MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Senses of an Ending: The Emerson String Quartet Takes Its Final Bow in Seattle

The Emerson String Quartet; photo (c) Jürgen Frank

There’s actually still nearly a year to go before the Emerson String Quartet (ESQ) plays its final final concert, which is currently planned for the end of October 2023 at Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan. On top of that, they are also preparing a feature-length documentary of their farewell tour, written and directed by Tristan Cook and produced by Birgit Gernbōck. So this splendid, storied American ensemble still has some way to go before reaching the end of the line….

Still, the Emersons’ concert on 1 December at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts had a distinctly valedictory accent. One of the stops on their official farewell tour, their appearance at the University of Washington venue had already been postponed from the spring and marked the 27th (or possibly even 28th) visit since the ESQ’s debut there in 1988. The ensemble attracts a loyal following, and an impressive percentage of the audience indicated that they had attended that inaugural performance.

As for the musicians, violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer have remained part of the ESQ since they founded it in 1976, and violist Lawrence Dutton joined in 1977. The only other change in personnel has been the arrival of Paul Watkins in 2013 following the departure of longtime cellist David Finckel. (Reunions with Finckel and the other two former members, cellist Eric Wilson and violist Guillermo Figueroa, are also on the agenda during the farewell tour.)

The ESQ have been offering their renowned Shostakovich interpretations as part of the farewell tour — their final London concert a few weeks ago featured the bleak implications of the Russian composer’s last three quartets — but they chose a blend of American and classic European fare for their Meany Center program. Each selection suggested an individual variant on the idea of leave-taking. George Walker expressed his grief over the passing of his grandmother in his 1946 Lyric for Strings, which originated as the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1. Walker’s structural idea of having the single voices enter one after the other served as a beautiful metaphor for the individuality of the quartet members joining together in song and converging in a collective eloquence.

The ESQ here set the tone for the entire program, which at times seemed uncharacteristically understated, even subdued — as if to keep the audience pricking up its ears to fill in the spaces for what seemed left unsaid. This ploy took particularly delightful form in the fifth of Haydn’s Op. 33 set, the Quartet in G major that since the 19th century has been known by the English nickname “How Do You Do.” The “farewell” here was especially sly and sophisticated. Haydn cleverly plays with the idea of musical endings, which is to say, cadences, by starting off the whole work with a cadential gesture that befits a closing phrase — but that he catchily turns into the connective idea, leading us ever onward. The ESQ didn’t overemphasize Haydn’s little jokes of time and timing — the pizzicato ending that throws an enigmatic question mark on the otherwise plaintive slow movement, or the stop-and-start high-jinx of the scherzo, for example. The focus seemed to be on letting the music have its say, with minimal “interference.”

This translated into a decidedly austere, anti-sentimental take on Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings — like Walker’s, music by a young man, originally positioned as part of a string quartet, which seems wise far beyond its composer’s years. The Adagio (which is said to have been inspired by the third of Virgil’s Georgics) has of course been turned into a default song of farewell, an idealized elegy enlisted to provide a kind of shared catharsis in times of devastating tragedy. Despite some wavering intonation (here and elsewhere in the program), the Emersons homed in, without exaggeration, on the simplicity of the line, Setzer’s first violin soaring with courageous honesty and Dutton’s viola adding a slight, pleading edge. I was especially struck by how an early music sensibility emerged here in place of the usual, throbbing Romanticism.

Schubert was just a couple years older than the Barber of the Adagio for Strings when he wrote his great Quartet in G major in 1826. But rather than launch his career, the Austrian’s final string quartet (unpublished while he was still alive) seems to combine an expansive sense of symphonic writing with his most ambitious ideas of the quartet genre. (It was just around this time that Beethoven was working on his final quartet, in the very same city.)

There was less dramatic digging-in to the muscular aspect of Schubert’s sound world than I expected, and more nuance and room left for inference. Drucker took the lead here (as he had in the Haydn), while Watkins offered some especially flavorful phrasing. The ensemble’s rhythmic flexibility served the Schubert well, and the harmonic revelations of this remarkable quartet were presented as if being discovered for the first time, to mesmerizing effect. The finality of the final cadence to the dance of the fourth movement — which felt as it might otherwise have kept driving ahead, a frenzied vision of eternal return — came as a shock.

As a gentle encore, the Emersons turned to Dvořák’s quartet arrangement of one of the numbers from the collection known as Cypresses (“I Wander Often Past Yonder House”) — the string quartet distilled into pure song.

