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...)

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