Musically Speaking from New England’ preeminent chamber ensemble

Antonín Dvořák: From Bohemia to Iowa

Prague, Charles Bridge (Karluv Most)

“I am told that there is no popular demand for good music in America. That is not so. Every concert in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago or Washington, and in most other cities, no doubt, disproves such a statement. American concert halls are as well filled as those of Europe, and, as a rule, the listeners–to judge them by their attentive conduct and subsequent expression of pleasure–are not a whit less appreciative.”

Antonín Dvořák in Harper’s Magazine, February, 1895


Dvořák retains the distinction of being the only major European composer to come to America (1892-5) on a mission to help found a national school for classical music training. Instead he found his American students patriotic, enthusiastic, daring, and a resource for some of his own best-remembered compositions: the American String Quartet (premiered in Boston in January 1894), the American String Quintet (premiered in New York in January 1894), the New World Symphony (premiered in New York in December 1893), and the Cello Concerto (completed in 1895).

Our February program at the Fitzgerald Theatre this season captures Dvořák’s chamber music before and during the American encounter in ensembles of increasing size, from the Terzetto in C major for Two Violins and Viola (January1887) to the Cypresses for String Quartet (May 1887, based on a romantic song cycle of the same title composed in 1865), and Quartet Movement in F major, B.120 (October 1881). The program concludes with the American String Quintet.

As a composer some of Dvořák’s earliest music was chamber music–a string quintet, string quartet dating from the 1860s. His early training was as an organist, but the stringed instrument he played was the viola! His music is unabashedly Czech despite heavy instruction in the music of the Germanic masters of the time. He incorporated specific folk references– the Furiant and Dumka– within his music as often as Haydnesque variation movements. His sensitivity to the repression he felt as a Bohemian national may have made him more open to the musical practices and styles of American Indians and African Americans born of similar treatment. His summer journey and vacations in the Czech community in Spillville, Iowa would place in close proximity to the American heartland, while time in New York teaching in the inner city would bring him into contact with talented young musicians like the singer, and soon to be composer H.T. Burleigh, who, following Dvořák’s example, created concert arrangements that have preserved traditional African-American music.



Music from the City of Light

Aleksander III bridge in Paris“Actually two schools confront each other: the old comprises the disciples of César Franck, and Claude Debussy may justly be considered the initiator of the new.”

Maurice Ravel, 1913

Paris, much in the news these days, has long been a place of refuge and re-invention for outsiders even as it remained the site of national self-discovery. Our January program on January 31 at Fitzgerald Theatre highlights virtue and virtuosity in the uniquely French take on sounds associated with the café-concert, chambre, concours, and cathedral. We present, for a change, in reverse chronological order, hoping to shed light of our own on a trend that grew since the 1870s with the founding of organizations like Société Nationale de Musique to promote a more distinct identity for French music.

Maurice Ravel’s late Sonata No. 2 in G major for Violin and Piano written between 1923 and 1927 opens the concert with his daring mélange of what outsiders from Igor Stravinsky to W.C. Handy (of St. Louis Blues fame) had introduced to Paris theaters and cafés. At the very heart of this piece are the blues brought from the “wrong side of town” and served to his public for the first time in Rhapsodie in Blue (1924).

Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, completed in February 1922, marked a turning point in his style, requiring him to work within the severe harmonic constraints imposed by using just two instruments. The result is a highly virtuosic and imitative work that favors melodic invention and folk elements in response to earlier works by Debussy, Bartók, and Kodály. It opens with a repeated triadic melody that alternates between major and minor as it ascends and descends; and is followed by a scherzo that opens with the same motive in pizzicato. The slow movement begins and ends slowly in the melodic depths of the cello after describing an arc in pitch, emotion, and pacing. The sonata ends with a romp through modal melodies and rhythms gleaned from Eastern European folksong that were also a source for Debussy.

George Enescu, the Romanian-born violinist, violist, pianist and composer (who died in Paris in 1955) was commissioned in 1906 by Gabriel Fauré to write a piece for a competition (concours) at the Paris Conservatoire where Enescu served for years as a jury member. The result is a challenging work that is both virtuosic and lyrical, one that sounds the viola throughout its tonal and coloristic range as an equal with the piano. In structure it falls into three main sections like a sonata movement. Harmonically, at times it displays the subtle shifts associated with both Wagner and Fauré, early influences for a brilliant young composer, who felt out of place in the all too cerebral atmosphere of the conservatoire. With its German title Concertstück stands at the crossroads of a decades-long effort to restore prominence and distinction to French music.

