Louis Kahn, the architecture of music, and the Cret String Trio, Part II

I count myself deeply fortunate to have played in many outstanding groups over my career; this new one is notable because the musicians are both terrific and two of the kindest people I know. Set aside Saturday, March 9th for the return of the spring recital with the Cret String Trio. Tickets go on sale today, January 30st, and seating is limited since it will be held in a private house.

Louis I. Khan, architect (1901 – 1974)

Some of you will no doubt remember Becky’s beautiful playing from past summers at NCMF; cellist Alan Richardson is her partner and no slouch, either. The three of us share a natural curiosity about form in music, what I call the “architecture” of a piece: where is a phrase coming from and how does it fit into the whole? What does it mean when the composer chose to subtly alter a passage when it comes back a second time? In a section where the music is changing key every measure, where are the moments of repose, where does the music reach its greatest point of tension, how should we bring attention to that?

Music has architecture, as some architecture has music:
Architect Louis Khan’s iconic Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA

It makes sense to me to look for parallels between architecture and music and, in so doing, perhaps develop a greater understanding of both. Some composers are more “structural” than others just as some architects are more lyrical than others. An architect like Louis Khan (who, like Paul Cret, was also faculty at the University of Pennsylvania) responded to design challenges with a kind of musical approach while also celebrating the idea of structure. In a building like Khan’s Richards Medical Research Labs, he visually embraced the structure and services of the building, placing them openly on the exterior, instead of concealing them internally.

Khan's Richards Medical Research Labs
at the University of Pennsylvania.
The brick towers, which store HVAC systems and stairwells,
were inspired by Khan's travels in Italy
and a visit to the Italian city of San Gimignano
Below, a page from Khan's Italian sketchbook
during a visit to San Gimignano (above)

Sometimes the process of figuring out the right question is as important as the answer. Even if we don’t land on a specific answer for how to play a musical passage, just being aware of the issue can affect how we play it. For the three of us, there is a joy in understanding how music comes together, not unlike the experience of taking apart a radio to understand how it works. (I’m showing my age here.)

Structure in the beginning of the Mozart Divertimento:
everyone starts out moving together
followed by the violin flying up on its own
(measures 6 and 7),

a viola corrective plunging down (measure 8),
and the cello finishing off the trajectory (measure 11)

Schoenberg’s String Trio and Mozart’s great Divertimento in Eb Major reveal interesting things when approached from a structural standpoint. These masterpieces mark the extreme ends of the string trio genre. Mozart's late work, written three years before his death, was the first work written for string trio. Schoenberg's autobiographical trio was composed while recovering from a near-fatal heart attack near the end of his life.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951)

Both works take the listener along emotional extremes from great sadness to unfettered joy. You hear differently as you zoom in and out, on one hand acquiring a global view of the overall structure as opposed to how small details, such as an unexpected chord, can change one’s understanding of a movement.

Human scale amidst the grandeur:
Khan’s Philips Exeter Library

Indeed, small but significant decisions can affect the perception of an entire building. Philips Exeter Academy Library, a local example of Lou Khan’s work, gives the impression as you enter of a massive structure comprised of huge, forbidding concrete forms. However, this intimidating feeling is allayed up close by human-scaled, intimate, and warm-to-the-touch wooden carrels where one can curl up quietly with a book.

Louis Khan: National Assembly Building, Bangladesh - silence and light

Overhead plan of the National Assembly Building.
Such plans hold similarities to a musical score:
both are a means of communicating in a flat plane
that which exists in multiple dimensions.

The monumental works by Mozart and Schoenberg presented in our spring concert might be similarly overwhelming in some settings (the Mozart is six movements long). However, held in a private home with seating in-the-round so no audience member is more than a few feet away from the artists, my hope is that the audience will feel almost as if they are participating directly in the performance.

Everybody follow along
(no singing, please)

In fact, for this concert, we are encouraging listeners to bring a tablet or iPad to follow along with the scores to both works, available as pdfs on the NCMF website at the bottom of on the concert page with the Mozart score here and the Schoenberg score here. The Schoenberg score is used with the generous permission of Belmont Music Publishers. The Director of Belmont, Anne Wirth, was delighted with the idea and her support is both heartwarming and forward-thinking.

The Cret String Trio

It is personally fulfilling for me to return to performing string trios. Some of you may recall I was in British-based Ensemble Epomeo for many years. Trio repertoire isn’t played as frequently as quartets in part because it is so challenging; spreading the work of four between three feels almost twice as difficult. We had our first concert in December in Philly and the Newburyport Concert is the culmination of a four-concert inaugural tour of the Boston area. We also have several concerts on the books in England in Fall 2024.

See you in March!

David Yang, Artistic Director

There is a terrific and engaging documentary
about Lou Khan called "My Architect."
On a personal note, my father, John Yang,
studied with Khan at Penn
and worked in his office for a number of years.

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