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“[A] remarkable capacity for magical ensemble playing…effervescent.”  —The Washington Post

“Her unblemished soprano and liquid phrasing are positively magical.” —New York magazine

Exclusive New York engagement
Brentano String Quartet
       Mark Steinberg, violin
       Serena Canin, violin
       Misha Amory, viola
       Nina Lee, cello
Christine Brandes, soprano

HAYDN: Arianna a Naxos (“Teseo mio ben”), Cantata for Soprano
MOE: Of Color Braided All Desire for Soprano and String Quartet (New York premiere)
MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No. 1

The concert is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes.

 

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92Y is proud to partner with the Composers Now Festival for this performance. The Composers Now Festival celebrates living composers, the diversity of their voices and the significance of their musical contributions to our society during the month of February.
     

Composer Eric Moe talks about his work, Of Color Braided All Desire, written for the Brentano String Quartet and Christine Brandes, in a video for the Composers Now Festival.

To read the texts of the work, click on the Program Notes tab.

Explore the Music

(Click the names below to expand info.)

HAYDN: Arianna a Naxos (“Teseo mio ben”), Cantata for Soprano, H.XXVIb:2

FRANZ JOSEF HAYDN

Born in Rohrau, Lower Austria, March 31, 1732; died in Vienna, May 31, 1809
Arianna a Naxos (“Teseo mio ben”), Cantata for Soprano, H.XXVIb:2
Composed in 1789–90; 19 minutes

The Italian solo cantata—a kind of miniature one-person opera—was among the principal genres of Italian baroque music in the late 17th century. Some composers of the day regarded it as second only to opera in importance; others thought it even more refined than opera and the supreme test of a composer’s artistry. The genre peaked in the work of Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725), who composed around 600 solo cantatas during his career and thus dominated the enterprise so completely that few later composers dared consider it. The solo cantata subsequently faded in significance through the 18th century. (Sacred cantatas in the Lutheran tradition, which J. S. Bach composed in abundance, bear little resemblance to these Italian solo cantatas, and are more like small-scale oratorios.)

But given the similarities between the solo Italian cantata and opera, it’s not surprising that some later composers did occasionally try their hand at it. Without the expense or risk of full-blown opera production, the solo cantata still allowed for dramatic scenes and arias in a recital context. These cantatas, following Scarlatti’s model, typically consist of a kind of monolog with simple instrumental accompaniment, presenting a series of contrasting reflections centered on some unifying thought (usually love, either newly-found or recently lost). In two or three da capo arias connected by recitative, the solo singer is given the opportunity to display a variety of emotions through changes in tempo, key, harmonic character and rhythmic activity.

Joseph Haydn composed nearly a dozen cantatas, some of them in the 1760s written to celebrate events within the Esterházy family for whom he worked: weddings, name days, returns from long trips, and so on. But then Haydn also wrote a series of cantatas in the 1790s, at the end of his active career, that exploited the contemporary popularity of his song settings and his reputation as the leading European composer of his day.

Most of Haydn’s cantatas include parts for a chamber orchestra. But for his 1789 setting of Arianna a Naxos—one of his most popular late cantatas—Haydn provided only a keyboard accompaniment. Still, in a letter to the London publisher John Bland in April 1790, the composer made it clear that he intended at some point to orchestrate the work “with all instruments” (though he apparently never carried out this intention). This arrangement for soprano and string quartet of Arianna a Naxos approaches more closely, then, Haydn’s original plans for the work.

The story of Arianna (or Ariadne) on the island of Naxos retells part of the same legend that later inspired Richard Strauss to write his well-known opera. Ariadne, who has been left by her lover, Theseus, on the island of Naxos, awakens from her sleep to discover that she is alone (“Teseo mio ben”). At first she sings of how earnestly she longs for the company of her beloved (“Dove sei, mio bel Tesoro?”). This aria is technically a da capo aria in baroque style, but the return of the A section does not include any modulations, endowing the aria with the same harmonic plan as a more modern sonata-allegro movement. Loneliness and questioning then give way to anger and despair as Ariadne climbs a mountain and can then see Theseus sailing away on a ship (“Ma, a chi parlo?”). Realizing that she has been abandoned, she sings of her cruel fate in a two-part aria “Ah che morir vorrei” that turns increasingly agitated (using another modern aria form that prefigures the cantabile-cabaletta of the early 19th century). In the second part of the aria, Haydn employs some customary “Sturm und Drang” effects (the key of F minor, restless rhythms) to denote Ariadne’s pain and grief.

