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House Concerts: Small Is Beautiful

February 19, 2013
By Jeff Kaliss, San Francisco Classical Voice

On a warm, starry evening last week, Katherine and Roy Bukstein opened their spacious Hillsborough home to bolster an endowment for second-prize winners of the California Music Center’s (CMC) annual Irving M. Klein String Competition. Some three dozen folks from all over the region got to attend this contemporary version of a vital tradition dating back as long as chamber music itself. But did house concerts always sound and taste this good back then?

Greeted at the door by Katherine, an amateur violist, guests were invited to mingle and converse, and then sample a delectable buffet prepared by the CMC’s executive director, Fred Spitz, washed down by select California wines. Attention moved on to the Bukstein living room, for an equally delicious musical offering by cellist Matthew Allen, the Klein second-prize winner in 2011, with pianist Yannick Rafalimanana. After the performance, there was dessert and dialogue to be shared with the performers, plus an informal reading of Brahms by a quartet including the hostess. Yes, house concerts make music fun.

“It’s about taking off the stage lights and just experiencing the music together,” commented Allen. Indeed, the small crowd, airy setting, and proximity to the music made it as easy for the exotic accents of Allen’s articulation of Bartók and Kodály to tingle the eardrums as it had been for Spitz’s braised brisket and kale and brussels sprouts salad to tantalize the taste buds.

House concerts have been enjoying something of a revival. Former hedge fund manager George Hecksher had hosting them in mind when he started house hunting in 1998, after returning to San Francisco from New York City. “I wanted to re-create a salon atmosphere that one might have found in Vienna or London in the 19th century,” Hecksher reveals. “I’d been to the Mozart houses in Austria, and one of my [other] inspirations was the Morgan Library and the Frick Museum [in New York].” Hecksher and his wife settled on and into a Pacific Heights residence built by former Opera Association President Kenneth Monteagle, who’d incorporated “a music room with a place for a grand piano, a nice large room that fit my dream perfectly.”

Hecksher then began scouting student talent at the San Francisco Conservatory. “I’d approach them, or their mother or father, and explain what I was doing. Of course, no one ever said no, because that’s what musicians need the most: more places to play for appreciative audiences,” he remarks. An encounter with Roberto Diaz, incoming head of the Curtis Institute, expanded Hecksher’s “bookings” to include students from Philadelphia. “The first person Roberto sent me was Yuja Wang,” Hecksher recalls with a chuckle. “I think she was 17, and people didn’t know who she was. And the second person he sent me was Jonathan Biss. That was my niche: to find ‘starving’ students in school, looking to earn a few bucks and get some experience, and people who hadn’t been picked up by major management and were having a struggle to get jobs. It’s where I could add value to the whole scene.”

Notice about house concerts may go out through widespread publicity, via social media, or by invitation only, depending on the arrangement. In Hecksher’s case, reports of his good taste and hospitality, which included a Steinway Hamburg grand piano for performers and quality food and drink for guests, pushed his series a bit beyond his control. “The guest list started out with just friends, and then word-of-mouth went crazy, and I began quickly to have the problem of more people wanting to attend than I had room for. A lot of people said they’d never experienced anything like that, and how much better it was than the Symphony [Hall], what a great time it was, please invite me back.” After seven years, presenting one or two concerts a month from September to June, Hecksher decided to take a break to spend more time with his high school daughter.

Ellen Lapham got acquainted with hosting house concerts three decades ago, in the course of pursuing a lucrative career with Syntauri, a Palo Alto manufacturer of early computer-linked musical systems. She later put the concerts to the purpose of raising funds for the CMC and the Klein Competition, which “emphasized the intimate side of the music and not just the blockbuster side of it.” The intimate social setting accorded with “my basic premise: that musicians are people, and that a lot of what they enjoy is not just performing and interacting with other musicians, but interacting with people who are there to listen to the music.”
When she relocated to her current home in Nevada City, Lapham passed CMC/Klein hosting responsibilities on to her Peninsula home’s new occupants, Bill Clancey and Danielle Fafchamps, who were succeeded by Nancy Quinn and Tom Driscoll, residents of San Francisco’s Monterey Heights neighborhood.

