Tuesday, July 29, 2008

SummerMusic: A Super Sunday at the Mill

The weather turned out to be about as good as you’re likely to get for late-July, warm but not unbearably humid rather than the usual pre-Dog Days heat wave, and the threat of thunderstorms, at least over our little corner of the world, evaporated in the sunlight glinting off the babbling brook of the Yellow Breeches, doing its best to stand in for the second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

I had taken my camera along but couldn’t find an angle that didn’t have a little too much sunlight in it; nor did I want to disrupt the performance, even during the bows, with a flash going off. It seemed odd to get a picture of the empty stage other than to prove that, yes, they did get a real grand piano into the mill. By the time I was able to find a reasonably good shot of the quartet, after the performance standing in front of the mill, we were already in the car and on the road home. It wouldn’t have mattered much, I suppose, to stop for a quick drive-by photo-shooting. When I got home, I discovered that somehow the cover on my old-fashioned digital camera had pushed back so that the batteries were long gone. Fortunately, the performance went much better than that.

July in the Harrisburg classical music scene has come to mean SummerMusic [Insert Year Here] which Market Square Concerts has been presenting for several years now with a Wednesday night concert at Market Square Church and then two more concerts on the weekend at the Glen Allen Mill along the Yellow Breeches. It started with the Ying Quartet for a few years and then, when they could no longer return, the Fry Street String Quartet started spending some time with us – if I’m not mistaken, this is their 3rd or 4th year (maybe, like Super Bowl Games, they should start listing them as SummerMusic IX or whatever, now that it seems to be a fixed tradition).

There have been some sweltering weekends at the Mill in those years and others that were downright pleasant, but this year the mill is marketed as “air-conditioned.” In this case, window units in several key windows work diligently before the concert, people are kept out until the last minute so they can keep the door closed and the cool air inside. And it actually works. Of course, you have to turn them off during the performance so you can hear the music but still, it’s pretty successful: while programs usually get pressed into service doubling as fans, there were fewer people on Sunday waving them.

After the opening concert Wednesday night, the weekend programs included four Beethoven quartets along with a Haydn Piano Trio and a Mozart Violin Sonata, joined by pianist Stuart Malina. It was surprising they were able to get - much less fit - a piano in the mill, a low-ceilinged space that certainly was not designed for anything close to chamber music concerts. Moving it in and then out of that space might make an amusing video to post on-line - or perhaps not, depending on how squeamish you get about things like that (I can never watch Laurel & Hardy as the piano movers without breaking into an anxious sweat).

The program opened with one of the great violin sonatas Mozart composed during the height of his fame in Vienna, the one in B-flat Major, K.454. It must have been a fairly happy time for him, creatively, since a month earlier he had just composed something he considered one the best things he ever wrote – the Quintet for Piano & Winds.

This violin sonata, though, creates a problem for the “historically informed” period instrument performer – at least for the piano-player. Since this is the sonata made famous in the anecdote about Mozart not having had time to finish it before the performance (before the Emperor, no less) and he just wrote out the violin part and left the piano part blank, playing it from “memory,” should a pianist today do the same thing? Later, Mozart filled it in, which we can tell since it’s a different colored ink in the manuscript and some passages are squeezed in to fit the already existing violin part, but still, yeah...

Since they’re officially “Sonatas for Piano & Violin” as they were styled in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s days, Stuart was joined by the rather tall first violinist of the Fry Street Quartet, William Fedkenheuer – I was afraid when they bounded up on stage, the violinist would knock himself out on one of the rafters if he hadn’t ducked in time – for a performance that, once you acclimated to the sound in the room, was stylish and compelling, especially in the beautiful slow movement. Clean strings of parallel 3rds in the pianist’s right hand and a shared clarity of texture and phrasing were highlights of the first movement. Balance in Mozart is always tricky, especially during those passages where the violin plays more pianistic arpeggiated patterns and is actually accompanying the melody in the piano, but the give-and-take between them was usually so keen, there was never any sense anyone was not an equal partner here.

After the piano lid was closed and the chairs and music stands put in place by the gracious stage crew, the Fry Street Quartet came out to play the first of the Beethoven quartets, at least as it’s numbered – it’s actually the second one completed but Beethoven chose it to open the set because it just makes such an incredible statement. The whole point of writing these quartets – on the heels of his teacher Haydn’s success in the medium – was to announce to the world, “Here I am,” so Beethoven took his time and spent two years working on all six of them before they were ready to be performed. One thing Beethoven was not was the fast-food equivalent of art.

Nor was the Fry Street’s performance. Though I missed Saturday night’s performance of Op. 18/6 and Op. 132, their grasp of these works should be a very positive indication for their future. Every quartet, as I mentioned, has to come to grips with Beethoven, one way or another, if you’re going to play the standard repertoire. The great thing about great art, of course, is that the first time you learn it is does not mean you will play it that way every time. There are always new things to discover and explore, just as Beethoven did with each quartet he composed. Each one approaches the idea of what a string quartet can be from a different perspective which in turn affects how you might approach the others: in Op. 18, one is symphonic, one is a mini-concerto, another is lyrical, still another is the dramatic one; after the chaos of Op. 130, the B-flat with its immense fugal ending, comes the tautly controlled Op. 131 which is in turn followed by a return to an almost classical scope in Op. 135 (just as Wagner pushed tonality to the extreme in Tristan, he pulled back afterwards to write the much less adventuresome Meistersinger). That the Fry Street Quartet has grown in their approach to these works honestly helps them bring us a little closer to Beethoven’s private universe.

It was interesting to compare these two specific works back-to-back, written 25 years apart. The C-sharp minor Quartet on the second half of the program is essentially his last major work and, in order of composition, the next-to-last quartet, essentially the apex and summation of his career just as the first quartet heralded its start.

Beethoven was primarily an “organic” composer, usually building a piece out of musical cells or building blocks rather than themes: think the opening of the 5th Symphony which builds on that famous four-note motive and how that rhythm – da-da-da daaaah – permeates the whole movement, even the whole symphony (since it appears in the 3rd and 4th movements as well).

The first quartet (Op. 18/1) opens with a short cell that basically consists of a turn around the first note – this is imbedded throughout the movement 104 times (down from 130 times in an earlier draft). In the Op. 131 quartet, it’s not so much the opening’s cell as its shape and its bare essentials that subtly permeates other movements, especially the relentless finale, unifying the whole piece.

The form of Op. 131 always fascinates me, too: a lot is made of its being in seven movements (as in, “wow, seven movements, imagine that!”), even though they’re not quite in the right places to be an “Arch Form” in the 20th Century way, each movement corresponding around a central “keystone” movement. Still, the elements are there and it flows from beginning to end in much the same way, a hundred years before Bartok is given credit for introducing it. Two of these are quite brief and really only serve as introductions (or structural up-beats) to the movements that follow them.

The first not-quite-a-real-movement consists of a few gestures, typical operatic patterns you might hear in any recitative as if all four instruments are conversing about what comes next (in an opera, next would come an aria or an ensemble of some kind but something grand, no doubt, and lyrical), going directly into the core of the quartet, a long set of variations which turns out not to be the expected slow movement. With all its changes of mood and tempo, rather than being one long string of variations on a theme, it seems more like a collection of sub-movements, six variations in all complete with a restatement of the recitative-like “introduction” before an incomplete seventh variation (and how many movements in the quartet?) is interrupted by a scherzo (though he doesn’t call it that). Here, there is a lot of quick back-and-forth between the instruments, fragments of gestures, pizzicato (plucked) notes ricocheting over the music stands, colors changing suddenly to the glassy sound of sul ponticello (playing near the bridge). As fractious as the 2nd movement was gentle, following the slow sad fugue that began the quartet, this 5th movement is essentially parallel and at the same time the opposite to the 2nd movement. Then an impassioned interruption that sounds like it might actually become a slow movement suddenly erupts violently as the stormy finale takes off, driving everything to the conclusion.

Then an odd thing happens, after it climbs and climbs to a peak: Beethoven suddenly cuts back and brings everything to a near-grinding halt with a wistful look back on the opening motive (again, traded almost recitative-like between the instruments) before a somewhat peremptory final cadence, especially considering everything that had been building up over the past 40 minutes or so.

The first violinist, the group’s spokesman, took us on a tour of Op. 131 before they began playing it, explaining some details here, playing excerpts there, sign-posts to listen for, background information and a raft of quotable quotes to keep in mind. His lightness also helped keep things from becoming too serious (trust me, it is very easy to get too reverential about The Late Quartets), but I loved his mock-serious comments about the role of the first violinist in the piece, especially when he said how the theme of the variations movement is NOT in the first violin part “where it belongs” but shared with the second violin “as if there were actually other players to be considered.”

