Looking back in gratitude and forward to summer

Our final concert of the season allows us the opportunity once again to say ‘thank you’ for your kind and generous support as we close out one theme (Piano Quintets–various) and anticipate our Hamel Summer Series focus on the music of Claude Debussy (whose 150th birth date is this August 22) and that of his cohort.

Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, a four-movement work completed in 1922, is dedicated to the memory of Debussy (1862-1918). It is a challenging and virtuosic work filled with all the tropes one might expect in the conversation that is duo chamber music: statement and echo, imitation to the point of canon, filling in each others spaces sometimes in staggered motion or syncopation–and more. The more would be the inclusion of what Ravel was hearing around him at the time and using from his past: quick alternation between major and minor triads, modal melodies that sound more Oriental than Western, and the use of pizzicato to create a background canvas for an atonal melody and a Jazzy walking bass. BCMS has performed this work in 1991, 1997, 1998, 2005, and 2006. If it is new to you, I think this vintage YouTube video performance of the second movement by cellist Paul Tortelier and his son can serve as the perfect introduction to this piece.

With the performance of Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio (1894) we also mark the end of the anniversary season of his birth in 1861. Like so many of the great Russian chamber literature it opens with the feeling of ‘Once upon a time’–that evocation of another sensibility and spirit through which the arts elevate. Last performed by BCMS in 1991 and 1998, the work also makes use of exuberant dance (in the second movement) and (in the third movement) a return to dark legend concluding in muted mystical ecstasy. The final movement wraps it all together bringing back previously heard music in cyclic cameo common in Russian works.

Arensky Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 32, 4th movement, ending

We conclude our concert and piano quintet series with Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, the only one in our series to include the double bass. Named because of the variations based on one of his songs in its fourth movement, the “Trout” Quintet has often been voted a audience favoite! BCMS has performed the work in our Cambridge and Boston series in 1985, 1987, 1994, 1997, and in 2005.

In case you have forgotten the song, here is a YouTube video with a performance of “Die Forelle,” (“the Trout”) by baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist, Gerald Moore, with the text and translation on screen.


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Ode to human conflict

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

–Winston Churchill: Tribute to the Royal Air Force, House of Commons August 20, 1940

Although not playing our April concert I will be in the house wondering if the relationships I heard while planning the program will be as meaningful to others as to me. The first two pieces are responses to war, the First and Second World Wars, respectively. The Brahms, in addition to continuing our perusal of piano quintets, and being a complete contrast to both pieces, shares some textural and rhythmic elements (unison and octave writing and strong continuous jaunty dotted rhythm) with the Britten.

As you might know from the program notes about the Janáček Sonata, with this performance we are observing the ninetieth anniversary of its premiere this month. Although started in 1914, it wasn’t completed until 1921 and premiered on April 24, 1922. Janáček’s music is everywhere these days and drawing renewed attention because of the upcoming performance of The Makropulos Case, about an ageless opera diva, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera next week. Those who have followed these introductions may recall we mentioned two months ago how Janáček displaced the more Germanic oriented Fibich within the pantheon of the three great Czech composers along with Smetana and Dvořák. Janáček became a master dramatist, one who was as influenced by the beauties of line and harmony associated with Puccini and Debussy, but who ultimately took his own path rooted in Czech folk traditions.

The sonata, dating from the time of World War One and its aftermath, opens in restlessness and turmoil. Janáček wrote of “just about hearing the sound of steel clashing in my troubled head.” (The first performance I heard of this piece was by Harumi Rhodes with Hsin-Bei Lee on a recital about eight years ago. As a result of that encounter I was determined to hear Harumi play it again.) The opening dramatic gesture in the violin joined later by the tremolando in the piano is so striking that I feel drawn urgently into a great and ancient conflict from which no resolution is apparent. These gestures and their accompaniment are so at odds that they do not satisfy the need for completeness we’ve learned to expect from melody, accompaniment and cadence.

Janáček Violin Sonata, 1st movement, opening

It is only in the middle of the second movement that the desire is satisfied with simplest of melodies played first by the violin. The melody is followed by a slower section, marked Meno mosso, in which the harmonic influence of Debussy is most apparent in the piano writing.

Janáček Violin Sonata, 2nd movement

The third movement has the clearest treatment of folk ideas in the piano writing punctuated by corroborating gestures in the violin part.