Driscoll, a lawyer, serves on the boards of several arts groups and of the San Francisco State University Foundation; and Quinn, as a consultant to midsize arts organizations, finds plenty of people eager to place events at her and Driscoll’s large and well-appointed domicile. The couple began by hosting Menahem Pressler during his appearance with Midsummer Mozart in 2000. (The famed virtuoso fell in love with their Hoffman grand piano, not to mention the window view of the Pacific from its bench.)

They later opened their downstairs bedroom and bath to young Klein competitors from elsewhere (among them violinist Tessa Lark, recently profiled in SFCV) and started hosting concerts by returning Klein winners. Driscoll and Quinn have similarly accommodated the American Bach Soloists, Noe Valley Chamber Music, San Francisco Choral Artists, Tyrolean Opera, the Singer’s Gym, and the Conspirare Choir, and have hosted wine tastings for the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, the awards ceremony for Theatre Bay Area, a birthday party for the Alexander Quartet’s Paul Yarbrough, and performances of jazz, rock, and dance.

“People come in, and we invite them down here,” says Driscoll, guiding a visitor past the Hoffman and down a short stairway, into a wine cellar he excavated out of the hillside. “What I typically do, I stand over here and talk about the wines and let them taste.” This can happen before or after the performance upstairs, where there may also be food.

“But there are rules,” Quinn points out. “The board [of the arts organization] has to be very involved, it can’t be staff-driven, and they need to meet with me first. I get them to figure out what kind of event they want: Is it donor-cultivation, ticketed, or a thank-you for hundred-dollars-and-up donors? I tell people that the goal is for people to have such a good time that the next time you invite them, they’re gonna come, and bring some friends.”

Feedback to the hosts has been satisfying, Quinn confirms. “The line I steal from Rick Boyer, who’s on the board of American Bach Soloists, is, This is living! It is really the opportunity to hear chamber music the way it grew.”

The View From the Hot Seat: Musicians Respond

Chamber musicians themselves react similarly. Bettina Mussumeli, first violinist of the Ives String Quartet, had her first experience of house concerts while living in Europe with her ensemble and life partner, violist Jodi Levitz. “You get to play sometimes in Venetian palaces, and that’s truly where it was meant to be played,” says Mussumeli. “Especially when you talk about Mozart and Haydn and Boccherini and those guys, it was played among friends, and that’s how they got to know each other’s music; that’s how the music was originally distributed.”

Mussumeli admits to having at first been intimidated, during her forays into house concertizing in Europe, by “being three feet from the audience. As musicians today, we’re trained to project to the back of a big hall, often without good acoustics, and that kind of sound production is completely different from what you do in a small situation.” Mimi Lee, pianist with the BELLA Piano Trio, talks of similar “nerve-wracking” challenges, which she contrasts with “playing in a larger venue like a concert hall, when the lights are dimmed and you don’t see any particular faces.”“The guest list started out with just friends, and then word-of-mouth went crazy.” –House Concert Impresario George Hecksher
Yet both these musicians have come to favor the advantages of house concerts. The Ives has appeared in cellist Tanya Tompkins’ Benvenue House Music series, at homes in Berkeley and Mill Valley, and in the Ives’ own Music in Context Salon Series, at a Palo Alto home. In the give-and-take over refreshments, “A lot of people talk about the difference of performance in a smaller venue,” Mussumeli reports. “They talk about being that close to that much energy (which makes me smile), and about being able to see into the workings of the group much better. They see how we communicate, how we lean into each other, and they see the little smirks when something didn’t go quite right. It’s inviting them much more to be participants.”
The Ives has brought in UC musicologist Derek Katz to illuminate the topics of their Salon Series, which on March 3 will consider “How did Tchaikovsky adapt to writing string quartets, where his gift for melody might not be enough to carry the day?”

Lee estimates that 30 to 40 percent of her performances with the BELLA Trio occur as house concerts, several of them at a patron’s home at San Francisco’s highest residential elevation, atop Twin Peaks, where they’ll be this Saturday, Feb. 23. “There’s something very intimate and personal in how we can connect with the audience,” says Lee about these events. “People watch the dynamic between us, hear the sounds we’re making, and become part of that musical conversation. There’s stuff that happens, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes despite the best planning — we adjust and respond to that, and I think the audience is sensitive to when that kind of thing is happening. It makes house concerts really exciting.”

