113. Bach, Beethoven, Saariaho, and a Few Others – Musical Activities this February and March
Things have been pretty exciting here in Louisville over the last few weeks. My musical activities have really run the gamut: I have sung on-stage and worked behind-the-scenes; I have presented research and have written program notes; I have also just plain listened. Today’s post looks at these activities one by one, including a performance with the Louisville Master Chorale, my participation in the Beethoven Festival of the Chamber Music Society, and a presentation at the Music by Women Festival in Columbus, Mississippi.
The Louisville Master Chorale gave its spring concert on Sunday, February 23 at Harvey Browne Presbyterian. I have felt privileged to sing as part of this group, directed by Mark Walker, for a year and a half now. Among the works we performed at last month’s concert were the Kyrie and Gloria movements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor, BWV 232. We began rehearsing these in the fall, knowing they would be incredibly demanding. Indeed some sections were so vocally-taxing with their quick melismas that they persisted in giving us trouble right up to the concert. Yet there is something so logical about the way Bach’s melismas unfold: obviously, the music presents challenges, but overcoming these challenges is quite rewarding as the music is of such high quality. I enjoyed learning my individual lines, but also hearing the grand vision come together. Considering all the early music I’ve been listening to lately, I observed that Bach fuses the polyphonic approach of the Renaissance masters with the virtuosity and concerted exchanges of Baroque music. He actually maxes-out both idioms, I’d say! While a chorus of our stature can easily handle one or the other, Bach expects us to do both at once in the B-Minor Mass. We also performed the Gloria by Antonio Vivaldi and Sparrow Mass by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at our concert. These were less demanding, and actually I had sung the Mozart a few years ago in University Chorus as led by my friend Dong-kyu Lee, who is now finishing his doctorate in choral conducting at University of Alabama. Despite the historical proximity of Bach and Vivaldi, his Gloria was totally different from the Bach. Its shifting harmonies are suggestive of the “post-Baroque,” a term I did not like when I first encountered it as an undergrad, but which now seems to make more sense after having sung this music. The Master Chorale will sing the remaining three movements of the B-Minor Mass at upcoming concerts, but I will likely be away at school—and hopefully singing with another chorus if time permits!
The Chamber Music Society of Louisville has also held the first three of its Beethoven Festival concerts over the last month: these were on February 8 and 9 and March 1, respectively. Their festival, which honors Viennese composer Ludwig van Beethoven on his 250th anniversary, features the Emerson String Quartet playing all sixteen Beethoven string quartets over the course of six concerts throughout spring and fall 2020. I have been thrilled to volunteer with the Society, discussing festival logistics with its board members and helping behind-the-scenes at the concerts themselves. Local music patron, Ben Franklin, provided the initial impetus for the festival, suggesting that all sixteen quartets be performed by a single ensemble and then donating much of the funds for this concept himself. He had experienced the full cycle with the Juilliard Quartet four decades earlier during the Society’s 1976-77 season and wanted to ensure today’s audience had that same experience, even though he was terminally ill and knew he would not live long enough to enjoy the concerts himself. I certainly have enjoyed the concerts so far! The early and middle quartets were mostly unfamiliar to me, although I have heard the late quartets through recordings and a few live. So far the ones which have made the most impression have been Op. 18 Nos. 4 and 6 and Op. 59 No. 1—the first Razumovsky. The six Op. 18 quartets resemble the mature quartets of Joseph Haydn, but already Beethoven has found his own idiom and is beginning to do things his own way. The three Razumovsky Quartets, contemporaneous with his middle symphonies, demonstrate the continued evolution of his idiom. I was particularly intrigued by these quartets’ Russian connection: Andrey Razumovsky, who commissioned them, was the Russian ambassador to Vienna and asked that Beethoven include Russian folk themes. The Second Razumovsky actually employs a melody which both Modest Mussorgsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff would later utilize. Yet, as of 1806 when Beethoven wrote his Op. 59 quartets, not even Mikhail Glinka who pioneered Russian nationalist music was composing—he was two years old. Russia was still developing its concert life, importing Italians mainly. These are explorations for another time though… I look forward to hearing the remaining quartets with the Emersons when the Beethoven Festival concludes this October and November!
Finally last week I was at the Music by Women Festival held at the Mississippi University for Women where on Thursday I presented part of my thesis research on the music of Kaija Saariaho. My paper, titled “Intersections of Timbre, Harmony, and Melody in the Liminal Compositions of Kaija Saariaho for Flute and Cello,” summarized much of my previous research, particularly how Saariaho developed her aesthetic by flipping the roles of timbre and harmony and then reinjected melody into her idiom. A new emphasis here, however, was her piece Mirrors which was then performed in full by my friends and colleagues from Louisiana, flutist Zendra White and cellist Paul Christopher. My presentation was well-received with the live performance illustrating many of the concepts I discussed. We plan to repeat this presentation at May’s Sugarmill Music Festival with Paul also playing a second piece by Saariaho, Spins and Spells for solo cello. Although I remain happy with my decision to pursue a second master’s in library science as opposed to a PhD in musicology, I enjoyed re-exploring my thesis research and this experience at Music by Women reaffirmed that, wherever my new path might lead, I will still have opportunities to engage in research and participate at conferences. After my presentation, Zendra and Paul played a set of pieces at the festival’s first concert. These were by LSU composer Mara Gibson, Iranian Niloufar Iravani, and a mutual friend Li Tao whom I met at New Music on the Bayou in summer 2017. Tao is a doctoral student at the University of Oregon where she directs the TaiHei Ensemble. She is Chinese, and many of her works reflect this cultural heritage. Her new piece, Converse with Rain (Yu Yu Yu), which Paul and Zendra played Thursday, takes its inspiration from the distinctive sounds rain makes upon hitting the tiled roof of a Chinese garden structure. Additionally while in Columbus I had opportunities to visit the Tennessee Williams Birthplace and the Mississippi Blues Trail marker for Big Joe Williams.
It’s been a fun but busy few weeks between all these activities and as always the continuing program notes. Since the first of the year, I have written about folk music and the Appalachian dulcimer; lute music of the English Renaissance; experimental composers Christian Wolff and Mauricio Kagel; and finally calypso of all things! Then I buckled-down to finish my festival presentation. To and from and Mississippi, I also had the chance to listen to the final CDs of the long-awaited second unit of my Fifth Rotation, Claudio Monteverdi and His Circle, so expect my next blog post to offer some listening recommendations. Until next time!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a freelance concert annotator based in Louisville, KY. He serves as Director of Scholarship to the Sugarmill Music Festival held each May in Alexandria, LA. A project he is developing for the 2020 festival, “A Scholarly Presentation in Lecture and Music: Solomon Northup in the Central Louisiana Sugarhouse,” has been awarded a prestigious Rebirth Grant by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Jackson earned an M.M. in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville with a thesis entitled, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” There he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. He has shared his research at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN; the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN; the Music by Women Festival in Columbus, MS; and the University of Louisiana System Academic Summit in Thibodeaux, LA. Aside from his studies, Jackson is a composer, choral singer, music blogger, avid reader, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.
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