27 October 2007

Jupiter Quartet: Nå Skruva Fiolen! (So, Violin Rave!)

Jupiter String Quartet
It’s a Saturday party, and Jupiter String Quartet plays Mozart with a freshness that’s disarming. Mozart creates this deceptively simple piece in 1787, Serenade in G major (K. 525), otherwise known as ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’. What is this—a 31-year-old Mozart’s homage to nighttime festivities, full of 30-something elation and excitement? Upon hearing Jupiter Quartet’s reading of this piece—as part of the ‘What Makes It Great?’ series with Rob Kapilow in Kansas City today, one of the Friends of Chamber Music programs—I’m for the first time struck by the possibility that Nachtmusik may have been Mozart’s acting-out: Mozart toying with class-distinction; a show-piece of ‘This is me, and this, yes, THIS is you’ inter-class regard in 18th century minuet-trio form. Or maybe it’s a darker, droll commentary by an old-enough-to-see-the-writing-on-the-wall Mozart who was chafing in his position within society. There’s a compulsive energy here, a drive that I’ve not heard in any other ensemble’s rendering of these movements, a rocket-fueled quality that causes me to recognize a dimension that I’ve never considered before… These are… these can only be… compositions for… 18th–Century raves!

The only dance of older ‘suite’ forms that persisted when the sonata da camera evolved into the solo sonata and the symphony is the trio. The trio: What does it do? It provides contrast with the minuet movement. Classical minuets are, basically, idiomatic of aristocratic—and, by then, aspirational urban- and bourgeois—culture. But trios are inherently rustic or rural. After the 18th century, the minuet goes into decline and we get the scherzo, the waltz, and so on. But, even in mid-19th century, the trio is still idiomatically rustic. This isn’t to say that peasants were benefiting from some sort of nostalgic idealization by their superiors. No. Nor was rusticness in the trio form some kind of an ironic or ‘laughing-at-not-with’ gesture. The stately minuet in K.525 has sparse two-part openings of each section. But the trio in K.525 is this squarish, exuberant, almost-vulgar hurdy-gurdy-like tune—the harmonization has a bass line but it’s almost devoid of other accompaniment.

Some people think of musical texture as a ‘vertical’ thing, but it’s really two-dimensional—think of its progress through time as the piece proceeds. And the two main texture types (polyphonic and homophonic) are transgressed here. Polyphonic is where every strand is melodic, each melodic strand possibly a different tonal color. Versus ‘Melody and Bass Only’. This is often all that’s necessary to sound complete, if well written. The effect can be light if played softly, or bold, if played exuberantly, as in the Minuet movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

So was Mozart writing things like K.525 strictly for his imperial patron or for the gentry? Hardly. Seems like he was also intending the minuets to be accessible to (and danced by) the common people as well! This is ‘first-person, singular’ music. It’s music for dancers who are full of themselves.

The Jupiters’ playing makes us think about Mozart’s motives for composing in this way. Mozart wasn’t just following his inner muse. He was a music mass-marketer who was ahead of his time! He wasn’t writing these as serious concert pieces; that much is sure. No, this piece might’ve been a serenade for a wedding—as was the case with the Haffner (K.250)—meant to be played intermittently at intervals between refreshments at the reception. Dances like these were written for audiences comprised of ‘people-of-fashion’, never mind the social standing or station of those people. These were dances for people who today would lease handbags, say, from BagBorrowOrSteal or BorrowDesignerBags. But, weddings aside, this feels like a classical rave tune. Feel the rhythms!

Minuet-trio compositions like K.525 are different from other dance forms and their “class” implications, such as the Ländler, Deutsche Tanze, Ecossaise, etc. Those dances are far more representational; unambiguous; honorific, even. But this Nachtmusik! The wryness, the tongue-in-cheek of it! The party-ness of it!