Both these chamber ensembles relish the opportunity to both engage and educate aficionados. “With a Mozart or a Haydn quartet, we can play it the way we were taught back at Juilliard [School], and then do it the way Philharmonia Baroque would do it, and show the difference in sound,” says Mussumeli. “And some of the more modern pieces, like the Schulhoff string quartet, we’ll talk about how one creates an understandable language within the boundaries of atonality. When you give people a road map, they’re not intimidated any more by modern music.”

“We try to bring in our personalities, style, and sound, and explain what about that music speaks to us,” adds Lee. “In the Piazzolla Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, where you can feel you’re in Argentina on a summer’s day, we’re trying to stretch certain notes out to give it that elasticity. If we can demonstrate that, it kind of demystifies things.”

“People talk about being close to that much energy, and about being able to see into the workings of the group much better. They see how we communicate, how we lean into each other.” –Ives Quartet Violinist Bettina Mussumeli

With her M.D.-Ph.D. from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a bunch of avocations, Lee also cherishes the opportunity to converse with her diverse audiences, “where all my worlds collide into each other, making everything feel more human. Sharing common interests in music or neuroscience or medicine or yoga, it’s inspiring, and I guess it makes me feel not so alone.”

Growing interest in chamber music among younger musicians has helped spawn house concerts across the U.S., including composer Andrea Clearfield’s 25-plus-years’ series in Philadelphia. Mimi Lee attended a few such events in her native New York, but has found that “It’s much easier to get that person-to person human connection here — people have less of a guard up, and because the Bay Area is smaller, it feels less anonymous.” Other local hosts have included composer Gordon Getty; his Pacific Heights neighbor George Hecksher may revive his own popular series after his daughter departs for college.

A Composer Sets the Stage
Meanwhile, composer J.J. Hollingsworth is preparing for the first-ever concert in the large three-level home she recently acquired in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, with an inheritance from the sale of her late father, Vade’s, cattle ranch in Colorado. Hollingsworth has long dreamed of playing host, after having to settle for sharing small rented apartments with her husband and producing a series at the too-large Temple United Methodist Church. Chancing on a property for sale, she walked in and immediately envisioned an elevated stage and seating area in what used to be the dining room and living room, adjoining a kitchen where hors d’oeuvres and beverages could be prepared.

She hired a construction crew, which proved capable not only of renovating her property and crafting a handsome, comfortable space for house concerts, but also of appearing on the new stage. “Most of them are musicians,” beams Hollingsworth, introducing the crew. “Stefen Habekoss is a luthier, Ricardo Nuñez plays guitar and piano, and Mike Salerno is a guitarist and record collector,” as well as a set builder for the Golden Gate Opera. Her series will launch with another crew member, Sergei Chelakov, singing and playing Ukrainian, Russian, and original songs on March 10 and 16. Future concerts will showcase Hollingsworth’s original opera, Pomp and Circumstances, and she’s extending invitations to such musician friends as soprano Ellen St. Thomas, flautist Gail Edwards, and Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington.
Among the delights of house concerts Hollingsworth will celebrate, besides entertaining neighbors and old and new friends under her own roof, are that “I can have control over whether my Mathushek piano is tuned. And if I get just a few dozen people, I can feel like I have a full house.”

Ives Strikes a Chord, No Question Is Unanswered

February 15, 2013
By David Bratman, San Francisco Classical Voice

The Ives Quartet recital at St. Mark’s Church in Palo Alto on Friday was a feast of chords. I had not heard the Ives at St. Mark’s in a long time, if ever — I more usually attend its concerts at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose — and I was impressed with the players’ ability to fill this somewhat problematic space with a richness and full body of sound.

Each Ives Quartet concert this season includes a modern American composition. For this concert, it was the major item on the program, the Quartet No. 2 by David Conte. Conte teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where Ives violinist Bettina Mussumeli and violist Jodi Levitz are also on the faculty. He composed this work three years ago for the Ives players, with their collaboration and advice.
Conte’s quartet is a spacious, wide-spanning work in four movements. Like Mark Volkert, whose Pandora was recently premiered by the San Francisco Symphony, Conte combines a strong modernist idiom with a respect for traditional forms: The quartet includes a sonata-allegro movement and a modified rondo. In both cases, though, the form is of less moment than what the composer says in it.
Although Conte’s quartet contains a fair number of solo phrases for each instrument — I was particularly taken with an emphatic pizzicato passage for viola in the third movement — it’s focused much less on solo display than on the interplay and cooperation of the instruments. The solos are accompanied by interesting material for the other players, and much of the work is focused directly on its harmony: the chords the instruments make while playing together. Rhythm, complex and shifting throughout the work, plays little role in establishing a pulse in the largely rhapsodic flow, except for hints of ostinato in the second movement scherzo.

