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Chamber Music

Chautauqua Quartet to share intimate voices

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The Chautauqua Quartet. Photo courtesy of Caitlin M. Prarat.

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

The Chautauqua Quartet performs one concert a year. At 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, four members of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will play a program of contrasting works from Mozart and Jean Sibelius.

The quartet was established in 1929 by the four principals of each string section of the CSO. Members in this year’s quartet include CSO’s Associate Concertmaster Vahn Armstrong, principal violist Thomas Dumm and principal cellist Chaim Zemach. Vahn Armstrong’s wife, CSO first violinist Amanda Armstrong, is in her third season with the quartet as a substitute for principal second violinist Diane Bruce.

Amanda Armstrong said it is her honor to play with the quartet.

“What struck me from the first is that there’s a richness and a musical wisdom and maturity from this quartet that I feel privileged to be a part of,” she said. “They know how it goes — let me put it that way — and they have a very natural and cultivated sense of how the musical phrases should be played.”

Because they play only one concert a year, Vahn Armstrong said there is no time to play anything but music they all feel strongly about.

Today’s concert will open with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 18 in A major, K. 464, one of the six quartets the composer dedicated to Haydn. Vahn Armstrong said this piece is the epitome of musical elegance.

“In a movie, if they want to establish that a party is fancy, they’ll have a string quartet playing,” he said. “If they want to establish that the party is truly elegant, the string quartet that will be playing is this Mozart quartet.”

Mozart’s Hadyn quartets were not commissioned and instead were composed as a labor of love. Mozart said as much in his letter to Hadyn, which is remarkable, Zemach said, because Mozart never mentioned the labors he spent in any other works

“I think that he wanted to put in this quartet everything that he knew: imagination, counterpoint, unusual harmonies,” he said. “He plumbs the depth of the soul. If everything was lost after (Mozart’s) death, by some accident, and only the third movement of this quartet remained intact, that would have put Mozart where he is now.”

Vahn Armstrong played the piece many times with The New World String Quartet, and said that the more he plays it, the deeper emotional resonance it has.

“When I think of this Mozart, I think of going on a journey — especially in the variation (third) movement — that takes you to a very rarefied place,” he said.

The Mozart quartet is contrasted by the program’s second piece, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ String Quartet in D minor, Op. 56.

Amanda Armstrong said that while the Mozart piece is sublime and requires a light hand, the Sibelius is a complete contrast with its rich drama and Scandinavian fiddling.

“It’s really two different styles of playing, which is a challenge, but it’s also a lot of fun,” she said.

Zemach said the piece, like many of Sibelius’ works, reflects the unusual geography, unique history and soul of the Finnish people.

The Sibelius quartet is subtitled “Voces Intimae,” or “Intimate Voices,” and was completed in 1909. The composition is modern, but not inaccessible, Vahn Armstrong said.

“I think there are a lot of aspects that point away from (modernism) towards minimalism and the kind of music we hear from John Adams and Philip Glass,” he said.

“Intimate Voices” is a perfect example of a real-life scenario in music, Dumm said.

“There are moments in this quartet when Sibelius very cleverly depicts the voices of a small group of friends engaged in an animated discussion,” he said. “Each has a definite opinion, expressed with musical exclamations, pauses, interruptions and give and take.”

Chamber music is intimate, but this intimacy is doubly strong for the Chautauqua Quartet, since its members also are members of the Chautauqua community. The audience has a personal relationship with the musicians and will usually stop by after the concert to say hello and catch up, Zemach said.

“It’s almost like you’re playing for your family,” he said.

Zemach is celebrating his 44th year with the CSO and the quartet. He has seen other members join and leave, but the current quartet roster has been in place for more than a dozen years.

Friendship doesn’t always develop with time, but it has for this quartet, Dumm said.

“We’ve all heard of quartets where the members would hardly speak to one another,” he said. “In one, there was actually a lawsuit between members. I’m grateful to count each of my colleagues as true friends.”

