R.Strauss, X.Schrwenka, R.Schumann, Le Salon de Musiques November 6, 2016—
One hour of daylight was taken from us on November 6th in the annual turning back of clocks. Only two days later, the presidential election would rob almost exactly half the country of the candidate they hoped would win. Depending on one’s political persuasion, it would be either the best or worst day in a long, long time. But on Sunday, the 6th, the outcome could only be guessed at, prayed for or feared. One thing, however, was certain: the entire populace, left or right or center, had definitely experienced more than enough pundit-pontificating, TV commercials, flyers in mailboxes, exhorting robocalls, tense arguments and an endless barrage of insensitive, ugly words. Maybe some lovely chamber music would provide a lull. And the perfect venue for that is Le Salon de Musiques.
Any and all unpleasantness was forgotten when we took our seats at the second of this year’s eight Le Salon de Musiques chamber music concerts. Informative, amusing notes on the three scheduled works and their composers were given by the event’s musicologist Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano. She would later host the regular Q. & A. with musicians that immediately follows performances.
First up was a transcendent listening experience—half a dozen songs by Richard Strauss, exquisitely rendered by So Young Park who was ably accompanied on the resonant Steinway piano by Le Salon’s, producer and artistic director, Francois Chouchan. The soprano, only in her mid-twenties, has excelled in leading roles with the L.A. Opera during the past two seasons and in venues around the world. Her breath control is remarkable, especially when witnessed from the close-up seating at Le Salon. If you hurry, you can see this rising star in Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten”; its final L.A. Opera performance is on November 27th. And she will be the soprano soloist in Poulenc’s “Gloria” with the New West Symphony next April.
Mostly written in his youth, the Strauss lieder have the maturity of arias penned years later for his major operas. He was married to a soprano and often featured that voice. As was the practice with 19th century German art songs, he matched his music to poems that were tender, nostalgic and romantic. “Meinem Kinde” (My Child) was composed for the birth of Strauss’s son; “Ich Schwebe” (I Float) and “Standchen” (Serenade) are sweet odes to a secret love.
As defined by Karl Haas, a coloratura soprano has “a voice of particular flexibility and agility, capable of negotiating demanding feats of vocal acrobatics”. So Young Park is a coloratura whose skills insure a long and wonderful career. Her ability to dramatically raise the volume of her powerful voice seems effortless, as does the controlled lowering to an almost imperceptible softness. Her performance of “Du Meines Herzens Kronelein” (You, My Heart’s Little Crown) was unforgettable. The love song ends with the words:
“You are like the rose in the forest, She knows nothing of her bloom, Yet to each who wanders by, She delights the heart.”
So Young Park delighted our hearts as well as our eyes and ears with this intimate chamber song. A native of Pusan, South Korea, she received her Bachelors Degree in Vocal Performance from Seoul National University, graduating first in her class. Ms. Park earned a Masters Degree from the New England Conservatory and has been a winner or finalist in many prestigious competitions. She has already made several recordings and Placido Domingo featured her as a soloist on his recent Sony CD, “My Christmas”. And she has performed her signature role—Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”—for a dozen major opera companies around the United States.
Le Salon de Musiques often highlights 19th and early 20th century composers whose works have been unjustly overlooked or are seldom performed Such is the case with the Scharwenka brothers, Philipp and Xaver. Natives of Poland, they moved to Germany with their family and, together, founded a Berlin music conservatory in 1881. Both had long lives and enjoyed busy careers as composers and performers. Xaver Scharwenka travelled extensively, lived in New York from 1891-98 and opened another conservatory there. He toured the world as a pianist and conductor, wrote an opera, a symphony, four piano concertos and chamber music of all sorts. At this concert, the centerpiece was the U.S. premiere of Xaver Scharwenka’s Piano Quartet in F Major, Op. 37.
Scharwenka greatly admired Richard Strauss and the influence is evident in the melody and interplay in this quartet. It may not be very memorable music but it deserves to be heard more often. The first movement was delightful, the second a bit maudlin, the third, more contemporary-sounding. The fourth movement was the stunner. Marked “allegro con fuoco” (quickly, with fire), this was surely a dramatic audience-pleaser in its day, with the piano especially forceful and percussive. Scharwenka often wrote showpieces for himself and was apparently a flamboyant performer on stage.
The outstanding members of the quartet were Tereza Stanislav, violin, Jonathan Moerschel, viola, Timothy Landauer, cello, and Robert Thies, piano. There is not room here to enumerate the really extensive list of awards, accolades and academic honors these four have earned. Kudos to Le Salon for bringing us four musicians with such evident talent and zest for flawless ensemble playing. As mentioned previously in these pages, the best part of these chamber concerts is getting to sit a mere ten or fifteen feet from the performers. Watching their attention to one another, their total involvement, is informative. Feeling every bowed note on the strings and each strike of a piano chord resonate deep into your bones is worth the price of admission.
This same foursome also played the final selection of the night, the Piano Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 47, by Robert Schumann. Along with Schubert, Schumann is the quintessential composer of Romantic Music. His short life (1810-56) was so filled with drama and disaster that it’s a miracle he had any time to compose. His entire family was beset by insanity, beginning with an unstable father and his beloved sister who took her own life. The manic/depressive Schumann was bedeviled by suicidal thoughts, alcoholism, bouts of syphilis, periods of inertia and a curious fascination with cryptograms and secrets. In calmer periods, he edited a music magazine and championed fellow composers Mendelssohn, Brahms and Chopin.
His complicated life was saved, in many ways, by Clara Wieck, the daughter of Schumann’s earliest teacher. A concert pianist and composer herself, Clara encouraged Robert to keep on composing, edited his work and later married him. This was a happy period in which Schumann wrote beautiful songs and expansive, lyrical piano pieces, often employing the newly-popular sustaining pedal. By 1842, a healthy Schumann began to excel at chamber music including the piano quartet played at Le Salon. Just in time, too. He fell into depression again, his writing and conducting suffered, he attempted to commit suicide by drowning—as his sister successfully did—and was confined to an asylum. When he was released, he enjoyed periods of calm but ultimately died of syphilitic complications.
Clara was the pianist, in Leipzig, at the premiere of Schumann’s quartet. At Le Salon, the musicians were earnest and energetic in the first movement’s “chase”. The composer switched the expected slow second movement to a faster, vigorous scherzo. The third movement featured a sustained cello passage and a mournful andante interchange with the other players. Beginning like a spirited Irish jig, the vivace finale had the instruments echoing one another, phrase by phrase, bringing the Schumann piece to a rousing end. This admirable concert, was performed by peerless musicians at their very best.