Monday, December 10, 2018

Eastern European Moods from Telegraph Quartet

Telegraph Quartet members Jeremiah Shaw, Joseph Maile, Pei-Ling Lin, and Eric Chin (from their San Francisco Performances event page)

Yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances launched its three-concert Discovery Series with a recital by the Telegraph Quartet, winner of the 2016 Walter W. Naumburg Chamber Music Award and currently Quartet-in-Residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The ensemble’s two violinists, Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, alternate in occupying first chair. The other members of the group are violist Pei-Ling Lin and cellist Jeremiah Shaw.

The “discovery” element of the program involved the trajectories of three composers of Eastern European origins. The “source” of those trajectories, so to speak, was Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, represented by his Opus 51 quartet in E-flat major, known as the “Slavonic” for drawing upon indigenous source material, particularly in its second movement based on the dumka form of sharply contrasting moods. Late in his life Dvořák encouraged another young Czech to begin studies at the Prague Conservatory. That young man was Erwin Schulhoff, and he was only ten years old at the time. Yesterday afternoon’s program began with a collection of five pieces, each based on a different geographical origin, only one of which was Czech.

Since he was of Jewish descent, Schulhoff’s career took a turn for the worst after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. He ended up in the Wülzburg concentration camp, where he died of tuberculosis on August 18, 1942. Polish-born Mieczysław Weinberg was more fortunate. He graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1939, just as the Nazis were moving in on Poland; and he managed to flee to the Soviet Union before they got as far as Warsaw.

There he was fortunate enough to meet Dmitri Shostakovich, and the two became close friends. As might be guessed, however, that friendship had its own down-side when, following the end of World War II, Shostakovich once again found himself out of favor with Soviet authorities. Indeed, in February of 1953, Weinberg was arrested on charges of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism;” and the only thing that saved him was the radical shift in Soviet policies that followed the death of Joseph Stalin.

Nevertheless, Weinberg’s achievements as a composer remained in the shadows; and, for the most part, they remained there until after his death in 1996. Since then, however, there has been a growing interest in the vast catalog of his works (his “opus count” ran to 154) thanks, in no small part, to Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer (another Eastern European connection), British director David Pountney, who staged the first performance of Weinberg’s opera The Passenger, and the French Quatuor Danel, which made all seventeen of his string quartets part of their repertoire and recorded them all for the German cpo label between 2006 and 2009. (The entire six-CD collection is available as a box set.)

Telegraph chose to introduce Weinberg’s quartets to their audience with his Opus 35 (sixth) in E minor. This quartet was composed in 1946, the year in which Soviet Central Committee Andrei Zhdanov imposed the Zhdanov Doctrine, which led to Shostakovich’s second denunciation by Soviet authorities. Ironically, Weinberg was not impacted by the Doctrine on the grounds that no one was particularly interested in his compositions! Nevertheless, Opus 35 constitutes a major undertaking on the same epic scale as Shostakovich’s Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor, written during the darkest days of World War II.

Mind you, there is no question that Weinberg had his own distinctive voice, which would not be confused with that of Shostakovich. Nevertheless, he shared with Shostakovich a sophisticated discipline for polyphonic structures as a basis for intensely dark rhetoric. Each of the four principal movements of Opus 35 presents its own approach to that darkness through a different tempo.

Curiously, a rapid pace appears only after the first movement, with two intense movements that ferociously pass through like a bolt of lightning with a combined duration of less than five minutes. For those unfamiliar with the piece, trying to follow the movement structure on the program sheet can be a bit disorienting. However, disorientation may have been Weinberg’s way of expressing his awareness of his own state of neglect; and the more we know about Weinberg the man, the better equipped we are to respond to the expressiveness of his music.

Weinberg’s quartet was the only piece played during the second half of the program. The first half offered the balance of a far sunnier rhetoric. There are no dark shadows haunting the four movements of Dvořák’s Opus 51 quartet. Even in the second dumka movement, the Andante con moto section is more wistful than elegiac (and, of course, the essence of dumka is that balance between the discreetly subdued and the overtly raucous). Telegraph clearly appreciated the sheer delight expressed through this music, pleasantly reminding its audience that there is more to the Dvořák quartet repertoire than his popular Opus 96 (“American”) quartet in F major.

The opening Schulhoff selection was probably as unfamiliar as the Weinberg quartet to most of the audience. During the Twenties (yesterday afternoon’s selection was composed in 1923), Schulhoff was as adventurous as many of the more familiar composers of that decade. He wrote an essay in which he had the temerity to propose that, for all of his efforts at appropriation, Igor Stravinsky never really “got” jazz. (Even before I knew about either Schulhoff or his article, I agreed with this observation!) In his set of five pieces, Schulhoff steered clear of the American jazz sources he was getting to know; but he still came up with an outlandishly wacky tango movement. Indeed, each of the five pieces in the set seems to be grounded in parody; and no genre that he considers escapes unscathed. (The perverse liberties he takes with a Viennese waltz in the first piece perfectly establishes expectations for the remaining four.)

Given the intense seriousness of the second half of the program, there was a certain healthy quality in the sense of humor that Telegraph brought to their performance of the Schulhoff pieces. Like any good stand-up comedian, the group knew that the telling of the joke is often more important than the joke itself. They appreciated the discipline required to tell Schulhoff’s jokes the right way, the perfect approach to allowing the audience have a bit of fun before settling into the less frivolous offerings that would follow on the program.

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