Review (c) 2022 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, Schubert, Haydn, Emerson String Quartet, George Walker

Danish Quartet: Doppelgänger II

Friday night brings the second installment in the Danish Quartet’s ongoing Doppelgänger Project at Cal Performances, with the world premiere of Finnish composer Lotta Wennaköski’s Pige, her response to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. Here’s the introduction I wrote to this program (click on tab “about the performance”).

continue

Filed under: Cal Performances, Danish String Quartet, Schubert

Schubert Week from Berlin

The Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin just completed its customary January week devoted to Schubert’s art song, with Thomas Hampson as guide and mentor.

The entire week’s worth of daily concerts, workshops, and conversations, which was streamed live from the hall, remains available online for another 30 days. The digital format also includes extended behind-the-scenes content on the songs and poems as well as interviews with some of the artists.

see the links to streams below on this page

Filed under: lieder, Pierre Boulez Saal, Schubert

Schubert Week: Poets of the Lieder

Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin today is starting its festival devoted to the lieder of Franz Schubert, curated by Thomas Hampson. I wrote about Schubert and his poets for the program (p. 31ff).

Goethe provided the source for more Schubert songs than any other poet. A sample:

Nähe des Geliebten
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Ich denke dein, wenn mir der Sonne Schimmer
Vom Meere strahlt;
Ich denke dein, wenn sich des Mondes Flimmer
In Quellen malt.
Ich sehe dich, wenn auf dem fernen Wege
Der Staub sich hebt;
In tiefer Nacht, wenn auf dem schmalen Stege
Der Wandrer bebt.
Ich höre dich, wenn dort mit dumpfem Rauschen
Die Welle steigt.
Im stillen Hain da geh ich oft zu lauschen,
Wenn alles schweigt.
Ich bin bei dir, du seist auch noch so ferne.
Du bist mir nah!
Die Sonne sinkt, bald leuchten mir die Sterne.
O wärst du da!
Nearness of the Beloved

I think of you when sunlight
glints from the sea;
I think of you when the moon’s glimmer
is reflected in streams.
I see you when, on distant roads,
dust rises;
in the depths of night, when on the narrow bridge
the traveller trembles.
I hear you when, with a dull roar,
the waves surge up.
I often go to listen in the tranquil grove
when all is silent.
I am with you, however far away you are.
You are close to me!
The sun sets, soon the stars will shine for me.
Would that you were here!
[Translation © Richard Wigmore first published by Gollancz and reprinted in the Hyperion Schubert Song Edition]

Filed under: lieder, poetry, Schubert

Schubert and Britten et al. from Byron Schenkman & Friends

IMG_0958

Byron Schenkman, Jeff Fair, and Zach Finkelstein

Still basking in the emotions from Sunday evening’s program courtesy of Byron Schenkman & Friends – said friends on this occasion being tenor Zach Finkelstein (in his Nordstrom Recital Hall debut), Seattle Symphony principal horn player Jeff Fair, and cellist Nathan Whittaker.

Schenkman’s programming is always an art in itself, but this one really stood out for its combination of poetry and music, focusing on a pair of composers who rank among the most sensitive writers for the voice. Schubert lieder framed the evening, with a set of four songs to begin — “Der Musensohn,” “An die Laute,” “Ganymed,” and “Du bist die Ruh” — and “Auf dem Strom,” one of the miraculous products of his final year, at the close.

Finkelstein’s refined, expressive phrasing and gorgeous tone hit the mark. The tenor was alert to every nuance Schubert uses to paint the emotions evoked by the poet, adding just enough pressure and urgency to make an apparently simple melodic turn suddenly light up with hidden colors. (See the video below for more on this wonderful singer, including some of his insights on Britten.)

“Auf dem Strom” — thought to be possible a tribute to the late Beethoven, who had died the year before — came off as a thoroughly involving miniature drama. I also admired Schenkman’s affinity for this repertoire, which shows off a very different side of his artistry from the early music fare I more frequently hear him perform. Jeff Fair emphasized the touching mellifluousness of the horn part, with hints of nostalgic heroism as well.

Schenkman, Finkelstein, and Fair all have collaborated on a to-die-for recording of all five of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles, which came in 2017. Before performing the two Canticles featured on this program, Schenkman and Finkelstein read the long, intricate poems which Britten set to music: Canticle I, Op. 40 (“My Beloved Is Mine”) by Francis Quarles, composed in 1947 for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears; and 54 the 19Canticle III, Op. 55 (“Still falls the rain: The raids 1940. Night and dawn”), to a poem by Edith Sitwell, which calls for a solo horn part in addition to the piano accompaniment.

