By Rebecca Wallace
When Abraham Lincoln was young, he memorized “The Lion and the Four Bulls,” a favorite fable by Aesop. It’s the story of a lion prowling a field, trying to attack a quartet of oxen.
As long as the oxen kept their tails together and “met the lion with a ring of horns,” they were safe. But when the lion got the oxen to quarrel and separate, the big cat picked them off one by one.
The moral, in Aesop’s words: “In Union there is strength / A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.”
Composer Joseph Gregorio had a shiver of recognition when he first heard the story. “This fable that Lincoln learned as a child would influence his thought for his entire career,” he said.
The Redwood City composer decided the fable would make the ideal first movement for “The Fullness of Peace,” his new song cycle for baritone and string quartet. The work, being premiered by Palo Alto’s Ives Quartet this winter, is based on the fable and on other writings penned by, about and to Lincoln.
The project has been in part a family endeavor. Gregorio’s sister Julie found and polished the texts, compiling, adapting and writing. They also include: an excerpt from Lincoln’s second inaugural address; a text based on writings by abolitionist Frederick Douglass about emancipation; and a poem by Julie Gregorio about a dream Lincoln reported having before each Union victory in the Civil War, of being taken on a ship to a mysterious land.
The song cycle is being performed in honor of what would have been Lincoln’s 200th birthday, but it’s also timely for another reason.
“I settled on the title, ‘The Fullness of Peace,’ because I realized that the whole work was more about the ideals that Lincoln championed — equality, liberty, peace — than about Lincoln the man. … And it’s been very meaningful for the quartet and the singers and me to bring this piece to life right around the inauguration of another state senator from Illinois,” Gregorio said. “I feel like his (Barack Obama’s) election to the presidency is in some ways the fullest flowering yet of Abraham Lincoln’s vision of equality for all.”
The Ives Quartet often commissions new works. Its violist, Jodi Levitz, had played another of Gregorio’s pieces and enjoyed it, and the quartet musicians also liked the young composer’s geographical connection to Lincoln: He grew up in Gettysburg, Penn.
Gregorio, 29, said he approached this composition as he would any other vocal piece: “I sit with the text for a while and think about what it’s trying to convey, its emotional tenor.”
The writings are often optimistic and sometimes even humorous. An early letter from an 11-year-old girl urges Lincoln to grow a beard because “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands / To vote for you and then you would be President.”
Gregorio was surprised by another text, a letter from Lincoln to newspaper editor Horace Greeley. Lincoln wrote that he saw saving the Union as his main responsibility, whether that meant freeing the slaves or not:
“This is my office and my duty —
To hold the Union and the law above all else.
My own desire remains unchanged:
That all men, everywhere, could be free.”
“You don’t usually hear about that side of Lincoln,” Gregorio said. “His personal wish was to see all men, everywhere, free. But he viewed that as separate from his official duty. … We really got a more colorful picture of Lincoln from doing this project.”
By Garaud MacTaggart
NEWS CONTRIBUTING REVIEWER
The Slee Beethoven Cycle is one of the great chamber music programs, mandating that every concert in the season contain one string quartet from each of the composer’s three “periods.”
Every year, each of the six concerts comprising the cycle is allotted a distinct trio of quartets for each of the programs.
Sometimes the series has featured the same ensemble running through a season’s worth of concerts and, at other times, two, three or four groups take turns tackling the programs. This year is one of those multiple group takes on the cycle with the Yings, the Lydian and, Friday night, the Ives String Quartet taking their turns.
Based upon their work Friday night, it is apparent that the Ives Quartet is an undeniably talented group of musicians.
One of the many peaks in Beethoven’s catalog belongs to the “Grosse Fuge,” op. 133, a massive, demanding piece that is almost symphonic in nature. It also happened to be the mandated centerpiece in the concert slated for the Ives String Quartet. The other works scheduled, the D major quartet from the composer’s op. 18 and the first of the three op. 59 “Rasumovsky” string quartets, also have their charms with the later named score being one of the most beguiling pieces in the cycle.
In the earliest work on the program, Beethoven opens up with a lovely, graceful tune that speeds up and gets more insistent and demanding within a fairly short period of time. It is a tricky thing to get right, to manage that transition between the seemingly lightweight to something
with more gravitas. Luckily the Ives String Quartet had the measure of the piece, literally from the get-go.
The “Grosse Fuge” was a little bit more challenging with dramatic pauses that sounded as if the composer was furiously constructing and deconstructing a monument, building a complex sonic sculpture more to be admired than loved.
