Explore The Music
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MOZART: String Quartet in B-flat major, K. 458, “Hunt”
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born Salzburg, January 27, 1756; died Vienna, December 5, 1791
String Quartet in B-flat major, K. 458, “Hunt”
Composed in 1784; 26 minutes
For Mozart, hearing Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets for the first time was one of the most profound experiences of his musical life. Inspired by this model, Mozart composed six quartets between 1782- 85, dedicating the complete set (which he referred to as “my six children”) to his senior colleague and friend with the observation, “I have learned from Haydn how to write quartets.” This act of pure homage was unusual for Mozart, who almost never wrote an opus without a commission or guaranteed performance. What’s more, he relinquished all rights for the works to Haydn. Yet for all his indebtedness to Haydn, it is clear that, in turn, Mozart’s quartet writing influenced Haydn’s later compositions in the genre.
Mozart’s “Haydn” Quartets and Haydn’s Op. 33 Quartets are coequal contributors to the development of the string quartet during the early 1780s. While chamber music came relatively easy to Haydn, Mozart spent more effort on these quartets than he did on just about any other of his compositions. He later described them as “the fruit of a long and laborious study”—a startling admission by a composer from whom music seemed to flow with ease—and the manuscript shows an alarming number of corrections, changes and alterations.
After completing the last of the set in January 1785, Mozart organized a performance of all six quartets for Haydn, spread over two evenings (January 15 and February 12, 1785). Mozart and his father Leopold both played in the ensemble. After hearing these works, Haydn remarked to Leopold: “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.”
The B-flat major Quartet, K. 458 (the fourth in the set), was finished on November 9, 1784. The nickname “Jagd” (or “Hunt”) is not Mozart’s own, and in some ways detracts from the true nature of the work. Although the first movement is cast in a rollicking 6/8 dotted rhythm reminiscent of hunt music, with motifs that suggest horn calls, the remainder of the work is far removed from the brisk, outdoor world of the hunt and belongs firmly within the realm of intimate (and indoor!) music-making. The antique Minuet that follows is purposefully old-fashioned with a lighter trio as a contrast. Recalling the aphorism that “Mozart is too simple for children, too difficult for adults,” the Adagio is deceptively modest, requiring a more advanced musicality than its materials might suggest. It uses a theme recycled from Mozart’s Litaniae Laurentanae, K. 195. The witty finale that follows pays tribute to Haydn’s humor and verve.
© 2012 Luke Howard
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SHENG: Dance Capriccio for Piano and String Quartet (New York premiere)
Born Shanghai, December 6, 1955
Dance Capriccio for Piano and String Quartet (New York premiere)
Composed in 2011; 12 minutes
Born in Shanghai, Bright Sheng began musical studies in China before moving to New York as a graduate student in 1982, where his composition teachers included Leonard Bernstein, Mario Davidovsky, George Perle and Chou Wen-chung. In much of Sheng’s music, consequently, there remains a connection to Chinese and other Asian musical traditions. Sometimes this is overt, as in his 1997 Spring Dreams for traditional Chinese orchestra and solo cello (premiered with Yo-Yo Ma), or his 1988 H’un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76, which premiered at 92Y and was the first runner-up for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize. But whether in plain view or woven into a more diverse stylistic tapestry, the Asian influence is almost always present, making Sheng a leading figure in cross-cultural composition.
Sheng served as artistic advisor for Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project from 1998-2003, and he has made several field trips along the traditional Silk Road path, collecting folk music and sound samples. Folk music had also been a part of Sheng’s musical experiences from his youth. During the Cultural Revolution in China, he worked as a pianist and percussionist in a folk-music ensemble in the remote province of Qinghai, near the Tibetan border, where the influence of Tibetan culture is pronounced.
Inspired by this experience, and fostered again through his field work, Sheng has regularly returned to the music of Tibet and its surrounding regions in his own compositions, including Seven Tunes Heard in China for Solo Cello from 1995, Tibetan Dance for Violin, Clarinet and Piano from 2001, and Tibetan Swing for orchestra from 2002.
In writing Dance Capriccio (2011) for Piano and String Quartet, Sheng found inspiration in the music of the Sherpa of western Nepal who, the composer notes, are believed to have moved from eastern Tibet to their current location centuries ago. Sherpa language, dance and folk music share many similarities with the Tibetan culture Sheng knows so well. He observes, “Like the Tibetans, Sherpa people love to dance, and, along with love songs and drinking songs, dance music is an important genre among Sherpa folk music. In Dance Capriccio, I try to capture the various characters of Sherpa Dance, from slow to fast, tender to raucous, even wild.”
