Four Strings

Katherine McLin, violin
Mary Harris, viola
Marc Moskovitz, cello
John Pellegrino, double bass

Program notes

The Jon Mac Anderson Program Notes underwritten by Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur, LLP

Tonight’s program might also be entitled Four Friends, as it came together out of ProMusica’s principal strings wanting to make music together. Chamber music, of course, offers a special and intimate type of music making, since there is typically only one player to a part, although admittedly, the combination of violin, viola, cello and bass presented some obstacles, since there is nothing composed for that combination! So, to get around that hurdle, we have opted to present you with several compositions in various combinations (and one instrumental substitution). 

The first composer on our program, W.A. Mozart (1756-1791) was a huge lover of chamber music and took advantage of such settings whenever the opportunity presented itself. There are stories of his playing quartets with Joseph Haydn, both men reveling in the chance to carry on a dialogue without any words (and both vying to play viola!). Mozart’s G Major Duo, which opens our program, was also born of an act of friendship, though in this case it involved Joseph’s brother Michael, a gifted composer in his own right. So the story goes, when Mozart visited Salzburg in 1783, he learned that Michael Haydn had been commissioned to compose a set of violin-viola duos for the Archbishop, an amateur violinist, but Haydn had become too ill to complete the work. So Mozart jumped in, finished off the commission and left his name off the manuscript so that Haydn would get full credit and his remuneration, truly an act of friendship. 

Though hardly one of Mozart’s more significant chamber works, the Duo does reveal the composer’s love for both instruments and his ability to dash off a not insignificant piece of music even at the last minute. Comprising three movements, the G Major Duo contains many of the hallmarks of Mozart’s style, including effortless and balanced themes, idiomatic writing for both instruments and no small amount of charm. But it also speaks to Haydn’s own abilities, since such a work was passed off as his own without raising the Archbishop’s eyebrows!

The musical portfolio of Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen (b. 1958) contains ballets, symphonies, operas and chamber music and a pair of large-scale choral works premiered in London at the 2012 Paralympic Games. In other words, she has contributed to nearly all types of classical genres and as well, has amassed a growing number of awards. The title of her 1999 Trio, Romeo Turn, for Viola, Cello and Bass was sparked by the tarmac at London’s Heathrow airport—looking down from her plane, she saw the words ROMEO TURN (right turn). The seven short movements that would follow were dedicated to her father. 

Although Wallen composes “traditionally” insofar as she’s not interested in modern effects and relies on standard meters, her music is definitely challenging. You won’t hear any catchy, recognizable, or even singable tunes. Rather, the composer explores rhythm, color, juxtaposition and perhaps most of all, patterns. The first movement, for instance, pits longer phrases in the upper parts with a jaunty pizzicato figure in the bass, while the third movement, following a brief cantabile (singing) opening, focuses on a rocking pattern that eventually draws in all three players. What’s certain is that Wallen puts each player through her/his paces, with rapid exchanges, ever-changing meters and dexterous dialogue equitably undertaken by all three players.

Concert goers are generally familiar with the music of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) either by way of his operas—and the cartoons such music has spun off, most famously, Warner Brothers’ The Barber of Seville—or his William Tell Overture, whose “Lone Ranger” theme has lost none of its thrill some two centuries later. Rossini’s three movement Cello-Bass Duet sprang from the year 1824. Around this period the composer, having tired of his native Italy, relocated to Paris after stops in Vienna, where he met Beethoven, and England, where he was fawned over by King George, although by this point in his career, Rossini was largely unimpressed with royalty. We can only imagine that the Duo was an occasional piece, perhaps dashed off for an evening of chamber music among friends (like Mozart, Rossini was known to compose effortlessly and easily, so a work of this nature was probably tossed off in a few hours).

The classical music world is awash in composers who died too young or died tragically (for example, see Arensky, below) but Rossini was unique insofar as having spent the last forty years of his life in retirement, enjoying both the wealth his operas brought him and, judging from the photographs, consuming his share of rich Parisian cuisine. His Duo is an operatic miniature, minus the words, its three movements (fast-slow-fast) capturing the excitement, flowing melodies and driving bass lines that made his stage works all the rage in his day.

Russian-born Anton Arensky (1861-1906) was a precocious musical child who by the age of nine already had a number of songs and piano music to his credit. He went on to fulfil what appeared a formidable musical destiny, studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with the great Russian master Rimsky-Korsakov and later enjoying a career as pianist, composer, conductor and professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Sadly, Arensky was but 44 years of age when he succumbed to tuberculosis. Although the composer kept his private life private, few knew him as well as his former mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov, who held that it was gambling and drinking that ultimately did Arensky in. Rimsky-Korsakov also held another view: “In his youth, Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later, the influence came from Tchaikovsky. He will quickly be forgotten.” Rimsky-Korsakov may have believed that by not pushing music’s limits forward, his student’s posthumous reputation would be compromised. Fortunately, works such as the A minor Quartet have ensured his immortality.

Tchaikovsky’s own dedication to European formal molds and movement types and the sonic atmosphere of his scores had a pronounced effect on the younger man. In fact, perhaps no other work in Arensky oeuvre reflects the degree of indebtedness to Tchaikovsky as does his A minor Quartet. He not only dedicated the work to the late master’s memory, but Arensky’s score often sounds like it could have flowed right from Tchaikovsky’s pen. This is evident from the dark, somber hues of the very opening bars, a color achieved as a consequence of relying on a pair of cellos rather than violins, but it is also Arensky’s use of Russian hymn, Tchaikovsky quotations and folksong that, whether somber or patriotic, result in an unmistakably
Russian score.

The Quartet opens with a sonata-form first movement, framed by a Russian Orthodox hymn whose resonant tones gain immeasurably by the added lower voice. Arensky counters this with a lyrical second theme though it is the funereal-style hymn that will also close the movement. The second movement is Arensky’s true homage to Tchaikovsky. Here he uses the latter’s “Legend” as a source for a set of highly diverse variations, aptly demonstrating a true gift for color, melody and invention. The finale again opens with a hymn but with the incorporation of a Russian folk song—the same song used by Beethoven in his second Razumovsky Quartet, the mood quickly turns celebratory. Indeed, like Beethoven, Arensky also treats the theme contrapuntally, but it is the festive nature of the movement as a whole that brings the entire work to a satisfying and deeply Russian conclusion.

(C) Marc Moskovitz