“…a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”
Rossitor W. Raymond, A Commendatory Prayer
For our March, April, and May concerts we return to Sanders Theatre at 7:30 in time to herald the return of spring and the beginning of new life. It is in these final three programs of the season that BCMS presents chamber music masterpieces from our own time and place alongside those that have withstood the test of time by inviting and rewarding our curiosity. The three masterpieces from our own time are Osvaldo Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (in March), Pierre Jalbert’s Street Antiphons (in April—our second BCMS Commissioning Club work), and Dimitri Shostakovitch’s final work, Sonata for Viola and Piano (in May), first played by me in the Boston area the year it was published, 1975.
On Sunday March 29, our program opens with Mozart’s Trio in E-flat major, K. 498 for Clarinet, Viola and Piano known also as the “Kegelstatt”. This piece is known to audiences by its unusual scoring, for two alto instruments and piano, and for the elaborate ornament with which Mozart concludes the first measure. For a concert at MIT in 2004, I wrote:
“The first movement, marked Andante, opens with an elaborate turning ornament in the piano and viola parts which is repeated at least 60 times throughout the movement. In the piano part alone it appears, in one hand or the other, on each step of the E-flat major and minor scales, if you count the one appearance on F-sharp (which is another name for G-flat). Each instrument in turn plays the lyrical melody that emerges from the initial bauble.
The second movement, a Menuetto (and Trio), has a largely chordal piano accompaniment. This texture, less flowing than the first movement, is notably close in tempo. The Trio section, at the center of the entire piece, is introduced by a three-note solo clarinet phrase and answered by a virtuosic stream of viola triplets. (The number ‘three’ appears to be deeply nested throughout the work—in the number of players, key signature of the outer movements, the number of movements, numbers of notes per measure, and per beat in the Trio section, etc.)
The final movement, labeled Rondeaux, is an Allegretto, also in moderate tempo, and notably more elaborate for the piano. There are extended solo passages like those in the two innovative piano quartets (K. 478, 1785; K. 496, 1786) whose technical difficulties caused the publisher to pull the contract for four more….
K. 498 may very well be the best example of a “lesson-in-progress” in how to teach a promising student to do a graceful ornament (through constant repetition, and on every scale step); how to encourage growth (by presenting greater challenges and rewards); and, how to achieve contrast in a limited tonal and tempo palette (by exploiting the close similarities and using tasty chromatic alterations and key changes to make differences both profound and subtle). The closeness between viola and piano with which this piece opens suggests the kind of instruction in which teacher and student play together to introduce a tricky concept. The increased independence of parts, dialogue, and artistic flair over time are the goals and rewards to be attained.”
Composed during his late period in 1815, Beethoven’s Sonata for Cello and Piano Sonata in C, Op. 102, No. 1 is one of five that were said by contemporary critics to “elicit the most unexpected and unusual reactions.” In this Sonata, as in other late works, Beethoven abandons earlier norms by changing the expected number and content of movements, reorganizing the manner of exposing, connecting and developing his themes and moving among keys.
Instead of three or four movements, he uses two. Instead of writing the first movement mostly in the announced major key, after the slow introduction he spends most time in its relative minor only to return securely to C much later in the movement. Instead of offering a sense of certainty about where he is headed, we are left with the feeling of search and discovery, of someone trying different paths, questioning, and changing direction. In this way Beethoven, more than any other composer, challenged the expectations of his time and helped us feel what it is like to question everything and to hear familiar materials as new.
By now we all realize that Osvaldo Golijov is a local master whose work has been enjoyed by symphonic, choral and chamber audiences throughout the world and in the Boston area for many years. His masterpiece, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for Klezmer Clarinet and String Quartet, is not new to Boston audiences. It was played earlier this season by A Far Cry with clarinetist David Krakauer, and more than a decade ago by the St. Lawrence String Quartet with Todd Palmer on the Celebrity Series. It is, however, new to BCMS audiences this season. Inspired by the writings and teachings of the Rabbi mystic from 800 years ago, and three historical languages associated with Jewish history (Aramaic, Yiddish and Hebrew), the work ultimately explores the root of the most intense artistic expression: the metaphorical ‘blindness’ of playing by heart, and of bringing music into the world from the very depths of the soul.