Obscure Russian composers provide gems for Boulder Piano Quartet

Music by Sergei Taneyev and Anton Rubinstein at The Academy

By Peter Alexander Dec. 11 at 6:45 p.m.

There is not a lot of music written for piano quartet.

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Boulder Piano Quartet

No, not four pianos; the “piano quartet” is an ensemble of piano with violin, viola and cello. As such, it falls between the trio of piano, violin and cello, for which there is a rich repertoire, and the quintet of piano with strings in different combinations that became a major genre for Romantic composers.

To be sure, Mozart wrote works for piano quartet, and other composers have followed since. Still, there are not that many pieces for the combination, so groups like the Boulder Piano Quartet— David Korevaar, piano; Charles Wetherbee, violin; Matthew Dane, viola; and Thomas Heinrich, cello—sometimes turn to obscure composers to fill out their programs.

That is indeed the case for their next performance, Friday at the Academy in Boulder, featuring one work each by composers that Korevaar refers to as “the obscure Russians.”

Make no mistake, though: obscure does not translate to unskilled. The two composers—Sergei Taneyev and Anton Rubinstein—were not only among the most prominent Russian musicians and music educators of the 19thcentury, they were highly skilled composers. Taneyev was so skilled writing counterpoint that he was known as “The Russian Bach.” A close friend of Tchaikovsky, he is most remembered for his extensive chamber music output, including his one Piano Quartet

Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the 19thcentury. He is best known for his showy piano pieces, but he also wrote 20 operas, six symphonies, and a host of chamber pieces—including again a single Piano Quartet

“Both Rubinstein and Taneyev represent what was known somewhat disparagingly in Russia as the ‘cosmopolitan school’ of Russian composition,” Korevaar says. “That is to say, they were not nationalists”—meaning they followed the standard European classical models of their times and did not incorporate real or imitated Russian folk music into their compositions. This is in contrast to other Russian musicians, including Borodin and Mussorgsky.

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Sergei Taneyev

“Taneyev’s music is very attractive,” Korevaar says. “It’s also very difficult to play. He’s extraordinarily demanding of his players. The string parts and the piano writing are formidably complex.

“He also loves to show off his contrapuntal acumen, so the last movement of the quartet is filled with all kinds of contrapuntal combinations. It includes a fugue, and the coda brings back every theme from the quartet and combines them in various clever ways.”

But there is more to Taneyev than complexity and counterpoint, Korevaar says. For one thing, he begins the Quartet in a particularly engaging way, “like ballet or opera where something dramatic is already happening,” before introducing the first major theme.

“I have to say, he wrote good tunes,” Korevaar adds. “[The Quartet] is long, but it’s worthwhile long, not tedious long. The last movement is very busy and exciting all the time, so it keeps us all moving.”

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Anton Rubinstein

Korevaar is equally excited to play the Rubinstein Quartet, which he did not know before learning it for Friday’s concert. “I’m very excited we’re playing it because it’s so beautiful,” he says. “It’s a marvelous example of mid-19th-century Romantic voice. It’s very mainstream, and so the last movement you would never have any reason to think it was written by a Russian.”

Rubinstein’s own virtuosity made his piano writing challenging. “Rubinstein was famous for having very large hands,” Korevaar says. “He does write for the piano in a way that is representative of big-handed composers—there’s a lot more [finger] extensions than some other composers would be using. But in the end, I think it’s beautiful piece.

“It’s kind of a gem.”

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Boulder Piano Quartet
David Korevaar, piano; Charles Wetherbee, violin; Matthew Dane, viola; and Thomas Heinrich, cello

Sergei Taneyev: Quartet in E major for piano and strings
Anton Rubinstein: Piano in C major for piano and strings

7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 14
The Academy, 970 Aurora Ave., Boulder
(Entrance at 833 10thSt.)

