Santa Cruz Baroque

Friedrich_Zweite_AltBy Roger Emanuels

IT HAS BEEN ARGUED that the fiendishly chromatic theme—now known as the Royal Theme—was the Prussian King Frederick’s attempt to humiliate JS Bach when the great composer answered the king’s invitation to attend his court. Frederick considered himself a ‘modern’ man, a disciple of ‘reason,’ and that Bach’s music was, by that time, old hat.

On returning home to Leipzig, Bach translated the Royal Theme into a gift to the monarch (pictured) which he called Musikalisches Opfer. This astounding work, the centerpiece of last Sunday’s Santa Cruz Baroque Festival concert, provided a rare opportunity to hear the collection of canons and fugues known, in English, as The Musical Offering. Seldom performed, all of the pieces are based on the same melody, the Royal Theme. The highly chromatic tune of 21 notes was handed to Bach by Frederick “the Great,” an amateur musician and patron of the arts. Its length and character would challenge any composer to create multi-layered melodic lines, but Bach seemed to thrive on such a challenge.

There is almost no indication as to which instruments should play the pieces, but it is thought that most are intended for solo harpsichord. The Baroque Festival presented the work as many performers do, with an ensemble of flute, violin, and continuo consisting of harpsichord and cello. Fulfilling its mission of performing music as it sounded in its own time, the Festival players use instruments and setups that meet 18th century specifications.

Flutist Lars Johannesson played the Royal Theme alone, an opportunity for the audience to hear it unadorned. The tune would then be present in all the pieces. Festival artistic director Linda Burman-Hall performed the opening three-voice fugue on solo harpsichord, an intricate working of the tune that Bach improvised before the King in that 1747 encounter in Potsdam. Joined by violinist Edwin Huizinga and cellist David Morris, the ensemble then played six of the ten canons as duos and trios in varying combinations of instruments. A canon is similar to a round, such as “Row, row, row your boat.” But these by Bach are complex riddles to be solved. For example, one of them, a “crab” canon is to be played from beginning to end, and then continuing backwards from the end to the beginning. Played together by two instruments, the lines fit together in perfect consonance. Though because of the chromatic nature of the theme, harmonies become very colorful, even strange, with an otherworldly tinge.

The crowning achievement of Bach’s efforts is the 6-voice fugue requested by King Frederick. It’s an almost impossible challenge, and few composers other than Bach could even attempt it. Combining these six melodic lines according to the rules of fugal treatment becomes the “wedding cake of counterpoint,” as described by one writer. By performing the work as an ensemble rather than as a solo harpsichord piece, the melodies were easier to distinguish with the contrasting sounds of the instruments. The final piece of The Musical Offering was the four-movement Trio Sonata on the Royal Theme, played by the full ensemble.

Following intermission, the remainder of this concert was fugue-free. Edwin Huizinga is an active soloist and ensemble player at the annual Carmel Bach Festival. He offered the Partita No. 3 for solo violin, creating a lively mood for the many dance movements. His opening prelude had an expressive ebb and flow that infused life into the notes. The gavotte was a lively foot-tapper.

To close the program, the full ensemble performed one of Bach’s G Major trio sonatas. For an encore, they played an arrangement of the last movement of Bach’s Sonata in A Major for flute and keyboard that included the violin in effective dialog with the flute.

Gratefully contributing to the youth music scene, the Baroque Festival opened the concert with a tribute to young performers. As laureates of its annual Youth Chamber Music Competition, violinists Stanley Wang and Laura Wang performed the four-movement duo by Jean-Marie Leclair, an 18th century violinist and composer. Taking advantage of playing on two strings at once to create a fuller sonority, the Wang duo sounded almost like a full string quartet.

The Santa Cruz Baroque Festival returns to the UCSC Music Center Recital Hall on Sunday, April 29, for a program of music from Iberia and the Arab World.

Ensō String Quartet

Enso

By Monica Mendoza

IT CAME AS A SHOCK to learn that the Ensō String Quartet was playing their final concert before disbanding. Yet their Carmel performance on Saturday for Chamber Music Monterey Bay, both joyful and bittersweet, gave a powerful reminder that music can restore life to a time long past. This sense of musical connection, present in all three pieces performed, seemed the essence of their program, as much a celebration as a farewell, a musical journey from the days of Mendelssohn and Beethoven to our own time.

Founded in 1999, today’s ESQ is peopled by violinists Susie Park and Ken Hamao, violist Melissa Reardon and cellist Richard Belcher. Despite several changes of performers through the years, with Park as the most recent addition, the tightly knit group share a mutual love of the pieces programmed, as Belcher explained. This shone through their playing, as they performed with coordination and technical prowess as well as with great care for the notes. There was leadership demonstrated by each member of the quartet. I found it refreshing to hear Reardon’s viola playing prominent lines, since, in orchestral settings, the instrument is often underappreciated. In a string quartet the dynamic is much different, and requires equal attentiveness from all four members.

The program opened with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor. Written when the composer was a teenager, this mature sounding work gives a nod to Beethoven’s quartets without sounding overly dependent on them for inspiration. There are also fragments of an earlier work by Mendelssohn that he strategically echoes throughout the quartet, and it gives the whole piece a sense of balance and completeness. The group’s playing, quite classical in character, danced lightly but also had a lot of virtuosity, with wild flurries of notes that flashed like lightning.

While the idea of musical connection was subtle in the Mendelssohn, it was very frankly displayed in Paul Moravec’s Dialogue. Moravec wrote this work as a commission for Music Mountain, a summer chamber music festival in Connecticut. The work is an homage to Jacques Gordon, who in addition to founding Music Mountain was also the leader of the Gordon String Quartet. Instead of simply dedicating his piece to him, Moravec actually incorporates the Gordon Quartet into the commission itself, by way of two snippets from their 1946 recording of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor. The snippets were played through a speaker on the stage, accompanied by ESQ along with Moravec’s musical ‘commentary.’ It is certainly an unusual idea to have a recording of an old string quartet playing alongside a contemporary live one. The phrases original to Moravec emerged subtly from the recording of the Beethoven, but soon wandered far afield before returning back to the starting note of the Beethoven. Despite the vast compositional differences between the two composers, a bond did emerge between the two, and it demonstrated how even though musical conventions have changed there is still a lot of common ground between the composers of today and yesterday. I do think that prerecorded music and sounds should be used sparingly in composition, just because nothing can compare to the experience of having music created live in front of you. In this context though, it worked quite well and the piece would not be nearly as effective without it.

As cellist Belcher explained, the group had always wanted to program the Mendelssohn and Beethoven string quartets together, but could never find a way to bridge the two. Moravec’s Dialogue created that bridge, and was the buildup to the final work of the concert, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, among the last compositions he wrote. This then is a very fitting piece for the final season of ESQ.

The third movement is the emotional core of the work, rife with inner strength and profound depth. It was written after the composer recovered from a severe illness, as an offering of thanksgiving “to the deity.” It clocks in at an impressive 20 minutes, though it felt like being taken out of time itself. (One thing that musicians learn fairly early on is that slow and expressive music is almost as, if not more, challenging than fast paced music.) Keeping up that level of concentration and intensity is difficult for even great players to achieve, but the ESQ held us captive. The swells, the tension and release, and the balance were all exquisite.

For its 2018-19 season Chamber Music Monterey Bay will host the Van Kuijk Quartet, Music from Copland House ensemble, the Borromeo String Quartet with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, the Catalyst Quartet and the Montrose Trio.