As I listen to the Jupiters performing the several movements of this piece, I wonder about the 18th-Century custom of different classes of people mingling at society balls. Maybe the motive for these movements’ different character is to provide a vehicle for the different classes of people partying to dance different dances as a means of droll rivalry with each other, a kind of hair-raising one-ups-manship. Not a Rousseau-ian ‘leveling’ of social class distinctions in the ballroom, but instead a rubbing each others’ noses in the remnants of class, in jest—in a parodistic, comic, party-animal way. Yes, this music was, and was intended to be, a pretext for acting-out. And not necessarily only for acting-out tableaux of inter-class social difference. For example, it may have been a pretext for acting-out a rustic ‘devil-may-care’ defiance of mortality. We fancy stylish partiers, let’s now scoff at Death!

Daß williger mein Herz, vom süßen
Spiele gesättiget, dann mir sterbe...
Zugriedn bin ich, wenn auch mein Saitenspiel
Mich nicht hinab geleitet; Einmal
Lebt’ ich, wie Götter, und mehr bedarfs nicht.”

[ More willingly my heart, so sated
 with the sweet play, might then die...
 I am content even if my string music
 does not accompany me on the way down; Once
 I lived like the gods, and more than that is not required.]
  — Hölderlin, An die Parzen.

As Tim Blanning has said, ‘Both the musician and the society were involved in the creative process’ (p. 178). Far cry from predominantly passive audiences today! And now, as this Jupiter Quartet performance makes clear to me for the first time, it would be a ‘stretch’ to say that, because his audience was mostly comprised of gentry, Mozart’s dance compositions must therefore have been ‘aristocratic’, for passive farts looking to shore up their noblesse. No. More likely Mozart’s minuet-trio output was for ‘bourgeois-poseurs’ — it’s activist-oriented, for Movers & Shakers. Subversive, even. Not deeply subversive in the pan-political way that Shostakovich was subversive, but subversive on an intimate and personal level, like acid-house music.

This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no foolin’ around! Der Begriff des Subversiven meint ein (individuelles oder kollektives) absichtsvolles Unterlaufen von Normen und Standards mit dem Ziel einer (oft kaumwahrnehmbaren) Transformation. Bestehende Gefüge, Denkstrukturen und Bezugssysteme sollen unter Anwendung ihrer eigenen Gesetze bewegt, verdrehtund umgestürzt werden. Auf welche Weise kann Kunst (bildende Kunst, Literatur, Musik) das leisten?”

[ The concept of the subversive means eliding (individual or collective) intention and breaching norms and standards with the goal (often hardly perceptible) of transformation. Desultory cooptation of existing structures, ideologies and reference systems bends, breaks, and finally overthrows the status quo. How does Art (art, literature, music) do that? ]

  —  Das Subversive (in) der Kunst, Symposium 15-17 Juli 2005, Vienna.

Watchmen, Acid House, 1987
Maybe ‘Mozart’ = ‘Professional Dilettante’. In itself ‘dilettante’ is an unusual word that comes into use in the English language in the 18th century, signifying an individual who delights, enjoys, and/or creates something for its own sake, in terms of its own value, and not primarily with a desire or need for financial reward. ‘Dilettante’ is spelled almost the same in various languages (e.g., English, French, German, and Italian), derived from the Latin ‘delectare’, meaning ‘to delight’. Maybe this K.525 is a hold-over 20-something’s Hausmusik ‘remix’ for The Empire of Delight, in four movements.

The dilettante’s glowsticking audience is controlled, and the dilettante’s personality is usually a ‘controlling’ one. Mozart tried carefully to control as much as he could, tried to influence the circumstances where social and musical exchange took place—a dilettante on his own terms whenever possible. In that vein, a dilettante composer’s interest would almost always focus more on culturally-favored, popular, intimate genres rather than on grand gestures associated with a more public music. So from dilettantes we have songs, dances, harpsichord and pianoforte compositions, chamber music miniatures, etc.—instead of large-scale symphonic compositions, operas, and masses.

Glowsticking at a Rave
We can find out quite a lot about contemporary reception of trios of the 1780s from comments and letters of the time. Likewise, we can find out quite a lot about composers’ motivations from their letters.

