top of page

Piano Quartet, Saturday, April 27, 2024

Program Notes by Elizabeth Morrison

Intermezzo for String Trio, Allegretto, Zoltán Kodály

The final concert of the season is a musical kaleidoscope, with the musicians appearing in constantly altering configurations. We will hear a trio rooted in the Hungarian countryside, a French duet, and two piano quartets, but with the violin and viola having switched hands. Each pattern delights, and none ever returns.

The string players appear first in an early trio by the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. String trios are rarely heard, and always feel like a gift. If a string quartet is a marriage of four commited partners, and a piano trio is a ménage à trois of three soloists, a string trio falls somewhere in between. The instruments share a resonance, but each one speaks in its own voice. The violin has its usual role on top, but the viola and cello step up to fill the space left by the second violin. The cello plays more in its tenor range, while the viola plays more double stops and often steps down to pick up the bass. For the players, it’s the difference between settling into a four-legged chair to converse with friends, and hopping onto a three-legged barstool to hold forth as you will.

This makes the string trio a perfect match for Kodály’s delightful Intermezzo. In 1905 he had just set out on his first expedition into the countryside in search of the genuine folk music of his native land. Like his friend Béla Bartók, Kodály brought folk music into a sophisticated Western context, but this early trio is far from the wild Bartók quartet we heard in September. Just five minutes long, in a simple ABA form, it begins with a gentle, modal folk tune played first by the violin, then by the viola, whose register gives it the intimacy of song. The dramatic B section begins when the cello starts an open string drone, perhaps evoking the tekero, a Hungarian hurdy-gurdy. After an exciting climax, the folk tune returns. The cello gets a chance at it, then plays a brilliant passage reminding us that pizzicato is not always an accompaniment. By the time we hear the tune for the last time, we know the players individually, well, and at their very best. 

Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor K. 478, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

We next hear one of the first piano quartets ever written, and certainly the first great one. In 1785 the publisher Franz Hoffmeister asked Mozart to compose three pieces for a novel combination that added a viola to the traditional piano trio. Mozart was 29 years old, already famous, and Hoffmeister hoped to capitalize on his fame with pieces amateurs could buy and play at home. But the G minor quartet was not what he hoped for. He found it too austere, too complex, and above all too difficult for amateurs. He cancelled the rest of the commission, telling Mozart, “Write more popularly, or else I can neither print nor pay for anything of yours!” (Mozart wrote a second piano quartet anyway, for another publisher, and Hoffmeister published many more of Mozart’s works, putting paid to that pronouncement.)

Gabriel Fauré’s quartet, which we will follow intermission, was written nearly a century later, for a modern piano, and with a tradition of quartets behind it, including works by Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Mozart’s quartet was written for a smaller piano, with a range several octaves smaller, and with only one string per key (the modern piano has three).  But it was the one that formed the genre. When a piano of any size joins a string trio, everything changes. The violin, viola and cello by necessity become an ensemble, joining their twelve strings together to partner with the imposing newcomer. 

Today, the G minor quartet is wildly popular, and its music has been bought and played by professionals and amateurs alike. Its austerity was in the ear of the publisher; today, we hear an exciting, outgoing drama. It begins with a forte announcement by all four instruments, to which the piano responds with a downward scale, ending softly and opening a dialogue between the three strings and the piano. The strings play mostly together; a single string plays with the piano only when the cello is supporting the piano’s bass, in a throwback to its role in the piano trio. We get to hear more string trio sound, with Mozart’s virtuosity hovering in the background. Imagine hearing him on viola!

The second movement, a graceful B flat major Andante in 3/4 time, begins with the piano. It sets forth a poignant theme that initiates an operatic exchange with the strings, reminding us that Mozart, the genius of opera, was already working on The Marriage of Figaro. The strings are mostly again a unit, but each one has a turn as soloist in a beautiful sequence of descending sixteenth notes, faintly tinged with sadness.

The third movement is a rondo featuring a sprightly tune in G major. The episodes between the returns of the rondo are first melodic, then rhythmic, chromatic and dramatic. The piano part grows ever more virtuosic, possibly proving Hoffmeister’s point, but by that time there is no turning back. The quartet is one for the ages.

Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor, Claude Debussy

Debussy’s violin sonata was his last completed work, part of a grand plan to write a set of six sonatas for various instruments. Debussy had not written chamber music since his string quartet of 1893, but in 1914 he heard Camille Saint-Saëns’ Septet, for the unusual combination of trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, bass and piano, and it reawakened his interest. The sixth sonata was to include all the instruments of the preceding five. We can only regret that Debussy died at just 55 years of age before getting to the sixth sonata, which would have been for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, oboe, horn, harpsichord, violin, flute, viola, harp, cello and piano. He was able to complete only a sonata for cello and piano, one for flute, viola and harp, and this one. He premiered it, with violinist Gaston Poulet, in May 1917, less than a year before his death.
It was an inspiration to pair this G Minor Sonata with Mozart’s G Minor Piano Quartet. Having heard, definitively, from Mozart what G minor sounds like, we now hear from Debussy how it can be played upon with whole-tone and pentatonic scales, brilliant chromatic passages, and fascinating, quixotic melodies. The first movement, Allegro vivo, opens with two soft, dolce chords, G minor and C major, voiced high on the piano. The violin then sketches the same G minor triad followed by an E flat minor one–and these triads will be heard throughout the sonata.
The second movement, Intermède, Fantasque et léger (Interlude, fantastic and light), is quintessential Debussy. After a cadenza-like opening, it gets under way with the first of several passages of repeated notes in the violin–48 quick B flats in a row, and somehow Debussy makes them interesting! Later the piano has a turn, with 56 (!) consecutive B flats played above an espressivo melody in the left hand, in unison with the violin. A startling, jazz-inflected passage emerges low on the piano, as the violin seems to improvise in pizzicato. 
The third movement is even faster and lighter, with the added marking of lointain, far away. It whirls by, almost too fast to follow. The violin, especially, is an absolute blur of motion. What are we to make of this fascinating piece? Just before the premiere, Debussy said that he was satisfied with his composition, but soon afterwards he succumbed to gloom and told his publisher that it was something that could only have been written by a “sick man in time of war.” Without accepting this assessment, we can listen moment by moment, alert to the feelings and moods as they flicker by.

Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, Gabriel Fauré
The fourth minor-key masterpiece of the evening finally invokes my favorite metaphor of a fine meal. We need something rich, satisfying and romantic for dessert, and Fauré’s first piano quartet is the perfect ending for this varied concert. Its four movements are substantial, and the forty-minute piece is nearly as long as the three pieces of the first half of the concert.
Other than his famous Requiem, Fauré wrote mainly for the piano; of all his chamber music, only his late string quartet does not include one. This quartet is a pianistic tour de force, but the string parts are equally rewarding: they are unusual, beautifully entwined, often canonical, with subtle inflections that nudge the harmony in unexpected directions. Fauré composed it in his mid-thirties, at an unsettled time of his life. He had succeeded in persuading a young woman he had been in love with for years to become engaged, but she had broken it off after a few months. You might hear something of his chagrin in the heartbreaking third movement. Fortunately, he was resourceful enough to take up international travel, go to hear the complete Ring cycle at Bayreuth twice, and generally cheer himself up, which you might detect in the quartet’s cheerful ending.
The first movement, like Mozart’s, opens with a unison forte declaration in all four parts. Convincingly serious at first, it turns philosophical when it is repeated immediately in pianissimo. As you enjoy its flowing beauty, you may find yourself pondering what makes it so French. Brahms had composed a C minor quartet just the year before; if his is the height of German romanticism, Fauré’s is the epitome of French impressionism: fluid, atmospheric, with a virtuosic, almost pointillist writing for the piano.
The second movement is a scherzo in E flat major that starts with the very lightest pizzicato in the strings, plays about rhythmically, hovers near salon music in the trio section, and returns to the gossamer lightness of the opening in a way that will make you catch your breath. 
The third movement is the emotional heart of the work, a tragic Adagio in C minor that builds from the bottom (Fauré knew how to use the cello), turns dreamy, then returns to a feeling a profound loss. 
It’s hard to believe, when you first hear the dotted rhythm that opens the Allegro molto fourth movement and harks back to the serious first movement, that the piece will end in triumphantly in C major, but it will. Fauré is, after all, the man who wrote a party piece for piano four hands called Souvenirs de Bayreuth where he re-cast the themes of Wagner’s Ring as quadrilles. He could be profound, innovative, and moving. He could also be hilarious. What could be more French? 

Arianna String Quartet, Saturday, April 27, 2024

Program notes by Elizabeth Morrison

String Quartet No. 9 in G Minor D. 173, Franz Schubert

When Haydn realized that his great invention, the string quartet, was the perfect vehicle for the music inside him, did he intuit how great its range would turn out to be? At this concert we will hear an entrancing early Schubert quartet, a cry from the heart of a young Black composer, and a monumental late Beethoven, written shortly after the completion of his 9th Symphony.


The early Schubert quartet is an unexpected treat. Earlier in the season we heard his final composition, the iconic C Major Cello Quintet. His four late quartets, especially the Rosamunde and Death and the Maiden, are also well known–if anything can be called “late” from a composer who only lived to be 31. But he wrote at least eleven early quartets, which are rarely played and are barely even in the modern canon. When I looked into my “complete” Peters edition I found only eight quartets. What happened to the rest of them?


The answer lies in their publication history. With the exception of the Rosamunde, Schubert was never able to get his quartets printed. When they came to light towards the end of the 19th century, the early ones were dismissed as juvenile experiments, full of aimless harmonic wandering. The cello parts, especially, were criticized as weak or unimaginative. None of this, of course, is true. Schubert began writing quartets early; the first one we have was written when he was thirteen. Later, when he attended the Imperial Seminary in Vienna, he was able to return home and try out his quartets with his family, learning immediately what worked and what didn’t. Knowing what he went on to accomplish, you can see the so-called “harmonic wandering” as signs of a budding genius.


Out of the treasure vault of obscure quartets, the Arianna chose the stormy 9th, the only one in a minor key before the Quartettsatz. Schubert was 18 years old, out of Seminary and teaching at his father’s school. He disliked teaching and described his life as one of drudgery, but somehow found the time in that year to write 20,000 bars of music, including two symphonies, two masses, two piano sonatas, and 145 songs, eight of them in a single day. No wonder 1815 is called his “miracle year.”


The quartet starts with a dramatic first movement marked Allegro con brio, which goes from fortissimo to piano twice within eight bars. Listen for the top note of the second fortissimo chord– your first hint of the excitement to come. The dramatic alternations, loud, soft, loud again, continue until Schubert shows his lyrical side with a tender new theme in pianissimo. The first violin traverses multiple keys over triple piano whisperings below, until the passionate G minor returns. The ending gives us impressive chords in the violins, but the last word belongs to the viola and cello.