The bracing-yet-approachable op. 59 quartet closed off the evening, and here the ensemble came through with considerable aplomb, matching the quality of insight that they brought to the earlier op. 18 quartet.
By Beeri Moalem
Any ensemble that calls itself the Ives Quartet had better not play like sissies, as Charles Ives himself would threaten. “I don’t write music for sissy ears,” he used to quip. When an audience member once booed a dissonant piece, he stood up and shouted back, “Stop being such a God-damned sissy! Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?” Last Friday at St. Mark’s Church in Palo Alto, the ladies and gentleman of the Ives Quartet more than lived up to their name, playing Ives’ own Second Quartet with all the required force and grit, not minding the dissonances and extreme difficulties, and embracing the quirkiness that, a hundred years after its creation, still leaves listeners in awe.
The performance conveyed so much more than standard musical fare — rather, it felt like a full-scale theatrical production, or perhaps a long spiritual journey. In the work, Ives quotes popular melodies among his dense clashing lines, but once the tongue-in-cheek awkward humor passes, an ironic power cuts through with these incongruent insertions. The music has a built-in miniature “skit” in which the second violinist pretends to get lost as the music grows too difficult, and finds her way back only when the music switches to a regular meter — this can be silly, and fun.
On a higher level, though, when performed with utter conviction, the piece conveys its true meaning: It is Ives’ criticism of musicians who snub dissonant, rulebreaking music — a criticism that still rings oh-so-true in today’s classical music world, where Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms are played again and again … and again.
I love those composers’ masterpieces as much as anyone else does, but I would much rather go to a concert and be challenged with three new works that I have not heard some 20 times. In its Palo Alto recital the Ives Quartet (the ensemble) lived up to its name in yet another way: by advocating and playing new music. In the remainder of its 10th anniversary season (it runs through next May), it will feature premieres by local composers, and will focus on unknown American composers such as Quincy Porter.
On this particular evening the Quartet presented a concert featuring three American works from the early 20th century, all composed within about two decades, yet all showing drastically different styles: the still-modern-feeling dissonances and complexities of Charles Ives, the charming jazziness of George Gershwin, and the passionate late-Romantic melodiousness of Amy Beach. In its playing, which was both natural and enthusiastic, the quartet displayed mastery of each of these contrasting musical worlds.
Each member of the quartet has a drastically different playing style, but somehow they coalesce into a rich ensemble. Jodi Levitz plays with an incomparably smooth, open sound that is rarely heard from violas. Susan Freier’s playing challenges with a force seldom heard from the second violin chair. Cellist Stephen Harrison grounds the group with a thoughtful, careful approach. And first violinist Bettina Mussumeli plays with a colorful, passionate sound, and knows how to blend and how to soar, how to speak and how to sing. At the conclusion of the third movement of Ives’ quartet, Mussumeli’s stratospheric melody, played in the highest possible register, cut through despite being so delicate — a truly transcendental sound.
All these sonic personalities ensure that there will always be something interesting for the ear to focus on. Yet when asked to play unison lines, as was frequently the case in the Amy Beach Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor, the ensemble sounded like a single powerful string instrument, in terms of intonation, color, and direction. A listener could hardly ask for more from a string quartet.
In the Beach quintet, pianist William Wellborn joined the ensemble and displayed masterful pianism, sustaining the composer’s long, lyrical lines and balancing considerations of chamber music style with dashing solo runs.
Gershwin’s gentle Lullaby, with its exposed harmonics and flowing melody, coming as it did right after Charles Ives’ antithetical quartet, is exactly what Ives would have referred to as “sissy music.” Yet this string quartet showed that it has the versatility to play as schmaltzy sissies, as well as virile machos.
Jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to joke that his group didn’t get enough gigs in New York, his home base, because club owners took him for granted. “Oh, you’re that local band,” they would tell him, time and again, he said, with a laugh that betrayed more than a little frustration.
You have to wonder if the Ives Quartet, a superb Bay Area-based chamber group, has something of the same problem as the late Kirk. Entering its 10th season, the Ives doesn’t have the high profile it deserves around the bay, even though its performances tend to be imaginative, passionate, refined — every bit as enjoyable and rewarding, in other words, as those by better-known string quartets.
If you’ve never seen them, do yourself a favor and attend one of their season-opening concerts, happening tonight in San Jose and Friday in Palo Alto. As usual, the group — violinists Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, violist Jodi Levitz and cellist Stephen Harrison — has put together the sort of out-of-the-box program you’re unlikely to hear from most other quartets.
