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Past Program Notes
Programs Notes by Elizabeth Morrison

These are the archived program notes about ECMS’s concert repertoire from past programs. To warm up your ears with recordings and more, join Elizabeth Morrison for Zoom pre-concert talks at Live&Local, an OLLI Special Interest Group devoted to live classical music in Humboldt County.

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Trio Duende

 Program Notes for Trio Duende

January 21 - 22, 2023

Mainstage Performance by Trio Duende, January 21, 2023:


Pēteris Vasks (1946 – ) Castillo Interior for violin and cello, 2013 (10 minutes)

Fred Hersch (1955 – ), Nocturne for the Left Hand Alone, 2004 (5 minutes)

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) Prelude in D, Op. 23, No. 4, 1903 (5 minutes)

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) Nocturne in B, Op. 62, No. 1, 1846 (8 minutes)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Intermezzo from The Nutcracker, 1892,

arr. M. Pletnev (1957 – ) 1978 (5 minutes)

Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Piano Trio #1 in B flat, Opus 99, Slow Movement, 1827 (9 minutes)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Piano Trio No. 1, Opus 8, 1853-4, revised 1889, 37 minutes


Trio Duende’s concert will launch 2023 with music to move and delight. Unlike the season’s first two concerts, where the Telegraph Quartet and the Verona Quartet presented a nourishing meal with a classical appetizer, a challenging main course, and a delectable romantic dessert, this concert will make you think more of a curated tasting menu. The concert begins by deconstructing the piano trio into its component parts. First, we will hear a piece by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks for violin and cello alone. Next will come four pieces for piano alone, by Fred Hersch, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Frédéric Chopin and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Then the whole trio will come together to play the slow movement from Franz Schubert’s gorgeous Piano Trio in B Flat, Opus 99. After the intermission, all three players will again join in one of the most beautiful trios in the romantic repertoire, Johannes Brahms’ Trio Opus 8 in B Major. 

We’re going to look at each of these seven pieces, but first, let’s take a moment to consider the difference between a string quartet and a piano trio. A string quartet is a unit, as indivisible as an atom. The instruments–two violins, a viola and a cello–belong to the same family, and the players combine them to create a unique quartet sound. A piano trio, on the other hand, is a divisible union of three soloists. They, and their instruments, are individuals who bring their brilliance and expressivity to the group. An Italian cellist I know once told me that he did not want to be in a string quartet because it reminded him of a marriage. A quartet spends its life together, and each player’s success depends absolutely on the others. My friend preferred to play in a piano trio because, he said, he was already married. The three brilliant artists that make up Trio Duende–pianist Awadagin Pratt, cellist Sophie Shao, and violinist Tom Stone, the artistic director of this series–thus have the freedom pursue their  individual life paths, and still come together to make beautiful music as a trio.


Castillo Interior for violin and cello, by Pēteris Vasks

The first piece on the program, Pēteris Vasks’s Castillo Interior for violin and cello, was written in 2013. We heard this piece in a different form in September 2021, when Awadagin performed a solo-piano version that Vasks had transcribed especially for him. The version we will hear on this concert is the original version; Vasks also transcribed the piece for string trio in 2021. Awadagin will play the solo piano version for us again at the Sunday Concert+Conversation.

Vasks is a Latvian composer who was born in 1946. He trained at the Vilnius Conservatory as a double bass player and played bass in the Latvian National Symphony before turning his attention to composition in the 1970s. His early days as a composer were during the Soviet era; during his creative life, his website explains, “he has developed from a young, angry and avant-garde author who speaks the language of modernist music, into a remarkable artist who illustrates the eternal duel between good and evil with the so-called new principles of simplicity, as well as universally understandable sound expression.” His spiritual relatives include such composers as Arvo Pärt and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.

The piece’s title refers to a book by the 16th century Christian saint and mystic Theresa of Avila called Moradas del Castillo Interior (Dwellings of the Interior Castle.) St. Theresa is describing her inner life, and Vasks’s music also seems to come from a deeply spiritual place. During its ten minutes, we hear sections of slowly evolving string sounds, with dynamics between soft (piano) and very, very soft (pianississimo.) These passages alternate with outbursts of loud, minimalist broken chords. There are four sets of slow-fast alternation, and one final slow section. 

