New Beginnings

New Beginnings

It always starts with a sound.

It captures my ears and my attention.  Music.  Something I haven’t heard before.  It turns my head and gets my full undivided attention.  If it holds my attention, I am hooked.  I want to hear more, want to hear it again.  It might have been a live performance, in which case I am not likely to single-handedly get them to repeat the music.  It might have been on the radio, in which case I scramble to listen to the announcer tell me what piece it was so I can find it again.  If I was lucky enough to be listening to a recording, then I can repeat it right away.

But it always starts with a sound.

The music gets under my skin.  My left brain starts to kick in and I want to know everything about the music.  Who wrote it?  Who played it?  What does the rest of their stuff sound like?  I search out recordings, written scores, begin to learn the piece inside and out.  The overwhelming thing that all Good Music has in common is that it holds up to repeated listening.  Good Music doesn’t get old after hearing it several times in a row.  It begins to reveal new treasures with each repeated listen.  Like a good lover, it just leaves you wanting more.

It always, always starts with a sound.

reverse_GLCMF_logo_good_version_edited-JPG.mediumI remember the first time I heard the Second Piano Quartet of William Bolcom.  It was at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, the year that Bolcom was the composer-in-residence.  His music was featured in concerts throughout the Festival, but the performance that sticks in my memory was on an all-Bolcom recital held in a space at Temple Beth El.  I didn’t know any of Bolcom’s chamber music at that point.  I met an old friend in the lobby, a brilliant and talented woman named Suzanne.  She holds degrees in business as well as music performance, and is one of the best clarinetist anyone will ever meet.  She was doing work with the Festival at the time, and gave me a warm hello.  She asked me if I was here to listen to the Piano Quartet, and I had to admit I didn’t know the piece.  I was told that I was in for a treat.  She had played clarinet in a performance of the piece during work for her Master’s degree, and knowing my taste in music, she knew I would love it.  She was right.

bildeWilliam Bolcom is a prolific, Pulitzer-Prize winning composer and pianist.  He was born in 1938, and taught composition at the University of Michigan from 1973-2008.  He is still working and writing, and to date has completed eight symphonies, eleven string quartets, volumes of cabaret songs and piano pieces, as well as three major operas.  McTeague, A View From the Bridge, and A Wedding were all commissioned and premiered by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and have gone on to have multiple performances in other places.  He is married to mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, and the two have recorded dozens of albums of cabaret songs together.  There is a special element to a performance of the Bolcom-Morris duo, coming from their deep bond as spouses as well as musicians.  

Bolcom wrote his Second Piano Quartet for the instrumentation of piano, cello, violin and clarinet.  It was composed in 1996, and it had been some twenty years since Bolcom had written his first Piano Quartet.  There were a handful of great pieces on the recital, but the four movement Piano Quartet No. 2 just blew me away.  There are lyric sections of music, contrasted by angular dissonant sections of music. The rhythm is what hooked me.  The pounding, driving rhythm of the first movement and especially the fourth and final movement was unlike anything I had heard in chamber music.  That was it.  The sound that has stayed with me since that first hearing.

Then I was stuck.  There were CD’s for sale in the lobby, one of all Bolcom chamber music, but it didn’t include the Second Piano Quartet.  I got home and searched the internet.  I could find no commercial recordings of the work.  At the time, I couldn’t find a published score to purchase.  I wanted to know more, I wanted to hear it again.  I’m no Mozart.  I couldn’t transcribe the darn thing on one listen.  That fourth movement was bouncing around my brain.  My relationship with this piece was stillborn.  I couldn’t find it anywhere to study.  It was simply not available.  

It all began with a sound.

CCM vertical blackOver the years, I have searched from time to time, waiting for a company to make a commercial recording of the work available.  I still haven’t found one.  In my casual web surfing I did hit upon a website that has a recording for me to listen to.  In 2003, the Chicago Chamber Musicians performed the piece, and that performance is up on their website.  I have to warn readers that the music requires Adobe Flash to play, and visiting the site with an Apple iPad or iPhone will be frustrating because the music will not play.  

The fourth movement is still as raucous as I remember it, all those years ago.  The movement is marked “Absolutely inflexible, hip-hop tempo” .  It is dedicated to a composer named Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR), who got his doctorate at Michigan and is a wizard at combining his classical training with funk, rock and hip-hop music.  The closing movement of the quartet is a brilliant solution to creative problems I find when writing music, namely formulating one coherent musical voice out of all the myriad of sounds I hear in music.  

I am overjoyed at finding the Second Quartet to listen to.  I have had it on repeat for over a week now.  It is my pleasure to share the site with readers here, and I have high hopes that some of you will love the sound as much as I do.

