PROGRAM NOTES – VICTORIAN TWILIGHT

COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: FANTASIESTÜCKE FOR STRING QUARTET, OP. 5

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was a black English composer-conductor of considerable talent and, in his day, a widespread reputation. Educated at the Royal Conservatory of Music (largely under scholarship), Coleridge-Taylor began to compose and achieve performances as early as 1893. Soon after leaving the Conservatory in 1897, he began to make a reputation as both a composer and conductor of choral music. Commissions from many English choral festivals came his way, and by 1910 he was famous enough as a conductor to be dubbed “The Black Mahler.”

At the time Coleridge-Taylor lived, exoticism was in high fashion and many composers were finding an identity in the music of their cultural roots. However, his idol was Anton Dvořák. Like Dvořák, he became fascinated with American Indians, especially in presentations like Longfellow’s poetry. Thus, his most famous works were a series of choral and orchestral pieces based on Hiawatha.

Coleridge-Taylor felt drawn to the United States in spite of prevailing prejudices. After a tour in which he was feted by no less than the President himself, the composer thought of emigrating, writing to a friend, “That which you and many others have lived in for so many years will not quite kill me. I am a great believer in my race.” The Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, established in Washington, DC in 1901, is testimony that his race was (and is) also a great believer in him.

As the German spelling suggests, the 5 Fantasiestüke were inspired by Robert Schumann’s two sets of piano miniatures, which he titled Phantasiestüke (Fantasy Pieces). Composed in 1896 for strings, Coleridge-Taylor’s moderate-size essays explore many coloristic possibilities in a string ensemble. 

The first movement, “Prelude,” Is structured in varied sections, which are sometimes contrasted in content and mood. “Prelude’ is inspired greatly by Schumann. Full of sweetness, its themes, alone and in counterpoint, reflect Schumann’s sensitivity.

No.2, “Serenade,” has a more wandering structure with each of the instruments lending mutual support. They explore several different melodies, as if walking along through newly discovered musical places.

No. 3, “Humoresque,” is a pixie scherzo in the manner of Mendelssohn. Though digressions from the main theme provide more forceful humor, the composer never loses sight of the Mendelssohnian ideal.

No. 4, “Minuet.” Trills and other decorations adorn this charming impression of the courtly 18th century. However, the Romantic-style harmonies and long-lined melodies place the music back in the hands of Coleridge-Taylor.

No.5, “Dance,” demonstrates the perennial imprint of the dance on concert-music finales. Coleridge-Taylor, however, places his own personal imprint on this music. Full of verve, the plentiful variety of themes and smaller musical ideas show the composer’s mastery of his medium as well as well as his ability to move his listeners.

BRIDGE: PIANO QUINTET IN D MINOR

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) Is not as well known to American audiences as perhaps he ought to be. He grew up at a time when Charles Stanford was the predominant English composer, and Bridge studied with Stanford during all of his four years at the Royal College of Music (1899-1903). Between then and the start of World War I (1914) Bridge was largely overshadowed by Edward Elgar, whose Pomp and Circumstances marches (for which he was knighted in 1904). Nevertheless, Bridge developed as a composer during the first decade of the 20th century.

The Piano Quintet came into being during that time. Bridge completed the four-movement first version in 1904, and it received some private insignificant public performances. However, the composer was dissatisfied with it, and put the work away until 1912. During those years, Bridge concentrated on playing the viola professionally and conducting, and he was considered one of the most gifted figures on the British music scene.

In 1912, Bridge retrieved and re-thought his Piano Quintet — we might even say “re-composed” the work, since revisions of the even proportion were radically revised. For example, the original to middle movements were melded into a single A-B-A (arch-form) movement.Briefly, the war (1914-1918) affected Bridge deeply, and his music became more dissonant and less key-associated. However, he could still train students traditionally. Notably, Benjamin Britten studied with him for several years of his youth. Britten went on to compose Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge in 1937 and to publish a memorial article in 1966, “Early influences — a Tribute to Frank Bridge.”

  1. Adagio – Allegro moderato – Adagio e sostenuto. From a beginning that resembles a cello sonata, the opening builds to a full ensemble presence. Then starting over, a new rhapsodic episode unfolds, becoming more intense until the main body of the movement (allegro), equally rhapsodic and unabashedly late-Romantic. Loose, free-wheeling development grows until it collapses into an echo of the opening adagio and a calm finish.
  2.  Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro con brio – Adagio ma non troppo. Now the tripartite middle movement unfolds as an instrumental song. The piano and individual strings take turns, solo and in ensemble, presenting new phrases. The elfin scherzo central section is a complete contrast to what we have just heard. Mysteriously, the music brings us seamlessly back to the rhapsodic, smooth, stretched-out Adagio reprise of the opening music, ending very mysteriously..
  3. Allegro energico.  Brilliant from the start, the quintet’s finale is marked by sudden contrasts, some in cultural styles (e.g., occasional gypsy connotations). This music is BIG in every sense. Even the softer central section has an inexplicable broadness, recalling ideas from the earlier movements. Long-lined rhapsodic themes in semi-improvisatory gestures lead to an ending in a truly GRAND style.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, 2021. All rights reserved.

PROGRAM NOTES: FAIRY TALES

SCHUMANN: MÄRCHENERZÄHLUNGEN, OP. 132

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) composed roughly one-third of his entire oeuvre during the three years he spent in the service of the town of Düsseldorf (late 1850 to the end of 1853). This is doubly amazing, considering his extensive musical and administrative duties as town music director coupled with his advancing state of ill health. In spite of these obstacles, Schumann’s almost obsessive creative drive spurred him on to create many works that were not required (or even usable) in his normal duties.