The slow sections, marked adagio, might remind you of medieval plainsong; the harmonies are open and almost hymn-like, and the music moves in slow, regular, phrases. There is no key signature written in the music, but we are mostly in d minor until the 4th slow section. As the piece goes on, the harmonies move gradually away from the more somber minor ode, and the piece ends in D major. The registers, too, are constrained; not until the end does the violin go above notes easily accessible by a quietly singing nun. The cello, too, stays in the middle range. Only at the end does the cellist even play on her lowest string, the C string. At this closing moment Vasks asks her to slide down to a low D, highlighting the note after the restraint of the meditative sections.

The allegro sections are highly contrasting; the dynamic ranges from loud to very loud, and the arpeggios move rapidly between keys. But they are not especially dissonant or difficult to follow; there is a characteristic pattern to them which you will easily pick up. They also go by quickly. The longest allegro section is about a minute long, the shortest, just six seconds; the longest adagio section, by contrast, is almost three minutes long, and none is shorter than a minute. The fast sections can be read as interruptions in the steady flow of the contemplative adagio music. Since the title refers explicitly to St. Theresa’s mystical writings, we might be justified in a bit of programmatic thinking. Is the composer showing us meditation interrupted by uncontrollable outbursts of mental chatter? Worldly thoughts? Or even of sin, which St. Theresa worries about a good deal? Whatever your interpretation, Castillo Interior makes masterful use of just two-thirds of a piano trio.


Four Pieces for Solo Piano

Next, pianist Awadagin Pratt brings us four pieces for solo piano: a Nocturne by contemporary jazz pianist Fred Hersch, a Prelude by the Russian romantic Sergei Rachmaninov, another Nocturne by the Polish romantic Frederick Chopin, and the Intermezzo from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, in an arrangement by the Russian pianist and composer Mikhail Pletnev. The four pieces together make a beautiful set which, to my ear, are all rather nocturnal pieces, perfect for a concert on a northern winter night.

This theme is set in motion by the first piece, Nocturne for the Left Hand Alone, by the noted contemporary jazz pianist Fred Hersch. It is part of the robust repertoire, literally thousands of pieces of music, written for the left hand. Note that there is almost no music written for the right hand alone. I had never thought about why this should be so, but it’s obvious once you do. A melody is almost always in a higher register than its accompaniment, and the left hand is perfectly set up for this. The pianist can play the melody with the thumb and the accompaniment with the other four fingers, which can move freely away from the thumb. Skill is required, of course, to make a legato melodic line with just the thumb, but it is possible. Now picture doing this with your right hand. Do you play the melody with your pinkie? Can you separate the little finger from the other four to play a brilliant accompaniment? No! It just doesn’t work.

This is the tradition Hersch stepped into when he wrote this piece, part of a set of three “character studies,” in 2004. It is dedicated to his long-time piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff, and he notes that it is his first fully notated composition (many of his earlier compositions were transcribed from improvised live performances.) The title “nocturne” tells us that the piece is in a romantic tradition of music inspired by, or invoking, the night. Nocturnes typically have a cantabile melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment. You might think of a serenade, where singers accompany themselves on guitar, but where serenades are evening pieces–“sera” is Italian for evening–nocturnes, from “notte,” night, invoke a dreamier hour. If a serenade might be played beneath a lover’s window at 9 PM, a nocturne would have to wait until at least 11.

A nocturnal sense of lyrical melody with flowing accompaniment continues in the three pieces that follow. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D, Opus 23 #4, is from a set of ten preludes he wrote in 1903, greatly expanding the baroque form of the prelude. Chopin’s beautiful Nocturne in B, written in 1835, is the longest of the four pieces at eight minutes, and is the apotheosis of the nocturne form. The Intermezzo from the Nutcracker, from a suite arranged by Mikhail Pletnev, also shares that character. If it’s not quite what you were expecting, note that it is drawn from a section of the ballet that Tchaikovsky did not include in his own Nutcracker Suite. Pletney’s Suite, which requires great virtuosity from the pianist, includes his personal choices, not Tchaikovsky’s. The Intermezzo, with its expansive melody, comes from Scene 2 of the ballet, Journey Through the Snow.


Piano Trio in B flat major, Opus 99, by Franz Schubert

Next, having heard from the strings and then the piano, we will hear  the whole trio come together to play the slow movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat, Opus 99. They are dedicating their performance to the honor and memory of Pearl Micheli, the founder and guiding light of this chamber music series, who passed away in December 2022. Pearl was an excellent pianist who loved the piano trio literature. Many of us have precious memories of Pearl seated at the piano, playing trios with her devoted friends.

