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.”

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