Program Notes
American Chamber Players
Saturday, October 18, 2003

Formed in 1985 by a group of instrumentalists from the Library of Congress Summer Chamber Festival, the American Chamber Players are led by festival founder Miles Hoffman. Hoffman, well-known from his regular commentaries on National Public Radio's "Performance Today," is also the author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion." The members of the ensemble perform repertoire including familiar masterpieces, neglected gems, and newly commissioned American works. Their fascinating and delightful programs, featuring varied instrumental combinations, have been as enthusiastically praised as their extraordinary, dynamic performances. The ensemble has toured throughout North America, and been engaged and re-engaged by prestigious concert series from Florida to British Columbia. They have also traveled to Paris for a series of special gala concerts at the Paris Opera and the Bibliothèque Nationale. The American Chamber Players have recorded music of Mozart, Bruch, Bloch, Stravinsky, Harbison, and Rochberg for a series of compact discs and cassettes distributed internationally on the Koch International Classics label.


Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941)

Trois aquarelles (Three Watercolors), for flute, cello, and piano (composed 1915)

Par un clair matin (On a Clear Morning)
Soir d’automne (Autumn Evening)
Sérénade (Serenade)

Probably best remembered now for his work with Paul Taffanel on the Méthode complète de flûte, Philippe Gaubert was a prominent conductor, composer, and flutist during the early decades of the twentieth century.  On his first attempt at the age of fifteen, he won the top prize for flute at the Paris Conservatoire.  In 1905, he won second prize in the Prix de Rome and later played as flute soloist with numerous Paris ensembles.  Examples of his playing actually survive on a 1919 series of recordings for the French Gramophone Company.

Gaubert seemed to follow in the footsteps of his Conservatoire flute teacher Taffanel (1844-1908), filling three positions earlier held by his mentor.  In 1919, he was appointed professor of flute at the school and conductor of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, a post he would hold until 1938.  In 1920, he became conductor of the Paris Opéra.  At the time of Taffanel’s death, Gaubert and another student undertook to complete the flute method that their teacher had left unfinished, finally publishing it in 1923.

As one might expect, Gaubert wrote many works for flute, both solo and chamber, but also at least two operas, a ballet, an oratorio, four symphonies, a violin concerto, and numerous songs.  In his 1915 Trois aquarelles (Three Watercolors), Gaubert tried to translate into sound the visual effect of watercolor technique.  Just as paint colors can be perceived alone and blended with other colors, simultaneously obscuring and revealing the texture of the paper underneath, the distinct tonal colors of the flute, cello, and piano sound alone and in combination, with melody and rhythm providing basic textures.

In the first movement (Par un clair matin), the flute opens with a spirited wakeup call, while the piano arpeggios might suggest the rays of the morning sun.  Marked by a brooding passage in the cello, Soir d’automne has a subdued and autumnal quality.  Sérénade is in a Spanish style, with imitations of the sound of castanets.


Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)

Duo for flute and violin, op. 13 (originally for flute and oboe) (composed 1945)

Sonata
Pastorale
Fuga

Born of an Italian mother and a Catalan father, Alberto Ginastera began his formal musical education at the age of seven and was composing by the time he was fourteen.  In 1935, he would graduate from the Williams Conservatory in Buenos Aires with a gold medal in composition.  Within a few years, he was gaining a reputation as one of Argentina’s most important composers.  He would eventually withdraw or destroy much of his early output from the 1930s.

In 1941, he began teaching, both at the National Conservatory and the San Martin National Military Academy.  When he signed a petition supporting Argentine civil liberties in 1945, he came into conflict with the dictator Juan Perón and was forced to resign from the academy.  World War II had postponed a planned trip to the United States in 1942 when he won a Guggenheim, but in December 1945 he took advantage of that fellowship to exile himself until March 1947.  He visited numerous schools (including Juilliard, Eastman, Harvard, Yale, , and Columbia) and attended performances of his works all over the country.  Aaron Copland became an important mentor and close friend during this period.  Taking inspiration from his U.S. visit and a League of Composers concert featuring his own works in New York, Ginastera formed a branch of the league upon his return from exile.  In 1948, it would become the Argentine Section of the International Society for Contemporary Music.  That same year, he became director of the music conservatory at the National University of La Plata.