Janáček Violin Sonata, 3rd movement, opening

And, finally, the last movement allows a sense of resignation and repose even in fragmented gestures of the violin. The sonata was first played on our series in 2001.

Janáček Violin Sonata, 4th movement, opening

On hearing of Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 in C major (1945) for the first time as I did several months ago I was struck by the great sense of clarity between foreground and background material, the use of a lot of unison and octave writing, often against a sustained background, and the use of solo cadenzas to delineate important sections. In fact its opening section reminds of the opening to his Festival Te Deum (1934) sung in octaves like an ancient chant. When full part harmony appears it is a though the scene is changed from black and white to full color.

The quartet was completed in the aftermath of World War Two following a concert trip to play for survivors of the concentration camps as accompanist to violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Somehow I feel the invocation of the Festival Te Deum texture to open this work sets the emotional stage for what follows.

Britten Festival Te Deum

Britten String Quartet in C major, 1st movement, opening

The second movement Scherzo, muted and skittish, is described as ‘malevolent.’

Britten String Quartet in C major, 2nd movement, opening

The third movement entitled ‘Chacony’ (think Chaconne, as in Bach Chaconne for solo violin) is spelled that way in reference to the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, who, among others, also wrote in this form–but spelled it differently. It is a series of twenty-one variations (or divisions on a ground) in a manner that Purcell might have conceived. That it has a number of solo cadenzas to delineate sections larger may be a passing reference to Bach, whose great Chaconne is also a sectional work.

One of the hardest things for me to understand as a lover of Brahms and Britten was why Britten considered some of Brahms’ symphonies and chamber music ‘ugly and pretentious,’ and ‘gauche.’ Apparently, he started out liking the music as a young man and then something changed. In placing their music side by side, as we do in this concert, we can only hope that each gets his due while others decide.

I wonder what Britten thought of Brahms’ Symphony #4, which concludes with a great Chaconne. Or how he might have reacted to hearing the opening of Brahms’ great Piano Quintet placed after his Quartet in C major, realizing that it starts with the same skip of a fourth in unisons, the same textural choice Britten made so prominent in introducing the theme of ‘Chacony.’

Britten String Quartet in C major, 3rd movement, opening

Brahms Piano Quintet, 1st movement, opening

This performance of the Britten quartet will be our first on the BCMS series.



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A storied past

Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet (1790) is the kind of work that can evoke memories of where you were the first time you encountered it. It is one of his latest pieces–from the period when, as one of my friends put it, “Mozart was no longer a prodigy, nor even a mere genius; he was divine.” I first played the piece as a student at Juilliard in a hastily called reading session with friends for the purpose of being coached by a visiting dignitary. In preparation for last January’s concert entitled Exiled to Hollywood: Outcast Artists in Southern California, I was reminded of that dignitary who was one of Hollywood’s leading studio performers, for whom so many film composers created solos, and who was a trailblazer in the days when being the first and only took a back seat to just being great! Cellist, Eleanor Slatkin, mother of conductor Leonard Slatkin and founding member of the Hollywood String Quartet, was also a lovely but fearsome presence with high artistic standards. She taught us to value every moment of this sublime work.

Since then I’ve played it more times than I can remember, but always retain a few distinct impressions of what makes this work great for me. The first is the range of wonderful colors he achieves by integrating and embedding the clarinet into the ensemble as an equal partner. In the slow movement his use of muted strings allows the clarinet to reveal its most intimate secrets, the chalumeau (low) register, which Mozart cradles in the most luscious of harmonies. (Anyone who has heard this piece need not wonder why Brahms chose muted strings for the slow movement of his Clarinet Quintet.)

Movement 1, measures 1 to 41

Movement 2, measures 1 to 20

Second is the extent to which Mozart uses many up-lifting melodic and rhythmic gestures I associate with spiritual ascent through physicality–inspire (inhale), aspire (exhale).

Movement 1, measures 169 to end

Movement 2, measures 20 to 38

Movement 3, measures 1 to 8

Movement 4, measures 1 to 26

And third, where Mozart, the supreme dramatist, leaves me breathless every time! If you know the piece, I’ll bet you know the place. It is the first movement theme accompanied by cello pizzicato. Not counting the possibility of the first movement repeat, the theme appears four times. We hear it played first by the first violin and answered by the clarinet. The tune is, frankly, unimpressive. The answer shows promise, even talent. Later in the movement when it returns in the home key it appears much as it did before. However, the answer this last time by the clarinet has caused many colleagues to simply avert their gaze.