This of course makes fun of the old traditional approach to the quartet in Beethoven’s day: a violin “accompanied” by three other players. Ludwig Spohr, one of the great violinists then and an even more popular composer at the time, wrote in his autobiography about how his group was attempting to perform one of Beethoven’s late quartets. During the rehearsals, he noticed “my accompanists were having great difficulties making sense of their parts” (or something to that effect) so instead he substituted one of his own quartets which proved to be much more successful all around. It would be too easy to ask, by comparison, how many of you have ever heard a Spohr quartet played live...?

Watching the interplay of the performers during Op. 131, it reminded me, rather than the traditional allotment of the parts – melody in the first violin, bass line in the cello, and the harmonies filled out by the second violin and viola – how independent and equal all four voices are, like people sitting around having a conversation, arguing a point or agreeing on another, making side comments and perhaps changing the topic. This isn’t very different from Elliott Carter’s approach to his string quartets where (borrowing from Charles Ives’ 2nd Quartet) each instrument takes on specific identities as they interact with each other.

This in turn reminded me of the comment some critic made back in the '70s, describing some work by Carter or Babbitt, I’ve forgotten who, by saying “This must be what Late Beethoven Quartets sound like to a dog.”

When I was teaching in Connecticut, I got a postcard from a fellow composer who was attending the contemporary music festival at Tanglewood that summer. On the front was a photograph of a stately collie sitting upright on the grass with a pipe in his mouth. On the back he’d written,
“Listening to Late Beethoven Quartets.”

Friday, July 25, 2008

SummerMusic with Beethoven & Schumann

Sitting there, waiting for the first program in Market Square ConcertsSummerMusic to begin, I was paging through May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, something I like to pick up to read, even just a few entries, when the “main book” I’m working on is too much to concentrate on for a short spurt of reading-time (currently, that would be Tolstoy’s War & Peace which at four pounds is just too cumbersome and pompous-looking to drag around in public). And I read this quote-within-a-quote: she’s sitting in an airport waiting for her flight and reading Robert Coles’ New Yorker article about Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist perhaps best known for creating the term “identity crisis.” I re-quote from her November 17th entry this passage quoted from Erikson’s 1958 book, Young Man Luther, and her reaction to it.

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‘Millions of boys face these problems and solve them in some way or another – they live, as Captain Ahab says, with half of their heart and only one of their lungs, and the world is the worst for it. Now and again, however, an individual is called upon (called by whom, only theologians claim to know, and by what, only bad psychologists) to lift his individual patienthood to the level of a universal one and to try to solve for all what he could not solve for himself alone.’ The key word for me, of course, is ‘patienthood,’ for this is exactly what is involved for the poet or artist of either sex. Coles himself says elsewhere in the piece, ‘Not everyone can or will do that – give his specific fears and desires a chance to be of universal significance.’ To do this takes a curious combination of humility, excruciating honesty, and (there’s the rub) a sense of destiny or of identity. One must believe that private dilemmas are, if deeply examined, universal, and so, if expressed, have a human value beyond the private and one must also believe in the vehicle for expressing them, in the talent.

— May Sarton: Journal of a Solitude. 1973. W.W. Norton & Company NY (p.59-60)
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As a composer, I found it striking in ways similar to Sarton the poet and novelist. And it seemed entirely appropriate for a pre-concert rumination, thinking back on it after the concert, in any number of ways.

First of all, after 26 seasons, Lucy Miller Murray, founder and patron saint of Market Square Concerts, is turning over its directorship to my friend (and ex-colleague) Ellen Hughes. One has been through all of those doubts and struggles before – from her own fears and desires to bring an organization like this into being in order to give the fears and desires of other talented artists a platform of expression – and the other, having already been there on so many different levels of consideration in past life-encounters, will now be facing them from a new perspective.

When you consider how many music schools there are in the world and how many musicians they release into the world annually compared to the number of orchestras and string quartets and opera companies and choirs and music schools that will be able to employ them or the number of recording companies and labels and audiences that will likely bother to listen to them and support them, it must be daunting for a group of young musicians to decide to band together and make a career in the arts.

How many “up-and-coming young string quartets” are there out there who will try to fit into that small handful of slots made available by the likes of Market Square Concerts around the country? How few of them will become the legendary ensembles of their generation like the on-going Juilliard and the Guarneri Quartets have been of theirs?

They can’t, of course, dwell on that but they can’t escape it, either. It takes lots of time and hard work to realize whatever potential they may have felt at the beginning: will they have the right chemistry to make it work? Will things fall into place for them at the right time?

That’s something the audience is usually unaware of: how many hours are spent practicing, even before rehearsing together, learning a new piece, going over an old one, perhaps rethinking it, perhaps rethinking everything each time the play it. And how many years they may be doing that kind of working and growing before they actually get that much-needed break.

So it’s gratifying, over the past several years of SummerMusics Past, to see the Fry Street String Quartet, another of these young quartets, moving through those development stages, gaining assurance and making strides. And above all, taking risks: you don’t move forward if you don’t take risks. Sometimes they pay off but not always: I’ve never seen statistics on the mortality rate of young string quartets, but it’s probably not pretty.

And it’s not that they’re exactly new: they formed in 1997, so the sense of commitment must be very deep to keep at it. They have to believe not only in their individual talent but in their collective talent which is not the same as just adding four talents together, stir and simmer.

And while everybody these days plays Beethoven quartets, you still have to have the courage to take all of them on, something that everybody can compare you to, that cultural legacy from all the great quartets you’ve ever heard perform or record Beethoven’s quartets throughout your lifetime. But some day a quartet will have to play them – unless you’re the Kronos Quartet who lives on the other side of just about everything – and if you’re going to learn them, you might as well learn all of them because only then do you really understand each of them.

Several years ago, driving home late at night, the “overnight” network program at the radio station where I used to work was playing a string quartet I did not recognize. In fact, I couldn’t even identify the composer. I caught, as so often happens, just part of it - the end of the last movement, as it turned out. It sounded vaguely familiar, like so many things do when you’ve been in the radio business and music goes in one ear and out the other so much of the time. As I was pulling up my garage, it ended. “That,” the announcer said matter-of-factly, “was Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59, No. 2.”

I was floored.

Okay, granted, except for the third movement, of all the Beethoven cycle it’s probably the least familiar to me, and I primarily know that one movement only because of his use of the Russian folk-song “Slava” which every 19th Century Russian composer probably used at one time or another (and since I’d taught a course in Russian Music, I was obligated to play Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov’s settings of it and then, as a chuckle, Beethoven’s Germanically straight-jacketed version). But why didn’t I recognize what I heard at least as something by Beethoven? I was thinking some otherwise faceless early-19th Century also-ran, somebody imitating Beethoven – and not very well.

The problem was, it just didn’t sound like Beethoven. It was too nice, too well-rounded around the edges, not driving enough and certainly not compelling. I thought perhaps the announcer had played the wrong piece (hey, it can happen: cue up the wrong cuts, the wrong CD was in the jacket or something). The performance had just been so clueless and now I was annoyed I couldn’t even remember the performers' name because I sure as hell wanted to avoid ever getting any of their recordings, at least of Beethoven.

Wednesday night’s performance of the “2nd Razumovsky Quartet” by the Fry Street String Quartet was the first time I’d had a chance to hear it live since that awful drive-way moment years ago. And I kept thinking “why is this one I’ve never really gotten to know?” Okay, there are, what, 16 string quartets by Beethoven and while they can’t all be “the best,” there certainly aren’t any anyone would seriously consider “bad.” Even the least of them would be better than many another composer’s best, however you care to evaluate something so subjective. So I tried listening to it as if it were the first time, again.

More importantly, I was able to react to their performance by the way they connected with me, how they made their case for the universal – not by comparing it to the Juilliard’s recordings or Cleveland’s or Guarneri’s, details I’d forgotten over the years and usually don’t pay a lot of attention to. Yes, there were a few intonation issues here and there, nothing serious (see comment above, about taking risks) but what connected was their sense of one-ness and their faith in their own talent and interpretation.

Because they’re willing to let go, to jump out into this complex world Beethoven creates for them, and to do it with confidence. And to do it as one: taking four talented string players does not usually make for a talented quartet since playing as a single group (rather than the sum of its components) is its own talent and one not easily found. It is a process of maturity: few quartets find the spark at the very beginning though some spark must exist, you’d think, for a group to stay together long enough to nurture it. The career, then, is another issue.

