Musically Speaking from New England’ preeminent chamber ensemble

Re-Discovering Bach

Our Thirty-Second BCMS Season begins with a program consisting of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Mendelssohn’s D minor Piano Trio. It is a program that highlights the simple act of rediscovery we each experience on hearing again a work or composer whose work we thought we knew. This program contains many such levels of re-discovery. First and foremost may be in the pairing of the two composers: Mendelssohn is credited most for re-introducing to the public the music of Bach eighty years after his death.

Pianist Randall Hodgkinson has in recent seasons been on his own personal quest of re-discovering the Goldberg Variations, performing them in the solo piano arrangement on a faculty recital at the New England Conservatory of Music, on the radio in WGBH’s Fraser Studio and at various concert venues throughout New England. Originally written for harpsichord with two manuals or keyboards, any pianist who wants to play them on piano will first have to arrange how to avoid collision of the two hands when the score asks him/her to play in rapid succession the same notes in the same registers.

In our twenty-seventh season BCMS programmed an arrangement of the Goldberg Variations for string trio by the noted violinist, Dimitry Sitkovetsky. On hearing this arrangement and the one for solo piano played on the same program at a Montreal Chamber Music Festival concert, the inevitable question arose about how these two arrangements played by alternating successive groups of variations between piano and strings might work. Last Spring Randy and I had the opportunity to find out in a performance at Holycross College with violinist Carol Lieberman and cellist Jan Mueller-Szewars. The combination and contrast of colors was revelatory–as much about how to rediscover and enjoy the intricacies of the work as about how to play Bach authentically–with none of us playing the original instrument! Bach was known for making arrangements and alternate versions of his own works as well as those of others for different instruments.

Even though they were the largest collection of variations on a single theme at the time, the Goldberg Variations were not the first nor last to use the theme that occurs in the bass. With thirty variations in which to explore every mood and psychological state you can find elsewhere in his entire corpus, from the most exalted spiritual to deep depression to raucous mockery, Bach is not done yet. The presence of twelve canons on the same theme written to follow the Goldberg Variations shows his imagination and skill to be inexhaustible.

Three firsts come last in BCMS Season Thirty-one

Our last program of the thirty-first season concludes with three great virtuosic works—by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Françaix—that allow us to collaborate with instruments beyond those played by our member musicians. Each of these works brings a new sonic dimension to our chamber music playing and is to be played for the first time on our BCMS series.

The Quintet for violin, two violas, violoncello and horn, K.407 (1782) by Mozart is a curiosity composed for a virtuoso who was also a family friend. The quintet combines an instrument most associated with the outdoors with a quartet of strings commonly played in an intimate interior setting. Where they meet is in the character of the music, which combines the outgoing nature of the horn concerto (Mozart wrote six!) and the warmth and intimacy of his two viola quintets (of which he also wrote six!). With the traditional quartet transformed by the use of two violas instead of two violins and the horn and violas sharing the same register, the result is a sonic shift giving greater importance to the interior colors.

The Sextet for piano, violin, two violas and bass by Felix Mendelssohn (1824) was composed by the fifteen year old to dazzle family and friends with his virtuosity at one of their bi-monthly Sunday salons in Berlin. It is Mozartean in character and color—using two violas like the viola quintets, and the bass as in the early piano concertos. These works place on display the comparable precocity of each composer who, coincidentally, had each met Goethe as a young child.

The Octet for string quartet, bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn by Jean Françaix (1972) was written to be the opener for the Schubert Octet on a concert presented in Vienna and led by Willi Boskovsky, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1936 to 1979 and the long-standing conductor of the Vienna New Year’s Concert. The Françaix Octet captures all the charm of the by-gone waltz era of the Strauss family, much of which is still on display in concerts in Vienna at the turn of each year, while commanding a wit and virtuosity not usually heard in that music. We offer it as a start to a pleasant summer.

Willi Boskovsky with the Vienna Octet performing the Schubert Octet


“What’s Past is Prologue” or “After it, follow it, follow the Gleam.”