It’s an all-American program, featuring George Gershwin’s “Lullabye” (he later culled the tune “Has Anyone Seen My Joe?” from it); Charles Ives’s thorny and wondrous String Quartet No. 2; and Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor, a darkly Romantic work by the New Englander whose music was widely performed a century ago. Leave it to the Ives (joined by pianist William Wellborn for the quintet) to arrange her Bay Area comeback.
Back in 2006, here’s what I had to say about an Ives program of Mozart, Beethoven and Leo Ornstein, another now-overlooked composer who, in his time, was a superstar pianist likened to Rachmaninoff:
The Ives “performed with a super-refinement that kept breaking out into a visceral, almost rock ‘n’ roll intensity.”
Ornstein’s Quintet for Piano and Strings (performed with pianist Janice Weber) “was panoramic: You could practically see the Russian steppes moving past, as if through the windows of a train. The performance was also brutally emotional, alive with arching, cantorial melodies set in unison for strings over the galloping, arpeggiating piano. All was in constant motion, propelled by big gestures: long-noted themes, obsessively explored; Stravinsky-esque rhythms; dashes of New York’s Jazz Age hustle and bustle.”
Curious yet? Read more about the group at www.ivescollective.org.
And go see the Ives Quartet at 7 tonight at Le Petit Trianon, 72 N. Fifth St., San Jose; or 8 p.m. Friday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto. Tickets: $25 general, $20 seniors, $15 students, free ages 12 and younger. Buy tickets at the door, or make a reservation at (650) 224-7849.
Contact Richard Scheinin at email@example.com or (408) 920-5069.
By Scott MacClelland
Many of those directors turned out for Sunday’s San Jose appearance, a program titled “Viva Italia!” that included rare and extremely rare works representing the North of that storied land. The rare takes account of the Quartet in E Minor by Verdi, virtually an étude in search of fresh ideas for future operas. Extremely rare describes the other two works, Gian Francesco Malipiero’s Rispetti e strambotti and Frank Bridge’s Quartet No. 1 in E Minor.
One of a handful of Italian composers in the early 20th century who sought to revive the Italian Baroque masters of concerto and sonata and apply their spirit to a new wave of instrumental literature, Malipiero took the name for his 1920 quartet from early Italian verse forms, respectively love poems and simple refrain poems or songs. The resulting work made for some of the most intriguing and challenging listening of the evening. Anyone in search of such familiar chamber music landmarks as sonata form and thematic development was stymied.
Across some 20 “stanzas” (and 23 minutes) two “themes” recurred, often without plain delineation. The unattributed program notes supplied concise guidance: “The opening ‘tuning-up’ figure in the violin punctuates the piece like a ‘ritornello,’ according to the composer; and a later quiet, chorale-like fragment concludes the three main divisions. Throughout, the distinctions between dance- and song-related episodes are clearly heard in contrasting moods and rhythms.” The work’s vibrant spirit was aptly described as “kaleidoscopic and hedonistic.”
A prominent viola solo sang out in the early moments, with a violin solo to follow in kind on the low strings. Those, along with heavy pesante and drone textures, pizzicato accompaniments, and some ecstatic virtuosity, conspired to give the piece its fantastic character. Enhancing this in the middle section, the main theme more or less disintegrates among the four instruments, which begin talking to themselves instead of each other. The piece is ostensibly tonal, but an improvisatory polyphony pretty well obviates the question. At the end, however, a sense of the archaic hangs in the memory and warms the appetite for hearing more Malipiero.
The Bridge piece carries the nickname “Bologna,” having won a prize at a competition there in 1906. It subscribes to the familiar classical template, with an Adagio leading to an Allegro appassionato first movement, a large-scale Adagio molto second, a scherzolike Allegretto grazioso, and an Allegro agitato finale, in sonata form (like the first movement).
Bridge flatters the viola, his own instrument, but spreads the good tunes around, as well. He recalls themes and mottoes from earlier in the codas of the movements and recycles good ideas between them. The first movement ends with a dramatic flourish. The solo cello gets a fine aria at the climax of the slow movement and mutters — almost whispers — the last word all alone at the end of the knockabout finale.
The members of the Ives Quartet — violinists Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, violist Jody Levitz, and cellist Stephen Harrison — warmed themselves up nicely in the Malipiero and flowered further in the Bridge. (Freier and Harrison both played in the Stanford Quartet.) Their programming makes a point of including rare and unusual repertoire alongside familiar fare; current projects include a recording of the Quincy Porter quartets for Naxos, with another volume due out shortly. Their sound is good in the Le Petit Trianon Theatre, which is famous for its lively acoustics, even though the space itself doesn’t seem large enough for the treasure it gives back.
