SHANGHAI QUARTET with PETER KOLKAY

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With PETER KOLKAY, bassoon

Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 1 in E-flat, Op. 12
Joan Tower: Red Maple, for Bassoon and String Quartet (2013)
In Celebration of Joan Tower’s 80th Birthday
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 13 in B Flat, Op. 130

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SHANGHAI QUARTET

PETER KOLKAY,, bassoon
WEIGANG LI and YI-WEN JIANG violin
HONGGANG LI viola
NICHOLAS TZAVARAS, cello

Sunday, July 29, 2018, 4 pm

Program

About the Artists

The Shanghai Quartet, formed at that city’s Conservatory of Music by two brothers in 1983, is a remarkable blend of Asian delicacy and Western forthrightness. In its thirty-five-year career it has done much to bring the two music worlds closer together. Violinist Weigang Li and his brother, violist Honggang Li, started to play in their precocious early childhood, then went to the Conservatory, and finally to America to further develop their skills. Weigang attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, then went on to teach at Juilliard, also working as a teaching assistant to the Juilliard Quartet. Honggang has also taught at Juilliard. With the Shanghai Quartet, he began as second violinist and later switched to the viola when a previous violist left the group. Yi-Wen Jiang, second violin, has also been active as a composer, and has arranged more than fifty works, many of them transcriptions of Eastern pieces for a Western ear. Nicholas Tzavaras, cello, is the only Westerner in the quartet. Born in Spanish Harlem, he has been the group’s cellist since 2000, and has appeared in two movies: in the Academy Award-nominated documentary Small Wonders and in Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep. The Quartet itself has also been on-screen, having appeared in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda and on PBS’s Great Performances series. They serve as quartet-in-residence at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Peter Kolkay, who was described by The New York Times as “stunningly virtuosic,” is probably the finest bassoonist currently before the American public, He won first prize at the Concert Artists Guild Competition in 2002, and an Avery Fisher Career Grant two years later, the only bassoonist ever to have done so. He has premiered bassoon works by a number of composers, including Elliott Carter, Russell Platt, and Charles Wuorinen—and, of course, Joan Tower, whose music he is playing today. Kolkay has degrees from Yale and the Eastman School of Music, and currently teaches at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, where he chairs the woodwind department.

About the Music

It was perhaps a bit overstated when Schumann called Felix Mendelssohn “The Mozart of the nineteenth century,” but there’s something in it. The composer’s huge technical facility, his graceful ease, and his ability to encompass a range of emotions in a single piece are all Mozartean. Although it’s an early work, written when Mendelssohn was only 20, his String Quartet No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 12, is one of the most often performed of his chamber pieces. The reasons aren’t hard to find: it has a winning charm and lyricism, it’s beautifully scored for the instruments, and it’s extremely graceful to play. There are a few oddities about it, too. Each movement is essentially in a different key: the opening Allegro is in the stated E flat; the second, Canzonetta (a special favorite) in G minor; the third, Andante Espressivo, in B flat; and the finale, Molto Allegro, in C minor.
The Adagio opening reflects Mendelssohn’s close study of the late Beethoven quartets. (There is a kinship here with the Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74.) The opening is followed by an essentially romantic Mendelssohnian tune, expressively worked out; there is a delicious variant in the recapitulation, which Mendelssohn brings back in the quartet’s final coda. The second movement, Canzonetta, offers a sprightly dancing tune, followed by a remarkable Allegretto. This is a scurrying theme, played very swiftly, that is very difficult to bring off at the speed the composer seemingly wanted; when it is, the effect is exhilarating and dazzling. The slow movement is, perhaps expectedly, a long-breathed song, with some beautiful arabesques in the upper strings. It soars to a brief climax on a high violin note before dying away. The last movement begins with a forte gesture, then rushes to a fleet-footed theme that works itself into sudden dramatic flare-ups. Toward the end there is a striking return of the major theme from the first movement, which winds down into a wistful coda that one critic has described as the finest the composer ever wrote.

