Scharoun Ensemble Berlin AAR Concerts, 9-10 March, 2012
Every year, the American Academy community comprises a vivid cross-section of the best in contemporary art and scholarship, its exact texture determined by the particular interests and abilities of the Fellows, Residents, and Affiliated and Visiting Artists and Scholars who assemble on the Janiculum. 2011-12 has proven to be a particularly lucky year for music, at the AAR. Rome Prize Fellows in Musical Composition Sean Friar and Lei Liang arrived in September with their respective partners Claire Brazeau (an oboist) and Takae Ohnishi (a harpsichordist); the community has been further enriched by the presence of musicologist-Fellows Benjamin Brand and Aaron Allen, and of Aaron’s partner, musicologist Kailan Rubinoff, who is also a Baroque flutist. Shulamit Ran was Paul Fromm Composer-in-Residence at the AAR in the fall of 2011, and thanks to the kindness of Dr. Paola Pacetti, a harpsichord from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia has also been in residence at the AAR this year. Annual fall concerts in connection with the Roman new music festivals Nuovi Spazi Musicali and Nuova Consonanza were followed on February 26 by “A Tour of Baroque Music,” lively performances of compositions by Dario Costello, Louis Couperin and Georg Philipp Telemann presented to great effect in the newly-renovated Lecture Room of the McKim, Mead & White building by Mss. Brazeau, Ohnishi, and Rubinoff. The Fellows’ Concert during Trustees’ Week promises to be equally memorable.
It is in this context that the Academy community last week welcomed back for a fourth season the renowned Scharoun Ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic. Co-founders Peter Riegelbauer (double bass) and Stefan de Leval Jezierski (horn) were joined by their longtime collaborator, violinist Alessandro Cappone (playing for the first time at the AAR), as well as by Micha Afkham (viola), Alexander Bader (clarinet), Richard Duven (cello), Holger Groschopp (piano), Rebekka Markowski (cello), and Rachel Schmidt (violin). The Scharoun Ensemble’s Roman sojourn began with an invitation-only concert at the home of the German Ambassador Michael Gerdts, the Villa Almone, near the Porta Ardeatina. Among the dignitaries in attendance were the Ambassadors of the United States, the UK, and Poland. At the Villa Almone, the Scharoun Ensemble offered both a preview of their Sala Aurelia program—a performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B-flat Major, Op. 34 (1816)— and a souvenir from last year’s AAR concert, with a performance of Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20 (1802). Venerable German composer Hans-Werner Henze was a special guest at the Villa Almone concert, and in homage the Scharoun Ensemble performed, as an encore, part of Henze’s Kammermusik No. 58.
The Friday evening Villa Aurelia concert drew a standing-room only crowd. Among the guests of honor were composer Martin Brody, RAAR ’02, Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the AAR from 2007-10, whose vision brought the Scharoun Ensemble to the Academy in the first place. The evening began with a beautiful bit of program music, Der Wind (The Wind) by Franz Schreker (1878-1934), who was a contemporary of Richard Strauss and Schoenberg. As Martin Brody remarked, the instrumentation (for violin, clarinet, horn, cello, and piano) is so cleverly realized that the piece sounds twice as large as it is. Der Wind, described as a “dance allegory,” was a pantomime in its 1909 premiere, and derived from a prose scenario written by the dancer Grete Wiesenthal. Her text describes a transition from light breeze to storm and back to calm again.
Elliott Carter Rome Prize Fellow Lei Liang’s 2007 string quartet Gobi Gloria was next. Liang writes of this piece, “A principle melody is played against its own inversion, retrograde and retrograde-inversion in an otherwise mostly heterophonic texture.” The practical translation of this, for a listening audience, was an extraordinary approximation of the effect of Mongolian music, achieved on traditional Western stringed instruments, with high-position playing and left-hand pizzicato and the extensive use of glissando and harmonics. Liang’s next piece My Windows (1996-2007) for solo piano in four movements reminded the listener that the piano is a percussion instrument. The first movement, “Tian” (“Heaven”) hauntingly explored the resonances of single notes, and also required pianist Holger Groschopp to pluck the strings manually.
