Mid-March 2020: After we postponed our final concerts of the 19/20 season and a set of in-school education concerts for elementary students due to the coronavirus pandemic, we needed a moment to catch our breath. We then moved our attention to finding a way to salvage our annual free masterclass for area student string quartets. It had been scheduled for late-May. We knew we wouldn’t be able to see students in person as we normally do for this class; we would need to move the event online. As we worked through the logistics, we discovered that the entire format would have to change. Live quartets became recorded solos. The ephemeral live class became something that could live forever and ever online. What had been improvisatory teaching had to now be carefully planned. We learned a lot along the way and discovered many ways going online actually enhanced what we could do and extend our reach.
Suffice it to say, we needed HELP! I won’t go into all the technical details here (it would take up a ton of space and I don’t think I could do it if I tried…). I can tell you that SSgt Jaime Parker (US Air Force Band of the West and Stacey’s husband) volunteered his considerable expertise to help us design the class from the ground up and masterfully ran all the technical components so all four of us could focus all our attention on teaching. It would not have been anything close to the smooth and effortless event that it was without his help. Jaime, you da best!
PERFORMERS & REP
We knew we would need to shift from a quartet class to a solo class to accommodate social distancing. While it was possible that some student quartets may have had a pre-pandemic recording they could have sent us, we thought it was very unlikely. So the call went out on our social media channels for area student violinists, violists and cellists to send us their solo videos. We got so many responses we had to add a second class – good problem (also easy to do when you’re online)! We were so impressed with their intrepid spirits – diving right in to this experiment with their solo performances!
INTERACTING WITH A RECORDING
One challenge of teaching via recording that we didn’t anticipate was the discomfort of not knowing how any comment landed. Playing in a master class is an extremely vulnerable thing for anyone to do – you’re putting your art out there specifically to be criticized in front of people! For this reason, when we work with students, we constantly check body language and facial expressions to see if we are communicating effectively and that the student feels safe. Because we didn’t have the students patched in live, we couldn’t see their faces to be sure. As a teacher, it felt like I was missing a limb! I couldn’t read the student’s face to see if they understood me, if they wanted to hear more from me on this topic. Or if they were ready for me to stop talking.
NO MORE IMPROV!
In a master class, we are working on two levels. The first level is working with the student performers to help them improve whatever issues are holding them back. The second is making that work relevant and interesting to the audience of learners. In a live class, we are able to conduct a process of trial and error with the student performers. Try this…kind of works; try this other thing that builds on the first thing…better still; try something else that approaches from another angle… really getting there now. It’s improvisatory.
Because we used recordings and had no live interaction with the students, this trial and error process was not available to us. So we really leaned into Level 2, making the work relevant and interesting to the audience of learners. This required much more planning. We couldn’t improvise in this situation.
An advantage of using recordings and being online is that it allowed us time to prepare and more tools with which to teach. We watched the videos in advance and carefully formulated a coordinated approach. In a live class, we don’t know exactly what we’re going to need to address until the students play, so we have to improvise. With recordings, we could plan in advance what to address and even coordinate who would talk about what.
Being online also gave us new and unique tools that we would’t have had in a live class, too. We could rewind videos to the exact moment we wanted to work on, prepare music scores for the audience to see (with annotations, even!); we could even cue up videos of other performers to demonstrate different approaches instead of just telling students to go check them out later. This was definitely a perk of the format!
EXTENDED LIFE ONLINE
Once each live master class is over, it only lives in the memories of the people that were there; an online event can reach more people and potentially live forever online! It’s gratifying for us to reach more students by having our class online. And as a student, I know I would have loved to refer to a video instead of depending on my memory! Lots comes at you quick in a master class and it’s hard to take it all on board when you’re the student under the microscope. Our classes aren’t available for ever and ever, but they are still archived here and here.
Our first foray into online content was definitely a learning experience. We learned that a knowledgeable assist is invaluable and that we can (and must!) do a lot in advance to make an online event go smoothly. We also had to make peace with the fact that Murphy’s Law will probably still assert itself somewhere along the way but that going online also creates new opportunities to enhance the experience. More online content is coming soon – our entire 2020-2021 season will be available online and we’re thinking ways to use what we learned to enhance those concert experiences. Online doesn’t have to be a weak substitute for live – it can be its own unique experience!
