Recent winners of the Cleveland Quartet Award, the Verona Quartet returns to Caramoor for the first time since their Ernst Stiefel residency in 2017-18. This now-established string quartet’s energy and vibrancy have earned them a reputation as an “outstanding ensemble … cohesive yet full of temperament.” (The New York Times). Their program includes works by Puccini, Beethoven, and a quintet by 20th-century Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz with pianist David Fung.
David Fung, piano
Bacewicz: Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 1
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 131
The Verona Quartet
Acclaimed for its “bold interpretive strength, robust characterization and commanding resonance” (Calgary Herald), the Verona Quartet has spellbound audiences worldwide, unlocking the secrets of the music through the “intimate way they communicate with each other and the audience.” (Boston Arts Fuse)
Delicate craftsmanship, luminous sound, and a dramatic poise are all hallmarks of the virtuosity that fuses together violinists Jonathan Ong, Dorothy Ro, violist Abigail Rojansky, and cellist Jonathan Dormand to create the Verona Quartet. The group’s singular sense of purpose earned them Chamber Music America’s coveted Cleveland Quartet Award 2020, and a reputation as an “outstanding ensemble…cohesive yet full of temperament.” (The New York Times)
Deeply committed educators, the Verona Quartet serves as Quartet-in-Residence at the Oberlin College and Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio.
A string quartet for the 21st century, the Verona Quartet champions the storied history of the string quartet alongside music that reflects the current world in which we live, including those commissioned and written for them by composers Julia Adolphe, Sebastian Currier, Corey Dundee, Texu Kim and Michael Gilbertson. The Verona Quartet has cultivated a dynamic approach to collaboration and programming that includes cross-cultural and interdisciplinary enterprises. Recent projects feature performances with dancers from Brooklyn’s Dance Heginbotham, artistic exchanges with traditional Emirati poets in the UAE, and collaborations with Grammy-winning folk supergroup I’m With Her.
The Verona Quartet has appeared across four continents enchanting audiences at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Wigmore Hall, and Melbourne Recital Hall, in addition to appearing at festivals including Caramoor, La Jolla Summerfest, Chamber Music Northwest, Bravo! Vail, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. As Ensemble-in- Residence with the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle in North Carolina, the Verona Quartet curates the UpClose Chamber Music Series, bringing the visceral energy of classical music to diverse audiences in venues ranging from concert halls to craft breweries.
The Verona Quartet was Caramoor’s 2017-18 Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence. In addition to their current Oberlin residency, the Verona Quartet holds residency positions at the Lunenburg Academy of Music Performance (Lunenburg, NS) as well as Indiana University Summer String Academy (Bloomington, IN). Each year, reaching thousands of people, the Verona Quartet’s community and educational workshops inspire new listeners and performers through the joys of chamber music.
The Verona Quartet rose to international prominence after rapidly sweeping top prizes at the Wigmore Hall, Melbourne, Osaka, M-Prize International Chamber Music Competitions, and the Concert Artists Guild Competition.
The ensemble’s “thoughtful, impressive” performances (Cleveland Classical) emanate from the spirit of storytelling; the Quartet believes that the essence of storytelling transcends genre and therefore the name “Verona” pays tribute to William Shakespeare, one of the greatest storytellers of all time.”
David Fung, piano
Praised for his “ravishing and simply gorgeous” performances in The Washington Post, pianist David Fung is widely recognized for interpretations that are elegant and refined, yet intensely poetic and uncommonly expressive. Declared a Rising Star in BBC Music Magazine, Fung regularly appears with the world’s premier ensembles including the Cleveland Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, Israel Philharmonic , Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Orchestra of Belgium, San Diego Symphony, and San Francisco Symphony, as well as the major orchestras in his native country of Australia, including the Melbourne Symphony, Queensland Symphony, and Sydney Symphony.
In 2019-20, Fung was a featured soloist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in its opening subscription weekend celebrating the Orchestra Hall Centennial and received an invitation to replace Andre Watts with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performing Ravel’s Left-Hand Concerto. Other highlights of the season included performances at the Seattle Town Hall, Eastman Presents, Ottawa Chamberfest, L’Auditori (Barcelona), and a collaboration with the Brentano Quartet at Yale University and Carnegie Hall. In 2020-21, Fung headlines the 2020 WQXR Pride Celebrations in New York City.
