Pavel Haas String Quartet. Photo: marcoborggreve.com
This year I have taken in two of the better, if more obscure, musical seasons presented by local arts organizations: the Nova Chamber Music Series, drawing largely from the luminous musicians of the Utah Symphony as well as other mostly local talent, and the Salt Lake Chamber Society’s season of touring Chamber Music ensembles.
After twenty-odd years of huddling in the corner, it was time to get out and experience more of Salt Lake City than just six nights a week at work and the occasional art film. As part of an overall set of strategies to live a larger life, which includes walking more and driving less, and doing instead of thinking about doing, it was time to take a seat at the table. Although art, music and poetry are no strangers to me, this was about attending to local art and culture events in an aggressive way. Here is the way I look at it: the water is fine if you want to get your feet wet, and the weather is perfect for a larger life than the one you are living.
Music in Salt Lake City is happening every night somewhere, as it is in any largish city. There are many advertised places to see live music in all its “it-ness,” but only some of these shows are worth your time and shekels. The Salt Lake Chamber Music Society Concert on Tuesday, April 24 with the Pavel Haas Quartet was a perfect example. Having won the Gramophone Awards recording of the year in 2011 for their recording of Dvorak's String Quartets No. 12 in F major 'American' and No. 13 in G major, they were well received here and their performance was well attended. The “fame” of a chamber music group is similar to the fame of your great uncle who was at Pearl Harbor. Genuine, but also esteemed by only a few people.
This quartet, a Prague-based group with a somewhat nationalist sensibility, is named after Pavel Haas, the concentration camp murdered Czech composer, whose quartets they have recorded. Husband and wife Veronicka Jaruskova – violin, and Peter Jarusek - cello, were joined by Eva Karova on violin and Pavel Nikl on viola. Hearing them, they had a fluid and intuitive sound, but watching them play was like watching musicians in a rowboat at sea violently rocking on the waves.
Their first selection, Bedrich Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, "From My Life," was a surprise to me. It was unexpectedly beautiful, sounding not as programmatic as it apparently is. Sometimes called the “father of Czech opera,” Smetana is a master of inward-looking string quartets. His notes on this first quartet, (featured also in the movie Sneakers), are for each of the four movements, like notes on his life, from destiny and its call, to love and marriage, to old age and his impending deafness. Energetic and optimistic without being forgettable, the piece is sharp and spirited, and to listen as it was played in this performance was like being given a gift.
The second piece of the show, Schubert’s “String Quartet No. 14 in D. minor, d. 810, Opus Posthumous,” called “Death and The Maiden,” was started four years before Schubert's death when he first discovered he had tertiary syphilis and would certainly die. It was not published until three years after his death in 1831, and was played only twice during his lifetime, both times with significant cuts. Unique for Schubert, all four movements are in a minor key, which re-enforces the dark and foreboding character of the piece with its menacing triplet theme and prominently featured tarantella, the dance of death. It is one of the primary quartets, a staple of concert halls and record collections. The Pavel Haas did a nice enough job with this piece, and even though I am a diehard fan of Schubert, I found the Smetana much more compelling and intense.
Also worth mentioning are the program notes on the composers and the performers by Susan Goodfellow for the SLCS which accompany each of these concerts. Crisp, informative, and just a little gossipy, applause is well deserved for her fine efforts which are always readable, well themed and full.
The Nova Chamber Music Series’ season finale on Sunday, April 1, pushed minimal to the maximum, featuring what Musical Director Jason Hardink called the most ambitious and expensive concert ever in Nova history. Utah Symphony Director Thierry Fischer directed a chamber orchestra of local musicians through a pair of chamber symphonies from Schonberg and Adams. Baritone Michael Chipman and pianist Barlow Bradford played a selection of intimate Brahms Lieder. Thomas Osborne's solo percussion piece, “Warm It Up,” offered a short essay on time and tempo from the European past through the Polynesian present.
For this last concert, I sat up on the edge of the cliff that is the balcony of Libby Gardner Concert Hall. The sound up here is dream edged, and rounded just a little by the journey across the golden room. I usually sit front and center, where the sound is sharply detailed, river fresh and cold enough to make your wrist ache. Much like water on a body, a good swim requires brisker water than a relaxing bath. The seats here give an overview of the stage, which seemed like the perfect way to view the larger scale performance. The sacrifice of a lofty perch is a bit of removal from the experience, which for me, as a result, was less intense and more remote. I was almost too relaxed.
Johannes Brahms wrote the songs which began this concert between 1864 and 1874, a decade which produced a large number of solo songs and choral works, many of them introspective and focused on solitude and loneliness. With this group of songs, on the rather gloomy theme of lost love and reflective walks in the wilderness, Brahms’ piano demanded as much attention as the singing, or so it felt through the first few pieces. As I relaxed into it, a kind of transmutative trance took me deeper into the emotion of the songs. The anxious theme of Ach! Wende diesen Blick, (Ah, Turn away this gaze), took a minute to draw me in, but finally, I was on a swan boat in the sunlight of the fine tone and sincere emotion of Michael Chipman's singing Von ewiger Liebe (Of Eternal Love).
