Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Not Sunday at Mt. Gretna: Music to Sink Your Mind Into

Thursday evening is another in the series of “Serenades” at Gretna Music – soprano Patricia Porterfield returns with a program of songs ranging from Monteverdi and Purcell to Debussy and Mahler. The performance is at 8:00 – the pre-concert conversation will be held by the founder of Mt. Gretna’s summer music festival, Carl Ellenberger at 7pm. Next week, he’ll be joining with the Audubon Quartet on Wednesday, August 20th, for the Theme & Variations by Amy Beach. This will be the second of three performances next week by the quartet – Wednesday’s concert also includes Ting-Yu Chen’s original choreography for Peter Schickele’s 1st String Quartet, “American Dreams;” Friday afternoon’s will feature Allen Krantz joining them for a work of his own on a concert that begins at 2:00; and on Sunday the 24th, the quartet will be joined by cellist Tom Shaw’s two sons playing viola and cello for works by Vaughan Williams and Richard Strauss plus Schubert’s String Quintet. The first two of the Audubon’s pre-concert talks will be presented by guitarist and composer Allen Krantz, talking about the role of the composer in society; Sunday’s will be given by Tom Shaw. Again, all the pre-concert conversations are held an hour before each performance.

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Getting ready to head down to Mt. Gretna for Maria Bachmann’s recital this past Friday, it occurred to me, “Wait! It’s not Sunday!” I realized too late I had not counted on Not-Sunday Traffic, especially going to pick John Clare up at his hotel in downtown Harrisburg during Afternoon Rush (which has nothing to do with a certain talk-show program though it’s just as annoying).

But as Gretna Music’s executive director Michael Murray pointed out introducing the concert, the music would probably sound just as good on a Friday night as it would on a Sunday night. And it did.

Since it was also fairly cool for the Dog Days of August (though not as cool as yesterday!), it also didn’t seem like a Gretna Music weekend: while there have been many balmy nights there in the past, you tend to remember the ones when it’s sweltering... How odd to see people bringing jackets to the concert – and then needing them!

It was not exactly a toe-tapping crowd-pleaser program – three mostly unknown pieces on the first half, one of them by a composer audacious enough to still be alive, with Brahms’ 3rd Sonata on the second half, not exactly “light summer fare” for either the audience or the performers. The nice thing is, not all summer concerts need to be “kick back, put your feet up and sip a cool drink” kind of programs. This was a good one to sink your mind into and enjoy some great music making. What were the alternatives on a Friday night - other than watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics on TV?

The Ravel Violin Sonata in G Major is one of the great (and fun) works of the repertoire. But the work she opened with was not that Ravel Sonata. Before I looked last week at her program on-line, I hadn’t known there was another one, referred to as “Sonata posthume” which came to light in 1975 in some dusty library collection. He wrote it when he was a student at the Paris Conservatoire – actually, for the second time: his grades had not been good the first time, so he left the school, returning a couple semesters later with “renewed determination” to study composition with Gabriele Fauré. It would be easy to dismiss this piece as a “student work” and a curiosity in search of a composer’s identity – and frankly for me, the longer it went on, the less interesting it became – when compared to the mature sonata he’d finish 25 years later, but it was written around the time of some of his first published works, the Menuet Antique the year before and the Pavane for a Dead Princess a year or so later. Those works, in retrospect, sound like the Ravel we know – but this sonata, for the most part, doesn’t. Those works are also miniatures and here he was trying to overcome the obstacles that longer-form pieces present. Small wonder he would imitate his teacher’s voice or sound like he’d been playing one of the more famous sonatas of the day (most likely the one by Cesar Franck) – young composers have always done this and continue today, mixing the old-fashioned favorites they’re familiar with or inspired by, using them as models, cribbing from here or there, while mixing in a few ideas of their own. It may stymie a listener in a “name-that-composer” quiz, but it’s an important step in the early development of the more familiar voice.