The work opens with chiming piano octaves against a barely-audible string backdrop, then a flexible, folk-like melody appears, first in the piano, then in a duet between violin and viola, until the whole ensemble is caught up in a whirl that ebbs and flows in intensity. The piano then leads in an accented staccato dance, with other folk-inspired melodies emerging from the texture. After the opening gestures are reprised, the viola and cello embark on another vigorous dance with rhythmic punctuations from the piano. As the work reaches its climax, energetic cross-rhythms emerge (5-against-4, 6-against-4, 8-against-3), accelerating into a boisterous ffff conclusion.
Dance Capriccio was commissioned by the Maxine & Stuart Frankel Foundation in honor of Lois Beznos, the President of Chamber Music Society of Detroit. The work was written for Peter Serkin and the Shanghai Quartet, who premiered it on February 11, 2012, at the Seligman Performing Arts Center in Detroit. With this performance, Dance Capriccio receives its New York premiere.
© 2012 Luke Howard
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DVOŘÁK: Quintet for Piano and Strings in A major, Op. 81
Born Nelahozeves, near Kralupy, September 8, 1841; died Prague, May 1, 1904
Quintet for Piano and Strings in A major, Op. 81
Composed in 1887; 38 minutes
When Bedřich Smetana took over the directorship of Prague’s Provisional Theatre in 1866, the principal violist in the orchestra was Antonín Dvořák. At the time, Dvořák was a young, energetic musician who seemed unusually interested in music with a Bohemian folk flavor and whose ambition was to become a composer. This fortuitous intersection of careers represented a kind of “passing of the baton” of Bohemian nationalism in music. Indeed, Dvořák’s early works follow the Smetana model of classical form with passages of a generalized “folkish” flavor, but he would soon follow a different path.
Smetana (whose first language was German, not Czech) was far more Germanic in his cultural outlook. Even in “nationalistic” works—his opera The Bartered Bride and the symphonic Má Vlast, for example—the Bohemian influence is restricted to the subject matter or episodes of local color in the context of an essentially Germanic style. Dvořák, on the other hand, was from Slavic peasant stock, and the notion of “folk” that recurs in his music emits a sincerity and authenticity that his more urban colleagues could only mimic.
This nationalistic aesthetic is expressed as much in Dvořák’s chamber works as in the larger orchestral essays, and perhaps more accurately. While the symphonic orchestra is, by definition, an invention of the Western musical tradition, chamber music can more authentically reflect the “village band” ensemble, soloistic figurations and dance origins of much folk music.
Dvořák wrote his first piano quintet, Op. 5, in 1872. Although it was performed, it was not published immediately. Years later, when his publisher asked for some early works, Dvořák extensively revised his first quintet but still didn’t submit it. Almost immediately, though, he started work on a new piano quintet in the same key, as if the process of revising the older work had awakened in him the possibilities for a new one. Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, was written between August 18 and October 3, 1887, and it was premiered in Prague on January 6, 1888.
The first movement (Allegro, ma non tanto) begins with the same gesture as the earlier quintet: a cello melody against a background of piano arpeggios. While the first theme begins lyrically, it takes an early dramatic turn to the minor mode. As the remaining instruments enter, the energy level builds into a bridge passage of vigorous dotted rhythms before the statement of the viola’s second theme.
Dvořák’s works include several examples of a dumka, a Ukrainian term whose meaning the composer himself was not really sure of, but which in general signifies a lament. Traditionally, a dumka is either sung or played instrumentally, divided into distinct sections and with occasional dramatic outbursts among the mostly pensive themes. For the dumka of the second movement, the composer uses the two main themes as the basis for variations.
The movement’s opening motif, played by the piano, is virtually identical to the opening of the 1940s popular song by Nat “King” Cole, “Nature Boy.” The song’s writer, eden ahbez, was sued for breach of copyright, but it was the Yiddish melody “Schweig mein Hertz” and not Dvořák’s quintet that was cited as the original model, though the similarities between all three works are obvious and pronounced.
Dvořák titled the third movement “Furiant,” a reference to the vigorous Czech dance that he had included twice in his earlier Slavonic Dances. But in the manuscript score, this designation is added in parentheses and possibly as an afterthought. It is not a genuine example of the furiant, as it lack the strong syncopations normally associated with that dance. Rather, it resembles more closely a traditional scherzo and trio.
The finale, a high-spirited polka, includes both a fugato passage based on the main theme and a subdued chorale near the end, but these elements of seriousness are merely interludes in the movement’s overarching verve.