The second movement is in G minor’s relative major, B flat major, and you would know anywhere that it was Schubert. It could almost be a song. And listen to the dialogue between the cello and the first violin. How cello writing like this could be called “unimaginative” escapes me. The third movement, a menuetto, is in G minor and B flat major, and may make you think of the minuet in Mozart’s 40th symphony, in G minor, which Schubert was studying at the time.


The last movement is a stylish finale, with a bit of Haydn/Gypsy inflection. The gay grace note on the first note of the tune, the way a little turn repeats two octaves down every time it shows up, the quick journeys to remote keys, the way the syncopations of the first movement make another surprise appearance at the very end, all tell you that Schubert, at 18, could already write quartets as well as anyone. He might be nine years out from Death and the Maiden, but he’s on his way.


An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave, Carlos Simon


An Elegy, A Cry from the Grave, comes with deeply felt words from the composer, Carlos Simon. “This piece is an artistic reflection dedicated to those who have been murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power; namely Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The stimulus for composing the piece came as a result of prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch announcing that a selected jury had decided not to indict police officer Daren Wilson after fatally shooting an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri.” Garner and Brown were both killed in 2014, when Simon himself was 28. “Here was a young man who could have been me — or any Black man in America,” he said. “Murdered in cold blood. I could physically feel the fear.”


The quartet has the immediacy of grief that we heard in Puccini’s elegy Crisantemi in September. Both were written by young composers near the start of their careers. Simon’s music, like Puccini’s, is lushly harmonic. He tells us that “the recurring ominous motif represents the cry of those struck down unjustly in this country.” You will hear that motif almost immediately from the viola, over a high pianissimo quivering from the violins, a sound like fear itself. The motif is a downward octave leap, perhaps a suggestion of being struck and falling, a rhythmic snap to a harmonic center, another snap, and a triplet gesture which hands the motif, with a sense of grace, to the next player. Simon calls it “ominous,” and it is, but there is grace and honor built into it as well. The care with which he uses each instrument while moving the motif around the quartet is evident. “The instruments give a sense of the emotional context,” he writes. “The cello is closest to the human voice, so there’s a long solo in the piece. Instruments create certain colors, textures and emotions. Trayvon and Michael are crying out.”

Simon was born in Washington D.C. and grew up in Atlanta, in a family of preachers who forbade him to listen to anything but gospel music; its improvisatory nature set him on his composing path. After starting piano lessons at ten he was able to add Beethoven and Brahms to his influences. He is currently Composer-in-Residence for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and a professor at Georgetown University, where his commitment to social activism continues.


The year Simon wrote An Elegy is exactly two hundred years after Schubert composed his ninth quartet, and beyond the obvious contrast is a connection of the heart. In the same year Schubert also wrote his first song masterpiece, Erlkönig, the Erlking. It too is about a child killed by a sinister force. Both composers understand the intersection of sorrow and music. Under surface differences, we find the same DNA.


String Quartet No. 12 in E Flat Major, Opus 127, Ludwig van Beethoven


After two youthful works we move to one of almost unimaginable maturity: the first of Beethoven’s late string quartets, Beethoven’s entire compositional focus in his last years. He had not written a quartet in over a decade when, in 1822, he received a commission for “one, two, or three” of them from Prince Nikolai Galitzen, a Russian aristocrat. Beethoven was unwell, locked into an exhausting conflict with his nephew Karl, and had his 9th symphony to finish, but he did get to work about a year later. Opus 127 ushered in his final period of creativity: five quartets in two and a half years, taking him almost to his death.


Two hundred years later, the privilege and the challenge of hearing this quartet are still immense. Rainer Maria Rilke, in his poem Archaic Torso of Apollo, invoked the power of a great work of art: “…For there isn’t any place that isn’t looking at you. You must change your life.” The challenge starts immediately, with an E flat major forte chord, beautifully voiced from the cello’s low E flat upwards. The marking is Maestoso, majestic, and the chord rings, then repeats on the first beat of the next measure before it modulates. The rhythm challenges our ears: did we hear a downbeat or a syncopation? Syncopation it was. We have just understood the rhythm when the first violin rises a heart-lifting sixth, trills expectantly, and takes us into an allegro marked teneramente, tenderly. The heroic E flat major opens to reveal a lyrical E flat within, robust but delicate. The opening chordal motif returns twice more, marking out the lyrical section; it is in G major and then, finally, in a fortissimo C major.


The second movement, Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile, very singing, is an expansive set of variations, nearly as long as the other three movements together. The key is A flat, but the first note is the same cello E flat that closed the first movement. The cello is alone, and once again the rhythm is ambiguous. In a measure with 12 beats, the cello starts on the 9th beat, followed by the viola on the 3rd of the next measure. The off-beat entrances build until the first violin begins a long, arching theme. There will follow six of the most intricate variations Beethoven wrote–and he was the master of the variation.


