Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Art of Listening Concert Review: Jupiter String Quartet

The concert I attended was the Jupiter String Quartet's show with Michael Tree and Peter Wiley.
The concert I heard was Chamber music.
This concert took place on Sunday, April 11th at 3 pm.
The concert was held in the Independence Seaport Museum.

A Listing of the Selections Heard:
String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 76, No. 2 Hob. III:76 “Quinten” (1797)- Composed by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet in E Minor (1923)- Composed by Leos Janacek (1854-1928)
Sextet from Capriccio, Op. 85 (1942)- Composed by Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Verklart Nacht, Op. 4 (1899)- Composed by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
James Webster describes Haydn's string quartets from the 1790s as having “a demonstratively ‘public’ style” which he learned from his time in London. Webster explains that “without losing his grip on the essentials of quartet style or his sovereign mastery of form, [Haydn] expands the dimensions still further, incorporating more original themes, bolder contrasts, distantly related keys.” Webster directly refers to Op. 76, No.2 in D Minor “with its obsessive 5ths” as carrying “this process still further, to the point of becoming extroverted and at times almost eccentric.” (Webster) The motif at the beginning of the first movement is repeated in almost over 100 occurrences. The program notes explain how the “simple succession of perfect fifths is entirely independent of harmony; it implies none yet works without modification in a variety of harmonic context.” (Bromberger) The Allegro movement's harmonic uncertainty is balanced with the Andante movement's change to a major key, a lighter tempo and texture, and is based around a “simple ternary form: a sonata (with development) and a theme and variations. The Menuetto movement earned the nickname “Witches' Canon” for the “strict canon between the upper and lower halves of the quartet, each pair playing in perfect, unrelenting unison.” While Haydn's piece exemplified the intricacies of how the four voices in a string quartet can intertwine to create complex harmonies and textures, I thought the most exceptional element of the final Vivace assai movement was the virtuosity of the first violin. While the violin wails with its “spicy flourishes,” the rest of the quartet drove the lively tempo of the final movement of the piece (Bromberger). While some would describe Haydn's “Quinten” as an eccentric piece, it still experiments within the bounds of Classical forms. 
Juxtaposed against Haydn's work, Leos Janáček's String Quartet in E Minor exemplifies the expansion of experimentation within music. I think what makes this piece most interesting is its rejection of traditional harmony and rhythm. While the piece's “Con moto” tempo marking means that the piece should move “with motion,” the strings seem to keep pace without any instrument playing a particular undercurrent rhythm. Inspired by Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, the piece draws as much from Janáček's emotional attachment in his relationships with women as it does from the program notes. I think this explains why the interjections of the strings come across as more passionate and sporadic. In his letters to Kamila Stosslova, a young woman who he desired in his later life, Janáček explains that “I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata” (Emerson String Quartet). Janáček's First String Quartet was written at the request of the Czech Quartet and was completed in less than a month in 1923. Earlier, Janáček had written a piano trio in 1909 based on Tolstoy's novel. Though that piece no longer exists in its entirety, pieces of that music were used in this string quartet. I think it makes more sense that this piece was composed so quickly knowing how Janáček drew from previous works and what inspired him. I think the composition's focus on the novel as well its adherence to “Classical form of drama” made the piece easier for Janáček while making the music easier for the audience to understand (Bromberger). The first movement serves as a exposition that “grows increasingly agitated and develops a kind of ominous restlessness” as the Adagio slowly builds motion. Despite the darker and slower sections of the opening, the first movement ends on a soft and optimistic note, perhaps even changing to a major key. In the second movement, the violin's “close-to-the-bridge” interludes stuck out at first until the piece builds to rhythmically chaotic “exotic” climax. 
The Andante tempo of the third movement slows down the action and seems to unify the harmonies of the group at first but as each individual instrument follows fragmented themes that compete against each other “with moments of hectic excitement.” The dramatic tonic expansion is balanced with a minimal introduction to the final movement of the piece. The first violin's voice leads the rest of the quartet in trading phrases as individual voices in the beginning but the piece gains “momentum” as the group's phrasing fragments. I enjoyed the quartet's construction of chords through their fragment phrases, building complex chordal structures as a result.
The piece I liked the least from the show was Richard Strauss's Sextet from Capriccio Op. 85. The program describes the piece as an example of “limpid classical restraint” which could explain why I did not find this piece so compelling (Jacobson). What I did enjoy was the additional tones that the two additional guests on the song added to the quartet sound. I feel like would have appreciated this piece more in the context of the opera for which it was written. The central idea of the opera was to created “a conversation-piece for music” which Strauss sought to “crystallize” his ideas about the “relative importance of music and words” (Lintgen). The love story that the sextet serves as a prequel mirrors the interplay between Flamand the musician and Olivier the poet in their adornment for a beautiful Countess (McKelvey). The conclusion of the dilemma is that “music and words are brother and sister” as the Countess's choice is never revealed. She promises to let them know who she will choose at dinner where the piece abruptly ends. The recapitulation at the end of the piece unites the words and music in working together to complete an idea.