Movement 1, measures 42 to 65

Movement 1, measures 148 to 169

No one but Mozart could have imagined such an answer. And this is only the first movement!

In the last movement Eleanor Slatkin would not let me stop playing until she thought I had confronted every issue raised by the ‘viola’ variation (the only one in a minor key in an otherwise upbeat movement.) Should you allow time before starting it? Should it remain in the same tempo? How pronounced should those grace notes be? Is the ‘sadness’ already in the music, or do you need to add more? If you play slower than the movement tempo, how do your colleagues return to tempo without seeming to rebuke? These and others are enough to keep any violist up at night! BCMS has performed the Quintet in our series in 1985, 1991, 2001, and 2006.

Copland’s Sextet for String Quartet, Clarinet and Piano (1937) has a storied history with BCMS. It is easily one of the most challenging works for any ensemble. Complete with virtuosic hi-jinks, it is actually a lot harder to play than it sounds! Why? Because so much of the piece appears on paper the opposite of how it sounds to an audience. So many of the strongest gestures occur on off beats and in changing meter. It is this combination of shifting rhythm and open intervals that gives Copland that uniquely American flavor that we recognize in Rodeo, El Salon Mexico, Appalachian Spring and other favorites.

Copland Sextet, Movement 1: Allegro vivace, beginning

BCMS has played this piece in Boston and Cambridge in 1985, 1995 and on a national tour through California, Colorado and the Midwest that is fun to laugh about now. For our last concert we arrived at a college town two hours before concert by small plane. The place was small enough that the airline thought it ok to send our luggage on the next flight without telling us! That one arrived after concert time. I played the concert in a borrowed over-sized tux, shirt, tie, shoes and socks! I felt like a clown, which seemed somewhat appropriate to the mood of the piece!

Now it can be told, one of my great passions is for the music of the great French pipe organists Widor, Gigout, Vierne, and of course Cesar Franck! Our season series of Piano Quintets on every concert continues with Franck’s Quintet dating from 1879. Everything one has learns to love about his Symphonie in D minor (1886-1889) and the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1886), especially his cyclic form using closely related melodies over several movements and close elegant modulation, is anticipated in this great work.

Movement 1, excerpt

Movement 2, excerpt

Movement 3, excerpt

As an organ lover for me the bonus is hearing Franck add the rumble of the low bass stops one gets from great cathedral organs. What better way to leave a concert feeling grounded! BCMS last performed this piece in 1988 and 1995.

Movement 3, excerpt



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Who is Fibich?

With apologies to Shakespeare and to Schubert (‘Who is Sylvia…?’) we dare ask up front a question that is probably on many minds. Zdeněk Fibich was born in 1850 (Vseborice, Bohemia)–of a Czech father and Viennese mother–and died in 1900 (Prague). He is best associated with fellow countrymen Dvořák and Smetana who are better known because they wrote in a more patriotic style as the Austro-Hungarian Empire came to a close. “Fibich’s music is not very obviously Czech although folk melodies and rhythms occur in the chamber music; folk music is not an organic part of his music.” (Grove Dictionary) Fibich is said to have written a nationalist tone poem that Smetana later acknowledged as inspiration for Má vlast, preceded some of Dvořák’s narrative tone poems, and anticipated international subjects later set by Janáček. Although considered a precocious talent who received superlative training reflecting influences from Bach and Mozart to Mendelssohn and Wagner, he is today treated as a missing link between Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček in the history of Czech music.

His Quintet for Violin, Clarinet, Horn, Cello and Piano, Op. 42, a late work from 1893, continues our season of piano quintets and concludes our February program. This performance will be a first for BCMS and a second for Mihae Lee, pianist and William Purvis, horn, who played it last summer in Maine.

Sound clips for
Fibich’s Quintet for Violin, Clarinet, Cello, Horn and Piano

1st movement: Allegro non tanto

2nd movement: Largo

3rd movement: Scherzo

4th movement: Finale: Allegro con spirito

So far this season we’ve heard and enjoyed piano quintets by Sofia Gubaidulina (for her 80th birthday), Robert Schumann (the first ‘popular’ piece of chamber music), Webern’s arrangement of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, and one by Korngold (based on a song from his Abschiedslieder). The Schoenberg and Korngold were presented as part of our Exiles to Hollywood Winter Festival and Forum series with pieces spread over three concerts.