Free; RSVP in advance to ande@theacademyboulder.com

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Boulder Opera presents Little Red Riding Hood for young audiences Dec. 7–9

Opera by Russian composer Cesar Cui will have its Colorado premiere

By Peter Alexander Dec. 5 at 2:20 p.m.

César Cui (pronounced SAY-zar KWEE) is not a household name, anywhere. But he was an interesting person who wrote music that is always worth hearing.

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Portrait of César Cui by Ilya Respin

Born in 1835 in Vilnius, now Lithuania and then part of the Russian Empire, his principal career was as an officer and engineer in the Russian Imperial Army. But he also studied piano from childhood and pursued music as an avocation. With Mily Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, he was one of the Russian nationalist composers known as “Moguchaya kuchka” (the mighty handful).

Among other works, he wrote more than a dozen operas, including several children’s operas—which is what recommended Cui to Dianela Acosta and the Boulder Opera, who will present the first Colorado performances of his 40-minute Little Red Riding Hood this weekend (Friday–Sunday, Dec. 7–9) at Boulder Nomad Playhouse.

“We’re always looking for new material to present,” says Acosta, Boulder Opera’s artistic director who also plays the mother in the production. “Especially stories that are well known, to continue with our mission to introduce the younger generation to opera.”

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Page Sentianin as Little Red Riding Hood and Joshua South as the Wolf for Boulder Opera Company

For Little Red Riding Hood, they are presenting three performance to school groups Thursday and Friday, with support from the Boulder Arts Commission. They have prepared a study guide that is useful for anyone attending the opera, and each performance will be followed by Q&A session for the audience with cast members.

“We love to do these Q&A at the end of the performances,” Acosta says. “The kids get to ask questions and then we ask them questions, and it’s very engaging. And because the opera is so short we decided to explore a little bit more of Cui’s music. We chose a short piano piece called ‘Orientale’ that our pianist, Deborah Schmit-Lobis, will play between the two acts.”

Cui’s music is in the familiar Romantic style of the mid-19thcentury, but with a definite Russian flavor. “There’s a lot of folkloric elements in the music,” Acosta says. “Vocally it’s not very difficult. The music really is there to tell the story, so it’s very descriptive for each character.

“Its a beautiful piece that just tells the story.”

Cui’s music is not widely available. In this case, Mathieu D’Ordine, who has conducted for Boulder Opera in the past, created a chamber arrangement that will be played by pianist Schmit-Lobis and a quartet of woodwind players.

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Boulder Opera Company’s artistic director Daniela Acosta

In the past, Boulder Opera has toured its productions to Longmont, Broomfield and Lafayette. This year, all their performances—both Little Red Riding Hood and performances in May of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Thomas Pasatieri’s Signor Deluso—will be presented in Boulder’s Nomad Playhouse.

Staying in one place gives the company the opportunity to build solid sets and invest more in the production, Acosta says. “The logistics of traveling was getting really taxing,” she says. “Instead of putting all of our efforts into touring, we’re enhancing our productions with the costumes and the sets.”

That initiative has been assisted by contributions from Nadia Artman, a member of the Boulder Opera board who is also credited as co-producer of Little Red Riding Hood.

Higher quality sets and costumes are clear signs of success for the Boulder Opera Company, but Acosta stays focused on the mission of the company, to bring opera to new and younger audiences. “It’s such a great thing to introduce children to opera,” she says. “That’s what we’re trying to do.

“It’s a familiar story with a happy ending, so it’s fun and educational at the same time.”

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BOC-Little+Red+no+text+Little Red Riding Hood by Cesar Cui (Colorado premiere)
Arranged by Mathieu D’Ordine
Boulder Opera Company

1 and 4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7
2 and 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8
1 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9
The Nomad Playhouse, 1410 Quince Ave., Boulder

Information and tickets 

“Musica Prima” will be a musical adventure for performer and listeners Dec. 3

Charles Wetherbee plays an electronic 5-string violin at the Diary

By Peter Alexander Dec. 2 at 2 p.m.

music-at-the-dairy-right-sideLooking for a musical adventure? The Dairy Arts Center has one on tap Monday (7:30 p.m. Dec. 3).

