First Fruits: early offerings of three giants

“And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”     Psalms 1:3

 

Our Season 2016-17 finale program based on some the earliest works of three different masters of late Viennese style shaped by and drawing from the same stream of emotion, gesture and expression. As such, they each reflect aspects of the tradition of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as they appear in works of many other composers not unlike the aural equivalent of a hall of mirrors.

The first work on the program is the shortest. Cast in a single surviving movement, Gustav Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A Minor dates from his student days at the Vienna Conservatory between 1876 and 1878 when he would have been sixteen to eighteen years of age. It reflects the influence of his teacher, Robert Fuchs, whom Brahms numbered among the five young composers he championed. From this small beginning Mahler would go on to become one of the leading symphonists of his time, both in number and scale.

New to our repertoire and to possibly many Boston listeners will be String Sextet in D Major, Op. 10 (1915) written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold at age eighteen. Even among string sextets we have performed at BCMS–the two by Brahms, Strauss’s Capriccio (from his opera), Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (BCMS’s 1994 CD of the latter two available here)the Korngold stands out as a work of genius in its imagination, awareness, and passion. Its first movement starts mid-sentence with a solo viola invitation to other players to join in and take flight. We find out later in the movement that he is, in fact, quoting the opening motif of Brahms’s second sextet, the one we performed last January at the Fitzgerald Theatre. The slow second movement best reflects the post-Wagner, early Schoenberg world where emotional depths are explored on a mythic scale with surprising harmonic extension and resolution. (Schoenberg’s Sextet, Verklärte Nacht , dates from 1899.) This movement astonishes as the product of the inner life of a child! The third, marked Intermezzo, places us in the midst of the sound world of Der Rosenkavalier (premiered 1911). The marking of the finale says everything we need to know about the movement: As fast as possible (Presto); with fire and humor! (We rarely see characterizations like this in chamber music. More likely in opera!)

Caricature of the Wunderkind Korngold from the Neues Wiener Tagblatt

Caricature of the Wunderkind Korngold from the Neues Wiener Tagblatt

Korngold’s most significant later work would not be heard in the familiar world of theater and concert hall that supported the work of his predecessors and contemporaries. He was to become the inventor of the musical narration of a new artistic medium: commercial film-–in Hollywood. He became a legend and started a tradition of a different kind.

The final work, Johannes Brahms’s Second Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 26 (1861), written at age 28, before his great symphonies, reflects many of the intimate structural and melodic practices of Haydn and Schubert on a symphonic scale. To this writer it is the earliest work in which Brahms finds his later voice. Each of the three Brahms Piano Quartets has found favor among our listeners for many seasons.

Concert Dedication to Ida Levin

There are many aspects of this programming that make this concert an appropriate occasion to remember the contributions to BCMS of violinist Ida Levin, who passed away last fall following a serious illness.

Ida performed in the Brahms A Major Piano Quartet when it was last played at BCMS. In her many written communications it was she who suggested we do a program of music by Hollywood composers, many whose families she knew growing up in California. That request became our Exiles in Hollywood Winter Festival Forum topic and program concluding with a performance of Korngold’s Piano Quintet led by Ida. Her list of works that we ‘must’ tackle includes the Korngold String Sextet. She was its most ardent champion.

With this concert we recall, honor, and express gratitude for her artistry, intellect, loyalty, and presence.

Marcus

Intensity, Intimacy, and Innovation

The real influence of Mozart and Haydn was slow to show itself in Beethoven’s style, and what did eventually appear was the integration of Mozart’s and Haydn’s resources, with results that transcend all possibility of resemblance to the style of their origins, and are nowhere more transcendent than in a work like the E flat Trio, Opus 70, No.2 where Beethoven discovers new meanings for Mozart’s phrases and Haydn’s formulas.

Donald Francis Tovey, Beethoven (1944)

Our April concert displays at least three attributes of great chamber music making in three ‘new’ works by well-known masters, Ludwig von Beethoven, David Rakowski of Brandeis, and Robert Schumann from Leipzig!?!**

Although not his first, nor considered his greatest, Beethoven’s E-flat Trio, Opus 70, No. 2 is the place where he gave new meaning to long established patterns and extended the life and immediacy of the medium. The work opens with a slow introduction (as might a work by Haydn), seemingly in mid-sentence, with a cello phrase that is immediately taken in response by violin, and by piano. Rather than having the feel of introduction, it feels more like wandering and searching for what will become the dominant character of the movement. His returns to this same tempo and music later in the movement as transition to his second theme and as introductory to the coda illustrate Tovey’s observation of how Beethoven ‘discovered’ new meanings, or uses, for old structures.

