Nova Chamber Series: Brahms, Wagner, Franck @ Libby Gardner Hall 10.23

Posted October 26, 2011 in

Brahms: Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 3 in D flat minor, Op. 108
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Franck: Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, M7

Last Sunday the Nova Chamber Music series presented its first concert of the season. Chamber music is written for small groups, like rock and roll essentially, but instead of amplifiers we are blessed to have the intimate and vibrantly clear Libby Gardner Concert Hall to bring the performance of these strings and horns very close indeed. These pieces take you by the mind, and as importantly, by the body, and bring you along with their intentions, good or bad. They may be ghosts on paper, but played in real time, these musics are alive, and physically affecting. In short, the Nova Chamber Concert Series is a kind of time machine. You might have to do the equivalent of squint with your ears at first, but the fact that the people who wrote these pieces had the same intent as musicians do now - to be beautiful and moving and... alive, is clear after just a minute or two. Sunday’s show had three pieces by three different composers; one was a Brahms duet for piano and violin; one, a smaller piece by Wagner for an ensemble of strings and winds. Finally, a quintet by Cesar Franck. A quintet is a string quartet with a piano thrown in, often echoing the strings or fighting them, like a planet and a moon.

Johannes Brahms writes particularly sweet melodies, in a lush symphonic style. Though he was born five years after Beethoven died, his composition style is classical, in contrast to his contemporaries who were distinctly romantic. He never attended a conservatory, but learned to write by studying earlier masters. He made a living, when not teaching, by playing folk and classical music in taverns. In this, Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor, opus 108, the first movement is by turns a stormy and then lilting set of tunes served up on Jason Hardink’s piano and David Langr’s amused and combative violin. Then followed an oddly feline adagio, that is, a sad, but not defeated set of melodies played introspectively. This particular sonata has a fun, if mathematical third movement. Labeled "poco e presto", which implies that it should be played “just a little bit very quickly". It pulled off this feat in a rather neat fashion, which went over well with our fifteen-year-old, who squirmed with pleasure at its turns and stops.. And the last movement was a rocker. It was a balls out race around a course of musical ideas and surprises. I found my face contorting with each new turn the music made in its manic journey home.

Wagner wrote the Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present for his second wife shortly after she had given birth to their son. The story goes that when she woke up on her birthday, a small ensemble was playing this piece on stairs of entry hall of the house. A kind of tone poem, it is programmatic, although the musical references in it are private events between Wagner and his wife. It grows in a single line from quiet string themes, shared around in a trancey call and reply. Its feels warm like a campfire, when suddenly about ten minutes into the comfortable glow, French horns arrive. A sunrise is happening and the whole piece puts me into a morning stumble though my mind. That’s how I experienced it anyhow. Your ears might hear aspens or stretches of asphalt, birdsong or your grandmother’s house on a Sunday morning and the smell of bacon and burnt toast. The whole ensemble, as with all these little groups, invite you emotionally into the music, with the proximity of the vibrating boxes and horns and the pure energy of their bodies. It seems to me a campfire as much sonically as the visually - the circle of musicians trading melodies with each other like alternating flame tongues around a logs edges.

The final piece was by Cesar Franck, who was Belgian and a prodigy. His father hoped, somewhat unrealistically that, like Liszt, his fame would move the family into better society - French society. He lived most of his adult life in Paris, playing and teaching, and he later became a French citizen, and finally he became a well known composer. I didn’t know what to expect from this particular piece. I hadn’t heard it before this performance. But it was surprisingly emotional. Made up of a quartet, that is two violins, a viola, and a cello, with a piano, thus a quintet, the piece - quintet for piano and strings in F minor, was moving and cinematic. The first movement’s animal like call and reply between the quartet and piano presented a soundtrack for my imagination that I had a hard time ignoring. In fact, throughout this particular piece, I found myself feeling exalted and then dashed as the music pushed me around the dance floor of its very particular intentions. If you listen to this piece for yourself, trying to get at what I’m talking about, turn up the volume, step to the edge of your preconceptions, and fall forward into the music. Just shut up and listen. Play it loud enough that it makes you feel a little jumpy. That’s about what its like live. Its really quite extraordinary. The emotional roller coaster that this piece put me through had my partner in tears by the time it was over. We took several minutes to compose before we left the auditorium, dazed and more than a bit shaken up.

I didn’t see more than two or three students from the U, and not any Slug readers that I could identify there. Really? What the hell? A ticket for this amazing trip is only five dollars if you have a student I.D. I expect to see more of you guys on November 13th. Get a ticket for yourself and if you want, bring a date. Bring cash - they don’t take plastic, and bring some cough drops because you are gonna want to be quiet for this, after all this is one of those things that when it really happens, it happens to you, and it can be quite profound. Its a great reason to dress up, or overdress, with whatever eccentricities fit your personality. Its a perfect antidote for a hangover. You guys are music lovers, or you would not be reading this rag, and by any measure, this is some of the most intense music ever written. Played for you, here, with real world class power and energy. This is a fun, wild ride.

Also, if you haven’t done this before, don’t clap unless everybody else is clapping. You are going to want to, but don’t.