Music Among Friends: Chamber Music in the Living Room

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

Greetings from Dr. Abigail Fine, Assistant Professor of Music History at the University of Oregon. Thanks to all those who attended my pre-concert lecture on Sunday, and for the interesting conversations after the talk.

At the start of my lecture, I described an intriguing piece of furniture: a nineteenth-century quartet table housed in the library of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. During several weeks of archival research, I sat at this very table, thinking it was just an ordinary old thing, until one day a string quartet ensemble burst into the archive and unfurled it into this:

https://da.beethoven.de/sixcms/detail.php?id=&template=dokseite_digitales_archiv_en&_dokid=bi:i100500&_seite=1

What you see here are four music stands and drawers that include cupholders (!). The purpose is clear: to gather friends in a living room, play through some string quartets, eat, drink, and be merry. Today, we hear chamber music performed onstage in large halls, which can obscure its origins in casual music-making with a mix of amateurs and professionals. (But interestingly enough, the backstory of the Chamber Music Amici is straight out of the nineteenth century, hence their name, “Amici”!)

By the time Brahms and Dvořák were composing, chamber music had started to be performed in concert halls as well, and this meant that composers could move between different modes: the leisurely lyricism and conversational exchanges that characterized music for the home vs. the vibrant virtuosity and cerebral counterpoint that revved up listeners in the concert hall. The result is that both pieces on the program play around with venue—and if you attune your ears to the styles associated with different venues, you can gain a new dimension of listening enjoyment.

Here are just a few examples of many: In the first movement of Brahms’s Sextet, we are enfolded in a warm, rich, pastoral world of Austrian Ländler (a country dance turned elegant when brought indoors); the faraway pastoral chords of the secondary theme yearn for the countryside in urban Hamburg, where Brahms composed the piece. But when we arrive at the development section, we hear each instrument speak in turn, engaged in a musical conversation that was typical of music written for amateurs. Brahms’s second movement changes venue from warm conversation to an eighteenth-century aristocratic court, with a chord pattern called the “folia,” a Spanish dance. His galant third movement bridges eighteenth-century elegance with the nineteenth-century parlor, and by the final movement he lands back in the living room, fondly remembering the theme of his first movement—a warm nostalgia for friends and conversations past.

Dvořák’s Piano Quintet, likewise, moves between venues: he starts off with a tender art song (with a cellist playing the role of baritone), but in a flash, the movement explodes onto the concert stage with what’s called the “brilliant” style. In the second movement, the Slavic genre of the “dumka” (an epic, melancholy ballade) invites us into old-world storytelling, with the antiqued voice of the viola bridging the Slavic and Germanic, a mirror of the Austrian Empire. (If you doubt this movement is Germanic, compare it with the slow movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet!) Dvořák shows us another glimpse of the living room in his final movement: even as he flexes his composerly muscles by giving us counterpoint and fugue, the very end of the movement surprises us with a poignant return to art song, to graceful simplicity, a memory of the past.

It is no coincidence that both pieces end with memory. In the nineteenth century, friendship and memory were closely intertwined, especially in the common practice of keeping a friendship album, an older form of what we today recognize as a scrapbook. If you attune your ear to contrasts in venue—from the living room to the concert hall to the palace and back—you can hear chamber music through nineteenth-century ears.

For more on music in the living room, I highly recommend a book by the brilliant musicologist Marie Sumner-Lott, who is a professor at George State University. Her book, The Social Worlds of Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music, taught me to hear this repertoire with a newly attentive ear—and it’s a delightful read, to boot!

https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/69rxp7wq9780252039225.html

Brahms Makes a Vulcan Cry

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

by Avery Hsieh

 

The first time I heard the Brahms Sextet No.1 was not in concert, but in a sci-fi TV show. Star Trek: The Next Generation had been a show that I watched with my dad frequently while growing up and I encountered the Brahms Sextet 2nd movement through episode 23 of season 3 titled “Sarek.” 

 

Set in the future, Star Trek: The Next Generation follows a galactic ship named the USS Enterprise and its crew through the exploration of the universe where they encounter several alien species. Vulcans are an alien species on the show whose culture and mannerisms are built around logic and prohibit any expression of emotion. When the legendary Vulcan leader, Sarek, arrives on the USS Enterprise, he is invited to attend a concert in which the chamber group plays the 2nd movement of the Brahms Sextet. As the opening notes of the violin solo waft over the audience, the camera zooms in on Sarek, revealing a single tear rolling down his face. Moved by the music, he is unable to contain his emotions any longer. This monumental scene is the first time that a Vulcan has ever shown any emotion making the moment shocking and memorable.

