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.

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