Friday, February 8, 2008

Chamber Music Masters: A Unique Perspective

Following up on last night's master class, Robert Mann's "Chamber Music Masters" recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was unique for several interesting reasons. For one thing this was the first time that the featured performer also appeared as a composer. In that capacity Mann further introduced his work with an oral recitation of an autobiographical sketch. The third reason, on the other hand, had nothing at all to do with Mann but involved the way these programs are structured to allow the students to "take over" the middle portion. In this case that middle portion was the Charles Ives piano trio, performed by pianist Kevin Korth, violinist Leonie Bot, and cellist Megan Koch, whom (hopefully) some readers will recall were coached in the second movement when Menahem Pressler gave his Master Class last October. Since Mann had concluded last night's Master Class with the observation that the best way to get to know a composer is through the folk music to which that composer was exposed, this Ives trio was an excellent "demonstration piece" for the middle of the program; so I shall begin by considering it.

First of all to say that Ives had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the music that constituted his own "cultural context" would almost be an understatement; and I think it would be deceptive to lump all of that in the category of "folk music." I would prefer to go with the categories that Clayton W. Henderson used in compiling his Charles Ives Tunebook:

  1. Hymns
  2. Patriotic Songs and Military Music
  3. Popular Songs
  4. College Music
  5. Popular Instrumental Tunes
  6. "Classical" Music

The composers Henderson enumerates in that final category are Bach, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Donizetti, Gottschalk, Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Ethelbert Nevin, and Debussy. I suspect that Nevin is the primary reason for his using scare quotes (although my wife would probably make the same case for Gottschalk). Within all of the other categories, you have music with known composers and music that could be considered as being of "folk" origin. I doubt that there is any other composer whose source material requires as complex an ontology as this one; but, in light of these data points, I suspect that, given the opportunity, Mann would correct last night's observation to accommodate that broader concept of "cultural context."

My second point about this source material is that, as always, the performance is as important as the music itself, if not more so. This is best illustrated by a few sentences in the Program Notes for this trio about what Ives learned from his father:

One of his father's most resonant pieces of wisdom came when he said of a stonemason's off-key hymn singing: "Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds—for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds."

Ives' music is, indeed, the closest we (even the atheists among us) may get to that "wild, heroic ride to heaven," because "the music of the ages" is not what we find on the printed page but in what we hear in performances that, more often than not, honor the heart of the performer more than they do the text of that printed page.

In this light it makes sense to begin by returning to the movement that the performers had prepared for Pressler: "TSIAJ" (which stands for "This scherzo is a joke"). Last October I suggested that this title was Ives' "reply" to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (not in Henderson's list of composers, by the way), who chose to document the bad habits of Austrian village musicians in his Musikalischer Spass. I now think I need to revise this position, because, in Ives' case these were not only not bad habits but were actually source material to be faithfully documented. If we then laugh at his "joke," it is with a warm understanding of the human comedy, rather than the kind of derision that seems to underlie Mozart's exercise. To some extent this reflects the sincerity that underlies that opening scene from The Jerk that I cited in October. The black parents know that the white Steve Martin will never be able to stamp his foot in time to their singing, but they still love him. Similarly, we still love that poor pianist who never seems to come down on the rhythmic beats that the violin and cello are following, because he (in this case) is our conductor on that "wild, heroic ride to heaven."

This brings us to the movements on either side of TSIAJ, which frame the scherzo with more fundamental convictions of faith. Ives employs open fourths and fifths (and sometimes wider intervals) as if they were transcendental declarations from a Unitarian pulpit. We accept them as the bridge between our mortal coil and the heaven to which we shall eventually be conducted. So it is that the third movement concludes with a relatively sober and sincere "singing" of "Rock of Ages," leaving us with a clear vision of that bridge. Now, to be honest, I have no idea to what extent such nineteenth-century philosophical preoccupations actually concerned the members of this particular trio. They certainly were not playing it as if it were an "American Musikalischer Spass," preferring, as far as I could tell, to let Ives be Ives in his convictions, just as Myung-Whun Chung figured out how to let Messiaen be Messiaen when he conducted the San Francisco Symphony performance of "L'Ascension," which had its own philosophical preoccupations. Without dismissing what Mann brought to last night's recital, I still feel that hearing this performance of the Ives trio was enough to make my evening worth while.

So, to the extent that both the composition and performance of music are closely tied to that "cultural context," I would now like to write a bit about Mann's decision to precede the performance of his own music with some autobiographical remarks. This is the sort of thing that tends to drive the academic purists up the wall. They point to Igor Stravinsky who, asked to say a few words on television when "The Flood" was first broadcast, came out with "I don't vant to talk you more; I only vant to play you more!" Even when the English got polished up, though, Stravinsky's texts are always at a relatively high level of abstraction, almost in denial of having any such thing as a "cultural context."

Mann knows better, and I can hardly complain. Didn't I engage in my own "autobiographical exercise" in order to communicate what Mann had taught me last night about Elliott Carter? Besides, I have to give Mann credit for being far more self-effacing than I was and for creating the context of his compositions through a selection of humorous episodes. Furthermore, the three pieces he introduced were all brief; and he had a good sense of the right scale of brevity for the remarks that preceded them. Also, because the pieces themselves covered the time from 1941 to the very recent past (the middle of the three pieces having been composed in 1981), they wove together comfortably with the chronology of the autobiography.

As to the music itself, it is hard to comment on pieces that short after only a single exposure. Besides, when you consider the full scope of the repertoire that the Julliard Quartet has covered under Mann's leadership, I feel that I have barely scratched the surface of his own "cultural context;" and that does not even account for his contact with theater works through his wife. However, I suspect I felt most detached from that middle piece, which was an "Invocation" written for a wedding ceremony, because I found myself just too ill-equipped to get beyond the notes. As I have said of other "first exposure" performances, I came away interested enough to want to here these works performed again.

The evening concluded with "real" Mozart, the K. 515 string quintet. This was certainly a radical departure from what had been presented prior to the intermission, and I suppose there was some risk of anticlimax. However, to draw upon a metaphor that I invoked in writing about Carter, this performance was a bit like eavesdropping on a very intimate and highly amicable social conversation; and, from that point of view, it was very much in the same spirit (if not style) as the first half of the evening. There was a particular intimacy between Mann's first violin and Paul Hersh's first viola in the Andante movement, which sent me back to my Mozart Handbook to compare the date of this work with that of the K. 364 sinfonia concertante. The difference in the catalog numbers offers a clue: the works are separated by eight years. Nevertheless, I could not help but think that Mozart (who tended to play the viola for such chamber music) was reflecting back on his earlier violin-viola conversations. After all, Mozart brought along his own "cultural context" to each new composition!

1 comment:

America Jones said...

I wish I knew as much about Classical music as you do; I really enjoy your art-critical sensibilities!