Musically Speaking from New England’ preeminent chamber ensemble

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.


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


“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.