to define but which basically is meant to appeal to the average Soviet citizen, rather than just intellectuals). Technically, he did not become a member of the Communist Party until 1940, the year he produced the “Comedians” Suite – Shostakovich did not officially join until 1958, for that matter – but his having helped organize and then lead the Union of Soviet Composers may have saved him from finding himself in artistic hot water in 1948 when Stalin's henchman, Andrei Zhdanov, issued his decrees against “pro-western Formalists,” composers who were straying from the Party's concept of what was considered “good art.” This was the second time Shostakovich dealt with severe government criticism: the first resulted in his 5th Symphony, “an artist's reply to just criticism” as it was officially subtitled; the second time, to simplify his response, he continued composing but kept the works Stalin would not approve of in his desk drawer till a later time. Kabalevsky's name appeared on Zhdanov's 1948 list but was subsequently removed.

During his career, Kabalevsky won three Stalin Prizes (the equivalent of America's Pulitzer Prizes, perhaps) to Shostakovich's four, yet for all his “serious” symphonies, concertos and operas he felt the musical education of children was an important priority. Throughout his career he composed many teaching-pieces for young players, especially pianists. Some of his concertos – like the Violin Concerto of 1948 – are designed not for virtuosos (though it doesn't sound childish when Oistrakh plays it!) but for talented young artists who need something between their “student works” and the virtuosic masterpieces that will become their eventual goals.

After establishing a pilot music education program in twenty-five Soviet schools, he taught a class of seven-year-olds how to listen to music and turn their impressions into words.

He may not have been as adventuresome in his style as his more famous colleagues – and though he was a Soviet composer who often wrote patriotic (what we usually dismiss as “propagandistic”) pieces, he was not inspired by Russian folk music as we often think Russian composers automatically would be – and his music has largely been overlooked in the West. The same year he began work on the “Comedians” music, he completed his opera, Colas Breugnon, based on a novel set in 16th Century Burgundy (not sure how that appealed to the Soviet bureaucrats but then the author, Romaine Rolland, said he had trouble recognizing his main character in Kabalevsky's pro-Soviet adaptation). The barn-burner of an overture is occasionally heard but little else of his music is known in this country.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

May Masterworks: Ann Schein & the HSO Season Finale

Ann Schein
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina with guest artist, pianist Ann Schein
What: The Suite from Dmitri Kabalevsky's The Comedians; Dmitri Shostakovich's 1st Symphony; the 3rd Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
When: Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm (with a pre-concert talk by Dick Strawser an hour before each performance)
Where: The Forum in downtown Harrisburg at 5th & Walnut (behind the State Capitol)
Why: Because Ann Schein is back in town to play Rachmaninoff (if you remember her performance of the Chopin 2nd Concerto in 2014) and how many great symphonies are there in the repertoire by composers under 20? Plus, if you've heard “The Comedians' Galop,” have you ever heard the rest of the delightful music that follows it? Probably not.

May Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

You can read about Shostakovich's 1st Symphony and Kabalevsky's "Comedians" in this separate post, here.

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There are few concerts that really stick out in my memory over the years and one very close to the top of the list was the appearance of Ann Schein with the Harrisburg Symphony in March of 2014 when she played the Chopin 2nd Piano Concerto. The fact that she's back in town and playing one of the giants of the concerto repertoire – Rachmaninoff's 3rd (or Rach3 as musicians abbrv. it) – is reason enough not to miss this concert!

Peter Sirotin, the orchestra's concertmaster who attended Schein's classes when he was a student at the Peabody Conservatory, told me that several of her fans and former students will be driving as much as four or five hours not just to hear her play but especially to hear her play the Rachmaninoff.

You see, when she was 17, Ann Schein made her debut playing Rach3 in Mexico City and at 19, she recorded it in 1960. It was that recording which Artur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century, heard and invited her to study with him.

Here is a YouTube “video” of that legendary recording on the Kapp label with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Sir Eugene Goosens.
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This performance of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F minor was recorded at the Aspen Music Festival in July, 2012:
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After her performance of the Chopin concerto here, I wrote a “review” (more of a “documentary” about the experience) which you can read here, but I'll quote one thing from it just to give you an idea that shows how playing the piano is more than just playing the notes: it's about playing the particular piano, especially crucial since pianists normally do not travel with their own instruments. Imagine having to do this every time you sit down to play a different piano?

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When I heard the rehearsal the night before [the concert], the first thing that struck me was how unfortunate the piano sounded, a few notes fractionally out-of-tune (that can be fixed, hopefully) but, more problematically, poorly voiced. Her opening passage from the higher to the lower register and back again, sounded like it was played on three different pianos. How could she make bel canto out of this?