Martin Brody’s Two Satires followed, composed for the Scharoun Ensemble and presented in its world premiere. In the program notes, Brody writes of how this work arose from chance conversation several years ago with current Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Rome Prize Fellow in Design Colin Gee, who was then visiting his sister, the composer Erin Gee, FAAR ’08, at the AAR. Colin Gee referred to his own work clowning/miming as “the prolongation of failure,” and Brody began to reflect on this phrase as a paradigm for other kinds of artistic work. The result was two musical “satires” or “parodies,” one based on the Obbligato Recitative movement from Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 16), and the second based on Saint-Saëns’ familiar Danse macabre. Brody’s piece, only twelve minutes long, left a listener eager for more, and a striking innovation—in an evening program that was tightly-choreographed and full of innovation—was Colin Gee’s joining the Scharoun Ensemble onstage to improvise, as mime, during Brody’s piece. To Brody’s sophisticated and highly-evocative writing was added a gestural dimension that brought to mind the phrase from T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” about “some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.”
After intermission, Takae Ohnishi joined the Scharoun Ensemble, playing the harpsichord as part of Lei Liang’s Winged Creatures (2006), which is also scored for two violins and cello. For the latter part of this piece, Ms. Ohnishi actually stood at the side of the instrument, and her contribution to the music was a set of manual interventions that brought the harpsichord definitively out of the Baroque and into the twenty-first century. The Friday night program concluded with a reprise of the Carl Maria von Weber Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (in four movements) that had been performed at the Villa Almone. The generosity and spirit of von Weber’s writing for the clarinet were unmistakable, and reminded a listener of Agathe’s aria in Weber’s Der Freischütz. Following the concert, invited guests attended a private reception in the Sala Musica of the Villa Aurelia.
Word about the Friday night Scharoun concert seems to have spread, because a line had already formed outside the Villa by 8:10 on Saturday evening, in anticipation of the second concert—and indeed, at least 250 listeners were crammed into the Sala Aurelia for this concert, standees lining both walls all the way to the stage. The program began with Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34 (1920), a beautiful riff on two Jewish melodies and, given the richness of the klezmer tradition, another great showpiece for the clarinetist Alexander Bader (who in this case was joined by a string quartet and a piano). At the work’s premiere, Prokofiev apparently hailed it as “an antidote to the inertness of the preceding corpses”—and he was referring, in part, to the work of Brahms!
Scharoun cellist Richard Duven had been felled by flu (the young and very gifted cellist Rebecca Markowski substituted for him on Friday evening), but rallied superbly to play Samuel Barber Rome Prize Fellow Sean Friar’s solo cello piece Teaser (2010). Indeed, it is not clear that anyone but Richard Duven (who had been practicing it intensively for some time) would have been able to do the work justice. In a biographical statement included in the printed program, Sean Friar speaks of the initial influence upon him of rock and blues improvisation, and these forces seemed powerfully present in Teaser, which is a major contribution to the solo cello literature. Rhythmical motifs coalesce slowly, tonalities focus and curdle and reform, as the soloist is challenged, not only to make expressive use of the bow with the right hand, but of extensive pizzicato with the left hand. The Scharoun Ensemble also presented the world premiere of Friar’s One-Way Trip (2011-12), composed specifically for them and distilled out of events in the composer’s life as he prepared to leave the United States for Europe. Hugely ambitious, the piece is an octet for clarinet, horn, prepared piano and five strings; pianist Holger Groschopp also conducted the ensemble from the piano. Repeated melodic figures floated through a diaphanous harmonic texture, each section indeed a new sonic journey.
This second Scharoun Ensemble concert, no less carefully-programmed than the first, concluded with Dvořák’s String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 77 (1889), affording first violinist Alessandro Cappone the chance to shine, in effortless-sounding Slavic melodies, but also revealing the rich sound of the inner voices as represented by second violinist Rachel Schmidt and violist Micha Afkham. Conservative concert-goers might have breathed a sigh of relief, upon arriving at this familiar harmonic and melodic language, after so much new music; but in fact all of the music presented during these two evenings offered listeners many new beauties. During the first half of the second concert, a woman fainted at the back of the house; during the first movement of the Dvořák, a cell-phone belonging to someone in the second row went rudely unquieted, and Peter Riegelbauer stopped the Ensemble in its tracks, and then began the movement again; one of the packed standees accidentally brushed a light-switch, elsewhere in the Dvořák. But none of these distractions could dim the brilliance of this fourth annual visit by one of the world’s great chamber ensembles.