Fung’s highly acclaimed debut with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Blossom Music Festival was “everything you could wish for” (Cleveland Classical), and he was further praised as an “agile and alert interpreter of Mozart’s crystalline note-spinning” (The Plain Dealer). In the following week, he performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at the Beijing National Stadium for the Olympic Summer Festival. Festival highlights include performances at the Aspen Music Festival, Blossom Music Festival, Brussels Piano Festival, Edinburgh International Festival, Hong Kong Arts Festival, the Ravinia Festival, Tippet Rise, and Yeosu International Music Festival.
In recent seasons, he has been presented in recital by Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center’s Great Performers, the Louvre Museum, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, the National Concert Hall in Taiwan, and the Zürich Tonhalle.
Fung garnered international attention as laureate of the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Brussels and the Arthur Rubinstein Piano International Masters Competition in Tel Aviv. In Tel Aviv, he was further distinguished by the Chamber Music and Mozart Prizes, awarded in areas in which Fung has a passionate interest. Fung is the first piano graduate of the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles and is a Steinway Artist.
At a Glance
Giacomo Puccini, known for his operas La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca, is definitely not typically associated with the genre of the string quartet, but his early one-movement work, Crisantemi, (“The Chrysanthmums”) composed in 1890, is both melancholy and moving. Presumably completed in only one night, he dedicated it to the memory of Prince Amadeo di Savoia, Duca d’Aosta and King of Spain, who died in mid- January of that year. Next, we are introduced to the work of a relatively rarely performed 20th century woman composer, Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969). Bacewicz became one of the most prominent Polish composers of the mid-20th century and was one of the most prolific female composers ever, producing over two hundred compositions. The work to be performed in this concert, the eclectic Quintet No. 1 for piano and strings, encompasses widely disparate emotions and influences ranging from the folkloric to the Classical. The third and final work on the program, Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 131, is one of his last works. Complex and demanding, this magnificent and moving work displays how Beethoven developed the string quartet genre in an experimental and dynamic fashion.
About the Composer
Italian composer Giacomo Puccini achieved worldwide fame and acclaim for his operas (among them La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca) which are still among the most popular operas today. His work initiated the operatic trend toward realism.
Puccini came from a family of church musicians who, for four generations, had composed religious music and were organists at the Cathedral of San Martino, Lucca’s religious heart. By 14, the young Puccini had taken up the family mantle and become the church organist of San Martino and was beginning to compose. When he was 18, Puccini had his epiphany moment when he and one of his brothers walked almost 20 miles to Pisa to attend a production of Verdi’s Aida and the world of opera opened to him.
Two years later, in 1880, he moved to Milan and entered the Reale Conservatorio di Musica. At that time, Milan was the most important musical center of Italy; there the young Puccini could begin to satisfy his burgeoning interest in opera. Also at that period of time, German Romantic symphonic music was being performed in concert halls and also excerpts from Wagner’s operas were receiving a lot of attention. Academics and the younger generation were very interested in Wagner’s music and ideas and were discarding the traditional Italian composers in favor of the new “symphonism” and “instrumental polyphonism.” Puccini’s work developed the realistic verismo style, of which he became one of the leading exponents; from vero, which means “true,” verismo was a post-Romantic operatic tradition that incorporated realistic plots and settings often with characters from the contemporary lower class.
Like most composers of opera, Puccini experimented with other kinds of composition before he attained the maturity and expertise in which he could express himself in the operatic medium. Opera allowed him to demonstrate the depth of his talent and the great mastery of orchestral scoring that he had already achieved. Puccini never worked quickly, always searching for the right subject matter, one that would “make people weep.”
Fame and fortune came with his successes; Puccini spent the next few years traveling internationally to attend productions of his operas and to ensure that the productions met his high standards. After 1904, his compositions appeared less frequently, and his personal life was often troubled: in 1909, a major scandal ensued after Elvira, his wife, falsely accused their maid, Doria Manfredi, of having an affair with Puccini.
Puccini, a chain smoker, began to complain of chronic sore throats in 1923. Diagnosed with throat cancer, he was sent to Brussels for a new and experimental radiation treatment but died from post-treatment complications.