Originally composed for flute and oboe, the Duo op. 13 is here arranged for flute and violin.  It was written in the same year as Ginastera’s self-imposed exile.  In the first movement, Sonata, the theme is sounded in the flute, followed by the violin in imitation.  Things get more laid-back with the second theme, although when it returns later on in the development, it has a much more aggressive flavor.  Most of the development is devoted to the first theme, however.  Even more languid is the second movement, Pastorale, where each instrument has long unaccompanied passages.  The finale is a quick and perky fugue.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Quartet in A minor for piano and strings (composed 1876-1878?)

Nicht zu schnell

When we think of Gustav Mahler, we think "monumental."  In their length, their emotional breadth, and their range of vocal and instrumental color, Mahler's symphonies and song cycles stand virtually alone.  They likewise stand alone in constituting virtually his entire surviving output.  As a boy and young man, Mahler began, abandoned, and destroyed at least three operas and a number of smaller student pieces.  Although its exact provenance has been the subject of debate for decades, this present movement for piano quartet is the most substantial work from this period still extant.

Marked "Nicht zu schnell," this Piano Quartet in A minor was eventually published by Hans Sikorski in 1973, edited by Peter Ruzicka.  The autograph score, once owned by the composer's widow, Alma, includes a 24-measure fragment of a scherzo in G minor.  Documentary evidence surrounding this composition, however, is contradictory and puzzling.  One Mahler biographer, Donald Mitchell, completely changed his mind about the Quartet's identity between the 1958 first edition and the 1980 revised edition of his Gustav Mahler:  The Early Years.

Among the records of the Vienna Conservatory is one of an award to Mahler for a quintet movement in July 1876.  On September 12th of that year, Mahler and some school friends organized a concert in his hometown of Iglau, Bohemia, where what is thought to have been the award-winning movement and a violin sonata also by Mahler were played.  In 1878, he submitted for his Conservatory graduation a scherzo for piano quintet, presumed lost.

Some scholars claim that either or both of those supposed "quintets" may actually have been quartets.  The "1876" date on the manuscript title page is thought by some to have been added much later by Alma.  Then what do we make of the coincidental echo of the idiosyncratic notation "Ungemein Rubato," which appears towards the end of the present movement, in a letter from Mahler to the pianist Julius Epstein, believed to date from July 1877?

Whatever its origins, this last remaining chamber work by the young Gustav Mahler received its first known "modern" performance in New York, February 12, 1964, by pianist Peter Serkin and members of the Galimir Quartet.

The movement's first motif, heard in the left hand of the piano, anticipates themes heard in the opening movement of the Symphony no. 6 and hinted at in both the Symphony no. 4 and Das Lied von der Erde.  A second main theme sounds later in the violin.  The development opens with a version of the piano motif in diminution.  The violin motif also is heard, especially in a stretto passage between the violin and viola.  Alternating flows and ebbs of tension lead to a muted violin and viola transition into the recap.  The opening returns but modulates unexpectedly to F-sharp minor.  After a brief violin cadenza, the piano revisits the initial motif one last time over string pizzicati.


Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Sonata for flute and piano (composed 1956-1957)

Allegro malinconico
Cantilena
Presto giocoso

In 1920, music critic Henri Collet gave the name “Les Six” to a loosely-knit sextet of young French composers who gathered under the musical eye of Erik Satie and the aesthetic tutelage of Jean Cocteau.  Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Tailleferre really had little in common except their youth, a preference for neoclassicism over the impressionism then fashionable, and a desire to promote their own works.  Their jazz-tinged music and sometimes eccentric attitudes attracted attention and kept musical circles buzzing about just how serious they truly were.