Conte writes in his program notes of his interest in opening up his music through the use of complex and unusual scales: the pentatonic scale, the diminished scale (eight different notes within an octave instead of the normal seven), the use of enharmonic shifts to visit new harmonic realms. The result in this quartet is fairly strong dissonance throughout, in a fascinating context of a variety of moods. Of the eclectic collection of influences, the most striking to my ears came in the broad open harmonies in the chords that make up most of the slow passages, particularly the introduction to the first movement and the entire third movement elegy. Conte writes of his admiration for the long melodies of Roy Harris and Aaron Copland, for whom such broad harmonies are typical, and the listener is certainly primed to hear that inspiration in these sections.

Tchaikovsky Goes With the Flow
The other large work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11. This is also an expansive, chordal-based work built more on flow than on pulse. The first movement’s opening theme sets the tone: All four instruments moving in the same rhythm emit a thick, piquant harmony full of double-stops, producing something that’s less a melody than a harmony, a series of chords. A rich, balanced sound is essential here, and the Ives Quartet provided it. Intonation was more problematic than was timing. The greater weakness lay in solo passages. Mussumeli’s solos, in particular, tended to get lost amid the strong sound from her colleagues.

The exception to all the above was the slow movement, the Andante cantabile. This is by far the best-known part of the quartet, and also its least typical part. The muted sound was soft and smooth, proving that the Ives Quartet can sound tender when it’s most appropriate. Mussumeli’s lead was gracious and strong. The accompaniment for this movement consists largely of independent lines, and all the other players, second violinist Susan Freier and cellist Stephen Harrison no less than Mussumeli and Levitz, made equal contributions to the whole.
The concert began with Haydn’s Quartet in D Major, Op. 50, No. 6. This is a somber and complex piece, played with a thickness that complemented Conte’s work. Cascading echoing figures from instrument to instrument in a thick soup of harmonic context, themes whose endings wrap around back into their beginnings so that it’s hardly detectable when they begin anew, pungent harmonies between the two violins when playing together, almost-moaning comments from the viola and cello behind them — all these typified both the work and this interpretation.

Haydn’s quartet bears the nickname “The Frog,” possibly for the moment in the finale where the first violin is directed to shift between the same note on an open string and an adjacent stopped string. The resulting croaking sound — more of a fluttering warble in this performance; maybe the nickname should have been “The Bird” — topped off an enjoyable performance.

David Conte creates String Quartet for IQ

Happy New Year!

Thank you photo of IQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re so excited about David Conte’s new piece written especially for us!

Here’s what he has to say:

String Quartet No. 2 was composed between July 2009 and January 2010. I wrote my First String Quartet in 1979 as my Master’s Thesis at Cornell University, and having composed a great deal of music for strings in the intervening thirty years, I was delighted to be given the opportunity by the Ives Quartet to return to this rewarding and challenging medium.

Ives Quartet: Death and the Maiden – Stark Insider March 8, 2012

Ives Quartet: Death and the Maiden

The Ives Quartet strikes again:
Death and the Maiden

By Cy Ashley Webb

The better part of the Ives Quartet salon was given over to the Quartet in D Minor, which Schubert (who died of tertiary syphilis at the young age of 31) wrote in anticipation of his demise.

The year has flown by, as this Sunday brought the last of the Ives Quartet’s astonishing salons. These events are unique, bringing together the IQ, their devoted audience, and various guests. Not only does the audience get to hear the IQ up close and personal, but they also share the group’s insights into individual works. Nowhere on the Peninsula, San Francisco, or the East Bay does this kind of intelligent discussion about classical music happen regularly.

Insofar as it included vocal music, Sunday’s Salon differed from the several that preceded it this year. In addition to violist and musicologist Derek Katz, who graced their “Czech, Please” and “Haydn and Mozart” events earlier this year, this salon included mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse, who sang Death and the Maiden (Der Tod und das Mädchen). Steven Lightburn’s piano accompaniment and Hillhouse’s full-throated voice did more than justice to this short work, which Schubert wrote seven years before he composed the Quartet in D Minor, the second movement of which is known by the same name. Hillhouse took the time to explain the two halves of this song, which represent a dialog with death. One of the joys of these salons is their relative flexibility. Ms. Hillhouse responded to an audience request to sing this a second time, allowing the audience to appreciate the finer nuances of her delivery.