About the Work
One does not usually associate Puccini with chamber music, yet this work for string quartet is memorable. The elegiac work Crisantemi and the three Minuets that followed it are early Puccini and are the only chamber music he ever wrote.
The very moving, melancholy elegy Crisantemi was published in March of 1890. According to a letter of Puccini to his brother, Michele, on February 6, 1890, it was first performed by the Campanari Quartet at the Milan Conservatory and in Brescia and was well received on both those occasions. Although Puccini never returned to writing for string quartet, he returned to this music in a different form: some of the most poignant moments in Manon, Acts III (the prison scene with Manon and Des Grieux) and IV (the death scene) are based on themes from Crisantemi. It is noteworthy that Puccini entitled this work Crisantemi as chrysanthemums are the flowers used for mourning in Italy.
A Deeper Listen
Crisantemi, Andante mesto, actually does retain the contours of a serious operatic interlude while also doubling as a successful string quartet. Throughout its one continuous movement, it is darkly colored and rhapsodic in structure. Principally, there are two quiet themes; one, emotional with sighing elements and with dramatic pauses, is highly chromatic; the second, contrasting with the first, is more flowing, yet darker in tone. In this work, Puccini uses melodies doubled at the octave as well as counterpoint and dynamic changes, to great effect.
Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 1
About the Composer
Initially regarded as an outstanding violinist who wrote music on the side, Grazyna Bacewicz came to be regarded not only as a gifted woman composer, but also as one of the most prominent Polish composers of the mid-20th century as well as an integral member of the underground music scene during World War II. Although her work is little performed today, she was admired and respected as an equal by her colleagues and adored by her public. She was an integral part of the mid-century Polish cultural world and helped to make the music of her country known throughout Europe.
She, together with her musical compatriots, bridged the gap between the Neo- Romanticism of Szymanowski and the modernism of Lutosławski.
As a child, Bacewicz studied violin, piano, and theory at a small conservatory in her native Lódz and gave her first public performances at the age of seven. At 19, she began to study philosophy at the University of Warsaw, but after a year decided to focus on music and enrolled in the Warsaw Conservatoire, where in 1932, she received diplomas in violin and composition. Karol Szymanowski recommended that she study at the École Normale de Musique with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, possibly because of a scholarship from composer Paderewski, who funded her trip to Paris and her study of violin with André Touret and composition with Nadia Boulanger. As a violinist, she took first place in the 1935 Wieniawski Competition in Warsaw; simultaneously, she won prizes for her compositions. As a pianist, she presented the premiere of her Piano Sonata No. 2. By 1955, she stopped playing violin to devote more time to composing, but she also wrote fiction as well as music. She composed four symphonies, many string quartets and other chamber music, as well as a striking series of seven violin concertos mostly written for herself.
One of the most prolific female composers that we know of, “the first lady of music” (as Bacewicz was labeled by one English critic) produced over two hundred compositions including four symphonies, seven violin concertos, seven string quartets, five sonatas for violin and piano, concertos for piano, two pianos, viola, and cello, plus numerous works for chamber orchestra and for full orchestra.
About the Work
Piano Quintet No.1, composed and premiered in 1952, is a tantalizing introduction to Bacewicz’s music as it encompasses widely disparate emotions. The Quintet followed immediately after her outstanding String Quartet No.4 and shares with the quartet a sound world that embraces both folkloric impulses and classical principles.
This quintet was hailed as a work of exceptional maturity in terms of its musical ideas and the ways in which those ideas were implemented; the work sounds like Bacewicz intentionally eschewed the latest academic trends of her time because she was more intent on giving voice to her innermost personal emotions in neoclassical form. Without sacrificing her own strong sense of individual style, Bacewicz embraces the late-Romantic tradition with its gloriously lyrical themes and its inclusion of elements of folk songs and dances.
The passion implicit in this work is evident throughout the piece. The commanding musical language which Bacewicz used for the quintet reflects the work’s classical form. In this complex work, Bacewicz’s technical skills and her utilization of the range of the instruments’ sonorities are evident. She tried to avoid classification of her style, even though it is largely neo-classical. She also attempted to appease the censors, who were always on the lookout to root out “formalistic” music after World War II, by following the recommended integration of Polish folk elements into her music.