Schubert wrote two piano trios, this one and a second one in E flat, Opus 100. Both are expansive works composed during the last two years of his short life. The movement we will hear was composed in 1827, and the whole trio was completed in 1828. Unlike many of his last pieces, Schubert did actually hear his trio played at one of his concert evenings, gatherings his friends called Schubertiades, on January 28, 1828, almost exactly195 years ago before our concert. Listening to it, you might feel that the nocturne theme continues, with the string instruments taking up the melodic line once played by a thumb. The lovely melody, played first on the cello and then the violin, could be a lullaby. The mood grows less dreamy in the middle section, but it does not so much darken as jazz up. The sweet lullaby returns at the end.


Piano Trio in B major, Opus 8, by Johannes Brahms

Following the intermission, the trio returns with one of the grandest of Romantic trios, Brahms’ Opus 8 in B major. Despite the early opus number, this version was actually written in 1889, after his so-called second trio, Opus 87 in C major, from 1882, and his third, Opus 101 in C minor, from 1886. Brahms had composed an earlier version of Opus 8 in 1853, and published it with trepidation not long after being hailed as a “young eagle” by Robert Schumann, fearful that Schumann’s praise had given the public high expectations he would not be able to fulfill. In 1889, the mature composer at down to revise his early work, in order to make it, he said, “not as dreary as before.” Not that it ever was!

It is unusual for us to have two versions of any Brahms work, so Opus 8 does allow us to guess how the 56-year-old Brahms may have felt about his 21-year-old self. The best guess is that he found his younger self long-winded. The revised version is about a third shorter than the original, about 36 minutes to the earlier version’s 47. With the exception of the scherzo, which he left just as before, he made substantial changes to all movements. He simplified first themes and wrote new second themes, but if you listen to the first version (here on YouTube) you will not feel especially disoriented. "I didn't provide it with a new wig, just combed and arranged its hair a little,” Brahms claimed.

It always strikes me how individual the movements of this trio are. The first movement begins with a singing theme in bright B major, and I’d like you to note one small detail. The piano plays the theme first. After four bars the cello takes it up, but changes the first two notes from an unsurprising fourth to a heart-lifting sixth, my favorite interval. It makes me happy to be a cellist. 

The second movement, a scherzo, is in B minor and has a mysterious rhythmic theme, introduced again by the cello, which is anything but lyrical. It always impresses me how Brahms manages to finess this theme into a pastoral B major melody in the middle section, and then slip us right back into the snare-drum rhythm. He may have kept the 1853 version because Robert Schumann liked it. Or maybe it was Clara, who famously loved Brahms’s scherzos. In any case, it was perfect as it was.

The third movement, at the heart of this expansive work, is intimate, melancholy, and otherworldly. As the Duende players did earlier in the concert, Brahms here deconstructs the piano trio into its component parts. First the piano plays alone, then the strings, then piano; then comes a heartfelt theme for cello and piano, new to this version, then a whispered, attenuated return of the opening music, played by the full trio. You will hold your breath through this extraordinary movement, scarcely knowing where in the universe you are.

Finally, there is an elusive fourth movement. You will think, briefly, that Brahms is still in his “voice in the wilderness” mood, before he somehow breaks into a foot-stomping, Hungarian-inflected passage that might even make you think of Dvorak. And, in a final surprise, the trio, having begun in bright B major, ends in B minor. An early work has become a late one, an endlessly surprising, fascinating masterpiece. 

Trio Duende

Verona Quartet

Program Notes for the Verona Quartet Concert

October 29-30, 2022

Mainstage Performance by the Verona String Quartet, October 29, 2022:


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) String Quartet Opus 18, #1 in F Major, 1799 (29 minutes)

György Ligeti (1923-2006) String Quartet No. 1, Métamorphoses nocturnes, 1953-54 (22 minutes)

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) String Quartet Opus 106 in G Major, Op. 106, 1895 (36 minutes)


For the second concert of the season, the Verona Quartet promises us an evening of great pleasure, like the pleasure we might feel encountering three masterpieces of art in a single room. Not a museum room, mind you–it’s a home, where each piece is treasured both for itself and for its connection with the other two. We are so lucky to be able to sit among friends and hear music played live just for us!