Text and Translation

© 2014 Luke Howard

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MOE: Of Color Braided All Desire for Soprano and String Quartet (New York premiere)

ERIC MOE

Born in Durham, North Carolina, October 24, 1954
Of Color Braided All Desire for Soprano and String Quartet (New York premiere)
Composed in 2011; app. 20 minutes

A graduate of Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley, Eric Moe currently serves as a professor of composition and theory at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to his composing, Moe is an accomplished pianist and has performed, premiered and recorded works by other composers as well. He is the recipient of many noteworthy grants and awards, including a 1988 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2002 Lakond Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Moe’s commissions include works supported by the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Barlow Endowment, and the Pittsburgh Symphony, and he has been granted numerous residencies including the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo.

Moe’s music is renowned for its eclectic inventiveness and assertive individuality, often challenging the boundaries between high and low culture. His one-woman opera Tri-Stan (2003), for example, juxtaposes Wagner and Strauss with mass-mediated satire and quotations from pop culture. Yet his style, which has been variously described as “maximal minimalism,” “a cross between Stravinsky and jazz,” and “Rachmaninoff in hell,” appears to breach stylistic divisions primarily out of genuine delight in variety, not necessarily through attempts at political or aesthetic subversion. And as with the most effective iconoclasts, there is an elemental sobriety to Moe’s music. It is heard particularly in his song settings and choral works, especially those that set poems by renowned American writers including Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur and Wallace Stevens.

Continuing in this vein, Moe’s 2011 song cycle Of Color Braided All Desire sets poems by the Utah-born author May Swenson, one of the most admired and respected American poets of the 20th century. Known for blending imagery from the natural world with an often explicit eroticism, Swenson saw these two impulses as arising from a common wellspring. She was renowned among her fellow poets as a consummate “observer,” a writer who noticed, perceived, questioned, and in her poems sought for understanding about the natural and human worlds around her.

Soprano Christine Brandes initiated this joint project with the Brentano Quartet by suggesting to Moe that he compose a song cycle based on some of Swenson’s love poems. The extraordinary range of emotions and images expressed in Swenson’s work called for the widely differentiated selection of texts for the cycle. But in setting these four very different and modern poems for voice and string quartet, Moe also retained the four-movement format of the classical string quartet, which he notes has here been “vividly sexualized by the addition of text.”

The first poem, “Swimmers,” pairs the turbulence and power of “the muscular sea” with the physical sensuality of “rough love.” Asymmetrical ostinati in the accompaniment support the ebb and flow of intensity in the soprano line. But after the climactic “embrace” the accompaniment retreats into the relaxed shoals of sleep, faint echoes of the opening ostinato sounding in the first violin. It is a brawny love song, passionate and vigorous.

“Four Word Lines” functions as the intimate, lyrical slow movement in this cycle. The vocal line is phrased to match the structure of the poem, where Swenson’s use of internal rhyme and alliteration turn the thoughts inward toward each other. That inner intimacy is highlighted by the linear counterpoint of the quartet, whose carefully restrained stepwise lines contrast with the roiling waves of the previous song.

The scherzo-like “Fireflies” employs staccato repetitions and flitting figures in the accompaniment to suggest the insect world, which had already been hinted at in “Four Word Lines.” The poem suggests that the scintillating “love winks” and “fierce hints” of desire are what excite most the mind and body, not the insects themselves (who are merely “common beetles” by day). Again, Swenson’s evocation of the natural world serves as a metaphor of deep, evocative sensuality.

