Wallen: Five Postcards
Errollyn Wallen – “renaissance woman of contemporary British music” (The Observer) – is as respected as a singer-songwriter of pop influenced songs as she is a composer of contemporary new music. The motto of Errollyn’s Ensemble X, ‘we don’t break down barriers in music… we don’t see any,’ reflects her genuine, free-spirited approach. Commissions have ranged from the BBC to the Royal Opera House, for BBC’s The Last Night of the Proms (2020), the London Symphony Orchestra, Leipzig Ballet and most recently, the pop band Clean Bandit. Her most recent EP Peace on Earth was released by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Errollyn has won numerous awards for her music including the Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music. In 2007 she was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire and in 2020 awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, both for services to music. “Five Postcards” was commissioned in 2010 by the Miller-Porfiris Duo. The third movement is based on Errollyn’s song “Off the Map.”
Schickele: Little Suite for Autumn
On more than one occasion, while visiting my alma mater, Swarthmore College,my lodgings have been the home of Gil and Mary Stott, and a homier home is hard to imagine. The Little Suite for Autumn was written as a “thank you” present – bread-and-butter notes, if you will – after one such visit in October, 1979. A lot of music, writing, art and cooking has gone on in that house; neither one of them is lazy, so I thought I’d let Gil (violin) and Mary (viola) work a little (or at least play a little) for my thanks.
Commissioned by Chee-Yun and Spoleto USA, Arches was premiered by Chee-Yun at Seoul Arts Center, Seoul Korea in October 2000. In its alternation between “caprices” and “arias”, the work moves between the poles of virtuosity and lyricism throughout. The title was suggested by the symmetrical form of the piece (Caprice—Aria—Caprice—Aria—Caprice) and by the key scheme which supports this symmetry and the many arch-like figures that arise. The only pause in the work occurs after the first Caprice.
strauss: Piano Quartet, Op. 13
The major orchestral music of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was concentrated early but revived throughout his career, and his concertos came both early and late. Strauss’s chamber music, however, was sparse with only four major works, all composed before the 1890s: a string quartet, a cello sonata, a violin sonata, and the Piano Quartet. The Piano Quartet owed much to Brahms’s piano quartets, yet it ranks high in Strauss’s complete catalogue. Composed in 1885, the Quartet took shape the year in which he met Alexander Ritter (composer and violinist), who endeavored to convince Strauss to pursue a compositional style in keeping with Wagner and Liszt (rather than Schumann and Mendelssohn).
Deceptively quiet, the short musical introduction suddenly explodes into the first movement’s exposition. Now, energetic themes vie with sentimental or playful ones, building to restatements of the first theme and others, finally quieting before a reappearance of the exposition, which spills into a full development. Here, drama and playfulness vie for our favor, then flow together in support of thematic growth and sentimental recall of themes. Seamlessly, Strauss recapitulates his thematic material in the final minutes, which effectively sew up his musical message, ending with a majestic, pounding flourish.
Scherzo: Presto marks the start of a musically athletic movement. Here Strauss has not forgotten Mendelssohn at all. Particularly in the piano part, we hear echoes of pixies and fairies reflecting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music proceeds just as “pixelated,” continuing the rapid tempo and lightly jabbing notes. Following a brief transition, strings come to the fore, and the more lyrical central section proceeds. Led by the violin, each instrument takes a turn presenting a short phrase. Strauss hints that he is winding thing up, as he returns to the rollicking mood of the first section. Brief snippets soon take form recalling earlier ideas, and the music concludes with a smart flourish.
The beginning of the Andante may remind us of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. First the piano, then individual strings, play fragmentary, heart-breaking phrases. Again, the piano leads the ensemble into some fragmentary ideas that expand now into a full melody. A rhapsodic new stating point introduces a development that mixes and alternates prior ideas, finally reaching the movement’s apotheosis and fragmentary coda ending.
All the preceding points to what? — the Vivace Finale. Fragmentary yet driven, the music excites and entrances. Dynamically forceful, the opening section eventually gives way to a melodic general developmental discussion among all the instruments. The piano now takes the spotlight, momentarily, then invites all the strings to joint in the final coda, which tops all with its brilliance.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021
All rights reserved
Mason: In Memory (2020)
Quinn Mason (b. 1996) is a composer and conductor based in Dallas, Texas. He has studied at SMU with Dr. Lane Harder has also worked closely with distinguished composers David Maslanka, Libby Larsen, David Dzubay and Robert X. Rodriguez. His music has been performed in concert by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Utah Symphony Orchestra, South Bend Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Seattle, Mission Chamber Orchestra, loadbang, Voices of Change, Atlantic Brass Quintet, UT Arlington Saxophone quartet, the Cézanne, Julius and Baumer string quartets and concert bands of SMU, UNT and TCU. He has received awards from the American Composers Forum, Voices of Change, Texas A&M University, the Dallas Foundation, the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, the Heartland Symphony Orchestra, The Diversity Initiative and the ASU Symphony Orchestra. He is also a conductor, having studied with Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Will White, and has guest conducted Orchestra Seattle, the Brevard Sinfonia and the TCU Symphony Orchestra.