One can also imagine the 22-year-old Ravel playing through these earlier sonatas with a fellow student recently arrived in Paris, the Romanian violinist (and later, composer) Georges Enescu who was about 16 at the time. Enescu’s 3rd Sonata, “after the popular Romanian character” as its subtitle translates literally and written almost 30 years later, closed the first half of the program. This is a very different work, one that could only have been written by a virtuoso violinist who seemed to be using every trick in his arsenal to the greatest effect. It’s a dynamite piano part as well and music that is so over-the-top that it has to be played just as over-the-top to make it work. Fortunately, Maria Bachmann and her pianist, Natalie Zhu, went all out. While I didn’t think there was much beyond the surface brilliance – and all the special effects imitating gypsy fiddlers and Eastern European folk styles (written, incidentally, around the same time Bartok was integrating similar effects into his own style) – they played it with the commitment as if it’s one of the great sonatas. And maybe it is: one thing, at least, is the question “why isn’t it heard more often?” Not because it’s not a great sonata but maybe because it’s so freakin’ hard to bring off with the right pizzazz?

For people who love Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsodies (at least the first one gets played a lot), it’s not a big step to this piece except for the lack of big memorable tunes. I think the impact of the piece is more significant than whether you can hum the tunes. The second movement is full of those “night music” sounds familiar to listeners of Bartok – the repeated single notes in the piano not unlike the sounds of tree frogs and cicadas going on outside the Gretna Playhouse, the kaleidoscopic wisps of phrases in the violin here and there, not to mention all the different colorings created by bowing techniques, harmonics, bending the pitches by quarter-tones or playing with the mute – create a canvas of beauty beyond the merely hummable.

Though the tune is certainly hummable, the Chaconne John Corigliano wrote based on music for the award-winning film, “The Red Violin,” is a work also accessible on many different levels, a dazzling virtuoso showcase that’s also a dramatic, emotional statement held together by this series of ominous chords (a pattern that defines it as a chaconne). It was originally written as a concert piece for violin and orchestra which has received many performances and recordings. In addition to the film score, the chaconne served as the basis for a complete violin concerto which Corigliano adapted from other material written for the movie, turning it into a four-movement concerto in the grand manner. There is, apparently, also a “Suite” for violin and orchestra that is somewhere between just the chaconne and the full-blown concerto.

It’s more than just a question of mileage or recycling: composers in the 19th Century did this all the time with opera themes, one way or another, though very often it was done by other performers, not the original composer. Very often, in the 20th Century, it was done to salvage music that wasn’t getting performed, otherwise: Hindemith’s excerpts from his opera, “Mathis der Maler,” becoming a “symphony,” or Prokofiev converting “The Fiery Angel,” an opera deemed unperformable, into his 3rd Symphony, or his ballet, “The Prodigal Son,” which also didn’t look like it was going to make it to the stage, into his 4th Symphony. But often it was just to translate successful music from one medium into another: all those fantasies on themes from Bizet’s Carmen, for instance, or the suite from the incidental music Mendelssohn wrote for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” which he tacked on to the concert overture he’d written 17 years earlier.

So it’s understandable that violinist Maria Bachmann would want to convince the composer to rework the original Chaconne into a version for violin and piano which she’d recorded with pianist and Trio Solisti colleague Jon Klibonoff on her Endeavor Classics disc called, not surprisingly, The Red Violin, released last year.

In this performance with pianist Natalie Zhu, played between the Ravel and the Enescu, I confess my focus was more on how the pianist (no accompanist in anything on this program, by the way) handled the composer’s “orchestral reduction,” recreating wide ranges of colors, those dense textures, pounding chords and spiraling wisps. She makes a great orchestra, managing to claim it all for the piano as if it were completely natural to be playing all those notes on a keyboard.

My only association with Ms. Zhu’s playing before was her wonderful recording of Mozart sonatas with violinist Hilary Hahn where they are so wonderfully on the same stylistic frequency. This may be an entirely different style of playing but the chemistry is still very effective between her and Ms. Bachmann who has never been less than astounding in the performances and recordings of hers I’ve heard. Sitting in the Gretna Playhouse instead of watching the Olympics’ opening ceremonies at home, I couldn’t help thinking they made a great team, going for the gold... (and that’s the extent of my sports analogies, sorry).

