Program notes – Strum

Program notes – Strum

Montgomery: Strum

Composer-violinist-educator Jessie Montgomery (1981- ) hails from New York’s Lower East Side, where her father managed a music studio. She was, in her words, “constantly surrounded by all different kinds of music.” Thus, her own compositions have drawn from many diverse influences, such as African-American spirituals, civil rights anthems, improvisational styles, modern jazz, film scoring, etc. From those early years, she developed, chiefly as a violinist, to receive degrees from the Juilliard School and New York University. In her professional performing life, Montgomery has been a member of the Providence String Quartet and the Catalyst Quartet. The latter began as a project of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which creates opportunities for African-American and Latino string players.

As a composer, Montgomery was the resident Composer-Educator for the Albany Symphony during the 2015-16 season. In addition she has been recognized with grants and fellowships from the American Composers Orchestra, the Sphinx Organization, the Joyce Foundation, and the Sorel Organization. Her reputation has been spreading steadily, mainly in North America, beginning in New York City, Providence, and Boston, reaching out to Deer Valley, Utah; Miami Beach, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; and Toronto, Ontario. Montgomery’s debut record album Strum: Music for Strings was released on the Azica Records label in late 2015. The concluding album track is Strum.

This one-movement work was commissioned by Community Music Works and premiered by the Providence String Quartet in 2006 and was revised in 2012. About the music, critic Maggie Molloy writes: 

Strummed pizzicato lines serve as a texture motive across all four instruments, creating a rhythmic vitality which propels the piece forward from its nostalgic first moments all the way through to its ecstatic and dramatic ending. Layered rhythms and harmonic ostinati round out the piece’s warm, dancelike spirit, crafting a joyous and hopeful ending. . . 

Dvorak: Piano Quintet In a major, op. 81

“This work probably epitomizes more completely the genuine Dvořák style in most of its facets than any other work of his.” (John Clapham)

“ . . . One of the most delightful and successful chamber works, not only in the composer’s works but also in the whole of chamber music composition.” (Otakar Šourek)

“ . . . The best piano quintet ever written, demonstrating as it does from start to finish some of the most lovable characteristics of a lovable composer.” (Gervase Hughes)

With accolades like that, there is very little to add except the bare facts. Having attempted, unsuccessfully, to improve his First Piano Quintet, Op.5 (also in the key of A major), Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) decided to start afresh. He began Op. 81 in mid- August 1887, and by mid-October the new quintet was completed. It was a period of contentment for Dvořák, and he worked in a pleasant environment. Once finished, Dvořák dedicated the new work to Dr. B. Neureutter, a generous patron of music. The premiere took place the following January, and Simrock published it immediately.

The first movement displays a wide expanse of moods generated from its two themes, both essentially song-like. These moods alternate rapidly during the development and keep the entire movement fresh and spontaneous.

The second movement bears the title Dumka, a kind of melancholy Slavonic folk ballad. In the hands of Dvořák, however, the Dumka involves sudden mood changes from melancholy to exuberance. That is what happens in the middle section of this rondo, when the rhythmic Vivace section springs up.

Although Dvořák gave a subtitle of Furiant to the Scherzo, it is not a genuine Furiant, since there are no predominating shifts of accent. However, every bit of the movement is Slavonic. Interestingly, the Trio section contains chiefly ideas from the main Scherzo theme.

The finale is a bustling movement in sonata form carrying an exhilaration that counterbalances the earlier melancholic moods. From the perky first theme to the last note, the movement is full of rustic fun. Dvořák’s mastery of every feature found in the quintet turn it into what Hughes has called “no less perfect a work of national art than the Dumka itself.”

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2020. All rights reserved.