Beethoven had recently begun a new practice. Where he had sketched out his pieces largely on a single line, he now began sketching on four staves, signaling extreme attention to the individuality of the four voices. You will hear this especially as the second variation quickens the tempo to andante. The texture tightens and the score turns dense with 32nd notes. It might have been too complicated to follow, but this is Beethoven, and we find that our perception expands along with the music. At the next variation the pace slows back to adagio, but the key is suddenly remote E major, not via modulation but by decree, as lordly as anything in Schubert. The fourth variation returns to the opening meter, and the cello and the first violin begin the conversation you would hope to have with your closest friend, if you were both geniuses. The ending is unbearably poignant, but there is hope, if you can wait until the cello’s last pizzicato. You must, indeed, change your life.


The third movement, Scherzando e vivace, begins with three brisk pizzicato chords, neatly establishing a new mood, rhythm and key. The cello introduces the jaunty, skipping theme that will be passed around through voices and keys, and a trio section (in E flat minor!) that goes like the wind.


The last movement, marked Finale, with no further tempo instruction, is a robust allegro with a theme that recalls the first movement, but with an unexpected twist of the kind that later wormed its way into Brahms’s brain. An extraordinary coda, calling on all the resources of the players, ends this miraculous quartet.

Trio Duende, Saturday, January 13, 2024

Program Notes by Elizabeth Morrison

Cello Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Opus 38, Johannes Brahms

This season is, among many pleasures, a celebration of the cello. We last basked in cello
sounds in September, when we heard Schubert’s C Major Cello Quintet. The celebration
continues as two-thirds of Trio Duende, cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Awadagin Pratt, present Brahms’ E Minor Cello Sonata, Opus 38. Completed in 1865, it is the first of his two sonatas for this combination. The second, Opus 99 in F Major, did not come along for 21 years. But lest you think Brahms neglected the cello for more than two decades, he was actually writing for it all along. The slow movement of the 1875 C Minor Piano Quartet is practically a cello sonata in itself. He arranged his G Major Violin Sonata for cello in 1878. His piano trios all highlight the cello. He famously adored low sounds, and had frequent crushes on women with contralto voices. He would never have neglected an instrument so close to his heart.

This is not to cast shade on the piano, of course. In the manuscript he calls Opus 38 not a “Cello Sonata” but a “Sonata for Piano and Cello,” and further instructs the pianist “under no circumstances to assume a purely accompanying role,” as if that were ever a danger in a part he wrote for himself. In reality, the interplay between the instruments is one of the great fascinations of the piece. Often you would believe they both have the leading voice. It is certainly the cello in the opening phrase, an unusual, very lyrical melody that starts close to the bottom of the cello’s range and features a surprising interval, a minor 9th , from a low F# to the G natural in the next octave and back again, at the close of the phrase. The piano plays offbeat chords, then picks up the melody, then subtly alters it, and the enthralling dialogue is under way.

The second movement is marked Allegretto quasi minueto. Brahms always felt Beethoven’s shadow, so it may be significant that none of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas have minuets; only his third even has a scherzo. With the choice of a minuet, Brahms is likely sharing his devotion to the music of earlier times. The staccato notes in the piano, the matching bow strokes in the cello, and the way both instruments gracefully ornament their notes, gives the minuet section a feeling of a French baroque dance. The trio section is also quite spare, but its long, sinuous lines contrast with the minuet’s staccato dance steps, and the constant hemiolas, a favorite Brahms rhythmic device, keeps you swaying and looking for balance until the return of the minuet.

The third and final movement was written three years later, after Brahms decided not to
use the Adagi
o he had written to conclude the piece. It is often described as a fugue, but it’s really a sonata-form movement with extended fugato passages. It begins very briskly with an homage to Johann Sebastian Bach: a fugue subject taken from Contrapunctus #13 of the Art of the Fugue. Brahms takes the subject through various permutations, as Bach would have, but the display of counterpart chops relaxes into passages of lyricism, and we may even catch glimpse of the first movement’s opening theme. Bach, one feels, would be both impressed and amazed. One also can’t help wondering how Brahms’ friend Josef Gänsbacher, an amateur cellist for whom he wrote the sonata, negotiated the considerable complexities. The movement ends in full fugato, fortissimo, presto, and exhilarating.


Violin Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23, Ludwig von Beethoven

After intermission, violinist Tom Stone joins Awadagin to bring us Beethoven’s fourth
violin sonata, an interesting piece that has been unjustly overshadowed by the famous Spring Sonata, Opus 24. We are fortunate to hear this strikingly intense piece, one quite deserving of its own place in the sun.

Opus 23 follows three earlier sonatas, published in 1799 as Opus 12. They were very
much in the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, but just idiosyncratic enough to confuse conservative critics of the time. Opus 23, though, was well received. As it followed closely on the Symphony No. 1 in C major, his contemporaries perhaps had a better idea of what to expect from the young composer. In addition, it reflected not just Beethoven’s evolution but the evolution of the violin itself. During this period violins had been busy growing longer necks and higher bridges, gaining greater tension on the strings and increasing their range of colors and volume. Beethoven had noticed, and took advantage of it in his demands on both player and instrument.

It is one of only two violin sonatas in a minor key, the other being Opus 30 No. 2 in C
minor. The first movement’s meter, 6/8, and tempo marking, presto, are also unusual. The opening melody is driving and strongly accented; listen for the offbeat accents, for the lovely F-major melody that comes out of nowhere, for the many moments of conversation between the instruments. The pianissimo ending is so surprising I’m almost sorry I told you in advance.