The evening ended with Verdi’s Quartet in E Minor of 1873, a piece that harks back to Rossini even as it anticipates potential new paths for the composer who already had Aïda and Don Carlo behind him. Like the Bridge, it found its own path through the Viennese model, but without any other concession to the German-speaking musical traditions. Even the final Scherzo fuga brings levity of spirit to a startlingly assured piece of counterpoint, disclosing years earlier exactly the technique Verdi would revisit so brilliantly in the finale of his Falstaff. The Prestissimo third movement cavorted like Mendelssohn’s fairy music, if not with the same fragile lightness, while pizzicato on three strings surrounded an otherwise unknown (to me) baritone cabaletta on the cello.
Info: Go to www.ivescollective.org or call 650-224-7849. Later “Viva Italia!” concerts are planned for Sept. 30 in San Jose and Oct. 7, Nov. 8 and Nov. 15 in San Francisco.
By Janet Silver Ghent
Sitting by his Palo Alto fireplace, cellist Stephen Harrison opens the soulful Adagio of Frank Bridge’s Quartet No. 1 in E minor, the “Bologna.” Suddenly the music grows stormy, as violinists Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier and violist Jodi Levitz enter. Then comes a climactic crescendo led by the first violin, with each instrument taking up the theme. Getting into the act, a gray cat named Jasmine springs into the picture.
As the Ives Quartet gets ready for its “Viva Italia!” concerts on Friday, Sept. 28, in Palo Alto and Sunday, Sept. 30, in San Jose, the focus is not so much on individual notes — although the technical prowess of these four instrumentalists is inspiring. Instead the four are working out the rhythms, creating special effects, strumming the emotions, responding to one another as well as the music.
The effect is “like water over the rocks,” Harrison says during a break in rehearsal, describing the Bridge piece.
Don’t expect to find the four in tuxedos playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D amid potted palms while preoccupied partygoers sip Chardonnay.
They don’t do background music. More to the point, this is a group committed to shattering the elitist reputation of chamber music by making it accessible. They present pre-concert talks, do residencies at colleges and go into public schools, playing before disadvantaged youth who have never heard classical music.
“They’ve never seen a string quartet. They don’t know a violin from a viola,” Freier says. But the reactions surprise the musicians. Often the children are intrigued by the most abstract, difficult pieces that seldom make it into concert halls.
The group, which takes its name from American composer Charles Ives, “feels strongly about playing the underplayed, underappreciated repertoire of the 20th century,” Levitz says.
Ives, an early modernist, was a Connecticut Yankee and insurance entrepreneur who filled his music with quotations from folk and popular songs.
“For us, being an American quartet, it made sense not to name us after an Italian violin,” Harrison says. Plus he liked the I.Q. acronym.
The repertoire includes not only Ives, but early 20th-century British composer Bridge, and Quincy Porter (1897-1966), a descendant of New England firebrand preacher Jonathan Edwards, who imbued his music with a different kind of fire. The first four Porter string quartets are featured on the group’s new CD on the Naxos label. The music can be wistful, lyrical or percussive, sometimes with doleful allegro movements and abrupt endings.
Levitz, who has become a Porter scholar, went to a library at Yale and literally uncovered 56 boxes of Porter documents and music that hadn’t been looked at in 20 years. The librarians “put his life in front of me,” says Levitz, who spent two years going through the papers.
The group is quick to recognize that there are pitfalls in playing the pieces of the early moderns as if they were written today. These composers often wrote for instrumentalists who added their own interpretations. “It was a very different way of playing,” Levitz says.
“Much more liberty was taken,” Mussumeli adds.
“The notes are our script,” Harrison explains. “If you go to hear a play, you will hear the script played differently each time. You can go to a concert and see how we interact, how we respond to the music.”
A CD, by contrast “is the performance (a group) never gave,” because it’s amplified and edited in the studio, Harrison says.
“We are not robots,” Levitz chimes in. “We take risks in performance. The major goal is not just to be perfect but to touch the souls of our audience, to create an emotional response … to open their ears and their hearts, and they’ll hear the script differently.”
