preview – willamette valley chamber music festival – final weekend

This weekend the festival moves from the warm embrace of the J. Christopher Wines barrel room to two new locales. On Saturday, it’s Sokol Blosser, and on Sunday, Elk Cove Vineyards. The program is a nice mix – some newer music, music by a female composer, and a big, old favorite by a dead white guy.

Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi.

Small-scale music by Philip Glass (who, like festival resident composer Joan Tower, is celebrating his 80th birthday year) opens the concert. His Four Duets for Violin and Cello (extracted from his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello), written in 2010, will be performed by festival co-directors Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi.

Rebecca Clarke

Poem for string quartet by the British-American composer and violist Rebecca Clarke (active in the first quarter of the 20th century) follows. Most famous for her wonderful Viola Sonata, her compositional career was limited by her gender, and she eventually stopped composition entirely after marrying. What might have been, one wonders, if she had lived in a time where being female and being a composer weren’t mutually exclusive? Callahan and Eguchi are joined by Megumi Stohs Lewis and myself.

Marilyn De Oliveira – Photo: Jacobe Wade.

Finally, the great String Quintet in C-major by Schubert closes the program.  Oregon Symphony Assistant principal cellist (and member of the Mousai REMIX and Pyxis Quartet) Marilyn De Oliveira joins the quartet for this sublime ending to the festival’s third season. Is Schubert’s Quintet perhaps the greatest and most perfect piece ever written for chamber ensemble? Many think so. Come decide for yourself!

Tickets and information.

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.

 

what i talk about when i talk about music (apologies to murakami)

It’s a funny think, writing about music. Yes, it’s like dancing about architecture, but it’s also pretty darned appropriate to do so. Some of the best writing I’ve read, fiction or non-fiction, has concerned itself about music or the fine arts in general. Music, in particular, lends itself to abundant discussion due to its ineffable nature. As Rilke put it in his Letters to a Young Poet:

Things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe; most events are unsayable, occur in a space that no word has ever penetrated, and most unsayable of all are works of art, mysterious existences whose life endures alongside ours, which passes away.

There is so much in our human existence which is beyond our comprehension. Hence, the creation of religion and great works of art. Each attempts to describe the indescribable in terms that resonate with our pathetically finite bodies and souls. For me, music is where it’s at. I love the dramatic arts, the visual arts, film, most everything that claims to be art. But music for me hits the sweet spot of profundity – even when it’s not ‘high’ art. Some of the most moving songs for me in my recent life have been popular songs, from such bands and artists as Coldplay, Ben Folds, Brandi Carlile, and Barcelona. I must make a distinction here, before the fine art police come down on me for conflating popular music and ‘art’ music. First of all, the distinction is becoming less and less of an issue with each decade that passes, so it’s largely moot. (And plus, in the days when the ‘western canon’ of classical music was still ink drying on vellum, there was really no such distinction.) Second of all, I think that the issues addressed in each genre are similar, but often take different tacks in that pursuit. Popular music might deal with falling in love and breaking up from the perspective of the individual, in all its banality (which, by extension, makes it approachable to all of us – we can relate to the average dude who gets dumped on his birthday, for example). Art music might take falling in love and place it in the continuum of the universality of love, and what love means in the vast expanses of the world and the universe. Both approaches are equally valid. When Ben Folds sings about a love that spans a lifetime, as he does in The Luckiest, it successfully takes a simple text (though elegant in its simplicity) and creates a story that spans decades in the space of a four minute-plus song. It’s a gorgeous ballad, and one that never fails to tug on my heartstrings for a variety of reasons, all of which I’m not going to bring up here. But here’s a version similar to that which he sang with the Oregon Symphony a few weeks ago:

And then, there’s the art music approach – in this case, let’s use the subject of death, and the anticipation of death. Perhaps the most effective of all the great composers in this particular area might be Franz Schubert (at least in the area of the art song), most particularly in his fantastic song cycle Winterreise. In the twentieth song of the cycle, entitled Der Wegweiser, the protagonist of the cycle is on a deserted road on a dark and snowy evening. He ponders why he takes the road less travelled, and on his uneasy and unceasing quest for these deserted byways. In the end, he knows that he is seeking the road that no one returns from – that which leads to death. Personal, evocative, yet universal and probing in its approach to the greater meaning of life and death as it applies both to the individual and to mankind as a whole (especially in the context of this monumental collection of songs). Here is Dietrich Fischer Dieskau with Murray Perahia, pianist.

Both are great in their own way. Clearly, the Schubert has already stood the test of time. Will the Folds? Only time will tell. But my point is this – music has that special quality of being able to address issues with great subtlety (or not) with or without a text. For example, is there a greater valedictory statement of leave-taking than the finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony? Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung, conductor.

More on this in a future posting. And I promise a bit of writing on the opening concert of the Oregon Symphony’s 2014-2015 classical subscription series from last weekend, too.