Since pianists do not carry around their own instruments, they learn to deal with what they're given at each and every performance venue. One piano can be a fine instrument and another one can be miserable (depending on its care and maintenance) – plus it also depends on the acoustical environment it fits into, a resonant hall or a dry one, for instance. And all this could be different from one pianist to another. So they learn to adjust. By giving a little more to this note or less to that one (intonation is something you can't compensate for but if it's on the high-point of a phrase, you adjust the phrasing so it doesn't sound so jarring, for example), you can make a listener believe the instrument is perfect.

By the time we had gotten into the second movement, I noticed the piano was sounding much better. And by the end, I had forgotten all about how poorly this piano sounded a half-hour earlier.

Now, after a good working session with piano technician James Hess, Ms. Schein gives him the credit for making the adjustments she wanted (these would vary from performer to performer, the bane of many a piano tuner's existence). If there were any doubts about the instrument, they were gone.

Ms. Schein said that Jorge Bolet, another great pianist of the last century who I heard play two Rachmaninoff concertos with Harrisburg back in the '80s, had a knack for memorizing how each note on a piano responded and could adjust his technique accordingly. She laughed that she didn't have the ability to memorize stuff like that, but yet she was able to achieve the same thing.
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Stuart & Ann Schein rehearsing
The other thing that's an important part of this equation is the collaboration with the conductor. Stuart Malina is himself a fine pianist who loves to play chamber music – and in a way, this hones his skills at connecting with the orchestra much like a pianist does "accompanying" a violinist or playing in a piano quintet: communicating without a baton but at the same time playing the piano, no matter how technically challenging the notes are to play. Perhaps having just played a “Stuart & Friends” concert last week was a way of warming up for this weekend's collaboration?

The orchestra's role in the Chopin concerto is almost minimal – deceptively easy-looking – but the difficulty is in accompanying the phrasing, the flexibility of the soloist's interpretation (with the nuances of the human voice in the melodic line – one of the major influences on Chopin's melodic style was Bellini's operatic bel canto style).

And this was one of the most magical things about Schein's performance two years ago, this incredible “one-ness” between her and the orchestra, thanks to Stuart's ability to follow her and the orchestra's ability to respond to them as one.

The Rachmaninoff is a different beast all together with a massive piano part (dense chords befitting a composer-pianist who had immense hands that could span an octave-and-a-fifth) and a complicated orchestra part to match.

Horowitz told the story that Rachmaninoff joked with him once how he had written it “for elephants.” And unfortunately I've often heard it performed that way – an athletic contest (certainly one of stamina, of the soloist's endurance), how it is often referred to as “a man's concerto,” where as long as the orchestra can keep up it's considered a good show.

Schein says she has played Rach3 “over a hundred times” and I remember chatting with her, Stuart and Jeff Woodruff, the orchestra's executive director, after the concert's “talk-back” session in 2014 when they were already making plans to have her come back and how she would like to play Rachmaninoff's 3rd.

When Stuart calls her “the incomparable Ann Schein, one of my most favorite guest artists that I've ever worked with,” do you need any other reason why you should be there this time?

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For those of you who prefer a modern live performance with something you can actually watch (a real “video”) – like the pianist's hands – there are many performances of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto available on YouTube, several of which I would not recommend (and who shall remain nameless), but I offer this one as a possibility, with Denis Matsuev and the Köln Philharmonic conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, recorded in 2012:
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Rachmaninoff proofing the score, 1910
While Rachmaninoff completed the work in September of 1909, he premiered it that November in New York City at the start of his American tour – he took the tour on because, he admitted, he wanted to buy a new car – and a couple of weeks later played it again in New York City with what would become the New York Philharmonic conducted by none other than Gustav Mahler!

As the composer later recalled, Mahler
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“devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important – an attitude too rare amongst conductors. ...Though the rehearsal was scheduled to end at 12:30, we played and played, far beyond this hour, and when Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, I expected some protest or scene from the musicians, but I did not notice a single sign of annoyance. The orchestra played the first movement with a keen or perhaps even closer appreciation than the previous time.”
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While no recordings of that performance exist (oh, if only...), Rachmaninoff did record it with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in late-1939 and early-1940. To many, the performance is “too fast” and yet, well... it is the composer, isn't it?
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Admittedly after its premiere, though well-received, it did not become the “popular” concerto it is today – Rachmaninoff even authorized several cuts, especially in the 2nd and 3rd movements in hopes making it shorter would help (and wrote two separate cadenzas for it) – as it was a concerto “to be feared” by most other pianists until Vladimir Horowitz began playing it regularly in the 1930s, convincing others to take on the challenge.

