Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Herding cats, or How to Successfully Lead a Community Musical Ensemble

Can music making be like this?  Well.....
They say that the key difference between an amateur musician and a professional is that the amateur practices until s/he gets it right while the professional practices until s/he cannot get it wrong.  While this is a simplistic view of things, it probably does demonstrate justice in the "10,000 rule"--that it takes 10,000 hours of determined study to master anything, unless, of course, one is born a Mozart.

But this is the story of working with musicians of all ills, as I have "taught" musicians ranging in age from middle school through the professional ranks.  Yes, leading a fine symphony orchestra or wind ensemble is truly a rush (think the Quad City Wind Ensemble at the IBA conference), but a different but equal kind of excitement is often generated in that moment when young players finally "get it."  Other "get it" moments with younger players included the time when one of my school bands insisted on performing a march by Gustav Holst (from the E-flat) at contest instead of the much simpler selection I put forward.  Of course, the ensemble earned its first Division I rating in the history of the school.  OR, the time when the middle school orchestra members, when asked which--of all the pieces studied that year--they wanted to play on a recruited.  Their choice?  A unanimous Bach Brandenburg.

Professional musicians are a different kettle of fish altogether.  Of course, the collective wisdom of an
The West Bohemian Symphony, summer concert
in the Maxim Gorky Colonnade
ensemble like the Filharmonia G. Enescu (formerly the Bucharest Philharmonic), which I conducted in 2004, is staggering.  Does that make for instantly better music making?  Not necessarily.  In fact, some of the best "professional" music I've ever made was with the Western Bohemian Symphony in the small spa city of Marianske Lazne, Czech Republic.  We seemed to hit it off from the very beginning and our performance--an all Mozart concert--was a joy to experience.

I try to "be myself" when I'm on the podium, leaving my "baggage" at the door, come to rehearsal with a plan, and hopefully make the best music that I can.  But, as usual, I digress and need to offer a story of the professional music.

A happy Ray Still--
so good to see!
Former Chicago Symphony principal oboist Ray Still, who passed away on March 12 (his 94th birthday) was a player of legend, among the most commanding in his field.  His virtuosity was matched by his irascible temper for Still was not a a "yes" man, far from it.  In fact, his verbal battles with conductor Jean Martinon reached the point of no return and Still was dismissed from the orchestra in May 1967.  He immediately hired an attorney and fought the firing and was eventually reinstated in December.  Martinon himself was not long for the job.  But, at that time, many players--some of the most distinguished principal musicians in the world--were called to testify against Still.  Some of them, including principal flute Donald Peck (who may or may not have been a culprit in the attempted cabal by orchestra management) remained forever estranged from Mr. Still, who spent the next 26 years seated a few feet from Peck.  And for all those 26 years they never spoke, but continued to make some of the finest music in recorded history.

Therein lies a major difference in the true professional musician.  When s/he sits down at a rehearsal or concert, there is a job to be done and all personality clashes are put behind.  All are attempting (hopefully) to act as a large and mostly unified instruments, something that is quite difficult in an ensemble of virtuosi.  Hopefully, there is a skilled (in every sense of the word) leader at the podium, capable of herding these cats while sustaining few injuries of his/her own.

* * * * * * * * * *

Leading an amateur or community-based musical group is much different in so many ways.  Some of these can be audition-only groups, achieving a kind of "professional" nature, or others that I call "y'all come" groups, open to anyone who walks in the door.  Both have their place and both can be a great joy with which to work, for all of those musicians who show up (and hopefully, keep coming back) are there because they enjoying making music as an avocation.  They're not university students, many of whom would rather be practicing concertos or chamber music than sitting in an ensemble.  (Of course, most of these would be extremely fortunate to be able to make a living actually making music in this manner.)  Again, I digress.

A conductor newly appointed to lead this kind of ensemble (much different than my "own" Tri-State Wind Symphony, which I founded) inherits a group which may or may not meet his/her musical expectations.  S/he inherits their "way of doing things" and all of the various personalities involved in those processes.  He/she may inherit players who feel such a strong sense of ownership that the organization has actually become stuck in their ways and unable to think outside the box.  OR, as I have experienced more than once, s/he often encounters personalities that are increasingly detrimental to the good of the organization.  But the new conductor, like a guest in someone's home, has to herd these cats--often gingerly--in the musical and personal direction that s/he feels is most appropriate for all.

I have had to rewrite ensemble personnel/attendance policies to address only one or two people who could not adequately commit to simply being there and these resulted in more problems than they solved.  In the past,  have been accused of singling out a certain section for my "wrath" when in fact the major problem was that the section in question was responsible for at least 75% of the errors in the entire ensemble, and caused primarily by the fact that the entire section was only present the day of the performance.  While yes, I'll admit that I can have a sarcastic wit, one would think that a group of "professionals" would be used to that by now, as long as the job got done; there's nothing wrong with a bit of levity in rehearsal or performance.
All shapes....all sizes....

What is most frustrating--and this happens in both the amateur and professional worlds--are those individuals who decide to sidestep the "chain of command" and take concerns over the head of the music director, assuming that the organization is set up that way.  People can be passive-aggressive and I simply have little time for that.  Among my pet peeves are people in authority who are ill suited for their positions as well as those musicians who are not nearly as good as they think they are, but act in a condescending manner toward their peers.

BUT AGAIN, the conductor of such ensembles has to work with all of these personality types, because--while the people are an important part of the process (obviously)--nothing is more paramount than the service of the music.  One often has to herd the cats very gently to bring about the results that one desires, but again, when that happens, it is truly magic.  It's hard work, sometimes frustrating work, but well worth the effort when one experiences true excellence (especially in rehearsal).

The process of rehearsing pros and ams?  That must be stuff for another post.

Beautiful night...big crowd
Doesn't get any better than that....

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A dream unrealized....

Eagle Point Park, from the City of Dubuque webpage:

The idea for the park was conceived in 1907 when Charles M. Robinson, a noted eastern park specialist, visited Dubuque. After touring scenic locations in the city, Robinson made this comment to his hosts: "I have never seen a place where the Almighty has done more and mankind less, than Dubuque." Most of his listeners were hurt by the remark, but one person decided to do something about it. He was Judge Oliver Shiras, one of Dubuque's leading citizens.

A citizen's committee was formed in April of 1908, and Judge Shiras was elected chairperson. In June of 1908, with aid from the Civic Division of the Dubuque's Women's Club, one hundred acres were purchased from A.L. Rhomberg. The property was then deeded to the city and became Eagle Point Park. Since the original purchase, seventeen parcels have been purchased or donated, which brings the park to its present size.

Streetcar traffic began to serve the park in 1912. Union Electric Company constructed the track, turnaround, and waiting station in the area at the park entrance where the eagle statue and flower beds are located. In 1920, a bathing beach was constructed but closed when the lock and dam was built in 1933.

The park took on a new look in the 1930s when the City hired Park Superintendent Alfred Caldwell. A $200,000 Works Progress Administration grant was received and the gifted landscape architect began work. His love of Frank Lloyd Wright prairie architecture is very recognizable in the buildings and gardens. Caldwell's exceptional use of native construction materials, craftsmanship and unique designs make the park one of the most beautiful in the midwest.

Here is the original 1936 plan for the Eagle Point Park "public pavilion," complete with a community kitchen, stage (with dressing rooms), and the planned Bandshell.  The latter is the only portion of the project to be completed (so to speak):

And here is the original floor plan.  Difficult to discern is the fact that this facility is massive, hundreds of feet long.

