Chamber Music with the Criers, Mary Berry, and Informality

I’ve been mulling on the concept of informality lately, spurred, I think, by an episode of The Great British Baking Show (original cast) in which a comment, delivered by Mary Berry on a contestant’s pastries - “they look a bit… informal” - was the most cutting critique I’ve witnessed in a while. In certain circumstances (or with a certain tone of voice) there can be nothing worse than to be informal, and a typical concert of classical music might be an apt example. Happily, then, the works on this program serve to push back against that premise, all intended for informal contexts, even as they exhibit consummate ingenuity and craft.

There’s an important informality about chamber music in general, in both its process and content. Particularly in the context of A Far Cry, there is a certain intensity of experience that comes with the full group dynamic, in which we must, by necessity, measure our words and take in others’ input a great deal more. Those skills of restraint serve us well in rehearsing chamber music, but we can also let loose a little more. Consequently, I’ve always looked forward to these opportunities as they allow me to see my AFC colleagues in a new light.

For composers, too, chamber music is often a step back from the big orchestral and operatic stages; not that the music is any less great, rather it’s a chance to get to know them on a sort of first-name basis. This was partially how we chose the works on this program, to have a chance to acquaint or reacquaint ourselves and our audience with some of these composers whose larger-scale works are upcoming in our season.

Grażyna (Bacewicz) [bah-TSEH-vich] was 34 when she wrote her Suite for Two Violins and already a superstar in the European musical scene, an extremely gifted, multi-faceted musician who had studied both violin (with André Touret) and composition (with Nadia Boulanger) at the Paris Conservatory. She was later scouted to be the concertmaster of the Polish Radio Symphony, a position which not only featured her playing, but also several new compositions. Of her pace of work, she said:

“I think to compose one has to work very intensely. One has to pause between composing different works, but interruptions shouldn’t be made when you are in the middle of writing a piece. I’m capable of working on one composition for many hours daily. Usually I take a break in the middle of the day, but even during the break my brain keeps on working. I like to get very, very tired. It’s sometimes then that I suddenly get my best ideas.” 

Grażyna’s burgeoning career was significantly curtailed during the occupation of Poland. The Suite for Two Violins was one of the few pieces written and premiered during that time, first performed in 1943 at one of the many underground concerts Grażyna took part in, in cafés and people’s homes. AFC will play her Concerto for Strings next month, a piece written in 1948, during a period of bursting creativity that followed the war.

Mozart en Route (or, A Little Traveling Music) by Aaron Jay (Kernis) was the piece written immediately following his Musica Celestis (which AFC will perform in April), representing a necessary and proverbial ridiculous to its predecessor’s sublime. Both pieces were a departure from Aaron Jay’s norms in that they were both inspired by Classical elements, in the case of Musica Celestis, by classical form, and for Mozart en Route, by classical content, as it quotes a section of W.A. Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 563, for string trio. The piece was inspired by a letter, written by Mozart, that describes a rough ride in a stagecoach: “for two whole stages I sat with my hands dug into the upholstery and my behind suspended in the air.” Now imagine that stagecoach had a mix CD in its stereo system that skipped from track-to-track at every bump and that pretty well sums up Mozart en Route.

Joseph (Haydn) published his Op. 20 string quartets in 1772, the same year as the “Trauer” Symphony that AFC will perform in January. Joseph became known to many as “Papa Haydn,” a reflection of his reputation as a teacher and an archetypal figure in the music world. He is also regarded as the father of the string quartet, and Op. 20 is often considered to be its official birthday, experimenting as it does with fully conversational interactions between the instruments. While the “birth of an art form” moniker puts the Op. 20 quartets on something of a pedestal, it’s important to remember that these quartets were not written for public performance in the concert hall, but for amateur performance in the home. Mind you, sometimes these amateurs were professionals, most notably, the quartet that featured the four composers Johann Vanhal, Karl von Dittersdorf, W.A. Mozart, and Joseph Haydn, who must certainly have played these quartets. The G Minor quartet, Op. 20 No. 3, is very much cut from the same cloth as the “Trauer,” severe and dark with a slow movement in the modal major (ie. G Major to the surrounding G Minor). 

Wolfie (Amadeus Mozart) was a kind of musical mercenary; the original self-made freelancer, he rebelled against his father and made his own way as a composer outside official church or court positions, writing music on his own terms with debonair swagger and audacious beauty. Anton Stadler, the clarinetist for whom he wrote both the Clarinet Concerto and Clarinet Quintet was a bit of a scoundrel himself. His first mention in Wolfie’s letters is as one of the “poor beggars” who performed his Wind Serenade, K. 375, and Wolfie later gave him the nickname “Notschibinitschibi,” which essentially means a folly-prone dunce. The quintet is a fair reflection of this chummy dynamic, predominantly warm and friendly, but giving way to more lighthearted hijinx in the later movements.

A Far Cry will perform these works with special guest clarinetist Rane Moore on Saturday, November 3, 3pm at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain.