Maybe my favorite thing about living in Logan is our Chamber Music Series, and the fact that we have an in-house string quartet, the Fry Street Quartet. We heard them play last Tuesday, and on the program were Beethoven, Dohnanyi, and Tchaikovsky. Our 9-year-old son joined us, since he loves classical music and is a considerable musician in his own right, and I am proud to say he was a more respectful audience member than most of the others around us who were twice his age. Behind us on the right was a crew dedicated (I’m guessing) to various paper-crinkling projects, and on the left were several couples who really needed to keep conversations going.
Maybe it was because I was distracted (crinkle crinkle, whispywhispywhispy), but I thought the Fry’s performance of Beethoven’s 18.3 was uneven. The first movement seemed dry, and the second way too sluggish. But the third movement snapped into place perfectly (crinkle), and the finishing presto was electric (whispywhispy). I hadn’t heard of Ernst von Dohnanyi, though I gather Bartok was the only Hungarian composer more famous than he. We heard a 5-movement serenade in C major, which starts and finishes with a march that (crinkle, crinkle) I found less than interesting, but in between are three movements (whispy) that are very intriguing: one very dreamy, one like laughter, and one (crinkle whispy) I liked but can’t remember now. The final piece, a sextet in D minor by Tchaikovsky, was absolutely brilliant, and brilliantly performed by the quartet plus two. We all know Tchaikovsky can write sweet tunes, but his chamber music really show the depth of his genius.
The very next night was a double-barreled concert by the Clinch Mountain Boys (led by Ralph Stanley) and the Blind Boys of Alabama. I have to confess that I’ve never been a fan of bluegrass music (apart from an embarrassing enthusiasm in 5th grade), and I had never even heard of Ralph Stanley, which I gather is an inexcusable ignorance. Well, I still am no fan of bluegrass music, but those guys could really fiddle and pick a banjo, I must admit. And the hall was full of people who really liked that kind of thing, so it was fun to observe all the hooting and hollering, yee-haw. The Blind Boys confirmed my own racist prejudice that African-American culture is superior to every Anglo culture of which I am familiar, and their show (though, yes, I know, a bit contrived) gave powerful expression to the voice of suffering and hope embedded in that strain of Christianity. I respect anything born on the other side of suffering.
I’ve been to two chamber music concerts this year, both of them excellent. The first was last September, with the Shanghai Quartet. They played fascinating, difficult, and very compelling pieces by Penderecki and Yi-Wen Jiang. They have an incredibly balanced tone — very unified, and highly expressive. But it was their performance of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” that stole the show. I recently purchased a recording of the Emerson Quartet playing the piece, and blasted it while home alone yesterday afternoon. Schubert is, as the cognoscenti all say, friggin’ awesome, and that piece just rocks. An added plus: the Shaghai’s cello player, Nicholas Tzavaras, looked a lot like Schubert, and I had the chance to chat with him over wine and snacks afterwards. Very interesting guy.
Last night we heard the Claremont Trio, with guest clarinetist Jonathan Cohler. They played Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and did well by each, though I usually find Mendelssohn’s music sort of muddled: it’s like Brahms, but without the emotional purity, and not complicated in a way that speaks to me. In their second half they played Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” — a strange, mystical work that maintains a very high tension over a long time, and is hugely unpredictable. It left me in a sort of welcomed daze. Messiaen wrote the work while a POW in a German camp during WW2, and performed it with a couple of imprisoned fellow musicians in a bitter January, 1941. No word on how the fellow prisoners felt about it. Probably not a Johnny Cash/Folsom Prison sort of deal.
And a recent purchase: a boogie-woogie style version of Khatchatourian’s “Russian Sabre Dance” on a 78 — soon to be featured in an upcoming video, to be sure.
We attended a concert last night by the Jupiter String Quartet. Fabulous. Their first piece was Haydn’s last finished quartet, opus 77 # 2. Elegant. The last piece was a quartet Mendelssohn wrote when he was only 18. Lots of late LvB in it — dynamic, evocative, surprising. But the middle piece, opus 83 #4 by Shostakovich, put me away. In his “real” music (i.e., that composed not under the thumb of Stalin) Shostakovich is familiar with every sort of cage, and his music never signals any sort of exit. Each movement began in meditation, spiked in frenzy, and ended like a prayer.