Obviously, given the topography of the area and the fact that the bandshell is pointing outward, the location is difficult to imagine.  What I would long to ponder, however, is the kind of facility we would enjoy today if the last throes of a depression and a World War hadn't gotten in the way.

Still, wouldn't it be nice to have a roof?

"The Shed," Tanglewood

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The loneliest (musical) profession

Yes, we've probably all felt this way...
Why did they bury the conductor 20 feet into the earth?
Because deep down he was a nice guy.

What does a good conductor weigh?
28oz. (not including urn)

What's the difference between a dead conductor in the road and a dead snake in the road?
There are skid marks in front of the snake.

George Szell:  some might have been tempted to run him down,
but his legacy lives on in Cleveland

One day in heaven, the Lord decided He would visit the earth and take a stroll. Walking down the road, He encountered a man who was crying. The Lord asked the man, “Why are you crying, my son?” The man said that he was blind and had never seen a sunset. The Lord touched the man who could then see… and he was happy.

As the Lord walked further, He met another man crying and asked, “Why are you crying, my son?” The man was born a cripple and was never able to walk. The Lord touched him and he could walk… and he was happy.

Farther down the road, the Lord met another man who was crying and asked, “Why are you crying, my son?” The man said, “Lord I’m a high school band director.”

And the Lord sat down and cried with him.

* * * * * * * * * *

He did NOT know how to smile.
There are certainly as many conductor jokes as there are conductors (including a number of them about M. Reiner, above).  The ones here are quite tame in comparison with those equating the maestro with the hindquarters of horses, bulls, elephants, etc.  Then there are those that imply that "no one watches the conductor anyway."  Sadly, but I've noticed that this is all too often the case.  Say what one will, the task of the conductor is a demanding one.  To perform it well (at least in one's own eyes), it should be a selfless one.  And yet, many conductors are ridiculed for their foibles, their bad jokes, their podium demeanor or what have you.

Frank Battisti
Such an amazing gentleman...
In his insightful book, On Becoming A Conductor (Meredith, 2007) author and leading wind music educator (and former conductor of the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble) advances several of the perquisites demanded of one who seeks the podium.  It is a lengthy list.

Personal characteristics:
  1. Musical talent
  2. Confidence in oneself.
  3. A strong work ethic.
  4. Passion for learning and achieving.
  5. Passion for music.
  6. Patience and impatience (and the wisdom to know when to use each).
  7. Dedication.
  8. Good memory.
  9. Leadership talent.
  10. Creativity, imagination, inventiveness.
  11. Curiosity.
  12. Courage.
And if those aren't enough (they're not), Battisti goes on to offer the Necessary skills, knowledge, and experiences:
  1. Comprehensive basic musicianship skills, including sight reading and inner hearing skills, superior rhythmic skills, acute external listening skills, knowledge and understanding of theory, harmony and compositional practices, highly developed analytical skills.
  2. Knowledge of music history, composers, style and performance practice.
  3. Musical vocabulary.
  4. Descriptive skills, poetic vocabulary.
  5. Perfect or relative pitch.
  6. Skills in communicating clearly and effectively in writing and speech.
  7. Clef reading skills
  8. Score reading skills
  9. Procedure(s) for studying scores.
  10. Keyboard skills.
  11. Exposure to performances by great artists.
  12. Acquaintance with great literature, poetry, and philosophy.
  13. Contact with nature.
  14. Knowledge of two or three languages.
  15. Exposure to art, theater, and dance.
  16. Chamber music performance experience.
  17. Large ensemble performance experience.
  18. Knowledge of standard orchestra, wind band/ensemble, chamber music, opera, chorus, vocal, etc., repertoire.
  19. Indepth knowledge of repertoire for ensemble(s) conductor wishes to conduct.
  20. Knowledge of jazz and popular music.
  21. Knowledge of instruments--what they can and cannot do.
  22. Knowledge of instrument transpositions.
  23. Expressive, clear conducting technique.
  24. Instrumental and choral conducting experiences.
  25. Vocal skills adequate for singing and demonstrating how parts are to be played.
  26. Skills in composing and arranging music.
  27. Administrative and organizational skills needed to manage/operate a music ensemble/program.
  28. Research skills.
I never realized it until later in life, but I finally came to the realization that I am, in many respects, one of the lucky ones.  As an eight-year-old, I tried to take piano lessons from my mother, bless her soul.  Like many other kids, I was a brat who would rather spend time out playing ball (unorganized sports!) than practicing.  But, as a ten-year-old guitar student, I encountered a teacher who approached the instrument from a theoretical standpoint, so I learned the ins and outs of chord structure, eventually carrying those skills to the piano and organ, both in which I eventually developed interest.  Theory has always come easy as I can (and do--all the time) apply it in my studies; I can "hear" the progressions before they happen.

Leadership skills developed during scouting and other youth programs (I kept extremely busy with activities of school clubs and organizations, especially the high school Latin Club and its state and national affiliates, having run for national office in the Junior Classical League and serving as President of the national collegiate chapter).  With an active music program at our school, I was a veritable musical sponge, taking part in just about every pursuit I could, from band to choir, to theory and history classes.  I was a decent tenor (especially since I was a good reader).  My trumpet skills were adequate even though I had to work extremely hard to get them that way--if only I'd listened to my junior high teacher and played one of the low brasses.

But I was never convinced that music would be a career, even though I availed myself nearly every opportunity to make music in different ways:  serving as a substitute organist for my own church while singing in the choir at St. Paul's Episcopal in Lansing, among the largest in the area and without doubt, having the most outstanding music programs.  It was there, under the tutelage of Stephen Lange, that I sang some of the great choral works, including pieces by Britten, Haydn, and Vaughan Williams, among others.  I even developed an interest in the local professional theater company, serving as an usher any chance I could get, all so I could repeatedly catch performances of Hamlet, MacBeth, and their ilk.  Combined with theatrical experiences (always the comedic sidekick, never the lead), it was an active cultural life.

First Congregational UCC Church, Olivet, Michigan
How many hours of music were created here?
After a disastrous couple of terms at Michigan State, where I was wandering aimlessly with no real "plan," I found myself at Olivet College and was hooked.  Attending my first orchestra concert, I knew that I was at the right place.  The sounds of Albinoni, Saint-Saens and others were astounding.  And the experiences continued.  I conducted every chance I could: with choirs and instrumental ensembles.  Following graduation and eventual employment, I joined every conducting symposium within driving distance, all with the intention of actually becoming a conductor (someday, I'll get there).  For short stints, at least, I have studied with the likes of Frank Battisti, Eugene Corporon, H. Robert Reynolds, and many others.  It's been a journey and a blessing....

But what we're not told in Becoming a Conductor is how lonely the profession can be.  My colleagues who spend countless (probably too many according to current research) hours practicing concertos and chamber music actually have something concrete to show for it.  One can study etudes to shore up technique, or solo music of Bach to commune with the master.  But the conductor is not that fortunate.  His/her work (study) is done in private, poring over the intricacies of the score, searching for answers that may be simple or incredibly complex.  For those to whom theoretical knowledge does not come easy, the task would seem impossible, but--then again--at least rudimentary keyboard facility can assist in developing some sense of the sound.