The second movement is in A major and is not exactly a slow movement, and not exactly a scherzo. The marking is Andante scherzoso, più allegretto, so it’s kind of both. At first it sounds like a poetic slow movement; then the players start a two-note gesture that they hand back and forth, somewhere between conversing and mocking, like siblings who know each other too well. There’s a charming fugato theme that is welcome every time it comes back around. In the end, it’s probably more scherzoso than serious.


The third movement is a rondo that returns us to the A minor intensity of the first movement. The winding, sinuous rondo theme gets played four times; the episodes in between are by turns lyrical, playful and dramatic. And, like all three movements, it ends quietly. What control!

Piano Trio No. 5 in D Major, Op. 70 No. 1, the “Ghost,” Ludwig von Beethoven

At last all three members of Trio Duende take the stage to continue their grand exposition of the piano trio. This is Duende’s third appearance on the series, and we are starting to see an arc. They have given us two trios by Franz Josef Haydn, from 1793 and 1795, and two by Johannes Brahms, from 1882 and 1889, plus the Andante movement from Schubert’s B flat trio, from 1827. Now they will illuminate the almost 90-year gap between Haydn and Brahms with Beethoven’s fifth trio, Opus 70 #1, from 1809. The two trios of Opus 70 are the next-to-last ones he wrote; only the Archduke Trio of 1811 is later.

If you can cast your memory back to the performance of Haydn’s D major trio in 2021,
you will recall a charming 13-minute piece with everything we love about Haydn. It just so happens that Beethoven’s first set of three trios, published together as Opus 1, were written in the same year, 1795. Haydn heard them, generally approved, but doubted that the public was ready for Beethoven’s Opus 1 No. 3. As it turned out, he was wrong– that trio was the sensation of the set. But it showed that Beethoven, still in his twenties, was perfectly prepared to remake a genre, adding length and power, liberating the cello, and shocking the old guard. Two decades later, when he turned once again to the piano trio, he was no longer the young upstart from Bonn, out to impress the great musical world. He had done it. The mold had been broken. This trio is the work of a composer in complete control of his powers, taking the remade piano trio and doing with it exactly as he wished.

The nickname “Ghost” honors the second movement. There is nothing spooky about the first movement’s energetic opening–unless you take a moment to look for it. First, we hear a brisk descending four-note figure, repeated four times from different starting notes, played fortissimo across the trio. It is clearly in D major, a key that is suitable to “noisy, joyful and rousing things,” according to a key theorist of the time. But the passage finishes with a held F natural in the cello, in defiance of the clearly announced major key. D major returns quickly, but with that strange F natural, the eeriness to come in the “Ghost” movement is subtly put in play. Mostly, though, the first movement has an ebullient, at times almost comic, profile. Less than a minute in, you are reminded of why piano teachers make their students practice scales. And count the many times Beethoven confounds your expectations with a subito piano, a device he more or less invented, where a crescendo, expected to continue, instead pulls back at the last minute to softness, Daniel Barenboim called it “proof of Beethoven’s courageous character.”

The movement ends with a mini-coda-like return of the opening gesture. Then the opening of the Ghost movement takes us to an almost motionless place: two long, held octave notes, a D and an A, in the strings alone, bare of harmony, already maximally spooky, except we’re just getting started. Believe it or not, these are quarter notes, the same note value as we heard in the first movement, but an order of magnitude longer. There is nothing to indicate the harmony until the strings find that F natural again. The piano enters with sotto voce D minor chords. The eeriness builds, through an obsessive concentration on one motif and ever-stranger whisperings in the piano. The movement may have originated with an idea Beethoven was sketching for an opera on Shakespeare’s Macbeth; if so, it would have been for the witches’ caldron scene at the beginning. Beethoven was not generally drawn to the uncanny, but this movement is as shivery as anything ever written. It is also extremely beautiful, and requires the utmost concentration from the performers.

No scherzo could follow this movement, and Beethoven’s sketches show him taking
trouble to find an ending that would not release the ghstly tension until it flowed into a genial, light-hearted finale. But the ghosts linger, just out of sight, an unsettling undertone the gaiety. You will not soon forget them.

A Night at the Opera, Saturday, November 4, 2023

Program Notes by Elizabeth Morrison

The second concert of the season brings us the sparkle and excitement of a night at the opera, with distinguished San Francisco Opera alumni Marlen Nahhas, soprano, Moisés Salazár, tenor, and pianist Ronny Michael Greenberg. We look forward to this concert every year, remembering our series founder Pearl Micheli, who was a singer and a true lover of vocal music. We will hear twelve arias from seven different operas, along with four virtuosic pieces for solo piano. The arias fall into four “sets”: first one from an eclectic mix of three different operas, then a set from Puccini’s La bohème, one from Verdi’s Rigoletto, one from Puccini’s Tosca and another from his Madama Butterfly. The piano pieces are scattered among them like jewels.

The evening begins with a solo piano piece, Soirée de Vienne, Concert Paraphrase After Johann Strauss, by Alfred Grünwald (1852–1924). Grünwald was a wildly popular “salon pianist” who performed not just in the drawing rooms of high-society Vienna but across Europe, Russia, and even the United States. Witty and sociable, he was close friends with Johann Strauss and made transcriptions of many Strauss waltzes. You will hear all the wit in the world in this lively opening to our Soirée de Eurêka

The singers then take the stage, bringing us to the biggest difference between a “Night at the Opera” and a concert of instrumental music: the words. Where instrumental music is mostly abstract, arias are programmatic by their very nature, patently about something. What they are about depends on the opera, of course, and it is often said that the plots of operas are preposterous. Don’t believe it. Opera is the most realistic of all art forms, once you realize that it does not portray events so much as the super-drama of feelings. In their arias, singers love extravagantly, take violent offence at slights, grow outraged by politics, seethe, fall into dudgeon, long for revenge, and exult in their triumphs. In other words, they feel exactly as you and I do–we just spend our lives trying not to show it. These seemingly outrageous opera plots are just how it is.

