appreciation chamber music playlist recordings string quartet

a nobleviola playlist: part I

I had a couple of faithful readers reach out after my last post (wherein I decided it was time for a playing break) to ask if I might put together a playlist of some of my favorite music, both Classical and Modern. That seemed like a good way to burn through massive amounts of free time, and so I have done it!

Most of the playlist is made up of relatively recent recordings. I love a lot of older recordings, too, but I’m trying to keep up on what the youngsters are doing these days, so things tend to be more recent.

The embedded Apple Music playlist (I may add a Spotify playlist if I have time, but I’m not a subscriber to that service) will be at the end of the post, but I thought I’d spend time talking about my selections and why I like them so much. They’re not in any particular order, btw. Let’s go!

Simone Dinnerstein – J.S. Bach – Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

First on the list is this sprawling masterpiece that I’ve been into since my early days in college. I first became aware of the Goldberg Variations through a listening assignment for a music history class. The example in that instance was Glenn Gould’s pioneering 1955 recording. It was pretty much the only one I listened to for well over 25 years. Then Simone Dinnerstein’s eye-opening recording was released on Telarc in 2007. Whereas Gould’s recording is unflinchingly dry and unremitting in its tempi, Dinnerstein’s is lithe and sensuous. It’s not to say that her tempi can’t be quick – they often are – but there is a great deal of thoughtfulness in her traversal that made me think of the piece in new ways. One example: in Var. XIII. It’s marked in 3/4 (3 beats/bar) time, but has a 6/8 (2 beats/bar) feel. Gould goes a bit in this direction, but Dinnerstein goes wholly over to the 6/8, which just makes the entire variation feel unbalanced – especially if you’re following along with a score. There’s so much to find in this amazing score, and she finds many things, most all of them a delight.

Caroline Shaw – misc. chamber works

I’m not sure if a body of works by a living composer have affected me on such a basic level as those of Caroline Shaw. Part of it is personal. I first played her duet for viola and cello, Limestone & Felt, on a recital given by my Pyxis Quartet colleague and friend Marilyn DeOliveira several years ago, which was a wonderful experience. More recently, I played several of her works on an Oregon Symphony chamber music program (recorded for future broadcast) on the last concert I played before the COVID-19 lockdown went into affect last March. We played Punctum, and Cant voi l’aube with her singing the vocal part. Meeting her, and working with her was such an invigorating and generous experience. She was a delight to collaborate with, and the post-concert hang at a nearby bar was relaxed and fun, and poignantly, the last time I had an indoor gathering over food with friends to date. Anyway, to the music. Shaw has a voice. It is distinct and instantly recognizable. It is open, honest, and free of contrivance. It feels connected both to an ancient past and an aspirational future. It is both optimistic and deeply felt. I think that, in particular, the coda to Punctum is one of the most satisfyingly ‘right’ endings to a piece of chamber music that has been written in the 21st century. Listen to anything that she’s written and I think you’ll be a fan.

Gyorgy Kurtag – Signs, Games and Messages

This is both in honor of a composer whom I’ve come to admire over the past couple decades, and a violist who is at the top of her game – and has been at the top of her professions – for at least that long. Tabea Zimmerman is the violist, and Gyorgy Kurtag the composer. This set of 24 character pieces is seldom performed complete. Performers are encouraged to pick their own set of pieces to play, in whatever order they prefer. There is such expressive playing in the set of six that Zimmerman chooses in her recently released recording of Kurtag paired with J.S. Bach. And the writing is so idiomatic and suitable to the extremely pliable voice of the viola. Take a listen, you just might be a convert.

Emerson Quartet plays Shostakovich

The Emerson Quartet has long been in my pantheon of great quartets, and their fierce and probing encounter with the music of Dmitri Shostakovich may be one of their most lasting recorded legacies. For so long, many established ensembles looked down on the music of Shostakovich. They were either turned off by the extra-musical associations and subtext, or they found the music ‘simplistic’ and ‘unmusical’ compared to the great quartets of Beethoven and Bartók. For years the quartets were the domain of Soviet quartets and a lone Western ensemble, the Fitzwilliam Quartet of Great Britain. The Emerson Quartet came in like a hurricane, full of American brashness. The music was being taken seriously, and it showed that Shostakovich’s quartets needn’t only be the province of Soviet, or former Soviet era Russian quartets. I the playlist, I chose the viola-centric, and supremely dark Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor.

Daniel Bernard Roumain – Quartet No. 5 ‘Parks’

In recent years, attention is finally being paid (long, long overdue) to composers of color. One of the most arresting, both in terms of his compositions and his powerful advocacy, is Daniel Bernard Roumain. This past summer I was fortunate enough to play his Quartet No. 5 ‘Parks’ at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. Dedicated to Rosa Parks, it is a powerful work – propulsive, celebratory, and at times pensive and moody. It’s a quartet that belongs (and is quickly moving into) the standard repertory for string quartets, and rightly so.