“What’s Past is Prologue”   –Shakespeare

“After it, follow it, follow the Gleam.”  –Tennyson

Our April program contains three works, including one premiere, that each owes existence to a shining example from the past.

Beethoven’s Piano Quartet, Op. 16 in E-flat major (1796) is his own arrangement of the Quintet for Piano and Winds he wrote at age 26. In its original form it is his response to Mozart’s glorious Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452 (1784), the one Mozart referred to in a letter to his father as “the best thing I have written in my life.”

For me one of the most enduring aural images is of the way in which Beethoven turns a tiny rivulet into a mighty stream. Over the course of the first movement he gradually converts a little detail of a two-handed scale in the piano into a mighty roar that dominates the sonic landscape. In that sense he frequently converts background into foreground and, through this arrangement, allows us to experience his craft from many perspectives with completely different colors.

We are delighted that George Tsontakis (b.1951) is the composer our musicians have selected to write the first piece commissioned by our new BCMS Commissioning Club. He has chosen to honor the artistic life and output of Doménikos Theotokópoulos (also known as El Greco), a fellow Greek, on the four hundredth anniversary of his death April 7, 1614. The piece, entitled Portraits by El Greco (Book I), is a collection of Tsontakis’s impressions of a number of paintings by the artist, depicting his adopted hometown and deeply experienced spiritual mysteries. The work is scored for violin, viola, cello, clarinet and piano. Our world premiere performance will be accompanied by visual projections of the paintings.

Concluding our concert will be the String Quintet in A major, Op. 39 (1892) by Alexander Glazunov, which he wrote at age 27. It is scored for string quartet plus cello, a combination that might easily bring to mind the sonorities of the Schubert Two Cello Quintet, its most famous predecessor. Like Schubert, Glazunov is able to defy gravity and explore the lighter side of the tonal spectrum despite increasing the number of lower instruments. He does this by creating opportunities for cello solos with full quartet accompaniment, and by the clever use of harmonics and pizzicato. Charming, indeed.



¡Olé, Ja ja, C’est vrai!!!

The Turina Piano Quartet, Beethoven’s early Viola Quintet and the later of the two Fauré Piano Quintets present three alternative yet affirmative ways in which a composer’s chamber music can project the inner life and evoke cultural atmosphere that mark place and time.

Although written in Paris after exposure to the music of Debussy, Turina’s Piano Quartet is steeped in nostalgic folk elements from his native Seville. Its three untitled movements sound more like programmatic scenes of a culture rich in Moorish architecture, plaintive and improvised song with guitar accompaniment, flapping skirts swaying to undulating rhythms—all painted in the most vivid colors.

Although published after the six great string trios and six early string quartets, in this quintet Beethoven’s voice suggests more of an orchestral reduction than a work conceived for chamber forces. He may have been wondering how to use all those violas (!) even after Mozart’s six splendid examples. The giveaway is in the use of tremolos in the last movement.

I’ve come to believe that Fauré’s Piano Quintet in C minor, his last work for chamber ensemble, is a work of religious (Catholic) mysticism in the way that we might think of the music of Bruckner: in search of higher truth. Without clearly defined sections, or background and foreground and long climbs from valleys to peaks and back, I find that my appreciation of this work related to its hypnotic appeal.



Simple Gifts

Each of the works on our February 2014 program blossoms from the iconic arrangement, albeit in different ways, of four simple tones. The Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia for Violin and Viola is a set of virtuoso variations, above a bass tune from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in G minor, HWV 432, by the Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen whose 100th anniversary we observe this season. The tune starts with g – e♭ – f – B♭, the same note intervals chimed by great clocks like Big Ben, and continues with e♭ – c – d – D – G. From there embellishments spread throughout both parts in equal measure.

The Mozart Divertimento in E-flat major for String Trio, arguably the first such effort for this combination in history, also begins with an iconic four-note theme played in descending hushed unisons and octaves at the start of the piece: e♭ – B♭ – G – E♭ before breaking into a harmonized texture. These four notes, in fact, form a simple arpeggio.