1. Beethoven, Opus 18 #1 in F Major. 


The first work of art we will encounter is by Beethoven, the genius who took the string quartet, created by Haydn and made magical by Mozart, and perfected it to a form that still nourishes us today. His first entry into the field is Opus 18, is a set of six quartets which fall into the period called “early Beethoven.” They are in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, but could not be mistaken either of these masters. Formally, they follow a familiar pattern: an opening fast movement, a slow movement, a sprightly, dance-like movement, and a dazzling finale. But each quartet has a heightened intensity that could only be by Beethoven.


The one we will hear, Opus 18 #1, is not the first one he wrote (that was Opus 18 #3), but it is the one he chose to lead off his debut collection. The moment you experience the first phrase–a short, breathless utterance, half statement, half question–you will understand why he gave this quartet pride of place. The four notes of the opening hardly make it to the status of melody; little melody-fragments like this are often referred to as motifs. Played softly first, then, almost immediately, loudly, it instantly transports us to Beethoven’s world. It is Beethoven’s genius to make sweeping amounts of music out of minimal motifs, and you will hear this one throughout the movement. 


There are other Beethoven-y things to listen for. One is silence. Breathless silences abound in the second movement, but they are found in this movement as well. Called “grand pauses” in the score, they heighten the drama by pulling our attention in closer. Another is something called a “subito piano.” This is the effect where the music gets louder and louder, and then suddenly (“subito”) drops away to softness (“piano”). The first one comes along at about a half minute into the piece, and you will hear many. Performers say that the trick of making an effective subito piano is to keep playing louder and louder, careful not to pull back until the last possible moment. Miwako Watanabe, violinist in the Sequoia Quartet, once said if she played Beethoven’s subito pianos properly, she could feel it in her shoulder the next day. All for art, right?


The second movement, marked Adagio (slow), is literally dramatic; that is, it is linked to one of Shakespeare’s plays. We do not often think of Beethoven as a programmatic composer, but he did compose with stories in mind surprisingly often. This one, it turns out, is about Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. The movement is one of the most gripping nine minutes in music; if you said it was from a late Beethoven quartet, not an early one, no one would bat an eyelash. 


We know about the Romeo and Juliet connection from Beethoven himself. When his friend Karl Amenda told him that the movement “pictured for me two lovers parting,” Beethoven is said to have replied, “Good! I was thinking of the burial vault scene in Romeo and Juliet.” Beethoven loved Shakespeare, whom he read in German translation; he may even have been contemplating an opera. The movement is made of hushed passages, sudden, operatic outbursts, and long silences, where we, and the quartet, hold our breath. As for the last measure, and Juliet’s long last sigh, just remember to breathe.


The third movement is not a minuet but a scherzo, an Italian word meaning “jest.” Haydn had begun switching out his minuet dance movements for scherzos about 20 years previously, and Beethoven ran with the idea. Minuet movements derive from a decorous court dance; somehow an energetic “jest” movement seems better suited to Beethoven’s personality. A scherzo takes up the same position and a similar role in the quartet, that of offering a few moments of humor between the drama of the second movement and the flash of the finale. This scherzo is the kind of jest that is more play than joke; it is made almost of one long flowing line. It has the ABA structure of a minuet: a beginning section, a contrasting middle section called a “trio,” followed by a repeat of the opening section. You can recognize the trio when you hear some hammering octaves with a bit of Haydn-esque hemiola (remember those from the Telegraph Quartet notes?) The trio then flows back to the beginning without a break, so deftly you will smile. 


The last movement, unlike most of Beethoven’s finales, is marked allegro, lively, rather than presto, super fast, but performers like to show their speed chops as the quartet rounds into the home stretch. This finale opens with a flourish from the first violin which you will have the pleasure of hearing from all four players in the course of the movement. The inner voices have the honor of the last flourishes, before the final, satisfying chords.


The second masterpiece of the evening is by György Ligeti. His first string quartet, written in 1953 and 1954, is called Métamorphoses nocturnes. Ligeti is a Hungarian composer. Born in 1923, he studied with Bartók’s friend Kodaly, and immersed himself in Bartók’s work, especially his third and fourth quartets. Bartók’s influence is so clear that the composer György Kurtág called Ligeti’s work “ Bartók’s seventh.” 


Let’s start with a few words from Ligeti himself. 