The first set of arias provide a tantalizing overview of the opera world. They were composed in 1936, 1832, and 1859, and come from a Spanish zarzuela, an Italian opera whose plot hinges on comic misunderstandings, and a serious French story (by Goethe, no less) about selling one’s soul for eternal youth. The first one is “No puede ser” (It cannot be), by Pablo Sorozábal (1894–1988), from his 1936 zarzuela La tabernera del puerto. A zarzuela is a Spanish lyric drama that traditionally incorporates both singing and speaking parts; it flourished in the 19th century and persisted well into the 20th century. Sorozábal is one of a group of composers who invigorated the zarzuela as a vehicle for social and political commentary, and “No puede ser” is one of the most famous zarzuela arias today. If it sounds familiar, you may recall Plácido Domingo singing it in the very first Three Tenors concert. 

The second aria is “Una furtiva lagrima” (A furtive tear), from the opera L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), by Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848). The hero sees his lady love weeping, and mistakenly assumes that she has fallen in love with him, the result of drinking a love potion he purchased from a travelling salesman. We’ll learn later that the potion was actually just cheap red wine, but for now the hero’s suit is looking good.

The two tenor arias are followed by a soprano aria, “Jewel Song,” from Faust, by Charles Gounod (1818–1893). Dr. Faust, having completed his pact with the devil and reclaimed his vanished youth, seduces the beautiful, innocent young Marguerite. When a gift of dazzling jewels arrives, straight from the devil, she revels in how beautiful they make her, a high point from which she will take a grand fall before ascending, in the final scene, to heaven.

For the rest of the evening the aria sets are from single operas. The first set comes from Puccini’s La bohème, and depicts perhaps the most operatic event life holds, the doomed love affair. This one is between Mimi, a young seamstress who is the “bohemian girl” of the title, and her soon-to-be lover, the poet Rodolfo. The first aria, "Quando m’en vo" (When I walk) is actually in Act 2, and is sung by Musetta, the ex-lover of one of Rodolfo’s friends. Musetta sings that when she walks, everyone looks at her because she is so beautiful; she feels their desire all around her, and it makes her happy. An excellent example of something you can sing, but probably would not say out loud. After Musetta’s waltz, we return to Act 1, where Mimi and Rodolfo meet, share their stories, and, in the climax of the first act, realize they have fallen in love. Our tenor Moisés, as Rodolfo, takes Mimi’s hand in "Che gelida manina" (What a cold little hand!) and tells her his life story. Our soprano, Marlen, sings "Mi chiamo Mimi" (I am called Mimi) and tell Rodolfo her story in turn. Finally, the two of them sing the beautiful duet "O soave fanciulla" (O lovely girl) as love overtakes them. It might be the most romantic scene in all of opera.

The second half of the program begins with another virtuosic piano piece, The Flight of the Bumblebee, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), arranged by Sergei Rachmaninoff. I somehow managed not to know that this little gem, which has made its way into popular culture in innumerable ways, including as the theme song of The Green Hornet, comes from an opera, The Tale of Tsar Sultan. Prince Gvidon, the Tsar’s son, is changed into a bee by the magic Swan-Bird and flies off to find his father, who does not know he is alive. Operatic, yes. Preposterous? Okay, maybe a little.

Bumblebee is followed by two arias from Rigoletto, by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). Written in 1851, it is the first of Verdi’s three great mid-career operas (the others are La traviata and Il trovatore) without which opera companies would have to go out of business. The plot touches on the great opera themes of love, betrayal and revenge–revenge that goes horribly wrong when the hunchback jester Rigoletto unwittingly has an assassin murder his daughter Gilda. In "Questa o quella," (This one or that one), the Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto’s employer, explains that all women are equal to him; he wants to seduce them all. The second aria, "Che m'ami, deh, ripetimi – Addio" (Repeat that you love me–Farewell) is a duet between the Duke and Gilda. Naturally the Duke has seduced Gilda, and they declare their love, Gilda sincerely, the Duke not so much. The piano piece that follows is part of the set as well. Like the opening piano solo, it is another brilliant “paraphrase,” this one by Franz Liszt (1811–1886). It presents the famous four-part aria from Rigoletto Act 3 where four singers, caught up in their own feelings, miraculously combine them into a dazzling whole. The Duke sings to seduce a new conquest; the conquest, Maddalena, laughs off his advances; Gilda sings that she is betrayed by the Duke, but still loves him; and Rigoletto calls darkly for revenge–all simultaneously. If you want to check out the quartet with singers, there is a wonderful recording, with subtitles, on youtube

The final arias of the evening take us back to Puccini, with a set from Tosca and a single aria from Madama Butterfly. The first Tosca selection, "Vissi d’arte," (I lived for art), one of Puccini’s most famous soprano arias, comes from Act 2. Floria Tosca is herself a singer. She has been coerced by the brutal Scarpia into betraying a fugitive, and her lover, Cavaradossi, is being led off to execution. A low moment indeed. Tosca asks God why she is rewarded thus, when she “has lived for art, and for love.” The second aria, "E lucevan le stele" (And the stars were shining), is an equally famous tenor aria. Cavaradossi is awaiting execution and is recalling the sweetness of his and Tosca’s love. His dream of love has vanished, he sings, and now he dies, despairing. 