That series ends with the performance on this concert of Ingolf Dahl’s Concerto a tre, a sassy tour de force, by the brilliant Swiss pianist-composer who joined many other Hollywood exiles and émigrés in making lasting contributions to American musical culture and scholarship while working in the recording and movie studios of Hollywood. Dahl helped to translate Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music lectures delivered at Harvard, played celeste in Spartacus, worked on the Twilight Zone, made musical arrangements for Tommy Dorsey, gave classical lessons to Benny Goodman, and taught San Francisco Symphony Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas. As a pianist he supplied the performance of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata for the 1969 animated film A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Concerto a tre was performed by BCMS in 1984, 1992 and 2003.

Sound clips for
Dahl’s Concerto a tre

Allegretto comodoAssai moderato, esitandoPresto

Our program opens with Beethoven’s Piano Trio  in D, Op. 70 No. 1, known as the “Ghost.”  Last performed by BCMS in 1983, 1989, 1994, 2001 and 2003. It’s movements are labeled Allegro vivace e con brio, Largo assai ed espressivo, and Presto. The brilliance of the outer two frames the darkness of the slow movement that prompted the nickname “Ghost.”

The Largo, has been called highly original, even prophetic ‘night-music’ forecasting acoustic effects that became synonymous with portraying the fantastic in both Romanticism and Impressionism. According to one writer “at the time he wrote it, Beethoven was sketching an opera about Macbeth!” Much of the affect comes from Beethoven’s use of the tremoli, or trills, especially in the lower register of the piano that produce a quiet rumble with the help of the sustain pedal. When taken up by two string players the effect turns to a roar before all dissolves with the coming of day. The Presto finale erases the gloom and doom in a lighthearted, straight-forward mood that persists to the close of the Trio.



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Exiled to Hollywood

Each January since 2010 we have had the privilege of exploring topics in forum and concert that expand the contexts in which we appreciate the great chamber music literature. With support from MIT Music and Theater Arts Faculty and the Goethe-Institut Boston we place this season’s concert and forum squarely into the center of the most current and American of contexts–exile, immigration, resettlement and re-invention. We chose to focus on composers exiled to Hollywood and outcasts in Southern California around the time of World War Two, because the impact of the products of these arrivals–on concert music, film, popular culture, and higher education–is more varied, visible, and vibrant when compared to other regions. Coincidentally, this history is the subject of two books published recently by Harvard University and Yale University Presses. It is also topic that has been lived in many ways by members of our audience, our community, and at least one of our member musicians, Ida Levin, who grew up in Southern California.

This topic finds particular resonance at MIT, where the Music program and faculty were established in the School of Humanities by a German émigré after World War Two, Klaus Liepmann (albeit not via the California cohort), and where award-winning film music historian Martin Marks extols the virtues of these composers, and more, for all to hear.

Needless to say, this topic and this repertoire, even for the great chamber music, are far larger than we can cover even in one BCMS season. As it is, we began our presentation of the music with the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony on our December concert, and will end in February with the playing of Dahl’s Concerto a Tre. We have selected the most enticing of rare gems through which to tell the story in song text, forum, and concert. (For audio clips of the pieces on our program click here.) We are grateful to Martin Marks for his January Independent Activities Period (IAP) subject on Film Noir that is complemented by regularly scheduled DVD screenings of entire films with music by many of these composers and more. The class also is scheduled to visit Harvard’s Sackler Museum to see the work of visual artists from this cohort. In February, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts will have a film complementary series. You can find information for all the surrounding events here.

We hope you will also find time to participate in our BCMS Trivia Quiz on Facebook focused on the lives, contributions and achievements of this extraordinary group of composers. We hope as well that you will find their chamber music to be among the finest, and worthy of the traditions that we continue.



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Variations and Transcriptions

Our December concert is comprised of familiar pieces built on memorable themes and many curious and wonderful connections.

