Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chamber Music at St. Luke, Schaefferstown

After the edge of what never became Hurricane Hanna passed through the area on Saturday, dumping almost 3" of rain on parts of the mid-state, Sunday turned out to be a beautiful sunny day for a drive through the countryside of Central Pennsylvania, past fields of corn and other stuff less easily identified by most urbanites, along with the usual cows and horses, all refreshing to look at for city-folk as long as we don’t have to do the work.

The object of this drive had nothing to do with yearning for the rural life or even the desire to get out of the suburbs for an afternoon, but to attend a chamber music performance in Schaefferstown.

It’s about an hour’s drive from Harrisburg, depending on the traffic, taking Rt.322 rather than the suggested turnpike (which, according to Google Maps, only saves you about four minutes, anyway, tolls aside). We arrived at the church, on Main Street just east of the center of town, with a few minutes to spare.

This was the first concert of the series presented at St. Luke Lutheran Church. My friend Carl Iba was starting his seventh season as the series’ director with the third appearance of pianist Christine Diwyck. They’ve known each other since their college days. New to the series is David Bakamjian, a cellist whom Chris has been concertizing with in New York for several years now but whom Carl just met for the first time when they started rehearsing for this program a few weeks earlier.

This blend of old and new friendships – coupled with repertoire that was also largely new to them – may explain the freshness they brought to this music as well as the fun they clearly had playing it.

The concert began with a piano trio by Mozart – in B-flat, K.502 – and ended with the second trio by Mendelssohn. I’m not sure which of the Mozart trios get played more than the others, but I’ve heard this one and the E Major Trio (K.542) more often. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Mendelssohn C Minor Trio live before, since the first one is one of the more famous trios in the repertoire: some people thinks it’s better than the D Minor trio, but the earlier trio seems to have more appealing tunes (which, to some people, makes it better, but I leave that argument for other times).

So it was ironic that, as we’re driving down to Schaefferstown, N was telling me about the service at Market Square Church where the musical guests that morning had been the Eaken Piano Trio, playing movements from two different pieces throughout the service. Looking at the bulletin, I saw there were a couple of movements from the Mozart Piano Trio in B-flat, K.502, and the finale of the C Minor Piano Trio by Felix Mendelssohn!

I mean, what are the odds that on the same day two different ensembles would be performing the exact same two pieces?

That the finale of the Mendelssohn would end up on a church bulletin makes some sense, given the dramatic quote near the end of a hymn tune most English-speaking Protestants would recognize with the words “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” or “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” (known familiarly as “The Old 100th,” a metrical setting of Psalm 100). The tune by Louis Bourgeois was published in the Genevan Psalter of 1551, originally setting Psalm 134. Mendelssohn knew it with the text “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before Your Throne I Now Appear),” which itself is taken from the chorale text “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein (When we are in Deepest Need).” Whatever the significance of the tune to Mendelssohn at the time he was composing the trio or whatever connection Martin Luther may have to the text or to the chorale preludes of Johann Sebastian Bach, who re-set “Vor deinen Thron” on his deathbed, I’m not sure and would yield to more knowledgeable church musicians who may be familiar with the history and the various associations, here.

Nonetheless, the tune – whatever you may be thinking as you hear it – makes a triumphant affirmation for the conclusion of a work full of anxiety and turmoil, at least in its outer movements. The middle movements – a gorgeous “song without words” for the slow movement and another one of Mendelssohn’s signature elfin scherzos (it’s not just ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’) – bring a respite from all this turmoil but that is part and parcel of the 19th Century.

Music was written in certain ways because, at those times, this was how people listened to music – the trick was to keep the listener’s attention while giving them something that caught both the imagination and the intellect, the old argument of balancing “form and content.” It was writing a good melody (or tune) over a recognizable structure (harmony and form) that let you know, comparable to reading a story perhaps, where you were. There was variety both within and between the different movements in the over-all scope of a piece.

For me, it was just great to hear the other work on the program, Janáček’s unassuming little quasi-sonata for cello and piano he called “Pohádka” or “Fairy Tale,” something I’ve never heard live other than the time I performed it with my roommate at Eastman years ago. Unlike the trios by Mendelssohn and Mozart with their clear structures, use of contrast and melodies in a familiar style, Janáček’s music might seem “too much the same,” not really melodic and a bit haphazard. And what is the fairy tale about, anyway, you might be wondering?

Rather than using tunes the way Mendelssohn did or building melodies out of the harmonies the way Mozart did, Janáček works more with “musical cells” (“melodicules” I’ve called them, like musical molecules) which were inspired by speech patterns and vocal inflections rather than folk songs and traditional classical S.O.P’s. What might seem natural in an opera (of which he wrote several) might seem awkward in an instrumental piece until you remember the title – “Fairy Tale” – and you realize the cello takes on the role of the story-teller, perhaps strumming on a harp like the bards of ancient times, telling you an ancient tale. It doesn’t matter what the tale actually is – it’s the mood he sets by the telling of it, the frame of mind you can find yourself in if the music comes across to you.