Gabriela Lena Frank – Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

Another work that I have had experience with, and another composer who I adore. Gabriela Lena Frank‘s writing is also instantly recognizable, and deeply imbued with all aspects of her mixed heritage. I especially like her 2001 quartet Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, which also was performed at this summer’s WVCMF (and recorded last year with violist Bradley Ottesen) and is now on sale wherever you buy your sounds. Warmth and incisiveness are present in abundance in her music – there is nothing extraneous, everything is there for a purpose, and her instructions to the players belie her own extensive history as a performing pianist and chamber musician. I love Gabby!

Jessie Montgomery – Strum, and Break Away

Jessie Montgomery is another composer who writes music that won’t be confused with anyone else’s. She’s an accomplished violinist (a member of the acclaimed Catalyst Quartet) and brings a keen sense of how stringed instruments work to her vibrant and sophisticated works for string quartet. Strum, written in 2006, is one of her most beloved works. It’s both catchy and possessing a unique quality of managing to swing and also be completely serious. Break Away, written in 2013, goes in a different direction – starting with a movement written in homage to arch-serialist Anton Webern, and ends up with members of the quartet riffing off each other in improvised passages. It’s an exhilarating ride, and one that will never be the same twice!

Here endeth Part I. This one ended up being mostly newer music. I’ll spend the part II looking a bit further into the past. Please enjoy, and give me your suggestions in the comments area below!

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new york state of mind

I just got back from a 10 day trip to New York – both the City, and upstate, near Syracuse. The first half of the trip was purely a vacation – it’s been since our honeymoon almost two years ago that my wife and I had taken a serious trip anywhere – the second half was quiet time with my brother.

It was an interesting (and very fun) trip. The first day we were in NYC, we walked, and we walked way too much. I racked up nearly 19,000 steps on my fitbit that day. A search for the nearest Duane Reade pharmacy to our hotel was the next bit of business, as blisters were the lovely morning surprise that awaited us. We went to have the famous ‘cronut’ at Dominique Ansel‘s eponymous bakery. We ate at Gabrielle Hamilton‘s lovely East Village restaurant Prune. In fact, I chose our hotel based upon its proximity to Prune. Yes, I’m one of those people!

It was the very first time either of us had been to the city without being there for some sort of gig or audition. That makes a big difference! If you’re on tour, every moment is usually accounted for with rehearsals, sound checks, receptions, concerts, and getting to and from your hotel. If you’re taking an audition, everything sucks. So, to be there with no real agenda, and having some actual money to spend (not being a starving student), was heaven.

We got some culture, too. We got tickets to the Reich, Richter, Pärt performance at the city’s newest performance venue The Shed, which featured, on the day we went, Ensemble Signal and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The Pärt choral work was paired with Gerhard Richter‘s tapestries and floor to ceiling prints. The choristers were in street dress and seeded amongst the wandering audience in the gallery space. It was cool to suddenly hear the music emanating from all around you, with no apparent center. The audience was then invited to go to the neighboring gallery space, where folding seats were provided (to be placed where each person wanted to sit) between the performers (Ensemble Signal) and a large projection screen, where Richter’s film was projected, accompanied by live music. Reich’s piece was a big one, a bit over 30 minutes in length, and to me, about 10 minutes too long. I don’t know how collaborative the process was between Reich and Richter, but someone didn’t want to edit their portion down a bit, and as a result, things got a bit stale by the end. The work was wonderfully played by the ensemble, and very ably and clearly conducted by ensemble director Brad Lubman.

We walked the High Line from the oligarch’s playground of Hudson Yards (where the Shed is located) to Chelsea, where we were drenched to the bone by a sudden thunderstorm, thanks to a crappy umbrella that wouldn’t stay open. Adventure!

We got a nice respite from the city by visiting friends up in Croton, in Westchester County, above the Hudson River. Sitting outside, lounging in the hot tub, and watching many, many birds as they came to the verdant property was fantastic.

My long-time friend, oboist Erin Gustafson, scored us amazing tickets to her New York City Ballet performance of an all-Balanchine production. The first half: Scotch Symphony, and Valse Fantasie, was not really to my taste. Too much kitsch in the kilts and tam o’shanters in the symphony, and too much meh in the waltz. But the second half was stunning: Sonatine, which is a pas de deux on Ravel’s great work for piano. The piano was stunningly played by Elaine Chelton, and the dancing was spectacular. The closing ballet was Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which is an absolute masterpiece of ballet. This was such a privilege to see danced by Balanchine’s own company. It was spectacularly played (this concerto is not played enough!) by Concertmaster Arturo Delmoni with old-school charm and elan.