Our program concludes with the late, great Piano Quintet in F minor (1879) of César Franck. Often compared to the great piano quintet in the same key by Johannes Brahms (1864), it is in three big movements rather than four, with harmonies similar to those in music by Liszt and Wagner. Unlike the Brahms, the piano writing goes beyond the tonal range of the string quartet, and often challenges their dominance with an expansive dynamic range and tonal sonorities reminiscent of the organ he played at Saint-Clotilde.

Some players have wondered whether the quiet tremolando that opens the third movement (in the second violin part) might be the source of the fortissimo opening of the last movement of Ravel’s own string quartet! Could be.




Music and Memory

The third concert of our thirty-third season begins with a song by Schubert that quotes the same funeral march theme from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”) referenced in Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss, the work that concluded our October concert. Franz Schubert’s Auf dem Strom for Tenor, Horn and Piano, D. 943 was written at the beginning of his own final year, 1828, on words from a poem by Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860).

Like the Eroica Symphony, Schubert’s work was dedicated to the memory of one thought to be greater than its author. Premiered at Schubert’s first and only public concert during his lifetime, Auf dem Strom was to mark the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death and intended to underscore the loss by incorporating phrases from Eroica’s funeral march in its melody. (See highlighted section below.) The sense of loss is made palpable when Beethoven is imagined as the speaker in the poem, bidding farewell to life and love, no longer able to hear songs from the shore while being carried along on a boat out to sea on an ever-rushing stream. Schubert paints musical images of land and seascape through his use of the natural horn associated with the hunt and distance, and triplets in the piano accompaniment to evoke flowing water.


In the poetry selected for two short songs by Johannes Brahms memories of songs, fragrances, dreams and feelings of childhood are recalled in the down pours and gentle summer rain in Regenlied (Rain song), and as sad tears in Nachklang (Echo). These songs are prologue to the performance of his Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 78. The ‘raindrop’ accompaniments and motifs of the songs appear again in the last movement of the sonata and are the reason it is often referred to as the Rain Sonata.

Following the intermission, we conclude our program with Johannes Brahms’s great Horn Trio in E-flat major, Op. 40, long a favorite at our concerts. Brahms dedicates this trio to the memory of his mother.

We will gather next after many holidays, at 3 pm Sunday, January 31, at the Fitzgerald Theatre of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School for a program entitled Parisian Provenance, in which we remember that Paris remains the City of Light!



Music fit for a King…Archduke…Emperor…and for us

“I hope that Your Imperial Highness will continue especially to practice writing down your ideas straight away at the piano; for this purpose there should be a small table beside the piano. In this way the imagination is strengthened, and one also learns to pin down the remotest ideas at once. It is likewise necessary to write without a piano. Nor should it pain but rather please Your Imperial Highness to find yourself absorbed in this art, at times to elaborate a simple melody, a chorale with simple and again with more varied figurations in counterpoint, and so on, to more difficult exercises. We develop gradually the capacity to represent exactly what we wish to represent, what we feel within us, which is a need characteristic of all superior persons.”

Beethoven writing to Archduke Rudolph, Vienna, July 1, 1823


Our second program of Season 33 sounds, as one, two recent themes familiar to our audience: change and time. Change over time, variation, or metamorphosis lies at the heart of each of our musical offerings.

Bach’s great six-voice fugue, the Ricercar from The Musical Offering is also his richest textured treatment of the theme he was given and commanded to improvise upon by Frederick the Great (King of Prussia and flutist). Even Bach didn’t think he could do it justice on the spot and once at home was determined to do even more. This piece, played in a version for six string players, serves as an invocation to the works that follow.

Beethoven’s “Archduke” Piano Trio, Op. 97 is one of at least a handful of  major works dedicated to Archduke Rudolph, who was at the time both his student and a discerning patron. The work is in four movements with Scherzo following the first movement, and a simple theme and variation movement that introduces the Rondo finale without coming to a close. The work, considered to among the most sublime, derives much of its power from Beethoven’s ability to achieve the starkest of contrasts with the simplest material and to both move and mock us from one moment to the next. For me, one of the most amazing areas of contrast comes in the Trio section of the Scherzo where Beethoven resorts to fugal like writing, starting with the cello in its low register, that is more chromatic than anything he had written before or since. The palpable darkness in an otherwise cheerful movement is quickly dismissed with a light dance in a brighter key, before the chromatic darkness returns again. The play of light and dark, the sudden emotional shifts that draw us in, and the outbursts to follow, make this one of the most engaging works in the chamber repertoire.

(Beethoven’s manuscript of the Archduke Trio. More available from Beethoven-Haus Bonn’s digital archive.)