“It would be hard to imagine two more compatible musical partners than Mr. Zerweck and Mr. Valkov – compatible with each other and with Beethoven. Both revealed themselves to be fearless, ferocious musicians – at times, even frightening. They could be sweet and gentle when the composer insisted, but with a loosening of the reins they could rip your throat out. In a good way, of course.”
Read the rest of Mike Greenberg’s review of our Beethoven250 program here: http://incidentlight.com/Music%20reviews/camerata-zerweck-valkov-olmos-ensemble-soli-200221.html
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent contemporary composers. Born in Engels on the Volga, Schnittke studied at the Moscow Conservatory during the 1950s under Golubev and Rakov. From 1962 until 1972 he taught at the Moscow Conservatory. Since that time, Schnittke composed free-lance, occasionally teaching abroad. Schnittke’s style has been influenced by composers as diverse as Carl Orff and Luigi Nono. He has produced a sizeable oeuvre including symphonies, chamber works, choral music, and four violin concertos which have been championed by Gidon Kremer.
The Third String Quartet was commissioned by the Mannheim Gesellschaft für Musik and composed during the summer of 1983. The Eder Quartet premiered it in Mannheim in May 1984. The work exemplifies Schnittke’s current concern to reconcile tradition and historical awareness with modern musical language and procedures. To this end, the quartet begins as three quotations from historical contexts: (1) a cadence from a Stabat Mater by Orlandus Lassus, (2) the principal theme from Beethoven’s Grosse fuge, Op. 133, and (3) the note sequence D, E-flat, C, B-natural, which Shostakovich used in a few works as a motto of his own name (in German spelling: D, Es, C, H, suggesting the abbreviation, D. Sch).
In the first movement, Schnittke keeps these fragments quite distinct, commenting on each and exploring their implications. The balance between consonance and dissonance and between tonality and non-tonality is a delicate one maintained masterfully throughout these explorations.
The second movement (Agitato) proceeds without a pause. In it, Schnittke begins to transform the thematic material, injecting more of himself into the music and with more immediacy than before. The contrast between emotionally charged rhythmic passages with those that seem to suspend the music in time is particularly striking.
Again without pause, the last movement (Pesante) pounds forth with its opening stamping chords. Fragmentary, cryptic references to the historical themes are sometimes perceptible, but the emphasis falls on Schnittke’s style and what it has learned from the precedent masters that the composer has chosen to inform his work.
Shaw, Blueprint (2016)
The youngest composer ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music is Caroline Shaw (1982- ). At age 30, she received this honor for her a cappella vocal work Partita for 8 Voices. In addition to composing, Shaw is active as a violin soloist, chamber musician, and ensemble singer, chiefly with the group Roomful of Teeth, for whom she composed Partita. Her recent commissions include works for Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim Museum, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. She has also collaborated frequently with Kanye West. Shaw has studied at Princeton, Rice, and Yale Universities.
Shaw most often composes for a particular artist or ensemble, crafting her music to a degree on aspects of the artist/ensemble revealed through personal encounters. Blueprint was composed for the Aizuri Quartet, which played its world premiere in April 2016 at Wolf Trap Vienna, VA). The title of this seven-minute work uses that quartet’s name as a springboard for Blueprint. However, the work also relates closely to an early string quartet by Beethoven. As Shaw explains:
The Aizuri Quartet’s name comes from “aizuri-e,” a style of Japanese woodblock printing that primarily uses a blue ink. In the 1820s, artists in Japan began to import a particular blue pigment known as “Prussian blue.” . . . The story of aizuri-e is one of innovation, migration, transformation, craft, and beauty. Blueprint, composed for the incredible Aizuri Quartet, takes its title from this beautiful blue woodblock printing tradition as well as from that familiar standard architectural representation of a proposed structure: the blueprint. This piece began its life as a harmonic reduction — a kind of floor plan — of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 6 [“La Malinconia”]. As a violinist and violist, I have played this piece many times, in performance and in joyous late-night reading sessions with musician friends. . . . Chamber music is ultimately about conversation without words. We talk to each other with our dynamics and articulations, and we try to give voice to the composers whose music has inspired us to gather in the same room and play music. Blueprint is also a conversation — with Beethoven, with Haydn (his teacher and the “father” of the string quartet), and with the joys and malinconia of his Op. 18, No. 6.