The Fry Street had already brought this same sense to the more universally appealing if less universal Piano Quintet by Robert Schumann on the first half of the program. They were matched in their collective enthusiasm by Stuart Malina, best known as the conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, and a pianist who is – as he admits himself – “lucky enough to be able to sit down and sight-read” things that other pianists may have to struggle to learn. It is easy to think such facility (abetting such enthusiasm) would turn into a facile performance and the Schumann is something that’s often subjected to that.

The work itself was apparently created by spontaneous combustion – sketched in five days, completed from start to finish in a mere nineteen days – yet given Schumann’s inexperience with larger forms and the finer details of composition, the work manages to survive its own facility. Schumann’s experience was writing miniatures (or creating larger-formed pieces that are really collections of miniatures), mostly piano pieces and then a sudden burst of art songs. He had finally given in to the pressure of writing a symphony (there were actually four that he worked on that one year, but only one was published at the time) at a point in his career it would have been better to lead up to it, first: for many composers, that’s what chamber music is for. But he creates such tunes, such memorable gestures (like the opening with its rising intervals) and such moods and images (the touch of the Romantic poet as opposed to the Classical craftsman), you’re willing to forgive the mileage-filling sequential repetitions, the lapses into required counterpoint (something many composers did to show off the fact they had learned how to write old-fashioned fugal passagework), the fact that, even though he’s trying to develop his material (a necessary requirement for a work of even moderate length), he doesn’t always give himself material that lends itself to being developed (even in other sonata-form movements where a development section is part of the plan, he’ll drop it for a new theme to create – surprise – an unexpected miniature within). But because Schumann’s talent – as insecure as he was with it – was so good at other creative aspects, the Quintet is one of those pieces that succeeds in spite of its flaws. Any performance that is willing to emphasize the positive will reach its audience. The sheer joy of playing it is enough the take it directly to the heart.

Thinking back on my quote from Sarton’s journal, it’s interesting to think of Schumann in light of Beethoven who came before and Brahms who came after (with no small help from Schumann himself). Schumann did not have the strength of personal conviction to approach his art as Beethoven did. In fact, few other composers could, either. Brahms, perhaps because of Schumann's advocacy, felt it necessary to be cautious in his own development, famously taking almost 25 years before he felt both his first symphony and the first piano quartet he completed were ready to be published.

There is that sense of genius that makes Beethoven at his best a composer who reaches far more universal answers to questions he could not solve for himself. And yet the man who wrote those symphonies and string quartets could also churn out schmalz like Wellington’s Victory or scads of arrangements of British folk songs (which earned him money to live on). In this quartet, the slow second movement (according to Beethoven’s biographer Thayer) was inspired by his contemplation of starry skies which made him think of the music of the spheres, very universal concepts indeed. But in the next movement, he felt compelled to use a Russian folk-song – when he rarely even quoted German ones – in order to, what? earn a wink of recognition from the Russian ambassador Razumovsky for whom he wrote these three “Razumovsky” quartets? Not only does he take a go-nowhere tune that can only be repeated (the structural issue any Russian composer discovered when trying to treat their folk music with German standards), he turns it into that most erudite Germanic process, a fugue (or, more accurately, fugal filler), even overlapping it on itself (ah, the learned student would say, “and now, a stretto fugue”) before it collapses into a pile of repeated dominant-tonic chords to fill out the requisite number of measures almost as if he’s giggling at its ineptness, regardless of how poorly the notes in the melody match the harmony. Kerman describes it as if “Count Razumovsky had been tactless enough to hand Beethoven the tune, and Beethoven is pile-driving it into the ground by way of revenge.”

But this is the scherzo, after all, the “joke” movement, and though we think of Beethoven, deaf genius who had little regard for social niceties much less fashion and good hair, striding the heavens to transcend mere mortal expectations. There’s a good deal of humor in this movement – like the almost Laurel & Hardy-like approach to a few notes the instruments keep tossing back and forth to each other (“no, you” - “no please, I insist, you first”) before the phrase finally gets underway. These are things the Fry Street Quartet latched on to rather than passed over, but I kept thinking they might have had a little more fun with it without turning it into outright slapstick.

Is that akin to “dumbing down,” cheapening its universality to create a moment of personal connection? And yet (he says slyly) that is what I remember most about the piece and what brings most people in the audience to communal smiling and foot-tapping. You can’t stay at the summit all the time: sometimes, you just need to catch your breath and, after a little contrast, drive it home to the end.

Which is how the Fry Street brought the concert to a conclusion – not just an end. And in the end they impressed a lot of people in the audience, judging from comments I heard, with how far they’ve grown over the past few years.

Now all they need is that Big Break.

Again, with the aid of hindsight and this quote from Sarton’s journal vibrating in my head, I went to, perhaps unfairly, reassess the concert’s opening which started the evening “small,” a nice place to begin before growing “big.”

The original plan had been to bring back oboist Gerard Reuter who’s also appeared at several past SummerMusics – and with no complaints from me: he’s a fine musician and possesses one of the smoothest sounds of any oboist I’ve heard (and I’ve been listening to him with pleasure since the late-70s when I first heard him free-lancing in New York City). But due to changes in the series’ dates, he wasn’t able to be here this week. I think they tried recruiting a clarinetist before Stuart contacted soprano Ilana Davidson who was available. So perhaps a collection of “art songs from the Baroque to the Present” was something of an afterthought to a series marketed as “Beethoven Before and After” (whatever that means).

Aside from a slim collection by Mozart and Haydn, there are few art songs to chose from before Beethoven – the Handel selection for the “Baroque” part of the formula was an opera aria, anyway – and I was thinking, given the Beethoven Fulcrum of these concerts, perhaps other composers of the 19th Century who reacted one way or another to Beethoven’s genius like Schubert and Brahms, or even some of the miniatures of Beethoven and Schumann themselves. So while Fauré and Strauss didn’t match my pre-concert expectations, they were delightful to hear, especially Strauss’s story of the “sly child, Cupid” which Ms. Davidson navigated with the kind of panache that left me wondering if she had the stratospheric range and the undaunted stamina to bring off another of Strauss’ slyer creations, Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. When I heard her sing Mozart’s Requiem with the Harrisburg Symphony in 2006, I knew I would love to hear her do Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro (and I’m sorry I missed her in the Gilbert & Sullivan performances on the Pops series). Aside from a little stiffness with the non-pianistic accompaniment for the aria from Handel’s Acis & Galatea, it was a delicious way to begin a program.

It’s always good to hear a conductor who’s able to step down off the podium to play chamber music so convincingly. He says it gives him a different perspective on the music he conducts and it certainly makes it easier for him to connect with the players in the orchestra, taking those intangible elements you experience in communicating with a few players and allowing everybody to feel connected rather than just “following the baton.”

Earlier this week, Stuart was joking about the rehearsal schedule and three performances in five days, since he’s not used to performing as a pianist that much, how at the end of the week his hands may hurt, but how he’ll enjoy the experience getting there. Fortunately, they’re not doing, say, the Brahms Piano Quintet on Saturday night and the Dvořák on Sunday afternoon – if you wanted to do a killer immersion festival – but it bodes well for one of the livelier piano trios by Haydn (the one known as the “Gypsy” because of its Hungarian rondo) and a great Mozart violin sonata with William Fedkenheuer, the quartet’s first violinist – enough work to keep you busy for a few days!

And the Quartet is playing not two but four more Beethoven Quartets – an immersion of its own, regardless of the summer humidity – with two of the early quartets (Op. 18 #6 on Saturday and Op. 18 #1 on Sunday) and two of the late quartets (Op. 132, the A Minor, with its “Holy Song of Thanksgiving,” speaking of “universal patienthood,” on Saturday and the C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, on Sunday).

People often cringe at the idea of sitting through Beethoven’s Late Quartets – which many music lovers will speak of in hushed tones full of awe and reverence. Yes, they’re very long for attention spans geared to thinking 30 minutes is just fine, thank you, and they’re very intense, as challenging to listen to as they are to play (technically and interpretively). Perhaps there is no other music before Mahler’s gargantuan symphonies that tax the performers and the listeners on such an expansive scale as these quartets from Beethoven’s last years (he was, after all, only in his mid-50s). But unlike other works that are just long, there is so much more to walk away with - and also to come back to on repeated hearings.