Words relative importance to music is very clear in Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, Op.4, the final piece of the Jupiter String Quartet's performance. While we have discussed many of the details of this piece in class, the element of Verklärte Nacht that I noticed the most was the freedom enabled by the “spacious single-movement design” of the song, in contrast to the conventional constructions of the other pieces which were performed (Jacobson). The cellos at the beginning set a haunting tone to the piece. I liked how the different layers of strings worked together to create tension through tonality and dynamics. The soft, detached and melodic sections of the piece seem to show the Richard Dehmel poem's “somber side” while the more complex polyphonic sections of the piece engaged more of the “ecstatically sensual” elements of the piece (Jacobson). I really enjoyed the way this piece experiments with the possibility of different tones from the instruments. It seems like the string players used a variety of bow techniques to vary between smooth crystalline sounds (especially the violins) compared to a more rough and harsh sounding tone. The musicians used pizzicato plucking at points. These textures combined with dissonances created a physical response to listening to the piece, I felt I was listening to the piece with my body almost as much as I was listening with my ears.
 I wondered whether the sensual nature of listening to these pieces was what appealed to the audience at the chamber concert, given that a lot of them had hearing aids. The man who sat in front of me at the beginning of the show jokingly asked me to show him my AARP card, commenting on my clear difference in demographic compared to the audience. The audience seemed older than most of the other concerts I have attended this semester. The audience was not as dressed up as audiences from previous concerts either. I wondered what this said about the nature of these concert attenders. While the concerts at the Kimmel Center seem to be an event for the families, couples and individuals that attend them, this audience seemed more low key. They seemed more interested in the quality of the music than the theatrics that surrounded it. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the people who attend these concerts pay for a subscription to attend a variety of chamber music concerts while many of the people who are attending concerts at the Kimmel Center are paying for one expensive ticket. The announcer at the show explained that the subscriptions to these concerts pay for the quality of musicians who perform at them. I wonder whether the smaller size of the chamber orchestra enables the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society to hire better musicians than they would if they focused on a larger form of music.
Another thing that I thought distinguished the chamber music experience from larger concerts was the interaction between the musicians. While large orchestras require a conductor to keep so many musicians in time with each other, the musicians on stage clearly relied on listening to each other or using visual cues to follow along with the music. I wondered which of these kinds of music would be more demanding for musicians. Chamber music seems to require more individual virtuosity and expressiveness but I can see how concert orchestras could be demanding in different ways given the increased complexity of the music and group size. I think chamber music requires a certain level of quiet and respect for the music that larger crowds or venues simply cannot provide. Some of the pieces I researched had been later adapted for larger operas like Capriccio. I think this shows how setting and audience can effect the needs composers have to fulfill. I think the question of what role music plays in a particular place really defines the relationship between the audience and the musicians. An audience may be equally silent for an orchestra or a chamber music because it is held important to respect the performers yet in other musical genres we find that a silent audience is the exact opposite of what we strive to achieve.
The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society hosts shows in the Independence Seaport Museum right by Penn's Landing.
I think what I took most from this concert experience was the possibility for music to feel personal. Many of the pieces themselves have strongly personal narratives surrounding the music. While large orchestra concerts seem grandiose and theatrical, they seem detached from the audience that attends the performances. The smaller and more intimate venue setting for this show seemed to allow us to see the connections between the musicians better. While the music may not have been as complex as the larger scale orchestra pieces, I felt as though the setting for the show established a greater understanding of the virtuosity of the individual performers. The attentive audience inspired me to believe that there is still hope for music of substance within a world where music is often defined by the style it is presented in instead of the quality of the compositions. 
Works Cited
Bromberger, Eric. Program notes. String Quartet In D Minor, Op.76 No. 2. Franz Joseph Haydn. 2006. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

Bromberger, Eric. Program notes. String Quartet In E Minor. Leoš Janáček. 2006. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

"ESQ Wins 9th Grammy, Brings All-Bohemian Programmes to Southbank Centre." Emerson String Quartet (2010): Web. 25 Apr 2010. .

Jacobson, Bernard. Program notes. Sextet from Capriccio, Op. 85. Richard Strauss. 2010. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

Jacobson, Bernard. Program notes. Verklarte Nacht, Op. 4. Arnold Schoenberg. 2010. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

Lintgen, Arthur. "Capriccio" Fanfare - The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors. March-April 2009. p. 239-240.

McKelvey, John P. "Capriccio." American Record Guide. 72:1. January-February 2009.

Tyrrell, John. "Janáček, Leoš." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 24 Apr. 2010

Webster, James and George Feder. "Haydn, Joseph." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 24 Apr. 2010