On Sunday morning we got up to go see Oregon Symphony principal clarinetist James Shields perform on the Gather NYC series at the Bleeker Street venue SubCulture, a basement venue that most resembles Doug Fir‘s underground venue here in Portland. Concerts are given nearly every Sunday at 11 am, and each is about an hour or so in length.

The program opened with a beautifully meditative performance of Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian Waltz by the Trifecta Trio. Missy Mazzoli’s energetic trio Lies You Can Believe In was played with total conviction, and is a piece that I must perform myself someday! The program concluded with guest artists violinist Lara St. John, and clarinetist James Shields. The five combined to play Osvaldo Golijov’s 1994 magnum opus The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for clarinet and string quartet. I should say four clarinets, as the score calls for four different clarinets to be played during its duration. What an amazing and crazy piece this is! Lara St. John led with total conviction (and with a casualty – during one very strenuous passage her bow caught the corner of her 18th century Italian violin and broke it off – the errant piece was found after the show and can be easily restored), and James was his usual charismatic self, playing with assuredness and personality. As an encore, they performed klezmer arrangements of two of the tunes used by Golijov in his piece. After the performance, we joined the performers for brunch nearby, which was a lot of fun as they’re all fantastic people as well as incredible musicians.

On Monday – Memorial Day – we took the subway downtown – from our new accommodations in Harlem – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’d never been before, and the one time that Stephanie had was for a gig with Cappella Romana. Being a holiday, the early part of our visit was remarkably uncrowded, but by the time we left, around 1pm or so, it was packed to the rafters. It was great to see so many incredible works of art – the Met is one of the great museums of the world, and even at $25 a pop, worth every penny. We walked from the museum through Central Park, found a nice tree to lie down under, and people watched for an hour or so before we went back to the hotel to leave for the airport. The trip was a whirlwind, but so fun and relaxing, too!

Now that vacation is over, the painful task of learning to play my viola starts anew. I’ve got some major projects coming up this month, and as time allows, I’ll write about them as I go along.

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the voice of the composer

No, not the speaking voice. But if you want to know what Tchaikovsky’s speaking voice sounded like, you can check that out here.

I’m talking (see what I did there?) about the composer’s musical voice. It’s what alerts your ear – having never heard a particular piece before – that a composition is by Beethoven, Pärt, or Higdon.

I’ve had a fair number of composer friends over the years, and some of them I’ve known since they were in their formative years as composers. Just as performers imprint upon important musical role models in the course of their musical growth and exploration, composers also dig deep into the work of those who have come before them (or are doing important and interesting stuff right now). They listen ferociously, picking apart every musical aspect of a given composer’s music. They are trying to find out what makes the music speak to them, and how the composer accomplished that feat. It’s a bit like reverse engineering. Take apart an existing product to find out how it was made, so that you can in turn make your own version. These composers had their periods of being obsessed by Hindemith, Poulenc, Boulez, Reich, Rorem, Corigliano, etc. But each of them, through a process of exhaustive listening, composition lessons, and relentless self-editing came out the other side with their own distinctive voice.

Knowing this, it’s always incredibly irritating to hear people say that “composer X always sounds the same”. Well, I hope so! Even if this were true (which it’s not), the really good and great composers have an evolution to their voice. Great instrumentalists and singers do, too. In the case of performers, some of it is due to the physical changes that come about through aging. One physically isn’t the same at the age of 60 as at the age of 18 – and those changes in the body’s structure and mechanics affect the way we produce sound. Composers aren’t subject to those restraints (though some would argue that composers like Britten and Shostakovich, whose music became very spare and austere in their final years, were constrained by the physicality of writing music on paper, which affect their writing style), but they do have changing relationships to the sounds that they hear, and thus to the sounds that they then seek to put down on paper.

Of course, all composers have various compositional ‘tells’ that are a common thread throughout their careers. Beethoven uses small, obsessive rhythmic motifs. Brahms uses the violas as the bass voice to the cellos. John Adams sets up a groove, and then yanks the rug out from under the listener by jogging the beat off by a fraction. Shostakovich uses a major chord as a tragic moment – as does Schubert. John Williams uses repeated scrubby patterns in the violas under soaring melodies in the violins, who are doubled by the cellos. Mozart uses divided violas to add richness to his slow movements. Bruckner doubles the cellos with the French horns. I’m sure there are many much more erudite examples that could be supplied – but I’m not a composer. Ask any composer about the way that other composers write, and you’re in for a fascinating conversation that will leave you searching for ways to enhance the way you listen to music.

So, when I hear someone complain about how composer X’s music all sounds ‘the same’, I’m all side eye about it – because that ‘sameness’ amounts to having one’s own individual voice. And that’s a good thing.

Are you a composer? Let me know what your thoughts are about how you developed your unique voice!