Yet one of my fondest concert memories, people-watching during a performance, was when the Cypress Quartet played Beethoven’s Op. 132 at the very first of the Next Generation Festivals – something Ellen Hughes organized through WITF with pianist Awadagin Pratt. There were a number of young people in the audience who perhaps chose to come to these concerts to see what it was that made a black man in dreadlocks want to play classical music, with its reputation for Dead White Man stuffiness. Whether he had ever heard classical music before or not, I have no idea, but one boy – he might have been 9 or 10 years old – sat in the front row, his elbows on his knees, his chin planted firmly on his hands, staring up at the stage with an almost ferocious intensity and curiosity: he never moved during the entire slow movement, the famous “Holy Song of Thanksgiving” which for many seems to move at an almost glacial pace for 15 minutes. At the end, he sat back in his seat, turned to his mother and said with his eyes, “Wow!”

That’s when you know the music – regardless of all the mumbo-jumbo musicians and music-lovers use to describe what a composer wrote, how he wrote it, how performers interpret it and how they played it – connects on some universal plane far beyond the individual.

That’s why it was gratifying to see over a dozen young listeners in the audience Wednesday night, students from a local Suzuki Chamber Music Camp. I’m not sure how they ended up there but you rarely see people under 40 at these kinds of concerts. Occasionally, I was able to glance over at them during the performance, too, and see rapt faces totally absorbed. Yes, one seemed to sleep through the Schumann and even through the applause, but several of them had leaned forward, one with his elbows on the pew in front of him, focused solely on the performance. Short attention spans because of pop music, video games and movies with violent specifal effects and moronic TV aimed at the lowest common denominator? Maybe not. Perhaps an experience like this will allow some of them to live with more than half a heart and one lung, to be able to take the risk and have the courage to lift themselves up beyond the individual level to a universal one, “to try to solve for all what he could not solve for himself alone.”

More, please?

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Photo credit: publicity photo of the Fry Street Quartet from their website.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Schumann's Piano Quintet: Up Close & Personal

Tonight, you have a chance to hear one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire when Market Square Concerts begins its SummerMusic 2008 series at 8:00 in Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg. Pianist Stuart Malina will be joining the Fry Street String Quartet for this performance (let’s hope everybody stays away from sharp implements while preparing dinner). The program also includes the 2nd of the three “Razumovsky” Quartets by Beethoven and an array of songs from the Baroque to the Present with soprano Ilana Davidson accompanied by Stuart Malina (incidentally, the beard stays). I thought I’d take you “up close and personal” with the Schumann Quintet.

You could probably say Robert Schumann was the first blogger - at least about classical music. The magazine he started in 1834, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, literally the New Journal for Music, was mostly a new music journal dealing with issues of the day, published twice weekly with four two-column pages per issue. Rather than focusing on writing reviews (at least in the traditional sense), he wrote about issues and concerns in the music world, countering the Philistine influence of the day’s stuffier critics. He and his writers, otherwise lacking the internet since Al Gore hadn’t been invented yet, offered a great deal of commentary and opinion. Schumann even supplied a few short stories now and then, often satirical, like the thinly disguised attack on his then ex-girlfriend Clara Wieck and her new boyfriend, Carl Banck.

Among the 300 articles he wrote over a period of ten years were discussions on musical and literary aesthetics by his alter-egos, Florestan and Eusebius. It was here he published his famous articles announcing the arrival of such new talents as Chopin and Brahms. Considering what the role of criticism has been in the traditional world of newspapers (and at least those today that still have music critics on staff), that’s more the sort of thing you’d find in the blogosphere, isn’t it? Sort of.

Schumann may never really have intended to be a composer any more than most pianists in those days wrote music for themselves to play. He only seriously began focusing on composing after he had injured his hand with one of Friedrich Wieck’s mechanical contraptions designed to strengthen the weak 4th finger during hours spent practicing. If he couldn’t keep him from marrying his daughter, Wieck at least managed to, however inadvertently, ruin Schumann’s career as a performer, so in a perverse way we owe thanks to him for knowing Schumann today as a composer.

All the music Schumann published in the years before his marriage were for solo piano, much of it intended for Wieck’s best pupil, Clara. There were also things like the little piece based on the letters ASCH, transformed into a musical theme (S is the German equivalent of E-flat, and H is B-natural), which was the home town of another piano student, Ernestine von Fricken, to whom he became secretly engaged while on the outs with Clara. This became a section of the suite Carnaval. A rather morose march by her father became the basis of the Symphonic Etudes which are really a set of variations (and even though Symphonic Etudes may be a slightly misleading title, it beats being known as the Fricken Variations). By the way, the engagement was broken off when Schumann and Clara got back together and when Schumann realized Ernestine was officially illegitimate (not that he was making much headway with this girl’s father, either).

After he and Clara were able to overcome the various legal hurdles her father put in their way, they were married in 1840, the day before her 21st birthday. So it’s rather surprising that he suddenly started composing other things than just piano music but all in concentrated bouts of feverish creativity – 1840 was a year of songs, followed by one of symphonies. And the next year, chamber music.

In his day, Schumann was probably better known as a writer about music than a composer of music. Actually, he was probably better known as Mr. Clara Schumann, trailing along on her fame to appear at her performances when she’d play some of his music. It was after one such tour resulted in a rather severe bout of depression that he composed his Piano Quintet. And also three string quartets and a piano quartet, all in about six months’ time.

They had gone off together for a tour across northern Germany when it really hit him, this being in the shadow of his wife, so after a month he returned to Leipzig and his journal while Clara went on to Copenhagen without him. During her month-long absence, he studied fugue and counterpoint (again) and examined quartets by Mozart and Haydn, then later those by Beethoven. And he also drank a lot, slipping into a period of depression during which Old Wieck managed to spread the rumor that they’d separated and were heading for a divorce. Thoughts of a tour of America were shelved when Clara returned in April.

By June 2nd, he was sketching “quartet essays” and two days later began the 1st String Quartet. On the 11th, he began the 2nd Quartet even before the first one was finished. In between the 2nd and the 3rd Quartet, not begun until July 8th, he wrote a scathing article about Clara’s ex-boyfriend Carl Banck and his new composition (it was so nasty, Schumann did not include it later when he re-published most of his articles) and also ended up in a libel case which netted him a 6-day jail sentence which was commuted to “a five thaler fine” (I don’t know what the equivalent of the standard German unit of currency would’ve been, but an 1841 thaler recently sold on E-bay for $270). The 3rd Quartet was finished on July 22nd, seven weeks after he’d begun work on the first.

During August, there was a bit of a summer vacation - I should mention, without getting too personal, the Schumann’s second child was born nine months later - then back to Leipzig for rehearsals of the three quartets in early September. On the 23rd, then, he began work on the Piano Quintet which, after sketching it out in just five days, he completed on October 12th, 19 days after he started. Twelve days after that, he began the Piano Quartet which he finished in a month. In the next month, he also composed a piano trio which he later recast as the Phantasiestücke (Op. 88) and a work for two pianos, two cellos and horn that later became a set of variations for two pianos (Op. 46).

All of that in seven months! (It’s easy to be envious of such creativity, considering I’ve been working on a short new piece for violin and piano since late April and in three months haven’t yet gotten beyond the 8th measure, but I digress...)

One of the curious things that most people forget today is that, before Schumann’s, there were no famous Piano Quintets. To Schumann’s, we would add those by Brahms and Dvořák, both famous (and equally over-played) but both later, as would be the less-well-known one by Cesar Franck and the most famous 20th Century one by Shostakovich. But when I mean “over-played,” it’s only because – how many masterpieces can a pianist and a string quartet, combining for a performance, play? There are no Piano Quintets by Mozart or Beethoven, though they wrote piano quartets, much less by their also-rans. Except for one by Prince Louis Ferdinand, who published one in 1803.

Also-ran he may be, but this prince, a nephew of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (a great general and talented if not so great composer himself), played the piano “not like a prince but like a real pianist,” according to Beethoven (who dedicated his C Minor Piano Concerto to him). The Grove Dictionary entry for “piano quintet” indicates he was a student of Beethoven’s, but the dictionary’s biographical entry on the prince does not mention that fact.

He was also considered a brilliant soldier, dying on a Napoleonic battlefield in 1806 about a month before his 34th birthday, killed by a French soldier after he refused to surrender. He wrote thirteen published works, his Piano Quintet in C Minor being his Opus 1, his only work published in his lifetime. There are three piano trios and two piano quartets, as well.

I suppose you could ask, since Schumann knew Prince Louis’ quintet and one could imagine him thinking “here’s a good idea that’s never caught on – take a string quartet and add a pianist,” what prompted Prince Louis to write one?

