postlude: willamette valley chamber music festival week one

One of the barrel caves at J. Christopher Wines in Newberg, Oregon.

What a week it’s been! Five intense days of rehearsal, four fantastic pieces of music, and six musicians who not only play well together, but like each other as friends, too. It’s magic, really, this festival.

Joan Tower

One of the highlights for me was getting to work with the distinguished composer Joan Tower, whose works were featured this past weekend. She is remarkable. Sharp, witty, and ever so slightly irreverent (both of herself and her music), she put us at immediate ease when we played through her pieces for her. They are not easy – and put us to the test – much as Beethoven does in his great string quartets.  Tower described her works as having “motives of intention”, which is a perfect description for how Beethoven constructed his greatest works.

The program, which was constructed by the husband and wife artistic team of Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi, was very deftly assembled. Haydn – who essentially invented the string quartet form as we have come to know it – was represented by his Op. 33 no 2 quartet “The Joke”. It has all manner of witty asides – some of which are obvious, like the false endings that conclude the piece – and some which are meant for the musicians alone, with strange glissandi, unusual voicing, and the like. As Joan mentioned in her remarks, Haydn took risks as a composer. In this quartet (as in many of his others), he stops time and challenges the audience by using their own expectations to confound them. True genius.

Amelia Lukas

On Saturday’s concert, the piece of Joan’s that was featured was her Rising, for flute and string quartet, written in 2009 for flutist Carol Wincenc and the Juilliard Quartet. We in the quartet (Megumi Stohs Lewis, Sasha Callahan, myself, and Leo Eguchi) were joined by Portland flutist Amelia Lukas. In the warm and enveloping acoustic of the J. Christopher Wines barrel room, the sound of the flute soared at any dynamic, supported by the bristling carpet of string figurations that are characteristic of Tower’s writing.

On Sunday’s concert, Sasha, Leo, and I were joined by violinist Greg Ewer for Tower’s Fifth String Quartet, White Water. I adore this piece, and not just because it starts with a viola solo in its most plangent register. It is, as some jazz musicians say, a tight piece. There are no extraneous gestures in the 17 minute quartet – which is in one continuous, flowing movement – and it makes great demands upon the players, all of which are made gratifying by the musical content (which cannot always be said about some pieces of music, whose content can be sparse, but the musical demands horrific).

Barrel room at J. Christopher Wines.

The concluding piece both days was Beethoven’s Op. 59 no 2 Rasumovsky quartet. This 40-plus minute piece is the height of his middle period quartet writing. As a performer, one of my favorite games to play is seeing trends in a composer’s work and following where they go as the composer continues their writing in the genre. For example, the first movement of the quartet has some of Beethoven’s most intricate intertwining writing for the four instruments, which to me foreshadows what he would unleash on the quartet in his epic Op. 130 quartet’s first movement. His grand, unhurried, and serene slow movement (the longest in the piece) foreshadows his sublimely incandescent slow movement from his Op. 132 quartet, his Hymn of Thanksgiving. Interestingly, his scherzo (one of his unique five part scherzo form movements) looks back to Haydn with its misplaced accents and folk material). Finally, the galloping Finale again looks forward to his massive finale to the Op. 131 quartet, with its iterations of the long-short dotted figures that propel the movement from beginning to breathless end.

Making that journey from ‘Papa’ Haydn to Joan Tower to Beethoven made me think of the remarkable progress that the string quartet has made in those nearly 250 years, and of its incredible flexibility in the hands of composers who wish to make the full use of the ‘simple’ complement of two violas, and viola, and a cello. What a miracle the quartet is! The materials can change, but the essentials are this: four musical equals making conversation together. Sometimes there are arguments, even downright fisticuffs. Other times there are moments of great tenderness, the un-burdening of one’s deepest fears, loves, and hopes. And yet other times there are jokes, pranks, japes, and jests – all manner of silliness. That is life, and that is what the great works for the string quartet encompass. And that is why I love them so.

musical gut check

The post title says musical gut check – and by that I mean gut strings! Sunday evening, I made my debut on a period instrument! I kind of cheated a little. I used a chin rest and my own modern bow. But the strings were gut, the ‘A’ was pitched at 430 Hz, and my two partners in crime were both seasoned period performance pros. It was an interesting experience (and ultimately, a very enjoyable one), and I thought it might be of interest to my readers to know what this adjustment was like for me.