The first word of the sub-title Metamorphoses nocturnes refers to the form. It is a kind of variation form, only there is no specific “theme” that is then varied. It is, rather, that one and the same musical concept appears in constantly new forms - that is why “metamorphoses” is more appropriate than “variations”. The quartet can be considered as having just one movement or also as a sequence of many short movements that melt into one another without pause or which abruptly cut one another off. The basic concept, which is always present in the intervals but which is in a state of constant transformation, consists of two major seconds that succeed each other transposed by a semitone. In this First String Quartet there are certainly some characteristics of my later music, but the writing is totally different, “old-fashioned”; there are still distinct melodic, rhythmic and harmonic patterns and bar structure. It is not tonal music, but it is not radically atonal, either. The piece still belongs firmly to the Bartók tradition (remember my situation as a composer in Hungary at the beginning of the fifties), yet despite the Bartók-like tone (especially in the rhythm) and despite some touches of Stravinsky and Alban Berg, I trust that the First String Quartet is still a personal work.


You may not find the Metamorphoses exactly old-fashioned, but it’s possible to enjoy it in the same way as we enjoy Bartók. It’s 20th century music, but it does have tunes, folk moments, and even a waltz. It’s about 20 minutes long and is played without breaks, but it also has sections. Many sections! Seventeen of them! It’s fun to listen to it with the score. Click HERE for the link to a performance on YouTube by the Adritti Quartet. 


The titles of the sections are tempo markings, referring to how fast the players need to go. Prestissimo, very fast, is the quickest tempo, Lento, at the end, is the slowest. Subito, suddenly, is an important word: #10 is suddenly very sustained; #13 is suddenly faster. The changes are easy to notice, and as Ligeti says, often abruptly cut off the preceding section. Here are their names:


  1. Allegro grazioso 

  2. Vivace, capriccioso 

  3. A tempo

  4. Adagio, mesto 

  5. Presto – Prestissimo 

  6. Molto sostenuto – Andante tranquillo

  7. Più mosso

  8. Tempo di Valse, moderato, con eleganza, un poco capriccioso 

  9. Subito prestissimo 

  10. Subito: molto sostenuto 

  11. Allegretto, un poco gioviale 

  12. Allargando. Poco più mosso

  13. Subito allegro con moto, string. poco a poco sin al prestissimo

  14. Prestissimo 

  15. Allegro comodo, gioviale

  16. Sostenuto, accelerando – Ad libitum, senza misura 

  17. Lento


Of course, in a 20 minute piece with seventeen sections, none of them can be very long, and indeed they are not. The longest sections are the slow ones: #4, Adagio mesto, slow and sad, is two minutes long, #6, molto sostenuto, very sustained, three minutes. So, as they say about the weather, if you don’t like a section, just wait a minute, and you’ll hear something else.


The opening section, marked Allegro grazioso, lively and graceful, is just half a minute long. The “concept” that Ligeti refers to, two major seconds, or whole steps, separated by a half step, appears here, in the first violin in the 7th measure, at the beginning of the second line in the score. It’s a good idea to listen to it a few times and fix it in your mind. This is the fragment or motive that is literally transformed, metamorphosed, throughout the quartet. It’s a little tricky to pick out in some of the sections, but I think you’ll find that by the time you get to the Lento at the end, when the violin plays the “theme” very clearly, you’ll feel a sense of familiarity and completeness. 


The Waltz is the 8th section, and it comes just past the half-way point, about 11 minutes in. It’s a good landmark. You only have 30 seconds to enjoy it, but the whole piece is entertaining on many levels; you can enjoy the many special effect like Bartók pizzicatos, the amazing rhythmic complexity, the incredible skill required by the players. You can let your imagination run wild on the aural scenery. And you can appreciate another amazing masterpiece of the 20th century, and a composer who will expand your understanding and love of music.   


Dvořák, String Quartet Opus 106 in G Major


The second half of the program gives us Dvořák’s monumental final quartet, Opus 106. It was written fairly quickly, not long after he returned from his sojourn in New York and Iowa, where he had composed his most popular quartet, Opus 96, the “American.” Over the years Opus 106 has been thoroughly, and I would say unjustly, overshadowed by the American, so it is thrilling to have a chance to hear it here.


Dvořák is also, of course, Beethoven’s heir, but he follows a different thread of his genius. Where Ligeti invokes the Beethoven of short, pregnant fragments, Dvořák’s quartet blooms from the Beethoven of expansive melodies, like the slow-movement rhapsodies of his later quartets. He also draws on Beethoven’s programmatic side, especially his nature descriptions, like those in the Pastoral Symphony. Dvořák’s music overflows with nature: brooks, thunderstorms, bird song. Part of the scherzo of the American quartet, it is said, was originally composed by a red-eyed vireo who annoyed Dvořák by waking him up at dawn in Iowa.