These two highly contrasting pieces — the one a mystical ode to love, the other an unsparing reflection on human nature’s darkest side, while still reaching for hope — made for a powerful juxtaposition. Canticle III is of Turn of the Screw vintage and felt both cathartic and emotionally exhausting.

When introducing the first Canticle, Schenkman pointed out the composer’s bravery in living with a same-sex partner during a period when Alan Turing was subjected to such injustice, recalling, too, how Queen Elizabeth sent a personal letter of condolence to Pears following his companion’s death in 1976. Schenkman also referred to Britten’s role in reaffirming the stature of Mendelssohn following the Nazis’ attempt to erase him from history, noting how Mendelssohn himself played a pivotal role in rescuing nearly lost Schubert masterpieces from oblivion.

Schenkman and Nathan Whittaker gave a glowing account of Mendelssohn’s Variations concertantes for cello and piano, Op. 17, after the first Canticle. The cellist also treated listeners to the solo piece The Fall of the Leaf by Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav Holst and a close friend of Britten and Pears). Written in 1963 for Pamela Hind o’Malley, it comprises “short studies … on a 16th-century tune” from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (by Martin Peerson). More eloquent, even grief-stricken, than restrained, Whittaker brought out the thoughtful melancholy of the descending, fatalistic theme, while playfully suggesting the ghost of a lute in Holst’s pizzicato chords.

Filed under: Britten, Byron Schenkman, review, Schubert

Simone Dinnerstein: Glass + Schubert

g7wxmupo-2880-1935

Sorry not to be in town to be able to attend Simone Dinnerstein’s program tonight at Miller Theatre. She talks about her thinking behind this pairing of Glass and Schubert in my essay for the program:

Affinities and Alliances: Simone Dinnerstein Performs Glass + Schubert

By happy coincidence, this month ends with a double birthday: January 31 is the day on which Philip Glass and Franz Schubert were born. And while, chronologically speaking, 140 years separate the two composers, the affinities between them are striking. Glass grew up surrounded by classical music in heavy rotation in his father’s record store in Baltimore and found himself drawn to Schubert in particular.
continue reading

Filed under: Philip Glass, piano, Schubert, Simone Dinnerstein

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Byron Schenkman & Friends

byronMy preview of the final Byron Schenkman & Friends concert of the season has now been posted by The Seattle Times:

When great artists are struggling, that pain sometimes comes through in their work — but not always. Take Beethoven and Schubert, who produced some of their loftiest music during periods of intense suffering.

continue reading

Filed under: Beethoven, preview, Schubert, Seattle Times

Collapsing Borders and Boundaries

 

Kid Koala - Nufonia Must Fall - Noorderzon_Festival_2014_@_Groningen_NL_ Jørn-Mulder-93

My preview of two upcoming events at Stanford Live has now been psoted:

The coming weeks feature two unusual programs in Stanford Live’s ongoing performance season—each featuring a uniquely unclassifiable collaboration with chamber musicians. Singer-songwriter and composer Gabriel Kahane joins with the innovative string quartet Brooklyn Rider to bridge the gap between folk-pop songs and instrumental music. And in Nufonia Must Fall, DJ extraordinaire Kid Koala transforms his graphic novel into a one-of-a-kind music theater/film hybrid with the help of the Afiara Quartet, director-designer K. K. Barrett, a team of puppeteers—and a timeless tale of robots in love.

continue reading

Filed under: new music, preview, Schubert

The Miró Quartet’s “Transcendent” Project

miro1.jpgTo celebrate its 20th anniversary year, the Miró Quartet has been pursuing some characteristically innovative and ambitious projects. This week the group announced the winner of its Transcendence Education Project: the Fox Chapel Area High School Orchestra in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Entrants had been invited to submit a 30-second video on the topic of ‘musical transcendence’ with prizes including a free masterclass and other chances to interact with the Miró Quartet.

continue reading

Filed under: chamber music, Schubert, Strad

Padmore and Bezuidenhout Undertake a Winter Journey of White-Light Intensity

Mark Padmore; © Marco Borggreve

Mark Padmore; © Marco Borggreve

Here’s my review for Bachtrack of the third and final evening of the Schubert Trilogy recently performed by Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival:

‘Fremd’ is the very first word of the first song (‘Gute Nacht’) in Franz Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’. And the sensation of being a stranger, an alien among the signposts of ordinary life – with its cottages and mail coaches, its inns and stray dogs – imbued this interpretation of the entire 24-song cycle by the tenor Mark Padmore and the fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.

continue reading

Filed under: lieder, Lincoln Center, review, Schubert, White Light Festival

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

RSS Arts & Culture Stories from NPR