Musically Speaking from New England’ preeminent chamber ensemble

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 also a student and a discerning patron. At its heart is a variation movement in which Beethoven, for the first time in history, converts the simple trill–ordinarily used to ornament a melody–into a background rumble in the bass (adding texture) where it functions both as pedal point (stasis) and conveyor of harmony (movement).

(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!

Two Winter Matinees with BCMS at the Fitzgerald Theatre

The French Connection (Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Gershwin)
Mozart, Mostly (His view of the Bachs and M. Haydn; Schnittke’s view of him!)

In this season of “change” we began the fall with three concerts at Sanders Theater that focused on “Various Variations” in chamber music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms among others.

As winter settles upon us we are moving from evenings at Sanders Theatre to two afternoons in January and February at the Fitzgerald Theater of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, which offers free pakring in its underground garage. We hope the changes in time and place will encourage more listeners during the colder, darker months, allow us to introduce our music making to the students and families of Cambridge Rindge and Latin, and to those of other schools throughout the city.

On January 25 our concert, entitled The French Connection, juxtaposes Piano Trios of Fauré and Ravel against piano four-hand arrangements of two great orchestral works by Debussy and Gershwin. The connections among them are many. Ravel is counted among Fauré’s greatest students, yet his great Piano Trio was written ten years earlier than that of his teacher. Gershwin wanted to study with Ravel, but was wisely turned down by the older master in order to preserve the originality of the potential student. Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel were each determined to promote an aesthetic path and outcome for French classical music different from that of many of the dominant Germanic composers of the same era from Schumann, Brahms and Wagner to Schoenberg and Mahler. Ravel’s “rejection” of Gershwin, thereby preserving the national/musical identity and integrity of an American original who admired him, seems true to these composers’ shared artistic ideals.

On February 22 we focus on Mozart, Mostly. In works written just for strings, we present music of the great Mozart that reveals his identity in various ways. Through his arrangements of Bach Preludes and Fugues, his G major Duo for violin and viola—which he tried to pass off as the work of Michael Haydn—we see and hear him as he saw and heard others. In Schnittke’s Moz–ART we hear someone else’s comical take on his music. And finally, all together we perform the great D major Quintet K.593 for two violins, two violas, and cello, one of six for that combination, in which we will hear what he really wrote and what scholars have saved from well-meaning editors who changed the notes of Mozart’s original theme because they thought them too strange for the ears of his time.


Brahms and Developing Variation

Music of the homophonic-melodic style of composition, that is, music with a main theme, accompanied by and based on harmony, produces material by, as I call it, developing variation. This means that variation of the features of a basic unit produces all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic and unity on the one hand, and character, mood, expression, and ever needed differentiation, on the other hand—thus elaborating the idea of the piece.

 Arnold Schoenberg, from “Bach” (1950) 


This fall our series of three concerts on the theme “Various Variations” began with a new treatment of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Our second concert was introduced by a quote from Robert Schumann identifying Bach as the one indispensable source for composers of all music that was to follow.

For our third and final fall concert on the same theme—in the music of Bach, Beethoven, and others–we offer some of the most beloved music of Johannes Brahms in three consecutive opuses: 99, 100, and 101, all played for the first time on November 24th and December 2nd, and 20th 1886, respectively. In these works Brahms unfolds music that Arnold Schoenberg was to cite as primary examples of music in which “nothing [is] repeated without promoting the development of the music, and that can only happen by way of far-reaching variations.”

With very few words and tantalizingly short examples, Arnold Schoenberg describes the process of unfolding basic materials, motifs and intervals, into large pieces through a technique he called developing variation. Every aspect of the music is derived from the first material one hears. Schoenberg recognized Brahms as the latest in a series of supreme masters of the art and tried to associate the creation of his own music and techniques with this tradition. That only the strongest ideas could become great pieces by surviving the infinite traceable variations of a creative mind is not unknown in the era since Darwin’s Evolution, Einstein’s Relativity, and the “Big Bang Theory”. Schoenberg’s description of what goes on in Brahms’s style and idea remains informative and compelling to this day.

On a personal note, I should say only recently I recalled that one of these three was the one around which I organized my late teenage and young adult life for a period of about five years. I went to every live performance I could find. It was my “desert island” piece then, and remains so today, even after knowing much more music and learning from Schoenberg how this one is supposed to work. I won’t say which one it is. Nor, do I have any explanation why none of these includes viola. That’s for another time.



One Source

In the course of time the distance between sources diminishes. Beethoven, for instance, did not need to study all that Mozart studied–Mozart, not all that Handel–Handel, not all that Palestrina–because they had already absorbed the knowledge of their predecessors. But there is one source which inexhaustibly provides new ideas–Johann Sebastian Bach.”
- Florestan, aka Robert Schumann

Our second concert this season is also the second of three on the theme ‘Various Variations’ in great music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. We began with Bach’s thirty Goldberg Variations (c.1741), the largest set in history at its time, and continue with one of Beethoven’s earliest efforts, and the only one for string trio, the Serenade in D Major, Op 8 (1795-97). Before writing sixteen string quartets Beethoven wrote five string trios (Op. 3, 8, and 9) for violin, viola and cello– following the example of Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat, K. 563 (1788). In one of its central movements, Mozart writes variations, both plain and virtuosic, on a simple tune. Beethoven was later to write transcendent variation movements in many of his string quartets, piano sonatas, and symphonies, as well as the Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli (1819-1823) for solo piano, Op. 120, said by Tovey to the be the greatest ever written for keyboard.

As writer, composer and eminent pianist, Robert Schumann would have been well aware of the history he was absorbing and shaping in his cultivation and championing of the independent miniature as a new form in which to write music. Stringing together sets of short pieces to allow fantasy to take flight, or to tell a poetic story in song or tone, was to become his signature. In the Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73 (1849) “Schumann’s refined technique of lyrical recall…makes for a delicate tracery of fleeting allusions, half-remembered ideas.” “The close relationship among the three pieces…is further underscored by the attacca indications linking each of the movements and, more important, by a web of thematic connections.” (Schuman scholar and avid chamber musician, John Davario.) For Schumann, the writer, the set of abstract variations on a theme became the vehicle for narrative and reminiscence.

In each of these sets, whether by Bach, Beethoven or Schumann, the return of the theme at the end, in its original, untested form, is a strong indication of the importance of memory and reminiscence. “In Memory of a Great Artist,” the subtitle of Piano Trio in A minor (1882) by Peter I. Tchaikovsky, reflection upon the character, virtuosity, and artistry of a particular person, pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, is the motivation for composing this elegiac work.