Musically Speaking from New England’ preeminent chamber ensemble

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.



Ida Levin’s Legacy

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

Francis Bacon: The Advancement of Learning, 1605


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


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!


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.


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.

Seeing the Unseen

For us at BCMS the performance of the great chamber music literature is one of those miracles that arise from the joy of intimacy and focus. Many of you ask who leads, how we know whom to follow, and how we decide. The answers may be found in attending one of our open rehearsals. You may learn that we are guided as much by feeling as by thought, that we rely on the guidance from the composer, aural tradition, imagination, advice of our colleagues, the fun of imitation, and the comfort of being able and willing to add our individual voice in agreement. Some of this is seen in concert since that is, after all, what “in concert” also means. But, much remains unseen and therefore mysterious even to the most experienced listeners.

In our thirty-fourth season, you can see and hear passionate collaborations among world-class players in the familiar, the rare, and the new. Among the familiar are string trios of Haydn, Beethoven and Kodály; piano trios of Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann; piano quartets of Brahms, Dvorák, and Mahler; and the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.

Among the rare are the mighty Elgar Piano Quintet, Jongen’s Two Pieces for Flute, Cello and Harp; and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. The one hundredth anniversary of its premiere inspires us to introduce Korngold’s precocious String Sextet in our season finale as a follow up to String Sextet No. 2 of Brahms performed earlier in February.

The newest of the new is our latest Commissioning Club offering, David Rakowski’s Quintet for Oboe and Strings. It is preceded two months earlier by a work for the same forces by Sir Arthur Bliss. Peter Child’s Seeing the Unseen adds the hearing and feeling dimension to the world of light captured in slow motion scientific film. In all, there are five works by composers of British descent, the most in any recent series. That, too, is “Seeing the Unseen.”



Masters Each, of Great and Small

Mozart, Harbison and Schumann


The cultivated musician may study a Madonna by Raphael, the painter a symphony by Mozart, with equal advantage.   –Robert Schumann, Journal of Poetry and Thought


We conclude our season with three masterworks: two for string trio with piano from the past, and one, for string trio by a local master, played for the first time in Boston. Each of these shares the distinction of being great among works for small forces by masters of the epic. Each, as well, displays relationships to earlier works from which it is a descendant.

Mozart’s First Piano Quartet (1785), born of a publisher’s commission, in the dark and stormy key of G minor used earlier in his Symphony No. 25, actually cost Mozart the completion of the project because it was received as too difficult to play and not quite cheerful enough for popular taste. Today this quartet for string trio and piano, the first great effort in this form, is heard much as Schumann described the later Symphony No. 40 in G minor—“full of Hellenic grace”—beautifully proportioned, and elegant. Mozart’s Second Piano Quartet considered less challenging for listeners, although equally difficult for players, was produced on his own terms for a virtuoso pianist, and free of market approval.

Harbison has identified his new String Trio (2013) with the great Mozart Divertimento in E-flat major, K.563, a six-movement work that also inspired Beethoven’s E-flat String Trio of the same size. Harbison calls the earlier work “the once and future king” of the genre, acknowledging its “stretches of great learnedness and patches of casual geniality” and how it “exults in the sufficiency of two or three voices.” Where it departs most from the Mozart example is in its abundance of duos and expansive solo cadenzas, for each of the instruments and pairs, as well as sections where all three move in perfect rhythmic unison or staggered unison, i.e., in canon. In doing so he seems to exult in the “game” of chamber music—unity through imitation and agreement—while exploring the freedoms of being left alone, or of recalling that sometimes “three’s a crowd!”

Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op 47 (1842), which lives still in the shadow of his great Piano Quintet written earlier that year, was created for performance by his wife, Clara, who by 1848 toured with the work to St. Petersburg, Berlin, Prague, and Vienna. In structure, its first movement has much in common with Haydn’s practice of writing a slow introduction and Beethoven’s practice of returning to that introduction in the middle of a fast movement. The second movement is in the style of a Mendelssohn Scherzo, in the dark key of G minor! (Schumann is known to have almost idolized Mendelssohn.) The third movement is the one audiences love best—tuneful, heartfelt, and simply textured. At its mid-section it turns inward looking to the point of being Beklemmt (i.e., choked with emotion) as Beethoven specifies in the Cavatina movement of his Op.130 string quartet. Thereafter the simple tune of the opening returns, this time in the viola part, ending the movement on a hopeful note. The last movement opens with a running fugato theme similar in character to the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. Melodic episodes and extensive canonic imitation, of which Harbison partakes, follow before returning to the energetic fugato to close.