The Brunswick Castle and Museum, Hungary
But Battisti is right in so many of the other attributes he holds important.  I recall a time when one of my conducting colleagues was having difficulty with the sixth symphony (Pastorale) of Beethoven, searching for answers in tempo relations and what not.  He just couldn't get his head around it.  Granted, the sixth is a difficult nut to crack as it is definitely different than any other.  My advice?  Go for a walk in the woods.  I had been fortunate enough to visit the Brunswick estate in Martonvásár, outside Budapest; on my visit I walked the grounds and traipsed the forests Beethoven himself had once trod.  There I could soak in the milieu in which this music was created, offering an insight I could not have gained otherwise.  Does this mean that I hold the key to understanding the totality of the Pastorale symphony?  I would not be so bold.  But again (as usual) I digress...

One never knows when the elusive score will reveal new insights.
Study is done in silence, unless one plunks out a few notes on the piano.  The conductor marks items in the score for clarity in all aspects of music: form, cuing, progressions, etc.  My own scores are often filled with written commentary from theorists and other conductors.  Texts may recommend metronomic markings for works written before the invention of that contraption (of course, there are never-ending arguments about Beethoven's marks and his "broken metronome.")  Other later composers (such as Brahms) eschewed the machine, although there exist limited examples of his own tempi in personal scores that he used in performance, a prime example of which is the German Requiem.  For 25 years he conducted from a score with precise tempo indications; if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for me.  (And of course that means that my tempos for the work are the right ones! <snark>.)

But when does the conductor get the opportunity to truly refine his art in practice?  He doesn't.  Before standing before his "instrument," he must be prepared for every musical possibility.  He must know what problems may arise and possess a number of solutions to them.  He doesn't have the luxury that every player has had to actually "practice."  And, of course, if s/he makes a mistake, everyone knows it.  Then s/he has a decision to make and, in the "old days" it certainly was an "ego thing."  I'm the opposite; if something goes awry in rehearsal--especially an aspect that we've previously done well--the first words from my mouth are, "What did I do wrong/differently?"  Sometimes, I'll just go back and conduct a section differently, changing a gesture ever so slightly to provide clarity to my musical conception.  But still, it's an individual decision, one made through those countless hours of study--alone.

The conductor's work does not come to life until s/he steps to a podium and works with other musicians.  Unlike every other player in the ensemble, s/he requires others with whom to make music, others willing to take direction, others willing to allow their own conception of the music to be --in some way--subservient to another's.  That, too, is difficult, but again, the conductor needs to have been so thoroughly prepared--in every aspect Battisti mentions--that the musicians will be willing to go "along for the ride."  If everyone is working in the same way, with the same end goal--be it radically different than ever before--the results can be among the most exhilarating experiences in the world.

I've lived on both sides of that world, from standing in front of a middle school orchestra introducing them to the incredible world of J.S. Bach to (hopefully?) harnessing the power of a great orchestra in a symphony of Johannes Brahms.  One hopes that both will offer outcomes worthy of the composer.  I have led performances in which ensembles have risen to a level beyond their dreams and others in which I experienced nothing but frustration.  Such is the life--the lonely life--of the conductor.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

We don't get no respect

We need to ditch the monkey suits, lest they think us an orchestra.
Let's face it, now.  We need to admit that Iowa is a band state.  We are the home of the Music Man, the iconic Meredith Willson musical set in fictitious "River City," modeled after one of our band "capitals," Mason City.  We are the adopted home of one of America's great march composers, Karl King, who moved from Ohio to assume the reins of the municipal band in Fort Dodge, an ensemble that now bears his name.  Lest we forget, we're the birthplace of Glenn Miller!  We are also the home to the Iowa Band Law (subsequently copied throughout the nation), a legislative act allowing municipalities the option of imposing a (small) tax for the support of community bands.  We are home to HR 120, passed by the Iowa House of Representative on March 31, that states:

Meredith Willson

WHEREAS, From the works of Robert Meredith Willson to the marches of Karl L. King, Iowa has a long, strong, and proud tradition of band music; and

WHEREAS, music education within school band programs has repeatedly been proven to positively influence student achievement in all curriculums; and

WHEREAS, community support for quality school music programs shows a dedication to the sense of pride and community that school bands can provide; and

WHEREAS, school band programs demonstrate that a well-rounded music education can be key to a student’s success in life and learning; and

WHEREAS, the weekend of May 9 and 10, 2014 are state band contest days; and

WHEREAS, recognizing organizations like the Iowa Bandmasters Association and the Iowa Chapter of the American School Band Directors Association will encourage music excellence throughout our state; NOW THEREFORE,

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, that the House of Representatives recognizes May 9 and 10, 2014 as Iowa School Band Days and congratulates the talented and dedicated young musicians who are members of Iowa’s school bands.

That's Iowa School Band Days, not orchestra, not choir, not opera.  These, too, are very important parts of the cultural fabric of this state, but it is our bands, in schools and communities across Iowa, in towns large (Cedar Rapids) and small (Durant and many others) that contribute more to the richness of our state than all these others combined.  Thousands of young people participate in our band program every year, gaining invaluable musical (and just plain life) experiences.  And yet, to quote Rodney Dangerfield, "We don't get no respect."
Karl L. King

When the average person on the street thinks of bands, s/he imagines young people in crisp, clean uniforms appearing in parades or supporting athletic teams on the school gridiron or court (I've always wondered what it would be like if all those players were required to attend concerts).  Of course, the old argument goes that many, MANY more people are going to see and hear the band at halftime than will ever attend a concert.  But that seven-minute performance (yep--seven minutes; I served as a timer for marching band contest) is a microcosm of what we do and what we play.

Orchestras are becoming museum pieces, seeming to think they can thrive on repeated performances of the music of the past.  The band, as we know it--the concert band or wind ensemble--is a relatively new medium.  As Frederick Fennell, legendary founder of the Eastman Wind Ensemble once stated, "Band music of this kind (referring to the second movement of the E-flat Suite) did not exist before Holst."  New band music is being commissioned that an amazing rate from composers such as Julie Giroux, Frank Ticheli, Mark Camphouse, and many others.  Household names?  Nope.  Great composers?  Yep.  The most-often performed female composer of our time, Jennifer Higdon, got her start playing flute in band and has written several pieces for the medium.  Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano has written for band.  Another Pulitzer winner, Karel Husa, has written many works for a medium he loves, and arguably his greatest work is Music for Prague, 1968--a band piece.

And yet, despite all of my protestations, every time I tune into Iowa Public Radio (another of our great cultural institutions, don't get me wrong), I am confronted mostly with orchestral music and opera.  It's "Symphonies of Iowa," "Live from the Met," "Arias in April," and on, and on.  The "Iowa Arts Showcase" focuses on opera, opera, opera.....there's nothing wrong with that, BUT how about "Bands of Iowa?"  How about live broadcasts from the Iowa Bandmasters Conference in May, featuring the talents of hundreds of our musicians, young and old (caveat, the Quad City Wind Ensemble performed there this year)?  There is so much more that can be done.

The best way to hear a community band!
All that being said, visit any community in the state for a week and I'd wager you'll find a band concert every night within 60 minutes of your destination.  Concerts here in Dubuque (as well as in Waterloo) are held every Thursday, in Bettendorf every Friday, Tuesdays in Cedar Falls, Thursdays and Sundays in Cedar Rapids.  And these are just the "big" cities.  Travel to Boone, Iowa (just west of Ames) the second Saturday in July, and you can hear community bands all day long!

We do a lot more than gussy up and march, and we're very proud of it.  All we need is a little acknowledgment from those "in the know."   IPR (and others)--are you listening?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What about the Des Moines Symphony?

