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Friday June 28 7:30 pm • Festival Concert • Congregational Church

Brahms Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78

Erik Peterson, violin; Monica Ohuchi, piano

by Tom Strini

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, Opus 78 (1879): Brahms composed the Sonata No. 1 just as his long-delayed Symphony No. 1 (1876), Symphony No. 2 (1877) and Violin Concerto (1878) won him fame throughout the Western music world. His music was played everywhere. Cambridge and the University of Breslau offered him honorary doctorates. (Cambridge withheld the honor after Brahms couldn’t be bothered to travel to England. Breslau interested him more; he wrote the Academic Festival Overture for the occasion.)
So he took on the present sonata at the top of his game and when he had nothing to prove. Even for Brahms, the piece is profoundly sophisticated in its harmonies, rhythms and structure. Even for Brahms, it runs deep.
Brahms drew on two of his Opus 59 songs, Regenlied (“Rain Song”) and Nachklang (“Distant Echo”), for material that permeates the entire sonata. Rain figures as a metaphor in the poems for both songs, which is why the sonata has taken on “Rain” as its nickname.
But don’t expect Chopinesque raindrops, as Brahms took little interest in musical onomatopoeia. The song elements have to do with the composer’s love for the singing voice of the violin and for the material as a unifying element over three substantial movements.
I cherish Brahms. As I listened to this piece with great pleasure and followed the score, I thought also about Mozart, another favorite, and the fundamental difference between them. Mozart makes his forms, phrases and key procedures unmistakably clear. Brahms disguises everything.
I believe that he doesn’t want you to think “sonata form, theme one, theme two, closing theme, development…” and so on, although his first movement proceeds in that time-honored way. The second movement is ABA, with a large coda that amounts to a development of the B material. The finale is a rondo. But things that can be divined from the score are much harder to grasp in concert, when you’re listening on the fly.
He veils the meter with odd syncopations and ties across the bar. He uses kissing-cousin themes that can be hard to distinguish. Transitions among distant keys and between sections are so subtle that they’re easy to miss. You might find yourself thinking: “Wait! How did we get here?” again and again as the music unfolds for 30 minutes. Never mind. Just feel the cohesion and depth of it. You don’t need a map with Brahms in general, and with this sonata in particular. Wherever you are, it always feels like the right place.

Jennifer Higdon Piano Trio

by Tom Strini

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962): Piano Trio (2003):
The composer’s program note: Can music reflect colors and can colors be reflected in music? I have always been fascinated with the connection between painting and music. In my composing, I often picture colors as if I were spreading them on a canvas, except I do so with melodies, harmonies and through the instruments themselves. The colors that I have chosen in both of the movement titles and in the music itself reflect very different moods and energy levels, which I find fascinating, as it begs the question, Can colors actually convey a mood?
Well, having listened to the meditative dawns and twilights of “Pale Yellow” and the furious intensity of “Fiery Red,” the titles Higdon assigned to the two movements of her 14-minute Piano Trio, I’d say that the answer to her question is yes.
“Pale Yellow” opens with ruminative piano chords, soon joined by an expansive, gentle melody in the strings. They sing in close harmony or melody with countermelody as they elaborate on the original idea. They turn this idea over and over, with little changes coloring each iteration. The one constant: A warm glow of harmony.
“Fiery Red” isn’t just heat. It’s red-hot heavy metal, an iron foundry of automated machines running amok amid a conflagration. Even when the music gets very high and very quiet, it turns edgy rather than ethereal. This is juggernaut music, great mass and momentum propelled forward with relentless energy right up to the end.

Schumann Piano Quintet, Op. 44

by Craig Leman

The romance and marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann brought together two outstanding musicians. Nine years older than Clara, Robert had superb musical talent and a solid musical education. However, his mother insisted that he study law to ensure that he would make a good living. At age 18 in law school at Leipzig, he met a piano teacher named Frederick Wieck who became his mentor. Wieck’s 9-year-old daughter Clara was already an accomplished pianist. Drawn to each other, they became close friends. Schumann decided to quit law school and devote himself to music.

As Clara matured, their relationship changed, and they fell in love, to the consternation of Clara’s father, who could accept Robert as a musician but not as a prospective son- in-law, perhaps because of doubts engendered by this letter, and others, from the young suitor, whose moods alternated between extremes Goethe limned: “Thrilled to the Sky; ready to die.”

“If only you knew the ardor, the ferment that is in me and how I should have already arrived at Opus 100 with my symphonies, if only I had written them down! There are moments when music possesses me so completely, when only sounds exist for me to such a degree that I am unable to write anything down.”

After a long, bitter struggle, which eventually reached court, they finally married in 1840. Meantime Robert had had to give up a promising career as a piano virtuoso because of a hand injury, and Clara had become the leading concert pianiste of her generation. By 1840, Robert had written a dazzling array of brilliant, innovative piano compositions, and was ready to explore other musical forms. He devoted that year to Lieder, and the next to writing his first symphony.

Meantime, Clara, having established herself as a star concert pianist, was trying her hand at composition. Robert, a lifelong devotee of J. S. Bach, tried to guide her along the same path. Although she venerated his talent and agreed with his insistence that his composing had first priority in their lives, she was discomfited by the inevitable conflicts—his insistence on utter quiet when he was composing meant that she could not practice the piano; his resentment at having to do his share of child-care, his wounded vanity at her public success as a performer compared to his slower acceptance as a composer, etc.

In 1842, Schumann changed course again, spending the year on chamber music. Earlier, he had tried composing ensemble works, but was dissatisfied with the results. Whereas his models- Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert—had all been accomplished string players as well as expert pianists, Schumann’s experience as a performer had been only at the keyboard. Characteristically, he intensely studied the quartets of the older Viennese artists and then produced his three masterful string quartets in the early summer.

After a brief pause, Schumann began his Quintet, written for his beloved Clara. This was a brand new form-the first piece for piano and string quartet. (Schubert’s Trout Quintet had used a double bass instead of the second violin.) He was done in two months. His close friend Felix Mendelssohn, invited to the first performance, wound up playing the difficult piano part at sight, replacing Clara, who was ill. Mendelssohn liked the work, but suggested changes in the second movement which Schumann cheerfully adopted.

The quintet is delightful. The mood of the first movement is one of joy; the themes are broad and melodious, the development ingenious. The second movement is a slow march. The scherzo is humorous; the pianist sends scales rippling up and down the keyboard. The finale starts with a strong new theme. Earlier themes reappear, and there is a climactic reappearance of the quintet’s first theme, melded with the finale’s first theme into a contrapuntal framework that climaxes with a double fugue.

Brahms, Dvorak, Franck, Faure, Dohnanyi, Reger, and Shostakovich have all weighed in with piano quintets, following Schumann’s magnificent innovation.