Musicians from Marlboro is a touring group that basically gives the rest of us an opportunity to sample the offerings from the preceding summer's Marlboro Music Festival from the campus of Marlboro College in Vermont. Most of the performers are at the beginning of their respective careers, although I have been following the career of cellist Marcy Rosen since my days on the East Coast. One of Marlboro's greatest virtues is the environment in which the young rub shoulders, so to speak, with the more mature professionals in a collegial, rather than student-teacher, relationship. Since a Musicians from Marlboro concert tends to be a greatest-hits-from-last-summer affair, the resulting program may not have the unifying theme that so many concert programs now seem to have. Nevertheless, last night's Annual Subscriber Gift Concert, organized by San Francisco Performances, could be listened to as a reflection on Robert Mann's comment at the end of his San Francisco Conservatory Master Class to the effect that the best way to get to know a composer is through the music to which that composer was exposed. (Mann actually said "folk music;" but I have used Ives as an example of an "experience base" that extends far beyond what we would call folk music.)
When Mann made this comment at the Conservatory, it was in the context of guidance he was giving to a student string quartet preparing Dmitri Shostakovich's second string quartet; but an equally valid context would be the extensive experience of Mann and the Julliard Quartet with the six string quartets of Béla Bartók. This is a remarkable collection, because each of the six is decidedly unique from the others; yet all of them are firmly rooted in the folk music that Bartók had studied so assiduously with his colleague, Zoltán Kodály. It thus seems appropriate to begin with what a string quartet of Marlboro veterans (Lily Francis and Yura Lee, violins, Eric Nowlin, viola, and Rosen on cello) did with the fourth of these quartets. It is also important to recognize the role of the Julliard Quartet in our understanding of Bartók, since their legacy of several recordings of the complete cycle must be as much a burden on a contemporary string quartet as the legacy of Arthur Rubinstein recordings is on any pianist wishing to perform Chopin (who was also heavily influenced by the music he heard around him). Nevertheless, the Marlboro quartet delivered a performance of the Bartók fourth as a conversation entirely of their own devising, rather than a departure from a model previously developed by the Julliard.
In my student days this was the Bartók quartet that received the most attention in the classroom, the presumption being that it was the least "accessible" of the six. Allen Forte even went as far as to suggest that the third movement embodied a Webern-like serialism, rather than simply experimenting with the use of tone clusters to accompany a series of recitative passages by each of the instruments. However, as Mann had demonstrated in coaching a student string quartet working on Elliott Carter, the accessibility of both a composition and its performance often derives from the extent to which performances can perceive and realize the music in the spirit of John Dewey's conversation metaphor. This is why I feel it was important to describe the Marlboro performance as a conversation "of their own devising." The "script for the dialog" may be in the published score; but the actual "conversational technique" of affirmations and challenges is a matter of how the "actors perform the script." As a result, while many of us may have been well-informed by past Julliard performances of Bartók (both recorded and "live"), our state of informedness provided the basis for appreciating the unique Marlboro voices that were engaged in this particular conversation.
The Bartók quartet was flanked by two decidedly different approaches to folk material, both of which involved texts sung by mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford. First there were four arrangements by Ludwig van Beethoven of folksongs, two of which were Scottish (one with a text by Robert Burns) and the other two Irish. These are rather odd "rough beasts," to invoke the metaphor of that later Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. They were the product of a commission from Scottish publisher George Thomson, who had collected the texts and melodies of the folk material and wanted Beethoven to arrange them for voice accompanied by piano trio. According to Eric Bromberger, who prepared the program notes, Beethoven never saw the texts, only the titles and melodies; so these works are hardly major models of art song. For that matter, as I have previously suggested, most of Beethoven's writing for the human voice is far from his best effort. (As far as I am concerned, he hit the top of his game with the first act quartet in Fidelio, "Mir is so wunderbar;" and the down-slope on either side of that stunning moment is pretty steep!) So these folksong settings are best appreciated for their novelty.
On the other hand the Bartók quartet was followed (after an intermission) by Johannes Brahms' two Opus 91 songs for alto, viola, and piano. In the second of these songs, "Geistliches Wiegenlied," the viola plays a direct quotation of the German folksong, "Joseph, lieber Joseph mein," which comes from the fourteenth-century carol "Resonet in laudibus." References to Christmas are so legion and so hackneyed that this brief meditation on the Nativity is powerfully transcendent in its modesty, and Mumford easily found just the right tone for realizing that modesty. If Brahms felt haunted by Beethoven's ghost whenever he tried to write for orchestra, when it came to German art song, he had nothing to fear! Both of these songs convey the listener to the still center of the universe, where we encounter, of all things, the Nativity scene in all of its childlike simplicity.
The final work on the program was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 593 D major string quintet. This was composed in December of 1790, exactly one year before his death; and, while there is much to praise in this work, that context may have elevated it on the wrong pedestal. Bromberger quoted Louis Biancolli (compiler of The Mozart Handbook) calling it "full of noble sentiment and great feeling;" but I have trouble buying into that perspective. I prefer to think that, even at the age of 34, Mozart had still not lost touch with his inner-twenty-year-old, responsible for all that ingenuity and wit that make his music so engaging. This is certainly the sort of performance that the Marlboro musicians brought to their audience. The feeling was definitely there; but the tone was not so much one of "noble sentiment" as of the sheer joy of discovery that emerges when conversation at its best is allowed to run its course.
The extent to which this was a conversation among equals was further reinforced by the seating for this quintet. Francis and Lee exchanged positions, so that Lee led the ensemble as first violin. Similarly, Nowlin, having also played the Brahms, drew back to the second viola chair, ceding the lead to Maiya Papach. I really enjoy this kind of practice, seeing it so often in the seating of the San Francisco Symphony. It is the mark of the sort of sensibility that goes into managing a repertoire, where different voices play different roles in different compositions. In other words it adds to the overall diversity of the performance experience, and it is the pleasures of such diversity that play such a strong role in motivating us to go to such performances in the first place.