Saturday, March 30, 2013

Spring Chamber Music in Bloom part 1

The first week in April will take us to Farragut High School and Tellico Village, and for me, ending with a bang at the Chamber Classics Principal Quartet concert Sunday April 7 at the Bijou at 2:30. Quartets by Borodin, Debussy, two movements for quartet entitled Blinded and Traces by Lucas Richman, and Beethoven’s quartet in f, op. 95 (Serioso) will be performed.

In the classical world, when you say “op. 95," you can only be talking about this very Beethoven quartet. You don’t even really have to say “opus,” people will understand you if you just say the number. The piece has become a euphemism for moodiness, for brevity, for intensity, for just general Beethoven bad-asserie. What followed from Beethoven’s pen were his final violin sonata and the magnificent Archduke Trio, and two of the three preceding works were his 7th and 8th symphonies, so the Serioso Quartet is, as they say in real estate, “in a neighborhood of fine homes.” There are other “op. 95's,” of course. Dvorak’s  New World Symphony has that number, but if we billed it as “Dvorak’s Symphony op. 95,” people would wonder what the big deal was.

Since Beethoven probably composed this at the piano, we quartet members like to think of ourselves as Beethoven’s fingers. “Hi, I’m Andy and I’ll be your left 3rd, 4th and 5th finger, and occasionally a thumb this afternoon...” Perhaps Beethoven wished, pianistically speaking, that his fingers could be in pairs further apart, mimicking the range of a string quartet. He broke (and therefore rewrote) so many rules with this work, and we are so grateful. The infomercial-like Wikipedia entry on the quartet details a few of the “offenses;” a real source such as Thayer’s Life of Beethoven or The Classical Style– along with repeated listenings– will surely take you further into the rap sheet. Movements 1, 3 and 4 are quintessential sturm und drang, but the 2nd movement is absolutely transcendent in its warmth. And the ending.... shazam!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Rain... and Spain!

It’s Masterworks time, or at least it will be this Thursday and Friday, and a Spanish accent will be in evidence. The works chosen offer an interesting contrast in composers’ viewpoints; two 19th-century works by “outlanders,”  and three early 20th-century works by native Spaniards. Although all of the works have Spanish rhythms and themes, the 20th-century works benefit from having much more liberal and liberated harmonic and coloristic palettes. Which is saying something, considering that Rimsky-Korsakov literally wrote the book on orchestration, and every orchestral composer since then knows it well.

I love playing the Three Cornered Hat Suite by Manuel de Falla. There are two such suites, and either one of them is just fine with me. I like the way this particular dance suite just floats in breezily in the violins, introducing The Neighbors, then The Miller, and finally a wildly capricious Jota. (A Jota is an Aragonaise, as was the opening movement of the Sarasate Carmen Fantasy from last month’s concerts. The "J" in "Jota" is pronounced like the Ch in Channukah).

We are lucky to have guitar soloist Ana Vidovic with us. She is a bright star in the guitar sky, and a guitar soloist is a rare thing in our orchestra, maybe 3 in the last 27 years, as far as I can recall. The Concierto de Aranjuez (pronounced “are on ways,” but the “s” in “ways” is pronounced with a lisp) she is performing is by Joaquin Rodrigo, a composer who should have showed up on my composer longevity post from January 30th. He lived 97 years, all the more remarkable considering he was blind from age 3.

Chabrier’s España is a light-hearted favorite to close out the first half or start the second half, I’m not sure which. Then we will hear from another guy named Joaquin, Turina, that is, in his Danzas Fantasticas. I found out the other night that there is a cello solo near the end. Surprise! This video of an orchestra of guitars and lutes will probably help me find the right atmosphere.

We’ll finish with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, a masterpiece of orchestration and a wonderful musical journey. Every instrument on stage has at least one fine moment in the sun, and the lines between orchestral and chamber music are blurred thanks to “R-K’s” mastery of “downshifting” musical textures.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

High-Octane Octet

The lucky ones who will attend the Concertmaster Series this Wednesday and Thursday at Remedy Coffee, (7 pm) will be treated to a performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings by the “inner circle” of string players of the Knoxville Symphony. The work is a euphemism for childhood genius, written when he was just 16 (SIXTEEN). High-octane fortissimo passages seamlessly melt into tender, lyrical sections and games of musical "bloody knuckles." It is full of impish levity that only a 16-year-old could concoct, yet as mature as anything Strauss or Beethoven wrote as old men. Contrast this with Beethoven’s opus 3 String Trio (also in Eb), written when Beethoven was 23; an awkward, stodgy work bound by classical-period conventions, which Beethoven had not yet learned to sidestep.

The first movement introduces the “main characters.” Rather than splitting the duties cleanly between a pair of string quartets, there is far-flung free association and antiphony among the players according to the size and register of the gesture Mendelssohn is trying to create. The andante second movement is the “slow movement,” but the triplet accompanying figures that span most of the movement keep a breathless excitement in the air despite of the slow-ish tempo. After playing this movement I feel like saying, “He was 16 when he wrote this. SIXTEEN. When I was 16, (to quote David Letterman), I was out getting stuck under the garage.” The scherzo 3rd movement is a test for fine bows; flying spiccato, ricochet and a bevy of trills, in a texture whose dynamic never rises above piano. Here, the forest gnomes and sprites that inhabit Mendelssohn’s very next composition, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are field-tested and put through their paces and found to be quite sound, thank you. The presto final movement literally ties everything together, using themes from the scherzo and from Handel’s Hallelujiah Chorus as well as an original, rapid-fire fugue subject to complete a rich musical palette never heard before or since.