The whole concert was “emcee’d” by Fred Child, of American Public Radio’s Performance Today. I’ve listened to him a lot, and often have had the experience of closing my eyes and feeling like I was in the performance hall. Last night I was in the performance hall, closed my eyes, and felt like I was listening to the radio.
There’s weird, and there’s weirder. It’s weird to think of a metal-eating bird, who then lays an egg which hatches into an automobile. It’s weirder, I submit, to think of living in a rural western state, and going out at night to hear gypsy jazz performers play along to silent movies that are almost forgotten. The Hot Club of San Francisco was in town (performing tonight as well), playing Django Reinhardt tunes while also showing a couple of weird Charlie Bowers films.
More about Bowers here. In brief: he was making silent films at the same time as Charlie Chaplin, but without the success. He introduced strange, quirky animation into the live action, as needed by his strange, quirky storyline. Example: The Liars Club meets and is disappointed by one another’s lies, so they go out and find Bowers (who is about to commit suicide by firing a cannon with his head jammed in the opening, but he can’t then reach the fuse). Bowers tells a story about a miracle plant-grafting agent that allows him to grow an eggplant containing a hard-boiled egg and a salt shaker. He travels to the country to sell this agent, encounters a farmhouse besieged by a pistol-packing mouse, and sets about growing cats from pussywillows to fight off the mouse. I could go on, but it only gets weirder. You get the idea.
Anyway, I love gypsy jazz, and was at first disappointed to have to watch silent movies while trying to listen, but the whole gizmo worked amazingly well. The Bowers’ films, along with two others, were fascinating, and the combo of film and music really worked. The whole evening, in summary, is this: dally around the fringes, and something interesting is bound to turn up.
Last night we enjoyed a performance by the Pacifica Quartet. This group is fantastic. They have perfected a blending of their voices, so that no single voice overpowers the rest (unless or until the music requires it). And the program was stimulating.
They started with a Mendelssohn quartet (op. 44, no. 2), which I gather is seldom played (interesting article here about how Felix gets no respect — this is, note well, the 200th anniversary of his birth). The piece features an Andante (I’m a sucker for the slow movements) that our program notes called “an ardent love song,” but which sounded to me more like heartbreak, almost Brahmsian.
Then we went behind the iron curtain and heard a piece by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, written in 1951 (“Métamorphoses nocturnes”). It was a “bottom-drawer” piece, meaning the sort of thing that will land you in a Gulag if you let it out. Very weird, funny, compelling music, constantly shifting, as if you’re trying to shake the secret police.
Finally came my Brahms, op. 52 no. 2 — for some time, my favorite Brahms quartet. The first three movements have a frustrated feeling about them, as if you’re trying to be happy but something keeps reminding you that LIFE IS SHORT AND YOU WILL DIE. But the final movement is triumphant. It oftenn runs through my head when I swim, ever since I noticed that the ba-bum rhythm of the theme mirrors Michael Phelps’ freestyle stroke: wa-wham – pause – wa-wham – pause). I spoke with violist Brandon Vamos afterward, and he thought there is still some hesitancy in the last movement — maybe so, but don’t spoil my fun.
What a fine young quartet!
I’m lucky to have been invited to present three lectures on “Beethoven & Philosophy” to the Beethoven class being held this semester (see below). They’re scheduled for the end of this month, so I’ve been preparing.
Philosophers don’t have a lot to say about music. There is discussion of it in aesthetics, of course, and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche wrote a good deal about it. Plato wrote about music in the Republic, though the distance between his culture and ours makes it pretty hard to appreciate. So I’m not taking the direct route of “here’s what philosophers have to say about Beethoven.” Rather, I’m relaying what the big philosophical concerns were in LvB’s time and just after it, and making links where I can to where his music expresses some of the passion motivating the philosophy.