Opening ears and hearts is the goal of the Ives Quartet. It isn’t always easy. During the first day of a workshop at Trinity College in Connecticut, where they do an annual residence, students may come in with caps pulled over the head, practically snoring. Then comes the concert, followed by a discussion the following day. By that time, the students are awake and excited. “One by one, I feel I’m making a difference,” Freier says.
Theirs is not music to snore by, particularly since they play less-familiar works and play them with passion. It’s not that the group ignores Beethoven, Schubert or Haydn, but concerts also feature works by lesser-known modern composers.
For instance, the “Viva Italia!” concert includes Gian Francesco Malipiero’s Quartet No. 1, “Rispetti e Strambotti”; and the Quartet in E minor by Giuseppe Verdi, better known for his operas. It also includes the Bridge piece.
The Ives Quartet, launched in 1998, morphed out of a resident string quartet at Stanford University, where both Harrison and Freier were teaching. The two, who are married and have roots in the Bay Area, were among the original musicians.
Freier, the second violinist, grew up in Palo Alto, where she played with the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra while in high school and holds Stanford degrees in music and biology. Although her original plan was medical school, she pursued an advanced degree at Eastman School of Music in New York. Since then, she has taught at Indiana University and Stanford, and continues to teach in workshops and conferences as well as privately.
She’s played second violin since her days at Eastman. “It’s something I’ve grown into. I don’t love second violin jokes, but I love the music,” she says.
Although she and Harrison first met in 1977 at a chamber music school in Taos, they went in separate directions, re-encountering in 1989, when Freier joined the Stanford faculty. Harrison, a San Francisco native and a graduate of Oberlin and Boston University, has been on the faculty since 1983. But his original goal while growing up was to be the lead guitarist in a rock group. That led to the study of string bass, and eventually, the cello. In his spare time, he still listens to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Paul Simon.
But there isn’t much spare time with three children. Sarah, 22, is a recent graduate of U.C. Davis and is studying for the LSAT exam. Rachel, 19, is a sophomore at U.C. Berkeley, where she is an art and pre-med major. Zachary, 13, is a student at Jordan Middle School in Palo Alto and is already performing in local chorales, opera and musical theater groups. In addition, he’s about to celebrate his bar mitzvah at Congregation Etz Chayim. The two daughters are both violists, although not professionally.
Coincidentally, the other quartet members, who are newcomers to the group, are also partners in private life. Mussumeli and Levitz, who each have two Juilliard degrees, are professors at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In 2005, when the quartet needed a new first violinist, they heard one of Mussumeli’s recordings and invited her to join.
When the quartet needed a new violist, Levitz was an obvious choice. She was formerly principal violist with the Italian chamber group I Solisti Veneti; Mussumeli was co-concertmaster.
The two women first met in Juilliard’s pre-college division when Mussumeli was 15 and Levitz 12. Both went on to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Juilliard.
Then came Italy — a sojourn that was supposed to last six months. It lasted 18 years. They now divide their time between San Francisco and Italy, where they spend holidays.
“Neither of us planned to return to America,” said Levitz, whose passions for cooking and home improvement flourished in Italy, where they gave cooking classes to visiting Americans. “But (the conservatory) made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Freier and Harrison, along with their children, stayed at the Mussumeli-Levitz home in Italy this past summer while teaching and performing. The “Viva Italia!” program grew out of the summer experience.
These days, weekly rehearsals alternate between Palo Alto and San Francisco, where the quartet will offer the “Viva Italia!” program in October and November.
Beyond rehearsals and concerts, each member performs nonmusical roles. Mussumeli is PR liaison. Freier handles educational outreach and sets concert dates. Levitz works with the board on long-term planning strategies. Harrison takes care of applying for grants.
“You need to do more than play your instrument,” Harrison says.
“Which was very surprising for us, coming from Italy, where the arts are subsidized,” Mussumeli adds.
What is it like to be in quartet with one’s partner?
On the one hand, each couple is used to playing and traveling with one another. But there’s some negotiation involved.
“Bettina and I made a deal that we would treat each other like strangers,” with the same courtesy one would offer to another professional, Levitz says. “It’s not like tennis partners.”
Says Harrison: “Susan always reminds me if I’m not talking to her as I would be with a stranger.”
Adds Mussumeli, “In any ensemble, things can be intense.”
What: The Ives Quartet presents “Viva Italia!”
Where: St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28., with a 7 p.m. pre-concert talk
Cost: $25 general, $20 seniors, $15 students, free for children ages 12 and under
Info: Go to www.ivescollective.org or call 650-224-7849. Later “Viva Italia!” concerts are planned for Sept. 30 in San Jose and Oct. 7, Nov. 8 and Nov. 15 in San Francisco.
