We welcome the Thalea String Quartet as our 2019–20 Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence for their first concert in the Music Room. Formed in 2014 at the Zephyr International Chamber Music Festival in Courmayeur, Italy, the Thalea String Quartet has been praised for their “vibrant performance” and “sincere expressivity” (SF Classical Voice). The members of the Thalea String Quartet are dedicated educators and bring their commitment to teaching and community engagement to their frequent educational and community performances.
“Hearing the Thalea Quartet makes me feel very happy and gives me hope for the future. They are great ambassadors for music.” — David Harrington, Kronos Quartet
“I have been deeply impressed by Michelle Cann’s playing, its fine musical intelligence and emotional depth. She has the eloquence and authority of a born performer.” — Richard Goode
Thalea String Quartet
Christopher Whitley, violin
Kumiko Sakamoto, violin
Luis Bellorín, viola
Titilayo Ayangade, cello
Michelle Cann, piano
Desmond Bratton, double bass
Copland Movement for String Quartet PriceFolk Songs in CounterpointPrice Piano Concerto in D Major (arranged for sextet by Boris Vayner) Beethoven String Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2, “Razumovsky”
Thalea String Quartet
Christopher Whitley, violin
Kumiko Sakamoto, violin
Luis Bellorín, viola
Titilayo Ayangade, cello
The Thalea String Quartet is dedicated to bringing timeless music to audiences from all walks of life. From living rooms to concert stages around the world, the Thalea String Quartet aims to connect with audiences on a musical, emotional, and personal level, from first time listeners to string quartet aficionados. They are devoted to building a new and diverse audience for chamber music through innovative programming and community engagement.
Formed in 2014 at the Zephyr International Chamber Music Festival in Courmayeur, Italy, the Thalea String Quartet has been praised for their “vibrant performance” and “sincere expressivity” (SF Classical Voice). The quartet has performed recitals across Europe, the United States, and Canada, and has appeared at the Kennedy Center, Massey Hall, and Weill Hall. They were the first quartet-in-residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 2015–17. They were recently named the Young Professional String Quartet at the Butler School of Music, where they are mentored by the highly acclaimed Miró Quartet. They also serve as Associated Artists at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Waterloo, Belgium, where they are mentored by the Artemis Quartet. The Thalea String Quartet were top prize winners at both the 2018 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and the 2018 Chamber Music Yellow Springs Competition. They were appointed as the Sphinx Ensemble at the 2018 Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, and will return this coming summer as a Shouse Ensemble. They were ensemble-in-residence at the Bear Valley Music Festival for the summers of 2018 and 2019, and will serve as the Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts for the 2019/20 season, where they will premiere a new work by acclaimed composer Paola Prestini.
The Thalea String Quartet prides itself on the diversity of its collaborations. They have performed Mendelssohn’s Octet in its original manuscript form with the award-winning Borromeo Quartet and shared the stage with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw in performances of works for voice and string quartet. They have performed alongside Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, violist Jodi Levitz, and composer Mason Bates. They were invited to participate in the 2017 KRONOS Festival, where they performed works from the Kronos Quartet’s 50 for the Future Project. Committed to collaborating with artists of all backgrounds, the Thalea String Quartet has collaborated with San Francisco-based dance theatre company the Joe Goode Performance Group at the Yerba Buena Center and appeared with acclaimed Canadian band BADBADNOTGOOD at the iconic Massey Hall.
The members of the Thalea String Quartet are dedicated educators and bring their commitment to teaching and community engagement to their frequent educational and community performances. They have performed educational concerts to students of all ages and regularly perform at care facilities and schools across the United States.
Michelle Cann began studying piano at the age of seven and since then has placed in various state, national, and international competitions including the Music Teacher’s National Association Competition, the International Russian Piano Music Competition, the Gilmore Piano Foundation Competition, and the Blount Young Artists National Competition. She made her orchestral debut at the age of 14 and since then has been invited to perform with various orchestras including the Florida Orchestra, Tampa Bay Symphony, Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra, and the Cleveland Institute of Music Symphony Orchestra. She has performed on the nationally broadcast radio show, From the Top, hosted by pianist Christopher O’ Riley; was featured as the inaugural performer on WRTI 90.1 Philadelphia’s new series, In Recital, and select performances have been broadcast regularly on Philadelphia’s WHYY Television.