In my "awarding" of the annual "Huey's" for innovative concert programing, I have continually chosen to exclude the Des Moines Symphony.  This is not a rap on the ensemble, which--as I've heard on Iowa Public Radio many times--is a fine group.  It is simply a matter of geography:  Des Moines is nearly a four-hour drive from Dubuque.  If I'm going to travel that far for a concert, I'll take the shorter trip to the east and catch either the Chicago Symphony (if I have the cash) or the outstanding summer concerts presented by the Grant Park Symphony in Frank Gehry's stunning outdoor pavilion in Millennium Park.

The visually stunning Jay Pritzker Pavilion.  The acoustics, thanks to a state-of-the-art
sound system, are pretty darn good as well--even in the "cheap seats" (lawn seating is FREE!)

But, to be fair, here's a quick run-down of the upcoming season of the DSM Symphony, with my own even-more-brief annotations:

Saturday, Sep 27, 2014 7:30pm
Sunday, Sep 28, 2014 2:30pm

Season ticket subscriptions are available! (I included this once; it's misspelled every time)
Nareh Arghamanyan, piano

RIMSKY -KORSAKOV Procession of the Nobles:  dead, though great band piece.
PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 1 “Classical”
:  dead and overplayed.
KHACHATURIAN Piano Concerto:  nice to see a Russian concerto that's not by Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff (or Shostakovich/Prokofiev for that matter).
STRAVINSKY The Firebird:  Um, the whole thing or one of the suites?  Which?  Of course, this is "safe" Stravinsky, but 2013 was the year of the Le sacre orgasms.  Let's leave Igor alone for a couple of years.

Hoyt Sherman Place, former home of Des Moines Symphony: 1400 seats


Saturday, Oct 25, 2014 7:30pm
Sunday, Oct 26, 2014 2:30pm
Anne Akiko Meyers, violin

VERDI Overture to La forza del destino
:  warhorse
VIVALDI The Four Seasons:  another?
RESPIGHI The Pines of Rome:  well, they'll end with a bang.

One of these doesn't belong, although audiences may get to see Meyers show off her new fiddle.

Saturday, Nov 15, 2014 7:30pm
Sunday, Nov 16, 2014 2:30pm

Beyond the Score – In Collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
:  Gerard McBurney, Creative Director
; Martha Gilmer, Executive Producer.

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5:  I'm wondering what they can tell me about this piece that I don't already know.


Saturday, Feb 7, 2015 7:30pm
Sunday, Feb 8, 2015 2:30pm
Jorge Mester, conducting

Robert Edward Thies, piano

MENDELSSOHN Symphony No. 3 “Scottish”

PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 1


Dead, dead and dead.  And what's the connection?  I like Prokofiev as much as the next guy, but give me Kabalevsky (did he write a piano concerto?) or maybe a non-Russian?


Saturday, Mar 28, 2015 7:30pm
Sunday, Mar 29, 2015 2:30pm
Jia Cheng Xiong, piano

MOZART Symphony No. 35 “Haffner”
CHOPIN Piano Concerto No. 2: to me, the most boring work in the repertoire--maybe it was the performance, but I did hear it at the Boston SO.

LISZT Les Préludes

Everybody dead, white, etc., You know the drill....


Saturday, Apr 18, 2015 7:30pm
Sunday, Apr 19, 2015 2:30pm
Joshua Roman, cello

John ADAMS The Chairman Dances; Foxtrot for Orchestra
:  THE go-to piece when considering a contemporary work, even though it's how old?
DVORÁK Cello Concerto
:  I love this piece.  That said, there are more than three concerti for the cello (Elgar, Dvorak and Schumann).
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 2:  If you're doing Sibelius, this one (or 5) almost always appears.  If I'm going somewhere to hear a Sibelius symphony, I'd probably drive the extra hour to the Twin Cities and catch Osmo (Vanska) and his little band.


Saturday, May 23, 2015 7:30pm
Sunday, May 24, 2015 2:30pm
Simpson College Choir & Chamber Singers
; Des Moines Vocal Arts Ensemble
; Timothy A. McMillin, Director

COPLAND Fanfare for the Common Man; A Lincoln Portrait; Appalachian Spring
Steve HEITZEG Symphony In Sculpture II

John WILLIAMS An American Saga: Music from The Patriot, Lincoln, Midway and Hymn to the Fallen from Saving Private Ryan

HANSON Song of Democracy

That's a lot of John Williams; all I can say...

The Des Moines Civic Center, a 2700 sear "all purpose" hall.
Slopes upward from the stage to the back wall...
That's a lot of tickets to sell, but maybe they do just fine.

All of this being said, I'll stay closer to home....

Monday, June 9, 2014

A tale of three cities, three bands, and one conductor

Am I praying for divine guidance?  I honestly don't know....
Many may not be aware (or haven't kept track) that I am now conducting three community music groups in three different cities.  Since our first rehearsal on May 9, 1995, I have led the Tri-State Wind Symphony of Dubuque.  The autumn of 2007 brought me to the Quad City Wind Ensemble and just this past January, I took over the reins of the Bettendorf (IA) Park Band.  But my history with the latter goes back much further than my current tenure:  I was living in Davenport during the "birthing" of the QCWE, having heard several concerts between 1987 and 1991.  My final few years in the area brought me to the BPB, first as a member of its outstanding euphonium section, and eventually as the first-ever Associate Conductor, appointed to the post by the man I eventually succeeded, my good friend and mentor, James Crowder.

Each ensemble is different, in its make up, rehearsal schedule, and demeanor, but that does not mean that my standards are any less demanding.  The TSWS holds two rehearsals for each of its five summer performances; the BPB plays mostly year-round, but is primarily active in the summer; the QCWE--in a manner akin to professional orchestras--holds five rehearsals preceding each of its concerts, which are, on the whole, more substantive in size, scope, and level of difficulty.  This is a serious group, but I try to keep the atmosphere as light as the players will allow.  Quite honestly, that can sometimes be difficult.  Still, despite the differences, everyone performs in each individual group for the love of music and the camaraderie that comes with making music with ones friends.

Programing, in many ways necessitated by rehearsal time (or lack thereof) is different with each group.  While the QCWE can tackle the "big pieces" (Hindemith "March" from Symphonic Metamorphosis and a variety of others), one has to ascertain a concert plan for the other ensembles more judiciously.  The TSWS is always a surprisingly crackerjack group, willing to take on the challenges in front of them.  Still I "front load" the tough stuff and lighten up (a bit anyways) toward the end.  Much the same is true for the BPB, although I'm working to try to raise the bar, hence the inclusion of the Holst Suite.  I'm hoping that we'll be able to take on at least one major work per concert.  We've had Jerry Bilik's American Variations, a long-lost former standard of the repertoire, in our folders for several months now.  It needs to see the light of day (and be heard) for our July 4 concert.

Our Dubuque band's beautiful home, high above the Mighty Miss...
This summer I have had to take some time away from the TSWS to attend to my new duties in Bettendorf.  That doesn't mean the ensemble is not in capable hands, for we have a number of talented conductor/educators in the group.  It is difficult to turn ones "baby" over to another caretaker, but it's always nice to return.  (This past week I had an unexpected rehearsal with the group as I was the sub for my sub, who'd taken an unexpected and quickly planned trip to London to hear a slew of military bands.  It was kind of weird conducting someone else's program, but I got over it).

