MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Prismatic Program from the Danish String Quartet

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Currently touring the West Coast, the Danish String Quartet paid a visit recently. I now get what the fuss is about. Here’s my review for Strings:

The Danish String Quartet‘s contribution to the Beethoven 250 celebrations this season includes a tripartite North American tour. As part of the fall segment of this tour, which is currently underway, the Scandinavian foursome made a recent stop in Seattle. On offer was the first of the Beethoven-themed programs they are presenting under the project name PRISM. The performance launched this season’s International Chamber Music series at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts of the University of Washington.

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Filed under: Bach, Beethoven, chamber music, Danish String Quartet, review, Shostakovich, string quartet, Strings

New Takács Lineup

Congratulations to Richard O’Neill, who was just announced as the newest member of the marvelous Takács Quartet. When Geri Walther retires from the group at the end of May 2020, O’Neill will become the new violist.

Richard O’Neill has contributed invaluably to the success of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s festivals and is always a joy to hear. I have a special affection for the Takács as well, as I was assigned one of their concerts for the very first professional review I wrote.

Filed under: chamber music, music news

Clara Schumann, Music’s Unsung Renaissance Woman

The 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth is quickly approaching. Here’s a story on her legacy I wrote for The New York Times:

Schumann is among the most celebrated names in the classical music canon — for most people conjuring the poetic and intense work of Robert Schumann, the Romantic master.

But when the Schumann in question is his wife, Clara, the name should remind us most of the frustrating lack of recognition still accorded female composers.

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Filed under: chamber music, Clara Schumann, New York Times, pianists

An Enescu Discovery

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My latest piece for STRINGS magazine is on the very belated US premiere of an early string trio by George Enescu:

Fellow musicians — especially string players — have resorted to some striking superlatives to characterize George Enescu (1881–1955). Pablo Casals, a frequent chamber partner, once remarked that since Mozart, there had been no greater musical phenomenon, while Enescu’s student Yehudi Menuhin believed the Op. 25 Third Sonata (“dans le caractère populaire roumain”) represented “the greatest achievement of musical notation” he had ever known…

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Filed under: chamber music, George Enescu, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Strings

Midpoint of Summer Festival at Seattle Chamber Music Society

The Seattle Chamber Music Society has been on a roll with its SummerFestival lineup this week. I’ve especially enjoyed Emerson String Quartet cellist Paul Watkins in killer Beethoven (Cello Sonata No, 3) and Brahms (C minor Piano Trio, Op. 101, with James Ehnes and Alessio Bax), the piano four-hands version of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye with Inon Barnatan and Angela Drăghicescu, and the long-belated U.S. live premiere of George Enescu’s Piano Trio No. 1 from 1897 (thanks to the diligence of Angela Drăghicescu, who was joined by James Ehnes and Ani Aznavoorian to perform it — I have a report on the rediscovery coming out later in Strings magazine). Plus, a delightful account of the “Sunrise” Quartet by Haydn (who’s been all-too-missing from summers past), courtesy of Alexander Kerr, Benjamin Bowman, Beth Gutterman Chu, and Ani Aznavoorian.

Another series of gems has been provided by the tenor Nicholas Phan and colleagues in several chamber song cycles: Fauré’s exquisite La bonne chanson and a cycle Mr. Phan created by interweaving secular love songs by John Blow and Purcell (with Stephen Stubbs and Julie Albers, plus new obbligato violin parts for Alexander Kerr and Benjamin Bowman). The tenor returns this evening for a prelude recital of selections from Schubert’s Schwanengesang (with Inon Barnatan at the keyboard) and, to James Ehnes’s violin, a Vaughan Williams rarity: Along the Field, his cycle of A.E. Housman settings. Also on the program tonight: Hindemith’s Viola Sonata, Op. 11, no. 4, more Enescu — Concert Piece for Viola and Piano — and Beethoven’s Op. 1, no. 1, the Piano Trio No. 1 in E-flat major.

Filed under: chamber music, Seattle Chamber Music Society

2019 Summer Festival at Seattle Chamber Music Society

The 2019 edition of the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival has already begun. Looking forward to discovering this early Enescu Piano Trio next week — in its belated U.S. premiere.

Filed under: chamber music, Seattle Chamber Music Society

Jupiter Quartet’s Alchemy

At the end of this week, the Jupiter String Quartet (now in its 16th year together) releases Alchemy (Marquis Classics), an album of four works commissioned by Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. Three of these receive their world premiere recordings here: Pierre Jalbert’s Piano Quintet (2017); Steven Stucky’s Piano Quartet (2005); and Carl Vine’s Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013). Also included is Jalbert’s Secret Alchemy for violin, viola, cello, and piano (2012).

All of the premieres occurred at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival. Australian pianist Bernadette Harvey joins the Jupiters (violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel, and cellist Daniel McDonough). Harvey also performed in the world premieres of Secret Alchemy and Vine’s Piano Quintet.

From the press release:

Pierre Jalbert’s Piano Quintet consists of four separate, contrasting movements: ‘Mannheim Rocket,’ a modern take on the 18th-century musical technique in which a rising figure speeds up and grows louder; ‘Kyrie,’ a chromatically transformed chant-like motive; a scherzo in which the strings and piano sometimes alternate and imitate each other, reacting to each other’s gestures, and at other times combine and synchronize to produce a more blended sound; and ‘Pulse,’ made up of perpetually moving 8th notes, but always pushing forward.