Joan Tower, whose eightieth birthday this year we are celebrating at this concert, is one of the most gifted American composers working today, of either sex—and in fact The New Yorker has called her “one of the most successful woman composers of all time.” For more than fifty years she has made a major contribution to our musical life as composer, performer, conductor, and educator. She has taught at Bard College for nearly fifty years, and as a performer was cofounder and pianist for many years of the much-admired Da Capo Chamber Players. After a brief early brush with serialism, Tower’s music is now far more accessible. It is vividly scored, strongly rhythmic, and partly influenced by her early years growing up in Latin America and by Stravinsky. Tower has always been an advocate for a close relationship between composer and performer, and has been frequently commissioned by orchestras and star soloists. She was the first composer to be commissioned for the Ford Made in America program, involving many smaller orchestras from every state; the recording of her dynamic Made in America won three Grammys. Other well-known works are her series of five “Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman,” wry reflections of Copland’s celebrated “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Tower’s father was a mineralogist, and her music often explores aspects of nature. Red Maple, a tribute to the wood used in making bassoons and perhaps also a poem to the fall, was commissioned by Peter Kolkay and the South Carolina Philharmonic, who premiered it together in 2013. Tower originally wrote it for bassoon and string orchestra but later adapted the accompaniment for a string quartet. The seventeen-minute work has no discernible structure, being designed largely to show off the virtuosic qualities of the instrument. It begins with a long, yearning solo in an upper register before the strings enter quietly. Then follows a series of alternating fast and slow sections that seem to shorten on each appearance. There are three showy cadenzas for the bassoon before the work hastens to a spectacularly virtuosic conclusion.

More has probably been written about Ludwig van Beethoven’s late quartets than about any other chamber music in the repertoire. For a century after their composition they were regarded as insuperably difficult—too long, too hard to follow, their moods too spiritual and sometimes remote-seeming. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, they are rightly regarded as perhaps the pinnacles of quartet writing, for their profundity, their elusive moods, and the extremity of their entry into the very soul of a great and tormented man. They were actually commissioned, in fact, by a Russian prince who was also a cellist, and who asked for three; in the end he got twice as many, and these turned out to be Beethoven’s swan song as a composer. The String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130, the third of them to be written, is one of the strangest, with six movements instead of the usual four—more of a suite or divertimento than a conventionally shaped quartet. It is well known that Beethoven originally planned to conclude it with a massive and rather terrifying fugal movement. In the end, either the composer or his publisher (it’s not quite clear which) decided that the Grosse Fugue, as it came to be known, was too overbearing as a finale, and Beethoven substituted another ending—a much lighter, almost airy, movement that was actually the last thing he ever wrote. (The Grosse Fugue went on to an independent life of its own with a different opus number, the scoring sometimes even expanded—not by the composer—for full string orchestra.)

The first movement has a more or less conventional design, but with a slow introductory theme that recurs repeatedly throughout and a huge variety of material, seemingly enough for an entire quartet. The second is an astonishing Presto, like a whirlwind in its speed and lightness—it’s the shortest movement in any Beethoven quartet, and quite intoxicating in its effect. The third movement, taking the role of the first of two slow movements, has a gracious dancing theme, beautifully decorated and spun out. Now come what are perhaps the quartet’s most often extracted—and deeply loved—movements. The fourth movement is a danza tedesca (Italian for a German dance) that has a memorable skipping theme and creates the remarkable effect of one smiling through tears, an emotion extraordinarily difficult to evoke—though some movements in Mozart’s string quintets have a similar effect. The fifth, a Cavatina, is a sort of operatic song, one of Beethoven’s most beautiful creations. It’s a poignant, profoundly spiritual theme that is harmonized in such a way as to reach deeply buried, almost unknown areas of feeling. It is said to have brought the composer himself to tears. A recording of it by the Budapest String Quartet was among the music sent into outer space on a satellite, to demonstrate to extra-terrestrials what humans are capable of. After this, it’s almost a relief to turn to the rather cheery major-key Allegro finale, which is almost back in Haydn-and-Mozart territory—were it not for the occasional shadows.

Program Notes © 2018 John F. Baker


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