The BPB's first summer concert, June 6, 2014

The Bettendorf Band is a group in transition.  As I said, I took over from James Crowder, who had led the ensemble for 25 years, so obviously the band had gotten used to a certain way of doing things.  That said, I have to compliment the entire ensemble on their welcoming presence, as well as their dedication to my oft-mentioned idiosyncrasies on the podium.  Our first concert together in April was a challenge, as they were still getting used to my mannerisms on the podium.  Take the Holst E-flat Suite for example:  suffice to say, we had some "moments" during the April concert.  I decided to repeat it for our first summer concert (June 6) and the differences were striking.  The piece sparkled with nearly all of the nuance that I've spent years studying and preparing.  This band is starting to play with much more finesse and best of all, is starting to grow.

The Quad City Wind Ensemble was another group in transition when I "auditioned" in October 2006.  After my permanent appointment, I make have tried to bite off more than we were ready for, as some of those early concerts were a bit ragged.  BUT, one could tell that there was a good ensemble there; we all just needed to work out some refinement as well as basic fundamental issues, particularly in the area of intonation and balance.  

Such things take time.  Early in my career, one of my trusted mentors told me that it takes seven years to actually get an ensemble where you want it to be.  AND, early in my career, I was never anyplace long enough to see that to fruition (four years in each of my first two teaching positions).  I'm also not the most patient fellow either and have been known to try to take an overly large bite out of difficult repertoire to prepare for the future.  Such was the case of the Dubuque Youth Symphony; we may not have been ready for the finale to Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony, but--after that--everything else was a whole lot easier.

Peace out baby?  "V" for victory?
There have been bumps and bruises (egos and otherwise) with the QCWE, but one must admit that we're on track.  The ensemble won the 2012 American Prize (community division) for outstanding wind band performance and was a finalist in 2013.  Less than a month ago we had the privilege of performing for the Iowa Bandmasters.  I already have future plans in the back of my mind as well as what I think is some thrilling programing.  The challenge for the group?  Thinking out of the box.  Our rehearsal space has become too small, BUT we don't own any of our own equipment, making a move almost impossible.  Our performance space has many problems, in terms of location (close to the "bad side of the tracks) as well as its acoustics.  The players simply cannot hear across the ensemble.  We discovered exactly how true that was when playing in a ballroom (mostly carpeted, except for the performing surface) in Des Moines.  We shouldn't have been able to hear as well as we did, but we (ALL) could, and the results were amazing.  Everyone could actually hear where they "fit," making balance easy and intonation easier....we need a new space, yes?

Each group has its separate challenges but all share something in common:  the reward that each offers for the conductor fortunate enough to lead them.

Tripping Through the Beethoven Quartets, Op. 18, Nos. 1-6

Beethoven c.1801

Spurred on by Frank Battisti's On Becoming a Conductor, I wrote on May 27, I've learned a lot in this short chapter about what I must continue to do with regard to my own journey, wherever it may lead me.  And I think I'll start today by sampling the Beethoven quartets--one a day--with recording and score, and see where that journey will lead my intellect. 

While my schedule repeatedly interrupted my "one a day" listening and writing, and I'm now posting from a coffeehouse in Hastings, Michigan, I've managed to traverse the six quartets of Op. 18.  So far, it's been one hell of a ride. 

May 27, Op. 18, No. 1 in F-major:

Notes:  Quartets of op. 18 were published between 1800 - 1801 and were presented in the salons of Count Lichnowsky by a quartet conducted by de Ignatz Schuppanzigh. They were dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz.  The Quartet in F major opens the cycle of op. 18. And due to the musical dynamism and the powerful contrasts it is considered the greatest work of the six. The lyrical atmosphere, somewhat dramatic of the second part is very impressive, rendering the crypt scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet if we take into account Amenda’s assertions in a letter to Wiedemann, or even the indication on the score of the work, "The Last Sighs".  ~Edouard Herriot, Beethoven’s Life

If one is even faintly acquainted with the quartets of Haydn--the "inventor" of the form--one comes into these early quartets with certain preconceptions.  Haydn's early forays (and Mozart's for that matter) are top heavy, allowing the first violin to carry most of the melodic material and virtuoso figurations.  Immediately, I am aware that this is not the case of this quartet, a showpiece of equals.  Even this first quartet proclaims many of the aspects of Beethoven's later works:  motive-based melodic constructs, manipulation of established forms, highly dramatic dynamic contrasts, as well as unexpected key relations which seem to stray far from "home base.

One can learn a great deal about Beethoven's compositional process in that a sort of "draft version" had sent forwarded to his good friend, Carl Amenda.  They even discussed it at one time.  The sketches reveal the composer's references to the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet in the second movement, although he later destroyed nearly all evidence of this programmatic element.  Regardless of any covert intent, the movement contains weight and gravity not seen in earlier works.  When Berlioz tells us--speaking of the early symphonies--that "Beethoven is not here," he needs to examine the early quartets, written contemporaneously with the C-major Symphony.  In these works, Beethoven, in all of his composition power, is here.

Also, one expects such works to be heavily weighted toward the opening movement.  Such is not the case at all.  While the first movement is an extended sonata, the finale is just as long.  This last movement is definitely not a light-hearted, flippant rondo-finale, but rather seems a kind of hybrid movement of the type Beethoven would compose in his later years.

I can hardly get over the shock of Beethoven's harmonic manipulations, which must have sounded almost foreign to early nineteenth-century ears.  And already, we are seeing (and hearing) mediant key relations among the movements:  F-major in the first; D-minor in the ultra-dramatic second; F-major in the Scherzo and Finale.  But what he does within these movements is astonishing.  While measure 9 of the first movement seems to be only a rehashing of the opening, albeit at forte, instead it travels through A-major, and F-sharp diminished harmonies before meandering home to F-major.  The simple motive permeates the entire movement and allows for Beethoven's radical harmonic shifts.

The sections experimenting with the themes – the development sections – and the coda are expanded to an extent that often changes the proportions of the movements radically. Not infrequently, the effect is that you feel as if you have gone through a lifetime while listening to a certain piece, partly because of this grand scale.  ~Martin Saving

I have only begun my journey, but I cannot wait for what is in store.

* * * * * * * * * *

May 29, Op. 18, No. 2 in G-major

I am still getting over the F-major quartet.  It so captures all that I know of Beethoven in its scope and scale.   I am quite certain that I will return to it in the months to come.  Just like my "real" continued travels to Prague, a city I now know very well, I am sure that I'll want to know this work even better.

I have come to the quick realization the reasons that the early Beethoven's quartets are so far removed from those of his important precursors, Haydn and Mozart.  These are not works for amateur players or audience.  (Of course, amateurs in Beethoven's time were, for the most part, highly trained and talented.)  That said, these are the stuff of sophistication, works that could only be fully appreciated by critical performers and listeners.

For example, here is an example from Haydn's Op. 1, dating from 1762-64:

And here is early Mozart (Quartet No. 1, K. 80), the work of a 14-year-old.

Beethoven's No. 2 seems to start out where others left off, and--to my ears--is not as "advanced" as the first.  Maybe it's that first violin dominance and the lack of motivic integration that so permeated no. 1.  But the development of the first movement--ah!  He's back.  Launching directly into the dominant minor (d), we're taking through so many different keys--B-flat, E-flat, even B-flat minor(!)--before finally sneaking back to G.  There is a lot more decoration of the opening here, as if Beethoven is developing his exposition in the recap.  Great stuff.