New Arts Trio celebrates 33 years at Chautauqua

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The New Arts Trio

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

“It’s just like getting together with old friends and having a musical glass of champagne,” said cellist Arie Lipsky about the New Arts Trio, which performs at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall as part of the Logan Chamber Music Series.

The New Arts Trio has been in residence at Chautauqua for 33 years and was founded by pianist Rebecca Penneys. Lipsky joined the trio in 1996 and violinist Jacques Israelievitch joined in 1999. Each member of the New Arts Trio is deeply involved with the Chautauqua School of Music: Penneys is Piano Chair, Lipsky is Chamber Music Chair and Israelievitch is Strings Chair.

Penneys said because the members of the trio all have similar backgrounds, they’re a good fit. As experienced performers, they work together with minimal rehearsal time but are still relaxed and easygoing.

“It evolves in a much more mature and seasoned way, like a bottle of wine,” she said.

Though they work together smoothly, Israelievitch said the three-program season requires intense preparation.

“We hit the ground running,” he said. “The first concert is in Week Two, so there’s no time to be wasted.”

Today’s program will open with French composer Jean Françaix’s Piano Trio, written in 1986. Israelievitch spent years studying music in Françaix’s hometown, Le Mans, home of the 24-hour auto race by the same name. Israelievitch said that though some music critics call Françaix’s neo-classical compositions “musique facile,” or easy music, the Piano Trio is virtuosic and quite difficult to play.

“It’s music that appeals to the public because it’s easy to understand, which doesn’t mean that it’s not sophisticated; it’s just a language that is easily accessible,” he said.

Penneys said the piece is very bubbly, wistful and tongue-in-cheek, with a feeling of unsteadiness because of its first movement, which is in 5/8 meter.

The Françaix Piano Trio is contrasted and complemented by the program’s next piece, Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 7, known as the “Archduke” trio, which Lipsky characterized as a cornerstone of piano trio music.

“It was Beethoven who put the piano trio, as we know it, on the map,” he said. “Beethoven was the first composer to have three individual voices completely independent.”

Penneys characterized the “Archduke” as transcendent and spiritual.

“It’s got an enormous consciousness. It’s bigger than life in a way, like the Symphony No. 9,” she said. The piece is unusual because of its high cello and low violin parts.

“Sometimes, if you’re not looking and you’re just listening, you can’t tell which instrument is playing,” Israelievitch said.

The New Arts Trio is performing the “Archduke” in celebration of the 200th anniversary of its completion. Beethoven wrote the piece and a passionate, anonymous letter around the same time, sparking debate that the slow second movement might be dedicated to his “immortal beloved.”

“It’s full of love and passion, and I can grant you that we’ll play it with that spirit,” Lipsky said. He characterized the New Arts Trio as “organized gypsies.”

“We are all free spirits in essence, but since we are dealing with an art which has to be organized, it’s a combination of the free spirit, structured by the notes we have,” he said.

Penneys said that chamber music relates directly to the Chautauqua experience, where people of many opposing views come together in peaceful exchange.

“There’s many, many ways to slice an apple,” she said. “It’s not for any of us to say which way is the right way. It is our responsibility to have a civilized dialogue. In a way, that’s the essence of what chamber music is. Even though I know Jacques and Arie very well, we don’t have identical ideas. Chamber music is about exchanging and making a compromise. The sum is greater than its parts.”

The New Arts Trio performs outside of Chautauqua a few times a year. In the off-season, Penneys is an artist-in-residence at St. Petersburg College in Florida and a professor of piano at the Eastman School of Music, a position she’s held for more than 30 years.

Israelievitch recently retired from his concertmaster position with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to focus on teaching at York University in Toronto. Lispky is the music director of the Ann Arbor Symphony in Mich. and the Ashland Symphony in Ohio.

In addition to today’s program, the New Arts Trio will perform other programs, sponsored by the Chautauqua Women’s Club, at 4 p.m. July 26 and at 4 p.m. Aug. 11. Both performances will be held in Lenna Hall.