The Smetana Piano Trio in Gm Op. 15 is iconic in its own right as the impassioned tribute from a loving father for his daughter lost to illness. The sense of tragedy is captured from the start with the solo violin playing what amounts to a chromatic descent D, C♯, C, B at the start of its long and far-reaching melody.

That mighty trees can from small acorns grow is as true in art as in life.



Tidings of ‘comfort and joy’ in music of Brahms and Taneyev

That BCMS has performed music by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) more than any other composer may speak to the comfort and completeness it evokes fulfilling the ideals of the German Romantic spirit, whether the sense of life as journey from home– through nature–to final rest, or the bittersweet recollection of love found, and lost.

Music by Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915), the man often referred to as the Russian Brahms, is among the least familiar to BCMS audiences in part because it arrived late to our repertoire midway through our history at a time when his music was being re-discovered and revisited worldwide. My first encounter was at the Sitka (Alaska) Summer Music Festival where I played for more than thirty years. Taneyev’s music was especially welcome by audiences in a town that had once been the North American Russian capital. It is from there that interest, particularly in the chamber music, spread east to the rest of us.

Sergey Taneyev at piano

Sergey Taneyev at the piano

We have chosen to pair great chamber works by these two great composers in two winter concerts at MIT (December and January) to enjoy their differences as much as marvel at what they display in common. Besides their obvious physical resemblances and contemporaneous careers, these composers were each products of musical families, great pianists (Taneyev debuted in Brahms’s D minor Concerto), protégés and colleagues of great older composers (Schumann, Tchaikovsky). Each believed in the power of his native folk music and in the need for mastering contrapuntal techniques of the past as the basis for creating new music of artistic significance. Like Brahms, who stood alone writing in classical forms his contemporaries relegated to the past, Taneyev remains a singular figure for abandoning indigenous Russian musical tradition and nationalism in favor of more abstract concepts.

When asked earlier this year to create a playlist of Russian music for a colleague, particularly music that displayed Russian bells, after Tchaikovky’s 1812 Overture my thoughts turned immediately to the conclusion of Taneyev’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 30. A more exuberant and joyous conclusion marked by the chiming of imaginary church bells is difficult to find in all of Russian music!

Taneyev’s Piano Quintet was premiered in Moscow in 1911 and last played by BCMS in 1997. (By then I had already performed it a decade before in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tashkent. Members of the Taneyev String Quartet attended our first concert.)

His String Quintet (with two cellos) Op. 14 in G (1904) was performed by BCMS in 2000. The performance of its companion piece, String Quintet (with two violas) Op. 16 (1905) in C will close our January concert as a Boston Premiere!



…getting by with a little help from our friends…

This November we present three major works that became even more notable for owing their very existence and subsequent popularity to great friendships. Mozart’s Duo in Bb for Violin and Viola K. 424 (1783) is the second of two he composed to complete a pending commission for an ailing friend, Michael Haydn, brother of Franz Joseph. Michael had composed four of six, in the keys of C, D, E, and F before becoming too ill to complete the last two. Mozart chose the keys of G and Bb, taking particular pride in being able to write in the style of Haydn in order to remain undetected as the true composer by their common patron. The Duos were never published by Haydn, nor were the final two revealed to be by Mozart until 1793, two years after his death.

Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, Opus 65 (1961) by Benjamin Britten will be played for the first time in the BCMS series as our observance of the 100th Anniversary of his birth. It is the first of five compositions focused on the cello resulting from a chance meeting of Rostropovich and Britten. The sonata marks the return of Britten to purely instrumental music after a break of nearly thirty years. It is also an occasion for exploration of special effects and techniques on the cello including many from important repertoire of the past. Notice how the first movement ends with the same rising arpeggio (in harmonics tracing the overtone series) that closes the first movement of the Ravel Piano Trio!)