Displaying a consummate control of material, Bacewicz begins the impassioned first movement Moderato molto espressivo, in sonata form framed by a haunting introduction and ending with a coda. The movement is spirited and sometimes even playful, with a forward drive. The outer parts express pathos, which intermittently explodes with dramatic exclamations. The principal idea of the main body, Allegro, is expressed by the unison strings whose brilliance and virtuosity articulate the fragment-like figures, which reappear in each movement of the work. A controlled line in the unison strings serves as a background for the more driving energetic piano motif, as the music wavers between extroverted and introspective power. The piano motif returns for the second subject, heard first in the viola against a piano line of arpeggios. The central section is a rhapsodic development of earlier ideas, while the coda brings back the terse introduction in a varied guise. Magnificent contrasts are highlighted throughout.
A second movement, Presto, a high-spirited vigorous scherzo-like movement with a fast tempo, is based on the stylized Polish round dance, the oberek, a dance that Bacewicz was particularly fond of and used in several of her other works. The oberek follows an ABA pattern as the piano sounds a declamatory statement and the strings answer with good spirits. As danced, the oberek includes short, quick steps (faster steps than the waltz) accents, lifts, and jumps. Here it appears with its characteristic syncopation and the persistent ostinato.
The slow movement, Grave, begins with a heavy, elegiac, wistful introduction. This movement is lyrical in a neo-Romantic expressionistic kind of way. The heart of the quintet features what sounds like a funeral march. Uniform chorale sounds from the strings and oscillating semi-tonal chords in the piano may have roots in Polish hymnody. As the piano texture increasingly thickens, the music builds to a passionate climax, after which the opening material returns as the funeral march sounds slowly fade.
The finale, Con passione, is, like the first movement, written in sonata form. Infused with the sounds of folk music, it is full of nervous energy. This movement’s life-affirming exhilarating music introduces the main theme fugally. Lyrical and introspective sections contrast with fast, energetic ones. The original string unison and a version of the initial piano motif from the first movement are reintroduced. The piece ends with a flourish, Grandioso.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
String Quartet No. 14, in C-Sharp minor, Op. 131
About the Composer
Beethoven is considered one of the most important figures in the history of music. His innovations are credited with widening the scope of the sonata, symphony, concerto, and quartet. He was the most important transitional composer connecting the Classical and Romantic periods. A prolific composer, he composed nine symphonies, choral music, piano music, string quartets and other chamber music, and one opera, Fidelio. In an almost superhuman achievement of creative genius, he created some of his greatest works after becoming totally deaf.
His father, a musician at the Bonn court, taught his gifted and interested young son to play piano and violin. With a weakness for alcohol, his father, who thought he was creating a new Mozart-like child prodigy, often pulled the young Ludwig out of bed in the middle of the night, to suffer beatings if he did not comply when ordered to perform for his father’s drinking companions. When he was thirteen, Beethoven published his first set of piano pieces. In 1787, he journeyed to Vienna, apparently with the expectation of having lessons from Mozart (1756–1791), but he was forced to return home almost immediately to care for his ill mother, who died a few months later.
In 1792, he returned to Vienna, (where he would live the rest of his life) to study with Haydn (1732–1809), but the two did not get along; nevertheless, Beethoven quickly became recognized as a brilliant keyboard performer and a gifted young composer. In 1795, he published his first mature works. Although publishers frequently sought out Beethoven, publishing practices of his time were corrupt; even though publishers paid composers for rights to their works, there were no copyrights or royalties, so Beethoven only received one initial payment for any work even though his works were often published in various editions.
The biggest problem Beethoven encountered in his adult life was his failing hearing, which began to falter in his early years in Vienna. It became so severe that in 1802 he considered suicide, and a little more than a decade later, he gave up hope of performing publicly as a pianist. By 1818, he was no longer able to have conversations and was forced to communicate with visitors in writing. His deafness and his temper combined to give him a reputation as an unpleasant and difficult man, yet his deafness must have greatly affected his social intercourse. His musical output and his letters do confirm that he was not only self-conscious, but also completely immersed in his work. By the time he wrote his late works, no one had ever heard anything like them: they challenged the understanding of both audiences and professional musicians. He understood that reaction to them and remarked: “They are not for you, but for a later age.”