The first movement of Opus 106 opens with a violin leap and trill that could also be bird song, and proceeds through ten minutes or so of what you could easily hear as nature sounds, ranging in tone from tenderly melodic to exhilarating. It is a warm, cheerful movement; Dvořák had been terribly homesick in America, and sounds very glad to be back in Prague.


After this celebration of Bohemia, though, the second movement takes us back to the New World. Unlike the American, with its direct quotations of Native American utterances, Opus 106 is a complete absorption into himself of all Dvořák had learned there. Listening to it, I almost forget Beethoven; this is music that Beethoven never even tried to write. It is pure Dvořák, from the deep-voiced opening that seems to come out of the depth of a forest, to the drumbeats in the cello, to the haunting pentatonic melody. It might be my favorite Dvořák movement. It feels like a gift to hear music so open to the sounds of our native land. 


When the final deep chord dies away, prepare to be whisked from the forest of the New World to a Bohemian peasant barn. The third movement is marked Molto Vivace, and it’s full of foot stomping rhythm. Wait until you hear the rhythmic accompaniment that Dvořák has devised for the viola and cello. This is Bohemian folk music, though Dvořák has tidied it up à la Brahms. 

The last movement starts with a slow introduction, gets going in traditional Finale style, and takes some turns that will surprise you, and I’m not even counting the sudden appearance of Three Blind Mice (listen for it). About halfway through, the viola sneaks in the bird song from the first movement, almost convincing the rest of the quartet to follow. Throughout the movement, Dvořák’s ideas overflow; you’ll hear forest whispers, whirling dances, and more, for an exhilarating conclusion to a fantastic evening. 

Verona Quartet

Telegraph Quartet

Program Notes for the Telegraph Quartet 

September 10-11, 2022

Mainstage Performance by the Telegraph String Quartet,  September 10, 2022:


Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1890) String Quartet Opus 50 #5 in F Major, “The Dream,” 1787 (18 minutes)

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) String Quartet #4, 1951 (23 minutes)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Viola Quintet #1 in F Major, Opus 88, 1882 (28 minutes)


The Telegraph Quartet has designed an exciting program to open our 2022-23 season. Like a well-planned meal, it has a sparkling appetizer, a complex, flavorful main course, and a luscious dessert. The Haydn quartet is the appetizer, by which I mean no disrespect to the father and inventor of the string quartet. Often the appetizer is my favorite part of the meal. Your taste buds are wide awake, and a good chef knows the starter has to absolutely sparkle. In the same way, your ears are fresh and awake for the first piece. Classical quartets do sparkle, and they also set a context, and a high bar, for what will come next. 


When you get to the main course, you want something to chew on. We love hearing pieces we know, but it’s also fun to expand our own repertoire of pieces that we love. I am especially interested in women composers, and since they are less familiar, this is a good place to find them. Grazyna Bacewiz is a great composer and it’s thrilling to have her on this program.  


After a palette-cleansing intermission, we’re ready for dessert. Quartets from the romantic era, like those by Dvorak and Brahms, are usually longer than classical ones, or modern ones for that matter, so they make a good choice for upholding the whole second half of the program. You may say you’re tired, you’re ready for bed, and you just want a little dessert, but in fact don’t you actually want the whole crème brûlée? Of course you do. In this concert the last piece, a string quartet with a second viola, known as a viola quintet, is a particularly luscious conclusion. 


1. Haydn Opus 50 #5 in F Major, “The Dream.”


The opener is Haydn’s 40th quartet, known as the “Dream.” Yes, his 40th, a number made even more impressive when you realize that he was only two-thirds of the way through his lifetime output of 68 quartets. Haydn not only invented the string quartet, he wrote more of them than, well, anyone. Yet somehow each of Haydn’s quartets manages to be memorable. The form of this one is quite standard: an opening movement in a fast tempo, a slow, heartfelt second movement, a dance movement, in this case a minuet, and another fast movement, faster even than the first. But each of the movements has its own unique stamp, setting the quartet apart from its 67 peers.