BIG SOUND OVERWHELMS CHAMBER MUSIC VENUE
If you’re a chamber music nut, you know the Bay Area is saturated with terrific string quartets: the Kronos, St. Lawrence, Alexander, Turtle Island, Cypress and so on. But even the biggest nuts haven’t all heard about the Ives Quartet, and that’s a crime.
Because the Ives, which gave a typically superb performance Saturday night at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose, is right there in the upper echelon of chamber groups based in the region. It still flies under a lot of people’s radar; the Trianon wasn’t exactly packed. But that’s bound to change if the quartet continues to perform at this level, with this much energy and panache.
At Saturday’s concert, the group’s last of the season, the Ives’s arresting sound was again on display: robust, rigorous and beautifully blended. Whether the group was playing Beethoven, Dvorak or Quincy Porter, the 20th-century American composer whose works are becoming an Ives specialty, the music felt thoroughly absorbed, idiomatic, performed from the inside-out.
What’s remarkable is that the quartet, which dates in various convolutions to 1983, has recently undergone personnel changes. Bettina Mussumeli, its first violinist, is finishing only her second season; violist Jodi Levitz, her first. Both are refined, passionate players, and have quickly melded with cellist Stephen Harrison and second violinist Susan Freier.
Beethoven’s early String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4, opened the concert: a delicate equipoise, beyond quiet, was achieved in the Scherzo. The rocking Allegro seemed to vibrate the air in the hall; all those poor, invisible atoms knocked about.
Next came Porter, a New England Yankee who emerged a generation after Charles Ives (the quartet’s namesake), studied with Ives’ composition teacher, Horatio Parker, at Yale and taught at Yale for years.
The Ives, which hopes to record all nine of Porter’s string quartets for the Naxos label (the first four are due out in July), played his String Quartet No. 3, from 1930. It sounded dynamic, sturdily American, at times Yankee-Stoic, yet also optimistic, tuneful, hymn-like. And what energy the Ives pumped into the finale, a mad dance, with surprising echoes of Eastern Europe.
That made a neat connection to Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major, for which the Ives was joined by pianist Paul Hersh, an estimable player. The five performed with all the passion one could ask for – but too much sound for the reverberant little hall. The result was a fiery but somewhat unbalanced performance.
Contact Richard Scheinin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5069.
By Katy Nolin
Prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, the internationally acclaimed Ives Quartet performed in front of a sellout crowd at Hamlin Hall. While classical performances at Trinity are usually (and sadly) sparsely attended, students were actually turned away from the popular concert, and many were forced to stand through the two-hour performance.
The Quartet features four of the most talented string instrumentalists in the country, hailing from diverse academic and performance backgrounds. It is based out of the California Bay Area, but they still feature a very diverse and eclectic performance schedule, traveling throughout the world while still stopping for teaching residencies here at Trinity.
Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, the two violinists, hail from two separate coasts: Mussumeli is a prodigy from the famed Juilliard School while Freier traces her collegiate musical roots to Stanford University. As if to prove many parents wrong, Freier was a double major in Biology and Music, and choose to pursue music instead of a lucrative medical career. “I was thinking of going to medical school and that was certainly my parents’ plan for me. But music really took over,” Freier said.
On viola, newcomer Jodi Levitz stands out. The viola is a notoriously secondary instrument: it is overshadowed by the melodic violin and often, if played poorly, overwhelmed by the resonating cello. Levitz, also a graduate of Juilliard, truly shows the viola at its best, and its deep, lilting notes shine through the sweeter violin and richer cello.
On the cello, Stephen Harrison is also a pleasure to hear. A graduate of Oberlin College and Boston University, Harrison is now a professor at Stanford. Personally, the cello has always been my least favorite instrument, but Harrison’s beautiful renditions of Quincy Porter’s String Quartet No. 3 quite frankly won over any bias I might have had.
The performance, which clocked in at an impressive two hours, featured three very different pieces which truly showed the depth of talent in the Quartet. The first piece was Mozart’s String Quartet No. 17 nicknamed “The Hunt.” The piece is called so because of its lively measure which reminds the audience of an 18th century foxhunt. Mozart is (obviously) an immensely talented composer, and despite the introductory allegro, the piece still features a complex blend of tempos, motion, and volume.