Michelle has worked with many esteemed artists who include world-renowned pianists Paul Schenly, Daniel Shapiro, Joela Jones, Sergei Babayan, Jerome Lowenthal, and Richard Goode. During past summers Michelle has been accepted into such competitive programs as Taos Chamber Music Festival and School, Yellow Barn Chamber Music Festival, and the Perlman Music Program Chamber Music festival directed by renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. Other engagements include performances in the South Hampton Cultural Center, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, and the Woodmere Art Museum.
Michelle was selected to perform with current students and alumni including Roberto Diaz, president of the Curtis Institute of Music in both Beijing and Shanghai, China and Seoul, Korea. She was also invited to perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the New Jersey Symphony this past February. Michelle received her BM and MM from the Cleveland Institute of Music and recently graduated with an Artist Diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music where she studied under Robert McDonald.
In 2016, Michelle performed the New York premiere of the Piano Concerto by Florence Price (1887-1953). Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. The Boston Musical Intelligencer raved, “Michelle Cann, as the piano soloist, was a compelling, sparkling virtuoso, bringing this riveting work to life in its first New York performance.”
Michelle and her sister Kimberly, also a concert pianist, perform across the USA and internationally as The Cann Sisters Duo.
About the Music.
At a Glance
This afternoon’s concert brings us three works that were lost for decades, then rediscovered by sleuthing musicologists: Aaron Copland’s very early Movement for String Quartet and African-American composer Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint and Piano Concerto in One Movement. These appealing pieces will probably be new to the ears of everyone in the audience, but the program’s final work certainly won’t be. It is Beethoven’s extraordinarily experimental Second “Razumovsky” String Quartet: one of his imposing set of quartets from 1806 that changed the course of chamber music forever.
Movement for String Quartet (1924)
The exquisitely crafted Movement for String Quartet that opens this program is one of Aaron Copland’s most rarely heard works. Though it was probably composed in 1923 or 1924 when Copland was studying in Paris with the renowned composition pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, it actually remained undiscovered until the early 1980s, when Vivian Perlis, Copland’s assistant and biographer, found it among his papers at the Library of Congress. After arranging for a public premiere by the Alexander Quartet in 1984, she convinced Copland it was finally time to publish this little gem.
Perhaps Copland had put it aside because this music reflects a very Europeanized young composer before he had found the unmistakable American voice we know him by today. Having saved up money for the purpose, in 1921 the 20-year-old Copland moved to Paris to study with Boulanger, absorb European culture, and explore the disparate musical voices blooming there after World War I. He found her to be an enlightening and inspirational teacher. Besides her insistence on clarity, line, and formal cohesion, he praised above all “her broadness of sympathy that made it possible for her to apply these general principles to the music of young men and women of so many different nationalities.” Copland remained her student until 1924 and also traveled to Germany and Austria to hear their musical innovations.
These eclectic influences fill his Movement for String Quartet. Its single movement divides into three sections. First, we hear slow, deeply melancholy music that seems imbued with the perfume of impressionism. Next, the music completely switches character for a strident, rhythmically-driven dance that suggests his then-favorite composer, Igor Stravinsky. Finally, it moves back to the tempo of the opening but with a lilting new meter that brushes aside most of the sadness. If he hadn’t yet found his characteristic voice, Copland demonstrates here that he already knew how to manipulate quartet textures and counterpoint with consummate assurance.
As both a woman and an African American, Florence Price was a dual pioneer in the world of American classical music at a time when there were formidable obstacles in place against both groups. Born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, she began playing the piano at four and had her first composition published at 11. By the time she was 14, Price had already graduated at the top of her high school class and matriculated at Boston’s esteemed New England Conservatory of Music. In 1906 before she was 20, she had graduated with honors; nevertheless, during part of her time there, she pretended to be Mexican in order to counter the prejudice against her race.