The first movement is kicked off by the two violinists, playing alone, sketching out a simple little tune. It’s almost folk-like, except that folk music is more sophisticated. They are barely into their little ditty when they are interrupted by two short strange notes, like little knocks, from the viola and the cello. With Haydn, when you hear something strange, you can be sure it’s a feature, not a bug. As the movement unfolds, the strange little knocks get passed around among the instruments like hot potatoes. Every time one of them lands in a player’s lap, it gets tossed into the air with a brilliant running passage. Following the knocks, and hearing how each player responds, is the special joy of this movement.


The second movement is the emotional heart of the work. Though barely four minutes long, it is the one that gives the quartet its nickname of the “Dream.” If you can keep the chord that ends the first movement in your head, the violin’s opening note of the second movement will seem to emerge from its resonance. The feeling is of resting our eyes after an exciting chase scene. Listen to the cello, as it takes us all the way down to its lowest note, its open C string. A few seconds into the movement, and we are dreaming.


I enjoy this movement most by “listening down”–that is, by following the lowest line instead of the highest. Giving myself over to the low voices highlights the beautiful textures and harmonies Haydn creates. It also helps me hear the dissonances–notes that seem to clash with other notes and heighten our alertness. Like the knocks, dissonance is a feature, not a bug. Creating and resolving tension is almost the definition of dreaming, and Haydn is a master creator of this inward experience. 


The third movement, like the quartet as a whole, has its own special signature, a quick little turn before each downbeat. It’s like the flourish of a white handkerchief during the dance, over so fast you can barely register it. The form is also a bit out of the ordinary. Minuets usually have an opening section, which is actually called the “minuet,” then a second section, called the “trio,” then a repeat of the minuet. The trio is most often quieter and slower than the minuet. Not here, though. This trio continues the same music, but now loudly and every bit as fast. Of course, as the inventor of the string quartet, Haydn can structure his dance movements however he wants to.


The fourth movement is called Finale and goes by even faster than the first movement. There is an unusual suggestion from Haydn, near the beginning, for the first violin to play an arpeggio, or broken chord pattern, “sopra una corda,” on one string, which might call forth a quick slide. There are few structural surprises, just a delightful Haydn finale and fitting conclusion to a compact, witty quartet.


2. Grażyna Bacewicz String Quartet #4


Having enjoyed our appetizer, it’s time for the main course, Grażyna Bacewicz’s fourth string quartet. It was written in 1951, more than a century and a half after the Dream, in a style called “neoclassical.” Though clearly a 20th century quartet, it is not atonal, and is full of attractive, folk-inflected melodies.


Bacewicz may not be a familiar name, so let’s start with her life. Born in 1909 in the Polish city of Lodz, she began studying violin and piano with her father. After graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory in violin and composition, she traveled to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. In 1936 she became concertmaster of the Polish Radio Symphony, an unusual position for a woman. She performed for most of her life, even during World War II, on both violin and piano, but her talent as a composer gradually overtook her performing career. In 1956 she was seriously injured in a car accident from which she never fully recovered, and she died sadly early, not yet 60 years old, in 1969, still in the midst of a successful composing career. Like many women composers, she was famous in her lifetime, both in Poland and internationally. Her fame did wane after her death in 1969, but she is now coming in for a revival. We are lucky to have a chance to hear what many consider her best string quartet, right here in Humboldt County.


Her quartet has three movements rather than the more usual four,  so although it is just five minutes longer than the Dream, each movement feels more substantial. The first movement opens quietly; Bacewicz instructs the players to place their bows on the area of their strings where they are least resonant, so the notes have an elusive quality. Over the next minute or so the volume, and the speed, will increase; a minute and a half in, we are at full throttle. Almost immediately the volume subsides for the first appearance of a hummable tune played by the two violins. You will hear the poignant melody no less than four times, It comes along every two minutes or so, and you can listen for it whenever the music quiets down.


The second movement is marked Andante, just as Haydn’s second movement was; it is about the same length, and has a clear melody that rises and falls over four bars, played in turn by the first violin, the cello, and the viola. You can enjoy this movement in the same way, by listening down, but I like it even better when I listen to the middle voices, the ones between the high violin and the cello, to enjoy the textures and colors as they flow by.