P.S. — When are we to have another little musical party at your house again? I have composed a new trio I want you to hear!”
  —  Mozart, letter to Michael Puchberg, 17-JUN-1788, in Anderson, p. 916.

So, maybe Mozart DID compose as he wished, despite the fact that his nominal patron was himself very controlling. Maybe Mozart was the first one to strike the blow for freedom that marked the end of the whole patronage system based on the class domination of the old aristocracy. Yes, he was a child prodigy, fêted by all the royalty of Europe, to whom he dedicated exquisite minuets, sonatas and symphonies. But here he was, a now a grown man, and he finds himself in the compulsory service of Archbishop Hieronymus of Salzburg. Hieronymus, despotic and resentful, asserts himself as secular and spiritual lord of his fief. Hieronymus resents Mozart’s fame and feels threatened by Mozart’s confident, cosmopolitan independence. Hieronymus wants to put Mozart, his feudal servant and vassal, back in his place. So he commands Mozart to refuse all commissions from outside sources and restrict himself to writing masses for the Salzburg cathedral. Didn’t sit well with Mozart. Look at him! Look at this pensive portrait of him painted by his brother-in-law, when Mozart was 26. This is not a picture of a compliant servant! Isn’t that a youthful defiance in those eyes? Mozart’s reaction to Heironymus’s idiocy is to defiantly compose up-tempo rave music! But no historian/biographer of the time would write about that! Which is why today no one knows for certain why these salon pieces were written. As if.

Mozart portrait, age 26 years, by Joseph Lange.
He could compose as he wished – dilettantes have no necessity to ‘prove’ anything to anyone – and then select the audience to hear his compositions, knowing that neither his invitations nor his music would be taken lightly.”
  —  Aubrey Garlington, Society, Culture & Opera in Florence 1814-1830: Dilettantes in an Earthly Paradise, 2006.

A performance of this piece by the Jupiter String Quartet is, in any case, exciting. They impart new ideas about Mozart, his psychology, his skill as a marketer and provocateur, his society and the turbulent times in which he lived. Regardless whether the impressions above are real or an illusion, the experience is undeniably vivid and valuable. We leave with new empathy to replace our habitual preconceptions and prejudices. Thank you, Jupiters, for breathing such life into ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’. You throw a great party!

(The Quartet was recently awarded the Cleveland Quartet Award by Chamber Music America, a prize which “honors and promotes a rising young string quartet whose artistry demonstrates that it is in the process of establishing a major career.” They have also been selected to join Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Society Two for a three-year residency that began this year, and have been awarded the Netherland America Prize, which will sponsor a tour of the Netherlands in the Spring of 2008. In 2004 the Jupiters won the Grand Prize in the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and First Prize in the 8th Banff International String Quartet Competition, where they were also awarded the Szekely Prize for the best performance of a Beethoven quartet. The Quartet has performed at New York’s Lincoln Center, Boston’s Jordan Hall and London’s Wigmore Hall, as well as at major music festivals including the Aspen Music Festival. The Jupiter String Quartet members devote considerable energy to developing future classical music audiences through outreach work in the school system and educational performances (like today’s Friends of Chamber Music ‘What Makes it Great’ party with Rob Kapilow in Kansas City). They also enjoy working with aspiring chamber musicians, and have served on the faculties of the chamber music programs at the Snowmass Suzuki Institute and the Austin Chamber Music Festival. The Jupiters are alumni of the Professional String Quartet Training Program at The New England Conservatory in Boston.)

    Jupiter String Quartet
  • Nelson Lee, first violin
  • Meg Freivogel McDonough, second violin
  • Liz Freivogel, viola
  • Daniel McDonough, cello


Jupiter String Quartet

24 October 2007

Touching-for-Knowing: Christopher Falzone and the Cognitive Psychology of Haptic Piano

Christopher Falzone
Christopher Falzone performed Hindemith’s Sonata No. 3, Scriabin’s Etude in D-sharp minor Op. 8 No. 12, and Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 8 ‘Wilde Jagd’, as part of the student recital at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia on Monday evening. Falzone has received critical acclaim and numerous national and international awards for his piano performances and compositions. (In 2004, he received the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award. In recent years, he has appeared at the Banff Music Festival and the Ravinia Festival. Falzone is a member of the Favrile Quartet. In 2002, his ensemble, Orion Trio, received first prize in the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. Falzone, a native of Richmond, Virginia, presently studies at the Curtis Institute with Leon Fleisher and Claude Frank.)