In 1910, Price moved to Atlanta, where she became head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University. Upon her marriage, she moved back to Little Rock, but after a series of racial incidents there, including a lynching, she and her lawyer husband left for Chicago. There she became friends with both the writer Langston Hughes and the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson, both of whom had a hand in promoting her composing career. After her Symphony in E minor won First Prize in the Wanamaker Foundation Awards in 1932, conductor Frederick Stock selected it for performance in June 1933 at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: the first composition by an African-American woman ever to be played by a major American orchestra.
Over the course of her career, Price wrote some 300 pieces in a variety of genres. Her songs and arrangements of spirituals were in heavy demand in Chicago during her lifetime; both tenor Roland Hayes and soprano Leontyne Price programmed them. But after her death, Price’s music was largely forgotten for decades. With the coming of the 21st century, its rediscovery began when new owners of her summer home found major, previously unpublished works and sent them on to the University of Arkansas’s archives. There musicologists found a treasure trove of works that revealed her appealing combination of late Romantic classical style invigorated by influences from African-American folk music. Recently, a Florence Price revival has been spreading around American symphony orchestras as more of her pieces are prepared for performance.
Five Folk Songs in Counterpoint (1927)
Found in the University’s library only through its individual parts in Price’s handwritten manuscript, Five Folk Songs in Counterpoint is believed to have been written about 1927. It epitomizes the string quartet’s unique aptitude for contrapuntal writing: that is, playing in a texture of independent lines rather than chords.
Most solemn and densely contrapuntal is the first movement “Calvary” (Adagio vigoroso) based on that keening African-American spiritual. It is also the most modern in its harmonies, its dissonances matching the harrowing subject matter. Much lighter is the setting of “My Darling Clementine”; it closes with a more up-tempo peroration on the familiar tune. The old English melody “Drink to Me Only” is allowed to shine more clearly in a simpler texture before blurring into lush, shimmering variations. The lively syncopations of “Shortnin’ Bread” suggest ragtime. Finally, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is presented initially in fugal style rising from the cello through imitative entrances in the other instruments. Imaginative rhythmic and harmonic distortions build it to a strong, virtuosic ending.
Piano Concerto in One Movement (1932–1934)
(arranged for sextet by Boris Vayner)
Not originally conceived as a chamber work, Florence Price’s piano sextet began life as the Concerto in One Movement for piano, premiered in Chicago in 1934 with Price herself as soloist. Like so much of Price’s music, it disappeared and was only rediscovered in this century. No complete orchestral score was found, but working from versions for one, two, and three pianos Price had left with notes about the desired scoring, Drew University professor Trevor Weston reconstructed a performing edition, premiered in 2011.
Pianist Michelle Cann has championed this concerto for the past three years, bringing it to orchestras around the country. Noticing how warmly musicians and audiences have embraced this work, she and the Thalea Quartet decided in 2018 to make it available to a wider public by commissioning a chamber version arranged by Boris Vayner, violist of the St. Petersburg Quartet. He made both a quintet version for piano and string quartet and a sextet version, which we will hear, with double bass added.
The work reveals Price’s exceptional gift for crafting compelling melodies, then spinning them into artful variations and developments. Though it is cast as one lengthy movement, it divides naturally into three contrasting sections functioning as movements in themselves. In D minor, the Moderato first section begins slowly with fragments of the descending principal melody in the other instruments. This leads a lengthy cadenza for the piano, displaying a virtuosic panache worthy of Rachmaninoff and Liszt. Big-gestured Romanticism fills the rest of this traditional sonata form.
Despite its moving to the brighter key of D Major, the lovely Adagio second section is more melancholic, with a gently nostalgic melody suggesting, but not quoting, a spiritual. The final Allegretto is a sparkling dance, inspired by the African-American antebellum dance known as the Juba. Its syncopated, ragtime-influenced rhythms carry the Sextet to an exhilarating, zesty conclusion.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
String Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2, “Razumovsky” (1806)
The year 1806 was one of the greatest of Ludwig van Beethoven’s career. Besides completing a major revision of his opera Fidelio, he wrote a series of masterpieces in many different musical genres: the majestic Violin Concerto and the innovative Fourth Piano Concerto, the ebullient Fourth Symphony, the tragic Coriolan Overture, and the completion of his fiery “Appassionata” Piano Sonata. He also wrote the three revolutionary string quartets of Opus 59, named “Razumovsky” after the Russian nobleman who commissioned them.