Chicago Chamber Musicians, Second Piano Quartet by William Bolcom


Which Way the Winds Blow

Which Way the Winds Blow

 Imperial and Royal National Court Theater, Vienna

Imperial and Royal National Court Theater ,Vienna

The Mozart Quintet for Piano and Wind instruments, K. 452, was premiered April 1, 1784 on one of Mozart’s subscription concerts in Vienna.  This was in the middle of some of Wolfgang’s best years in Vienna, productive in composition, and financially successful in performance.  In the early 1780’s Mozart wrote quite a few piano concertos to perform himself in concerts of his own music. Wolfgang produced these concerts himself, in any large space available, and he relied upon them for much of his income at the time.  Operas were not performed in the theaters of Vienna during the Lenten season before Easter, and the theaters were available to put on concerts of instrumental music.  Mozart was living as a freelance musician and composer in Vienna during these years, and he used the available space in the theater to put on a grand concert for his own benefit and to attract potential commissions for new music.  This was the occasion for the premiere of the Quintet for Piano and Winds.  

In a letter to his father Leopold, Wolfgang wrote:

Mon très cher Père,

“ Please don’t be angry with me for not having written to you for so long, but you know how much I’ve had to do during that time! With my 3 subscription concerts I’ve covered myself in glory. My concert at the theatre also turned out very well. I wrote 2 grand concertos and also a quintet that was extraordinarily well received; I myself think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s scored for 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 horn, 1 bassoon and pianoforte. I wish you could have heard it!”

“The best thing I’ve ever written”?!?  From the mature Mozart, at the height of his powers in Vienna?  That is a lofty statement.  Written in 1784, the Quintet was written before the trio of opera buffa collaborations with Da Ponte, before the final three symphonies, and before the Requiem. Still, old Wolfgang had written a lot of great music by this point, including the “Haffner” and “Linz” symphonies, 17 or so string quartets, the Great Mass in c minor, Idomeneo and 14 other operas, (the list goes on and on).  Setting aside any hyperbole, it is clear Mozart thought very highly of this quintet.  

The work is scored for piano, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and horn.  This is a completely novel group of instruments for chamber music of the time.  The Mozart quintet is the very first work for this instrumentation, and it is a masterpiece. He certainly was familiar with writing for pairs of winds, having composed numerous Divertimenti and Serenades using wind instruments.  The importance of winds in his piano concerti was growing during these years as well, but this chamber group poses unique challenges to the composer.  A group of strings naturally blends their sound together in a homogenous texture, but Mozart challenged himself here with five distinctly different timbres to unite.  In addition, Wolfgang has to shape the musical phrases while keeping in mind four of the players need to breathe.  

mozart_quote_2Hearing the music, it is easy to discover why Mozart was so proud of this Quintet.  As a child prodigy, Wolfgang was a sponge that soaked up all the standard musical styles and genres of his time.  In this case however, he had no precedent to follow, nothing to imitate.  He had to be truly original to create a satisfying musical work.  His solution involved sharing a musical theme among the different voices, in continually changing combinations of instruments.  The piano provides a frame, and there is a constant trading of phrases between solo voices and groups of voices.  Rarely does the whole ensemble play at once.  The winds are treated in true egalitarian fashion, each taking turns and no one dominating the musical texture. The relationship of the winds and piano is evocatively described by H. C. Robbins Landon:

“By far the most difficult task Mozart set himself, and wherein lay his most dazzling achievement, was the composition of the Quintet, K. 452…The lack of blend between four different wind instruments meant to Mozart that chord passages unsupported by the piano would have to be brief. The instruments would therefore have to be contrasted in various permutations against the piano, with none of them being allowed to be disproportionately prominent. Mozart adopted a patchwork method in order to build up themes of any length, by stitching together an array of short motifs, supported by constantly varying instrumental combinations. This method risked a superficial instability but ultimately provided its fundamental unity.”

