Brentano Quartet & Yekwon Sunwoo

By Scott MacClelland

GOOGLE YOUTUBE for Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132, and you’ll have your pick of performances that run from 36 to 55 minutes. Beethoven’s music certainly allows for interpretive latitude, but how do you explain such a wild discrepancy of performance time? To lay the groundwork, there is no way to omit anything from the definitive critical edition—unless I suppose some quartet of players that decides to drop an entire movement. Nicht möglich.

The Brentano Quartet came in at 43 minutes in their reading of the work at Sunset Center on a chilly Sunday afternoon after the morning’s rain squalls had finally subsided. The most elastic of the four movements is the third, the “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart: Molto adagio–Neue Kraft fühlend: andante”—Holy song of thanks of a convalescent to the deity, in the Lydian mode: molto adagio; feeling new strength: andante. (The Lydian mode, with its fourth tone raised a half step, was historically associated with healing.) The work presents two ideas, a slow hymn at the start with a ‘new strength’ dance, as if Beethoven was emerging from illness in starts and fits. These ideas alternate, the original hymn growing subtly more complex while retaining its original character.

This deeply expressive movement alone, in this case 17 minutes, confounds the imagination when considering that the composer was stone deaf. That Beethoven could in social isolation communicate his own emotional depths with such unequivocal clarity boggles the mind. And to look deeper into the formal processes (as the linked demonstration below does*) is to further boggle an already boggled mind. This new standard of musical communication cannot be ignored or denied; music, poetry, emotion and formal architecture come together here as they are rarely found anywhere else in human imagination.

The surrounding three movements (four if you count as separate the short march that strides directly into the final rondo), each of which establishes its own character and originality, provide essential balance around the slow movement. Yet the reaction of the audience following this performance was muted, perhaps perplexed. I don’t remember the last time this piece was heard in Carmel. It might well have bewildered the first-time listener. (That happens a lot with late Beethoven.) Still this piece retains that inexorable Beethovenian formal logic and development. How he, the straddler between the Classical and the Romantic, could hold those principles in such perfect poise remains as profound as was his fascination for JS Bach, to whom he ‘took a knee.’

The Brentano program opened with Dvořák’s Piano Quintet, Op. 81, joined by Yekwon Sunwoo, winner of the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition and who performed a solo recital in Carmel last October. A highly charged performance assured a shoe-in for audience acclaim. Since winning the Cliburn, Sunwoo has become a regular collaborator with the Brentano Quartet. But for all their fealty to the composer’s score, the reading here was predictable and lacked suspense, missing multiple opportunities to finesse phrasings. Exaggerating contrasts between slow moments and faster ones, by holding back expectations, to elasticize tempos (as Richard Wagner strongly advocated), are the tricks of the trade that enthrall listeners and turn their experiences into future talking points.       

*From Stanford, a brilliant analysis of the “Heiliger Dankgesang,” the slow movement, from the A Minor quartet, with Robert Kapilow of the Stanford School of Medicine and the St Lawrence String Quartet. 

Dashon Burton Recital

By Susan Meister

DASHON BURTON, the bass-baritone beloved by Carmel Bach Festival performers and audiences alike, recently appeared at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco as part of the San Francisco Performances PIVOT Festival. It is unlikely that he left a heart untouched.

Titling his program, Brick by Brick: Changing America Through Song, he assembled music by black Americans that spoke to the grief, pain and disparagement of an entire group of Americans who are still suffering under the yolk of intolerance and economic hardship. This is a vein that has been mined many times before, and after the first set of over-performed “Old American Songs” by Aaron Copland, the roster got much more interesting.  

I would venture that most of this most liberal of audiences knew little of the composers on the program. One of the standouts is Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) who was a much honored musician in her time. She grew up in Chicago, her father a physician and her mother an organist, went to Juilliard, and later studied under another well-known composer represented on the program, Florence Price, whose piano concerto Bonds played with the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago in 1934. Bonds was a close friend of Langston Hughes, who provided the lyrics for her Three Dream Portraits, the first of which is “The Minstrel.” Hughes wrote, “Because my mouth is wide with laughter/And my throat is deep with song/You do not think I suffer after/I have held my pain so long?” Unaccompanied by words but no less powerful was “Song Without Words” by Charles Brown (1922-1999). The unaccompanied song “Crucifixion” is a horrifying description of the violence and ordeal of Christ’s torture on the cross with the recurring phrase, “He never said a mumblin’ word” burned in the mind. Burton sang it in his fullest, richest baritone which carried through the hall like a thunderbolt cloaked in velvet.

The protest suite at the end of the program included “We Shall Overcome,” which got vigorous audience participation. (It is certainly a sign of the times that people respond so heartily to such calls.) To add the spice of good humor to the intensity of the moment Burton used a line that he said had garnered huge applause during his San Francisco appearances: “Nancy Pelosi!” That brought down the already enthusiastic house. It was the cheapest applause line Burton said he had ever used and it served to lighten the mood in the hall.

Much less successful was the appearance of KQED’s Cy Musiker, as aptly named as he might be. He conducted a thoroughly inept and unnecessary interview in which he not only kept dropping his papers on the floor but also tried mightily to get Burton to reveal his politics, to no avail. Dashon Burton’s passion is for healing, not dividing. Instead, he displayed the warmth of his heart and the purpose of his artistry, which is in his words is “to connect people through music, in ways that continue to tell the stories of countless lives, countless people, countless cultures.”  

There are bass-baritones who rely on sheer power to project presence; it’s a voice part that gives those who possess it, as some critics have described Burton’s own voice, “to raise the dead.” Dashon Burton’s voice has something else: the power of tenderness and soul affirming resonance. The surprise of the afternoon was his rendition of Bernstein/Sondheim’s “Somewhere.” This famous song from West Side Story about the lives of two lovers whose families’ insurmountable prejudices crystallized the general theme of the afternoon. Burton sang it brilliantly, changing some of the major chords to minor, and in doing so exhibited his remarkable vocal range, which in some instances rose to a shimmering tenor. It left the audience breathless.

The piano accompaniment by Lindsay Garritson, a star in her own right, was supportive and attentive. A good accompanist keeps an eye on the singer, looking for slight cues and turns, and dexterously addresses them. She did that well.

Dashon Burton’s career is on the ascent. He is performing in all parts of the globe, on the road for 50 out of 52 weeks a year, singing operatic roles and in great symphonies. He maintains his original membership in “Roomful of Teeth,” an avant-garde vocal ensemble in which several Carmel Bach soloists compose and perform. He does not restrict his range of capabilities or interests in music; to him the possibilities are endless.

Last season, Dashon was not on the stage of Sunset Center, but this year, he returns. He is known to his contemporaries not only as the finest of talents but also the finest of human beings. He is beloved by the Bach Festival community chorus for his warmth and generosity.  He has written, “I sit at the table of the feast of music from around the world, and invite you to join me for this celestial conversation.” Whether this conversation is in words or in music, I cannot imagine a living soul who would not want a seat at that table.