Including, in 1960, a young 16-year-old pianist named Ann Schein who, in 2016, is playing it for us this weekend!

- Dick Strawser

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photo credit: the photo of Stuart listening to Ann Schein before a rehearsal on the stage of the Forum in 2014 was taken by the orchestra's pianist, Terry Klinefelter

Monday, May 2, 2016

Stuart & Friends: Beach, Beethoven & Franck at Gamut Theater

Who: Stuart & Friends - Maestro Stuart Malina plays the piano in chamber music with principal strings players of the Harrisburg Symphony: Concertmaster Peter Sirotin; Nicole Sharlow, 2nd Violin; Julius Wirth, Viola; and Fiona Thompson, Cello
What: Amy Beach's "Romance;" Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 5, the "Spring" Sonata; and Cesar Franck's Piano Quintet in F Minor
When: Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016 at 7:30
Where: a new location, at the new Gamut Theater, 15 N. 4th Street, between Strawberry Square and the Forum
Why: Great chamber music live, with great musicians who are colleagues and friends - and another opportunity to hear members of the Harrisburg Symphony! Besides, the Franck Quintet isn't heard live that often, so there's that, too.

In the old days - even before my time - orchestra concerts frequently included performances where the conductor might play a bit of chamber music with the soloist or some members of the orchestra or maybe include a few songs (in the traditional classical music sense) with a singer or two in between the orchestral fare. But not any more.

It's also rare to hear conductors today perform anything except on the baton. And Stuart loves playing chamber music so this is a great opportunity for him, as well.

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Amy Beach is generally regarded as the first American composer who was a woman (to distinguish from the usual terminology, “woman composer” which sounds too much like, say, “opera composer” to describe someone who wrote operas). It's not surprising that this breakthrough occurred in a family where ancestors on her father's side were involved in the early Women's Rights Movement and her father's uncle founded Bates College in Maine, the second co-educational college in the country, graduating its first female student in 1869, two years after Amy Marcie Cheney, later Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, was born.

She is also one of the few “American-trained” musicians from that era: when most would-be concert artists and composers wanted to study, they had to go to Europe because there were no music schools or even music departments in America until the 1870s. And fortunately, her parents, realizing her talents early in her life – she could sing 40 songs by the age of 1 and was already composing at age 5 – did not turn her into “The American Mozart Circus.”

When she was 8, the family moved to Boston where she studied with a former student of Franz Liszt. At 14, she studied composition, harmony and counterpoint privately for a year. Two years later she played a piano concerto by Moscheles with the Boston Symphony.

With all this, then, I find it difficult to explain that two years later, at age 18, she would marry a doctor 24 years her senior who would, given the attitudes toward women artists both in America and in Europe (Clara Schumann being the one well-known exception), expect her to limit her career to two performances a year, though she could focus on composition as long as she didn't actually study composition because, for some reason, that was unladylike. And while it certainly was ladylike to hang out a shingle and offer piano lessons, that was something a successful doctor's wife wouldn't do.

She also became known as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.”

When her husband died in 1910, she started styling herself “Amy Beach” until someone asked her if she was the daughter of the composer, Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.

Her “Romance” for Violin and Piano dates from 1893 when she was 26. (Incidentally, Beethoven's “Spring” Sonata, is sometimes referred to as an “early” work of his, dating from his “First Period” and it was written when Beethoven was 31.)

In this performance, recorded for the BBC, violinist Elena Urioste is joined by pianist Michael Brown who has appeared twice with Market Square Concerts, most recently this past November.
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While she was the first American woman to compose – and more importantly publish – a symphony, Beach also had considerable success with a large-scale Mass performed by Boston's Handel & Haydn Society, as well as her own Piano Concerto which she premiered with the Boston Symphony in 1900.

She wrote a great deal of chamber music perhaps because it was more practical for a woman with limited access to compositional outlets than her male counterparts – there's a violin sonata in particular which has remained somewhat known – but mostly scads of songs, reams of choral anthems and tons of piano pieces usually dismissed as “salon pieces.”

As soon as she dutifully recovered from her widow-hood, she was back performing on the stage and even arranged a few tours in Europe. It is unfortunate, however, that by middle-age, the promise of her youth was forgotten and her talent no longer lived up to her early potential. Plus by the 1920s, her 1890s style was no longer considered “fashionable.”

Still, she is an important composer when you consider how long it finally took us to get rid of that awful “woman composer” term we'd been using until the new century and just started calling women-who-wrote-music “composers.”

