Hi Everyone-I’m frantically packing for Ischia (and trying to get my cello chops back after a busy few months of stick waving and not much practice), and internet access in Ischia is unpredictable. New blog posts may be scarce for a while, we’ll see. Meanwhile, my colleague in Ensemble Epomeo, David Yang, has some wise and funny words about the program we’re touring with this spring. These were written for the paper in one of the cities we’re playing in in June.
Byron Wallace, violin
David Yang, viola
Kenneth Woods, violoncello
Hans Krasa – Tanz (Dance)
Alan Hovhaness – Trio
Gideon Klein – “Variations on a Moravian Theme” from his String Trio
Zoltan Kodaly – Intermezzo
Alfred Schnittke – Moderato from his String Trio
Ludwig van Beethoven – Rondo from String Trio, Opus 9, No. 3
I’m writing this while on the airplane en route to Roma via Frankfurt. There is a large German man to my left slumbering peacefully. I have to say there sure is a difference between a plane full of Germans from a plane full of Italians. There is always a bit of a festive atmosphere when Italians are headed home from vacation. But this flight is all business. Speaking of which, I guess I should write a little about the program my group, Trio Epomeo, is performing in June in the USA. Actually, the first performance will be in Ischia, the small volcanic island in the Bay of Naples in Southern Italy where Mount Epomeo sleeps in the blue seas off Naples, and where the trio was formed. Then we fly off to England where we are performing in Bath (having already tested out part of the program in Hereford). In June we’ll play in New York City in a concert and on Columbia University‘s radio station before heading to Philadelphia for two concerts and then up to Newburyport and Exeter, MA. Actually, the travel seems quite relevant because this program is very much a journey from country to country. Specifically, most of the the program has deep roots in the folk music of the various composers’ cultures which, more than usual, gives these pieces their ethnic flavor.
The program is short – about an hour and a half – and we go right through without pause. It is based on old-time programs from the turn of the last century where someone like Kreisler or Elman would do selected movements instead of huge pieces. I find this a nice change for the audience, a bit like a taster’s menu. We sometimes call it a “Tapas Concert.” We’ll be starting with Hans Krasa’s “Dance” which is a driving work that conjures up images of some demon train hurtling towards oblivion. It takes on added meaning when you learn that Krasa, a Czech Jew, died in Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis shortly after completing it. I’m not sure I can break down exactly what the sound of bitterness and sarcasm is but, for sure, it is in this piece from the first notes.
The next work heads to Armenia for a work by Alan Hovhaness. Hovhaness actually lived in America but this looks to his roots using ethnic scales and techniques to make these standard Western instruments create sounds utterly unlike anything one would normally hear in a classical setting. The piece is strange, lonely and oddly sparse. The romantic image it conjures up in my mind is of a shepherd on some barren mountain with his charges, out for weeks at a time without seeing another human.
After that we move into the central movement from Gideon Klein’s great string trio “Based on a Moravian Theme.” I actually have a recording of the theme which is sung in, well, I don’t know – Czech? or is there a language called Moravian? – and I’ll play it before we perform. As otherworldly as the Hovhaness was, this piece goes through a huge range of tangible emotions in just 10 minutes of variations. It starts impassioned but swings to playful, sardonic, uncertain and fearful, not necessarily in that order. Klein was a great piano virtuoso and rising musical star in Weimar Germany. Alas, he, like Krasa, did not survive the camps.
Continuing with the folk music angle, we jump into a terrific early little trio by the great Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly (who, happily, lived out a full life, much of it spent collecting folk tunes with his best friend, Bela Bartok.) I’m not sure how to describe it except listening to it you can practically taste the bits of paprika and potatoes stuck in the thick white beard of the man sitting across the room slurping at his goulash.
After that we go right to a hard, ice-cold bottle of vodka. Alfred Schnittke was the “other” great Russian composer of the 20th Century after Shostakovich. He had a fascination with medieval music and his works reflect that at the same time having the angularity of the mid-20th Century combined with that passion that is so distinctly Russian. Actually, you know, it’s strange how Russian music is so romantic in the way a warm fireplace is comforting with a blizzard raging outside. This is very different from, for example, the hot-blooded passion of Italian opera or the earnestness of so much early 20th Century American music (think Appalachian Spring). Of course, you have to be careful about making silly national generalizations but at the same time, there is something that makes us different from each other. And it is the joy in sharing those differences that can lead to some very interesting things, indeed.
After the Schnittke sneaks in, yells for a while, and then skulks out, we finish with a quick and airy movement by the Maestro himself. Beethoven wrote his C Minor Trio when just a lad in his 20s (it is Opus 9) but this is a fully formed mature work. We’ll be playing the last movement, a Rondo, that whizzes and whirls and then disappears like a puff of smoke. What better way to end a concert?Of course, if everyone keeps applauding we might just have to keep on playing. But we’ll see about that.
5 May, 2009