Sunday, February 15, 2009

Adventures in New Listening

Considering the scope of my listening experience, it is very rare that I come across a program that covers a period from the early nineteenth century to the late twentieth century in which I am familiar with only one composition. Even more curious is when that one composition is one with which I have become only recently acquainted, Amy Beach's Opus 67 piano quintet in F sharp minor. However, this particular program came from last night's Graduate Viola Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; and my entire knowledge of the Beach quintet comes from two performances (one professional, one student) that I previously heard at the Conservatory. Furthermore, some of the oddity of the evening was blunted by the fact that the Beach performance was actually a repeat of the student performance I heard last November. There is little I can add to my past writing about both the composition and the students who performed it, other than the obvious observation that this is a work that deserves to be performed more frequently. The only thing that may bear repeating is that, probably only by virtue of my own listening experience, performances of this quintet continue to tweak my memories of Edward Elgar's piano quintet. However, Elgar wrote his quintet in 1919, about a dozen years after Beach completed hers; and it is hard to imagine his having been influenced by it. Had he, for example, visited the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, we would have known about this from some biographical account; but there does not appear to be any evidence of his having been in North America. Indeed, Elgar's most serious connection to the United States probably came from Yehudi Menuhin, who recorded Elgar's violin concerto with Elgar conducting. However, Menuhin was born in 1916; and, for all his reputation as a child prodigy, it is hard to imagine his having influenced Elgar's composition work in 1919, even in the extremely unlikely event that he had heard Beach's music while still in utero! (For the record, while Menuhin was raised in San Francisco, he was born in New York.)

Returning from this digression, however, the most important aspect of last night's recital was the framing of the entire program. It began with two miniatures for viola and piano by a composer sitting in the audience (Sahba Aminikia) and concluded with the Opus 1 (a string quartet in D major) by a composer (Josif Andriasov) who died in 2000 but was represented by a thorough set of program notes by his musicologist widow (Marta Andriasova-Kudryashova). Both of these composers received their initial music education in Russia, Aminikia at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory and Andriasov at the Peter I. Tchaikovsky Moscow Conservatory. Andriasov was born in Moscow to an Armenian family, while Aminikia was born in Tehran. While the two composers were separated by half a century, they both vividly illustrated Robert Mann's precept that a composer is best understood in terms of the music to which he has been exposed; and, in this case, there could well have been a common exposure that could be traced back to origins along the banks of the Caspian Sea. Both compositions captured a certain "Armenian spirit," which is probably best associated with Aram Khachaturian but was displayed in a more "earthy" rendering than Khachaturian ever delivered. Indeed, Aminikia seemed more interested in capturing the sound qualities of these folk sources, rather than the tunes themselves, which would put him closer to Béla Bartók than to Khachaturian. Furthermore, Aminikia is currently a graduate student in composition at the Conservatory; and this was the first performance of his miniatures. So this was probably a case of one student composing for another and probably working closely together on this emphasis on the nature of the sound itself.

The "other end of the time-line," so to speak, was represented by the Opus 94 of Johann Nepomuk Hummel. What the program listed as a fantasy for viola and orchestra is probably what (according to Wikipedia) the British Library Integrated Catalogue calls his "Potpourri for Viola and Orchestra," based on "Il mio tesoro." Many of us gave our first serious listening to Hummel when Wynton Marsalis recorded his trumpet concerto, and this work made it clear that Hummel was a great admirer of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Its first movement seemed to take the first movement of the K. 385 ("Haffner") symphony and turn it on its head, while its second movement came off as a fantasy on the second movement of the K. 467 piano concerto. Thus, it was no surprise that Hummel would have also turned to Don Giovanni for inspiration; and, since the viola is the "tenor" of a string quartet, what better source than the most famous tenor aria from the opera? In many respects this work can be heard as a harbinger of the sort of salon music that would flourish throughout the nineteenth century, much of which involved such homages to the spirit of the preceding century.

Similarly, Max Bruch's Opus 85 romance for viola and orchestra may be heard as a reflection on Ludwig van Beethoven's two similarly-titled works for violin and orchestra (Opera 40 and 50); but Bruch's work is anything but a mere homage. Rather, it is likely the work of a composer who, like Johannes Brahms, had to live with the influence of Beethoven without succumbing to that influence. Bruch's result certainly exhibited a unique voice, which served the voice of the viola as well as his more popular works for violin and cello served those respective instruments.

Finally, after the Andriasov quartet the evening concluded with an encore. The string quartet returned to perform Astor Piazzolla's "Four for Tango," which he had composed for the Kronos Quartet in 1987. Piazzolla provided a sharp contrast to that "Caspian" sound that began and ended the formal program; but it also ended the evening with a playful gesture, which always makes for good programming!

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