This piece wasn’t written about a specific time or person. It is meant to be a contemplation of memories past, which could be anything the listener/player desires – the viola acts as the voice that recalls these memories and reflects on them with tranquil, yet occasionally tumultuous introspection. Thus, this composition can speak to and work in any occasion. Quinn Mason
Schoenfeld: Café Music
Paul Schoenfeld (1947- ) is an American composer-pianist active also in Israel. Educated at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Arizona, Schoenfeld has concentrated much of his attention on piano music and chamber music involving the piano. He writes in a virtuoso style with fast tempos and complex textures. One writer has called his music “frenzied,” and the composer himself has remarked that his “is not the kind of music to relax to, but the kind that makes people sweat; not only the performer, but [also] the audience.”
In an effort to explore his Jewish roots, Schoenfeld has become interested in folk music, particularly the folk music of past Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe. (These were also sources for the musical Fiddler on the Roof.) The instrumental music of this culture is called “Klezmer” with a constantly evolving repertoire largely made up of dance songs for weddings and other celebrations.
Schoenfeld’s Café Music is heavily influenced by both the Klezmer tradition and American jazz of the 1920s-1930s — and this is a fascinating fusion. The first movement blends jazzy themes, ragtime rhythms, and the wildly virtuosic style of Klezmer bands, playing at breakneck speed most of the time.
The second movement is what might be called “low-down” in the blues tradition. Sad and blue, the music is nonetheless partially parody. Choosing a minor key, Schoenfeld also recalls the laments of Ashkenazic Jewish peoples — and this style dominates the second half of the movement.
Again frenetically energetic, the third movement launches as a more classically oriented piece. Here and there we hear snippets of Gershwinesque jazz, yet the dance-style underpinning is clearly Klezmer. The only breaks we have from this emotional frenzy are occasional smooth passages in a quasi-Impressionistic style. By the end, Café Music has been quite a ride in a unique blend of Old World and New World musical styles.
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47
During his most productive periods, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) frequently composed clusters of works of a single musical type. In his “chamber music years” (1842-43), for example, Schumann wrote all of his string quartets and several works for piano and strings. During a particularly creative two-month period, Schumann “invented” the piano quintet by composing his E-flat Piano Quintet, Op. 44, also completing the Piano Quartet, Op. 47, in E-flat as well. Each of these works required only five days to sketch and another two weeks to complete. Both were written between October and November of 1843.
In this music, the relationship of piano to strings is sometimes unbalanced. Unlike the lighter piano parts in works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Brahms, the piano is king with Schumann. Listeners may even have the impression that the E-flat Quartet is an extension of Schumann’s solo piano music, since the strings so often double the piano part or oppose it as a block.
In its brief sostenuto introduction, the Piano Quartet’s first movement gives us a small variety of mood snapshots, followed by the Allegro’s first theme, which Schumann presents in three distinct characters. All of them are “with energy and passion,” as Schumann’s directions indicate. The central development offers more cheerful/heroic moods and musical working-out. Before we know it, the principal music returns, abbreviated, and the movement ends in a bright, brave gesture.
The quartet’s Scherzo follows. Here is a perpetual-motion “Wild Horseman”-style opening, giving way to a graceful dialogue between piano and strings. The “Horseman” re-appears to mark the conclusion of this exciting music.
The strings take the spotlight at the opening of the Andante. Then, the piano takes over with an “endless” melody, leading to a full-ensemble texture that seems to speak directly to the heart. The central section is a waltz-dialogue for strings with lilting flourishes from the piano. A cello solo is especially attractive, leading to the movement’s quiet, polite ending.
Counterbalancing the Quartet’s opening movement, the finale introduces a powerful fugue-like main theme. A smooth, but exciting section follows, and then we are back to the fugue, which now introduces a heroic-quality section that builds in excitement. The movement’s central section is smoother and more relaxed, though the tempo is still fairly fast. In several short segments, this music showcases all instruments. The fugue idea returns, now fragmented and developmental. In the final section, each instrument has a brief opportunity to show virtuosity, followed by a powerful, percussive conclusion.
– Dr. Michael Fink 2020 (Schoenfield and Schumann notes)
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.
Read Mike Greenberg’s review at incidentlight.com