Janáček extends these “cells” through simple repetition or by transferring them to other pitch-levels, not really a forward-moving modulation as we might expect with Mozart, but more the way someone may speak. He expands them into longer “units” by, perhaps, spinning a chain of cells into a longer filament (which is actually what Beethoven does after the opening of his 5th Symphony, by the way), or by slowing them down. The emotional climax of the piece takes an unassuming little six-note figure heard pizzicato at the opening of the movement, sounding very playful, but then stretches it out into a soaring love song in the upper reaches of the cello - but only twice, before it comes back to earth. The piece is concise but doesn’t seem to go anywhere, compared to the harmonic language of standard classical fare: at the end, it doesn’t really “end,” just sort of winds down and stops, as if there’s more to be told.

It would be easy to supply the standard boy-meets-girl / boy-loses-girl formula of most fairy tales to this music (regardless who’s a prince or who’s the daughter of an evil wizard, as the case may be, here). You really don’t need to know the exact tale to appreciate the music.

Chris and David found the story-spinning magic of these melodic cells and wove out of them what I thought was a compelling performance, but I noticed from my seat in the balcony that some people in the audience used this music as background to read through the program biographies or page through the hymnal. By comparison, the attention never seemed to wander during the Mozart and was about ready to sing along with the Big Hymn Tune that wraps up the Mendelssohn. Both of these, stylistically at least, are more familiar ground for most listeners, regardless of how often they may have heard the pieces, yet while there’s a world of difference between Mozart’s classical clarity and Mendelssohn’s sensuous Romanticism, separated by 60 years, the audience takes both of these contrasting stylistic approaches easily in stride. Janáček, writing almost 100 years ago, sounds a little different and found wanting. Go figure.

(Last night I was reading about the audience in Leipzig, hearing Brahms’ brand new 2nd Symphony for the first time: maybe it was alright for Vienna where they may be more easily satisfied and liked things to be more entertaining, but in Leipzig, as one critic expressed it, they expected “something more than ‘pretty’ and ‘very pretty’ from [Brahms] when he comes before us as a symphonist.”)

It’s not always easy performing or listening to music in a setting like St. Luke Lutheran Church. The piano is good, the acoustics reasonable for a space not designed for music, the atmosphere for the most part pleasant, Main Street being a little too close for comfort only a few feet beyond the windows directly behind the musicians. Occasionally they get overshadowed by the roar of passing motorcycles or the steady clip-clop of a horse-and-buggy, but you adapt to these and roll with them. Sometimes the timing is unfortunate: a great turn-of-phrase or a harmonic climax can be obliterated by the sound of a passing car. True, I remember two concerts in Carnegie Hall where at beautiful moments of quiet ecstasy, you are tugged back to earth by the underground rumble of the subway or the inexplicable ringing of an off-stage phone.

Finding music like this, performed as well as this, is a great treat in a small-town church – and for free!

While I might think the audiences could be larger than they often are (maybe it was too nice a day too early in the season, this time), I should mention I’ve been at concerts in various cities across the mid-state with well-known performers (and paid admission) who draw the same-sized crowds or less. It’s not always about the bottom line, however, or crunching the attendance numbers, but at least the attempt is being made to make Live Music available to areas outside the larger cities, especially those which might not have a built-in audience or a college-town’s curiosity. For this, the church and its music committee deserve a very warm round of applause for having the commitment to bring the music to this corner of Lebanon County.

Now, if we could just figure out how to attract younger people to these concerts, to ensure a future generation of listeners and concert-goers! While there were some children in the audience on Sunday – and again, I haven’t been to too many chamber music concerts elsewhere in the region who’d have as many – it’s always nice to have more!

After the concert, the church warmly includes you in a little reception in their community room, a chance to sit down with friends and enjoy cookies and treats with punch or coffee, and meet the performers.

This time, the Franklin House, a fine restaurant just across the street from the church’s parking lot, made available a 15% discount on dinner after the recital. Not knowing about this in advance, we were unable to take advantage of it, having eaten a late lunch before the concert. I hope this will be continued in the future – and in coming seasons could be included in the brochures – because this kind of community support is important, too. And next year will be Music at St. Luke’s 10th Season.

Meanwhile, the next concert is on October 19th, Sunday afternoon at 3:00, with a recital by violinist Carl Iba and pianist Randy Day and a program that they’re still working out, ranging from a Mozart Sonata to Bartok’s tuneful 1st Rhapsody with stops in between to include the music of Antonin Dvořák and Fritz Kreisler.

So spread the word – and bring a friend!

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Speaking of Janáček, here's some information about a recording of his "Fairy Tale" along with his two String Quartets and the Violin Sonata on the Naxos label. If you follow the about this recording link and scroll down, you'll find a detailed account of the fairy tale in question.

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