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Program Notes © 2015 by Miriam Villchur Berg*

Final Concert of Maverick’s Centennial Season

American String Quartet

Peter Winograd, violin
Laurie Carney,
violin
Daniel Avshalomov,
viola
Wolfram Koessel,
cello

Sunday, September 13, 2015, 2 pm

program

String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1 (1838)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Molto allegro vivace
Menuetto: Un poco allegro
Andante espressivo ma con moto
Presto con brio

String Quartet 7.5 (Maverick) (2015)
George Tsontakis (b. 1951)

I. Distantly romantic
II. Flowing, but inwardly rhythmic

World Premiere Performance. Commissioned for the Centenary of the Maverick Concerts,
a project made possible in part through support from the County of Ulster’s
Ulster County Cultural Services & Promotion Fund, administrated by ARTS MID-HUDSON.

intermission

String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 “Razumovsky” (1806)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Allegro
Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando
Adagio molto e mesto
Allegro


 

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

Internationally recognized as one of the world’s foremost quartets, the American String Quartet celebrates its thirty-ninth season in 2014–2015. Critics and colleagues hold the American in high esteem, and many of today’s leading performers and composers seek them out for collaborations.

The quartet is known for its performances of the complete quartets of Beethoven, Schubert, Schoenberg, Bartók, and Mozart. Their recordings of the complete Mozart string quartets on a matched set of Stradivarius instruments are widely held to have set the standard for this repertoire.

To celebrate its thirty-fifth anniversary, the ASQ recorded an ambitious CD, Schubert’s Echo, released in 2010 by NSS Music (founded by violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg). Recorded at New York City’s American Academy of Arts and Letters, Schubert’s Echo features three works never before recorded together: Schubert’s monumental String Quartet in G, D. 887, Alban Berg’s dramatic, atonal String Quartet, Op. 3, and Anton Webern’s visionary Fünf Sätze (Five Movements), Op. 5. Schubert’s chamber music had no influence on his contemporaries for the very good reason that it was largely unknown in his lifetime. The surprise revealed by this recording is that Schubert’s impact extends to a later generation of Viennese composers, whose music in many respects is the antithesis of Schubert’s. These works reveal, in the context of each other, the continuum of the quartet repertoire.

The American String Quartet also champions contemporary music. The quartet has commissioned, premiered, and recorded works by distinguished American composers, including Claus Adam, Richard Danielpour, Kenneth Fuchs, and Tobias Picker. In 1984, the quartet performed the complete Schoenberg quartet cycle for the tenth anniversary of UCLA’s Schoenberg Institute. In 1989, Chamber Music America commissioned George Tsontakis’s String Quartet No. 4 for the American String Quartet. The ensemble has recorded on the Albany, CRI, MusicMasters, Musical Heritage Society, Nonesuch, and RCA labels.

The American Quartet’s innovative programming and creative approach to education has resulted in notable residencies throughout the country. The group continues as quartet-in-residence at the Manhattan School of Music (1984–present) and the Aspen Music Festival (1974–present). The ASQ also travels widely abroad and teaches in Beijing, where, in the summer of 2013, they returned for their ninth residency at the Great Wall International Music Academy.

Formed in 1974 when its original members were students at The Juilliard School, the American String Quartet was launched by winning both the Coleman Competition and the Naumburg Chamber Music Award in the same year.


ABOUT THE MUSIC

Although Felix Mendelssohn was a child prodigy, his parents spared him the grueling lifestyle of touring and display that young Mozart had endured. Felix had friends among the elite of political, social, and artistic society. He made a lasting friendship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when he was twelve and the author was seventy-two. Mendelssohn was an accomplished graphic artist, a linguist, and a writer. His composing career was steady, prolific, successful, and fulfilling. He was admired throughout Europe, and practically worshipped in England. Unfortunately, he died in 1848 at the age of thirty-eight. He never got to see the extraordinary changes that music underwent in the second half of the nineteenth century—a time that should have been the latter half of his own career. Nevertheless, he has left us some remarkable music, more so for having been written by such a young man.

In the String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1, Mendelssohn starts with an unusually fast opening movement (Molto allegro vivace). A strongly accented galloping theme alternates with a continuous flow of notes—in the same tempo as the main theme, but imbued with a more relaxed, unrushed feeling. Although all the voices contribute to the whole, the first violin takes the lead.

The Menuetto (Un poco allegro) is a dance in the old style—gently swaying, a bit waltz-like. The central Trio offers a contrast, with the violin high above the chords of the lower three instruments. As usual, the opening Menuetto section returns, but instead of adhering to the standard ABA format, Mendelssohn brings the Trio melody back in, and, at the last minute, combines the two themes.

