The Quartet visited four cities in China in December, 2013. Each time the we travel there (this was our fourth), new and interesting developments are evident in the musical scene. Our trip included a stop at Duke’s new campus at Kunshan, near Shanghai, with a concert in the new hall in the center of the city. Old friendships were revived, such as with Andrew Huang, founder of the Sun Yat-Sen Cancer Center in Taiwan; and many new friendships were made, including with the dynamic faculty at Suzhou’s new Conservatory; the energetic staff at Duke Kunshan University; the distinguished faculties at Wuhan University and Wuhan Conservatory.
Quartet in D-major, D. 94 by Franz Schubert
Quartet in F-major, Op. 22 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar works than these within the realm of classical music’s period of common practice. The Schubert is simple, perhaps somewhat naïve, while the Tchaikovsky is emotionally wrought. It’s the difference, I suppose, between a teen beginning his career in a world when classic style is fresh and one of troubled middle age who has in his sight a century of the same style that has become complex beyond its means, which, indeed, has had its very principles under assault from several quarters. Schubert had not yet attained maturity in sonata form; for Tchaikovsky it was a hindrance. The openings of the works are prime examples of the difference: Schubert’s quartet begins with a unison “D” before breaking a lovely tune in D-major. (Schubert surprises us by moving suddenly to B-minor for the next phrase, the exact same shift employed by the strict classicist Mendelssohn in his “Hebradies” overture.) Tchaikovsky , by extreme contrast, begins his work with an anguished, dissonant chord far from the home key. This turns out to be the start of a slow introductory section of unremitting pain and harmonic ambiguity. Even at the arrival of the main section, the music is still searching for harmonic stability.
The Schubert quartet continues in much the same vein as it begins. Its benign, sunny lyricism shines through all four movements, virtually without a cloud. The first Allegro and following Andante suggest the deep well of melodic invention that would ultimately flow over with some six-hundred songs, while the Minuet and Finale bubble with dancing energy and good humor. As mentioned earlier, Schubert had not yet fully mastered classical forms, so there is occasionally either too much repetition or an uncertainty of direction. This reminds us that the quartets were intended for family entertainment in the first place, and hardly detract from the pleasure of watching a young genius in his first efforts.
Tchaikovsky, as we might guess, does not maintain a single dominant affect through his quartet. While the first movement retains its dark, brooding aspect, the second is a bright ballet, a happy scherzo with a proper trio. It also has a very different texture from the other movements: the first violin carries the tune almost all the way through, with only the second violin given a solo turn in the slightly slower dance of the trio. It the other three movements, Tchaikovsky spreads the wealth generously, though the first violin is given numerous solo riffs. The slow movement reverts to the romantic pathos of the Moderato. We can hear the lament of the prima donna, answered by her paramour (otherwise known as first violin and cello). Second violin and viola join in with their own thoughts to make the movement a full-scale operatic quartet of sorrow and loss. An extended middle section brightens the mood considerably; here the quartet impersonates a large chorus in its huge crescendo. Tchaikovsky had not reached the depths of melancholy that produced the Symphonie Pathatique (SP?). Proof of this is the finale in the major mode, full of vigor and strength. Included are two terrific Russian-style melodies, wonderful virtuoso writing for the group, a heroic conclusion….and a slightly less wonderful fugue as development. The term “over the top” had not yet been minted. That’s why we have our great Russian who deigned occasionally to write chamber music.
I went on an errand this afternoon. I needed to get my endpin sharpened.
An endpin (called a spike in England) is the rod that protrudes from the bottom of a cello to stick in the floor so the cello doesn’t slide. It’s a fairly recent innovation; prior to the 20th century, cellists generally didn’t use an endpin (they supported the instrument between their knees, or used a pile of books for the purpose). Interestingly, the end pin, made of high grade steel, weighs about as much as the instrument itself: cellos are very light, violins are only a few ounces.
Anyway, at a performance yesterday, my endpin slipped, and my cello went skittering across the floor. I caught it, of course, but it was a disruption, one of those events that make chamber music such an exciting spectator sport. This occurrence alerted me to the fact that I needed to have my spike sharpened. Normally this is done by John Montgomery, the fine luthier in Raleigh, who does it during his annual inspection and cleaning of my instrument. But this year, apparently, John had forgotten. I didn’t want to drive all the way to Raleigh to get the job done, so I had the inspiration to check machine shops. The Yellow Pages listed a couple of dozen in the area, and a few in Durham. The first two shops I phoned laughed at me when I told them what I needed. The third, in downtown Durham, also laughed, but said, “Bring it on.”