The better part of the salon was given over to the Quartet in D Minor, which Schubert (who died of tertiary syphilis at the young age of 31) wrote in anticipation of his demise. As always at these events, the Ives Quartet aims for a great understanding of the work, so Katz spoke at length about the structure of the second movement (Andante con moto), which was a variations upon a theme. This second movement begins with measured dirge-like tones, that recall the piano accompaniment of the liede, before beginning a series of stand-alone variations that remain loosely connected by the heartbeat tone that they revert to.

Following this second movement, the group returned to the first movement before closing with a small section of the presto. This first movement commences with a violent attack that held the audience in its grasp, making them ripe for the balance of this movement.

The intensity of this piece would be diluted in a larger forum. The private home that serves as a venue for these salons allows the music to be appreciated as it was written – for a small intimate audience. As much as I love the Herbst and Davies Symphony Hall, they don’t hold a candle to these salons.

Hopefully, the Ives Quartet will add more additional salons to their next season. These sell-out events show the need for this type of event.

Ives Quartet Iluminates – Stark Insider February 12, 2012

This reference begins a musical joke throughout the entire piece starting with 3 notes repeated fives times by five different notes in the first 13 measures alone, not including another six repetitions by the second violin, cello, and viola.

By Cy Ashley Webb

The Ives Quartet presents a program in which the group has deep roots. Haydn’s Quartet in F Sharp Minor is part of opus 50 – which the IQ has presenting sequentially in concert. Quincy Porter’s String Quartet #6 is a continuation of the Porter Quartets that they recorded on Naxos, one of which was performed in their recent concert with Gwendolyn Mok. This systematic approach to programming is an enormous benefit to their devoted fan base, all of whom have been learning more about these the works of these composers as the IQ plumbs this material.

Friday’s concert opened with the Haydn quartet. As always, the IQ had done their advance work, researching the multiple scores that Haydn published. Violist Jodi Levitz explained that the group had identified a score that was headed with the words “in nomine domini,” in the name of the Lord. This reference begins a musical joke throughout the entire piece starting with 3 notes repeated fives times by five different notes in the first 13 measures alone, not including another six repetitions by the second violin, cello, and viola. This gets picked up again by the violin in a slightly different form toward the end of the last movement, tying this together. The joke doesn’t end here, however as notions of trinity are embedded in the work, beginning with the three sharps, the three-note gestures in the third movement, as so on.

Despite this insistent return to a three-note motif, this quartet doesn’t give itself up too easily. The Ives Quartet maximizes the depth of this piece playing it relatively slowly, allowing the listener to get lost in the luscious warmth of Mussumeli’s violin.

Written 150 years after the Haydn, the Quincy Porter quartet is startlingly different. This difference lies not just in the 150 year style difference, but in the nature of the material itself. The cello part of the F# minor quartet was relatively simple, allowing generous room for Haydn’s amateur cellist patron. The Porter quartet ore than compensated for this, as it opened with Harrison’s ostinato-like gesture, powering through with a sweeping crescendo, providing an anchor for this inherently stable first movement. The dominance of the cello returns again in the third movement, joined by Levitz on viola and Freier on violin in a pulsating accompaniment. These two movements flank the dreamy second movement that creeps along in a nebulous fog. Just when the fog begins to get tedious, the music becomes insistently faster and loud, before retreating into the ethereal fog.

The evening ended with guest violist Leslie Tomkins, and cellist Tanya Tomkins, who joined the group for the Tchaikovsky sextet. With its more predictable structure, this was a huge contrast to the quartet that preceded it. One could not help be struck however, by the difference of six instruments and four. Goethe’s observation that a string quartet is a conversation among four equals, does not extend to this particular work, which sounded more, at moments like a chamber orchestra. This was a rousing work that ended the evening with a vibrant, high energy finale.

