I know that this will come off as a bit extreme, but I have to say, if you are a string player and you do not regularly indulge yourself in playing string quartets: you are a fool. You are missing out of the best of the best of music, and of musical experiences. I’m not saying that you should perform several
concerts a year for paying audiences. Just get together with some friends and colleagues and read some quartets that you’ve practiced on your own over a glass of wine or two. An ‘informed reading’ can be every bit as satisfying as an extended rehearsal period, and can reap surprising dividends in your orchestral life.
I cannot tell you how much playing the string quartets of Beethoven has informed my playing of his symphonic music. The same with Mozart, Brahms, Haydn, Shostakovich, and Bartók. Not to mention the string quartets by those composers not so well known for their chamber music: Verdi, Sibelius, Janacek, and Tchaikovsky. When you play a composer’s string quartet, you are peering deeply into that person’s musical soul. As you study more and more of their quartet output, you begin to see how their musical language strengthens and deepens, and perhaps how their personal narrative begins to make itself visible in their musical oeuvre.
In addition, there is that sense of connection that you seldom get (short of a long-term friendship or physical relationship) with your fellow quartet mates. You begin to understand them on a deep emotional level that comes from hours spent rehearsing on good days and bad – with rehearsals either matching the mood of the day, or defiantly opposing it. There is something so deeply satisfying about opening the score to an unparalleled masterpiece and diving right in for the sheer joy of it. Something that we seldom get to do in our orchestral lives.
Octet concerts don’t happen very often. There are two very good reasons for this:
There are not that many really good octets that have been composed. Please, spare me the emails or comments, I know that there are a lot of octets, but not many of them are good.
It’s really difficult to get eight busy musicians together for adequate rehearsal time.
Luckily for us, we had discovered an online scheduling tool called Doodle. It allowed us to quickly see which dates and times for which we were all available.
Rehearsing itself can be a challenge – you’ve got to find a location that’s big enough for eight string players, first of all. Then you need to be able to communicate clearly and effectively (difficult when you’ve got chatty-Cathy cellists) when eight people all have their own ideas. Luckily, we left most of the communicating to our intrepid first violinists for each piece – Bruch: Adam LaMotte, Shostakovich: Fumino Ando, and Mendelssohn: Greg Ewer. Hearing each other in a very loud rehearsal space can also present challenges. So, last night we took our first foray out of Greg’s living room and went to the Community Music Center to use their hall as a fill in for the Old Church. Predictably, we couldn’t hear much of anything, which is close to what it will be like in the Old Church, but worse. So that will hopefully clear up some of the “help, I can’t hear a thing!” vibe at the performance tonight.
These are the three octets we’ll be playing tonight:
Max Bruch – Octet, Op. posth. (1920)
Dmitri Shostakovich – Two movements for string octet, Op. 11
Felix Mendelssohn – Octet, Op. 20
It should be a great show, with fabulous musicians all around:
I was recently reading the wonderful exchange (scroll down to the Dec. 6 entry) between pianist Jonathan Biss and Brentano Quartet violist Misha Amory about the similarities between the late piano sonatas and string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven when I came across one of those ideas that I’d never thought about on a conscious level before. Some of Beethoven’s most profound transitions take place in unison passages (where all of the instruments play the same pitch). The amazing transition to the beklemmt section of the Cavatina of his string quartet Op. 130 is a prime example.
You can hear the big moment about 4:10 into this clip featuring the inimitable Guarneri Quartet:
It got me to thinking, what exactly is so right about using a unison in these sorts of situations? I think that it boils down to the fact that in the harmonic language of Beethoven’s time, there were a usual way that chords would resolve – even if they resolved unexpectedly, that was, in some sense, to be expected. The composer could either meet or defy expectations. When the ear is presented with a unison, the harmonic possibilities are quite simply completely open. And, much like the pedal point in a Bach organ prelude and fugue, or in the score to a horror movie, the unison focuses our attention to a very fine point – there’s only one pitch to listen to, and our brain very badly wants to know what is going to happen next. It’s classic literary practice – set up expectations, toy with your audience, make them watch your left hand when you get ready to produce the dove from the right hand. One more reason that Beethoven is such a genius.
I hate going to concerts. I love going to concerts. Perhaps I was required to read too much Kant and Hegel in my undergraduate senior thesis class. I’ve got a nice, ripe dualism in my psyche. It’s a common dilemma to most performing musicians. We have a night off, and the last thing we want to do is go to see a concert, a play, or a movie. But going to see something satisfying and good is, well, satisfying and good. And that is entirely worthwhile. Just as Sunday night’s debut concert by the string quartet Mousai Remix proved to be. Continue reading →