Porter’s String Quarter No. 3 followed the Mozart piece, and it continues the lively, spirited mood from “The Hunt” with a much more modern feel. Porter, a 20th century composer and a famed violinist, updates the quartet style, and his piece features a pleasant blend between individual instrument solos and harmonious group parts. The best part of this piece was undoubtedly the cello, which opened the Allegro and carried the undercurrent throughout.
After the intermission, the Quartet closed with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, named “Razumovsky” after the Russian Count who commissioned the piece. This Russian influence is apparent throughout the piece, as strains of Russian folk music in the Allegretto Maggiore contrast with the black and white of the Allegro and Finale. While Mozart and Porter are more subtle and harmonious with their string quartets, Beethoven’s features many of the traits that make him famous in his later Ninth Symphony. There is a stark contrast between harsher, staccato melodies in the Allegro, and smoother, sweeter tones in the Molto adagio.
Hamlin Hall is an ideal venue for this type of performance. The high ceilings give the classical pieces a haunting resonance that fills the room (and surrounding dormitories) with a rich, full-bodied sound. The ambience of the room is also appealing, as the wood paneling, high windows, and gothic features bring the audience back to the times of Mozart and Beethoven.
In today’s age of carbon-copy pop stars and pseudo-rock bands, classical music is underrated and written off as only suitable for NPR. Yet there is a transcendance in classical music that speaks to every listener despite age, circumstance, or musical taste. Classical music is devastatingly beautiful in its simplicity and in its rich yet subtle tones – it tugs on your heartstrings with its emotional and uplifting notes.
Next time the Ives Quartet performs on campus, don’t risk it by trying to get tickets at the door. Buy them in advance, because whether you like classical music or not, you certainly do not want to miss this fantastic group.
By Rebecca Wallace
“I am a grave poetic hen/That lays poetic eggs,” poet Ezra Pound once wrote.
But trying to cook those eggs into a song yielded only scrambles for composer Roger Bourland. While he’s written everything from film scores to cantatas, the UCLA composition professor found that some things — like the ground-breaking, rebellious words of Pound — simply resist melody and harmony.
So after being co-commissioned to write a string quartet by both his aunt and the Palo Alto-based Ives Quartet, Bourland decided to set poet and not poem to music.
The result is “Four Poets,” his first string quartet, which will get its world premiere by the Ives Quartet at a Thursday concert on May 11 in Palo Alto. The work pays tribute to Pound, Friedrich Schiller, James Merrill and William Carlos Williams.
“I looked at them as basically musical portraits,” he said of the quartet’s four movements. “I didn’t take a specific poem; I just read tons of their poems, and ‘ready, set, go.’ It’s a very subjective thing.”
Each movement tries to capture a poet’s spirit. Bourland particularly enjoyed contrasting the wild “madman” energy of the American Pound with the more mainstream feel of the 18th-century German poet Schiller, whose “Ode to Joy” became part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Then there was the welcome challenge of analyzing Merrill, an American poet who died in 1995 and was a personal friend of Bourland’s.
“This man claims that all of his poetry comes from the Ouija board,” Bourland said with good humor. “He was a 20th-century mystic who maybe is pulling your leg and maybe is not.”
In addition, Bourland chose Williams, an American poet and doctor whose 20th-century works such as “This Is Just To Say” have a straight-ahead feel.
Ives Quartet cellist Stephen Harrison finds the Williams movement in the quartet especially appealing because of its serenity.
“He (Williams) glorified the simple, and so Roger’s music is drawn to the beauty in simple things,” he said.
It was Harrison’s link with Bourland that brought “Four Poets” to the Ives; the two men have known each other since student days in Boston some 30 years ago.
When Ives members — who also include Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier on violin and Scott Woolweaver on viola — commission works, they choose composers who impress them. Then they let the composers forge ahead on their own to develop a theme and style for the piece, Harrison said.
That’s part of the Ives Quartet’s philosophy of trying new things, rather than sticking to a diet of Beethoven and Mozart.
The group began its life as the Stanford String Quartet in 1983, but then left the university in 1998 to go its own way. The musicians chose as their muse the maverick American composer Charles Ives.
Born in 1874, Ives was a pioneer in American music; unlike many of his contemporaries, he was trained in the States instead of Europe, Harrison said. His compositions include tunes from American hymns and other tunes, many of which he learned as an organist.
“He realized church music was at the very heart of America at that time,” Harrison said.
Ives was also one of the first to play with polytonality, mingling two or more keys simultaneously. This can be heard in another work being played at the May 11 concert, Ives’ “String Quartet No. 1.”