There is one more jewel of a piano solo before the final aria, a composition by Liszt called Sonetto del petrarca 104. Liszt wrote settings of three sonnets by the Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch. Sonnet 104 is the middle and most popular of the three. They are not unconnected to our evening of vocal music, as they were originally written to be sung by a high tenor; Liszt later recast them for solo piano. All three of the sonnets are about love, what else? This one notes the contradictions of passionate attachment: I desire to perish, and yet I ask for health/ I love another, and thus I hate myself.

The evening comes to an end with a vocal duet, "Vogliatemi bene" (Please love me) from the end of Act 1 of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Despite the problematic premise of the opera, this is a justly adored aria. As befits a love song on the wedding of Cio-Cio-san, a very young Japanese girl, and her enthralled American husband, it is by turns dreamy and impassioned, in the best Puccini style. It makes a splendid conclusion to our fabulous evening at the opera.

Verona Quartet, Saturday, September 30, 2023


Programs Notes by Elizabeth Morrison

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Crisantemi, 1890


In 1890, Puccini was 32 years old. Born in the Tuscan city of Lucca, the scion of a long - established musical family, he had seemed destined for a brilliant musical career. But his first two operas had been failures, and his publisher was growing worried. Moreover, he had recently eloped with his married piano student, to generally raised eyebrows. He was still six years away from composing La bohème, ten years from Tosca, fourteen from Madama Butterfly. This is the moment when he turned briefly from opera to compose this intense and beautiful piece.

On February 6, 1890, he wrote to his brother Michele that he had written a work for string quartet in a single night. It was dedicated to the memory of his friend Prince Amadeo of Savoy, formerly King Amadeo I of Spain, who had died on January 18 th . Puccini called his composition Elegy, and gave it the subtitle Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums,) because in Italy the chrysanthemum is a flower of mourning.

Crisantemi lasts just six minutes, and the tempo marking, Andante Mesto, slow and sad,
suggests that it will not require an inordinate amount of music to fill that time. It has just 99 measures, and is in A-B-A form, with an opening section (A), a contrasting middle section (B), and a return of the A section. Puccini had only to compose about 60 measures for the A and B sections, bring back the A section for its second outing, add a short coda, and voilà. A genius like Puccini could certainly do this in one night.

But a string quartet? Puccini himself said that his talent was for the stage alone. However,
the difference between writing a string quartet and an opera is perhaps not as huge as one might imagine. All operas, even Wagner’s, have moments that are essentially chamber music. The Ride of the Valkyries in Die Walküre blares forth from 32 different instruments at full volume, but Fricka’s arioso, just a little further on, is accompanied, essentially, by a string quartet, with an occasional woodwind thrown in for color. Wagner didn’t write quartets, but he certainly could have.


And it works both ways. If you hear a quartet inside an opera, you might equally hear an
opera in a quartet. Listening to the heart-rending poignancy of Crisantemi, you might picture an operatic death scene like Mimi’s in La bohème. As a matter of fact, so did Puccini. His first popular opera, Manon Lescaut, came out in 1893, and he chose to use the music of Crisantemi for some of its most touching moments. The first theme turns up in the opening of Act IV, when Manon and her lover Des Grieux are wandering through the deserts of Louisiana (!). The second theme becomes an orchestral passage in Act III. Crisantemi itself has been transcribed for orchestra, and is very effective; but we are fortunate to hear it in its pure, original form, straight from Puccini’s heart.


Béla Bartók (1881-1945) String Quartet #3, 1929

The next piece is the third string quartet, out of six, by Bela Bartók, arguably the greatest
composer of the 20 th  century. Like Crisantemi, it is brief; unlike Crisantemi, it is dense, chewy, and bristling with life. It is played straight through without breaks, but Bartók indicates that there are four parts, which he calls Prima parte: Moderato (first part, a moderate tempo); Seconda parte: Allegro (second part, lively), Ricapitulazione della prima parte: Moderato (a return to the first part, moderate tempo); and Coda: Allegro molto (concluding section, very lively). 


The first and second parts are about five minutes each, the recapitulation three minutes, the coda two minutes. Even if you’re hearing it for the first time at the concert, you’ll be able to hear the four sections; they are quite clearly delineated. Being aware of them is helpful, especially during the first part, which is admittedly a bit unnerving. The music starts out vaguely, with hints of a melody, but within a minute or so the rising tension culminates in three strong chords and a grand pause. The next several minutes are arresting. The violins make sharp little stabs of sound by playing right up against the bridge, an effect called ponticello. There are dissonant chords and slides. Soon you’ll hear a brief turn from the cello alone, then some reassuring pizzicato notes, and the melody, hinted at in the beginning, will at last emerge.

The second part starts with a Bartók pizzicato–a pluck of the string so hard it hits against
the fingerboard–launching a pleasurable five minutes of folk-inflected music. Bartók was
passionately interested in Hungarian folk songs, and spent years of his life travelling around Eastern Europe, recording them on the newly-invented Edison Recording Machine. You can see why he loved this music. It is fascinatingly un-square. There are constantly shifting rhythms, like an aural kaleidoscope. Some of the unusual effects from the first part, like the squeaky ponticello, return, but they sound more natural embedded in a folk context. There is another special effect, called col legno, about half-way through Part 2. The players strike their strings with the wood part of the bow instead of the hair, making a strange clattery sound.