 

This episode is a clear example of the mixture of classical music and pop culture. Although the audience for Star Trek: The Next Generation may be different from those who would normally find themselves in a classical music concert, the significance of this music in the show has led many people to search up and listen to the Brahms Sextet themselves. This allows people to be exposed to music beyond what they are used to.

 

I enjoy the thought that hundreds of years into the future, Brahms will still be revered among humans and will be moving to our new intergalactic friends. Like Lieutenant Commander Data, I will be performing as the first violinist for the 2nd movement of the Brahms Sextet with Chamber Music Amici. I hope that I can summon the emotion to bring even a Vulcan to tears!


Here is a link to the scene I described: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URZLKECFjaY

First Impressions

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

by Katie Siegfried

From a young age, I loved going to see my teachers play chamber music. I was totally captured with the communication and the energy shared between each player. So naturally, when I got my first opportunity to play in a quartet in 5th grade, I was absolutely thrilled. My friends and I had been placed in a quartet for a summer institute playing the second movement of Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 2, one of his Razumovsky Quartets. Doubtlessly a breathtaking piece of music, it was a little more than too much to bite off for a group of kids our age. Regardless, we dove in head first with nothing but excitement in our hearts. While chamber music itself is a group effort, this production took a village. In the weeks leading up to our institute, we met with teachers, practice partners, and other students in an effort to make whatever sense we could of this piece. Hours of work went in on our behalf and on the behalf of our support system, and I will never forget that.

Through that process, I learned what music is truly about. We did end up performing that piece, albeit not in a concert hall; we put on colorful plastic tiaras and played for anyone who would listen in a classroom.  We learned how to communicate and practice eye contact by sticking our tongues out at each other at important moments in the piece. We learned how to move as a group by dancing and singing the piece, and how to bond with strangers by dressing up our coach’s cello case as his wife. Regardless of how we sounded, I will never forget that experience, those people, or how it’s made me fall in love with chamber music.

After writing this post, I was actually able to unearth a video of this performance. Watching it almost 8 years later, I can say that all of our musical ability has greatly improved, and our enthusiasm for doing what we love has only grown. I am eternally grateful for the teachers and parents who continue to support our crazy endeavors, and continue to videotape the embarrassing ones.

https://youtu.be/SmewhjxATO4

An Exploration of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

by Michael Gu

Over the past nine years of my musical career, chamber music has always played a role. My first chamber music experience was performing Haydn Piano Trio No. 39, however, my favorite chamber music piece is the Haydn “Sunrise” Quartet (although it doesn’t involve piano). My favorite piece of chamber music that I have performed is the Beethoven “Ghost” Trio. Nonetheless, the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A Major is no exception, and it ranks amongst my favorite chamber works currently!

As English writer Alec Robertson once stated:

“It is simply one of the most perfect chamber-music works in existence… Here there is not a note too many, and there are plenty of notes! The melodies are of the greatest beauty and freshness, and a joyous springtime happiness flows through the music.”

The Dvorak Piano Quintet in A Major Op. 81 was composed in August of 1887. The piece is actually a revision mixed with elements of Czech folk music, being based off of Piano Quintet Op. 5. Dvorak rediscovered the score 15 years after a friend reintroduced it to him; he destroyed the original manuscript because he disliked it. As demonstrated in the music, this piece exemplifies his Czech roots; the Dumka famously known from Dvorak’s Dumky Piano Trio to the Bohemian folk dance theme in the third movement, the Scherzo.

I especially appreciate the usage of his culture in this music. This piece is legendary because of its contrasting movements and usage of its lyricism and harmony. With its broad range of emotional intensity (both positive and negatively), Dvorak really combined all of his talents as a composer to make a masterpiece, worthy to stand out as the only piano quintet, unless you count the previous “version”, that he wrote. Over the last few months, I have become infatuated with this piece and I am so excited to perform this piece this coming March!

Chamber Music at My Core

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

By Julia Daniels

I have been playing chamber music for nearly a decade, and it is absolutely intrinsic to who I am. With the exception of solo Bach, there is no classical music that I enjoy playing or listening to more than chamber music. There is, of course, the beauty of the music itself, but for me the aspect of chamber music that is most exceptional is the collective, artistic expression that goes into its creation.

I have found, especially through attending multiple chamber music camps over many years, that rehearsing and performing chamber music with beloved friends is an unparalleled pleasure. Creating music with others is unique, and the elation I have felt after performances with friends is nearly indescribable. Through chamber music, I have learned how to be an effective communicator, both verbally and non-verbally. The ability to both give and receive constructive feedback to and from fellow quartet members, in ways that will nurture, not erode, the cohesion of the group, is essential.

Even after years of chamber music experience, however, I have never before had the chance to play all of the movements of a composition. I am tremendously excited to perform such a splendid work by the fantastic Dvorak who, luckily for me, composed especially generously for violists. I cannot wait to play with such fine musicians as those in Chamber Music Amici, and am most grateful for the opportunity they have given me.