Ives Quartet Salon: Mozart, Haydn and the 1780s – Stark Insider November 23, 2011

By Cy Ashley Webb

Ives Quartet (IQ) salons offer a heady mix of intelligent conversation about music, interspersed with more music. There’s nothing quite like these events anywhere in the Bay Area. They’re targeted at the same crowd who so enthusiastically responded to Anthony Tomassini’s “Top Ten” in the New York Times some months back: the educated, enthusiastic listener who hungers to learn more. Thanks to the IQ, we all listen smarter.

As the title indicated, this salon was devoted to discussing Mozart, Haydn and the 1780s. The 1780’s were a fecund period for string quartets, giving rise to much of the standard repertoire for the same. The two years between 1785 and 1787 were particularly remarkable because they brought forth Haydn’s Opus 50 (also known as the Prussian Quartets,) and Mozart’s String Quartet in D Major, K. 499 (known as the Hoffmeister). Just as he did for the IQ salon back in September, musicologist Derek Katz from UC Santa Barbara joined the group to elaborate upon the nature of the string quartet, with particular attention to Haydn’s B flat major quartet and Mozart’s Hoffmeister.

Katz noted these works were composed in Vienna and remarked that just as Vienna was strange, the nature of string quartets was strange. Elaborating further, he explained that unlike London and Paris, where music was beginning to leave the manor and enter the performance hall, Vienna was hardly the hub of the musical world. It might be the center of the empire, but Vienna had limited access to music publishing world. In Vienna, composers such as Haydn were servants for landed families, composing for particular functions. It was only later that musicians made the transition from court servants to entrepreneurs. Quartets thrived in this environment. Those written in London and Paris, tended to give themselves up too easily. Typical of these are works by Ignaz Joseph Pleyel, who was writing in London. However, in the rarified Viennese air, there was little division between musician and audience. Here, the quartet developed as a conversation – played in rooms not unlike the IQ salon, albeit for even smaller audiences.

Turning to the first movement of the Haydn, the IQ performed with their usual consummate flair. With impeccable articulation, each of the three figures made their rounds from one instrument to another, each interwoven with the other. Perfectly balanced and paced, the IQ’s performance embodied Goethe’s definition of a string quartet being a “conversation between four rationale people.” For this point in time, there was no better place in the universe than ten feet away from Susan Freier, Stephen Harrison, Bettina Mussumeli, and Jodi Levitz. These salons offer the listener an ear up, as it were, on performances that might otherwise sound excellent, but take on a transcendental quality in such close range.

Deconstructing the Mozart String Quartet in D Major, Katz explained how the minuet and trio of this work “is just too wacko,” defeating traditional expectations. I wish Katz could have elaborated here, requiring the musicians to play particular irregular elements, as he did with the Haydn, because I only followed about a fifth of his explanation. However, this was a minor distraction.

The only real disappointment is that we have to wait until March for the next Salon, which will be about Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”

Autumnal evening with the Ives Quartet – Stark Insider October 2, 2011

By Cy Ashley Webb

With leaves scudding across the parking lot, crickets chirping and a quarter moon low in the sky, autumn hung in the air on Friday, making one pause to take it in. This was a perfect evening to spend with the Ives Quartet, who performed at St. Marks’s Episcopal in Palo Alto. Even the churchy smell of the heavy wooden beams in the nave and chancel  combined with stale incense was perfect.

This was a particularly delicious program. Often I look at programming and wonder where particular choices came from. With the Ives Quartet, you can almost watch their programming build organically through the year. This  concert was no exception. Their first offering, Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 50, No. 3, built naturally on their September, 2010 and April, 2011 performances, which included  Op. 50 No. 1 and 2, respectively. The second offering, Erwin Schulhoff’s Quartet No. 1, was a completion of a performance begun at their September Salon. The third piece, Brahms Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 brought back a former guest, Gwendolyn Mok, and her 1868 Erard piano. These three pieces complemented each other, combining something light and decorative, with something of profound emotional intensity and something intellectually challenging.

Hearing the Schulhoff a second time in almost as many weeks was a rare treat.  I wrote at length about this piece last month, but never heard it live from beginning to end in a single performance. This breathtaking piece opens with an intense presto, punctuated by drone-like cello passages. The second movement highlights the enormous talents of violist Jodi Levitz.  I still haven’t figured out how the Ives Quartet produced the breathy tones that sounded all the world like a radio signal fading in and out – sounds that recur in the fourth movement. This piece of great violence and agitation plays like the audio sound track to Hannah Arendt’s Origins of TotalitarianismThe Aviv Quartet and Brandis Quartet versions of this piece – good as they are – don’t hold a candle to the Ives’ version, especially the fourth movement, with it’s eerily oscillating tones played by Susan Freier.