“At the end of the fourth movement, I and the first violinist are playing two hymns in two meters at the same time,” Harrison said. It’s an intriguing mix that can either “blend or clash,” depending on your tastes, he said.
This work pushes the envelope of the traditional view of a string quartet as a “civilized discourse” among four musicians, Harrison said. He added with a chuckle, “Ives believed we could also have an argument, a shouting match.”
With a broader view of music, the Ives Quartet is hoping also to find a broader audience. While Harrison said Palo Alto audiences are devoted, they could also be younger. He criticizes the drop in support for school music programs and says his quartet plays at schools whenever possible.
Recently, the quartet performed at a low-income middle school in San Jose where the student orchestra had only one cello and a sprinkling of other instruments.
Although many of the students had not heard a string quartet before, they listened raptly, Harrison said. Afterwards, one girl stood up and asked, “Can we sing for you?”
So the young choir sang to the string quartet. Even though it was a pop song, that didn’t matter, Harrison said.
“They saw music exactly the way it ought to be seen — a universal sharing,” he said. “We just sat there with these silly smiles on our faces, holding our instruments.”
The Ives Quartet is a stealth group, at least in the South Bay, where its remarkable concerts have been flying under the radar of chamber music enthusiasts. When will the local music community wake up to this exceptional string quartet, which is based right here in Santa Clara County?
Its Friday night concert at San Jose’s Le Petit Trianon was sensational; too bad the hall was mostly empty. The Ives, which in the past few months has taken on a new first violinist, Bettina Mussumeli, performed with a super-refinement that kept breaking out into a visceral, almost rock ‘n’ roll intensity. And the program — which reportedly drew larger audiences in Palo Alto and San Francisco over the weekend — was simply more interesting, and way riskier, than those offered by most chamber groups.
The concert tipped its hat to Mozart on his 250th birthday with the dark and obsessively layered Adagio and Fugue in C minor. It lasted about eight minutes — Boom! Happy Birthday, Wolfgang! Then came Beethoven’s String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, one of his monumental, middle-period “Razumovsky” quartets. It received a lament-filled and gut-wrenching performance, building toward that fierce, beyond-the-speed-limit, trillion-noted fourth movement; Mussumeli left the stage flopping her right hand in the air, as if to cool it off.
But the concert’s real jewel was its West Coast premiere of Leo Ornstein’s Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 92 — written in 1927 and ravishingly performed Friday with guest pianist Janice Weber.
You say, “Leo who?”
Ornstein in his day was a superstar pianist, likened to Rachmaninoff for his dazzling, over-the-top technique, as well as a composer of considerable repute. Percy Grainger, the pianist and composer who was Ornstein’s contemporary, set him on the same level as Stravinsky and Scriabin.
History has a way of sorting things out and Ornstein added to the fading of his reputation by withdrawing from public performances around 1930, when he was in his late 30s.
Both lionized and condemned for playing his own jagged and futuristic piano works, as well as for championing the then-new music of Bartok, Schoenberg and Ravel, he had become “notorious,” said Severo Ornstein, his son, in introductory remarks to Friday’s performance. “A reticent person, fundamentally,” the composer withdrew from the public eye.
But what a life Ornstein had. Born in Russia in 1892 or 1893, he moved to New York as a boy and built his storied career. He played for an audience of 5,000 in Havana. He composed “Hebraic Fantasy,” for piano and violin, for Albert Einstein’s 50th birthday party in 1929; Einstein was his page turner. He composed his massive, eighth piano sonata when he was 98 or so and died in 2002, at nearly 110.
Severo Ornstein, a retired computer scientist in San Mateo County, spent a decade transcribing 2,500 pages of his father’s handwritten scores. Many can be viewed at www.otherminds.org/ ornstein, along with a biography of Ornstein and photographs of him as a young man. His piano quintet was “probably the best piece he ever wrote,” Severo Ornstein said.
Friday’s performance of the 40-minute work was panoramic: You could practically see the Russian steppes moving past, as if through the windows of a moving train. The performance was also brutally emotional, alive with arching, cantorial melodies set in unison for strings over the galloping, arpeggiating piano. All was in constant motion, propelled by big gestures: long-noted themes, obsessively explored; Stravinsky-esque rhythms; dashes of New York’s Jazz Age hustle and bustle.
The performance by the five musicians was unbridled and, yes, visceral, as classical music ought to be. The Ives’ next performances are in May: Check the quartet’s Web site at www.ivescollective.org for details.
Contact Richard Scheinin at email@example.com or (408) 920-5069.