Following intermission the seven-part arrangement of Strauss’s Metamorphosen concludes the program as it completely embodies the idea of change over time. Written at the end of World War Two by a witness to the folly of absolute power and the utter destruction that followed, Strauss invokes the funereal theme of the variation movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”) from which he had removed the original dedication to Emperor Napoleon. Unlike most variation movements, the full theme is sounded in the bass at the close of the work. Could this be a way of showing order emerging from chaos?

We will meet this same theme again, in a month’s time, at the start of our next concert, quoted within Schubert’s “Auf dem Strom.”



Introduction, Re-Introduction, and Longevity

“I take the liberty of sending to Your Electoral Highness various musical pieces… composed by my dear pupil Beethoven, who has been graciously entrusted to me. I flatter myself that these pieces will be kindly received by Your Electoral Highness as worthy proof of his industry outside his regular studies. On the strength of these pieces, connoisseurs and amateurs must own without bias that Beethoven will one day take his place as one of the greatest composers in Europe, and I shall be proud to call myself his master. I only wish that he may still remain with me a while longer.”

F. J. Haydn: to the Elector of Cologne, Vienna, November 23, 1793

Thus was the gracious social introduction that the so-called “Father of Chamber Music” offered on behalf of the talented young viola player of twenty-two he met in 1792. That was the year Beethoven came to Vienna to study harmony and counterpoint and had hoped to travel with Haydn to London where, from 1791 to 1795, Haydn was himself being introduced to London audiences with great acclaim as man who was still creating exciting new work in his sixties!

Among those works was Piano Trio in C major, Hob. XV:21 (1794) that also introduces our thirty-third BCMS Season. This work, in turn precedes one of Beethoven’s most virtuosic and humorous string trios, Op. 9, No. 1 in G major (1798), the very form that Beethoven perfected before moving on to write the great string quartets, symphonies, sonatas, ballets and opera.

Our program concludes with another introduction to longevity, Richard Strauss’ great Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13 (1883-4). Although he was only 20 years old at that time, the quartet was considered to be his only “mature” work for chamber ensemble, one that looks back on Beethoven and Brahms with his invocation of the heroic key C minor (same key as their most famous symphonies). Strauss was known to quote himself ever after. To those who know what comes next, this work can seem oddly predictive and, for all its heroism, minor in the presence of his later achievements.

To those who will be introduced to chamber music by this concert, and to those who are acquainted with this medium and these works, we hope that you will be charmed and refreshed by the originality of each of these composers, both young and young at heart. As Haydn famously said,

“There was no one around me to confuse or torment me, thus I was obliged to be original.”


Congratulations, Marcus!


MIT announced that BCMS Artistic Director and violist Marcus Thompson has been awarded its highest faculty honor, the title of Institute Professor. He joins a small group of Institute Professors at MIT, now numbering 13, along with 10 Institute Professors emeriti. The new appointment is effective July 1.

According to MIT’s Policies & Procedure, “The title of Institute professor is an honor bestowed by the Faculty and Administration of MIT on a faculty colleague who has demonstrated exceptional distinction by a combination of leadership, accomplishment, and service in the scholarly, educational, and general intellectual life of the Institute or wider academic community.”

In addition to his well-known concert career as soloist and chamber musician, Marcus has been an influential presence at MIT for over four decades. He arrived at MIT as an assistant professor of music in 1973, and was named the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music in 1995, the same year he was named a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow for exceptional teaching. At MIT, he has developed programs for the study and performance of solo repertoire and chamber music literature from five centuries. As a member of the viola faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music since 1983, Marcus has taught aspiring professionals who now hold positions in orchestras, chamber ensembles, and universities worldwide.

“My initial reaction was that I was shocked, stunned, amazed,” Marcus says of learning of his appointment as an Institute Professor. “I’m also extremely grateful and humbled by the recognition not just of me, but the fact that there is music at MIT, and high-quality music. It’s a privilege to be at MIT, and to be recognized is just an honor.”

“Over his long career, Marcus has worked to give students access to a world-class music program that has changed MIT,” says Steven Hall, chair of the MIT faculty and a professor of aeronautics and atronautics. “Many colleagues told us about his commitment to and generosity with students. Like Penny and Ron, Marcus is one of the great men and women of our faculty who inspire us every day.”

(Photo credit: Bryce Vickmark | MIT News Office)

For more details, see MIT News Office annoucement: Chisholm, Rivest, and Thompson appointed as new Institute Professors

The Music for ‘Now’


So reads the neon sign on the staircase foyer wall of the Linde Family Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The work was acquired in 2011 with funds from its 2010-2011 Contemporary Art Visiting Committee that at the time included members of our audience.