There are, basically, other works for keyboard and four string players – those by Padre Antonio Soler were intended for the organ, and those by J.C. Bach included the fortepiano or harpsichord more in its role of continuo, the traditional baroque duty of supplying the “harmonic filler” between the melody line and the bass line.

It was also the tradition, in the days before radios, television and stereos when people provided their own entertainment at home, that publishers made piano concertos available to the amateur public. Rather than deal with an orchestra (even the much smaller sized ones in Mozart’s day than the one we think of today), the orchestral part was either arranged or written for three or four string players. The piano here is purely a soloist and not, in the standard sense of chamber music, an equal partner to the strings.

Yes, while Mozart wrote two piano quartets with strings, he did write a quintet for piano and winds (not surprising, since he was delighted with the great wind players he found in Vienna), a work which Beethoven thought so highly of, he imitated it in one, himself. But Beethoven’s publisher also realized there were few opportunities for performances, given the number of wind players as opposed to the number of string players around, so he suggested Beethoven also arrange the work for strings and get more mileage out of it. But curiously, rather than arrange it for four strings, one to each wind part, he reworked it into the more standard format of piano quartet. Perhaps if he had decided on a string quintet, he might have written the first Piano Quintet and decided it was really a good medium and written an original one or two. And others may have come along and done the same. But, alas... another chapter in the great game of “What If...”

By the way, a “Piano Quintet” really means a piano with four other players, though it’s usually defined as a piano plus a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) – or if you’re a string player, a string quartet plus a piano (since it’s more likely you’ll find a pianist being added to a string quartet program than vice-versa). To distinguish them, the two works with winds I mentioned by Mozart and Beethoven are called “Quintets for Piano & Winds.” And since the Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert uses one violin, viola and cello, then adds a double bass, it’s technically not a “piano quintet.” Fortunately, it can just be called the Trout Quintet on the fly rather than the official “Quintet in A Major for Piano & Strings.” But that’s another topic...

If I (and you) had time for another 1900 words, I’d write about Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartet on the program, too. The SummerMusic series continues this weekend at the Glen Allen Mill (see my previous post for more information about these concerts), Since the Sunday performance includes my favorite (if it’s possible to have a favorite) Beethoven quartet, the C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131, maybe I’ll post something about that, later.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer Music with Market Square Concerts

Summertime, they say, is a time to relax – prop your feet up and read those “sinful pleasures” at the beach you felt you couldn’t get away with during the rest of the year, soak up the sun or take in some new block-buster movie and generally recharge your batteries so you can deal with autumn and especially winter.

Or it can be a time to devote yourself to things that you maybe didn’t have time to focus on during the more “serious” time of year, to getting caught up on some projects, maybe allowing yourself some intellectual and spiritual stimulation that often gets sidetracked with the daily press of reality.

Classical music concerts during the summer usually take on a similar polarity or tone – I think I’d rather call it bi-tonal than bi-polar, however. You can go to concerts of lighter fare just to enjoy yourself, or you can go to concerts that offer some great music which cannot only inspire you and lift your soul beyond the everyday but which, in more relaxed surroundings, might yield new insights for the music or the world around you.

One of the better known summer music festivals on the East Coast, Gretna Music, now into its third decade, doesn’t begin until August this year, but this week another, somewhat newer tradition is Market Square Concerts’ series of three programs called “SummerMusic.” There will be the usual “indoor” concert Wednesday night at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg to begin, with two more programs during the weekend at the Glen Allen Mill (see photo, above) on the Yellow Breeches (which, for those of you who don’t know it, is an idyllic spot on one of the most beautiful streams in the mid-state).

While many summer concerts are celebrating the Centennial Anniversary of the birth of a composer who practically invented the Pops Concert – Leroy Anderson – Beethoven will be the featured composer for many summer programs, including SummerMusic 2008. Undoubtedly Beethoven will be a better draw than, say, the 100th Birthday Celebration of Elliott Carter whose impending centennial birthday takes place this December with some of his newest works – though this week is “Elliott Carter Week” at Tanglewood (you can read a blog by a cellist who’s playing several of those concerts). Not that Elliott Carter would be a big draw in Central Pennsylvania and I’m not sure what insights you might achieve hearing his music outdoors, necessarily, though I’m reminded how the great open spaces of the Arizona desert inspired some of the scope of Carter’s then-evolving style when he was writing his 1st Quartet there around 1950.

But it’s Beethoven this week along the Yellow Breeches – even if his late quartets probably made demands on his audience comparable to those Carter’s music makes on listeners today. (Is it possible I’ll have to wait until 2150 to hear a summer music concert here called “Carter & Beyond” with those quaint old quartets by Elliott Carter?)

The Fry Street String Quartet returns for three programs that will also feature Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony as pianist. He’ll join them for the Piano Quintet by Robert Schumann on Wednesday night, a Haydn Piano Trio on Saturday and one of the great Mozart violin sonatas on Sunday afternoon.

Malina will also accompany soprano Ilana Davidson – she had sung with the orchestra before in the Mozart Requiem in January 2006 as well as several of the Gilbert & Sullivan performances – for an array of songs “from the Baroque to the Present.”

The quartet plays four Beethoven quartets – two of the “early” set, completed by the time he was 30, one of the “middle” quartets and on Sunday one of the greatest of the “late” quartets, the C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131, one of the most personal of Beethoven’s works and while one of the more demanding to approach, one of the most rewarding.

The historic mill, for those who might not have been there recently, is now “air-conditioned.” By placing several window units around the perimeter and keeping things closed up, they can actually create a pool of cool air by letting them run before each concert and trying to keep the door closed until the performance. It is a charming space and the grounds around the mill with the stream in the background might bring you closer to those summers Beethoven spent in the rural suburbs of Vienna when he most enjoyed composing, probably around the same time this mill was in operation. I don’t recall when this specific one was built, but there were mills along the Yellow Breeches in the 1760s, just a decade before Beethoven was born.

And the weather forecast looks promising, too – far better than this past weekend’s heat-wave: highs will be only in the mid-80s! Great for a picnic!

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So far this summer, I’ve been to two orchestra concerts – well, one and a half. One of the problems with summer concerts that take place outdoors is the weather. You can schedule concerts a year in advance but even until the day of the concert have no idea what the weather will be like until (and even after) you get there.

I had a chance to hear the Harrisburg Symphony concert with conductor Stuart Malina at Negley Park in Lemoyne, overlooking the Harrisburg skyline (except from where we were seated). Even with the threat of passing showers all day, the concert went ahead outside but once the chance turned into the reality of a shower, the orchestra had to pack up during the intermission (or half-time break). Too bad, but even half a concert was more fun than none. I saw few people I recognized but lots of people spread out across the park on lawn chairs and blankets enjoying music from Dvorak’s Carnival Overture and Bizet’s Carmen to selections from “Phantom of the Opera,” during which, coincidentally, fireworks following the Senators’ game on City Island went off. Too bad they couldn’t coordinate that with the up-coming 1812 Overture, but at least the Senators got their fireworks in - we didn’t get to the 1812 in before the rain. One of the delights was hearing the orchestra’s principal percussionist Chris Rose – who gave such an amazing performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto in March – play two small rags for xylophone and orchestra.

The 4th of July weekend did not have the greatest weather for outdoor events, despite otherwise enjoyable cooler temperatures and pleasant breezes. The other HSO concerts that week were moved indoors or lucked out with the passing shower lottery.

Not so lucky was the “lawn concert” the West Shore Symphony, conducted by Timothy Dixon, had scheduled for the Fredricksen Library in Camp Hill on the 7th. As luck would have it, the rain-date turned out to be a marvelous day and so the crowd that gathered there on the 14th had a chance to enjoy a light-hearted program of show tunes and Leroy Anderson favorites. It’s the Centennial Anniversary of Leroy Anderson’s birth and the man who gave us “Sleigh Ride” and “Bugler’s Holiday” is being celebrated across the land. With music from “The Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” it was easy to kick back and tap your feet. Even the one symphonic excerpt on the program – the finale of Dvorak’s 8th Symphony – was light enough not to outweigh the mood.

At concerts like this, I enjoy people-watching as much as I enjoy music-listening, with a crowd near me that included residents from a nearby senior living center and free-range toddlers who usually managed to thrive just beyond their parents’ energy levels. Some of the kids may remember the experience more than the concert itself, but its always gratifying to see a boy being held up by his dad to see over the crowd start waving his arms in time to the music, or to see a little girl who, off in her own fantasy world, creates a little dance out of who knows what might be firing her imagination, all the result of hearing live music.