© 2012 Luke Howard
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Recognized as an artist of passion and integrity, the distinguished American pianist Peter Serkin is one of the most thoughtful and individualistic musicians appearing before the public today.
Mr. Serkin’s 2012/13 season began with summer appearances at the festivals of Aldeburgh, Chautauqua, Saito Kinen and Tanglewood. In celebration of Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary, he performed Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with the Boston Symphony and David Zinman in a nationally televised broadcast for PBS, and he participated in Tanglewood’s Contemporary Music Week with a performance of George Benjamin’s Duet. Mr. Serkin’s orchestral appearances include the Chicago, North Carolina and St. Louis symphonies and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. A Northeast recital tour takes him to Princeton, Haverford, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
An avid exponent of the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, Mr. Serkin has been instrumental in bringing to life works of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Wolpe, Messiaen, Henze and Berio in concert and on CD. He has performed and recorded many important world premieres which were written specifically for him by such composers as Takemitsu, Lieberson, Knussen, Goehr and particularly Wuorinen. This season, he premieres a solo work by Carter commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival.
Among other highlights of Mr. Serkin’s discography, his recording of the six Mozart concerti of 1784 with Alexander Schneider and the English Chamber Orchestra was nominated for a Grammy® Award and received the prestigious Deutsche Schallplatten and “Best Recording of the Year” by Stereo Review magazine. Other Grammy-nominated recordings include Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus and Quartet for the End of Time on BMG and a solo recording of works by Stravinsky, Wolpe and Lieberson for New World Records.
Mr. Serkin’s rich musical heritage extends back several generations: his grandfather was violinist and composer Adolf Busch, and his father was pianist Rudolf Serkin. He entered the Curtis Institute of Music at age eleven, and he now teaches at Bard College Conservatory of Music and the Longy School of Music. Mr. Serkin has performed with the world’s major symphony orchestras, and as a dedicated chamber musician, he has collaborated with Pamela Frank, Yo-Yo Ma, the Budapest, Guarneri and Orion string quartets and TASHI, of which he was a founding member. He made his 92Y debut in October 1965, and he is now a regular guest in both collaborative chamber music settings and solo recitals.
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The Shanghai Quartet is renowned for its passionate musicality, impressive technique and multicultural innovations. Its elegant style melds the delicacy of Eastern music with the emotional breadth of Western repertoire, allowing it to traverse musical genres from traditional Chinese folk mu¬sic and masterpieces of Western music to cutting-edge contemporary works.
Formed at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1983, the Shanghai Quartet (Weigang Li, violin; Yi-Wen Jiang, violin; Honggang Li, viola; Nicholas Tzavaras, cello) has performed with the foremost artists of the day. Collaborations include the Tokyo, Juilliard and Guarneri quartets; cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Harrell; pianists Menahem Pressler, Peter Serkin and Jean-Yves Thibaudet; and Chinese pipa and ruan player Wu Man.
Recent performances have brought the Quartet to the music festivals of Seoul and Beijing, Festival Pablo Casals in France, Beethoven Festival in Poland and Cartagena International Music Festival in Colombia. Its many North American engage¬ments have included the Santa Fe Cham¬ber Music Festival, Chamberfest Ottawa and both chamber recitals and concerto concerts at Carnegie Hall. It made its 92Y debut in 1989 and last appeared here in 2011 at the 92Y Music Introduction Series.
The Quartet has a long history of championing new works and juxtaposing traditions of Eastern and Western music. For its 25th anniversary season, the Quartet premiered works from the three continents that comprise its artistic and cultural worlds: Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 3, “Leaves From an Unwritten Diary;” Chen Yi’s From the Path of Beauty, which was co-commissioned by Chanticleer; Vivian Fung’s String Quartet No. 2 and jazz pianist Dick Hyman’s String Quartet.
The Shanghai Quartet has an extensive discography of more than 30 recordings. Its most popular disc remains Chinasong, a collection of Chinese folk songs from Delos. In 2009, Camerata released the Quartet’s complete Beethoven string quartets in a seven-disc set. Other CDs include the Schumann and Dvořák piano quintets with Rudolf Buchbinder and Zhou Long’s Poems from Tang for string quartet and orchestra with the Singapore Symphony on BIS.
The Quartet has participated in an array of media projects, from a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda to the PBS “Great Performances” series. Violinist Weigang Li was seen in the documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, and the family of cellist Nicholas Tzavaras was the subject of the film Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep.
The Shanghai Quartet currently serves as quartet in residence at Montclair State University in New Jersey, ensemble in residence with the Shanghai Symphony, and visiting guest professors of the Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Its website is shanghaiquartet.com
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