The second movement is, to me, akin to something not yet invented:  a bel canto aria, worthy of Bellini.  Curiously though, this little allegro interrupts the middle.  It's obviously Beethoven's interesting take on rounded binary (or ternary) form.  BUT, at the return, the cello gets the tune.  While not as dramatic as the slow movement of no. 1, this is no less beautiful.

He must be having a blast writing scherzi by now for everyone gets in on the action.  By contrast, the trio isn't nearly as interesting as it seems to me, more Haydn-esque than anything else I've yet to experience.

The CELLO (yay) gets to start the finale, here exploring lots of counterpoint as he's given himself lots more "stuff" to work with.  There aren't any repeats--it's just all written out, but a sonata nonetheless.

May 29:  So, during my morning walk home today, I got to wondering what exactly is the big deal about this guy Beethoven?  Although there exist examples of juvenilia, his Op. 1 was a set of piano trios published in 1794.  Over the next 33 years (until his death in 1827--less than the entire life of Mozart) he managed to write some 135 compositions with opus number (and a number of others that have come to be known as WOo, works without opus number).

In terms of symphonic music, we see the nine symphonies (compared to Haydn's 104), five piano concertos (compared to Mozart's 30), a single violin concerto, eight overtures/incidental music--in addition to the four written for Fidelio, and a handful of other pieces for soloist and orchestra, including the cobbled-together Choral Fantasy.

There are the 16 string quartets; comparatively, Haydn wrote over 70.  Other chamber music includes piano trios (in addition to Op. 1), sonatas for violin, cello, and other works.  The 32 piano sonatas are the stuff of legend.

Then there is the agony of Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera.  Originally entitled Leonore, it was in constant state of revision and remains a work at the fringe of the repertoire.  The work is, no doubt, full of some of Beethoven's most inspired music, but it has never really caught on as a theater piece (I should know; I've performed it as a chorister).

And yes, there is some other "stuff" thrown in here, but the fact remains that Beethoven really didn't compose that much, especially when compared with his contemporaries.  So again I ask, "What's the big deal about Beethoven?"

May 30:  Op. 18, no. 3:  Of particular note is the fact that this is actually the first quartet composed by Beethoven, although no. 3 in the set.  The "Earsense Chamberbase" notes:

Of the six quartets in Op. 18, the D Major quartet is certainly the most genial and, in a sense, relaxed. Its mood is bright, lyrical and humorous with just a touch of poignancy in the slow movement. The scherzo is quite mild by Beethoven’s standards and, equally uncharacteristically, there are no formal fugues nor a brilliant set of variations, no earth shattering destruction nor euphoric hymns of otherworldly grace. Here, Beethoven simply writes an extraordinary string quartet in the finest style, worthy of Haydn or Mozart and already finer than anything by any contemporaneous practitioner whose name, once fashionably noteworthy, is now lost to obscurity. If there is any place where this “excellent, fine” quartet tips into the realm of genius, it is the fantastic finale, a tour de force of ingenious vivacity and wit.

Lewis Lockwood, in Beethoven, the Music and the Life (Norton, 2003), spends most of three pages in discussion of the first quartet and two whole paragraphs on nos. 2 and 3.  As for its above mentioned geniality, I have to agree, but this work is already far removed from Mozart, of whom Lockwood alleges that Beethoven modeled the work upon.  My initial response is simply, "Wow!"

The first page looks like mid-career Haydn or Mozart:

The texture seems heavily weighted toward the virtuosic first violin part, much as found in Beethoven's predecessors. The bass line is very simple, consisting primarily of scales.  But all those semblances disappear at the page turn.  Everyone gets in on the act and this movement is just plain fun.  Does that make it any less profound?  True: the composer seems to have a small degree of difficult tying things together and wrapping up his conclusions, i.e. in the lead up to the recap when there is a big cadence in C-sharp major!  The coda is another example:  it's almost as if he wants to give us more development of the material, but something doesn't feel right. 

When compared to the drama of No. 1, or even No. 2, the slow movement of the third rather pales in comparison, although Beethoven once again allows for the mediant key of B-flat major.  This is still dense stuff and dramatic in different ways, employing single voices or rests at critical junctures.  Again, near the conclusion, we're set up for something completely different by a meandering chromatic descent in the cello, taking us through several keys before signaling the return home.

The third movement doesn't really compare to its companions either and Beethoven even manipulates the form.  Instead of a minuet and trio, we're offered a hybrid, in which the expected trio sneaks into the minor and is much more buoyant than the opening section.  The repeat to the opening is actually written out for Beethoven desires a change--sometimes in tessitura--from the original.  Again, even is this first foray into the form, we find Beethoven looking ahead.

The Presto finale is just a blast:  his melody almost sets up a kind of Brahmsian rhythmic manipulation, but I don't think he's quite ready to go there.  Yet, even though this 6/8 romp seems to be a light-hearted gallop, there's a lot of meat here and--unlike the other movements--Beethoven doesn't cut any corners for the sake of brevity.  One has no choice but to smile at his inference to Haydn at the close, ending not with (the expected) bang, but a pianissimo whimper.  Actually I giggled.  I don't think mad Ludwig would mind.

June 1, Op. 18, No. 4 in C-minor

The young pup...
so rarely seen.

I've been taken away from my Beethoven quest for a few days, but have been so much looking forward to the exploration of this piece.  C-minor seems to be the key for composers of the Classical period.  While Mozart used it quite sparingly, it did appear in one of his most tempestuous piano sonatas (No. 14, K. 457), which eschews the expected minuet (inappropriate key for such a dance), the Fantasia in C-minor (K. 475) and, of course, the fragmentary Mass in C-minor.  That Beethoven's own best known work--the ominous fifth symphony (still never hackneyed to me)--illustrates just how he chose to set his most evocative music.  Other works sharing this key include:

  • Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 3 (1793):  That Beethoven would write a "salon piece" (as piano trios were then known) in this key is more than an anomaly.
  • Piano Sonata, Op. 10, No. 1 (1795-8)
  • Piano Sonata, Op. 13, "Pathétique" (1798):  I count this intensely dramatic work among one of Beethoven's most powerful, himself already testing the bounds of expected form.  The inherent pathos of the first movement, with its fits and starts, had to be incredibly original on first hearing.
  • String Trio, Op. 9, No. 3 (1798)
  • Piano Concerto No. 3 (1800):  This concerto, to me, approached Mozart's D-minor work in its darkness and foreboding. 
  • String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 4 (1800)
  • Violin Sonata, Op. 30, No. 2 (1802)
  • Symphony No. 3, second movement, "Funeral March" (1803):  Again, exceptionally original.
  • 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80 (1806)
  • Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (1807):  What an introduction!  Was he looking ahead to his next symphony?
  • Fifth Symphony (1808):  What more can be said?
  • Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 (1808):  Um, ok.  It pales in comparison with the other C-minor compositions.
  • String Quartet No. 10, Op. 74, scherzo movement (1809)
  • Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111 (his last piano sonata, 1822):  And the choice of key is coincidental?

I'm starting to like this chamberbase site for preliminary information.

The last to be written, the C minor quartet is unique among the six of Op. 18. First, it is the only quartet for which no previous sketches have been found. This has lead scholars to conjecture that the quartet was assembled from earlier music that Beethoven “stockpiled” before coming to Vienna. Others have concluded that the quartet was written without the extensive revisions typical of Beethoven. The quartet is also unique for being the only one of the set in a minor key. C minor is often regarded as “the” minor key for Beethoven, the same he chose for such works as the earlier “Pathétique” piano sonata, the later fifth symphony and his final piano sonata, Op. 111. One of the most popular quartets, this one is full of drama revolving around the gravity of its ruling minor mode.