The Concertmaster Series is by no means the only thing going on with the KSO this week. A quartet is going to the Karns library for a Story Time concert Wednesday at 10 am, we just this morning played our “Scientific Symphony” Young People’s Concerts at Greeneville’s Niswonger Performing Arts Center, and a Barbra Streisand Tribute Pops concert will occur Saturday night at the Civic Auditorium with Ann Hampton Callaway. Take in some live music this week; you won’t be sorry.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Gabe's Faves

For the final Concertmaster Recital Series performances, Gabe Lefkowitz will be playing old favorites, but except for Rachmaninov, the likelihood of your having heard of the other composers is pretty slim. Ponce, Bazzini and FRANÇOIS Schubert are quintessential one-hit wonders. Not that their output aside from these works sucked or anything, but, these “one-hits” were such big hits that they became calling cards for their composers’ reputations.

I have to chuckle when I see The Bee (L’abeille) attributed to merely "Schubert." Only by staring at the cello sheet music offerings on the back of International Edition cello music while practicing am I aware that this work is not by the Viennese wunderkind Franz Schubert. It is rather by a later composer from Dresden with EXACTLY the same name, whose studies in Paris inspired him to go by the name François. He must have been quite a violinist if he could perform his own works. I love these old-school recordings of violinists, here’s Maud Powell (American premier of the Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak Concerti) in a recording that has to be from a wax cylinder or something.

Say what you want about Jascha Heifetz’ playing, but the 1939 MGM film They Shall Have Music put classical music on the map for a lot of folks, and Manuel Ponce’s Estrellita “(Little Star)” is featured in one of five appearances by Heifetz in the film.

In the 1850's, while François Schubert was portraying bees in his music, Brescian composer Antonio Bazzini was seeing goblins. More widely known in his day as a performer than a composer, his contribution to the Messa per Rossini is nonetheless quite a story. His share, among a total of 13 contributing composers, is the Dies Irae chorus. It is interesting to note that the catalyst for this mass, Giuseppe Verdi, contributed the final chorus, Libera me, and his fully-grown Requiem that we will perform on the April Masterworks concerts is a result of compositional seeds that were planted in this Rossini Mass. The work was basically unknown to the world until 1988. ANYways, as a child Bazzini was a violin student of Faustino Camisani; hey, you’d write a piece called Dance of the Goblins too if you’d studied with a guy named Faustino.

The second half of the concert will consist of the Mendelssohn Octet. It seems like every octet is excellent; Schubert’s (we’re not talking François here), and Stravinsky’s are legendary workhorses in their respective genres, and Milhaud wrote two string quartets that can be played as an octet! Mendelssohn’s is scary good; I don’t even have time right now to write about it, so you’ll have to take my word that it’s one of the most perfect pieces of music ever written. Or you can wait for me to tell you why in the next post.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Midwinter Night's Dreams

It was very heartening to see such a full house for the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra’s all-Baroque concert at the Bijou yesterday! Warm music is a beautiful way to beat the winter blahhs, and it was clear that many patrons agreed. Gabe Lefkowitz’s Bach E-Major Concerto was exquisite. His encores were also by Bach; the Andante from the A minor Violin Sonata, and the Prelude and Fugue from the G Minor Sonata. We are so lucky to have a concertmaster who can just emit music like this with seemingly little effort (although I know for a fact that a boatload of work goes into his performances). The Handel Fireworks music was just as warm as its title suggested, with a full complement of winds, INCLUDING contrabassoon! To hear notes lower than the string bass can play coming out of a wind instrument is still a marvel to me even after all these years of orchestra playing, and Cora Nappo is our resident contra guru, playing notes that are often felt more than heard.

In a week where we will mostly be prepping for shows next week and next month, it is nice to have next season’s repertoire announcement- or should I say “annunciation?”- at hand to build dreams on. The 2013-14 season has some nice surprises, for me anyway. Many works that have not been played in a long while, if ever, will be making appearances on Knoxville’s stages. Right off the bat in September, overtures by Reznicek and Wagner will bookend Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Kodaly’s Hary Janos Suite; you’d have to go back to the 1995-96 season to find the Beethoven programmed, and the 1987-88 season for the Kodaly. Other long lost works sprinkled throughout the season include Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, Barber’s perky Overture to The School for Scandal, Ernest Bloch’s majestic Sacred Service, and Sibelius’ 5th Symphony (I have never played any of the Sibelius symphonies outside of the first two, although he wrote 7). The concerto on the May Masterworks concert is the woefully under-performed Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto, a work bursting with tunes that demand to be hummed on the way out the door of the theatre. There will also be a whole lorry-load of amazing chamber music on the Concertmaster Series and the Principal Quartet’s concert in April.

“So what are we working on this week?” you might ask. Well, since you’ve asked so nicely, I’ll tell you. The final Concertmaster Series instalment (March 13 and 14 at Remedy Coffee) will feature Mendelssohn’s pristine Octet. Just getting eight busy string players to agree on a rehearsal time is cause for celebration, but we will aim to more than do justice to the magnificence of Mendelssohn’s opus. The Scientific Symphony Young People’s Concerts that we performed in October will travel to Greeneville’s Niswonger Performing Arts Center next Tuesday, and the strings will travel to Blackberry Farm in Walland Sunday night for a special evening of string orchestra classics.