What: A performance of Classical string trios on period instruments.
Where: The workshop of Darrell Hanks, bowmaker, Pearl District, Portland, OR.
When: Sunday, October 9th, at 7:30pm

Pitch, man.

First of all, the pitch issue. In modern performance, the A that ensembles tune to [the A between C4 and C5, also known as a’] is between 440 and 442 Hz (vibrations per second), most European orchestras tune to A442, while most German orchestras are now at A443. Early music performers most often tune to A415, which is a half-step flat to modern pitch. Between the Baroque period and the present day, pitch has gradually crept upward – markedly so when instrumental music became something other than an accompanimental genre [for a fascinating read – including the fact that concert pitch in the 18th century actually rose to a minor third HIGHER than current concert pitch – see this Wikipedia article]. The accepted convention now is that Classical period music is often performed at A430, just about half way between Baroque and modern pitch.

So, how does that affect perception of intonation? It plays severe havoc with it (at least in my case)! When I hear the open strings on the period viola, tuned to 430, it feels incredibly out of tune because everything is a quarter-tone flat. The instrument doesn’t ring that way my ear expects it to, after 39 years of playing at 440. Plus, gut strings don’t stay on pitch with any degree of reliability like modern steel and synthetic core strings do. If one has time to devote to just playing at one pitch level for a period of time, the ear can settle into the new normal. However, my preparation period for this concert didn’t allow that. At all.

Musical ping pong.

The week of the concert was the rehearsal period for the Oregon Symphony’s second classical series concerts. So I was ping-ponging between 430 and 440, not to mention two dissimilar violas, all week, every day. The day of the concert, we had an OSO matinee at 2pm, sandwiched by a dress rehearsal for the trio concert at Noon, and followed by the trio concert at 7pm – with a sound check in the space at 6pm. Not how I would have planned it if everyone had free schedules – but when does that ever happen?

So, with all of that tuning nonsense aside, it was really a fun experience. First of all, cellist Shirley Hunt, whose idea this was, and violinist Adam Lamotte are both exceptional musicians, and we all get along with each other – both musically and personally – very well. Sometimes that’s more than half the battle! Secondly, the repertoire was hard to top.

Schubert’s junk mail?

We began the evening with the single movement String Trio in B-flat major, D. 471, which is pure tuneful Schubert at his best. Shirley dug up the factoid that Schubert was at this time sharing an apartment with a man named Franz Schober, which begs some sort of zany sitcom, doesn’t it? I’d bet they were each getting junk mail meant for the other, too.

A not-so-Divertimento

The next piece on our Viennese Classical survey was Mozart’s E-flat major Divertimento, K. 563. Divertimenti were most often occasional pieces, written to be performed for courtly functions, and not necessarily for the formal concerts to which we are largely used to today. Mozart may have been joking with is title, as this piece is one of the largest and most technically demanding trios in the repertoire. We played the opening Allegro movement and the Andante variations movement. Such great music!

Beethoven in training

Finally, we played our one complete work for the evening, Beethoven’s Op. 9, no. 1 in G major. Beethoven was very much learning the ropes of string chamber music through the composition of his five string trios. Everything that one loves in the extraordinary fifteen string quartets to come is already there in the compositional DNA of these trios. In particular, the gorgeous E major Adagio and concluding D major Presto foreshadow some great moments in his later output.