Count Andreas Kyrillovich Razumovsky was the Russian ambassador to the Viennese court. This fabulously wealthy connoisseur of music maintained a quartet in residence (the esteemed Schuppanzigh Quartet that premiered many of Beethoven’s quartets) at his sumptuous palace, was an accomplished violinist who often took the second violin part in performances, and became one of Beethoven’s major patrons. It is said that Razumovsky asked Beethoven to include a Russian folk tune in each of these quartets, and the composer complied in the first two, while writing a slow movement in Russian style for the third.
The “Razumovsky” Quartets constitute a watershed in the history of quartet writing comparable to the “Eroica” Symphony for the symphonic genre. Beethoven’s previous quartets, the six works of Opus 18, remained mostly within the expressive and formal boundaries established by Haydn and Mozart. But with the Razumovsky Quartets, he entered a new world of limitless horizons. Like the “Eroica,” these quartets are longer, pose greater challenges for the performers, and embark on journeys of musical invention not previously taken. As Jan Swafford writes in his superb biography of Beethoven: “The electricity, aggressiveness, and in some ways sheer strangeness of the Razumovskys are collectively breathtaking.”
The least-often played of the three, “Razumovsky” No. 2 in E minor certainly embodies “strangeness” in the highest degree. The First “Razumovsky” Quartet begins very pleasingly with a noble legato melody in the cello. But in the Second, Beethoven is less interested in being pleasing or melodious. Instead, its Allegro first movement opens with two brusque chords announcing the key of E minor, followed by a measure of silence: two elements that will play a major role in the quirky drama of this sonata-form movement. Then a little melody tries to start, but immediately drifts off in a trail of sixteenth notes. Another silence, and the melody tries to start one-half step higher in the key of F Major, but again peters out. This juxtaposition of keys a half step apart is known as the Neapolitan relationship, and it too will be a startling element throughout the movement. Even the first violin’s later attempt at a more lyrical second movement is unable to take flight. Thus, with just a minimum of notes punctuated by silences, Beethoven has set out his agenda: terse yet provocative motives, mysterious pauses, and an emphasis on harmonic tension.
Returning to the motive of two chords followed by a rest, the development section is exceptionally restless harmonically, making much use of the half-step Neapolitan shift. It also plays extensively with those rhythmically vague syncopated passages we heard earlier.
The recapitulation’s return to the two opening chords is heralded by a fortissimo flourish of trills. But we are not out of the woods yet. Before long, Beethoven plunges us back into a full reprise of his disturbing development, followed again by the recapitulation. (Some performances will omit this.) A lengthy coda mixing drama and serenity wraps up this extraordinarily original music.
In E Major, the Molto adagio second movement is the first’s polar opposite. Featuring one of Beethoven’s sublime hymn melodies, it flows onward with calm, beautiful stability. Carl Czerny, the composer’s amanuensis, recalled Beethoven saying that this music came to him “when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres.” The second theme’s dignified march eventually brings this ethereal music back to earth. In this expansive sonata form, the development section does not disturb the overall serenity. In the recapitulation, listen for the second violin rising eloquently above the first violin’s reprise of the hymn tune.
The eccentric Scherzo is built almost entirely out of the same limping rhythm. Its trio section contains this Quartet’s Russian theme: a grandly celebratory melody that was later used spectacularly by Mussorgsky in the coronation scene of his opera Boris Godunov. Beethoven, however, gives it little grandeur or respect, introducing the tune with a rapid, let’s-get-this-over-with fugue. Michael Steinberg bemusedly wonders how Count Razumovsky reacted to “Beethoven’s dissonant roughhousing with it and his mocking sweeping of its shards out of the door” at the trio’s end.
In sonata rondo form, the finale is a comically impudent dance, bounding along on a fast galloping rhythm. Though its key is supposed to be E minor, it opens in — and keeps returning to — the wrong key of C Major. It also stubbornly obsesses over an upward-flipping motive of three notes. With this, Steinberg comments that Beethoven is imitating the humorous practices of his teacher Haydn — creating “suspense concerning where, if anywhere, he is going and when, if ever, he is going to get there.” An acceleration of the already fast tempo to Più presto brings this wildly experimental Quartet to a frenzied finish.