Two of our composers, Bach and Handel, were revered by everybody’s ‘composer of the month,’ Ludwig van Beethoven. (He turns 241 on December 16!) Beethoven came to the attention of Viennese audiences and musicians with his superb playing of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. He was known to have been an avid collector and student of Bach’s works, asking his publishers to send to him as many as possible.

In Beethoven’s last year of life, he warmly received a special gift from a friend named Johannes Andreas Stumpff. He wrote:

“My pen is unable to describe the great pleasure afforded me by the volumes of Handel’s work which you have sent me as gift–a royal gift…”

Cellist Peter Stumpf will be making a welcome visit after a long absence and career as principal cellist of the LA Philharmonic to open our program with Beethoven’s Twelve Variations for Piano and Cello on ‘See The Conqu’ring Hero Comes,’ from Handel’s Oratorio, Judas Maccabæus. This piece, which also welcomes the season of lights called Hanukkah (starting this year on December 20), will be the least challenging encounter with ‘variations’ that afternoon!

The most challenging may be in the most familiar piece on the program: Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Cello in A minor, Op. 114 by Johannes Brahms. It was premiered on December 12, 1891, 120 years ago! Why is such a gorgeous and listenable piece so challenging in terms of its use of variation? Perhaps because the ways in which its themes are derived and developed are so artfully hidden! To quote analyst Donald Francis Tovey:

“Where a melody has marked features of rise and fall, such as long scale passages or bold skips, the inversion, if productive of good harmonic structure and expression, will be a powerful method of transformation. This is admirably shown in Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations, in the fifteenth fugue of the first book of his Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues, in the finale of Beethoven Sonata, op. 106 and in the second subjects of the first and last movements of Brahms’s Clarinet Trio.”

Fortunately, we can enjoy this work for its harmonies, sentiments and colloquy without being aware how every note and following phrase are specifically derived from the contours of rising arpeggio and falling scale that open the first movement.

That is just how Schoenberg would want his own music to be heard and enjoyed! He closely identified with Brahms’s working process and use of theme shape. He devoted a chapter of his book, Style and Idea, to describing how Brahms’s use of “continuing variation” influenced his own development. When I conducted the full fifteen-instrument version of the Chamber Symphony Op. 9 in Kresge Auditorium many years ago, a colleague remarked that he could recognize the influence of Brahms in my reading. The Piano Quintet version, arranged for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano by his student Anton Webern, will continue our series of Piano Quintets and introduce the first of the composers whose lives and work are the subject of our third upcoming January Winter Festival–Exiled to Hollywood: Outcast Artists in Southern California. This version has been in our BCMS repertoire since our first season 29 years ago, and repeated in 1988, 1989 and 2002!

For any ticket holders, students and the Goethe-Institut Boston newsletter subscribers interested in having a close encounter with the musicians and discussion of the piece, on Saturday, December 10 at 4 p.m. we will be hosting an open rehearsal and discussion of the Schoenberg at the Goethe-Institut Boston in Back Bay. Please see Goethe-Institut’s website or call BCMS for further information.

The Schoenberg will be preceded on the second half by Bach’s Trio Sonata from the “Musical Offering.” The Trio Sonata scored for flute, violin and keyboard is an island of sublime composition amid a sea of fugues, canons and other variations that comprise the larger work based on a theme given to Bach in person by His Majesty the King of Prussia, Frederick the Great.



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Where it all began

The second program of our 29th season reminds me of many different beginnings in my own life: Haydn, as the “father of chamber music”, the Dohnányi Serenade as one I first performed on many tours in a trio with the man who was to become founder of BCMS, Ronald Thomas; the Bloch Two Pieces–first heard in the Seattle Festival (and not since), and the glorious Schumann Piano Quintet–the first piece of chamber music I ever heard! By the time I heard the Schumann, chamber music performances were widely available to the public, even on television as they are today. The move of chamber music from private conversation to public passion parallels the growth of civic wealth, the public emergence of instrumental superstars and ensembles, and the support of individual patrons who not only commissioned new works, but also sustained ensembles and series to let the people in.