The star of the show was Gwendolyn Mok’s Erard piano. These words are not an incidental choice, as audience members clustered around the instrument after the show, some even having their picture taken with it.  Mok stoked everyone’s interest when she explained the Erard was single strung, instead of cross strung.  This difference eliminated some of the overtones that produce a more homogenous sound. Mok drove her point home, contrasting the Erard with a Yamaha grand that shared the stage. Homogenous tone aside, where the Yamaha had a bright tone, the Erard seemed both warmer and clearer.

Mok joined the Ives Quartet for the Brahms Quintet. The enormous contrast in timbre, volume and intensity that the Ives brought to this piece would sound altogether schizophrenic if performed by a lesser group. However, with the Ives Quartet, one marvels at the exquisite integration of piano with quartet, as the sound of one instrument melds into another, one musical gesture is completed by another, sounding at once consonant with each other, and then again, strikingly different. Nowhere is this more evident that the Scherzo, with its intense violence as piano and quartet work at cross-purposes with each other – and then pull together. The frantic, almost march-like scherzo relaxes into a trio – before returning to its original intensity. After this third movement, I was amazed that band members had the energy to continue.

The Ives Quartet will be repeating this program against on Sunday, October 9 at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose.

Ives Quartet offers Dvorák and Schulhoff – Stark Insider September 19, 2011

By Cy Ashley Webb

Being a music critic means contextualizing the music. This might come as a surprise for those who think it’s all about evaluation. While there’s obviously an element of opinion, that’s not the heart of the matter. In an ideal world, the critic leaves the reader a little bit smarter and more informed, by providing intelligent remarks about a performance that the reader might never see.

All of this is a long windup for the Ives Quartet Salon that took place this Sunday. These salons are all about context. By providing intelligent conversation about classical music for the reasonably educated layman, the Ives Quartet does something that no one else on the peninsula does. Scott Fogelsong’s pre-concert lectures come close, but they’re not quite the same thing. Interweaving performance and conversation, the Ives Quartet does a big favor for all of us, in scheduling these events.

I’d been listening to various versions of Dvorák’s “American” (String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96) and Edwin Schulhoff’s Quartets No. 1 and 2 for the better part of August and September in anticipation of this salon, so I thought I was reasonably prepared.  However, none of the works I’d been listening to prepared me for the breathtaking experience of sitting ten feet from violinist experience Bettina Mussumeli and hearing this stuff performed by the virtuoso Ives Quartet.  Hopefully, they’ll get around to recording these two pieces together. This sampling would have been enough, but Ives Quartet salon also included violist and musicologist Derek Katz. Teaching at UC Santa Barbara, Katz’ specialties include Czech music, nationalism and modernism, all of which speak directly to the program at hand.

The program highlighted the difference between the Czech Dvorák and German-Jew Schulhoff (also born in Czechoslovakia). Although separated by a mere 30 years, the yawning chasm of World War I places them eons apart. Much of this salon focused on how the classical aesthetic changed during this time, using Dvorák’s “American” and Schulhoff’s Quartet No. 1 as exemplars.

The Salon opened with the first moment of the “American,” Simultaneously fluid and supple, animated and pulsating, it was an entirely different experience than the Dvorák I’d been listening to. While reams have been written about the “American” influence on this work (for starters, see “Dvorák on the American Scene” by John Clapham in 19th-Century Music, (1981), Dvorák’s understanding of native American music was minimal, at best, and probably confounded with African-American spirituals. Immediately following the Dvorák, was the agitated first moment of Schulhoff’s first quartet. The difference, of course, is marked by World War I. Insofar as a nationalistic impulse informed the beauty of Dvorák, such an aesthetic died during the war years, clearing the way for the modernist tonality of Schulhoff. While the Dvorák was exquisitely beautiful, Schulhoff was writing from an entirely different place. His service in the war proved searing, as he came out of the experience firmly convinced that the war was, as Katz said, “a moral and political catastrophe,” that caused him to become briefly aligned with the dada movement. His focus  – which is hauntingly evident in his post-Dada work was how to write music that’s historically meaningful. This different aesthetic of modernity stands apart from the path taken Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Bartok, all of whom navigated similar waters.