The audience for Market Square’s SummerMusic will probably not be quite so wide ranging in age nor are toddlers racing around the mill likely to be as welcome (there are times and places and then there are times and places). But the music is great and timeless - and capable of withstanding the micro-inconvenience of summer weather or the bugs to bring you closer to the universe-at-large.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Going Green: The Drilling of the Wells

Yesterday was the start of the first phase of the Geothermal Installation Project at my house. The guys from G & R Westbrook Drilling had stopped by on Tuesday to look things over one more time, figuring about where things might work, getting ready to drill the two 250'-deep wells at “the lower end” of the house (what we always called the side where the basement opens out and the otherwise one-storey ranch house becomes a two-storey house: that’s how steep the grade is from the front door to the east-side property line). They confirmed they could start the process on Thursday: Groff’s would be here on the 31st, then, to do the internal installation. Westbrook’s job was to dig the wells and get the piping into ground, dig a trench from the wells to the house and then get them inside, ready to be hooked up to the heat-transfer pump (the new “furnace”).

They arrived Thursday morning to begin the job, three vehicles pulling up across the front of the yard: a pick-up truck with bales of hay and other “incidentals,” a long flat-bed with piles of drill-pipes, an odd-looking red cement-mixer kind of thing on the back, and “the driller,” the mega-truck with its tower laid horizontal over it that, when raised, would dig (as my mother would’ve said) “half-way to China” (my back-yard pass to the Summer Olympics, perhaps).

We reconnoitered on the lawn: I pointed out where the sewer connection and the septic tank are, where in relation to all this my neighbor’s well is. New concerns were needing to get closer to the house (under the shade of an old Norway Maple) which would place the second well closer to the property line and my neighbor’s well. They said it shouldn’t cause any disturbance: my concern was the vibrations rattling not just the house but the underground aquifers. With the kind of drill they use and the kind of shale this is, Ryan and his dad assured my neighbor and me this should not be a concern.

The younger brother, Wes, was walking around with a bent metal rod in his hand that looked like nothing more than a straightened-out old-fashioned wire coat hanger. Pacing along slowly, he’d come to a spot where the wire would turn in his hand to face a different angle. He would mark the grass, then, with a can of orange spray paint: this was an underground pipe. That way, they could locate the connection to the old septic tank as well.

When he tried bringing the truck up over the lawn at the lower end, the bank (which had toppled a few of us off our riding mowers over the past 48 years) proved to be just a tad too steep: the back of the driller kept digging into the grass. So the decision was made to bring it up over the front of the yard from the other, more level end at the driveway. And given the limits around the lower end, what about drilling right in the middle of the yard? Was it too steep?

I pointed out where my well was, they found a spot further down from that and another spot the requisite 12-15 feet away toward the road, moving off to an angle, for the second well. They could dig the connecting trench up to the front of the basement wall, though I was hoping to avoid drilling through this double-thick cinder block foundation wall. He assured me this would not be an issue. I was calculating how much junk was being stored on the other side of that wall, though... Well, a project for the weekend, then.

The major inconvenience, however, was going to be to the groundhog. The holes there have been in his family for generations, however long a groundhog generation may last. I rarely saw him but there he was, popping his head out the hole looking at us as if he were saying “you talkin’ about me?!” He probably was wondering what the rumbling truck was all about... Well, so he may be evicted. There is, however, another sizeable hole in the back yard, whether he’s using that one or not, I don’t know: we had joked, years ago, that there’s a whole city of groundhogs burrowing under the basement, connecting the front and back yards with a series of dens and tunnels.

So now they were ready to go. They got the truck in place, set a bunch of blocks and boards up to level the truck on the sloping lawn – and then up went the tower.

I have no idea how tall that tower actually is – it just looked freakin’ tall standing out there in the middle of my yard, next to the “Crimson King Maple” we’d planted in the fall of 1959. And 250 feet down was freakin’ deep. I remember when my folks were having their water well drilled then, it seemed like they were never going to reach water. How long would it take them to reach water now, I wondered?

They had set up a silt fence to contain any mud that would come up, backed up with a dam made by bales of hay. (For another view of this, taken afterward from the road, see below.) Any excess water would run off down to the slope and along the road, eventually just soaking into the ground.

And so it began.

With my sensitive hearing, I was prepared for one hellacious day, but considering several of my cats were spooked during recent thunderstorms and the fireworks display from one of my neighbors across the street this past 4th of July, I was more concerned how they’d react to this constant assault that could last five or six hours. Would the house vibrate so much things inside would rattle? Would my grandmother’s delicate glassware in the one curio cabinet dance off the shelves and break? Would the cats run around and bounce off the walls until everything else would break?
It was amazing that it wasn’t that annoying after all: no shaking, no rattling. Yes, it was loud, but it wasn’t as annoying as the White Noise “Noise Masking System” many office spaces use to cut down on ambience from a room full of cubicles. Some days at work, I would have a headache in 10-15 minutes, even though it wasn’t the decibel level of the “white [sic] noise” but its frequency that irritated my hearing. And yet I didn’t need to sit in my house wearing my big blue “ear protector” headset (in fact, I was able to sit in my study and even get some composing done!) - more amazingly, the cats seemed genuinely unfazed by the noise. Several of them took turns watching out the dining room window.

In 2½ hours, the guys had finished drilling the first well. They had reached water, but nothing serious: while there was a good bit of mud, there wasn’t the stream of water I’d expected to see flowing off down the hill.

Meanwhile, the guys were getting the “pipe” ready to be inserted into the well. This would be the flexible tubing the water would be flowing through, a closed system that would circulate back and forth between these holes in the ground and the heat transfer pump in the basement. It doesn’t use water from the well: these wells are just meant to keep the tubing in the ground. These tubes, then, will be connected to more tubing that will be dug into a trench, taking it up to the side of the house (by way of the groundhog hole) and into the basement.

It was in the low-90s that afternoon. I was glad to discover I could take most of these pictures from my dining room window without having to go outside and deal with the heat and noise myself. Ryan and Wes were glad to have a little bit of shade from the two trees, something they don’t always have on their jobs. By the time they were doing the second well, moving the truck further down toward the road, the sun had shifted enough that Ryan could stand in the maple’s shade while maneuvering the drill.

These are the “pipes” coming out of the first well: Wes continued unwinding them and stretching them across the yard. The excess tubing will be cut back before being joined to the lines that will be trenched in, later.

After having taken only a 20 minute break, eating their lunch under the maple tree while talking to me about how much of this they do these days. Not many people really know about geothermal yet even though his grandfather had been digging wells for systems as far back as 1985. One of their jobs is working with a developer out along Jonestown Road who’s putting in town houses, each one having its own geothermal well connected to a heat-transfer pump rather than relying on non-renewable fossil fuels to provide both winter heating and summer cooling.

Another 20 minutes to reposition the truck, and then another 2½ hours to drill the second well and soon they were inserting the tubing down into the second well. For some reason, even though this one was only about 12-15 feet away and just a little lower than the first well, they ran into water a lot sooner than they had with the first one. There was more mud but still not the flow of water I was anticipating. Like watching a cartoon, I was half-hoping they’d strike oil – then I wouldn’t have to worry about my next job, would I?

The last phase of this part of the project was something I hadn’t been expecting. They moved the flat-bed around, Wes got up and connected a water hose to the red concrete-mixer-like thing then started opening what appeared to be 50-pound sacks of... concrete, maybe? I had no idea. Schlogging through the mud, Ryan connected a larger hose from the flat-bed – looking like something a fireman would drag up from a hydrant – and stuffed it down into the first well.

This wasn’t concrete after all, Ryan explained as he held out a glob of stuff that could only be described as badly cooked oatmeal. This was Bentonite Clay, a special kind of clay that was only mined in places like Wyoming.

When mixed with water, it actually works better as an agent to transfer the heat from the ground into the tubing, making it a more efficient way to heat or cool the water in the tubes than concrete. This stuff will not solidify but keeps this yucky-looking glompy texture, giving it a greater conductability as well as flexibility if the ground should for any reason shift around a little.

After both wells were then filled with this heavy oatmeal... I mean, gel-like clay, it was a matter of sorting out the hoses and tubes, mounding some of the excess mud up around the well-tops (since this will sink down a bit as it settles), and doing what clean-up is possible after such a messy job. I kept wondering what it is about something like this that makes guys want to say “oh yeah, I wanna be a well-driller when I grow up.” But they did a great job with it and I feel much more reassured about the decision to “go green” with the geothermal technology.

