Three Recently-Founded Chamber Music Series in Manhattan: The Crypt Sessions, The ASPECT Foundation, and the WA Concert Series

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Some of the most rewarding musical experiences I have enjoyed this season have been with small chamber organizations of recent mint. It is no coincidence that all three of the concert series feature ambitious offerings of food and drink. As Ruth Sommers, founder and director of yet another series, Festival Chamber Music, which I have already discussed in these pages, the rationale for this is as much social as culinary. She attributes the extraordinary success of her series in part to this social element, and the series discussed here are no less successful and equally lively as an environment to meet like-minded people, including the musicians. This does in fact enhance the music directly, as only conversation can. As for the food and drink, I can say all are excellent, without going so far as to review them, as if they were restaurants. The point is the social encounter, which above all helps attract newcomers to classical concerts and does wonders in making the events more relaxed and fun for everybody.

The Attacca Quartet in the Crypt. Photo Tristan Cook.

The Attacca Quartet in the Crypt. Photo Tristan Cook.

The Crypt Sessions
February 1, 2018

The Attacca Quartet
Beethoven, String Quarter in A Minor, op. 132

The Crypt Sessions are the brainchild of an exceptionally dedicated publicist, Andrew Ousley of Unison Media, who had the brilliant idea of organizing concerts in the crypt of the Church of the Intercession, one of the most distinguished ecclesiastical buildings in New York, but one which is little-known to any but the most dedicated architectural enthusiasts. The church is considered the masterpiece of Bertram Goodhue, who also designed the Gothic Revival churches of St. Thomas and St. Vincent Ferrer, and, in a completely different style, St. Bartholomew’s. Goodhue’s design included a large crypt beneath the church, where Mr. Ousley decided to hold his concerts. The atmosphere of this dark Gothic space is powerful and feels much older than is actually is (1912). The acoustics are unusual, but highly effective for small groups and soloists. Its long reverberation is balanced by a very strong direct sound from the instruments, imparting richness as well as presence.

The program played by the extraordinary Attacca Quartet (Amy Schroeder, Keiko Tokunaga, Nathan Schram, and Andrew Yee) consisted of only one piece, lasting about 45 minutes, Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132. No greater music has ever been written, and it is entirely appropriate to let it stand on its own. In fact it is the most rewarding way to hear the work. Anything else on a program with it would seem secondary.

The Attacca Quartet distinguish themselves from the models of the Guarneri or Tokyo Quartets, who set an example for chamber musicians with their crisp ensemble and consistent pulse, allowing relatively little flexibility. The Attacca is all about flexibility and the expression it allows, resorting to bold ritards and rubato when the music calls for it. In their playing this often sounds spontaneous, and, sitting rather close to the group, I could see the intensity of the eye contact and mutual listening, which enables them to play with such freedom and keep impeccable ensemble.

Beethoven wrote the parts in such a way that each instrument has equal independence and presence. The viola often leads off the group, providing a dusky tone, which was well served by the musicians and the crypt. Apart from their eloquent, sculpted phrasing, their intense concentration brought close attention to the silences in Beethoven’s score, both as pauses and as rests of individual instruments. The result was a performance which was gripping from beginning to end, did full justice to the seriousness of the music. It was profoundly moving. I have never felt so close to Beethoven’s supreme creation as in this concert.

No matter that we spent more time meeting and greeting over exceptional treats. The social and culinary preliminaries only freed us to concentrate more fully on the music.

The ASPECT Foundation

At my first visit to an Aspect evening, the “Kreutzer Sonata” program discussed below, I encountered an acquaintance from Bard, one of the organizers of the Bard Summer Music Festival. Regular readers will know how much I value these immersions into the work and biography of a composer in their historical context. On our way out of the hall, he expressed his appreciation in a phrase like, “Well, we’re on familiar ground here.” In one respect The ASPECT Foundation offers a view rather similar to the cultural/musicological context provided by Bard, the conceptual part provided mostly by academics, but the framework is less centered on a specific composer and more on an important concept related to a work. As the ASPECT materials state:

ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts was established to introduce and promote a novel concert format – ‘Music in Context’. We aim to transform a traditionally auditory experience into a fusion of various art forms, creating a thought-provoking amalgam of performance, lecture, and discussion, so as to present not only a recital, but an inspiring synthesis of music, art history and social culture.

Our central objectives, therefore, are to support and promote artists, to enlighten and inspire audiences through intellectually charged collaborations between musicians and speakers, and to forge meaningful and lasting connections between artist, audience and repertoire.

It’s more than a concert…

Hence the talks which are such a crucial component of the ASPECT program came from one of the artists—most engagingly—from one of the artists, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, and, on a later evening, from a music journalist, Damian Fowler.