Further reading:

  1. New Arts Trio bio

Del Sol String Quartet showcases contemporary chamber music

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Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

From panpipes to Persian modes,

The Del Sol String Quartet. Submitted photo.

brings contemporary composers from around the world to a chamber music setting. At 4 p.m. today, violinists Kate Stenberg and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee and cellist Kathryn Bates Williams will fill Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall with the music of living composers.

The San Francisco-based quartet formed in 1995 when Stenberg met Lee. Shinozaki joined in 2003, and Bates Williams joined in 2010. All members of the quartet have connections to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The quartet’s violinists and violist do standing performances.

“(Standing up during performances) gives us a bit more physical freedom and helps us with our expressiveness in music,” Shinozaki said.

Del Sol also interacts with its audiences by introducing each piece and providing talking points to give a glimpse of the sound world and language of the composer, he said.

Del Sol is a two-time winner of the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming. Lee said the group’s programming gives a cross-section to the type of musical arts that are being developed around the world.

“As you can probably imagine, the musical languages, as well as the expressive languages of each composer, is very different,” Lee said. “I think a lot of performances these days don’t really portray the breadth and the wealth of culture that is out there right now.”

Today’s program features works from American composer Gabriela Lena Frank, Canadian composer Ronald Bruce Smith, Cambodian composer Chinary Ung and Persian composer Reza Vali. Smith and Vali will attending today’s performance.

Vali’s piece for this evening’s program, Nayshâboorák, is written in traditional Persian modes. Lee said the tuning system is different from what might be familiar to Western viewers. The piece was conceived as contemporary Persian music and commissioned for Del Sol in 2006.

Smith will add electronic touches to his piece, String Quartet No. 3, which conjures images of fog swirling through the trees and streets of San Francisco. The composer has a close friendship with Stenberg and commissioned this piece for Del Sol in 2008.

In six movements, Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout takes audiences on a musical journey, which is inspired by Frank’s travels and musicological studies in the region. Del Sol imitates panpipes, a storm of serenading guitars and even the wails of hired mourners throughout the piece.

Ung’s Spiral X commemorates the Cambodian holocaust and the 1.7 million people killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. The piece is unusual and challenging for Del Sol because each musician must sing, whistle and shout while playing a divergent line of instrumental music. Del Sol and Ung received a standing ovation at the premiere performance, which took place at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress on Oct. 19, 2007.

In addition to chamber music audiences, Del Sol educates the next generation in contemporary music through a variety of youth programs. The group just finished the first of two annual QuartetFest summer workshops, where they coach young quartets with music from Vivaldi to Philip Glass. In collaboration with composer Katrina Wreede, Del Sol performs pieces that young composers create in their Composing Together program.

“Kids are having to go outside of the schools to get any kind of arts education,” Bates Williams said. “Bringing that into the schools and allowing them to see exactly what it is that a composer does, what kind of choices they have to make to create a piece, that’s very exciting for the kids, and it’s kind of revealing when we play the pieces for them — their excitement is quite tangible.”

For Stenberg, education is a natural extension of the quartet’s mission.

“Because we are doing solely contemporary music, we’re constantly being artistic ambassadors for different languages,” Stenberg said. “It comes with the territory that we have to learn how to engage people in something that’s a little bit foreign.”

The quartet’s mission is also forward-thinking.

“We’re sharing the musical language of today with the people who will be speaking it tomorrow,” Lee added.

As part of his own musical education, Lee was involved in the School of Music more than 20 years ago, where he studied with Nathan Gottschalk, members of the Audubon Quartet and with Chaim Zemach, the principal cellist of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

Though she has never visited Chautauqua, Bates Williams has fond memories of her time at the Tanglewood Music Center and of touring the Finger Lakes region of New York.

The members of Del Sol are looking forward to their first group visit to Chautauqua.

“It has this reputation for being such a wonderful intellectual center — culturally, socially, politically, theologically, everything,” Lee said.

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