The Haydn Piano Trio in C major is one of three dedicated to Therese Jansen, wife of his engraver Bartolozzi, and an apparently virtuosic former private student of Clementi. In the days before sustaining a public reputation, and before women were allowed to appear on stage, her musicianship and virtuosity inspired compositions from many composers. The trios of this set date from the time of Haydn’s years in England (1791-95) following Mozart’s death. We may recall that the latter two of three piano quartets commissioned from Mozart were cancelled by the publisher after the first quartet was delivered because the piano writing was deemed too virtuosic for home use in 1786 Vienna. In writing his second piano quartet for different publisher Mozart proved undeterred by the perceived local standard. For Haydn, the encounter with private greatness and public admiration beyond his national boundaries and expectations led to the creation of many of his greatest works including a few more sonatas for Jansen. This trio ends with one of Haydn’s greatest displays of humor, both in catchy tune and off beat accent.

Serenade for String Trio by Dohnányi has the distinction of being one of the most performed works for that combination after those of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Like the divertimenti and serenades of Mozart and Beethoven, it breaks the four-movement classical mold, employing instead five movements, the outer two using music for a march just like Beethoven’s Serenade in D major for String Trio. Where divertimenti and serenades of the past were often heard as background music intended to stimulate conversation, the Dohnányi was clearly written to be a show-stopper for three virtuosos who could not be denied. It is also the work of one who was to become an émigré from Hungary to Florida to teach at Florida State University following the war. Dohnányi is revered among musicians for his public stand against Nazi persecution of the Jews. His work is thereby the first of those by émigré composers we will be hearing this season as the focus of our Winter Festival.

Ernest Bloch’s Two Pieces for String Quartet were dedicated to the famed Griller String Quartet, with whom William Primrose recorded all the Mozart Viola Quintets as second violist. Since Bloch had already written two major string quartets and was soon after to write a third, it is possible these pieces were intended as encores adding spice and drive to their programs of classics, and as introductions to his longer quartets for presenters considering re-engagements.

As a young violin student growing up in the South Bronx in the 1950’s my first encounter with chamber music was seeing and hearing a telecast of the Schumann Piano Quintet played by the Budapest String Quartet with a pianist I cannot now recall. (It could have been Rudolf Serkin!) The most lasting visual image was of chiseled face of Boris Kroyt, the violist, turned outward over his viola toward the audience. The most lasting musical image was of the depth of feeling contained in the slow movement.

Four images of the Budapest String Quartet performing in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. The lower left photo shows the image of Boris Kroyt similar to the 1950's telecast mentioned above.

Four images of the Budapest String Quartet performing in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. The lower left photo shows the image of Boris Kroyt similar to the 1950’s telecast mentioned above.

After many years of studying, performing, teaching and hearing the piece, I’m not surprised how popular it remains with audiences. It is still regarded as the first work successfully combining piano and string quartet by a major composer. It also marks the collapse of the social divide between the private and public concerts that was to allow chamber music be heard beyond the inner circle of performers and friends by a wider audience.

Schumann’s ideal for how to write chamber music was summed up in a review where he wrote: “no instrument dominates, and each has something to say.” However, he was to recognize in works by Mozart and Mendelssohn the need to strike a new balance between musical substance and virtuosic display; between the needs of adept amateurs playing at home and recitalists such as his wife, Clara and Felix Mendelssohn; and between orchestral textures with unison doublings and independence of parts in response to the growing demand for public performances in larger spaces. These factors helped make this quintet the perfect crossover.

This is the piece that made chamber music popular!


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Youth and Age

Our first program of the twenty-ninth BCMS season is full of unusual juxtapositions of youth and age.

Mozart’s Piano Trio in B-flat major, written in 1786, is the mature work of a young composer whose life was to end much too soon in 1791.

The Four Poems for low voice, viola and Piano by Charles Martin Loeffler are among his earliest published works, Op. 5. The instrumentation easily evokes thoughts of the two songs, published late in life for the same forces (albeit for lower voice), by Johannes Brahms–his Op. 91–in 1884.

The Fantasy Pieces (1849) of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) are late works performed by a new young star in the cello firmament, Narek Hakhnazaryan, with BCMS pianist Mihae Lee. Narek won the Gold Medal at the Tchaikovsky Cello Competition last summer in Moscow and will be making his BCMS debut in his first Boston appearance since winning.

Sofia Gubaidulina (so-FEE-a goo-bye-DOO-leen-ah), one of today’s most celebrated composers, will turn eighty on October 24. Her Piano Quintet in C major dates from 1957 when she was just 26. Although considered a student work, it is praised for its mastery of form, clarity of texture, and wit. As if being a great composer at an early age were not enough, she was the pianist at the premiere in 1958 in the small hall at the Moscow Conservatory.