My Exploration of Chamber Music

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

By Sarah Rosier

 

When I was a few years younger, there was a time every year when my mom would ask me if I wanted to re-audition for chamber music. As a cellist, that decision mainly involved considering if I really want to be stuck with “boring” baselines and the duty of “keeping the tempo steady.”  After all, cellists don’t usually get the exciting melody. You might even call us overlooked. I remember one concert looking out and seeing all eyes trained on… you guessed it, the first violinist. Having mastered my part to be able to play it with thought and character, I was a little miffed, even if I was relieved, I didn’t need to learn all those high notes. 

 

Yet every year as a kid, I would realize chamber music was not something I wanted to give up. Why? Because there was still something about chamber music that I found incredibly fun and appealing. First of all, it was an affirmation that practicing everyday was worth it, because it gave me the ability to make music with other musicians who were learning to appreciate music, just like me. We could discuss musical character and play off of one another in a way completely unique to chamber music. With four players, we could create an explosion, then just as quickly create musical tranquility.

 

Now, I am even more aware of the importance of chamber music in my life. It has allowed me to play Dvorak (where I get to play multiple melodic lines) with the wonderful musicians of Amici, and delve into some of the greatest musical works of all time. Ultimately, music is not just about playing exciting roles, but it’s about finding ways to share that music with others. Chamber music is a very special way of doing that

Brahms, Elgar, and Music through Grief

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

by Adrian Hsieh

 

As I read through the details of Brahms’s life, I found some pieces of information quite fascinating. As it turns out, in the 1860s, just around the time when the Sextet was written, young Brahms was not having much success. In addition to a failed relationship and the death of his friend and colleague Robert Schumann, Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was met with terrible reception. Interestingly enough, Brahms didn’t seem to use the Sextet as an opportunity to express his anguish, as many composers did. The only movement that seems to reflect this emotion at all is the second movement, which, fun fact, he rewrote as a piano arrangement for Clara Schumann.

 

This idea of expressing through music reminded me of Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto I had played recently. Elgar, a huge admirer of Brahms, was similarly in a difficult spot in his life. The composition of this particular concerto contains a beautiful, grief-stricken melody that really pulls on the listener’s heartstrings. Last summer, I had the wonderful opportunity of playing this magnificent piece with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in Vancouver, B.C.  Different from my other performances, what made this opportunity so special was that I played in an outdoor concert by Deer Lake in the beautiful Burnaby park in front of an audience of over 12,000.

 

As for the Brahms Sextet in B flat major, one of my favorite moments in this work is the melody in the fourth movement. The movement starts with a cello solo, which I will play, that is then passed around between instruments. 

 

I am extremely excited to play this wonderful piece with the members of Amici, my cello teacher, and my sister, who is about to leave for college.  

South America: My Personal and Musical Journey

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

by Victoria Wolff

I am so thrilled to have been invited back for second round of performances with Chamber Music Amici! The music of this upcoming program has afforded me a unique opportunity to reflect on some aspects of my personal life as they connect to my musical life.  I am particularly excited to be playing the music of Alberto Ginastera, whose music offers a rich brocade of colors and textures as we sample and savor the sultry rich tones of Argentina. Ginastera was born in 1916 and is considered one of the most important 20th century composers of the Americas. Although he was born in Buenos Aires, his father was Catalan and his mother Italian. This brings up an interesting and little known fact (which Jessica Lambert so deftly pointed out to me in rehearsal today) that Ginastera increasingly throughout his life preferred for his name to be pronounced not “Hinastera”  (as I smugly insisted upon) but Jinastera  as in “George”.  Although he identified strongly with his father’s Catalan roots, his music was highly inspired Argentina, and is preeminent among the inspirations for Ginastera’s music. That being said, as I have gotten to know the piece we are performing, “Impresiones de la Puna” I am struck by how South American it is in a broader context.

20 years ago I met my husband in a salsa club and we danced Cumbia, Salsa, and Merengue until the wee hours of the night. My husband, whose name happens to be Victor, (and yes I made him watch the 1982 Julie Andrews film Victor, Victoria!) is from Peru. Getting to study Ginastera’s music has reminded me not only of my initial attraction to Victor’s person but also his culture. South America is such a rich melting pot of cultural influences; from the Indian and Spanish mix Criollo, Huayno music of the people of the Andes (Incas), to the African roots of Negroide music. I fell in love with it all. Then there was the food (cooked not only by him but his sister and mother) Ceviche, Aji Amarillo, Arros con Pollo, Papa ala Huancaina, Anticuchos and Aji de Gallina.