A thanks to Hanks, et al

A special thanks must go out to Darrell Hanks for his making his bowmaking studio available for concerts such as this! There will be several more throughout the coming concert season, and I’ll try to make sure to publicize them on the blog’s performance calendar as I find out about them. This would also include thanks to our wonderful audience of 20 chamber music fanatics, who gave us such undivided attention (even with the groaning table of wine and cheese close by!) and peppered us with some really intelligent questions afterward. Also, a huge thanks to Adam Lamotte for the use of his wonderful Testore model period viola. I hope I didn’t beat it up too much with my modern bow! And finally, much love and thanks to Shirley Hunt, who thought up this whole crazy idea, and brought her wonderful playing and smiling face (and fervent love of La Croix water) back to her hometown of Portland, all the way from Boston!

Correction: Franz Schober’s name was originally spelled ending with a ‘t’. It does not.

 

third angle: mozart revisited

PeoplemoverPosterDo you remember the People Mover from Future World at Disneyland? It was a wonderful idea. Little trains of self-contained cars that were envisioned to whisk 1950’s nuclear families to their destinations in style, while allowing them to read, nap, or just enjoy the scenery, free of the onerous duty of driving. Steven Mackey’s 1997 piece “Humble River” is much like that now defunct People Mover. Mackey himself described the piece, which is meant to be performed with portions of the Mozart Flute Quartets interspersed between its movements, as “a river with islands of Mozart.” There are some wonky music theory concepts that bind the Mozart and the Mackey together, but one doesn’t need to know those to enjoy them both. Instead, see the Mozart ensemble as both salve and muse to the Mackey ensemble. Mozart encourages Mackey to sing, which he never quite does, but instead he responds with ever greater rhythmic vitality.  The Mackey contains a set of ideas, presented primarily in the opening Prelude, which set the tone for the rest of the piece. There is a texture which he calls “a collection of broken toys”, a West Side Story-like jazzy riff, and a motive that to me sounds like the opening portion of the Westminster chimes. Together, these become a seamless tapestry – almost stream of consciousness, but meticulously worked out as rhythms morph in and out of each other in ingenious (and for the performer, extremely challenging) ways.

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Steven Mackey

Mackey has said that he is very interested in the role of memory both in the act of composing and in the act of listening. In Humble River, he both foreshadows and recalls motives in various guises, calling on our memories to fill in the blanks in between. As an even further leap, he then suggests movements of the Mozart flute quartets be played in between each of the work’s four sections. The Mozart, as an island, or as I prefer to see it, a series of flashbacks, both clears the palate and primes the memory for what is to come. Mackey says in his notes “Humble River can also be performed continuously, without comment from Mozart. I imagine one would gain a clearer sense of the overall evolution from repressed to ecstatic, from modest spring to raging rapids and sea of sound. But one would loose the intermediate tensions resulting from the interweaving of the two worlds of experience.”

Zachariah Galatis, flute
Zachariah Galatis, flute

It has been a challenge to get this work under our fingers, with its fluid rhythms and not a few unconventional extended techniques, but it is a highly rewarding piece to play as its knotty passages are ‘untied’. We hope you enjoy hearing as much as we enjoy playing it for you!

 

 

 

 

Who:  Zachariah Galatis, flute; Ron Blessinger, violin; Charles Noble, viola; Marilyn DeOliveira, cello.

Tickets: Click Here

When: Thu & Fri Feb 12 & 13, 2015 @ 7:30 PM

Where: Studio [email protected], 810 SE Belmont

Program:
Humble River,(1997)
for Flute, Violin, Viola, Cello
By Steven Mackey
Commissioned by The Rotterdamse Kunstichting for Leonore Pameijer and friends, Boosey & Hawkes 1998

Prelude
Mozart A Major K. 298 Movement 1:
Thema Andante– Variazioni I-IV
Part 1
Mozart G Major Quartet K. 285A Movement 2:
Tempo Di Menuetto
Part II
Mozart D Major Quartet K. 285 Movement 3:
Rondeau
Part III
Mozart C Major Quartet K. Anh. 171(285b) Movement 2:
Thema: Andantino– Variazioni I-IV
PartIV

Performers:
Zachariah Galatis, flute
Ron Blessinger, violin
Charles Noble, viola
Marilyn DeOliviera, cello

Click HERE for program notes.

Sponsor: 
Generously funded by David & Julie Machado