Musically Speaking from New England’ preeminent chamber ensemble

The Music for ‘Now’

ALL ART HAS BEEN CONTEMPORARYMaurizio Nannucci

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.

Enjoy.

Marcus

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!!!

Enjoy.

M.T.

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.

Enjoy,

Marcus

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.

Enjoy!

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.

Enjoy!

Marcus

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.

Enjoy!

At home with the Goldberg Variations

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. Recently he made a video from his living room to take us on a tour through the masterpiece.

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

Enjoy!