Concert offerings from Tesla Quartet:

Provocateurs

Prokofiev, String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, op. 50
Haydn, String Quartet in F major, op. 50 No. 5
Haydn, String Quartet in B minor, op. 33 No. 1
Prokofiev, String Quartet in F major, op. 92 “On Kabardinian Themes”

If not for the nearly 100 years and 1,000 miles that separated them, Joseph Haydn and Sergei Prokofiev might very well have been friends, or at the very least musical compatriots. In their works we find kindred spirits who revel in the role of “provocateur,” toying with the listener’s musical sensibilities to create moments of unexpected confusion and imbalance, all the while crafting undeniably charming and attractive melodies and textures. In this program we present Prokofiev’s only two quartets set against two of Haydn’s 68.

Haydn’s B minor quartet from op. 33 is one of a set of six works with which the composer meant to herald a new era of style in the classical age, including the first “scherzos” (literally “jokes”) and written “in a completely new and peculiar way.” The F major quartet of op. 50 is more classically refined but still maintains his characteristic witty and rhetorical hallmarks. Prokofiev’s First Quartet is striking in that it omits one of the four standard movements and further subverts the expected structure by placing the finale in the middle and ending with the slow movement. His Second Quartet was a product of his time spent in safe-keeping in the Caucasus during World War II and the folk music archives he discovered there.

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Inside-Out/side-In

Pärt, Fratres
Adams (John Luther), The Wind in High Places
Moussa, String Quartet
Glass, String Quartet No. 5

This program explores the ways we communicate through our instruments and music. All four composers’ works appear on the surface to be simple in harmony and texture. However, when we look deeper into these works, we find that each composer has arrived from a completely different path. Arvo Pärt says that “music must exist of itself…two, three notes…the essence must be there, independent of the instruments.” Pärt seeks the meaning of music from inside out, resulting in the simple and pure sonorities of Fratres.

Meanwhile, John Luther Adams’ The Wind in High Places portrays the icy stillness from the landscape and the weather of the Great North, Alaska where he has spent many years. His “outside in” approach signifies the personal style of his music.

Samy Moussa’s String Quartet explores the inherent complexity sound contained in a single note. Suddenly a G is not a G, but a collection of frequencies and overtones that combine to create a rich and vivid sonic ecosystem. In this music the simplicity on the surface belies the complexity within.

The music of Philip Glass is instantly recognizable for its use of repetitive patterns that oscillate between triadic harmonies. However, in his Fifth String Quartet, he ventures beyond his traditional minimalist roots, using formal structures and expressive contrasts. While he maintains his unmistakable personal style, this quartet delivers his personal maturity in understanding music. He says, “I was thinking that I had really gone beyond the need to write a serious string quartet and that I could write a quartet that is about musicality, which in a certain way is the most serious subject.” In this quartet, he demonstrates the musical inspiration derived from within itself.

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Breaking with Tradition

Szymanowski, String Quartet No. 1 in C major, op. 37
Debussy, String Quartet in G minor, op. 10
Respighi, String Quartet in D major

Before Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartók, Debussy was the first major composer to radically break from the continuous evolution of 19th century Romantic music from Beethoven to Wagner. Reacting against the dominant influence of Germanic music with its logical rigors of form and development, he sought a new music of color, sensation, fleeting mood and relaxed form that would be distinctively French. Ironically, in this early work, Debussy still relies heavily on the cyclical thematic form that had been a staple of Germanic music for almost a century.

Szymanowski’s music also explores post-Wagnerian, French Lyricism. Before this composition, he refused to write a string quartet because he felt there was “not enough timbre” in the instrumentation. However, inspired by Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel, he decided to face the challenge, and the result is in “harmonic experiment.” Of particular originality is the polytonal finale, in which each instrument plays in a different key.

Respighi understood the string quartet form very clearly, as he himself was a member of a professional string quartet for a long time. His String Quartet in D was written fairly early on in his career, but he did not fail to demonstrate a rich command of harmony with the intimate and warm romantic sonority built on cyclical form.

These three pieces by French, Polish, Italian composers bring the string quartet genre to a new level by experimenting with post-Wagnerian harmonic structure and beautifully lyrical melodies.

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Famous Last Words

Beethoven, String Quartet in F major, op. 135
Villa-Lobos, String Quartet No. 17
Britten, String Quartet No. 3

At every composer’s passing, we are left with a single work we consider to be their final opus. In most cases, composers are not even aware of their impending departure. However, the romantic notion of some musical genius on his deathbed furiously penning on staves of parchment his last will and testament is nevertheless an alluring one. Such thinking is unavoidable in the case of Beethoven’s last completed work, Op. 135. Its final movement, the answer achieved with great difficulty, asks the question “Must it be?” and answers, “It must be.” Such philosophical musing is what coaxes us into thinking of this piece as some ultimate life statement.

Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 17th String Quartet is the last of his completed instrumental works, and was written two years prior to his death. He continued to work on various projects after this quartet including a film score that did make it to screen. However, with mental illness fast encroaching upon his faculties, Villa-Lobos could no longer sustain the prolific pace of his earlier years. Of the three composers on this program, it is Britten who is perhaps most aware of his fast approaching demise. The 3rd String Quartet was written during Britten’s final illness and as his health faded he continued to tinker with the composition. In the weeks leading up to his passing, Britten workshopped the quartet in Aldeburgh with the Amadeus Quartet. The somber tone of the piece interspersed with ecstatic outbursts and moments of playfulness reveal Britten’s conflicted emotions as he nears his end.