The highly original Märchenbilder (Fairy-Tale Pictures, Op. 113, 1851) for viola and piano is a good example. After publication, this set of pieces for viola and piano became very successful. In October 1856, Schumann composed Märchenerzählungen (Fairy-Tale Narrations) for clarinet, viola, and piano ─ possibly a sequel to Märchenbilder (both sets contain four pieces). Clara Schumann remarked in her diary, “Today Robert completed 4 pieces for piano, clarinet, and viola and was very happy about it. He thinks that this compilation will appear highly romantic” ─ that is, appealing to the emotions.

The first of the four Märchenerzählungen is a plucky little piece featuring the clarinet much of the time. Its light, jolly mood dominates the music and sets a fanciful mood as a backdrop for the three following movements. “Lively and with clipped implementation” is Schumann’s tempo indication for Movement No. 2.  “Contrasts” could have been another indicator. Loud-soft, rapid-ponderous, thundering-flighty are the pairings of mood that make up the mixed character of No. 2. On the other hand, “dreamy” might well describe the floating character of No. 3 with its near-continuous gossamer melodies shared by clarinet and viola. The solid, regulated piano accompaniment is like a storyteller, holding it all together. The fourth movement’s energy balances the strength and resolve of the opening movement. A light-hearted centerpiece gives welcome release, reminding us of the brighter middle movements. The third section is a resolute march that effectively draws us out of fairyland dreaming and into a positive, life-affirming ending.

BUNCH: UNTIL NEXT TIME

It is difficult for a contemporary composer to be prolific without sacrificing fresh and novel ideas. Yet, Kenji Bunch (1973- ) has done just that. This violist-composer, based originally in Portland, Oregon, has a catalog filled with instrumental and vocal music of many sorts, including two symphonies, seven concertos and quasi-concertos, and a vast array of chamber music. Educated at the Juilliard School, Bunch now resides again in Portland.

Bunch has held residencies with various orchestras and projects. Since 2014, he has served as Artistic Director of “Fear No Music” and teaches viola, composition, and music theory at Portland State University, Reed College, and for the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Young Composers Project.

His global reputation has resulted in all-Bunch concerts performed in New York City, Boston, Denver, Nashville, Mobile (AL) and Portland (OR), as well as at the Perpignon Conservatoire in southern France, the Stamford Festival in England, and the Oranjewoud Festival in The Netherlands. Bunch’s music often incorporates elements of hip hop, jazz, bluegrass, and funk.

The original version of Until Next Time was for unaccompanied violin or viola (his chief instrument). However, the tuning of individual strings is not standard. This de-tuning of one or more strings has an Italian name: scordatura. In Until Next Time, Bunch’s particular scordatura has the effect of enlarging the instrument’s resonance. From a long introduction that pairs a series of trills on one string with an adjacent open string, the music gradually finds a distinctive melody. In the next section: a new, warm melody on one string is surrounded by colorful broken chords on others. The broken chords come to the fore in a magnificent procession of harmonies. From this emerges virtuosic broken chords, which soon quiet into paired notes, similar to the introduction. Quietly, now, a series of trilled note-pairs emerges, bringing the music back to the contemplative mood of the introduction for a quiet finish.

BEETHOVEN: CLARINET TRIO, OP. 38

For Ravel, it was Bolero; for Rachmaninoff, it was his Prelude in C-sharp Minor; and for
Beethoven, it was the Septet in E-flat Major. Each of these composers had one composition that became so immensely popular as to obscure works that the composer considered more important. Eventually, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) grew so sick of hearing his Septet that, in the words of his student Carl Czerny, he could not endure his Septet and grew angry because of the universal applause with which it was received. Beethoven began work on the Septet in 1799, and it premiered on April 2, 1800 along with his First Symphony. Its success was immediate and long- lasting. 

The original instrumentation was clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and contrabass, but Beethoven later arranged it for a clarinet-violin-piano trio (Op. 38). Dozens of other different arrangements also soon appeared. Together, these generated what musicologist Paul Nettl described as one thousand performances. 

The six-movement Trio follows the tradition of the Classical divertimento, a blend of suite and sonata cycle. Beethoven’s debt to Haydn in this work is obvious from the opening Adagio that leads to a sonata-allegro main movement. Here, Beethoven shows us he is his own man by presenting an unusual eleven-measure main theme. The work’s reputation for beauty rests mainly on the Adagio cantabile movement. There is an unresolved controversy whether Beethoven borrowed the Rhenish folk song, Ach Schiffer, lieber Schiffer for his main theme. As a song, it first appeared in print in 1838, and it is possible that, like some tunes by Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s melody was original and so well-known as to become part of the urban folk repertoire. For the Tempo di Menuetto, Beethoven borrowed a theme from his own Piano Sonata in G Major, written in 1792 and later published as Op. 49, no. 2. The Trio section, however, is entirely new. 

The fourth movement, variations on an Andante theme, gives us different color combinations (some surprising) within the group. Most characteristic of Beethoven are the minor-mode Variation IV and the coda, which takes some unexpected turns. A fast Scherzo movement balances the previous minuet. Its waltz-like Trio briefly spotlights the cello.

In the sixth movement, Beethoven follows the funeral-march opening with a bustling, Haydnesque finale. One unusual feature is the piano cadenza (written out) that precedes the recapitulation. The coda, likewise, emphasizes the piano for a shimmering ending guaranteed to bring down the house.

Notes by Dr. Michael Fink. All rights reserved. Copyright 2021

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 – 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