The listing for C and C Machine Shop showed their address on a street I knew, so I extracted the end pin from my cello (it slips right out), and drove downtown. But when I arrived at what should have been 812 N. Mangum Street, there was nothing there. There were buildings at both 810 and 814 N. Mangum, but nothing in between. Flummoxed, I walked down the street, with the two-foot steel rod looking lethal in my hand (it was a rather rough neighborhood), until I came upon an old -fashioned hardware store. Could this be the place? I am quite capable of getting an address wrong. But, no, they could not sharpen an endpin. But to my enquiry about C and C, they lit up, and informed me that the shop had moved several years ago, and told me where to find it, and added that the guys at C and C were really good.
Thus reinvigorated, I drove to the new location, and found the shop. I carried my rod in the door, and was greeted by the lady to whom I had spoken earlier. She laughed at me (this was becoming thematic) and said that they hadn’t been on Mangum street for years. The shop was wonderful: dingy and dusty, and full of machines which I had never seen and could never hope to be able to use. An old man behind one of the machines took the endpin, and looked at me suspiciously. “What do you do with this?” he asked. “I’m a musician, I play the cello, and I stick this into floors so my cello won’t slip.” He didn’t laugh. But he didn’t like it. “Do they let you stick this into their floors?” he asked. “Well, usually they do, and what they don’t know won’t hurt them,” I answered. It was a good question. Cellists usually carry a device known as a rock-stop, usually a rubber disk which will adhere to most surfaces, into which the cellist puts the point of the endpin. But whenever possible I try to avoid using a rock-stop: it rarely is completely secure, and it dulls the tip of the spike. In this situation, I look for a doormat or some other strip of material, one end of which I’ll put under the front legs of my chair.
If you ever visit a stage on which an orchestra performs, look for the area where the cello section sits. There you will find innumerable small marks in the floor where cellists have stuck their spikes. I once performed in a beautiful small hall in Tel Aviv. The stage manager there was a crusty old……..dare I say Jew?…….who knew all the ropes, and he wasn’t about to let me stick my spike into HIS beautifully burnished hardwood floor. He gave me a rock-stop with explicit instructions: under no circumstances was I to make a mark in the floor. And during our warm-up rehearsal he watched me like a hawk. But I was up to the challenge. Trusting that he was not such a fanatic that he would interrupt the concert, I put the rock-stop in position on the floor, but then stuck my spike discretely in the floor right next to it. Perhaps the indelible mark I left caused the stage manager to change his policy, in which case all cellists who played in the hall afterwards owe me a debt of gratitude. More likely, my friend in Tel Aviv is still battling it out with cellists who come to play music there, and who have the un-believeable temerity to want to stick……
Mission accomplished! The old guy at C and C Machine Shop WAS really good. My endpin will now stick in absolutely anything! At least for a while.
Fred Raimi, June 11, 2012
We had a wonderful tour of China in December. Here are a few memorable moments, musical and cultural. Our second concert, after Shanghai, was in Xuzhou, NOT to be confused with Suzhou, pronounced “SU-joux”) famous for its rock gardens. We had played THERE on our last trip. Xuzhou, (pronounced “SHoo-zo”) a city of perhaps seven million souls, is built around a lake. We were met at the train station, many miles out of town, by a representative of the local concert hall. She came with a large van and a confident driver. The young lady was very eager to introduce herself and her city. She said that on the way to the hotel we would take a turn around the lake, which we simply HAD to see. We assured her that extra driving was not a priority, but she brushed this aside by noting that the hotel and concert hall were part of the same itinerary. It took a good thirty minutes to penetrate the outskirts of the city. We were quickly learning that traffic is a bane around any Chinese city. But once we reached the lake, the traffic cleared up, and we enjoyed the sights along the waterfront – parks, beaches, statuary, and many strollers. And only a minute after rejoining city traffic, we were at our hotel.
Check-in went smoothly, and we were soon up on the eighth floor. Our rooms were along the same hallway., so we each ducked into our sanctuary to freshen up and prepare to go to the hall for a rehearsal. But suddenly, before any of us had unpacked so much as a toothbrush, we heard an unearthly laughter, emanating from Hsiao-mei’s room. We all rushed over to investigate, and found that the laughter came from Hsiao-mei herself, though it was of a type and an intensity that we had never heard before. There, spread-eagled on the window outside her room, dangling eight floors up, was a man, staring calmly and with professional disinterest into the room. Although it took only a minute to figure out that the man was washing her window, Hsiao-mei’s laughter could not be checked. It was the brazenness of the posture, the lack of any sense that he might look odd from within the room, and beyond that the symbolism of overlooking, nay looking so directly it hurt, at ordinary citizens in their private moments, that fueled her laughter. We joined in the merriment, but lacking Hsiao-mei’s background, we couldn’t get the joke as fully as she did.