The Russian bent of these two programs is not present in all ASPECT performances, but it is a recurrent theme over a season—which is not surprising, since the enterprising founder and organizer of the Foundation, Irina Knaster, hails from Russia. She began the series in London in 2011, where she resided before settling in New York and moving her foundation there in 2016. The first season held entirely in New York came the following year. You can peruse the themes explored on the ASPECT site. In any case, while there is a historical foundation to the contexts Ms. Knaster provides, the method is not primarily scholarly, rather personal and artistic. The Bard Conservatory has initiated a multidisciplinary program, which gives young musician a liberal arts education along with their musical training, requiring the members of its Orchestra NOW to give their audience a personal, but informed introduction to the works they play. Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s rich and personable  presentation seemed an ideal they could strive for.

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy and Music: “Kreutzer” Sonata
Beethoven – Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47, “Kreutzer” Sonata
Tchaikovsky – String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11 (2nd movement)
Janáček – String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata”

Ignat Solzhenitsyn, piano
Mark Steinberg, violin
Ariel Quartet
Illustrated talk by Ignat Solzhenitsyn

In the December program we were invited to look back at Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata from the point of view of late nineteenth century fiction, and music of that period and the 1920s. Mr. Solzhenitsyn had a distinguished partner in Mark Steinberg, violinist in the Brentano Quartet, which replaced the Tokyo Quartet in residence at Yale. They played an energetic, even exuberant “Kreutzer,” tightly knit, but allowed to breathe, enhanced by characterful phrasing—even idiosyncratic in places—which gave the performance an engaging personal stamp. The impressive Ariel Quartet took over to play the slow movement from Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet and the First String Quartet of Janáček, both of which they played with the utmost eloquence. Their playing is distinguished by a warm, glowing tone, supported by darker, grainier timbres in the lower strings, i.e. the G or C strings of the violin, viola, and cello respectively. The Tchaikovsky was lyrical and tender, and the Janáček, which, followed Tolstoy’s story to some degree, was both colorful and deeply felt.

I don’t feel a great kinship with Tolstoy, but his story inspired Janáček, hardly a model of Tolstoyan philosophy, to write one of his masterpieces.

Anton Arensky

Anton Arensky

Anton Arensky (1861-1906) – String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35
Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) – Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 30

Philippe Quint violin
Ji In Yang, violin
Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola
Brook Speltz, cello
Zlatomir Fung, cello
Alexander Kobrin, piano
Illustrated talk by Damian Fowler

Philippe Quint, the brilliant violinist who was the lynch-pin of this important initiative to perform Taneyev’s great, supremely difficult Piano Quintet in F minor, observed that Russian music may be defined by Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky today, but, if Taneyev and Arensky are given their full due, their era will come…and so should Scriabin, who was virtually idolized in his time, and justly so.

The crux is that there were other great composers in Russia, some in Tchaikovsky’s circle, which was essentially Taneyev’s as well, who have, because of an astigmatism in musical appreciation, common to all music, but especially Russian, been ignored. Bard’s landmark performance of Taneyev’s Oresteia in a complete score showed it to be a masterpiece, and Taneyev to be a composer of the highest rank. His music has its intellectualism and severity, but that is hardly a fault. Russian music has had the misfortune of being defined by the Five (Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin)…and then came Stravinsky, who exported Russian music to Paris and Los Angeles! M. Quint has a strong case in adjusting the balance.

Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, with its anomalous scoring for violin, viola, and two cellos, immediately wins one over with its dusky, mellow sonorities, and it is perfectly well-crafted on models of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. It is appealing salon music of a sophisticated sort, and there is nothing superficial about it. The outstanding musicians of the group played it with rich color, eloquence, and thorough commitment.

Sergei Taneyev

Sergei Taneyev

The Taneyev Piano Quintet which followed was an astonishing revelation to me. It is known among musicians as a serious challenge and an ambitious, even monumental work, and that it is. These musicians, led by Philippe Quint, who has played the piece before, truly mastered it. I heard a performance by highly reputed players at Lincoln Center a few years ago, and I recognized the greatness of the music, but there seemed to be something missing. In this performance the musicians were alert to the changing textures of the writing. Parts of it are symphonic and massive, and others are transparent, even extremely delicate. Alexander Kobrin made sure to play certain light piano lines with special delicacy. To adopt a current cliché, I believed they “nailed” it. For the first time, I heard what Taneyev had in mind with his complex, contrapuntal writing and the color and texture of the score. ASPECT achieved something important in bringing us a complete and convincing picture of the score. I have not heard every recording of the Piano Quintet, although it is a favorite of mine, but I did think this performance was a breakthrough.

I learned a lot from talking to the musicians after the concert at a reception open to supporters of the series. This makes it even more valuable to join this valuable series.