The next phase is the trench-digging which Westbrook Drilling will do sometime next week and then, the following week, Groff’s comes in to take out the old dinosaur-devouring furnace and replace it with a smaller, more efficient and earth-friendly heat transfer pump.

People have told me how much they hated heat-transfer pumps, but this one works differently. Rather than taking it from the air outside – which is not an efficient source of heat in the winter time – it takes it from the water circulating in these tubes, kept at a fairly steady temperature of 55° winter or summer by the ground temperature. From there, it should heat my house in the winter and keep it cool in the summer with a minimum drain on the electricity. I can reduce my “carbon footprint” considerably not to mention my out-going utility bills.

I’ll report back here during the coming weeks as the process continues and let you know how August works out in terms of cool-air comfort and how my electric bill will compare with last year’s when I was trying to run the a/c as little as possible and not feeling terribly comfortable.

Meanwhile, if you have any questions about the geothermal technology, do some googling and find some contractors in your area. You can check a few of these links - here and here (a good one) - there is even a video on YouTube (I have to admit, since I have no audio on this computer, not yet having replaced the two sets of speakers the cats disabled in their quest for really tasty wires, I'm not sure about the Chinese subtitles, but pictures can still be worth a few thousand words...).

If the spectre of Global Warming and swimming polar bears doesn't impress you to do anything about it, think about your pocket book and the price of oil. If you're in the market to build a new home, consider including geothermal technology in the process now; if you're looking at the idea of replacing an existing furnace system, consider the options but don't discount geothermal without really looking into it. If the cost can equal a replacement oil furnace and a couple of years' oil, it sounds like a pretty good investment. Something to think about...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Going Green: The Geothermal Installation, Part 1

Like Kermit the Frog says, it’s not easy going green.

This was going to be the summer to replace the furnace in my house. It was installed in 1958 or early 1959 when the house was being built, so it’s basically 50-years old. For years, we’d hope it would limp along through yet another winter. It never failed but it was becoming increasingly inefficient. Getting replacement parts for it might involve looking for a museum, not a distributor. The time had come to say good-bye.

And replace it with what?

Between everybody talking about “global warming,” “reducing your carbon footprint” and the price of oil only likely to keep going up, I decided there was no time like the present to look into alternative energy sources. I was told a new oil furnace might cost $8-10,000, and since I was paying about $3200 to heat my house this past winter (and still only keeping it at a chilly 64° – it’s a big house), I thought it was time to look into something that would also reduce my dependence on fossil fuels, doing one small bit for the environment. Using a few compact fluorescent bulbs around the house is one thing but there has to be more to it than that.

On the one hand, I didn’t like the idea of putting solar panels on my roof – I’ve been through too many weeks of spring and winter here in Central Pennsylvania where we barely see the sun, anyway – but I figured if geothermal heating was going to work, you’d either have to be built over a hot spring (like Reykjavik) or you’d have to have lots of ground with a deep pond on it.

Then one evening I stumbled on an article at the New York Times about a recently renovated row home with a tiny postage stamp of a yard that was putting in state-of-the-art geothermal heating and cooling. An hour and much googling later, I realized, if it could work for a city home on a tiny patch of land, it might actually be a very applicable form of energy for me, since I’m sitting on 3/4s of a suburban acre. And I wouldn’t need to harness a geyser in my basement.

The principle is very simple: once you get beneath the surface, the ground is a constant temperature, year round – basically 55° – no matter what the air temperature is. So in the winter, it’s probably warmer than the air; and in the summer, cooler. There are several ways you can make use of this: you can dig trenches and lay out an array of closed-circuit pipes with water circulating through them; you can dig wells with pipes connected by u-bends that the water would circulate through; if you have a pond, you can run the pipes out into the water, but since I don’t have access to a pond, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about this one.

These pipes then enter your basement and connect to a heat transfer pump which takes the given temperature from that water (warmer in winter, cooler in summer) and transfers it into heat or air-conditioning that can then be distributed through your house. Since I already have “forced hot-air” and the ducts for central air-conditioning (installed in 1980), it seemed a natural, here, assuming the rest of it was feasible.

There were actually a few companies in the mid-state that installed geothermal heating and cooling systems. None in Harrisburg that I could find, but I contacted a couple, had them come up for interviews and give me estimates. I went with Groff’s Heating, Air Conditioning & Plumbing in Willow Street. Their sales guy explained how it would work and told me, rather than trying a series of trenches, it would be better with two 250'-deep wells but I would need to contact my own well-driller for that: then they’ll do the internal installation - we scheduled it for later this month.

Since my mother kept everything and in this case I could even put my hand on it within five minutes, I found who drilled our original well in 1958. They are, not surprisingly, no longer in business. My friend N’s father had worked for a time with Kohl Brothers as a well-driller back in the ‘40s but not surprisingly they no longer do any residential drilling. However, they did recommend a company in Boiling Springs that had been started by a guy who used to work with them – G & R Westbrook. So I gave them a call.

I talked with Mr. Westbrook’s grandson, Ryan, who said they were working on a number of projects in the Lower Paxton and Linglestown area, so he’d stop by and check out the lay of the land. This, actually, is very important to a well-driller, more crucial to him considering the size of the truck and the fact it has to be kept level. The bane of my existence when I mowed it for my folks during the early-‘80s through mid-’90s, long after I hoped to be done with yard-work (this, I said, was why I rented in the first place) this lawn has nothing that could be described as level. Two wells at the lower end of the house, by the basement entrance, would work – otherwise hemmed in by an old maple tree, the property line, the sewer line that had been installed in the ‘80s (as I recall) and the remains of the old septic tank, but relatively level.

Groff’s estimate for the internal workings was around $9700. Westbrook’s estimate for the two wells was $6000. That’s a lot of money – not to mention the fact the day after I agreed to go ahead with this, I was terminated at my job and now found myself unemployed.

But I kept thinking:

Geothermal installation = $9,700 + $6,000
New Oil Furnace installation = c.$8-10,000 + $6,000/two years’ worth of oil (at least)

So in two years’ time, basically, it would pay for itself. Right? And I have to install a new furnace now, anyway, right? So...? This IS going to work, right!?!

So far, I really hadn’t talked to anyone who’d actually installed the system in their homes. Most of what I read was either from environmentalists or were endorsements posted by companies that installed the technology.

Then Ryan told me his grandfather started installing geothermal systems in 1985 and put it in his farmhouse. It took a little tweeking then but it’s fine and he’s been very happy with it ever since – and he spends about $400 a year in heating and cooling costs. Let me repeat that – $400 a year! As opposed to the $600+ a month I was paying for fuel oil for half a year? Not to mention the spike in my electricity usage during the summer for the a/c...

Since they were going to be drilling near the property line, Ryan wanted to know where my neighbor’s well was. Now, I hadn’t actually met my neighbors yet, despite the fact I’d moved back in here in April of last year (okay, so I’m not very sociable and tend to be something of a loner – which partly explains how I survived 18 years working the evening shift on the radio). So I introduced myself and found out their well was closer to the property line than I had guessed (mine is in the front of the house; theirs was off to the one side). There was some concern that the drilling might agitate the underground water aquifers and muddy his well-water. Since he’d recently put in a new pump, this was more than just dealing with cloudy water that might take a day or two to settle. I was also concerned about the noise and how much the house might actually vibrate: my cats would probably freak out; how would his dog handle the noise?

We then talked about geothermal: ironically, just a week before, they had just replaced an oil furnace and air-conditioning unit. He had thought about geothermal but what he found didn’t seem practical. Like me, he assumed it wouldn’t really work. I’m sorry I hadn’t gone to talk to him about it in May when the guy from Groff’s had come up to check out my place. He might have decided to go green, too.

The well-drillers showed up Thursday morning to begin the first phase of the installation. Tomorrow, I’ll post a series of pictures about it and describe what it was like.

To Be Continued...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Pecking Away at the New Piece

It’s been several months in the gestation stage and too many weeks in the embryonic stage, but I think now, finally, the new violin and piano piece, a Chaconne, is ready to get started! After all that, I’m just getting started??

In 2006, I'd begun thinking of other pieces to go along with the Nocturne and then a set of variations and a funny little “Blues Interruptus” I was writing to perform with John Clare (formerly WITF’s afternoon music host, now in San Antonio at KPAC). The Nocturne was played (if not heard) at a volunteer brunch (but I can no longer offer you a link to those posts since my old blog there has been closed down following my departure). Originally, there would be three or four pieces, but I wanted something more substantial to end the set of pieces and thought perhaps a Chaconne would do.