In the slow movement (Andante espressivo ma con moto) we hear a violin melody over a plucked cello and flowing inner voices. The forward momentum keeps the music from getting overly sentimental. Near the end, the first violin plays a short solo, like the cadenza in a concerto. The movement ends with soft plucked chords.

The Finale (Presto con brio) mirrors the brilliance of the first movement. Two themes are offered—the first bright and up-tempo, the second more cantabile (song-like). As the themes are developed, Mendelssohn continues to explore the juxtaposition of a faster-moving line with one that is more lyrical. The quartet ends with an exciting flourish.

George Tsontakis was born in New York City and has made his home in the Woodstock area for many years. He studied composition at the Juilliard School and at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. He serves as distinguished faculty and composer-in-residence at Bard College, and his music has been performed and broadcast by major orchestras, chamber ensembles, and festivals throughout North and South America, Europe, and Japan.

Tsontakis was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has received the coveted Ives Living Fellowship. Stephen Hough’s recording of Ghost Variations was nominated for a Grammy Award and was the only classical recording among Time magazine’s 1998 Top Ten Recordings. Mr. Tsontakis’s Violin Concerto No. 2 was also nominated for a Grammy. Tsontakis has been honored with the Berlin Prize and the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition

Mr. Tsontakis says of this work, “This short but hopefully poignant quartet is cast in two movements. The first is wholly lyrical, lending a kind of veiled romantic spirit throughout. The second alternates between a floating lyricism and a more intensely rhythmic scherzo. I would add that my good friend, the ASQ violist Dan Avshalomov, challenged me to use the scherzo opening of the Beethoven Opus 59, No.1 (the first of the Razumovsky quartets, which we will be hearing this afternoon), as a thematic source in my new work — repeated B-flat notes in 3/4. At first I didn’t think the idea ‘hit me’ at all, and I feared it might come out contrived or trivial. But in the end, I couldn’t come up with a decent idea of my own, so I used his. I certainly intend to plan to blame it on him if it doesn’t work well or sounds as trivial as I had feared.

“In the case of this Maverick commission, the opportunity could not be more auspicious. It offers yet another opportunity to write for my lifelong friends in the American String Quartet. And it will be composed for the music series closest to my heart and my home; the Maverick is but a few miles from my studio in Shokan. Owing that at ten-plus minutes it is about half the duration of my previous seven quartets, I felt compelled to title this one String Quartet 7.5 (Maverick).

“Happy One-Hundredth, Maverick Concerts, and thank you for including my work in your celebration!”

We tend to think of Beethoven’s late period as the time of his most innovative, even revolutionary, compositions. But the music of his middle period, especially the string quartets of Opus 59, were so unusual that many performers and audiences were perplexed. Musicians had some extreme reactions to the String Quartet in F, Op. 59 No. 1. One cellist (Bernard Romberg) threw the music on the floor and stomped on it; Ignaz Shuppanzigh, the first violinist of the Shuppanzigh Quartet, thought it was a joke rather than the real string quartet; and when violinist Felix Radicati said to Beethoven, “Surely you do not consider this music!” the composer replied, “Not for you, but for a later age.”

In the opening Allegro, the first theme (marked dolce) rises from the depths in the cello and is taken to the heights by the first violin. This is the first string quartet of Beethoven in which there is no repeat mark after the exposition, because here the development starts immediately. Beethoven is reinventing Classical structures. In the center of the movement, Beethoven writes a double fugue—a form that would become more important in his later quartets. With its extraordinarily rich development of themes, this is the longest Allegro movement Beethoven had written to this point in his career.

The Scherzo (Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando) actually provoked laughter in audiences of the time. The cello plays nothing but a single note, in a rhythm that could be construed as lively and playful, or just downright silly. Again, there are no repeated sections—the music constantly evolves. Two more legato sections serve the function of the Trios, which punctuate the three separate Scherzo sections.

The slow movement (Adagio molto e mesto—very slow and mournful) is an intensely dramatic lament, sung by the first violin, then taken up by the cello in its upper range with a violin descant above. The roles are reversed for the second theme, with the cello handing it off to the violin. The cello accompanies much of the development section with pizzicato (plucked) runs. After an extensive cadenza-like run, the violin holds a trilled note that ends the C major movement and starts the F major Finale.

The Finale (Allegro) is marked Thème Russe, since Beethoven adapted a Russian folk song for its principal melody, in honor of his patron, Count (later Prince) Razumovsky. The contrasting second theme is introduced by the second violin. Several times the music slows down as if the cadence were coming, but the music comes back. There is a fugato (fugue-like) section, then an extremely slow version of the Russian song, and finally the galloping finish.

 




All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg.
It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy, publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at miriam@hvc.rr.com.

Program Notes © 2015 by Miriam Villchur Berg