The third of Brahms’ violin sonatas, written when he was in his mid-50s and close to “retirement,” is the most dramatic of these sonatas and certainly the most symphonic. It was sketched in the same summer, following the premiere of his 4th Symphony (which pro-Brahmsian critic Hanslick called “a dark well”), he composed his 2nd Violin Sonata (bright, sunny and song-like), the 2nd Cello Sonata and the C Minor Piano Trio, all, basically, positive works (as one friend said of the trio, “better than any photograph, for it shows your real self”). The following year, he composed the Double Concerto which many saw as a reactionary work and never warmed to (curiously, it was this year a young French composer introduced himself to Brahms, named Claude Debussy).

The next year, when Brahms had turned thoroughly gray, suddenly aging, he sent the now-finished 3rd Violin Sonata to Clara Schumann, herself troubled with problems of age and illness, compounded by one family tragedy after another. She liked especially the third movement, the modest little scherzo, which she wrote was “like a beautiful girl sweetly frolicking with her lover – then suddenly in the middle of it all, a flash of deep passion, only to make way for sweet dalliance once more.”

Brahms responded that, going over the score at his desk and thinking of the “sonata flowing gently and dreamily beneath your fingers,” “in my thoughts [I] wandered gently with you through the maze of organ-points [in the first movement], with you still beside me, and I know no greater pleasure than this, to sit at your side or, as now, to walk beside you.” While they played piano duets frequently during their long friendship, perhaps there was something of a “sweet dalliance” that they both, in their increasing age, remembered fondly? For the past year, they had been negotiating the return of their letters to each other: Brahms sent his off without rereading them but Clara, reading them again, was unable to bring herself to part with them.

Whether or not the “organ-point” he mentioned – the long passages built on the repeated bass notes – reflect a similar passage in his German Requiem (the end of the 3rd movement, “Lord, make me to know the end and measure of my days”), Brahms was keen on quotational allusions in his music – for instance, incorporating Joachim’s “F-A-E” Motive in the violin part of the Double Concerto, written as a way of renewing their strained friendship – and around the time he composed this sonata, he left an unsigned note at Hans von Bülow’s hotel, after they’d had a falling out, with a few notes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, knowing he would recognize the implied text (“dear one, shall I see you no more?”) as an invitation to a reunion. Brahms dedicated the D Minor Sonata to von Bülow, the last official dedication Brahms would make with any of his works: two years later, he announced his “retirement” from composing, though meeting a talented clarinetist made it only a temporary one.

There is nothing “autumnal” about this sonata, an adjective usually attached to these last years’ works, and there was nothing autumnal about the Gretna performance, either. The middle movements were perhaps the most appealing but I missed some of the drama in the first movement (especially those “organ-points”) perhaps more by comparison with the over-the-top drama on the first half from Corigliano and Enescu. The last movement, however, made up for that, especially in the last measures when Brahms builds and builds, then holds back suddenly before the final, dramatic plunge.

The playhouse at Mt. Gretna may not be the ideal acoustic – not that many outdoor theaters could hope to be – between the cicadas, people passing by talking obliviously on their cell-phones or the occasional motorcycle in the area. Usually, I sit toward the back where, for me, the balance is better than it is up front where the blend isn’t as good. Thinking my hearing is doing a lot better now without the daily annoyance of work-place white noise, I was surprised when the person sitting next to me complained how the pianist was drowning out the violinist. Sounded fine to me, but I didn’t mean it the way Brahms supposedly did when, rehearsing one of his cello sonatas with a less than adequate musician, the struggling cellist stopped to mention cautiously he thought he was working too hard to be heard: Brahms replied “Yes, and I can still hear you!”

For anyone who missed this performance, the good news – aside from the fact WITF recorded the concert for later broadcast on Sunday evening’s “WITF Presents...” – is Bachmann and Zhu will return to the mid-state for a Market Square Concerts performance in late February with more music from the Red Violin album including Corigliano’s Chaconne as well as other works by Paul Moravec, Aaron Copland and Ravel. Something else to look forward to!

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