Piano Quartet in G minor by Johannes Brahms is the first of three and owes its final form to the influence and advice of Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim among others. The quartet was performed publicly for the first time on November 16, 1861 by Clara Schumann. Shortly after her diary entry says “The Quartet only partially satisfies me; there is too little unity in the first movement, and the emotion of the Adagio is too forced, without really carrying me away. But, I love the Allegretto in C minor and the last movement.” Brahms made his Viennese debut with the work on November 16, 1862 at the piano with friends from the Hellmesberger Quartet and was encouraged to give a follow up concert with his second piano quartet played earlier this year in our Hamel Summer series. The third Brahms Piano Quartet will be heard this season in the second concert of our MIT Series in January, 2014.

We thank you for your support and friendship.



Youth and Age

“…[the] first shall be last; and the last shall be first.” Matthew 19:30”

Our thirty-first BCMS season begins with the programming of three works that are among the first and lasts of their kind by three masterful composers: The latest of Mozart’s three A major sonatas for violin and piano, K. 526 (1787), Schubert’s last and perhaps greatest Fantasie for Piano Four Hands in F minor, D. 940 (1828), and William Walton’s first chamber music piece, the Piano Quartet in D minor (1918-1919).

The program combines the masterful products of youth and age even as we welcome to our roster of BCMS Member Musicians three extraordinary young colleagues whose artistry we have come to enjoy in recent seasons. Cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, violinist/violist Yura Lee and violist Dimitri Murrath will each be heard in their new roles performing throughout the coming season.

For the Mozart Sonata and the Walton Piano Quartet this concert will be the first performances by BCMS, if not a first in the region for the Walton! The Schubert Fantasie was last performed in our series in March 1992 by Randall Hodgkinson and Christopher O’Reilly. This performance marks the first time our familiar team of Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson will perform this great work.



Welcome Three New Members

New Member MusiciansWe are proud to welcome three artists to our roster of member musicians for the 2013-14 season: violinist/violist Yura Lee, violist Dimitri Murrath, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan.

Speaking of the appointments, Marcus Thompson, Artistic Director, said, “We are pleased that Yura, Dimitri and Raman all agree to join the ensemble as we are starting our fourth decade of bringing exceptional chamber music performances to the public. Each of them has performed with us multiple times in recent years and has been praised by audience and critics alike. They are among the masters of the young generation and represent the highest standard of chamber musicians. We are looking forward to performing and collaborating with them on stage and in our community activities to promote the art of chamber music.”

Yura Lee first performed with BCMS in February 2011. After accepted the appointment, Yura said, “Chamber music is a huge part of my life. The joy of finding that special point of communication with music is something that is very essential to me. Not to mention the fact that we are so fortunate to have the greatest composers writing some of their greatest works for chamber music. I feel lucky to be able to play chamber music, and also lucky to be sharing it in Boston. I am very happy and honored to be part of BCMS, to be joining musicians that I so admire, respect, and enjoy playing chamber music with. I look forward to sharing one of the greatest joys of life with you all.”

Dimitri Murrath first appeared with BCMS in December 2010. Dimitri said of his decision to accept the appointment, “As I was going through my studies as a musician, some people whom I met in festivals played an important role in my artistic development. From playing with them, from listening to their suggestions, and from simply spending time with them, I learned to grow as a chamber musician. Some of these people are member musicians of the Boston Chamber Music Society. Therefore, when I heard that they had invited me to join them, I was very grateful and honored. It is my hope that in future years I can contribute not only in the music making but also in new ideas and experiments. How to bring the chamber music repertoire to new places and new audiences in a way that maintains the quality and lets all people feel involved and welcome? It is a question we saw BCMS has addressed over its history, and that keeps being a challenge of constant renewal.”