Accusations about a lack of seriousness haunted Poulenc’s early career, which he filled with witty, direct, and unpretentious works.  Not until his return to Roman Catholicism in 1935 and his growth as a composer of songs and sacred choral music during and after World War II did those attitudes dissipate.  Following the war, the remainder of his life was devoted to composing, performing (especially accompanying his close friend baritone Pierre Bernac), and recording (specializing in works of Chabrier and Satie, as well as his own).

Poulenc dedicated his Sonata for flute and piano to the memory of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953), the renowned music patron who (among many other acts of generosity) presented the Library of Congress with its auditorium.  Poulenc wrote the sonata between December 1956 and March 1957 in Cannes.  Flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal joined the composer at the piano for the premiere at the Strasbourg Festival on June 18, 1957.

Starting with this Flute Sonata, Poulenc had planned to write a cycle of sonatas for each woodwind instrument and piano.  After his Clarinet Sonata (1962), he did complete his Oboe Sonata (1962), which turned out to be the last substantial work he would finish before his death.  He never got around to a bassoon sonata.  As it happens, all three of the existing sonatas of the projected cycle share certain structural and motivic traits.

Allegro malinconico is the oxymoronic designation for the first movement, in three parts.  The first part opens in E minor and centers on a four-note ornamental turn that recurs more than a dozen times.  The second section, marked Un peu plus vite features dotted rhythms.  The third section is a modified version of the first.  The gentle second movement, Cantilena, is dominated by the flute, with the piano coming to the fore only occasionally.  Except for a brief retrospective passage marked Mélancolique, the finale stays true to its Presto giocoso name.


Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Quartet in E-flat major, for piano and strings, op. 47 (composed 1842)

Sostenuto assai; Allegro ma non troppo
Scherzo:  Molto vivace
Andante cantabile
Finale:  Vivace

If 1840 was Schumann's "song year" and 1841 his "symphonic year," then surely 1842 was his "chamber music year."  To console himself while his wife Clara was on a concert tour of Europe early that year, Robert turned to the study of counterpoint and the chamber works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  Upon Clara’s return in April, Robert plunged into a almost non-stop flood of works that, save for his three String Quartets, op. 41, feature the piano in various settings:  the Piano Quintet, op. 44; the Fantasiestücke, op. 88 for piano trio; and the present Piano Quartet, op. 47.  Begun on October 24th, the latter work was completed in less than a month.

Being a pianist, Schumann conceived these works almost as extensions of his solo piano music, with the strings often united either in opposition to, or in imitation of, the keyboard.  The slow introduction to the quartet's first movement takes its inspiration from the similar opening of Beethoven's String Quartet, op. 127, with its question and answer format.  The Allegro's first theme consists of broken chords and a decorative run in the piano; the cello later treats this same theme but elongates the arabesque into an expressive melody line.  The second, more lively theme features the strings imitating the piano's scales.Unison staccato in the piano and cello opens the Scherzo, which boasts two contrasting trios.  Calm and contrapuntal is the folk-like first trio.  Syncopation dominates the second trio, gaining in intricacy as it goes.  A sensuous cello solo introduces, then proceeds to dominate, the Andante cantabile, making the rounds of all four instruments.  A sudden mood change with syncopated rhythms later leads back to that theme, first in the viola, then piano, and finally back to the cello.

Highly contrapuntal and greatly agitated, the Finale opens with a fugato viola theme and eventually recalls themes from previous movements, including the cello's Andante solo.  Concentrating on the dark lower ranges of all four instruments, this Vivace reaches a climax before the fugato returns with a new countersubject just before the end.


Program notes by Jay Weitz, Consulting Database Specialist for music, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Dublin, Ohio.  He is a contributing performing arts critic for the weekly alternative newspaper “Alive:  Music, Art, and Culture in Columbus” (http://www.columbusalive.com).

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