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In 1799 – before Beethoven's first string quartets and his first symphony were performed – some unfortunate critic in Leipzig was assigned the task of reviewing three new violin sonatas just published, works we usually think of as being full of 18th Century grace and charm at least to those of us familiar with what Beethoven would soon be composing around the corner.

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“After having arduously worked his way through these quite peculiar sonatas, overladen with strange difficulties, he must admit that... he felt like a man who had thought he was going to promenade with an ingenious friend through an inviting forest, was detained every moment by hostile entanglements and finally emerged weary, exhausted, and without enjoyment. It is undeniable Herr Beethoven goes his own way. But what a bizarre, laborious way! Studied, studied, and perpetually studied, and no nature, no song. Indeed... there is only a mass of learning here, without good method. There is obstinacy for which we feel little interest, a striving for rare modulations... a piling on of difficulty upon difficulty, so that one loses all patience and enjoyment.” – Reviewing Beethoven's Three Violin Sonatas, Op. 12 (1799), Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung
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Ironically, of the next two sonatas published two years later, the first movement of No. 5, the F Major Sonata Op. 24, reminded some critic of “the freshness and renewal of springtime,” and so it has always been called “The 'Spring' Sonata” though Beethoven had nothing to do with the nickname. The even more famous Piano Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2, published the following year, reminded another critic of boating on a lake on a moonlit night, hence its nickname, “The 'Moonlight' Sonata.” Considering our 1799 critic found “no nature, no song” in the Op. 12 sonatas, they might have become known as the... well, never mind...

It's the “Spring” Sonata on this year's annual “Stuart and Friends” recital, so let's focus on that one instead. It's the first of his violin sonatas to have four rather than the usual three movements, adding a brief scherzo (and very brief, clocking in at barely a minute long). And while the first movement may have given the sonata its nickname, the 2nd movement, Adagio molto espressivo, is the emotional core of a work that clearly straddles the structured, balanced “classical” 18th Century just past and the new, emotional “romantic” 19th Century that lies ahead.
#I. Allegro with Henryk Szyring & Artur Rubinstein

#II. Adagio molto espressivo with Kristóf Baráti & Klára Würtz (Baráti incidentally performed here last year with Market Square Concerts and will return next year to play more Bach with Market Square Concerts and also the Khachaturian Violin Concerto with the HSO in April, 2017)

#III. Scherzo with Gidon Kremer & Martha Argerich

#IV. Rondo with Andrew Dawes & Jane Coop

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Here is a dramatic highlight from near the end of the 1st movement of the work that concludes the program: the Piano Quintet in F Minor – not by Brahms, but in this case by Cesar Franck. While such great and deservedly popular quintets by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák and Shostakovich are regularly heard, the Franck is less often programmed though it has its champions.

This was recorded live at the Verbier Festival with pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin with Joshua Bell, Pamela Frank, Nobuko Imai and Stephen Isserlis:

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(While it amuses me to watch one of the most unswerving pianists in the business today who hardly seems to break a sweat, I wonder if they allowed Joshua Bell to go take a shower break after the 1st movement?)

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When we talk about a composer's age – when something was composed or when he (or she) lived – Cesar Franck is something of a challenge. Born while Beethoven was still alive, most of his works date from about the last decade of his life; his two most frequently performed pieces – his lone Symphony and the Violin Sonata – actually date from a period of two years within that decade.

Even though he was a child prodigy, any future lack of self-confidence he would later develop can be laid at his father's feet since the elder Franck was eternally disappointed his son did not turn out to be another Mozart, or at least a successful concert pianist in the mold of Moscheles and Kalkbrenner if not Liszt and Chopin.

Franck published three piano trios – his Op. 1 – when he was 17 which would seem promising but if you listen to the opening of the first trio, here (though do yourself a favor and move quickly past the opening to 8:44 for a few minutes) or even his 2nd Piano Concerto, Op. 11 (originally written earlier when he was in his early-teens but perhaps revised for publication – if there is a 1st Piano Concerto, it has not survived) such juvenilia might seem to justify his father's disappointment. Even though Liszt was enthusiastic about the trio, these pieces sound so strange to us compared to the great works we're familiar with which he composed late in his life.

Yet “late in his life” seems a rather arbitrary concept when you're dealing with a composer who died a month before his 68th birthday – a senior citizen, by today's concepts, but for a composer who'd only begun to gain recognition in his mid-50s, the idea of “late-bloomer” makes one wonder where, exactly, things like the great D Minor Symphony and the Violin Sonata came from.