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Welcome to our 2011-12 Season

Dear Friends:

It is hard to contain the excitement we feel about the music we’ll hear, the artists we’ll experience and the ideas we’ll explore throughout the rest of the season. Our mission, to present insightful performances of the finest chamber music by many of today’s most exciting players, continues with a balance of the familiar and the new in every concert, masterworks of every period placed to honor creators and creation.

Our anniversary honorees this year include Charles Martin Loeffler, Sofia Gubaidulina, Ingolf Dahl, and Anton Arensky. The April performance of Janáček’s Violin and Piano Sonata coincides with the anniversary of its premiere in April 1912! Sofia Gubaidulina, one of the world’s leading composers, turns eighty during the week we play her early piano quintet to kick of the series of piano quintets to follow on every concert. Her close connection to Shostakovich during the years it was composed make the introduction of her piano quintet to Boston audiences compelling and necessary!

Our November concert contains a rare gem. To those who love rich string quartet textures the Bloch Two Pieces will be a revelation even as they resonate the same C major tonalities heard earlier in the Haydn and Dohnányi trios. Building from three players, to four, and then five, the program concludes with the first really important work for piano and string quartet, the ever-popular Schumann Piano Quintet.

In December we move from Harvard’s Sanders Theater to MIT’s Kresge Auditorium in time to acknowledge the passing of Hanukah with Beethoven’s Variations for cello and piano on a theme from Handel’s oratorio, Judas Maccabeus. In that program we also play the piano quintet arrangement of Arnold Schoenberg’s early Chamber Symphony, the first of the many such works by Jewish composers who were or would be exiled from Europe by World War Two to a life in Los Angeles of unprecedented creativity in music for film, concert hall, and in teaching the public about music.

The story of how great artists uprooted from their native soil make a new life and world for themselves and others is better known through painting, literature, dance, film and symphonic music than it is in chamber music. The range of the contributions by consummate masters of chamber music such as Korngold, Eisler, Toch, Castelnuovo-Tedesco will be the subject of our third annual Winter Festival and Forum at MIT’s Kresge in January flanked by the works of two other exiles, Schoenberg and Dahl, on the December and February programs.

The extraordinary personal achievements of our recent and future visitors and guests will also add to the excitement this year. Among them are the new principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony, the new principal flutist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, the former principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the new concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony and the winner of the Gold Medal in cello at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow! We are grateful as well for visits from friends who are leaders and members of other local ensembles including the Boston Symphony, Boston Musica Viva, and Marlboro Music.

All of this has been made possible by your continued generous support and from the wise guidance and dedication of our Board. We remain continually grateful and look forward to beautiful music making this year.

Musically speaking,
Marcus A. Thompson

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All manner of plucked things and variation

Our April concert can probably be distinguished by its containment of ‘all manner of plucked things;’ that is, the use of the plucked sound, explicitly and implicitly, as a source of the character and variety in the music. (And–for that matter–this music contains all manner of variation, too!) 

Mozart’s first of three quartets for flute and three strings contains some of his most exuberant and virtuosic writing for chamber ensemble. As busy as the viola part is in the last movement, the most memorable feature of the piece is the slow movement, which has a winsome, yet languorous, flute solo accompanied by all three strings playing pizzicato. The effect is very similar to flute playing with harpsichord muted by the lute stop, and that of the Arioso from Bach’s Cantata No. 156 for which the string accompaniment to an oboe solo is often played pizzicato these days. The slow movement closes on an uncertain harmony, one that suggests Mozart intended it to be introductory to the last, and not to be excerpted or played independently. 

The most striking variation is the way in which Mozart re-harmonizes the repetition in measure 8 of the opening phrase–to slither downward into a key-relationship we call the Neapolitan in measure 11. More important than what it is called, is its emotional effect (it’s afekt) on the listener, aware or unaware: to turn one’s gaze more inward. 