Beethoven, Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, no. 1
The six works of Op. 18 represent Beethoven’s first burst of energy in the direction of the string quartet. At the time of writing (1798-1800), Beethoven had many occasions to experiment with the medium and to hear his music when the ink was barely dry. He regularly attended the quartet sessions of Prince Lichnowsky and Emmanuel Förster, a composer who exerted a degree of influence upon young Beethoven. There, a group of musicians was placed at Beethoven’s disposal, giving him opportunities rarely afforded a composer.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed the F Major Quartet second in the series, but he placed it at the head of the set because of its size and impressiveness. This work stems from 1799, and Beethoven dedicated its initial version to his friend, Karl Amenda. Two years later, the composer revised it with the statement, “I have just learned how to write quartets properly.”
The most impressive feature of the first movement is its initial “turn” motive. Beethoven intensively experimented with different versions of this idea, covering no fewer than 16 pages in his sketch books. At last, he devised a motive that music scholar Joseph Kerman says “behaves like a coiled spring, ready to shoot off in all directions. . . .” Although this motive dominates the movement with its 104 occurrences, there is a rich abundance of other thematic ideas. Kerman states that the movement’s mood “owes much to the perilous effort of holding all this material together.”
Beethoven did not give “names” to much of his music, but he occasionally had some extra-musical idea in mind. At the end of one sketch of this quartet’s Adagio, Beethoven wrote, “les deriers soupirs,” “the last breaths.” Reportedly, he interpreted this to his friend, Amenda, with the words, “I thought of the scene in the burial vault in Romeo and Juliet.” Broad theatrical emotion is rampant throughout the movement, but especially in the development, which romanticizes its themes as no quartet ever had before.
The size and emotional range of the Scherzo are slight in comparison with the preceding movements. However, as a witty respite, it works well. In the Trio section, a “limping” motive, adds a humorous touch.
Beethoven inherited from Haydn two responsibilities for the finales to early works such as this: They must be effervescent, and they must be sharply rhythmic or dance-like. The finale to the F Major Quartet fills both requirements — and then some. To balance the magnitude of the first movement, Beethoven here provides a lengthy sonata-rondo form with well-contrasted themes. The verve and directed energy of this finale provide an appropriate finish to a monumental accomplishment in chamber music.
Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12, No. 2
When Beethoven’s first set of three violin sonatas (Op. 12) went on sale at the end of 1798, the musical world of Vienna was no more ready for them than it had been for his other music. A review of the sonatas written in June 1799 makes such statements as:
After having looked through these strange sonatas, overladen with difficulties . . . [I] felt . . . exhausted and without having had any pleasure. . . . Bizarre . . . Learned, learned and always learned — and nothing natural, no song . . . a striving for strange modulations. . . .
If Herr v. B. wished to deny himself a bit more and follow the course of nature he might, with his talent and industry, do a great deal for an instrument [the piano] which he seems to have so wonderfully under his control.
Such bad press obviously did not deter Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) from his vision. In all, he composed ten violin sonatas spread over his first and second style-periods, including the famous “Kreutzer” Sonata (Op. 47). The last violin sonata was composed in 1812 and published as Op. 96.
“Effervescence” is the word for the A Major Sonata’s first movement. Only momentarily does Beethoven depart from the tripping-skipping of the first and second themes. In the exposition, the only “serious” departure comes after those themes — a momentary catching of the breath before the composer whirls off in a new direction. In the brief development, Beethoven maximizes his small collection of ideas, and in the recapitulation, he extends them in a post-development that flies into a new key before a final landing in A major and a delightful coda.
“Dialogue” would be a good descriptor for the Andante. Interchanges of similar phrases between piano and violin characterize the lyrical outer sections. In the center, however, the two instruments become more closely entwined. Nineteenth-century writer Friederich Niecks commented that “the charm of the movement lies in its simplicity and naiveté and in the truth of its tender, plaintive accents.”
“Scherzo” might have been Beethoven’s appellation for the final movement, had he chosen that form. It has all the good-humored flavor of the best of Beethoven’s scherzos, and the composer himself used the word piacevole (pleasing) in the tempo marking. Following tradition, the movement is a rondo that presents the sunniest of themes, appropriately completing this “feel-good” sonata.
Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 (“Spring”)
It may be altogether too glib to say that Beethoven anticipated or pioneered every major musical development of the Romantic age that followed him. Yet, when listening to his aptly nicknamed “Spring” Sonata, the notion is tempting. Here, in a nutshell, Beethoven presents a pre-echo of the heartfelt spirit, naivety, and boldness of Mendelssohn and Schumann — as well as elements of their melodic and harmonic vocabulary.
The first movement is particularly illustrative. In its opening, we have the innocent freshness of a Mendelssohn, heard in melodious themes given first to the violin and then answered by the piano. A short development leads to the unprepared and surprising recapitulation. Now, the harmonic color of the principal themes is tinged with the pathos of experience, but the spirit of pure joy returns in the sumptuous coda.
The Adagio is more comparable to Schumann in its harmonic richness and full, pianistic textures. However, chamber music authority W.W. Cobbett maintains that the opening theme of this five-part form “seems to have escaped from some opera by Mozart.”
The very brief Scherzo movement turns again to a Mendelssohn-like spirit. Its elfin violin elody. However, it is accompanied by offset piano rhythms that could have come only from Beethoven’s pen.
Over the rondo finale, the big-hearted Schumannesque spirit hovers again, although there are occasional winks in the direction of Mozart. In contrast with the opening movement, the piano is usually the leader and the violin the follower in presenting new themes. One Beethovenian feature in the harmonic plan is a false recapitulation in the key of D major, which then slips deftly back into F major for the concluding sections.
Beethoven composed the “Spring” Sonata in 1800 or 1801 and published it in the latter year alongside the Op. 23 Violin Sonata (no. 4). Much of the youth, vigor, and studied innocence of the “Spring” Sonata may be attributed to the early period in which the work was written. This was the time of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata for piano and the First Symphony, but a time before he fully realized (or admitted) his loss of hearing. Thus, with this sonata we might imagine Beethoven standing at the brink of the future. It is also easy to imagine this happening on a bright, sunlit day with a spring breeze wafting through the young master’s hair.
Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 (“Kreutzer”)
It seemed that entirely new impulses, new possibilities, were revealed to me in myself, such as I had not dreamed of before. Such works should be played only in grave, significant conditions, and only then when certain deeds corresponding to such music are to be accomplished.
These are not the words of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) nor of Kreutzer, but rather of Tolstoy’s tragic hero in the novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, where a performance of this sonata drives him over the edge of insanity, and he kills his wife. Fantastic as that notion seems, it is imaginable through the unrestraint of the first movement and the excitement of the last. However, none of that was Beethoven’s intention. He composed the “Kreutzer” Sonata in 1802-1803 just ahead of the “Eroica” Symphony. This was a turning point in Beethoven’s style, the entry into his “Heroic Decade,” to use Maynard Solomon’s expression.
This violin sonata was the longest written to date, just as the Third Symphony would be the longest of its genre yet heard. And, just as Beethoven changed the dedication of his symphony, he re-directed the dedication of the sonata. Originally, Beethoven wrote the work for George Bridgetower, with whom he premiered the music in 1803. However, the two subsequently fought over the attentions of a woman. Beethoven then used the sonata as a political tool for his proposed (but never accomplished) move to Paris by dedicating it to the French virtuoso, Rodolphe Kreutzer. Ironically, Kreutzer never performed the sonata, finding it, in the words of Berlioz, “outrageously unintelligible.”
Although that was an exaggeration, many violinists have found the first movement to be awkward. Another feature that may have put off Kreutzer is the equal prominence of the piano. In the sketches, Beethoven made the notation, “in a very concertante style, somewhat like a concerto.” But it is a concertante for both violin and piano: a concerto without orchestra.
Beethoven begins with the only slow introduction among the ten violin sonatas, and he periodically returns to Adagio in the course of the first movement. “Feverish,” “fiery,” and “passionate” are terms often applied to the Presto that follows. Beethoven seems to have created a contest for superiority between the two instruments, and only in the heat of the development section do they achieve true parity.
The theme and variations in the second movement are a complete contrast. Here, Beethoven reminds us that violin sonatas were originally salon or drawing-room music. The theme and first two variations follow that idea; however, the fourth (in the minor mode) is music of somber introspection. A final decorative variation and quiet coda round out the movement.