It was only a ten-minute walk to the concert hall, along a causeway that jutted into the lake. The moment we turned onto the causeway our wonder began. The concert hall resembled a bird that had just then landed and settled on the lake. The closer we drew to it, the more fantastic and detailed the imagery grew. And on the inside, the auditorium was all a stunning red with the most comfortable seating and marvelous acoustics. We understood the pride of our hostess, and of all the subsequent citizens we met. Their town had gained a fantastic symbol, outrageous in design, but a structure that would bring people together for decades to come.
We performed very well that evening. The signature piece on the program was “The Mountain Driver’s Song,” a lively Chinese folk song. At the song’s main cadences, the players put up our bows, and let loose with a triumphant “Yooooo – HO.” I think we had been a little tame with this expostulation in the past, but our good feeling about the town now made us throw ourselves into the refrain, and the audience responded in kind.
Following the concert was picture time. Chinese people have embraced the cell phone in a single gulp, and are not at all shy about requesting a photo with a visiting musician. On Hsiao mei-s initiative we first conducted a question and answer session at the front of the auditorium. (In Suxiao, as in too many concert halls around the world, including at Duke, audience members are denied entrance backstage.) The questions were mostly standard, but audience members had an unusual interest in music as a career. How had we chosen this path, did it reward our love of music, were our children also musicians? Also unusually, several young students found the Haydn quartet the most entrancing piece on the program. I left the picture-taking ahead of my colleagues, and found my way outside to the enchanted island of the concert hall. Many patrons had lingered, and quite a few thought a family photo with a western cellist would be a perfect capstone to the evening. I dislike photo sessions, public or private, but could offer no objections to requests that I pose with singles or small groups of people who had liked my music. In fact, it began to feel rather nice.
January 8, 2012
String Quartet in C Major (1920) by Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921)
Italian Serenade (1887) by Hugo Wolf (1860-1903)
Il Tramonto (1914) by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) with Krista River, mezzo soprano
Crisantemi (1890) by Giacomo Puccini (1856-1924)
Quartet in E Minor (1873) by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
November 12, 2011, at Duke
Notes by Jonathan Bagg:
It would be hard to find musical genres more different in purpose and effect than opera and string quartet. Passion, intrigue, triumph, and pathos are the language of opera, and composers who speak it have not always taken to the quartet’s quieter instrumental rhetoric, which emphasizes the witty interaction of ideas. Yet tonight’s program has great examples of quartet writing by three composers who made their living by the stage: Verdi, Puccini, and Humperdinck. Hugo Wolf wrote songs almost exclusively; his “Italian Serenade” is a perfect anomaly. Respighi was primarily a symphonist, but in tonight’s “Il Tramonto,” he seems entirely at home in the language of Italian grand opera.
Verdi took advantage of a hiatus in rehearsals for Aida in 1873 to compose his only string quartet. Operatic language and gestures permeate the work, especially in the overture-like first movement and the third movement’s brief cello aria. Yet what strikes one is how well his control of line and voice-leading translates to the texture of the quartet. After the first performance, Verdi’s humble assessment was: “I don’t know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it’s a Quartet!” Perhaps it was inevitable that he succumb to writing a fugue in the last movement; when would he have another chance? In any case it is an impressive display of counterpoint that still manages to wind up in thrilling fashion.
The string quartet works of Puccini, Humperdinck, and Wolf are also isolated forays. Puccini’s Crisantemi is a mere post card, in which we glimpse the powerful young voice of a composer who eventually held the world in thrall. Wolf struggled to write a string quartet as a young man; his Italian Serenade from several years later came more easily. It bubbles with the rhythm of tarantella, supercharged with romantic urgency, but skirting the dark emotional corners where Wolf often dwelt. Humperdinck’s string quartet is from 1920, his last year. It hardly matters now that it belongs stylistically thirty years earlier with his opera Hansel and Gretel. It is a work from another era, Wagner’s heyday, that is strangely unperturbed by the convulsions of the new century.
Finally, Respighi’s Il Tramonto sets an Italian translation of Shelley’s poem (The Sunset), in which lovers unite and are separated by death in single evening. The work is a uniquely successful condensation of operatic passion into a chamber music setting. One easily forgets while listening that the forces assembled are not large, so big is the tragedy of the words and music. Though Respighi did not excel at opera, one wonders if he might have, on hearing this piece.