Charles Neidich

Charles Neidich

Wa Concert Series

Tenri Cultural Institute
Sunday afternoon, March 11, 2018, 5:00 pm

Hidden Masterpieces

Mieczyław Weinberg (1919 – 1996) – Sonata op. 28 for clarinet and piano (1945)
Vassily Lobanov (b. 1947) – Sonata (1989)
Aleksandr Lokshin (1920 -1987) – Quintet for clarinet and string quartet (1954) (American Premiere)

Charles Neidich, clarinet
Mariko Furukawa, piano
The Parker String Quartet

This most recent concert in Charles Neidich’s WA Series revealed another aspect of the neglect of  certain major figures in Russian music. In no time and place in the history of music are the priorities of composers and of compositions more skewed than in twentieth-century Russia. Today, among the leaders of Russian and Soviet music, Scriabin is largely forgotten, except among a small group of devoted connoisseurs. The rediscovery of Maximilian Steinberg’s powerful Passion Week casts his oeuvre in a new light. Shostakovich is in the spotlight and Prokofiev is rather neglected. He continues to be best known by works that are not his best. Numerous other composers, accepted or gloried during the Stalin years, have lapsed into obscurity, like Myaskovsky. Others were suppressed by the establishment during this period and after it. Of the composers we heard at the Tenri Cultural Institute, only Mieczyław Weinberg has any currency today. I had never heard of Vassily Lobanov and Aleksandr Lokshin. We have Charles Neidich’s period of study in Moscow, as a Fulbright scholar in 1975, to thank for his espousal of their music and this opportunity to share in discoveries he made by word of mouth. After hearing the entire concert, one thing seemed clear to me: this was not the music of minor composers. Since all three were isolated for periods of their careers, blackballed either by the Composer’s Union, Zhdanov, or even liberals responding to false accusations, their musical voice has a centeredness and integrity that was unreachable for the public figures: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Myaskovsky, for example. All three of these composers produced an honest, and therefore deeply moving expression of their experience of living in Soviet Russia.

Mieczyław Weinberg

Mieczyław Weinberg

Weinberg was a Polish Jew, born in Warsaw and fully trained there. He was an outstanding pianist and his early career in Poland pointed to a career as a traveling virtuoso like Leopold Godowsky, Ignaz Friedman or Ignacy Jan Paderewski. He and his family had been beset with anti-semitic attacks, causing the deaths of his father and grandfather. Just before the Nazi occupation of Poland, he set off on foot for the Soviet Union. He arrived in Moscow at a time when Jews were fairly well treated, as part of Stalin’s effort to curry favor with American Jews. He enjoyed a warm friendship with Myaskovsky and a very close one with Shostakovich, who even risked his own safety to support him. Weinberg enjoyed some success, until the breakup of the Soviet Union, when his reputation dwindled. Shostakovich was indeed an influence on Weinberg, but he retained his own musical backbone. His music was infused with the sweetness, melancholy, and tragedy of the sensibility of Polish Jewry. The clarinet sonata is a rich example of Weinberg’s individuality.

Vassily Lobanov

Vassily Lobanov

Lobanov is the youngest of the three, born in 1947 and still living. He was a child when Stalin died and during Krushchev’s tenure, so he was not a part of Weinberg’s or Lokshin’s world. He emigrated to Germany in 1991. His Sonata is the most tonally “advanced” of the three pieces on the program, a telling foil to the Romantic overtones of the other two.

Portrait of Aleksandr Lokshin by Tatyana_Apraksina. Oil on canvas, 1987.

Portrait of Aleksandr Lokshin by Tatyana_Apraksina. Oil on canvas, 1987.

Aleksandr Lokshin, born in western Siberia, grew up on the wrong side of the Soviet state. His father was an accountant who owned a small farm. As such he was declared a capitalist, and the family found it prudent to move to Novosibirsk, where Aleksandr received an excellent education at the hands of teachers exiled from Moscow and Leningrad. During the Second World War, the Leningrad Symphony and their conductor, Evgeny Mravinsky were sent to Novosibirsk for safety, and they performed a work by the young Lokshin. (Shostakovich especially praised  his First Symphony.) He earned his degree from the Moscow Conservatory with this piece, a vocal-symphonic poem “Wait for Me,” and he taught instrumentation at the Conservatory between 1945 and 1948, but he lost his job during the Zhdanov purges, because of his admiration for cosmopolitan composers like Berg, Mahler, and Stravinsky. After that, he worked in isolation. In the gripping, heart-wrenching Clarinet Quintet we heard, his influences were apparent in the background. His musical personality is entirely his own.