The Ives Quartet and Katz continued through the second and third movements of the respective pieces, pausing to reflect on the similarities and differences between them. Dvorak’s take on ethnic music, was, as Stephen Harrison noted, a variation of Brahms with a sprinkling of “ethnic” tossed on top.

The most animated conversation was devoted to Schulhoff’s 4th movement, which stretches the technical abilities of players and instruments alike. Insofar as the catastrophe of World War I laid the ground work for the greater catastrophe of World War II, Schuloff’s aching viola train whistle and broken mechanistic end to this 1923 movement seems to foretell the disaster that would follow. His death in the Bavarian concentration camp of Wulzburg seems writ large over this piece.  Unlike Schoenberg and Bartok, both of whom ended up in the U.S. after the war, Schulhoff turned east, applying for Soviet citizenship before the war was over. He was arrested for being a Communist shortly after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was severed, and died in the Bavarian camp of Wulzburg, along with his son.

In the brief Q & A that followed, someone asked the very smart question as to why no one had heard of Schulhoff until his recent revival. Harrison spoke to briefly to the politics of contemporary music that favored the cult of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. This was an interesting take  – that raised the tantalizing possibility that there might have been a tonal solution to the same very real issues faced by post-war composers.

The Ives Quartet will be revisiting the Schulhoff Quartet No. 1 in their September 30th and October 9th concerts. As always, they are worth following.

With a hint of Spanish tunes, interspersed with chromatic passages from Freier and Mussumeli, I never knew that a string quartet could possibly sound this way. – Stark Insider February 28, 2011

By Cy Ashley Webb

Presenting a program that spans 250 years and moves fluidly from Mozart to a 1924 Rebecca Clarke work, the Ives Quartet cannot be easily pegged, except perhaps by their very nimbleness. This nimbleness was clearly at work when a last minute change in the ordering of the program changed how the audience felt at the end of intermission. By ending the first half with Mozart, instead of the more ambiguous Clark, the Quartet changed the experience of the concert, leaving the audience on terra firma.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, however. Friday’s performance opened with two separate pieces by Rebecca Clarke, a violist and composer primarily active in the first three decades of the last century.  Both of these pieces highlighted the considerable talents of violist Jodi Levitz. I was unfamiliar with Clarke – and subsequent forays out to iTunes were surprising as they revealed almost 100 entries – albeit none for theComodo et amabile (1924) that opened this performance. Although theComodo began with gentle wandering tones suggestive of Debussy, the music became increasing agitated, unified more by the pizzicato notes on Harrison’s cello and recurrent motives rather than any melody line. This music deserves a serious listen, which why I was disheartened that this particular piece was missing from iTunes because I’d love to hear it again as I’m sure I missed much of the complexity the work. The second piece,Adagio, was similar in tone to the first. Program notes likened this work to that of Bloch. Harrison’s cello drone halfway through was wonderfully startling.

Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, K 458, dubbed the “Hunt” followed.  The brilliantly articulated trill, tossed back and forth between the players, made the first movement just plain fun as it wound itself way between the trill and a second melody line. Unlike the Clarke pieces, which were tended toward vertical organization, this was more accessible. This playful snippet burst forth again in the fourth Allegro assai movement, which offered up a new degree of complexity. So much is happening here that one marvels because the string quartet was a relatively new phenomena when this was written.  It was a wonder how the quartet could possibly sustain the energy and joy that went into this piece.  The audience was energized and awestruck when this piece drew to a rollicking conclusion.

A brief intermission was followed by Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major (1903). Detailed program notes helped audience members make sense of the sonata form of the first and fourth movements.  More than anything, I was struck by what a privilege it is to hear this music live. I struggled to follow each musician separately, but they sounded so good together, this was quite impossible.  The first movement came to an exquisitely gentle end.  With a rapid pizzicato attack by all four players, the second movement got off to a startling beginning. With hint of Spanish tunes, interspersed with chromatic passages from Freier and Mussumeli, I never knew a string quartet could possibly sound this way. The fourth movement began frenetically, only to dissipate, and build to an astonishing end.

Once again I’m struck by how very fortunate we are to have the Ives Quartet at the south end of the Peninsula.  With a magic all their own, this quartet plays with a precision, cleanness and élan that we often reserve for well established groups.  They may just be the best-kept secret on the South Bay classical scene.