Part 2 winds down with a passage from the viola and cello which draws you back to the
stranger world you thought you’d left. We’ve come to the recapitulation, where Bartók brings back the music of the first part, though in a pared down, simplified way. The brief final section, the coda, is a recapitulation of the second part. Hearing the eerie first section and the folky second section, right next to each other and stripped to their essentials, highlights the unity of the piece. Clearly, they are part of a brilliant whole.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, Op. posth. 163, 1828

The evening concludes with what many consider the greatest chamber music ever
written, Schubert’s C major Cello Quintet. It is called a “cello quintet” not because it is played by five cellos, but because when Schubert was ready to write his only string quintet, he chose a different combination of instruments from the quintets by Mozart and Beethoven. Where they added a second viola, a combination known as a viola quintet, Schubert added a second cello. It was the last piece he wrote; it was completed just two months before his death in 1828, at the age of 31. The first public performance of the cello quintet did not occur for 22 years; it was finally published three years later, in 1853.

Once published, its reputation rose quickly. Brahms was an early admirer, and originally
composed his F minor piano quintet as a cello quintet, in homage to Schubert. Arthur Rubenstein (and many others) asked to have it played at their funeral. The violinist Joseph Saunders went so far as to have the second theme of the first movement engraved on his tombstone. It will not take long to move to the top of your list as well. It has everything you could possibly want: ravishing melodies, dramatic harmonies, charm, profundity, every imaginable mood from stormy to serene, and of course, two cellos. Schubert did not invent the cello quintet; that was the Italian composer Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), who wrote 113 of them. Boccherini was a cello virtuoso, and his quintets are mainly vehicles his amazing skill. But Schubert wrote his cello quintet because his music demanded nothing less.

It begins deceptively, with ten bars played not as a quintet but as a conventional string
quartet of two violins, one viola, and one cello, while the second cellist rests. This is a case study in quartet sonority: a four-voiced C major chord, a change in harmony by the inner voices, and a simple melody from the first violin, taking us to the key of G major, the closest you can go from C and still have gone somewhere.

But then! The second ten bars are also a string quartet, but a different one. Now the first
violin rests, and the second cello joins in. What if, Schubert suggests, the string quartet had taken a different direction? What if, instead of two high instruments, it had evolved with two low ones? For the second round of sonority, the highest voice is the first cello, the bottom drops down by almost an octave, the key switches to D minor, and we hear a richness of sound never heard before.

For the next few bars, the two versions of a quartet negotiate, with the viola constantly
switching teams. Finally, more than a minute in, the whole quintet is invited to play. Which they do, gaily and boisterously, culminating in a couple of grand chords. And now the two cellos, from a luminous unison G, take us to the famous second theme, the melody engraved on the tombstone of an enraptured violinist. Schubert has already shown us that adding a second cello makes the music richer and darker, transports it from major to minor, and so on. Now he takes it all back. Having two cellos means the music will be more beautiful than you ever dreamed. Instead of an alternate, low-voiced string quartet, we now have a transcendent ensemble: the cello quintet.

The slow movement, one of Schubert’s rare adagios, is perhaps even more sublime. It’s
almost as long as the first movement, but where that one was eventful, this one unfolds as
leisurely as a summer day. Andras Schiff remarked that Schubert is the great artist of nature. He was thinking of Schubert’s many depictions of water, but here it is the sky, the heavens themselves. The melody is one of the longest in music, a long-breathed 14-bar phrase. The tune is carried by the middle voices, while the high violin and the low cello frame the melody as the horizon frames the sky.

After a tranquil opening section in E major, there is an abrupt move to F minor, and an
enormous storm blows up. Finally the sky clears and the first section returns. The inner voices reprise their melody, the first violin adds ornamentation, but the main event here is an obligato, a kind of commentary almost always played by the first violin above the melody, but here played by the second cello at the bottom of the range. Yes, Schubert says, the string quartet could have had two cellos instead of two violins, and this is how it would have been. There is nothing like this passage anywhere in chamber music, and the chance to play it is one of the things we cellists live for.

The movement finishes in the quietest pianissimo. The third movement, Scherzo–Presto,
begins in fortissimo. Not that you were sleeping, but this will wake you up. There is a surprise waiting for you in the trio section of this movement: a second slow movement, marked Andante sostenuto. If the boisterousness of the scherzo had made you nostalgic for the beautiful adagio, this will be balm. The key is D flat major, the remotest key yet, and Schubert finds its profound resonance.

The last movement is a lively rondo, with a distinct Hungarian inflection. Like many of
Schubert’s melodies, the tunes have the inevitability of folk songs. From the first hearing, you feel you have always known them. There are brilliant fiddling passages, mostly in the first violin but eventually played by everyone. There is another soulful duet between the two cellos. The tempo gets more and more brilliant; the players are asked to speed up not once but twice. The ending could have been simply a rush to the end, but –you’ll just have to wait for it–somehow at the very close of his monumental piece, Schubert pulls back the curtain of C major exuberance and shows us the melancholy that he hinted at from the start. It’s all there in the last note.

bottom of page