In his haste to complete this sonata for its premiere, Beethoven used for his last movement the discarded finale from the Violin Sonata, Op. 30, no. 1 (which it would have overbalanced). This galloping tarantella puts the sonata into a whirl that balances the first movement in length and emotional values. Slowing only occasionally, the motion of this music is relentless, driving breathlessly to a tempestuous finish
Camerata San Antonio is one violin short of a string quartet this fall for a worthy reason: Violinist Matthew Zerweck is taking paternity leave. In compensation, the remaining members have been able to explore some of the literature for string trio, with side trips to two and four in the company of frequent collaborator, pianist Viktor Valkov. For the Nov. 15 concert, Camerata visited an unaccustomed venue, the intimate recital hall in the Palo Alto College performing arts center. The space proved acoustically dry but left nothing unheard – including the occasional loud expulsion of breath by which cellist Ken Freudigman telegraphed some especially important turn in the music. The towering finale, Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in A, had an especially generous number of those. The first half took less-traveled roads to Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for violin and piano and Ernst von Dohnanyi’s Serenade for string trio. The eminent violinist Joseph Joachim was the thread connecting all three composers: He collaborated closely with both Clara Schumann and Brahms, and he invited Dohnanyi to teach at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, of which the violinist was director.
Clara Schumann was one of Europe’s most celebrated pianists in the middle decades of the 19th century. She composed a good deal of music – much of it for her own solo and chamber music performances – in her 20s. After a five-year hiatus, she had a burst of activity in 1853, the year she met Brahms and the year of the Three Romances. Her husband, Robert Schumann, was committed to a mental institution the following year, and Clara became the sole support of seven children, including a newborn boy. Those circumstances dictated that she concentrate on her lucrative concert career and set composition aside.
That’s our loss. On the evidence of the Three Romances, Clara Schumann was a composer of considerable merit. The whole set flies by in only 10 minutes or so, but a lot of music is packed into that slender frame. The violin is given generally long-lined, declarative melodies that sustain interest by avoiding the obvious. The piano part, considerably busier, invites billowing dynamics and sculpted phrasing. The two parts are distinct, even opposite personalities in earnest conversation – for which the cool reserve of violinist Anastasia Parker and the heated passion of Mr. Valkov were well suited.
Dohnanyi’s Serenade is so immediately engaging that it’s easy not to notice how expertly it is crafted. Dohnanyi composed this five-movement work in 1902, when he was in his mid-20s, and in some ways it looks back to the Romanticism of Brahms. But the energetic, intricately wrought counterpoint – especially in the fugal Scherzo and bustling Rondo – and the fresh harmonies contain at least a hint of the new century. Mr. Freudigman put plenty of snap into the occasional Hungarian folk tropes, violist Emily Freudigman spun lovely melody to open the Romanza, and Ms. Parker was especially effective in the disconsolate Theme and Variations, the emotional center of the Serenade.
Brahms was a young man of 28 or 29 in 1861 when he completed his second piano quartet, a chamber work that is symphonic in both duration (about 50 minutes) and ambition. The allegro movements that open and close the work seem steeped in testosterone, the Scherzo has a restive undercurrent, and even the sweet Poco adagio is agitated by rocking eighth-note figures that seem prepared at any moment to spring into action. The performance was big, bold, and muscular – words that often come to mind when Mr. Valkov is involved in chamber music. Those traits were amplified by the physical circumstances: The seven-foot Steinway B Mr. Valkov was playing might not have been enough piano for a big concert hall, but it was possibly too much piano for Palo Alto’s little recital hall. At times the piano overwhelmed the strings in volume, but the pianist’s in-the-bones Romanticism was the driving force in a compelling performance.
Coda: Technical difficulties kept me from posting a timely review of Camerata’s October concert, with three works for string trios performed by Ms. Parker, Ms. Freudigman, and Mr. Freudigman in the University of the Incarnate Word concert hall. They opened with Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Trio of 1990-91, music that is less self-consciously avant-garde than the clouds of dissonance that characterized much of his music from the late 1950s and 1960s, but no less startling. The first of its two movements was the more remarkable, with extended solo cadenzas of widely different character for each of the instruments – all played with conviction. Jean Francaix’s String Trio in C of 1933 was at the opposite pole – three brief witty, jaunty, cheeky movements and one wistful, lyrical Andante. A warm, affectionate account of Mozart’s grand Divertimento in E-flat, one of his longest works, closed the concert.