Others thoughts:  Beethoven seems suddenly to have thrown the classical framework in doubt. These pieces all entertain experiments with different types and arrangements of movements. (Joseph Kerman)

Ultimately, the roughness of this (first) movement seems to arise from an imbalance between the passionate force of Beethoven's 'C minor mood' and his ability to mediate or control this idiom in the artistic form as a whole. A comparison with another C minor piece, the first movement of the Sonate Pathétique op. 13, is revealing. The beginning of the Pathétique slow introduction is extremely close to the opening of the quartet in this rhythm, register, and rhetoric, with a parallel placement of expressive appoggiaturas in each work. The Pathétique relies on the repeated juxtaposition of its Grave introduction with the Allegro con brio, however, it does not depend so heavily on the vehement but rather simplistic gestures that sustain the quartet. Least convincing in the Allegro ma non tanto of the quartet is perhaps the succession of fortissimochords alternating between tonic and dominant at the end of the main theme and at other junctures, including the passage with the parallel fifth. To be sure, Beethoven is exposing in these bars an important rhythmic configuration, one that is implicit within the main theme itself. But that is not quite enough to justify these powerful outbursts, nor to resolve suspicions about the somewhat overblown rhetoric of the movement.  (William Kinderman)

All six quartets demonstrate that Beethoven had fully absorbed the idiom as used by Mozart and Haydn. No other composer had matched their sophistication, and Beethoven probably saw himself as their true heir in this genre, as in the symphony....In a set of six quartets, one was traditionally in a minor key--in this case No. 4--and Beethoven yet again chose C minor, as if in a deliberate attempt to associate himself with that key in public consciousness. The mood of the first movement is again pathétique, and somewhat disturbing. Some commentators have indeed been sufficiently disturbed to describe the movement as weak and even crude, and to allege that the quartet was written somewhat earlier (for which there is no evidence). Beethoven seems here to have been deliberately writing music that is uncomfortable, as in the heavy alternation of tonic and dominant chords in bars 13-16, and in the jarring C# that heralds the development (he often used the note C# as a disruptive element on later occasions); perhaps his intention was to heighten the contrast with the other quartets.  (Barry Cooper)

Still, my own cursory glance at the score has me more than a bit confused.  Where the heck is the slow movement?  Some argue that the first movement is a typical "sonata" form, but it's almost mono thematic.  A scherzo and a minuet?  And this finale, with figuration almost resembling Haydn's "Gypsy Rondo," albeit in the wrong key.  Here we see among his early forays into the "sonata rondo" form which he would employ in so many of his "mature" compositions.  Here are the movements:

I.  Allegro ma non tanto (in C-minor)

I'm not so sure that I find this movement "rough"; instead, it seems to be quite cohesive (with the "second" theme a transposition of the first into E-flat major--a breath of life.)  I think that the idea of "roughness" could be generated from Beethoven's frequent use of triple stops at a number of cadence points, as if he didn't know what else to do.  Harmonically, I really dig this movement, especially how he moves, through A-flat major, f-minor, and a little, tiny dominant suggestion to get us to E-flat.  And once things get going the melody is actually tripled by both violins and the viola, albeit at piano.

His frequent deviations from expected harmonies are intriguing as well, especially at the repeat.  The first time, the return to tonic is set up with octaves closing on B-natural; the second time it's c-sharp!  Where are we going?  G-minor starts the middle.  After lounging around there for awhile, the "rough" chords appear and the cello takes up the tune in the upper register in F-major.  Yes, the transition to the second theme in the recap is rough--Beethoven slams away at 10 consecutive bars of chords, though I sense a shadow being cast forward to a symphony in the same key.  Like in that symphony, it almost appears as though he's going to end in C-major, but--of course--that can't happen, at least not in this movement.

II. Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto (in C-major) 

This is a funny little scherzo in which Beethoven shows that he can write a fugue with the best of them.  Contrapuntal writing rules the day although the middle of the work has the second violin theme accompanied by what sound like hiccups (dotted rhythms) in the viola.

III.  Menuetto: Allegretto (in C-minor) and Trio (in A-flat major)

Now, the expected scherzo and trio--except it's not.  This movement is pretty much nondescript, almost as if Beethoven had to put something there.  A change in the scheme of things is his notation that the reprise is to be played "il Tempo piu Allegro.

IV.  Allegro (in C-minor):  does it end in C-major?

Even in a movement that seems cobbled together (in a quartet of which much the same could be said), signs of Beethoven's genius shine through, if ever dimly at times.  He is really digging the exploration of mediant relations and this movement takes on the form of his "new" sonata rondo.  AND, we see the rondo theme presented occasionally in canon (after all, Beethoven had been studying counterpoint with Albrechtsberger, himself a friend of Haydn).   Again, the old (actually young) guy isn't sure how to finish, so there's an ever so slight diminuendo in the first violin (here suggesting G-minor with an f-sharp leading tone?) before launching Prestissimo into the Coda.  And yes, it ends in C-major, again possibly looking ahead to that famous symphony.  Or not.....

June 3, Op. 18, No. 5 in A-Major

When the six quartets of Op. 18 finally appeared in 1801, reactions were generally enthusiastic, though as usual with Beethoven, some conservative-minded critics found the music harsh and ‘difficult’ – an astonishing reaction to us two centuries later. It would be hard to find a more urbanely Mozartian work of Beethoven’s than the A major quartet, No. 5. Indeed, its third movement – a theme with variations – and finale are directly modelled on Mozart’s quartet in the same key, K464, a favourite work of Beethoven’s.  ~Richard Wigmore

In the first movement we might not be far wrong in detecting a sardonic skit on genteel elegance – the form is simple, even primitive if we compare it with, say, Mozart's great A major quartet K.464, where conscious intellectual mastery is displayed. Beethoven's almost casual lightness of touch has other aims – entertainment, and perhaps correction of the idea that he is always aggressive.  ~Robert Simpson

No. 5 is often taken as the main inheritor of Mozart's K.424, because is shares with Mozart's quartet its key, its movement plan (with the Menuetto second), its position in the cycle of six quartets, and certain other features. Actually, though, it is quite independent of the Mozart work if we look below the surface, as it omits all the characteristic structural underpinning of the Mozart quartet, namely its use of descending-third chains in both first and last movements.  ~Lewis Lockwood

Movement 1:  Allegro (A-major)

This piece is just plain suave, with none of the inherent "clunkiness" of its predecessor.  It opens with a reference to a typical Classical device (originating in France and one which Mozart used countless times):  the premier coup d'arche.  After two stops, the melody finally gets going in an upward dance.  There seems to be little establishment of the kinds of development motives heard in the other quartets and, agreeing with lots of assessments, this seems Mozartian in character.  That said, Beethoven's "true self" appears after the first big cadence, in which he goes directly to e-minor with an eventual (but short-lived) cadence on G.  And now, the generative motive appears, in the transition!  (Cool!)

He's also playing around with lots more counterpoint and the 6/8 rhythm really has everyone dancing.    We're not allowed a rest in E as the cello takes us immediately back to the beginning.