David Rakowski’s contribution to the fine efforts of our BCMS Commissioning Club to make chamber music relevant to our time is appropriately entitled Entre nous. He writes:

“Entre nous is cast in a traditional three-movement structure, fast-slow-fast. The first movement begins pizzicato, which speeds up and develops into an antsy fast music where the instruments trade licks like they’re passing around a hot potato. It comes to a suddenly loud close. The second movement is a slow movement designed to highlight oboist Peggy Pearson’s marvelous playing; in it the oboe gets long lines against slow harmony, and, in the middle section, running notes in the strings. The finale is a devilish scherzo that develops entirely out of an opening tutti.”

His title and description of Entre nous remind us of the necessary intimacy of our medium and how a clever opening can lead to surprising conclusion.

Piano Quintet, Op. 44 (1842) by Robert Schumann was the first to combine piano and string quartet. Like Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and the Op. 70, No. 2 Trio, the quintet contains four movements, and is in the key of the E-flat major. Further parallels to the Eroica Symphony includes a slow movement in C Minor that may be heard as a funeral march; a Scherzo movement that some associate with the trio of a Haydn String Quartet (Op. 76, No. 6), and a rousing conclusion with the full weight of all forces that made this one of the first chamber works to be heard to great effect in large halls. **Although dismissed at first as ‘too Leipzigerish’ by Franz Liszt, (Schumann had studied at Leipzig University), the world’s first piano quintet soon gained wide praise and public acceptance. It remains a BCMS favorite.

Enjoy.

Marcus

Hearing the Sublime; “Seeing the Unseen”

“…we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

2 Corinthians 4:18

For our March return to Sanders Theatre we offer glimpses of eternity in two sublime works by the divine Mozart: the first of his two duos for violin and viola, in G major, K.423 and his Clarinet Quintet in A major, K.581 which encloses the second of his eight quintet slow movements specifying the use of mutes.

Two Impressionistic works featuring harp will also be heard. Joseph Jongen’s Two Trio Pieces for Flute, Cello and Harp, Op. 80 (1925) will receive its BCMS and Boston debut while Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for Flute, Clarinet, Strings and Harp will be heard for only the second time in our series. Our first Ravel performance was in 2001.

Our March concert also offers the opportunity to hear the last of five works by British-born composers we promised, from Adés, Bliss, Bax and Elgar to Peter Child, who is a member of our community. His piece was written for the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble in 2013. It bears the title of a scientific film created in 1936 in the lab of legendary MIT engineer Harold “Doc” Edgerton to study the workings of industrial machinery in slow motion with the help of stroboscopic high-speed photography.

Peter describes the mood and temporal quality of the music “whose cheerful demeanor matches the whimsical tone of the film. This transitions into music of extreme slowness in the second half, where, at first, the listener is invited to contemplate the beauty of single notes. Toward the end of the film, the beating of a hummingbird’s wings is transformed from an invisible blur to an angel-like pulsation. Here, rapid figuration, trills, and tremolos in the music are transformed into sustained legato counterpoint, back and forth in antiphonal exchange between woodwinds and strings.”

 “It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is the immortal life.”

Richard Jeffries, The Story of My Heart  (1883)

Enjoy,

Marcus

“G” is for Gemütlichkeit

GemGemutlichkeitütlichkeit: 1. cosiness (etc.). 2. cosy (or relaxed) atmosphere. 3. Leisure(liness).

Langenscheidt’s Standard German Dictionary 1993

 

Our second program at the Fitzgerald Theatre this season features three works in the key of G major, from three masters of Viennese style whose work embodies Gemütlichkeit– its relaxed way of life, social interaction, and the very essence of how and why we play chamber music. Haydn’s String Trio, Op. 53, No. 1 (1767), Schubert’s String Quartet, D. 887 (1826), and Brahms’s Second String Sextet (1866) teach us to do more than “just get along.” Through them we are invited to enjoy “playing well with others.”

Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), widely credited as the father of chamber music and the inventor of the string quartet, probably wrote more chamber pieces than anyone before or since. His Trio is very likely an arrangement of one of his earlier keyboard works. In his catalog it joins a number of works for two violins and cello as well as 175 trio divertimentos that included Baryton, a stringed instrument on which his Hungarian patron excelled. The work is in two movements that capture contrasting moods—genial and excited. It pre-dates by decades the works of two of his prodigious students: Divertimento for Violin, Viola and Cello by Mozart (K. 563 from 1788) and the six string trios of Beethoven (Op 3, 8 and 9 from 1792–96).

Of the three works on the program, the quartet of Franz Schubert (1797–1828) has the greatest dramatic contrast, i.e., emotional conflict and resolution in concept and ensemble writing. Schubert’s Fifteenth String Quartet, the last of his four mature quartets, displays every one of his many virtues, melodic and harmonic, at the height of his powers. He goes beyond those into truly inventive writing. From the beginning are the many ways in which he divides and unifies the quartet—one high voice against one low, a trio of highs against a trio of lows—in the same way he divides, antiphonally speaking, the ensemble in his later string quintet with two cellos, three against three. In marked contrast to the divisions are the many ways in which all parts often move lockstep in rhythmic unison. In energy, daring, and emotional range, this quartet is a direct descendant of Beethoven’s late Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 for string quartet.

Johannes Brahms’s (1833–1897) Second String Sextet doubles the size of the forces with which this concert begins. The addition of more players presents Brahms the opportunity to show how a mastery of part writing can achieve luminous transparency and grace from a crowd.

Brahms writes the opening theme against a restless undulating figure in the first viola part that opens the work. That two-note figure, heard as a distinctive pedal tone throughout much of the first movement, is also the source of many other tonal and structural relationships upon which Brahms constructs themes, sections and movements. The work is known to help Brahms work out some of his own relationship issues with an earlier neglected love, Agathe von Siebold. Her first name is spelled out in a closing theme of the first movement against the two-note figure, enlarged to a sigh, in a technique employed extensively during his time by his mentor, Robert Schumann.

The Brahms Second Sextet has the distinction of being the first of his works to be premiered in the United States, here in the Boston area in November of 1866. It has been and remains a cosy gathering point for many seasons since for BCMS’s Brahms lovers.

Enjoy!

Marcus Thompson

 

Britain Between Battles

Big Ben & Houses of Parliament with rain.

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

From Jerusalem, by William Blake (1804) set to music by
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry in 1916, orchestrated by Sir Edward Elgar c.1922

The title of the first of our two Fitzgerald Theater Winter Concerts refers to the three works written coincidentally in the time immediately following the First World War into the Roaring Twenties. Sir Arthur Bliss Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet (1927), Sir Arnold Bax Sonata for Viola and Piano (1923) and Sir Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A Minor, Op. 84 (1918-9). The title might just as easily refer to other battles, musical and aesthetic, raging between Paris, Vienna, and New York over the future of music: between the progressives and nostalgiacs, among Impressionists, Expressionists, Primitivists and Jazz lovers, and those for whom it all seemed headed for an atonal Apocalypse! It is possible that each of these works enjoys an important place in today’s chamber music canon because of the way in which they embody English ‘remove’ from the obvious battles of the day in favor painting portraits evoking character and place.

Commissioned by preeminent oboist Léon Goosens and the Venetian String Quartet from Mrs. Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge, Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet is a virtuosic work in three movements that treats all instruments as equals and evokes both the pastoral and folk elements of British country life. The oboe is allowed to be many things from sensuous siren to playful bagpipe over a wide range of tone and character. In that way it is a masterpiece.

Arnold Bax’s Sonata for Viola and Piano was written for Lionel Tertis, who is celebrated today as the premiere solo violist and commissioner of the great British viola music. His three-movement work, both atmospheric and virtuosic for both players, seems to emerge from and return to the mists and legends of time with a flavor of the Celtic literature that captivated its poet-composer.

Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet, one of few major chamber works he created, came late in his output after earning wide recognition for the orchestral ‘Enigma’ Variations Op. 36, the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius Op. 38, various Pomp and Circumstances Marches, Op. 39, and the Op. 61 Violin Concerto written for Fritz Kreisler.