As true as this statement is, in the life of most musical performers it is a rare privilege to introduce a work to the public, and to be able to perform it anew forty years later after it has become important in the history of our art. This will be our experience this week with Sonata for Viola and Piano Op. 147 (1975) by Dmitry Shostakovitch. In 1975 I performed its Boston area premiere as part of a faculty recital at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium with pianist Seth Carlin. I have since performed it at BCMS concerts in November 1993 with Randall Hodgkinson, and again in August 2005 with Mihae Lee.

In 1975 we knew the sonata was the final work of one who had lived through and responded creatively to repeated challenges from an oppressive Soviet regime. We learned since that, in a gesture of hommage to one who had broken the boundaries of his time, Shostakovitch quoted motifs and textures from two of Beethoven’s better-known solo piano sonatas. In time we recognized the first piano theme as a twelve-tone row: the very use of which Shostakovitch himself had previously denounced. What we didn’t know until many years later was that the middle movement is based on his pre-existent 1940’s opera sketch of Gogol’s sardonic play The Gamblers in which two swindlers are duped by their intended mark. The three-movement sonata concludes with some of the most transcendent music that Shostakovitch produced. Today we appreciate this work among the greatest of the past.

In our program Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 (1975) is framed by two major works in minor keys: Schubert’s Quartettsatz D.703 (1820) in C minor, and Brahms’s great Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34 (1864-65) in the 150th year since it was first published.



The Coming of Spring

Spring is coming,
Spring, my joy;
Now I will make ready to go journeying

                                                –Wilhelm Mueller

Our April program heralds the return of spring with Schubert’s ever-hopeful “The Shepherd on the Rock” (Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D. 985, 1828) for Soprano, Clarinet and Piano. That return is mirrored on a different scale in the echo of phrases repeated back to a lonely shepherd pining for his distant love from the top of a mountain to the deep, dark valley below. The poem and the piece are a conversation between what appears on the surface and what lies beneath.

Our April program also heralds another return of new life with the premiere of Pierre Jalbert’s Street Antiphons, the second work commissioned by our own BCMS Commissioning Club. Coincidentally, it is also a dialog, or conversation between opposites that ultimately shapes the new. As Mr. Jalbert describes it:

“My piece, Street Antiphons, attempts to present and contrast secular and sacred music.  Having said that, this is very much my own take on these two contrasting types of music within my own style of writing. The title of the piece comes from combining the idea of music of the street and music of sacred chant–the third movement is a theme and variations based on a Gregorian chant antiphon. The ‘secular’ music (music of the street) comes in the form of rhythmically driving sections, while the ‘sacred’ music is often lyrical and suspended.

The first movement is set up by each instrument entering and adding to a very syncopated groove (with many mixed meter changes). After a clarinet and violin canon-like duo over the rhythmic accompaniment of pizzicato cello and piano, the initial process reverses itself and the instruments exit one by one. The second movement really contains two movements in one–it begins as a lyrical and ethereal slow movement, with the use of many string harmonics, but gradually transitions into a rapid scherzo-like movement, with the use of the bass clarinet.  The final movement is a set of variations–the theme is a Gregorian Chant entitled ‘O Antiphon’. The variations become more and more animated and after the final, extremely disjunct variation, there is a reprise of music from the first movement, only to dissipate and once again recall the more ‘sacred’ music from the piece.”

The program concludes with Brahms’s Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87, published in 1883. It is a powerful work in four movements in which the two string players are often used together in dialog with the piano and shows Brahms’s continued exploration of overall shape and continuing variation. That shape is based on earliest material we hear: i.e. C–E–A–F–D–B–G–g…an expanding tonal wedge in search of the octave. (Does this idea sound like something evolving or growing from nothing? Like evolution, or the big bang, or maybe just the opening of a flower?)

The work continues with a movement of five variations based on a snappy theme in the Hungarian style followed by a Mendelssohn-like Scherzo.

The last movement opens with an evolved variation of the first (C–E–F#–A–G) and proceeds with a lightness of spirit married to content that is grand, symphonic and celebratory.

Spring has arrived!!!



Searching our Horizons, Exploring our Depths

“…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.



Why Gershwin?

Pianist Randall Hodgkinson performed a recital through Groupmuse a week prior to our French Connection concert. After an evening of solo pieces by Fauré, Debussy and Ravel, he ended the program with three preludes by Gershwin. Here is a video clip from the performance. Enjoy!