Pairs and Peers

Our April concert features flights of fantasy—famous duos, and a trio, that are the products of special relationships between prominent pairs and peers: players with composers, composer and composer, and player with player.

The duos are Franz Schubert’s late Rondo for Violin and Piano in B minor (1826), Zoltán Kodály’s early Duo for Violin and Cello (1914), and Claude Debussy’s Première rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano (1910). The trio is Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114 (1891), long a favorite at BCMS.

Richard Mühlfeld and Johannes Brahms

Mühlfeld and Brahms

Brahms was the pianist at the premiere of his Clarinet Trio in 1891, the first of four great works he was to write for clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whose consummate artistry coaxed him out of retirement.

Invited by Gabriel Fauré, then the head of the Paris Conservatoire, to create a challenging solo work for clarinet in 1910, Debussy’s Première rhapsodie is appreciated today in its first piano version, and with Debussy’s later orchestration (1911), for its wide expressive range of character and color.

Without the coincidence of two young and adventurous Hungarian composers (Kodály and Bartók) willing to travel the countryside in search of the roots of what would become their national style we might not have the folksy improvisation and children’s song that inform the Duo for Violin and Cello. Virtuosity and imitation, both competitive and cooperative, is the manner in which pairs and peers relate.

Franz Schubert really must have been taken with Josef Slavik, who was both a violin virtuoso and a composer often favorably compared to Niccolò Paganini. The Rondo in B minor and the great Fantasy in C major were written by Schubert for Slavik. It is certainly a show of youthful endurance lasting, as a single movement, about fifteen minutes of great tunes, high-kicking antics, ambiguous harmonies and false endings to prolong the fun!


Music from our heart to yours

In March we return to Sanders and to spring. Our program features works by Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn from the heart of the Romantic tradition, and the premiere of the gift from our BCMS Commissioning Club—Harold Meltzer’s first Piano Quartet!

Schubert’s String Trio in B-flat major, D.581 (1817) is not heard as often as the great ones by Mozart and Beethoven, or his own two great Piano Trios. It exists in two versions. We will hear the later, new and improved! It is the soul of elegance and grace, devoid of the drama of the Beethovens, and the extended Olympian virtuosity of the Mozart. It has all the sweetness and intimacy of a Romantic miniature, but with many of the witty surprises of Haydn as it fully inhabits the four traditional movements from the Classical Style: Sonata, Three-part song, Minuet and Trio, and Rondo.

Harold Meltzer’s first Piano Quartet (2016) is BCMS’s contribution to the continuation of our Art in our time. Harold Meltzer’s music is widely appreciated and has been heard recently on series throughout the states and often in our own community with BMOP and recently at the Longy School. He is a recipient of the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as commissions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and from the Lydian String Quartet to name a few. In the course of writing the piece he experienced the loss of a great friend and mentor. To honor the memory of composer Steven Stucky, Meltzer says:

“Late in the writing of the piece I began to think about how I could memorialize him in music. He would not have liked a dirge, and I wanted the relevant music to be about him rather than my feelings about him. One of his breakout pieces was an orchestral work called Dreamwaltzes, a piece that looks back fondly to the nineteenth century waltz tradition. So I composed a bit of waltz music and embedded it in the work; it sounds like suddenly a music box has opened. In my own backward look to the nineteenth century I overshot: Dreamwaltzes conjures Brahms and Strauss, while mine is the briefest of references, without quotation, to mid-period Beethoven.”

View of Lucerne by Mendelssohn, 1847

View of Lucerne by Mendelssohn, 1847

Our program concludes with Mendelssohn’s birthday present to his sister, Fanny, Piano Trio in C minor Op. 66 (1845). It is his second piano trio, each of them in a minor key. C minor is associated with the dark secretive world that forces its way to the light. Mendelssohn was known to have been a splendid visual artist who included drawings in his letters, and who was said to retain and communicate many of his musical ideas in visual imagery. Over its four movements—from its dark opening in octaves (like his Overture to Fingal’s Cave) through its slow movement song, scurrying Scherzo-like third movement, to its last movement’s laughing opening and conclusion with triumphant songs of praise, Piano Trio in C minor lifts our spirits in gratitude and wonder!