Mozart Flute Quartet in D, K. 285, Movement 2

The Saint-Saëns Fantasie for Violin and harp, Op. 124, calls to mind the caricature of Saint-Saëns by his student Gabriel Faure, that appears, among other places, in the Saint-Saëns article in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The drawing may be a sly commentary on Saint-Saëns growing preference for the thin sonorities of the harp in his late works and the elimination of the piano from his chamber works. Fantasie is in one movement with many sections. The first sounds we hear are harp arpeggios under the notes G and F, repeated. When the violin enters, it is given an embellishment on these two notes that spans the interval of a perfect fourth. That interval is the framework around which the melodic material is woven and varied.

Saint-Saëns Fantaisie, opening

In a later section that interval is even more obvious as the outline of an ostinato in the bass (think Pachelbel’s Canon, or Vitale’s Chaconne!) with the notes, repeated over and over with increasingly florid variations added in the violin part above. At times it reminds me of a kind of Spanish Dance, or Salsa. Olé!

Saint-Saëns Fantaisie, ostinato

Keeril Makan is a young award-winning composer who is a teaching colleague at MIT. In 2008 the Harvard Musical Association commissioned from him a Trio for flute, viola, and harp that we performed for the first time last December at the Association’s Beacon Hill venue. During the same month as the commission Keeril was awarded the distinguished Rome Prize that allowed him residency in Italy for a year of composition. At the December concert he told the audience that this trio was intended to be performed as a companion piece to the Debussy Sonata for the same combination. Keeril says that he intentionally did not look at or listen to the Debussy in order to avoid its influence.

According to Keeril the title, Nothing is More Important, refers to issues related to the craft of composition: how to present material where all elements have equal importance by exploring mechanisms for establishing importance such as duration, register, ordering and repetition of events. In this piece he says “ all attempts at expression are of equal importance.”

Perhaps the earliest inspiration for the piece came from the painting Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Vittore Carpaccio, in the Galleria Accademica of Venice. In it the traditional means of establishing the focal point by placement of figures turned inward, the overhead designs, color choices, juxtaposition of youth and age, and the relative sizes of the principal figures all assist in establishing the importance of the child. The presence of three angelic figures playing a flute, viol, and lute adds that extra intangible to the scene.

Keeril’s music has a simple transparent texture. It may be described as minimalist and repetitive with small, subtle changes (i.e., variations) occurring in each part within each cycle. The effect of cumulative change can be experienced as both hypnotic and meditative. Our first reaction on putting it all together last December was “wow”!

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is celebrated throughout Christendom as the Feast of the Epiphany, or as the Purification of Mary. According to the Biblical account written in the Gospel According to Luke, the High Priest, Simeon, was reported to have uttered words that have since been set to music as the Nunc Dimitis.

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy Word,
for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people.
To be a Light to light on the Gentiles And to be the glory of Thy people Israel.

In musical settings these words often appear as a separate movement after the Magnificat (the Hymn of Mary in which the Virgin expresses humility, astonishment, and thanks to God for the news of her conception). Taken together they frame that most important period in the church year (and in painting) that observes the Annunciation, Birth (Christmas!), and Circumcision. For observant believers Nothing Is More Important.

The Chausson Piano Quartet in A major is a later and more complex piece than the Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet that closed last season. My colleagues and I have always made light of the theme’s resemblance to a popular commercial from a few years back that I will not quote here.

Every commentator I have read makes much of Chausson’s relationship to and influence by Wagner, Franck, and Debussy. Once you get past the strangeness of the opening theme the harmonies and colors attest to the influences. The thematic material as expected is very useful in creating the kind of cyclical work associated with Saint-Saens, Franck and other contemporaries, where material heard early on makes welcome and varied cameo appearances in later movements.

Chausson’s most famous piece, Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, has some of the most transcendent music every created by anyone. His colleagues were quick to recognize this, and to say so. His early death as a result of biking accident left all feeling as though the world had been robbed of an especially gifted spirit.

So, if you are wondering how this work relates to the explicit or implicit use of plucking, you will need to go back to the theme to realize that it is based on a pentatonic mode commonly associated with Chinese music played on the Guzheng, or Chinese harp:


Note how these notes sound when placed in the A Mode at the beginning, and how they sound in the C Mode (as printed above) at number rehearsal number 5.

Chausson Piano Quartet in A, Movement 1, opening

To this listener Piano Quartet in A major by Chausson is the place where the combination of Wagnerian chromaticism and the use of Chinese pentatonic mode gave birth to the harmonic language of Giacomo Puccini’s operas Madama Butterfly and Turandot!


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