2024 Festival: June 8-22!

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Written for the Stars

June 18 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Written for the Stars

Tuesday, June 18 | 7:00 p.m.

St. Hugo of the Hills
Sponsored by Virginia & Michael Geheb

Artists | Alessio Bax, Shai Wosner, Robyn Bollinger, Tessa Lark, Hsin-Yun Huang, Paul Watkins, Michael Collins

BEETHOVEN Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2
BARTÓK Contrasts, BB 116, Sz. 111
BRAHMS Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115

Written for the Stars unveils a spectral presence lingering within each musical piece performed. While the compositions bear the unmistakable signature of their respective creators – Beethoven, Bartók, and Brahms – they are imbued with the ethereal essence of historical virtuosos who shaped them through their technical mastery and expressive artistry. From Beethoven’s revolutionary cello sonatas, influenced by the groundbreaking techniques of Jean-Louis Duport, to Bartók’s “Contrasts,” sparked by Benny Goodman’s jazz prowess, and Brahms’ clarinet quintet, crafted as a tribute to Richard Mühlfeld’s exceptional skill, each work serves as a conduit to the past, summoning the spirits of these legendary performers whose influence echoes through the ages. (See full program notes below.)

PROGRAM NOTES | © Ty Bouque 2024

In every piece tonight, there are traces of an invisible body. While it’s true these works “belong” to their composers—they deploy all the musical vocabulary and behavior specific to their creator—they’re shot through by another, more ghostly figure only available in the margins and the mechanics of the performance. Behind each one of these works is a historical virtuoso who made it possible, one whose influence as a technician, an expressive artist, and an advocate inscribed itself on every detail of the score. Certainly we’re hearing Beethoven, Bartók, and Brahms here tonight. But their music has the effect of a seance, a summoning ground: every time it’s played, the haunting echoes of Jean-Louis Duport, Benny Goodman, and Richard Mühlfeld whisper to us through it.

Tonight marks the first in a series of concerts we’re devoting to the Beethoven cello sonatas, which would not exist—and certainly not in the influential form they now occupy—were it not for Duport. In 1796, Beethoven had traveled to Berlin to meet Prussia’s King Wilhelm II, but found an eager cadre of new collaborators as well. The king, an amateur cellist with a love for classical music, kept a coterie of accomplished instrumentalists at his constant beck and call, and the Duport brothers, a pair of French virtuoso cellists who had fled the Revolution, were among his lucratively employed. Part of their contract was to perform the new music (often sonatas) commissioned for the entertainment of the regent, and Beethoven quickly became enamored.

Instrumental sonatas at the time were understood primarily as piano showpieces, with the additional instrument more or less relegated to continuo. But Jean-Louis, the younger sibling—already internationally famous thanks to a meticulous etude book he had written (it’s still in use today) – made a personal project of unshackling the cello from menial bass lines. His insistence on the instrument’s lyrical capacity and technical dexterity hit the 26-year-old Beethoven like a shockwave. The Austrian, when not entertaining the king, spent long hours studying the ins and outs of the instrument at Duport’s knee. (There is even a leaf of staff paper in the British Library’s collection of Beethoven sketches, showing several scales and double stops with proper fingerings written out in Duport’s hand.)

In the Opus 5, Beethoven’s great advent was to upend the expectations of role and virtuosity in the traditional sonata form, crafting an environment in which two perfectly-matched equals could share the musical labor. The second sonata, first performed by Duport with Beethoven himself at the piano, would have thrilled an amateur cellist like the king: it was the first real instance in which the cello was treated as a modern dexterous soloist, and the flares of an uncommonly skilled performer are everywhere in the part. But the real legacy of Duport’s musicianship is in Beethoven’s expressive demands. The cello is asked to role-shift on a dime, to pull extreme changes of color out of the instrument as if from thin air. The pair twist and turn until the final minutes of both movements, where astonishing subversions of energy—pauses, moments of stasis, sudden drops in the temperature—demand an impossibly imaginative interpreter to make them convincing in the context of the whole. The trust Beethoven has in his collaborator is demonstrated here: the composer engages in some of his most daring formal experiments, knowing they’re in the ablest of communicative hands.