In the final “Incantation,” from which the cycle draws its title, Swenson explicitly uses end-rhyme to imbue the poetic lines with a ritualistic rhythm and meter. But the concentration of alliteration and internal rhyme also harks back to the nature poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Intense color contrasts throughout the poem—the white snow, green leaves and ocean, red fire, and the blackness of sleep—swirl in a vibrant mandala of love, passion and nature, matched by the quartet’s accompaniment which presents a broadly contrasted palette of textures and effects.

The Brentano String Quartet and Christine Brandes gave the world premiere of Of Color Braided All Desire on September 30, 2012, at the South Mountain Concerts series in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Tonight’s concert marks it New York premiere.

View the Texts

© 2014 Luke Howard

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MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No. 1

FELIX MENDELSSOHN

Born in Hamburg, February 3, 1809; died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847
String Quartet in D major, Op. 44, No. 1
Composed in 1838; 29 minutes

The remarkable genius of Felix Mendelssohn’s youth is well-documented. While still an adolescent, he had reached maturity as a composer and was a prodigy on both piano and violin. In his teens he was reportedly an exceptional athlete and swimmer, a talented poet who had won the praise and friendship of Goethe, spoke multiple languages fluently, and was an unusually gifted watercolorist and philosopher. As Julian Haylock writes, “He excelled at virtually anything that could hold his attention for long enough.” That Mendelssohn chose a career in music, knowing that he could have succeeded brilliantly in almost any career, is even more remarkable because unlike Bach, Mozart and Beethoven (his musical idols), he did not come from a family of professional musicians.

But that’s not to say that the Mendelssohn family was unmusical—young Felix was raised in a household filled with musical performances, and it was only natural that he should be interested in chamber music from an early age. Many of his early compositions are for chamber ensembles, and his first four published works are all chamber pieces. While other genres would establish his reputation later in life—symphonies, solo piano pieces and oratorios—he had a special affinity with the intimacy and transparency of chamber music.

Mendelssohn’s early string quartets follow the Beethoven model of intense originality and profundity. But in the three quartets of Op. 44, Mendelssohn displays more of the traits of his own style: busy textures, lyricism and vitality. In fact, the Op. 44 quartets are often regarded as conservative or even reactionary when compared with his earlier compositions. They certainly signal the start of a classicizing phase in Mendelssohn’s career.

The Quartet in D major was numbered first when Mendelssohn’s Op. 44 was published in 1839, but it was the last of the quartets to be composed, finished on July 24, 1838, and it was his favorite of the three. The exuberant first movement demonstrates from the outset the vitality and high spirits commonly heard in Mendelssohn’s music. But the classicizing features—regular four-bar phrasing and clear formal delineations—are also apparent. Perhaps the most “unclassical” trait of the movement, though, is the wistful second theme, presented after a non-traditional modulation to the key of F-sharp minor. In the recapitulation, Mendelssohn brings this slow and slightly sinister theme back in B minor, a key that will recur in subsequent movements.

Rather than follow this energetic opener with another bustling scherzo, Mendelssohn chose instead the more classical minuet form—the only minuet among his mature quartets, and a relatively gentle one at that. The Trio section, in B minor, conspicuously avoids the regular pulse of the minuet, with the first violin wandering through a constant stream of 8th-notes over sustained chords in the lower parts.

Just as the second-movement minuet was unusually gentle for Mendelssohn, the third movement, again in B minor, is extraordinarily intimate. It partakes of the lightness of Mendelssohn’s scherzando style (and, toward the end, the trills), but without any of the caprice, and with an added measure of 18th-century reserve.

The bustling Finale (Presto con brio) dances in the rapid triplet rhythms of the Italian saltarello. It functions as a counterbalance to the spirited first movement, with similar dashes of seriousness to leaven some of the vigor.

