Political Classical: Frank Horvat’s “For Those Who Died Trying”


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Atma ACD2 2788

Frank Horvat (1974- )is a Canadian composer and musician with a profound interest in social justice and human rights.  In this 35 movement string quartet he is concerned with memorializing the lives of 35 activists who died while furthering the cause of human rights.  This work is made even more compelling by including photos from a photo essay of the subjects taken by Luke Duggleby, a Thai-based photographer and journalist.

Without a doubt this is a shining example of what I have termed, “Political Classical”, a genre of protest music which seems to have emerged in the twentieth century.  This work takes its place now with Frederic Rzewski’s Pueblo Unido Variations, and works by composers like Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, and countless others who have chosen to use their expertise in the classical genre to write works analogous to the folk protest music which is perhaps better known to the listening public.

With songs one has the words which can directly or indirectly evoke the particular issue being addressed.  But, other than a dedication in the program notes, how does one imbue their music with the intended meaning for a given protest work.  Well, Mr. Horvat has chosen to utilize only the letters from these victims’ names to form the musical material for each portrait.  That is he uses the letters which correspond to musical notes.  Most famously this practice is known through the B, A, C, H (corresponding in German notation as B flat, A, C, B) theme which is the basis for Bach’s Art of Fugue.

By itself this can be a bland and meaningless exercise but Horvat manages to work within this carefully limited framework to create 35 very convincing portraits of these Human Rights Heroes.  The 35 movements are relatively brief and put this listener in the mind of composers who have  succeeded quite well with such a format such as Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison.  Both of these composers and the man in discussion here work in a basically tonal framework with a balanced and judicious use of dissonance.  What is curious is how he seems to succeed in evoking these people purely through sound.

In comes the Mivos Quartet whose job it is to make sense of the composer’s intentions and breath life into the notes on the page.  This New York based string quartet consists of Olivia de Prato, violin; Maya Bennardo, violin; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, viola; and Tyler J. Borden, cello.  And let’s just say they are up to the task.  Each movement takes on its individual character but retains a larger connection to the work as a whole.  Perhaps this is also a metaphor for the nature of individuality as part of the larger concept of humanity and why each perspective is vital to our collective survival.

Before I wax too philosophical let me just say that, at least in terms of this recording, this is a document of classical string quartet which also serves as a memorial to the victims it references and, hopefully, as a sort of wake up call to those who, for whatever reason, are unaware of these atrocities.  Ultimately, I suppose, the goal is the amelioration of inhumane practices.  But until then we may find comfort in the beauty which this composer has brought to this work.  This would seem to be a stab at acknowledgement of sacrifice in the name of human rights seeking justice but, for now, we must settle for beauty even if it brings tears which are a mix of both sadness and joy.

American Romantics from the Manhattan School



Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer.  A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.

Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.

Robert Sirota (from website)

Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School.  That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.

But no matter.  We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme.  The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96.  It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony.  It is debatable as to how “American” these works are.  Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.  

Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever.  It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving  performance.  This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.

Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”.  It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements.  His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic.  His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes.  Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.

Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes.  He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago.  This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain.  His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.

The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo.  Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect.  This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing.  He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement.  It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening).  As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.

Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet.  It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.

Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music.  The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.

Telegraph Quartet Debut: Into the Light


TelegraphQuartet_IntoTheLight_AlbumCoverThis is the debut album for the Telegraph Quartet who are based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  They have chosen some curious works from the quartet repertoire to represent this nascent ensemble, Anton Webern’s Op. 5 Fünf Satze (1909, Benjamin Britten’s Three Divertimenti (1936), and Leon Kirchner’s String Quartet No. 1 (1949).

Webern is, of course well known, but relatively seldom played.  His pithy, brief, pieces belie a complexity which may delight musicologists but his music, for all of it’s craft, is never going to be a crowd pleaser like Haydn or Beethoven.  It appears that The Telegraph folks are putting together a carefully selected intro to their work.  They execute these little masterpieces with care and manage to squeeze the expression out so that the audience can begin to appreciate it.

The Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Divertimenti were unfamiliar to this listener and, doubtless, will be a pleasant surprise to many.  Britten wrote three string quartets and a few other miscellaneous pieces for quartet.  It is a bit surprising that these little Britten gems have gone with so little notice before now.  These are three brief (though not as brief as the Webern) but engaging little compositions that clearly deserve at least an occasional performance.  The Telegraphs handle these with a powerful almost romantic interpretation.  It’s hard to say not ever having heard any other performance but these are engaging pieces.

Leaving the best for last we get to hear music by Leon Kirchner (1919-2009).  This Pulitzer Prize winning composer (he won for his Third String Quartet from 1967).  Kirchner wrote 4 quartets in total which vary widely in style.  They date from 1949, 1958, 1966, and 2006 (which remains unrecorded…hint, hint).  Kirchner wrote in pretty much all genres and even worked with electronics.  It is time for a new reckoning of his work.

The first quartet is the least heard of the lot and is of a sort of romantic quality.  It is a passionate composition that is influenced by a variety of styles but it precedes his 12 tone compositions.  This quartet seems to have an affinity for romantic gesture and singing melodies and listeners will doubtless want to hear this work multiple times.

Some may recall a Columbia album from the 1970s that recorded Kirchner Schoenbergian second quartet as a “B side” to an album which contained Kirchner’s drama, Lily, based on Saul Bellow’s “The Rain King”.  That disc was almost a Kirchner sampler displaying two major aspects of the composer’s output.

All the works here are bound to please a concert audience and this little collection of works dating a forty year period from 1909 to 1949 are excellent vehicles for this ensemble which sports a lush sound and a feeling for the proper shaping of melodies.

The Telegraph Quartet consists of Joseph Maile and Eric Chin (who apparently share the role of first violin with the other taking the second violin), Pei-Ling Lin, viola, and Jeremiah Shaw cello.  It’s difficult to say how this new quartet will fare but this album suggests that they are already on their way musically and, judging from their choice of repertoire, they are likely to unearth (and probably commission) unheard delights of the quartet repertoire.  Well done!

Tesla Quartet Debut Pleases


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Most recordings of the wonderful Ravel String Quartet of 1902-3 is most frequently paired with the similarly masterful Debussy String Quartet (1893) or with another of Ravel’s fine chamber works.  Not here though.  For their debut recording this quartet has apparently chosen to demonstrate their skills by programming which spans the 18th to the early 20th century along with a selection of transcriptions of lesser known Ravel pieces.  After ten years playing together they have chosen to lay down some recorded tracks for posterity.

The disc opens with the Ravel Quartet which is handled most ably.  It is ostensibly this quartet that inspired first violin Ross Snyder to dedicate his career to the string quartet.  The bonuses here are transcriptions by first violin, Ross Snyder, of three lesser known Ravel piano pieces.  They are, in order of appearance on the album, the brief Menuet sur la nom d’ Haydn (1909), the more familiar Menuet Antique (1895), and the Menuet in C sharp minor (1904) are heard in transcriptions for string quartet.

By contrast the Teslas have chosen to feature Haydn’s String Quartet in C major Op. 54 No. 2.  It is the first one of the first set of so called “Tost” Quartets written in 1788 and named for a violinist (Johann Tost) of the Esterhazy orchestra.  This is mid-career Haydn who is justly known as the father of the string quartet.

The larger works are punctuated by the short transcriptions.  The Menuet sur le nom d’ Haydn follows the Ravel and leads us neatly to the Haydn.  The Menuet Antique follows next.  It is one of the more ubiquitous compositions of Ravel and listeners familiar with the composer’s work will doubtless recognize it as it appears in the Sonatine and the piano suite (later orchestrated), Le Tombeau de Couperin.

We then get to hear a lesser known masterwork by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), his Concertino for String Quartet (1920).  This is early Stravinsky but he clearly thought highly of this piece as he later orchestrated it in 1953 for small ensemble.  It is only about six and a  half minutes long but listeners will be able to discern this as a masterful work by the composer who had already produced his three great ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.  Nothing that earth shaking here but the hand of the artist can clearly be heard.

The disc ends rather enigmatically perhaps with a transcription of the very brief Menuet in C sharp minor which clocks in at under a minute.  The end result is a tasty little resume of an emerging chamber group that one hopes will bring another interesting perspective on the genre of the string quartet.  This is an auspicious and most listenable debut.