By the 20th century, Duport’s brand of instrumental celebrity was a dying breed, but the clarinetist Benny Goodman was the notable exception. In January of 1938, Goodman’s big band took a one-night engagement at Carnegie Hall, delivering a high velocity concert that launched jazz into the popular sphere and made Goodman into a household name. In the audience that night was Joseph Szigeti, the Hungarian violinist who, like his friend Béla Bartók, had begun investing increasing energy in Stateside musical culture should the threat of Nazi dominance ever force him to flee Europe. (And it did: both men would emigrate within a year.) Szigeti, himself something of a star, knew Goodman had a proclivity for classical playing and encouraged the wealthier clarinetist to underwrite a few commissions. Szigeti then put Goodman in touch with Bartók (he mailed the older composer a few of the clarinetist’s trio records with Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson to whet his appetite) and, by the fall of the same year, a kind of surrogate jazz trio—with violin standing in for the bass—was in the works.

Initially, Goodman had asked for two separable pieces short enough to fit on sides of a 78 RPM (the clarinetist was looking to improve his reputation as a recording artist). And Bartók did his best: the two outer movements—Verbunkos, after a traditional recruiting dance performed by Hungarian military squadrons to encourage the conscription of younger men, and the Sebes, the fast improvised response—were presented as that short pair at the 1939 Carnegie premiere, billed then under the title Rhapsodies. But already, Bartók had other ideas, and when the trio—Goodman, Szigeti, and Bartók at the piano—sat down to record the work under its new title Contrasts in 1940, a long middle movement called Pihenö (literally taking a rest) was added to lend the piece more heft.

While the material of the piece owes more to Hungarian music than to jazz (only the ornamental turns and the liquid traversal of extreme registers in the clarinet, two calling cards of Goodman’s, bear his influence), Contrasts is a testament to the freewheeling social nature of the jazz session. It is, above all else, casual. Both violin and clarinet pull a common jazz move and trade the role of secondary instruments during the course of the work (Bartók even builds in a kind of impatient vamp while the violinist switches over—you can imagine the players laughing to one another during the lull); the piano is mostly relegated to percussive band-style “comping”; and musical in-jokes are everywhere. It is a piece overwhelmingly influenced, if not by the syntax of jazz, by its spirit. No one but the king of big band could have elicited such humor, energy and, appropriately, contrast from the old Hungarian master.

And finally, tonight marks the first in a series of three concerts in which the clarinet quintet gets extensive investigation. We start with Brahms, whose writing for the instrument is something like posthumous labor. The melancholic German had already announced his retirement when, in Meiningen, he heard Richard Mühlfeld play a chamber recital. That impact—“It is impossible to play the clarinet better than Herr Mühlfeld does here,” he wrote to Clara Schumann—was so considerable that Brahms returned to the pen for a few years more, primarily to produce work he felt worthy of his newly discovered muse.

As with Beethoven and Duport, Brahms’ breadth of emotional expression points to an intended performer capable of uniquely intense immediacy behind the instrument. Brahms nicknamed Mühlfeld “Fräulein Nightingale” for his sweet and affecting sound, and his extensive use of the low register is another nod to Mühlfeld’s distinct skillset. (Later accounts of his playing actually attest to a habit of squeaking in the upper ranges; our definition of virtuoso has changed considerably in 130 years.) There are quotes from the Weber quintet (a piece Mühlfeld loved) and a theme and five variations in the final movement (a direct homage to Mozart, whose own quintet— the genre’s first, and the work Brahms first heard Mühlfeld play—deploys the same form); it is, by all technical measures, a custom-built gift.

But, again like Beethoven and Duport, the connection stretches well beyond the practical. Brahms is here writing end-of-life music, some of the most personal and elusive of his career. The majority of that expressive burden is placed on the clarinet, not for the sound of the instrument but, crucially, for the beloved friend holding it.

Tonight, we hear three testaments to friendship and to trust, homages to creative connections that come but once a lifetime. © Ty Bouque 2024


June 18
7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Event Category:


St. Hugo of the Hills
2215 Opdyke Rd.
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304 United States
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Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival
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