The third movement is the easiest to like. It is lively and folky; it may remind you of how much you like fiddling. The movement is a rondo, a form where a tune comes back repeatedly, interspersed with other material. The rondo theme is a dance called an “oberek,” which is said to be the fastest of the five Polish national dances (the other ones are the krakowiak, kujawiak, mazurka, and polonaise.) Bacewicz wrote a famous oberek for violin and piano; there is a Youtube of Bacewicz herself playing it, with her brother Kjejstrut on piano. (The clip also offers an opportunity to hear “Bacewicz” pronounced in Polish.) The oberek theme comes back five times in the movement, by which time it will be an earworm and may haunt you during intermission. The interludes between obereks are varied, ranging from slow and sweet to a bit squeaky to plucked rather than bowed. The quartet concludes with the fastest oberek yet; like dancers whirling to the very end.


3: Johannes Brahms, Viola Quintet #1 in F Major, Opus 88, written and first performed in 1882.


In the final piece of music, our dessert, Tom Stone, Music Director of the Eureka Chamber Music Series, joins the Telegraph Quartet on viola to play one of Brahms’s two viola quintets. A viola quintet is not, as you might think, a group of five violas; it is a string quartet plus a second viola. I promise it really will feel like a dessert, a rich creamy one at that. Adding a second viola to an ensemble is honestly like adding whipped cream.


Brahms wrote this delicious piece when was 49 years old, about three quarters of the way through his composing career, and finally starting to relax a little. He had already published his three string quartets, after (it is said) throwing away twenty of them as unworthy to stand in the shadow of Beethoven. He now felt free enough to write a purely enjoyable piece of music. He himself loved this quintet; he told his publisher, “You have never before had such a beautiful work from me.” It is in three movements: a warm, entrancing first movement, a more complicated second movement, and a short, exhilarating finale. The unusual second movement combines the slow movement and the dance movement of a classical quartet. Where the Haydn quartet had a slow movement followed by a minuet movement, Brahms has written a single central movement which alternates between stately slowness and the dance liveliness. The finale is in the form of a fugue, which might sound academic, but actually reads as a return to the cheerful music of the beginning.


The opening of the first movement sounds like a song. When we think about Brahms we tend to think more about his symphonies, concertos and his piano pieces (the Hungarian Dances were his biggest sellers in his lifetime). The only song we’ve all heard of is the Wiegenlied, AKA Brahms’ Lullaby, which was so famous he came to regret having written it. But he composed over 200 of them, and at his funeral it was suggested he would be remembered mainly as a composer of songs. He was especially fond of the low voice, and the opening of this quintet is pitched low, as if for his favorite contralto. 


The song-like simplicity does not last, of course. After a minute or so Brahms, who is famous for harmonic and rhythmic complications, livens up the song with a jaunty dotted rhythm. Two minutes in, he introduces a second song-like theme, played by the first viola, in a very different key, and the cello switches from bowed notes to pizzicato. 


The second movement is marked “Grave,” Italian for serious, and “appassionato,” passionate, and its opening is absolutely unique in chamber music. All five voices play close together in pitch, within an octave of middle C. The cello, normally the low voice, has the highest note; the first violin plays just below the cello, while the second violin and the two violas create a bass line which is close to the lowest note on their instruments. This is epitome of middle voice writing. Brahms seems to be saying, listen to what I can make you feel. This solemn opening is the first of the dances in the movement. It is a sarabande, a dance you might know from Baroque suites. Bach’s cello suites, for example, all have sarabandes as their slow movements. Brahms took the material from his A major piano sarabande, but moved the key to C# minor. The sarabande is played three times, with the livelier dance movements between the iterations. The lively dances, however, are not minuets (or even obereks); the first is a gigue, the second a gavotte.


Brahms has one more surprise in this unique movement. As we step quietly through the serious theme for the last time, the first violin unexpectedly unfolds a tracing of beautiful notes, like smoke into the air, expanding to fill the spaces between each note. A few more quiet measures, and the first viola and then the second violin also unspool the sequence. Finally the two violins spin it out together to a breathtaking length. Then they lead us into one of the slowest, saddest endings we will ever hear. All we can do is hold our breath.


The third movement has another surprise. In amazing reversal, the quintet jumps to life in two chords, and the first viola will begin a brilliant fugue. Once started, the movement never slows down. It’s short, about half the length of the first two movements, and we are back in song territory. Listen to the top and bottom voices this time, especially to the first violin and cello, about a minute in, playing a tune that is about as complex as the ditty that opened Haydn’s Dream quartet. This is not necessarily what we come to Brahms for, but it is reassuring to know that if he wanted to give us moments of pure enjoyment, he could.

So concludes a beautifully planned concert, with a nourishing arc and emotional satisfaction from every possible side. Bravo!  

Telegraph Quartet
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