Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Webern and Beethoven

The View at Brush Creek Pavilion
We have officially started our week of summer vacation with our annual trek to Vail for the Bravo Vail music festival. This week began with two free concerts by the Jasper String Quartet, both featuring the works of Beethoven and Webern, an incredibly peculiar pairing.

On Monday night at the Brush Creek Pavilion in Eagle, they played two pieces by Webern and a quartet by Beethoven. The Webern pairings were a nice contrast to each other, with the "Langsamer Satz," written as a student in the typical late 19th century Romantic mold, contrasting the dodecaphonic "Five Movements," written only four years later in 1909. Unfortunately, the quartet played these in the worst possible programming. Instead of playing them in chronological order to show the composer's development, they started with the twelve-tone piece.

OK, I thought, take the medicine now and get the spoonful of sugar with the Beethoven later. As a composer, I understand the importance of this compositional style as an intellectual exercise. I also understand that as a performer, you get a unique knowledge of the music with practice that makes it much more enjoyable to perform than it would ever be to listen to as an average audience member.

Here's where they made their bad programming mistake; they started with the twelve-tone piece, then after playing the Romanic piece, the announced they were going to play the twelve-tone piece AGAIN. Needless to say, this did not go over well. Rather than creating a familiarity with the music (that they thought would make it more listenable to the audience), it backfired, and the familiarity bred contempt. I felt like a child being punished for saying I did not like my vegetables, and was forced to have eat second serving of brussels sprouts. (For the record, I like sprouts. A lot more than Webern.)

And by the way, I have written twelve-tone pieces. I would never force an audience to sit through them. And certainly not TWICE IN A ROW.

They redeemed themselves by playing Beethoven's Quartet in C-minor, #4, Opus 18, which was a lovely way to end the concert, and had a lot more in common with the earlier Webern piece. Perhaps the best part about this performance was the way it contrasted with the concert the next day.

On Tuesday, the Jasper Quartet performed a second free concert at the Vail Interfaith Chapel, only a few steps away from the center of Vail Village. Their choice was the Beethoven String Quartet in C#-minor, Opus 131. It could not possibly be more different that Opus 18 we heard the night before. The C-minor was written when he was fairly young in 1800, and the C#-minor was written when he was mostly deaf in 1826. The C-minor follows the Classical mold for a string quartet very closely. Perhaps the only real oddity is that it has no slow movement, instead it has both a scherzo and a minuet.

The fact that the entire concert on Tuesday consisted of a single quartet should tell you how different the C#-minor is. Beethoven threw out the Classical model almost completely, and used seven movements instead of four. In addition, they are played without pause, so it does not feel like seven movements, it feels like one, large, 40-minute piece of music.

Even describing it as seven movements feels odd to me, one movement has five or six tempo changes in it, so that movement alone makes it feel even more episodic. But regardless of structure, this piece really pushes the boundaries as Beethoven shows how important it is to be able to develop your themes at great length.

This piece showed the incredible mastery of the string players' performance skills (so did the Webern the previous night). Perhaps the only problems I heard were intonation from the first violin in a couple of spots, but the amazing thing is how they rode all the tempo changes, many of them feeling rubato, as though they were four instruments all being played by one mind. This was the second year in a row we were lucky enough to see the Jasper Quartet. I hope they become regulars here.

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