Elgar’s Piano Quintet is the only work on this program that can trace its origins to a work from the German Romantic tradition. It is from the Robert Schumann’s Quintet, the very first for these forces, that Elgar seems to have drawn inspiration and idea for how to score piano with string quartet. Following the slow introduction the movement of all parts in rhythmic unison bears more than a passing resemblance. From there it evokes scenes and feelings found nowhere else in better-known chamber music. One of these (the second theme) may be heard as musical nostalgia for the Raj, Britain’s longing for Empire; another evokes the dramatic rumble of a cathedral organ in several interludes of chord clusters over a deep bass. (Elgar diligently studied church organ music). The slow movement evokes the pastoral English countryside with a beautiful viola solo. The third and final movement begins without break with melody that is undeniably patriotic in bearing. Elgar prepares to end of this movement with a jaunty, strutting rhythm which he marks Grandioso!! That’s as close as he gets to actually bringing on the military band.

Enjoy,

Marcus Thompson

Ida Levin’s Legacy

For all knowledge and wonder…is an impression of pleasure in itself.

Francis Bacon: The Advancement of Learning, 1605

P1050266_ILevin_MHLee

For those of us who were fortunate to hear, see, know, work with, and learn from Ida Levin (1963-2016), there is an indelible impression of the delight she took in drawing upon and sharing the depths of her experiences in life, reading, and in exquisite music-making.

Boston audiences heard her for many seasons as a member of the Mendelssohn String Quartet while in residence at Harvard University; as part of Musicians from Marlboro at the Gardner Museum; as Member Musician of the Boston Chamber Music Society at Jordan Hall, Sanders Theatre, Longy School of Music, First Church Congregational in Cambridge and First Church in Boston; and in the summers at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont and on the BCMS’s Hamel Summer Series.

Ida’s greatest legacy is surely to be found and heard in the countless younger musicians she mentored, nurtured and challenged to be more curious about sources, better prepared yet open to change, more self-assured, and true to one’s beliefs. How else does one approach the supreme artistic and personal integrity she modeled? It is likely that she has had more influence than most in her cohort in shaping the lives and artistry of younger players. In that sense she was very much like one of her most important mentors, Felix Galimir, who was her living link to pre-war Vienna and to the musical traditions she loved best.

For her mentees she became a link in that chain of aural and oral tradition. Her mentees became colleagues, and colleagues friends, deserving of her passionate embrace, commitment, and complete loyalty—her family. Like the true meaning of Felix, she was happy in life, whether scuba diving in San Diego, climbing around the Mount St. Helens Park with her son Judah, eating at the French Laundry, or at a favored restaurant in New Mexico with BCMS colleagues for her fiftieth birthday.

Ida’s last performance at BCMS was as leader of the Françaix Octet, a piece originally written to share the program with Schubert’s Octet for strings and winds, for performance by Willy Boskovsky, the Viennese Waltz King. It contains, among its virtuosity and wit, both a poignant reminiscenza and a fond lullaby, each a fitting musical tribute to a superb master.

Fantasy, Folk, and Faith

dancers-545315_1920

Hungarian folk dancers

“If I were to name the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit, I would answer, Kodály…His work proves the deep inner reason…his unshakable faith and trust in the constructive power and future of his people.”

Béla Bartók (1928)

In the third concert of our thirty-fourth season we draw on the three elements that most inspire, inform, and infuse the great music we admire from the depths of the Austro-Hungarian region.

Johannes Brahms’s Third Sonata for Violin and Piano (1889), the last of three full works with that title, is also the third to be presented in successive Novembers on our series. In this context it embodies the pure fantasy of a master at the height of his spiritual power taking leave of the earthy and familiar Hungarian references he enjoyed and employed in earlier works to seek the sublime. It is also the first of the two works written in 1889 that frame this program.

From pure fantasy and the sublime we turn to the Serenade for Two Violins and Viola (1919-20) by Zoltán Kodály where the spirit of the Hungarian folk is made evident in the jaunty rhythms and playful interactions among players. At the heart of this work, it’s middle movement –Lento, ma non troppo–Kodály creates a soundscape of night, and dream, onto which he allows fantastic utterances and recollections of the previous day to intrude. In the final movement we dance.

To conclude our concert we turn to Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87 (1889), first played in Prague in November of 1890. By this time Dvořák was enjoying recognition outside his native Bohemia, in Vienna, as a result of interest and intervention of Brahms and his publisher. The confidence and power of this work on the world stage are evident from the first notes. The unshakable faith and trust in the spiritual are there in the slow movement. But, it is in the third we are allowed into the warmth of the Bohemian hearth to hear the distant strumming of the balalaika. In the final movement, again, we dance!

Enjoy.