Basically, a chaconne is originally an old Baroque-era dance that evolved into an abstract variation form, based on a recurring harmonic pattern. It’s closely related (and unfortunately often interchangeable with) the passacaglia, another variation form that originated as a slow, stately dance (the title comes from the Spanish words “pasar,” to walk, and “calle,” the street, though it might have more to do with the slow regal strutting of a peacock than what “street walker” means to most Americans today). In both, a repetitive pattern forms the basis for a series of continuous variations, the difference supposedly being a passacaglia uses a melodic idea in the bass and a chaconne uses a chordal pattern as its harmonic background.

Many chord progressions would have a clear bass-line anyway which make it seem melodic (or at least linear), and so that’s where the confusion begins to come in. Since it’s usually in the lower register with all the variations happening above it, these kinds of pieces are usually called “Grounds,” given that everything is grounded in the bass, and the pattern itself is often called a “ground bass.”

There are many great examples of these two approaches: perhaps the greatest are the Chaconne that concludes the 2nd Partita for Solo Violin by Bach and the Passacaglia & Fugue in C Minor for organ, also by Bach. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a chaconne was the typical conclusion of a suite of dances or a scene in an opera or a ballet, but by the time Bach died, both forms were considered old-fashioned. The Passacaglia that concludes Brahms’ 4th Symphony, considered “archaic” by his contemporaries, is at times a more of a chaconne, but who cares: it’s still some of the most magnificent music in the repertoire.

More recently, John Corigliano took an idea he’d written for the film The Red Violin and turned it into a concert work for violin and orchestra he called a chaconne (it later became part of a whole violin concerto). It was while listening to this that I thought it might make an interesting challenge for this next violin and piano piece of mine: as in “here’s an interesting problem - how do I solve this one?”

In a way, it was kind of an odd choice for me, because one thing that irritates me as a listener is the constant repetition of something – like the ground bass of Pachelbel’s Canon – that grinds away at my patience. It’s too easy just to play something over and over (and over) again and do something a little different above it: the same pitches, the same chords, the same go-nowhere structure made up of little units that, every few bars, comes to the same stop and then starts all over again, the musical equivalent of counting sheep (Ravel’s Bolero, by the way, is a different kind of animal all together but can be just as maa-aaa-aaadening).

One of the reasons the Bach D Minor Chaconne is so great is because the harmonic background remains in the background: after a while, you completely forget about it but it’s always there, holding everything together. One of the reasons I think the finale of Brahms’ 4th is so great has to do with that very confusion of passacaglia and chaconne because at times, you’re aware of the bass line and at other times you’re not, when the chords become the skeletal glue (especially in the trombone chorale and the flute solo variations), creating a variety of textures and procedures that becomes a variation of the variation process itself.

What took so long for my little chaconne to take shape was trying to figure out ways of subverting these concerns, creating some kind of variety in the procedure while not going too far afield from the basic premise. Figuring out the overall shape – based on the standard arch form I use subdivided by the Golden Section – I discovered there would be nine variations which then meant either the music was going to be too short or, if expanded to fill what I thought would be a reasonable length, the variations would be too long. Then it seemed there would be nineteen variations – nine on either side of the climactic apex of the arch – which now seemed like too many repetitions of this pattern, a pattern which hadn’t been worked out yet, by the way.

Here is the initial statement of my “harmonic pattern”:
There are three parts to this “well-ordered phrase” – the first four chords (using all 12 pitches) consists of a pair of non-triadic chords balanced by two major or minor triads a tritone apart. The middle chord (in whole notes) is another triad related by a common tone to the previous chord. The last four chords are also two non-triadic chords (but based on different intervals) followed by two major or minor triads also a tritone apart. Which chords occur in the last group is determined by the six-note set (or hexachord) available from the middle (or whole-note) chord and the first of the last four.

(You can read more about My Musical Language here and here.)

Most of this part of the process I’d described in an earlier post: it was the project for my May vacation. Now that I’m “in between jobs,” so to speak, and I have all the time in the world, it would appear the old adage “work expands to fill the available time” is in full force. Almost two months have gone by, and I still feel like the round peg at Square One.

Several times, I’ve worked over the structure, working out ways the patterns would change tonality and where they’d be placed on the overall skeletal graph of the piece. It went from strict direct repetition (boring) to obvious similarities with subtle differences which allowed it to sound like it was actually going somewhere harmonically in the larger scope of things.

Even the length of each statement was determined by the proportions of the overall form, subdivided according to the Golden Section: rather than each one being squarely 4 or 8 measures long, as it might be traditionally, many of them would be about 7 measures, but others would be more or less. The longest ones are about 12 measures each, and several are less than 5. In fact, the climactic one is only 3 measures long which means compressing or expanding the energy of this harmonic progression will create a sense of harmonic rhythm that will, in the long run, offer a different level of variety.

Then at one point, the chaconne started telling me it should be the middle of a set of five pieces, not the last of four. Now, these pieces are not interrelated the way a sonata would be, so it’s still X-Number of Pieces for Violin & Piano, not a sonata for violin and piano (ah yes, the Nada Sonata). But there’s something about my innate concern for clarity and logic of structure – so lacking in my personal life – that I felt compelled to shape these pieces into some kind of overall, well-balanced, proportional whole.

The Chaconne should be the apex of the arch, not the conclusion. In order to fit with the other three pieces, then, it would need to be longer than I’d just worked it out to be, by a whole minute. Considering how long it’s taking me to even get the thing started and that it took a year to write a 21 minutes string quartet and two years to write a half-hour long symphony, the idea of adding even a minute on to this piece and then needing to write even a short one parallel to the ‘Blues Interruptus’ was like, “Aaaaaaaugh, no!!!!” But, hey...

So I went back and completely revised the skeleton, re-laying the nineteens statements of the pattern so the climax of each one would meet up with the proportional climaxes of the whole and then worked out some other details, a lot of which involved simply staring at pages and pages of stuff and trying to figure out “this isn’t working: why?”

Each variation itself needed to fit into this Golden Section proportion but it wasn’t happening. For the ones that didn’t fit, I discovered they were in a mirror form, the unequal “halves” reversed: this could become another way of varying the forward motion, slowing it down a bit before pushing to the climax and then pulling away from it toward the end and its final resolution.

You’d think, as the composer, everything was consciously done by me, but that’s not always the case. Another cool thing I discovered was this: with nineteen statements of the pattern – nine of them occurring at major structural points along the skeletal framework and all but one of those having some pitch in common with the central tonality’s D Major or D Minor chord – only one out of the 12 available sets of pitches (analogous to keys) had gone unused. Obviously, with 19 statements and 12 available transpositions, there were some that would be used more than once, so I looked at some of those duplicates and realized this one had another inconsistency that needed to be fixed (not really corrected). Suddenly, by changing one note in one chord, the other notes of the other chords that would balance it turned out to be in the missing transposition!

I also discovered, quite fortuitously, the similarity of the last two statements:

The fact the resolution to the middle (whole-note) chord goes up a half-step (with D-naturals in that chord) rather than by common-tone as the previous eighteen statements had done, gives it a sound like a Piccardy cadence in traditional tonality, where an expected resolution to, say, a G minor chord moves instead to a G major one. But the G chord doesn’t sound like a real resolution: it’s more like a second-inversion IV-chord that still needs to resolve to a tonic D Major chord (double suspension and all that) which, ultimately it does. As it turns out, the final segment of this resolution uses the same exact pitches as the ones that ended the next-to-last statement which ended on the “dominant” A-flat of the central D “tonic.” Only here, the chords within each pair are reversed, giving it finally a more stable resolution.

But that’s only the harmonic frame-work: there will be other notes, other chords, other material of some fashion that will work in and around these basic chords, avoiding the monotony of constant repetition. But I’ll get into that, later.

Despite all the mumbo-jumbinous geek-speak, trying to explain sounds in terms of text and process, it really does sound better than it reads... but that is, from the technical standpoint, how it works. THAT it works is the only real requirement: analysis of music is like understanding how your car’s engine works - you don’t need to know that to drive it, but it comes in handy if you’re going to try building one yourself.

So now I’ve worked out the new piece’s skeleton and finally I have the harmonic material which is like the muscles that make it function. Now I’m ready for the skin, stretching it out over the harmonic muscles to create something, hopefully, you may get a chance to hear, some day.

Now it’s time to get back to the piano, after I clean the cats’ litter boxes...

- Dr. Dick