All on hand played with concentration, expression and commitment, but Charles Neidich’s playing went beyond that. He learned of them as a student and met them, and this feeling of connection informed the special passion of his expression. Mr. Neidich’s exquisite boxwood clarinet, specially built for him by a specialist in historical clarinets in Germany. In this, Neidich wanted to combine the contrast of timbre and mellowness of an historical clarinet with the power of a modern instrument. It is rapture to hear this instrument in any kind of music, in this case great music, played with deep feeling and identification, especially the Lokshin.

 

Elliott Carter (1908-2012)Elliott Carter (1908-2012)

Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tenri Cultural Institute of New York

The Originality Of Greatness: Celebrating Elliott Carter’s 109th Birthday

Elliott Carter (1908-2012):

Pastorale (1940/45)
Talk: Introducing Elliot Carter, by John Link
Hiyoku (2001)
Two Thoughts about the Piano: Intermittences (2005), Caténaires (2005)
Duettino (2008)
Poems of Louis Zukofsky (2008)

[Intermission]

Con Leggerezza Pensosa (1990)
Gra (1993)
Rhapsodic Musings (2000)
Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (1948)

Charles Neidich – Clarinet
Ayako Oshima – Clarinet
Fred Sherry – Cello
Lucy Shelton – Soprano
Amber Evans – Soprano
Mohamed Shams – Piano
Alexi Kenney – Violin

John Link – Composer, Author, Elliott Carter Specialist

Elliott Carter, apart from a genius which made him the greatest American composer together with his mentor, Charles Ives, had a talent for friendship and a gift for communicating his wishes as a composer to his players, one which often led to friendship. If Shostakovich, in the Soviet world we have just been living in, had his Rostropovich, Richter, and Vishnevskaya, Carter left his own treasure in the hands of Fred Sherry, Lucy Shelton, Charles Neidich, and others, like the late Charles Rosen. The monumental Carter retrospective, which was the 2008 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, was both a tribute and a teaching moment, an opportunity to pass on the performance style—actually much more than is implied by that term—to a younger generation, the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows of 2008, most of whom were born around 1988, when Carter was eighty. Charles Neidich’s celebration of Carter’s 109th birthday was nothing other than a version of the FCM festival in miniature. Four musicians—Fred Sherry, Lucy Shelton, Charles Neidich, and Ayako Oshima—who knew Carter as friends, and gave special love to his music, played together with three young musicians—Amber Evans, soprano, Mohamed Shams, pianist, and violinist Alexi Kenney—to create a landscape of Elliott Carter’s creative development, beginning with the early Pastorale of 1940, revised in 1945, then looking closely at his work of the 1990s and 2000s, and concluding with the Cello Sonata of 1948—a substantial work, which is both a summation of his earlier efforts and the gateway to his maturity, which—it is good to remember—came at the age of forty.

Carter’s powers of invention seem to know no bounds. His compositions are without fail tight and coherent, but complex and free-ranging in imagination and color. He wrote long pieces, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, which settle into a more classical form, like the Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord, and he wrote short pieces, which combine wit and charm with Webern-like compression: if you have listened to one of these short pieces, you realize afterwards that you have heard a great deal of music!

The playing was on the highest level. The senior musicians were impressed by the alacrity and facility with which the brilliant young players owned the music, and the audience was thrilled. How amazing it was to hear Ayako Oshima and Charles Neidirch play a duet together in Hiyoku. Mohamed Shams showed his complete mastery of Carter’s idiom in Two Thoughts about the Piano. Lucy Shelton and Amber Evans were luminous, exchanging parts in Poems by Louis Zukofsky.

The numbers of players and choice of instruments tell as much of a story as the notes written on the staves. I have mentioned Hiyoku for two clarinets. Then there is Duettino for violin and cello, Rhapsodic Musings for solo violin, and Gra for solo clarinet, a tribute of Carter’s for Witold Lutosławski’s eightieth birthday. The instrumentation is as personal as the dedications.

I should not forget to mention that the last interior page of the program was a menu. Ayako Oshima, an outstanding clarinettist and Mr. Neidich’s wife, is also a chef of high accomplishments. There was wine and a few snacks before the concert, a bit more during the intermission, and then a full spread afterwards, consisting of an international selection of dishes somehow suitable for the music—but it had nothing to do with those preciously “curated” tastings. Both of the Wa Concerts I have mentioned ended with a feast of this sort, which unleashed a dash of joyous, appreciative conversation about the music we had just heard.

For those who wonder about the word WA, Mr Neidich has an explanation:

What is WA?  WA is a very special word in  Japanese. It is a circle with the meaning also of harmony and completeness. Music has the remarkable ability with simply abstract sound to transport us to other worlds and to make us experience the deepest emotions. In our series we will strive to present compelling performances which will connect artists and audience in ways which will be enlightening and, hopefully, even life changing.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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