When prodigy-hood did not materialize into an adult career by his early-20s, Franck walked out of his parents' home with only the things he could carry (in the days before friends with pick-up trucks), all over his having fallen in love with a girl whose family his parents deemed unsuitable. Probably getting away from his domineering father was one of the best things to happen to him. He also switched from piano to organ and got a job as a church organist. The steady if not richly rewarding work was also a pleasant change. He also developed into an excellent improviser (a good skill to have as an organist and composer).

Now in his mid-30s, he became the organist at a major church in Paris where he remained the rest of his life. He produced numerous organ works and choral pieces for the church including a little something called Panis angelicus which remains one of his best loved melodies.

Soon, he was talked into writing larger and larger works – an oratorio on “The Beatitudes” took him ten years – and, also soon, having re-gained the attention of Liszt (who had thought highly, for some reason, of those Op. 1 Trios of Franck's), Franck began accumulating students. During the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, he lost many of those students and composed many patriotic pieces – and also became instrumental in the formation of the Société Nationale de Musique to protect French art against German aggression, cultural as well as political.

In 1872, he was appointed professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire and from here one could say his career finally began to flourish. He would turn 50 years old that year. As it turned out, many of his organ students – like Vincent D'Indy – were also composers and so his organ seminars began turning into composition classes.

Something else happened: in 1874, he heard his first performance of the famous Prelude to Wagner's opera, Tristan und Isolde (how much more German could one get, however?), and it fundamentally changed his attitudes toward his own music. Like Wagner's, his music now became more intensely chromatic, ever moving, always shifting its center of gravity until it was difficult to tell where, exactly, the center was.

In 1879 he completed that oratorio on The Beatitudes and now turned his concentration to the Piano Quintet he'd started working on the previous year, the first chamber work he'd written in over 30 years (since he'd composed an earlier Piano Quintet published as Op. 10). It is an amazing accomplishment considering his uneven progress from 12-year-old prodigy to a composer just beginning to receive recognition in his late-50s.

Here is a performance of the entire piece – it's in three large movements – by the Schubert Ensemble of London, complete with score for those who like to follow along.
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Or if you prefer a video with live performers to watch, here's an incredible performance by Sviatoslav Richter with the Borodin Quartet filmed in 1986 (though the camera interest is almost entirely on Richter):

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Curiously, the premiere of this work is an example of musical politics in action. We think of all these great composers working together to create great art but sometimes we overlook how stylistic differences and the egos of geniuses can sometimes create political rivalries as nasty as anything on the election circuit. You may be familiar with the animosities between, say, Wagner and Brahms, or Everybody against the Serialists and vice-versa, but here is how it worked in Paris in 1880.

Franck had asked his colleague Camille Saint-Saëns, himself one of the leading pianists as well as organists and composers in France, to play the piano part in his new Quintet. Now, Franck, given his recent Wagnerian conversion, had become part of the “avant-garde” and Saint-Saëns, usually styled as “The French Beethoven,” was by now the leader of the conservative wing (he would later become even more reactionary, living and composing on into the days of such young upstarts as Debussy, Ravel and, most notably, Stravinsky).

One thing Saint-Saëns could not abide in Franck's piece was the constant modulating, this Wagnerian chromaticism that he found unsettling to his sense of tonality (even though the piece is in F Minor, it is rarely the kind of F Minor that Saint-Saëns would have composed).

Though the performance was well-received and the composer (who was probably happy just to have the work performed, much less by the likes of the great Camille Saint-Saëns) thought it a magnificent performance, Saint-Saëns, at the conclusion, got up and stalked off the stage without bowing to the audience's applause or acknowledging his colleagues.

There are two oft-repeated stories which might only be variations on the truth: Saint-Saëns was supposed to have left the music open on the piano rack at the end of the concert rather than taking it off with him, a sign interpreted as his disdain for the piece. The other version has a delighted Franck thanking Saint-Saëns effusively for his performance, writing a dedication into the score then handing it to him – and Saint-Saëns looking at, then leaving it behind in an obvious place as he left the concert hall.


Yet Saint-Saëns never sought to belittle the piece or undermine its performance, never performing at less than his best – he could easily have played badly (or without enthusiasm) or made snarky faces at the audience or whatever. One can't always say politics is like that, today, musical or otherwise...

While Franck would go on to write his greatest music in the ten years following the Quintet's premiere, he would be involved in an accident when a tram hit the carriage he was riding in which resulted in a slight head injury and a fainting spell. Even though he thought he had suffered nothing serious, it no doubt had a direct effect on his health. He died four months later at the age of 67.

- Dick Strawser (who's about to turn 67...)