Mozart, Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452

The Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452, is set in three movements.  The first movement has a slow introduction to a sonata form. The middle slow movement is followed by a sonata-rondo finale to conclude the piece.   The form is similar to the structure of Mozart’s piano concerti of the same years.  Mozart himself played the piano at the premiere, and the work was eventually published in 1801.  Somewhere along the way, a young Ludwig van Beethoven heard the work and must have been very impressed.  Beethoven wrote his own Quintet for Piano and Winds that was published as his Opus 16, in a tribute to the Mozart composition.  The piece by Beethoven is an early work, written before any of his symphonies or string quartets.  It has the exact same instrumentation as Mozart’s, is in the same key (E-flat major), and follows a similar three movement structure.  However, where Mozart gives us a concerto in miniature, Beethoven composes a work with a much more improvisatory character and his own Beethovenian approach to piano writing.  The Mozart Quintet is an acknowledged masterpiece of the chamber music repertoire, but Ludwig’s work has had a more mixed reception.  Donald Francis Tovey’s particularly icy analysis reads thusly:

“In the quintet for pianoforte and wind instruments, Opus 16, Beethoven is, indeed, obviously setting himself in rivalry with Mozart’s quintet for the same combination; but, if you want to realize the difference between the highest art of classical composition and the easygoing, safety-first product of a silver age, you cannot find a better illustration than these two works, and here it is Mozart who is the classic and Beethoven who is something less.
bethoven_quote_poster_460_0I’m not sure Tovey is being entirely fair, but Beethoven clearly invited comparison when he composed his Opus 16.  When Ludwig moved to Vienna in 1792, he originally wanted to study with Mozart, but Mozart had already died.  Clearly Beethoven studied and admired much of Mozart’s music.  Someone once said something to the effect that a person doesn’t paint a tree because they see a tree.  A person paints a tree because they have seen another painting of a tree.    Beethoven modeled his composition after Mozart, and gives us a very satisfying piece, even if it falls short of the mature Mozart masterpiece.  These two “trees” for Piano and Winds can often be found recorded together on the same album, making for a rewarding listen and comparison.  

Beethoven, Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds, Opus 16

Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival

Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival

reverse_GLCMF_logo_good_version_edited-JPG.mediumJune has arrived in Southeast Michigan, and that means a number of things to the residents of the area.  One of the most exciting things for music fans in June is the return of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.  This year marks the 22nd edition of the Festival.  Twenty-two years!  I can hardly believe it, for I can remember first attending concerts when the festival was in single digit years.  Originally, concerts were held in three large area churches.  Over the years, the Festival has expanded its footprint to a number of additional venues.  No matter where in the area you happen to live, there is a concert on the schedule that is very accessible to you.

The 2015 Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival has concerts from June 13 to June 28, over twenty performances overall.  Subscribers can buy tickets to anywhere from three to nine performances, earning a larger discount when more tickets are purchased.  I usually have no trouble finding nine performances I would love to attend.  What is difficult for me, is finding time to attend all of them in a two-week span!  One of these years I am going to get smart and take time off from my busy work schedule to attend more performances.


Paul Watkins

The artistic director of the Festival this year is Paul Watkins, cellist, conductor and current member of the Emerson String Quartet.  The theme for this year’s series of concerts is “New Beginnings: Making Music in America”, and a significant portion of the music programmed is composed by American composers.  (It’s true Martha, not all classical music was written by dusty old dead German guys!)  He has organized a series of music that looks to be absolutely fabulous.  There are enough pieces that I know well enough to vouch that there will be some superb performances.  There are also enough lesser known works, I will be hearing for the first time.

The opening night concert features members of the Emerson Quartet in twos and threes, finally building up to the whole quartet playing the two closing works.  It is a very creative way to include a variety of musical textures with a small number of forces all on one concert.  The program for opening night on June 13 is:

Martinu | Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, H. 313

Philip Setzer, violin; Lawrence Dutton, viola

Dvořák | Terzetto in C major, Op. 74

Eugene Drucker, violin; Philip Setzer, violin; Lawrence Dutton, viola

Bloch | Suite Hébraïque

Lawrence Dutton, viola; Paul Watkins, piano

Barber | Adagio from String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11

Emerson String Quartet

Dvořák | String Quartet No 12. in F major, Op. 96, “American”

Emerson String Quartet

The Dvořák piece that closes the concert is a staple of the string quartet repertoire, written in 1893 when Antonin Dvořák was having an extended stay in America.  It was composed right after his famous “New World” symphony, which is one of his most popular symphonic compositions.  Samuel Barber’s Adagio is one of the most famous pieces of music composed by any American, and is most often heard in the adaptation for string orchestra.  There at the  Chamber Music Festival, we will hear the original version for string quartet.  The Adagio is the slow movement from Barber’s String Quartet in B minor, and I always enjoy hearing all the movements of the work in their entirety.  In the quartet setting, I find the slow movement to be an intense, introspective listening experience that well deserves all of the fame it has earned.

I would strongly encourage anyone to look into attending one of the concerts of the festival, if you are in the Great Lakes area during the last two weeks of June.  You can buy tickets online at their website, or on the night of the concert at each venue (if any are left!).  I assure you  it will be time well spent.


Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival Website