Beethoven's developments never seem to go where you expect:  this one starts with unison C-sharps cadencing in F-sharp minor, then D.  Earlier first violin figuration becomes a contrapuntal point of departure in a brisk stretto.  Just when it seems that he is about as far afield as he can get (an augmented sixth harmony giving way to the dominant but then traversing through A-minor(!).  But then, of course, it's an easy trip to the recap.  And here, things float along much as they did previously.  This movement is just plain fun.

Movement 2:  Menuetto (A-major)

A 12-bar violin duo begins the Minuet (placed in the "wrong" position, of course) before the viola takes up the tune.  Looking at the whole thing, it's truly top-heavy (as was often the case in Haydn and Mozart).  The trio, with its frequent accents on weak beats, does break up the action nicely.

Movement 3:  Andante cantabile:  Theme and Variations (D-major)

Beautiful music.  What more can be said?  I particularly love the third variation, with its incessant 32nd note accompaniment over melodic content primarily in the rich lower voices.  Variation 4 is a rhythmic respite from the activity of 3, but its harmonies belie the previous pattern, cadencing on that dirty old F-sharp minor again.

The final variation (longest of the bunch) again exploits melodies set in the second violin and viola.  Herein there is a lengthy coda, culminating with forte chords setting up a glorious surprise:  a plaintive Poco adagio stated by the first violin alone and gradually joined by the other players, ending pianissimo.

Movement 4:  Allegro (A-major)


Oh, wait a minute.....this is Mozart!

It's a race; a bloody race, from start to finish (Beethoven's original mm was 76 to the whole note, which has us cruising along at a frantic 152, if you can tap your foot that fast.  The simplest of motives (short-short-short-long) sets up just about everything.  Wait a minute; we're going to discover that in a symphony 7-8 years down the road.  Toward the conclusion there are lots and LOTS of long notes, almost ceasing the action.  There are more accented off-beats and extended periods of piano or less.  AND, surprisingly enough, the expected big bang at the end never happens.   Instead, there's a crescendo to forte four before the end and a subito piano to close.

Beethoven's tribute to Mozart indeed!

June 4 (completed June 9):  Op. 18, No. 6 in B-flat

Take the last two movements of Op. 18 No.6. In the Scherzo the listener has no idea what the rhythm is or even how many beats there are in a bar, but one is immediately aware of the conflict and fun between the performers. In the last movement titled ‘La Malinconia’, Beethoven tells the players that it must be played with the utmost delicacy. This sort of instruction is so unusual that we realise that he has found a sound world so totally strange, that he is worried that nobody will understand the emotional content. This is an early glimpse of the depth of feeling that Beethoven will share with us later on in his life. ~ Peter Cropper

The “voice” of the 6th quartet is perhaps similar to that of the first five, but it looks to the future in a way that the others do not. (The 5th quartet of opus 18, in fact, is unusual among Beethoven’s works in that it even looks back – it takes Mozart’s quartet in the same key as a clear source of inspiration.) The first three movements, marvelous as they are, conform to the model Beethoven so often used in his early years: a first movement that is energetic to the point of rambunctiousness; a second which locates the intersection of elegance and eloquence; a scherzo of biting humor. Every bit of this is expertly handled and fully satisfying, but none of it really hints at what is still to come: a movement with a slow, solemn introduction – “La Malinconia” – which reappears (or, rather, intrudes) later in the movement. This slow material makes the movement longer than any of the three that have preceded it, and turns it into a dialogue between introspection and high-spiritedness which is only resolved in the work’s whiz-bang final moments. Beethoven’s artistic evolution was multifaceted, obviously, but one of its main concerns was the overall shape and balance of the work. Early in life, Beethoven’s model was to give greater weight to the first and second movements, just as Haydn and Mozart did; the third and, when they existed, fourth movements provided a sense of release. By the end of his life, Beethoven had turned this model on its head, writing works that moved, inevitably and inexorably, towards a climactic final moment. (Opus a typically spectacular example.) With the quartet opus 18 number 6, this evolution is underway. 
 ~ Jonathan Biss

The (first) movement leaves the listener with a feeling that not one note more than necessary was used: no digressions, frills, or codas.  ~ Misha Amory

First movement (Allegro con brio)

This quartet is a delight from the get-go.  A spritely dialogue is set up between the first violin and cello, almost a buffa duet.  It snaps, it leaps, it's just great fun!  And once you feel that the second theme is going to follow in suit, answering in the dominant, the defiant Beethoven emerges for just a moment.  He deceives us again, and we're suddenly back in the "right key," which drives straight through to the (now expected repeat).  Of course, this is classical convention, not only for the formal structure but to allow the listener to hear this "new material" again.  I don't mind a bit.

Beethoven's theme is wonderful fodder for development as he quickly moves through the harmonic scale.  He is also now very comfortable at contrapuntal writing, but this time teams the violins together against the independent lines in viola and cello.  And just like Haydn might nave done, there is a big fermata immediately preceding the recap.  A simple, almost country dance intrudes for just a moment, but the plan is basically what we've come to expect:  diverse harmonies take us away from the tonic, but--in the hands of the master--we always find our way home.  I particularly enjoy this quartet's drive to the final cadence.

Second movement (Adagio ma non tanto) in E-flat

This is as stately a movement as I've heard in the Op. 18 quartets:  a simple melody emerges, based on major key arpeggios.  It's repeated in the second violin five bars in.  Simple, right?  Seemingly so, expect the "B" section of this tripartite movement centers around the darker minor, with its abundance of harmonic choices.  This movement is also rife with forte-piano markings and in the final "A," two fortissimo chords burst through.  As I've seen before, Beethoven almost seems to try to develop again toward the conclusion, shifting into C-major(!) before heading back to E-flat.  The movement ends perfectly, with the arpeggio descending through the quartet before the concluding pizzicati.

Third movement (Scherzo - Allegro) in B-flat

Oh Beethoven, you little rhythmic scamp, you.  I wasn't looking at my score from the very beginning and I caught myself wondering whether or not this movement was really in a screamingly fast three, or 2, or 6/8.  Actually, it's in all three, with ties and accents upsetting the applecart of the expected straightforward scherzo.  And a surprise!  A loud minor-key tag resounds before the repeat:  are we being set up for something to come?

Fourth movement:  La Malinconia ("the melancholy)

Written adagio with the instruction, "Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla piu gran delicatezza:" This piece must be played with the greatest refinement."  One is simply left to inquire, "where is this from?"  Why a melancholic incursion on the joie d'vivre of the previous frolic?  Well, in 1972, for example, Anne E. Caldwell wrote an article entitled,  La malinconia: final movement of Beethoven's quartet op. 18, no. 6 : a musical account of manic depressive states (American Medical Women's Association).  Beethoven is obviously well aware of his increasing difficulty with his hearing, but we've seen no "musical mention" of it in these quartets.  Perhaps Cropper is right, This is an early glimpse of the depth of feeling that Beethoven will share with us later on in his life.

This is, without doubt, the intensity and harmonic language (almost approaching pantonality) that Beethoven turns to in his final quartets (from what I know of them, at least).  Amazing, just amazing...This "introduction" to the finale takes on a life of its own and is over a third the length of the entire movement.  One could almost write a theory dissertation on the final eight measures...

A peasant dance, almost a waltz(?) before La Malincholia returns.  Schizophrenic?  Ludwig doesn't know to be happy or sad, and it sadness is interrupted by joy for only a moment, but eventually giving way to an even more rhythmically radical dance.  I know why this quartet, the fifth to be written, was placed last in the set:  its depth, breadth, and emotional scope.