That last bit, by the way, is really exciting for me. What is the music that expresses the frame of mind Kant was in while crafting the CPR? What music expresses Hegel’s insight that the real is the rational? What’s the soundtrack to Nietzsche’s eternal return? I think it all can be found in Beethoven. Indeed, as in Shakespeare and Plato, it’s hard to find a human voice that doesn’t get expressed somewhere in the works.
The first lecture will be on Kant. Remember that, for Kant, the world we experience has come pre-formatted for us by the structure of our minds. Space, time, substance, and causality are all in the world because they are forms and categories we impose upon a reality that is, in itself, impossible for us to experience directly. Similarly, it is the structure of the human mind that tells us how a human being, as a rational being, ought to behave; and that is the sphere of morality. And in the world of art, what we find beautiful has its harmony because of the way our understanding restrains our imagination, and what we find sublime has its power because it reflects the tremendous power of our will. In all: there is order in the world, and morality, and beauty and sublimity because of us. We invest the world with its intelligibility and its value. (Can you here the final movement of LvB’s 9th?)
The second lecture is on German idealism (the philosophies of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel). I have always been fascinated by German idealism because of its strangeness and difficulty. The movement started as philosophers tried to tie up the loose ends Kant had left behind. Most notably, he hadn’t explained what this powerful “human mind” is, or how it relates to the reality we cannot experience. The world in itself is something we can think, Kant said, but never understand. But the GIs would not accept this. If we can think it, then we can understand it. Fichte thought the world in itself must be exactly what it seems to be — namely, an idea of the mind, which the mind produces as a sort of reflection of itself. Schelling couldn’t believe we’re making all this shit up, so he postulated a higher unity of mind and reality frought with tension and disturbance, from which all things flow. Hegel saw the absolute not as a pre-existent unity, but something coming into being through our attempts to understand the world and impose order on it. The world becomes real as it becomes rational. I cannot exaggerate the passion of these thinkers, and their zeal to find order in all things; pulling out all stops in order to give voice to the turmoil and hope they felt within themselves. (And that, to me, is how LvB’s Grosse Fuge sounds.)
The final lecture is on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who each, in his own way, rebelled against the very idea that the core of reality was something rational. They each placed will or blind passion at the heart of things. Schopenhauer thought this made all of experience a long ordeal of suffering, for the will is never satisfied. One can expect only tragedy after tragedy, and weariness. (LvB’s slow movement from the 7th.) Nietzsche saw the suffering as a necessary condition for victory: namely, the victory of accepting life just as it is, and embracing it. (The final movement in LvB’s last string quartet has the following annotation: “Muss es sein? … Es muss sein!” — “Must it be? … It must be!”)
There you have it. In any event, this has been a whole-brain exercise. We’ll see how the lectures go.
We just finished attending all six concerts of Beethoven’s string quartets, performed by the Fry Street Quartet. Their performances were truly splendid: very charged and aggressive, but also tightly coordinated. I have recordings of some top quartets performing these pieces, but found myself enjoying the Fry’s interpretations more — just more passion in them.
Along with attending these concerts, I have been showing up when I can to the course being offered on campus on Beethoven, which has been very illuminating. And, in conjunction with the performance of the cycle, Robert Winter (well-known Beethoven expert, visiting from UCLA) has provided several lectures and pre-concert talks. So my head, ears, and heart have been absolutely stuffed with Beethoven. I feel like I ate too much at Thanksgiving: pleasingly sluggish and sated.
My only bit of outrage about the whole affair is how little the University has made of this extraordinary event. To have the whole cycle performed is fairly rare; at a school like USU, in a small town like Logan, practically unheard of. And, on top of that, a whole course centered on the cycle, with a very distinguished guest lecturer of international renown! Most of the nights were sold out. But so far as I know, not one administrator from the dean on up attended a single concert, or has publically made hay over the event. I can understand someone not liking Beethoven. (Well, no, I can’t, but I am abstractly familiar with the possibility.) But to not acknowledge the importance of the event, and to pass over it in utter silence, seems to me an egregious intellectual failing on the part of educational leaders. Harrumph!
I don’t wish to end on a sour note. This has been a powerful couple of weeks I will remember my whole life. I am grateful to the people who supplied money and made the whole thing happen, even if they didn’t wish to take part in it themselves.