The Ubiquitous String Quartet
With the arrival of September, the resumption of UPenn and coaching chamber music over Zoom (oy…)
Those who attended our April recital by Bulgarian pianist Anna Stoytcheva know what a brilliant performance and delightful evening kicked off our 2018 season.
Summer 2018 revolves around one of the core works of Western music: Beethoven’s String Quartet, Opus 130. Composers often reserve their most profound utterances for the quartet medium and, even bearing that in mind, this is an unusually personal work. Written near the end of his life (he died two years later), he ended the piece with a massive fugue so controversial as to cause him, in a rare instance of yielding to external criticism, to substitute it with a smaller movement completely different in tone.
This summer we are performing the quartet as originally intended and fully intact with the Grosse Fuge (which Mark Steinberg of the Brentano Quartet describes as “teetering at the boundary between chaos and order”). Typical of Beethoven’s late works, Opus 130 wanders over the emotional map from reverent to angry to rustic to desolate to transcendent. Transitions can be jarring and occur in the blink of an eye. Audiences in 1825 did not know what to make of it and many saw it as proof that the old man had gone completely off his rocker. While one contemporary reviewer described it as "incomprehensible, like Chinese," none other than Igor Stravinsky wrote 100 years later "it is an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."
Contrast Opus 130 with Mozart’s D Major quartet, K.499, another late work. Where it is easy to envision the complexities and contradictions swirling through Beethoven’s mind, Mozart holds his cards closer to his chest. That’s not to say the piece is a trite diversion - quite the opposite. But with the exception of the Requiem, Mozart was more prone to confront questions of mortality with grace, joy, and even tenderness. While Mozart is generally a musical optimist, here there is sadness (of course) and melancholy (most notably in the poignant and perfect slow movement) but never angst.
The final late work of the summer is by Dmitri Shostakovich. The String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor was written following his own hospitalization in a neurological unit. It was dedicated to the memory of his close friend, violinist Vasily Pyotrovich Shirinsky, who had died suddenly at the age of 65 (F Minor was a key used during the Baroque to represent death and sorrow). The piece is comprised of seven short movements, some barely a minute long, all passing seamlessly without a break. It starts innocuously enough, as if in denial of the loss that has occurred, but darkness gradually creeps in. It isn’t until the sixth movement, an elegy, that grief spills painfully out into the open. The seventh and final movement contains a solemn hymn in the three lower strings while the first violin gambols around up top like a child playing, neglected, at a funeral, eventually working its way to a high C. It holds this for 30 measures while the lower strings quietly march off, leaving the violin suspended alone in the ether as a ghostly presence cursed to haunt some god-forsaken place for all eternity. Shostakovich introduces us to emotions such as cynicism and bitterness not present in Mozart or even Beethoven but uniquely well-suited to the modern era. The irony with which Shostakovich shrouds them is so deliciously wicked that sometimes you just can’t help going back for a second helping.
Mixed in with these later works is a world premiere by our Composer-in-Residence, the youthful and fresh Indie violinist/composer Fung Chern Hwei from Malaysia (by way of New York City). Joining forces with sitar virtuoso Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury for a duo improvisation, all the artists then come together for this summer’s commissioned work for string quartet and sitar. There is also a brilliant solo violin work by Menachem Zur and and a virtuosic duet for two cellos by Paganini.
We'll be picking up where we left off last summer with the popular “Hausmusik” chamber music readings. In addition to other events, we’re bring back the panel discussion at the Custom House Maritime Museum, a free family concert, open rehearsals around town, and a lecture on Beethoven’s String Quartet, Opus 130. We are also doing a collaboration with Theater in the Open and Auricolae Storytelling and Music Troupe for two free puppet shows with music on Inn Street and out at Maudslay State Park.
See you there,
On selected nights of the festival, I asked past artists of NCMF to choose a surprise Youtube performance as a treat for our audience. Each selection will be preceded by short video introduction to the link. On this, the festival’s final night, I am including two links to send everyone home.