Raman Ramakrishnan performed first on the BCMS Summer Series in 2011. When asked about his joining the BCMS, Raman stated, “I first experienced BCMS as an undergraduate at Harvard University. A few of us there were able, through our teachers, to score free tickets to concerts at Sanders Theatre and Jordan Hall. We would often sit near the front, and stare up at our teachers and their colleagues with adulation. More than fifteen years later, I can still remember many of those performances for their beauty, vitality, and clarity, and especially for the palpable communication between the performers. The joy of communicating without words drew me to chamber music very early on; it is an idealized democracy of a conversation, in which everyone can talk at once but be heard clearly as individuals contributing to a greater good. I am thrilled and honored to be able to do this on stage with a group that I’ve idolized for so many years.”

All three musicians will appear in their new roles throughout the season: Yura will be featured in the December 13, January 18 and March 9 concerts; Dimitri in the January 18, February 9, March 9 and May 18 concerts; and Raman in the October 27, November 24, April 13 and May 18 concerts.

A Tale of Two Cellists

Our Sanders Theatre Series ends this spring featuring the collaboration of two fine cellists who have each founded and formed superb chamber music series in two of the most cosmopolitan and international cities in the northeast of our continent. On Thursday, May 9, Boston Chamber Music Society will open the eighteenth edition of the Festival de Musique de Chambre de Montreal and on Sunday, May 12, bring to a close our 30th Anniversary Season in Cambridge.

I first met cellist Denis Brott, artistic director of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, when we were students at the Aspen Summer Music Festival and School in 1964. Since then our paths have diverged and intersected in many ways, most notably for me, as a guest in his festival for well over a decade.

I first met cellist Ronald Thomas, founding artistic director of BCMS as a member of a string trio formed by Young Concert Artists, Inc., of three recent winners of its annual International auditions. The violinist of that trio was Hiroko Yajima (Rhodes), mother-to-be of Harumi Rhodes, who is currently a BCMS member musician.

Each cellist, coincidentally, and perhaps unknown to them, shares in common a love of the mastery and artistry of the famed cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Together, for the first time, they will open our concert with Suite for Two Cellos and Piano written by Gian Carlo Menotti (founder of the Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto Italy) for cellists Piatigorsky and Brott. It was premiered forty years ago this month, in May, 1973 at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center by cellists Gregor Piatigorsky and Leslie Parnas with Charles Wadsworth, founding artistic director of CMSLC, at the piano.

To my ear Suite for Two Cellos and Piano shows influences of Baroque imitation between the two principals with a neo-Baroque, Stravinsky-like accompaniment. However, at its heart, in third movement, we hear the kind of singing lines above luscious harmonic writing that prompted Francis Poulenc to say left listeners with ‘red eyes and beating hearts’ (when writing about Menotti’s opera The Consul).

Thereafter, our program takes us into a world of tragedy and deliverance that is Dimitri Shostakovitch’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57. It, too, speaks first in the ancient language and stately character of the Baroque, opening with a resounding G minor chord that could easily be the same chord that opens Bach’s great organ Prelude and Fugue in the same key. Unlike the Bach, the fugue that follows is muted and solemn—not fleet and playful—like a procession to the inevitable. A searing Scherzo follows. But next, the solemn procession continues with solo violin above a walking jazz-like bass pizzicato. The last movement, opening and concluding in G major, offers little more than a ray of hope.

Our program concludes with Schubert’s great String Quintet in C major with two cellos. There is a reason this work is requested to provide communal solace at the most difficult times. In the twisting qualities of its opening chords we hear at once that bitter and sweet are two sides of the same experience; that as melodies soar above palpitating rhythms, so, too, can the spirit above the troubled and restless heart. The slow movement takes us into ‘the dark night of the soul,’ but follows that with the sublime deliverance only Schubert can imagine. The exuberance of the Scherzo is interrupted by a plunge into the depths of mourning in the Trio. The Finale, if about nothing else, is for me the embodiment of restoration and acceptance. More than any other work in our repertoire, the Quintet truly provides a transformative experience.

When we return to Sanders next fall, Schubert will again be our guide with his Fantasie in F minor for piano four hands, played by our superb pianists. Until then, be well, stay strong.

And Enjoy.