Charles Wetherbee, violin professor at the CU College of Music and concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic, will perform one Colorado and three world premieres for a program titled “Musica Prima” (First music). Each work calls for solo violin, although they are not strictly speaking unaccompanied, since they all incorporate electronics, including real-time feedback loops, computer-generated sounds and visual media.

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Five-string amplified violin

But that is only part of the adventure. Wetherbee is playing on what is a new instrument for him: an amplified five-string violin. And If you’ve never seen a five-string violin, you are not alone.

“It’s a little experimental,” Wetherbee says, but for him that’s a good thing. “The advance of technology is something that’s exciting, and that expands the musical landscape for us.”

And no, you can’t just buy one at your local music store (although they can be found online). “I was contacted by a representative of a company that wanted me to demo their instrument,” Wetherbee explains. “It coincided with my embarking on (the program of premieres), so it was good  timing.”

The instrument he will play is an acoustic violin with an amplification hookup built in. The addition of the fifth string, tuned to C below the G string, allows the instrument to play music down into the range of the viola, but it has its challenges.

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Charles Wetherbee

“It is a little tricky,” Wetherbee says. “On a (four-string) violin or viola, you instinctively know which string you’re going to, with your bow and fingers. But when there’s five it can be a little confusing, and it takes a little extra care and attention.”

The oldest work on the program is Isola Prima (First Island) for 8-channel tape and solo viola, part of a suite of three pieces by Italian composer Nicola Sani. Composed in 1998 and recorded in 2009, it has never been performed live in the United States.

“It’s a really interesting and atmospheric work,” Wetherbee says. “It’s an exploration of the sound of the instrument, (with) recorded sounds of the string instrument combined with the live participation of the performer.”

Two of the world premiere pieces are by Colorado natives, Monica Bolles and Zachary Patten. Bolles’s Architect uses video and audio of the audience, recorded as they arrive, which is fed through a computer that responds to the performer’s improvisations.

“Her work is very interesting,” Wetherbee says. “As I play louder or softer, faster or slower, (the computer) responds. It doesn’t do the same thing every time—it’s like AI (Artificial Intelligence). It has the capacity to perform differently every time I play, and then I respond depending on what I’m hearing the computer do.”

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Pando aspen grove in Utah

Patten’s piece, titled Pando, is partly improvised and incorporates visual images and sounds recorded inside one of the largest living organisms on earth, an aspen grove in Utah. Known as Pando, the grove of 47,000 trees emerges from a single root system, covers 107 acres, and is estimated to weigh more than 6,000 tons. Patten spent time inside Pando, where he captured both visual and audio elements used in his piece.

The fourth piece and third world premiere is Songs of the Wanderers by Chinese composer Fuhong Shi. Like the others, it combines both visuals and a auditory track with live performance. It was inspired by Dunhuang, a way station in far western China that was a part of the legendary Silk Road.

The composer has written “The happiness, fury, sorrow, and joy of the world are all vividly presented in the unrivaled colored frescos and sculptures in the grottos of Dunhuang. Time corrodes the tangible materiality of the world, but human emotions and spirit endure.”

“It’s a pretty big adventure, and I’m excited to be doing this,” Wetherbee says of the program. “I hope people are curious and want to come out and hear it.

“It’s really going to be some beautiful, beautiful music, some explorations—and really fun.”

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Musica Prima
Charles Wetherbee, five-string amplified violin

Architect by Monica Bolles (world premiere)
Songs of the Wanderers by Fuhong Shi (world premiere)
Pando by Zachary Patten (world premiere)
Isola Prima by Nicola Sani (Colorado premiere)

7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 3
Carsen Theater, Dairy Arts Center
Tickets