Shoulders of Giants

orion_aveugle_cherchant_le_soleilIn 1675 Sir Isaac Newton wrote a letter to Robert Hooke from which the inspiration for our October 23 concert program is taken:

“If I have seen further (than you and Decartes) it is by standing upon the shoulders of Giants.”

Our program presents works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, each associated, along with Haydn, with the height of the Viennese Classical tradition: Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, K.301 (1778), Beethoven’s String Trio in E-flat major, Op. 3 (1794), and Schubert’s Piano Trio in B-flat major, D.898 (1828).

The relationship among three of the great classic composers of chamber music, between a younger Beethoven for an older Mozart, and a younger Schubert for an older Beethoven, is typical of the admiration a young prodigy might feel for a much older master. But living and working in such close proximity, in time and place, and to the success and fame of an idol places an unusual burden on the younger composer to absorb, reflect and respond in fully original ways that go beyond master whose work still dominates the scene.

Mozart’s two-movement Sonata in G major for equals is a response to a format in which the piano had been prominent and the violin merely accompaniment in the three and four movement sonatas of his time. Beethoven’s String Trio in E-flat major is his response to the massive six-movement string trio Divertimento in E-flat of Mozart, K. 563 (1788), the same one that John Harbison graciously refers to as “the once and future King” of the trio repertoire. Our season finale last May presented the first Boston playing of Harbison’s new six-movement string trio (2013). With the distances in time and place that piece would more easily make a case for the ‘begats.’

Schubert must surely have known the great piano trios of Beethoven, not to mention Haydn and Mozart. His work speaks the same rhythmic, structural and harmonic language, with some surprising twists, and on an even grander scale than even the heroic Beethoven could manage!

Our concert is dedicated to the memory of our former trustee, patron, and friend Louis H. Hamel, Jr. It has been said that “his love of BCMS was romantic and deep, and his influence of the organization was Olympian.” “He was the driving force behind–and the major contributor to–the BCMS Foundation, a separate, supporting organization of BCMS that underwrites many of our artistic and innovative projects.”

We stand on his shoulders.

Marcus

Welcome Three New Member Musicians

jfmlppWe are proud to welcome three artists to our roster of member musicians: violinist Jennifer Frautschi, pianist Max Levinson, and oboist Peggy Pearson.

Speaking of the appointments, BCMS Artistic Director Marcus Thompson said, “We are pleased that Jennifer, Max and Peggy all accept our invitation and agree to join our group. Each of them has appeared with us on numerous occasions throughout the years and has impressed audiences as well as fellow musicians. Each also brings practical experience to the task of growing our audience, serving our community, and sharing in our artistic excellence. I will be a grateful beneficiary of their wisdom and experience.”

After accepted the invitation, Ms. Frautschi said, “I am thrilled to make my long-standing relationship with the Boston Chamber Music Society official by becoming a member musician. As a Boston resident who travels far and wide to concertize, I love nothing more than performing right here at home. I began collaborating with the musicians of the Boston Chamber Music Society on a yearly basis not long after finishing school, and over many years, BCMS has become like a musical home for me. I look forward to deepening my ties with my fellow artists and the devoted audience members of BCMS.”

When asked about his joining the Bosotn Chamber Music Society, Mr. Levinson stated, “It is a tremendous honor for me to join the BCMS family as a member musician. I have loved performing with the wonderful musicians of the Boston Chamber Music Society throughout my career under different settings and in recent years as a guest artist on its season series. BCMS enjoys a distinguished history and tradition as a cornerstone of music in New England, and I am excited to be a part of its future.”

Ms. Pearson said of her decision to accept the appointment, “Ever since I went to Kinhaven Music School for the summer at the age of twelve, I have lived to play chamber music. Playing chamber music in rehearsal alone is a joy, and being given the privilege of sharing it with an audience is just off the charts! I am honored to be asked to become a member musician of Boston Chamber Music Society. I have listened to and admired BCMS for as long as I have lived in Boston, and my performances with this group as a guest artist have always been a great pleasure. I so look forward to working with Marcus again and performing with my new colleagues as a member musician.”

All three musicians will appear in their new roles during the 2016-17 season on our series: Ms. Frautschi will be featured in the March 12 and May 14 concerts; Mr. Levinson will perform three concerts this fall on September 25, October 23 and November 13; Ms. Pearson will perform on Janaury 29 and April 9 whose program features Entre Nous, a new oboe quintet by Boston composer David Rakowski, commissioned by the BCMS Commissioning Club.