Impresiones de la Puna has afforded me a trip down memory lane, and I am remembering key moments in my life with Victor. I found out I was pregnant with our second child, my boy, in the high altitude of Cuzco, and climbed Machu Picchu feeling so much better than I did at sea level in Lima. “Puna” means altitude, and when I hear this piece I think of relief from morning sickness! Actually the refreshing air of the Andes made me feel related to my husband’s Incan heritage, as if somehow my northern European blood and his shared common genetic traits.  The flute in the first movement of the piece is “Quena”: a pan-flute. This instrument is so indicative of the mountains of South America, and I can’t even hear one measure of the third movement “Danza” without envisioning my Suegra (mother-in-law) dancing in traditional dress waving her white handkerchief. “Cancion” allows nostalgia to fully envelope my heart and I am wistfully grateful for all my relationships in this life: with Music, my husband, and the lovely musicians of Chamber Music Amici that I get to play with!

A Few Words from A Guest…

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

By Jacqueline Cordova-Arrington, flute

I believe that chamber music is the most intimate forum for performing musical works. Prior to moving to Eugene, I performed as the resident flutist of Carnegie Hall’s chamber music collective Ensemble Connect. As a member of the ensemble, I had the opportunity to collaborate with some of the world’s best musicians in performances throughout New York City. The ensemble has no artistic director. For the first time in my career, I felt a sort of musical emancipation from the orchestra model with conductor. I absolutely love playing in orchestras, but suddenly I felt that I wasn’t just a participant in a concert but a real co-creator of an artistic experience. My voice really mattered. While this statement is beautiful, that doesn’t mean that the experience of co-creating was always artful or fun. Imagine getting 18 musicians, in our largest configuration, to agree on musical ideas. In the process, there were disagreements and disappointments, but in the end, our group always managed to come up with a composite performance that represented a little bit of everyone’s perspective. Our combined ideas were almost always better and more inspiring than any individual’s single idea. In the ensemble, I learned how to better communicate with colleagues but also gained access to the musical insights and perspectives of musicians I greatly admire.

Chamber music can also be a gateway for musicians to connect with audiences more personally. As a high school student, I fondly remember attending and performing in chamber music recitals at the Kimmel Center in my hometown of Philadelphia.  I remember sitting just a few feet away from Emmanuel Ax in the audience and as a performer I fondly remember chatting with audience members on stage directly after concerts. Chamber music performances have the power to create an intimate sense of community amongst musicians and concert goers. After our performance, please come up and say hello! I’d love to know what you thought about the performance.

Interview Question: What are your non-musical hobbies?

I love to cook!  I have always enjoyed pairing different flavors and textures to create something indulgent for the palette. Experiencing a good meal can definitely be enjoyed alone, but my fondest memories include those meals ending with long talks around the table with close family and friends. For me, cooking a great meal is the ultimate experience of abundance of food and community.

Beethoven 2020 and My New Year’s Resolution

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

by Jessica Lambert, Artistic Director

You probably all know by now that I am excited about Beethoven 2020, the 250th anniversary celebration of Beethoven’s birth. (Google it: BTHVN2020!) I asked myself today what would the great man have thought of all this global hullabaloo? I think he might have loudly mocked us, hopefully not rail at us for the way we play his music, but I also think he would love it.

As part of my enjoyment of this celebration, I have set myself a New Year’s Resolution to read lots about Beethoven and select a different genre of his works each month to listen to. January is about symphonies; February will be the piano sonatas; and so on. I have no intention of listening to everything he wrote! I’ll let myself pick and choose, and really seek to acquaint myself with each piece through multiple hearings by multiple artists.

I am currently reading American composer and author Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, which is really marvelous and really long. I am at page 268 of 936 and channeling the Little Engine that Could. But despite its intimidating length, I enjoy every page.

I also have on my nightstand a mercifully shorter work I cannot wait to start: Conversations with Beethoven, a work of fiction by Sanford Friedman. I have peeked into it and think he had a brilliant and strangely moving idea. When Beethoven became deaf he had people write whatever they wanted to say to him in “conversation books.” Friedman has re-created those conversations based on the actual people close to Beethoven in his last months.

The entire novel is designed so you read what, for example, his nephew Karl or one of Beethoven’s doctors writes in their side of a conversation, and then there is a blank space where we get to infer what Beethoven’s spoken response would be.

On the one hand, it is an exercise in imagination, but in another way, it is almost as if we ourselves are deaf; we cannot hear his voice. I can only sense his anger, impatience, and fear; his tenderness, longing, and immense fortitude in those blank spaces. It is a very emotional experience for me.

Now, in all honesty, I have never made a New Year’s Resolution that I have kept, so please help me by occasionally asking me where I am with my resolution. Even more, I hope you will share with me your own insights on Beethoven and what he means to you.