© 2014 Luke Howard

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Artist Bios

Brentano String Quartet

Since its inception in 1992, the Brentano String Quartet has appeared throughout the world to popular and critical acclaim. Beginning in July, the Quartet (Mark Steinberg, violin; Serena Canin, violin; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Lee, cello) will succeed the Tokyo String Quartet as artists in residence at Yale University, following a 14-year residency at Princeton University. The Quartet also currently serves as the collaborative ensemble for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The Quartet has traveled widely around the world, appearing in the most prestigious venues, including New York’s Carnegie and Alice Tully halls; Washington, DC’s Library of Congress; Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw; Vienna’s Konzerthaus; Tokyo’s Suntory Hall and the Sydney Opera House. The Quartet has participated in summer festivals such as Aspen, the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, the Edinburgh Festival, the Kuhmo Festival in Finland, the Taos School of Music and the Caramoor Festival.

In addition to performing the entire standard quartet repertoire, the Brentano String Quartet has a strong interest in both very old and very new music. It has performed many musical works pre-dating the string quartet as a medium, among them madrigals of Gesualdo, fantasias of Purcell, and secular vocal works of Josquin. The Quartet has worked closely with some of the most important composers of our time, among them Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen and György Kurtág. Each concert in the Quartet’s 92Y series features a work commissioned by the ensemble. Other recent commissions include a new work by Steven Mackey: One Red Rose, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

Last spring Aeon Records released the second in a set of three CDs of the late Beethoven Quartets by the Brentano String Quartet. Other Quartet recordings include a Mozart album, also for Aeon, and the Op. 71 Quartets of Haydn. In the area of newer music, the Quartet has released an all-Mackey disc on Albany Records, and it has recorded the music of Wuorinen, Bruce Adolphe and Chou Wen-chung. In 2012 the Quartet was heard providing the central music of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, for the critically-acclaimed 2012 independent film, A Late Quartet.

Within a few years of its formation, the Brentano Quartet garnered the first Cleveland Quartet Award and the Naumburg Chamber Music Award. The Quartet is named for Antonie Brentano, whom many scholars consider to be Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved.” Its website is brentanoquartet.com.

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Christine Brandes, soprano

Noted for her radiant, crystalline voice and superb musicianship, soprano Christine Brandes brings her committed artistry to repertoire ranging from the early Baroque to music of today. Highlights of Ms. Brandes’s 2013/14 season include Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue with the Indianapolis Symphony, and a program of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” and Haydn’s Mass No. 10 in C major, “Paukenmesse,” with the Santa Rosa Symphony, in addition to her 92nd Street Y debut tonight. Last season she premiered Eric Moe’s Of Color Braided All Desire with the Brentano String Quartet at the South Mountain Concert Series in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; and Jennifer Higdon’s In the Shadow of Sirius, based on poetry of W. S. Merwin, with the Cypress String Quartet at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.

A familiar artist to New York audiences, Ms. Brandes has sung Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro and Galatea in Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the New York City Opera. She made her New York Philharmonic debut in 2005 as soloist in Messiah, and she has appeared at the Mostly Mozart Festival, performing Rameau’s Platée with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and as a guest artist with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Other New York engagements include performances with the American Symphony Orchestra, Orpheus, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and a recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Among Ms. Brandes’s many symphonic engagements, she has sung John Adams’s El Niño with the Tokyo Symphony; Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Jane Glover and the Music of the Baroque; Bach’s St. John Passion with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony; Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War with Bernard Labadie and the San Francisco Symphony; and Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri with Sir Simon Rattle and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Hailed for her Mozart heroines, Ms. Brandes has sung Le nozze di Figaro with the companies of Québec, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Montreal; Così fan tutte in Washington, Portland and Lisbon; and Die Zauberflöte with the operas of Seattle and Philadelphia, among others. Acclaimed internationally for her work in the Baroque repertoire, she has performed L’Incoronazione di Poppea in Los Angeles, Ariodante at the operas of Houston and San Diego, and Semele in San Francisco. Also devoted to contemporary works, Ms. Brandes has bowed in Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge in Washington, Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street for Central City Opera, and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in Kansas City. She has recorded for EMI, BMG/Conifer Classics, Dorian, Harmonia Mundi USA, Virgin Classics and Koch International.

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