Christopher’s performance on Monday night was spectacular throughout and delighted the 250 people in attendance at the recital. In particular, Liszt’s etude, ‘Wilde Jagd’, offered insights into Christopher’s physicality. This piece is arguably not as technically demanding as other of Liszt’s works, but it is nonetheless problematic for its many rhythmic challenges, triplets in the LH part, tricky leaps, and large staccato chords.

Liszt, Wilde Jagd, mm. 1 - 8
The left hand should be animated but not over-scaled. The performer’s effect may have panache but should not be preening or demonstrative. Instead, what we hope for is sensitivity alloyed with virtuosity. Falzone delivers this in abundance.

The wild hunt is mostly Presto furioso, except for the cheerful 6/8 hunt in the middle. Toward the conclusion it builds to a stormy climax, a confluence of emotional extravagance and inspiration. The hunt is a recurring theme in representational Romantic compositions and art, often associated with evocation of fright or terror as well as the excitement of the chase. Danger and the real possibility of human death is ever-present in the hunt, looming almost as much as the likelier fate of the quarry. Liszt’s ‘Mazeppa’ (Transcendental Etude No. 4) contains this idea. It is not just the eponymous ‘Jagd’.

In ‘Wilde Jagd’, Liszt is more representational than in other of his compositions. He evokes galloping horses with the persistent dotted rhythmic pattern—thundering hooves are implied by the LH part. The technical challenges of Wilde Jagd include blinding speed, prodigious power, the wide leaps, and repeated chords that demand a flexible wrist.

Liszt, Wilde Jagd, mm. 178 - 185
Falzone’s playing is massive and triumphant—thundering sheets of chords. This is epic pianism. He delivers a rhythmic precision that, olympian though it may be, still admits of flesh-and-blood. He clearly has excellent haptic memory in his fingers, his arms, his back, his entire body. This haptic memory is facilitated by intensive devotion to absorbing the music he performs.

Ultimately, music that is memorized by the mind and by the fingers is played flawlessly by heart. Yes, some pianists play from a score, or at least keep the score on the piano just in case. Falzone plays from memory—not, it seems, as a matter of performance aesthetic or requirement for this recital, but because of this wonderful, physical haptic capability that he is endowed with and has developed. He clearly keeps the notes stored in his mind—measure by measure in his mind, as any capable pianist does—but he also keeps them stored in his body, his arms, his fingers. Touching the piano is inevitable, a foregone conclusion. Magma rises under the earth’s crust; there are tremors; it erupts. Falzone is just such a Force of Nature. Not satisfied with mere sensation, touching and feeling erupt into embodied experiences that are emotional and expressive, personal and interpersonal, and mediated through Steinway technology.

A distinction can be drawn between ‘technical problems’ and ‘technical patterns’ in performance practice. The term ‘pattern’ is maybe best thought of as the sequence of fingering combinations that comprise a solution to a technical problem or challenge. For example, in Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, Etude No. 85, the left hand plays a broken octave pattern with fingers 1 and 5 while fingers 2 and 3 are in a fixed position.

Clementi, Gradus, mm. 1 - 4
But Liszt’s polyphonic problems in Jagd and in other works are different. They require the performer to find some very innovative solutions/patterns and, having found them, to internalize them. When leaping, it’s preferable not to look at your hands. Maybe look at a key about one octave above the written note. Place your thumb there and press down the fifth finger; anticipate the coming chord destination when your hand is in motion, leaping. Linear jumps may be more efficient than arcs, although many accomplished pianists use big arcs successfully. If you are near enough to Falzone at one of his performances, you will see arcs, giant arcs. And probably sparks as well. Lava. Smoke. Brimstone. Exciting, impressive, beautiful!