Schonberg's chamber symphony, a reaction to the super large-scale romantic symphonies of the late 19th century, (think “Mahler's 8th,” the so called “Symphony for a Thousand”), is a one movement, fully imagined piece using a full set of the fewest members of the orchestra. So we see all the odd bird reed instruments and horns and whistles big and small in addition to the strings in their fewer flavors. The usually sparsely populated stage was a little overwhelmed that day, filled with so many faces from our own Utah Symphony, and especially the great young Conductor Thierry Fischer.
Thomas Osborne's “Warm It Up” is a solo percussion piece by a member of the Rice University music mafia which also includes Jason Hardink, the artistic director of Nova, and the percussionist who played the piece, Matthew McCLung. Now a professor at the University of Hawaii (Thomas-Osborne.com), the piece was written in a fever, literally. Its feverishness comes through in a dramatic arc, from rousing, closed-eye brushwork into a thunderstorm of noise finishing with a rain of sticks, sheet music and music stand when, with a Polynesian flavored scream, Mr. McClung cast all the tools of the drum aside and tore from the stage. Wow. A great storm for the final Nova show of the year.
Finally, as a bookend to the Schonberg “Chamber Symphony,” we heard John Adams’ “Chamber Symphony,” again using a full complement of musicians and this time with the addition of a synthesizer in the back center, and trap set (what you would recognize as a drum kit), on the back left of the stage. A direct commentary on the earlier work, but also an account of the goofy and mechanical changes classical music has adopted both in time and instrumentation, it sounded like cartoon music and stylized computer music, maybe cut into strips, thrown in the air, and taped back together again. It was fun but hard to follow. I suspect that was the point, in any case.
So, you may ask, “Why go to chamber music concerts?” Because the music is extraordinary, and you haven't heard it before, or actually, you probably have, somewhere, but not like this. Live is the only way to hear chamber music, it’s the difference between a storm on television, and a storm from your porch. Not only that, but chamber music has a devoted following, many of the same people go to all the shows. Each concert is a shared experience, and an only experience. These concerts are not repeated over the weekend like the symphony or opera. Also, these experiences are more intimate than the symphony, these concerts are little secrets in a box. Chamber music is all around us––in film, disguised as Muzak, at weddings and shopping malls, even in cartoons. Chamber music is in the soundtrack of our lives. There is no jazz in this town, and you already go to all the rock, pop, country and blues shows you want. It isn’t a greased pig. You can catch it.
Which brings me to the end of this season for these two very different series of chamber music. All things being about equal––they have similar price points, ridiculously cheap if you are a student, and moderately premium for an adult. They are from the same family. One is touring groups exclusively, and therefore groups who play what they play brilliantly and with a practiced hand. They know the music as well and play with as much swagger and sense of big performance as any big-name pop star, they wear the music like a skin. But they also have an eye to keeping alive a tradition and staying at least partially in a classical framework. You don't go to a Springsteen concert and not want to hear “Born To Run.” Well, there is a set of works for each kind of group in the chamber canon, and the great touring groups serve these works up like a fine steak house does beef and ribs. This is culture at its best, although, in some ways, the Salt Lake Chamber Music Society’s series is not as daring as the Nova Series.
The Nova Series is local and is organized in each show by an internal logic and a daring masterful hand. Jason Hardink really knows classical music––the newest stuff and the obscure greats. I don't know if you listened to John Peele on the BBC like I did in my twenties and thirties, but his show was always impeccable and surprising in its selections of music and its diversity. Under Mr. Hardink, the same applies for the Nova Chamber Series. On any given show you will hear at least two or three things you have never heard before. Several times this season there were performances of things that were either written for Nova or were world first or second performances. Most shows included daring and wild pieces which, in a recorded context might sound noisy or non-musical, but which in a live setting are transgressive, exciting and amazing.
Both series of concerts made my life better and bigger and deeper. One gave me culture, and one gave me art. The takeaway for me this season has been twofold: on one hand, modern, very modern, wet-ink chamber music is really good and really exciting, maybe better than the famous pieces we think of from the 18th and 19th Century. Secondly, an entree to the arts cognoscenti and the society they keep is available here, and the ticket to it comes with some great music to sweeten the deal.
It satisfies deeply to get to know people you are sharing something with. It’s like you have joined a club that you didn't even know existed. If you buy season tickets for the Nova Concert Series, there is a party after each concert with catered food and the musicians are there and ready to chat, and so is the audience. This is perhaps the easiest intro into culture in Salt Lake. So, if you want to be part of the world of adults and art, here is a door.
Both the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake and the Nova Chamber Music Series will begin their seasons in the fall. Click on their names to be directed to their websites for more info.