About the work
Between 1816 and 1826, Beethoven composed a series of extraordinary masterpieces: the Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis, five piano sonatas, and five string quartets, Ops. 127-135. Just prior to the appearance of these works, his output had been slim, as the compositions of his middle years had exhausted the possibilities of the classical forms he had inherited from Haydn and Mozart. His final works required new subjects, new forms, and new powers of creation.
Beethoven’s last quartets have such great density, combining concentration and tension with substance, that they puzzled musicians for generations. The technical and interpretative difficulties they presented were usually blamed on the composer’s deafness. Early critics thought that Beethoven had lost touch with musical reality, yet we now believe his deafness liberated him from concern with practicality and freed his imagination for greater invention. While unable to hear, he composed music characterized by its intellectual depth, formal innovation, and intense, highly personal expression.
He composed Op. 131 as part of a group of three quartets dedicated to his faithful supporter, Prince Nikolas Galitzin, who organized the first performance of the Missa Solemnis, Op. 123, in St. Petersburg in 1824. His earliest sketch for the quartet dates from the last few days of 1825; Beethoven completed the quartet during July 1826. While he was composing it, he considered writing other types of compositions, specifically large choral works, (an oratorio, a requiem, or an opera) but string quartets were his final works.
Writing the quartet required a supreme effort at a time when he was not only deaf but troubled by his general failing health as well as by the misadventures of his nephew, for whom he was responsible, and who was then threatening to commit suicide. Beethoven’s concern for his nephew was so great that he changed the dedication of this quartet, which he had intended for a personal friend, and inscribed it instead to Lieutenant Field Marshal Baron Joseph von Stutterheim, who took his problematic nephew into one of his regiments as an officer cadet.
When he gave the completed score of this quartet to his publisher, he said that it was “stolen and assembled from various bits of this and that.” The publisher, in alarm, wrote him demanding assurance that the quartet was, in fact, new and original. He had apparently not looked closely at the music, for if he had, he would have understood Beethoven’s ironic jest. There could not have been anything as new as this quartet, which was totally without precedent. Huge in size and cast in entirely original shapes invented in the course of the writing, it exemplified how far Beethoven had outgrown the forms he had inherited from Haydn and Mozart. To invent and assemble this composition in six or seven months had been an astonishing creative feat: Beethoven’s notes and sketches for the work occupy three times as much paper as the finished work.
This quartet seems somehow to be a great leap forward into the expressive world of the early 20th century as it creates much of the same kind of grandeur and profundity that Strauss and Mahler strove for in their huge orchestral scores. This quartet was Beethoven’s favorite; he rated it as his most perfect single work.
A Deeper Listen
The quartet has seven distinct parts knit together into a continuous whole. Some scholars have claimed to reveal a nearly traditional four-movement structure as its base, but it seems more reasonable to accept Beethoven’s demarcations and consider the seven separately.
The first movement is a mournful but majestic slow fugue, Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo, which Wagner said, “shows the most melancholy sentiment ever expressed in music.” The second movement, Allegro molto vivace, begins with a key shift that was astonishing at that time; its form still puzzles music analysts today looking for the mold in which it was cast. It has been variously identified as a truncated sonata form or even a dance comparable to those in Baroque suites. All that remains important, however, is that it exists as a form of Beethoven’s own devising, which contains lyrical, wistful music of great appeal.
The third movement begins energetically, Allegro moderato, with two rapping chords, but it soon becomes an Adagio recitative introducing the glorious theme-and-variation fourth movement. The fourth movement begins with a new, flowing theme, Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile, which goes through seven variations. Only some of them” are elaborations; others concentrate and reduce the theme to its very essence.
The fifth, an expanded scherzo, Presto, has savage force; following the Presto, a brief slow song, Adagio quasi un poco andante, runs into the finale, Allegro, the quartet’s only more-or-less regular sonata form movement. The finale, a wild, dancing movement, has as its ancestor the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Some of the material also sounds distantly derived from this quartet’s own opening fugue. Here, as elsewhere in the work, there are tempo changes within phrases that are labeled rubato (meaning with expressive and rhythmic freedom), but instead of leaving them to the performers’ inclinations, Beethoven has actually written them into the music. Great themes simply flash by. The music races on until just before the end, when it slows, then speeds up again, closing with a few slashing chords.
– Susan Halpern
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