The Camerata Recital: Viktor Valkov – Program Notes

The Camerata Recital: Viktor Valkov – Program Notes

Eight Mazurkas – Luke Dahn

These eight mazurkas were composed between the years 2016 and 2020 as a kind of response to a personal study of the Chopin mazurkas, for which I have developed a genuine fondness. My “mazurkas” then deserve quotation marks, as they stand removed from the mazur tradition from which Chopin drew. To be sure, each of my mazurkas bears some of the basic defining metric and rhythmic elements of the dance—e.g. triple meter, emphasis on beat two or three, and syncopated accents—though at times these defining elements are rather latent or obscured. Mazurkas 1 and 8, which serve as bookends, are the most extroverted, celebratory and even bombastic pieces of the set. The short, pithy Mazurka 2 is marked by sharp staccatos and hidden quotations of two chorale tunes within its brittle texture. Mazurka 3 features a quiet passacaglia bass line above which an angular canon occurs. Perhaps the least mazurka-like of the set is the fourth piece in the set with its obscured triple meter and syncopated rhythms. Metric clarity returns in Mazurka 5 as pulsing harmonic seconds accompany patterned melodic gestures, although a much slower and delicately expressive middle section broadens these dance elements considerably. Mazurka 6 is the only piece in the set that explicitly draws from Chopin as the left-hand fifths that pervade the piece are taken directly from the sparkling middle section of Chopin’s Op.68, No.3. The dark, almost sinister character of the short Mazurka 7, marked by a low register “bass drum,” prepares the exuberant final number.

Luke Dahn

Pictures at an Exhibition – Modest Mussorgsky

It is difficult to conceive that the piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition written in 1874 by Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881), had to wait until after the composer’s death to be published. The origin of Pictures at an Exhibition goes back to 1873. That year saw the death of Victor Hartmann, architect and artist, who was a close friend of Mussorgsky’s. The composer expressed his sorrow at the loss to Russian critic Vladimir Stassov, who had first introduced them. The following year Stassov helped to arrange an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann’s watercolors and drawings in St. Petersburg. From this collection, Mussorgsky chose eleven works on which to build his suite, introducing some of the movements with a recurring “Promenade” theme. The “Promenade,” as explained by Stassov, represents the composer “walking now right, now left, now as an idle person, now urged to go near a picture; at times his joyous appearance is dampened as he thinks in sadness of his departed friend. . . .”

“The Gnome” is the sketch of a nutcracker in the shape of a deformed gnome. “The Old Castle” (following a “Promenade”) portrays a medieval Italian castle with a singing troubadour in the foreground.

“Tuileries” (following another “Promenade”) shows a crowd of children and nursemaids in the famous Parisian park. Mussorgsky’s subtitle reads: “Dispute of the Children after Play.” “Bydlo” portrays a Polish peasant wagon with giant wooden wheels drawn by oxen. “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” (following a “Promenade”) was based on a design for a child’s ballet costume, which is a shell from which only the head and limbs protrude. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” contrasts strongly with the previous section and stems from two pictures the artist gave to Mussorgsky (now lost). “Limoges — The Marketplace” shows a group of women gossiping by their pushcarts amid hustle and bustle.

“Catacombs,” a picture of the Paris catacombs, led Mussorgsky to inscribe, “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me toward skulls, apostrophizes them — the skulls are illuminated gently in the interior.” “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” (With the Dead in a Dead Language), a continuation of the catacombs motif, reworks the “Promenade” theme into an eerie character piece.

“The Hut on Fowls’ Legs” is a drawing of a clock in the shape of the hut of Baba-Yaga, the Russian witch. Toward the end of the section, Mussorgsky suggests the witch flying. When she lands, it is squarely on the downbeat of the final section, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” This was Hartmann’s design for an ancient-style gate, complete with decorative cupola and a triumphal procession marching through the arches (represented by the “Promenade” theme). The full mass of the piano’s resources comes together here to give Pictures at an Exhibition a majestic conclusion.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2020

Review: Beethoven250

Review: Beethoven250

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

Review: Beethoven250

Program Notes: Beethoven250

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

Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2019

Review – Prism and The Beautiful Soul

Review – Prism and The Beautiful Soul

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