Program Notes
with Elizabeth Morrison

                                                        where you will find notes about ECMS’ upcoming concert. For more about the music, the composers and musicians, and recordings to get acquainted with the music, join Elizabeth Morrison at Live&Local, an OLLI Special Interest Group devoted to live classical music in Humboldt County. The Live&Local meeting for this concert will take place on Zoom, Thursday September 1 from 5 PM to 6:30 PM. Sign up at here for the Zoom link and an email reminder.

Welcome to Up Next,

ECMS 2022-23 FINAL.png

Telegraph Quartet

Mainstage Performance
Sept 10, 2022 | 7:30 pm
Calvary Lutheran Church, Eureka
Concert + Conversation
Sept 11, 2022 | 3:00 pm
Lutheran Church of Arcata

Program for Mainstage Performance, 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 first course, a complex, flavorful main course, and a luscious dessert. 

 

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 amuse-bouche, 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.

     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. The dances, however, are not minuets (or even obereks) but two Baroque dances, a sarabande and a gavotte.

The opening of the first movement sounds almost 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), and not so much about his songs. The only one 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. 

     After a minute or two Brahms gives us a second tune, also quite song-like, but with a more swinging feel. You will know you are at the second song (or theme) when the cello switches from bowed notes to plucked pizzicato. The movement goes on for eleven minutes or so, and you will have time to get to know both of the lovely tunes. The song-like simplicity does not last, of course. Brahms is famous for both harmonic and rhythmic complications, and it’s pure pleasure to hear the five voices wander in and out of each other’s sounds.

     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 somber bass line, with the violas 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, without any extreme whatsoever. 

     The serious theme comes back three times in the movement, but this is the only time you’ll hear it quite that way. Between the three iterations are two shorter sections of dance music. The first one is a sarabande, a dance you might know from Baroque suites; Bach’s cello suites, for example, all have a sarabande. It’s a stately dance, not fast, and the change from grave to sarabande happens quietly. The second dance movement, though, is a gavotte marked Presto, and it is a bit of a shock. It’s over in a flash, to be followed by the most somber of all the graves. 

     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.

     Then, in an amazing reversal, the quintet will jump 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!  

Program for Concert+Conversation, September 11, 2022

 

Robert Schumann, Piano Quartet in E flat Major Opus 47, with Daniela Mineva, piano, Telegraph members Eric Chin, violin, and Jeremiah Shaw, cello, and Tom Stone, viola.