As one who loved nothing more than to play the piano quartets of Mozart, Brahms, Fauré, during his youth as a violist, Steven Stucky was inspired by these works his entire career, and later by 20th-century piano quartets of Copland, Palmer, Hartke, and Weir. Stucky noted that, “Attempting my own first work in this medium at the comparatively late age of 55, has stirred conflicting emotions—intimidation at the idea of ‘competing’ against the masters, but also a feeling of coming home to familiar, much loved surroundings.”

Stucky’s Piano Quartet is in one continuous movement, but flows in and out of many distinct sections: A short allegro (Risoluto) presents the theme and introduces bell-like sonorities that will recur throughout the piece. In the next, slow section (Lento, molto cantabile), the piano continues to imitate bells. A fast interlude (Allegro) reverses the roles—strings take on the bell sounds and leads quickly to a scherzo (Scherzando e molto leggero) conjuring the composer’s memories of pop music. The trio (Comodo, non affrettato) makes way to a second slow movement, with the piano now cast as soloist, and a brisk coda recalling the clangorous bell sounds of the opening.
Carl Vine (b.1954): Fantasia for Piano Quintet

Carl Vine writes about his Fantasia: “I call this single-movement piano quintet Fantasia because it doesn’t follow a strict formal structure and contains little structural repetition or recapitulation. The central section is generally slower than the rest and is followed by a presto finale, but otherwise related motifs tend to flow one from the other organically through the course of the work. It is ‘pure’ music that uses no external imagery, allusion, narrative, or poetry.”

Pierre Jalbert’s Secret Alchemy for for violin, viola, cello, and piano:
“With any new composition, there is a sense of discovery and mystery during the creative process,” says Jalbert, and of the title, explains, “Though this piece is not programmatic, imagining the air of secrecy and mysticism surrounding a medieval alchemist at work provided a starting point for the piece.”

Composed in four separate and contrasting movements, Jalbert notes, “The first movement begins with this sense of mystery. String harmonics are used to create the rhythmic backdrop for melodic lines played by the cello and later, the viola. The second movement is a relentless scherzo characterized by pizzicato strings, turbulent piano writing, and quickly alternating rhythmic patterns. The third movement is influenced by medieval music with its use of open 5ths, chant-like lines played non-vibrato by the strings, and reverberant piano harmonies, simulating the sound and reverberation in a large cathedral. The fourth movement concludes the work with an energetic music characterized by strings playing fast measured tremolo figures (rapid movement of the bow back and forth on the string). These alternate with the piano’s massive chords and occasional rapid melodic figures, along with muted tones emanating from inside the piano.”

Track listing:
[1-4] Pierre Jalbert: Piano Quintet (2017) 18:08

I. Mannheim Rocket 3:03

II. Kyrie 6:57

III. Scherzo 3:33

IV. Pulse 4:35

[5] Steven Stucky: Piano Quartet (2005) 17:26

[6] Carl Vine: Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013) 15:46

[7-10] Pierre Jalbert: Secret Alchemy for violin, viola, cello, and piano
(2012) 16:46

I. Mystical 4:00

II. Agitated, relentless 3:15

III. Timeless, mysterious, reverberant 5:28

IV. With great energy 4:03

Pierre Jalbert (b. 1967): Piano Quintet
(premiered by Jupiter Quartet and Bernadette Harvey on March 19, 2017)

Filed under: chamber music, recommended listening

Richard Wernick

Filed under: chamber music

Pēteris Vasks in Seattle: Light and Faith

Many thanks to flutist extraordinaire Paul Taub for making this memorable portrait concert of Pēteris Vasks happen, together with the Baltic Arts Northwest Council and the Nordic Museum. Despite the ongoing Seattle snowmageddon, with a fresh onslaught starting mid-afternoon, the matinee event proceeded as planned.

The 72-year-old Latvian composer was in attendance and warmly thanked Taub and his fellow musicians for their heartfelt renditions of his music. Joining Taub were the Skyros Quartet (Sarah Pizzichemi, Rachel Pearson, Justin Kurys, and Willie Braun), the chamber vocal Mägi Ensemble, and Travis Gore on double bass.

Beginning with Taub’s enchanting account of Ainavar ar putniem (Landscape with Birds) from 1980, the program offered an excellent sampling of pieces solo and chamber, vocal and instrumental. Travis Gore played the solo Bass Trip (2003), and the Mägi Ensemble gave the U.S. premiere of the version for women’s voices of Plainscapes (which exists in versions for 8-voice choir plus violin and cello as well as piano trio); they were accompanied by Pizzichemi on violin and Braun on cello. The Mägis also sang a set of folk songs — including the cycle Dzimtene (Motherland) — that display Vasks’s intriguing treatment of archaic material and technique.

I especially loved the solo Sonata (1992) for flute/alto flute and how Taub sensitively conveyed Vasks’s musical “borrowings” from nature, from bird calls and animal sounds. Similar devices grace the String Quartet No. 2 (1984), titled Vasaras dziedājumi (“Summer Tunes”). The Skyros wove its alluring atmospheres, suggesting the connections between the composer’s well-known reverence for nature and his spirituality in this pantheistic soundscape, touched too by genuine melancholy.

From an interview with Vasks quoted in the program notes by Guntis Šmidchens: “Right now it seems to me that there is so little time left, I have to write about light and faith. All the dramas and complications, let’s leave those aside … Music must knock you out of the everyday. But the main thing is that this doesn’t lead to collapse, that after the shock there should be spiritual purification… There’s a feeling that our life is too lukewarm. Lacking ideals, lacking faith. If you have no faith, how can you live?”

Filed under: chamber music, new music, Pēteris Vasks

Joan Tower at 80

My profile of Joan Tower, who recently turned 80, is in the September issue of Strings magazine (starts p. 27).

Filed under: chamber music, Joan Tower, profile, string quartet, Strings

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