BORROMEO STRING QUARTET with RICHARD STOLTZMAN, Clarinet


Venue: Sunset Center

Location: Carmel, CA


7:30 PM

Claude Debussy : String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10

Sebastian Currier : Etudes and Lullabies (Central Coast Premiere)

Jean Françaix : Quintet for clarinet and String Quartet

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart : Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings K581

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About the Artists


BEFORE THE CONCERT

Learn about this concert’s composers and their works. Gain deeper insights into the music with Kai Christiansen, noted San Francisco musicologist and founder of earsense.org an online chamber music exploratorium.

Lecture starts at 6:45 PM in the Sunset Center concert hall, and is free-of-charge.


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Program Notes:

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
String Quartet in G Minor, op. 10 (1893)

In 1893, Debussy composed his first major work, the String Quartet in G Minor, op. 10. It was the only work to which he attached an opus number or a key designation, and it was essentially the only work Debussy wrote in a conventional form. Outwardly, the quartet assumes the mold of a traditional string quartet, comprised of four movements: a first-movement drama; a rhythmic scherzo; a slow, lyrical third movement; and an energetic finale.

But within this unremarkable template, the music sounds completely new. Debussy expanded the sound palette of the string quartet with a variety of novel textures and tonal effects, ranging from delicate subtlety to ravishing grandeur. With exotic scales and unconventional chords, progressions, and key changes, the music features melodies and harmonies unique for their time. Especially striking is the quartet’s rhythmic vitality, spontaneous agility, and poetic subtlety. With swiftly changing tempi, a wealth of dazzling figurations and cross-rhythms, and the special shimmering or hovering pulsations typical of his music, Debussy captures a nuanced experience of time. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see many elements of Debussy’s signature style within this early work: the sensuous languor of L’après-midi d’un faune, the kinetic energy of La mer, the spice and color of his Iberian Images.

Debussy’s Quartet is equally fascinating for its cyclic design. Other composers used cyclic elements as well: César Franck based several of his compositions on a cyclic principle wherein a signature musical theme recurs in every movement. Earlier, Hector Berlioz featured his idée fixe, a recurrent theme, in every movement of the Symphonie fantastique. Debussy applied the same concept: the opening theme of his quartet recurs in all four movements. But unlike earlier designs in which the theme appears, essentially unchanged, within each movement as an isolated, nearly extraneous element, Debussy uses his theme to generate the majority of the quartet’s music. Using ingenious transformations of melody, harmony, texture, and rhythm, Debussy creates a diversity of music that clearly derives from the initial theme. The first and second movements together contain at least seven variations. The last movement supplies its own new movements in reverse order, leading the quartet right back to the beginning. That such an apparently rigid thematic unity is disguised within a rich variety of music is testament to Debussy’s fertile imagination and his remarkable skill as a composer.

Initial reactions to the quartet ranged from praise to bewilderment and scorn, including such wonderfully revealing sneers as “orgies of modulation” and “rotten with talent.” Debussy shortly set to work on another quartet but abandoned the project, turning instead to the orchestra, which was ultimately a more potent vehicle for his visionary music. Debussy wrote very little additional chamber music, returning to the genre only briefly toward the end of his life. It is amazing to consider the many first-rate composers who labored over numerous string quartets, destroyed early works or cautiously approached the genre for the first time as mature artists, while Debussy, merely thirty-one, wrote a single quartet, a brilliant work of stunning originality, now a masterwork secure in the chamber music repertory.

Sebastian Currier (b. 1959)
Etudes and Lullabies: Etude No. 6, “Velocities”; Lullaby No. 2, “Dreaming”

Living, award-winning American composer Sebastian Currier conceived of a rather novel work in 2017: a collection of Etudes and Lullabies for string quartet, to be premiered in pairs by six different string quartet ensembles. Currier explains in his own words:

“Etudes and Lullabies” is a collection of 12 independent pieces for string quartet: six etudes and six lullabies. For me, these two forms perfectly complement each other, representing two fundamental and opposing aspects of music: the ability to energize and to soothe. An etude projects struggle, intensity, energy, and triumph over difficulty. A lullaby represents the polar opposite: it projects calm, quiet, intimacy, and letting go. The etude embodies defiance, the lullaby surrender. The piano repertoire has many collections of short pieces: etudes, preludes, nocturnes, preludes and fugues, and so forth. The string quartet, strangely, does not. I wrote this collection with that in mind. Etudes and Lullabies can be performed separately or together in any combination.

The collection exhibits a modern flexibility and creative choice in that quartets can mix and match, pairing any etude with any lullaby. This enables multiple premieres over time, as portions have been debuted by the Cassatt, Verona, Orion, and Borromeo Quartets. The fundamental integrity of the etude–lullaby set leverages an ancient pattern of pairs: the pavane and galliard, the prelude and fugue—the song and dance. What is interesting here is that the traditional order is reversed: first comes the bracing etude, then the relaxing lullaby.

The Borromeo Quartet will perform a single pair: Etude No. 6, titled “Velocities,” and Lullaby No. 2, called “Dreaming.” The set perfectly embodies Currier’s vivid conception of contrast as well as two of the hallmark characteristics of the string quartet: a virtuosity featuring percussive, rhythmic dexterity with intricate contrapuntal textures and a composite lyricism featuring atmospheric, blended timbres. Aptly named, the Etude pursues a brisk, driving and perpetual motion with syncopations, pizzicato, chromatic motifs, and slides that suggest the edgy, modern, and urban, with a restlessness that is both jazzy and tense, playful and competitive. The Lullaby floats with a cool, suspended disposition with a slight haunting feeling of remote outer space. It is more mysterious, suspenseful, and otherworldly than a conventional lullaby, but, as its title suggests, it occupies the fanciful and sometimes surreal realm of dreams, the deep sleep that follows a lullaby.

Jean Françaix (1912–1997)
Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet (1977)

French composer Jean Françaix composed a large number of wonderfully winning works in all genres, especially chamber music. Legend has it that he was the favorite student of the eminent French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, and his music is quintessentially French: effervescent, colorful, witty, elegant, full of ease, charm and character. Unconcerned with the “isms” of the avant-garde, Françaix composed and performed music throughout the 20th century, maintaining a tonal and largely accessible style that is best described as neoclassical, given both its “classical” nature and its modern sass. In fact, his musical style often seems most bound to the 1920s, displaying an interwar French neoclassicism with an indefatigable joie de vivre. His 20th-century touch brings elements of jazz and musical theater and a witty humor that can border on satire, but always in a spirit of fun and goodwill, never caustic or ironic. He said himself that his goal was musical pleasure, and he encouraged listeners to take him or leave him depending on how he suited their taste.

A typically French penchant for chamber music featuring wind instruments led Françaix to compose many such works throughout his career, including this one in the time-honored genre of the clarinet quintet, based on the great masterworks by Mozart and Brahms for clarinet and string quartet. (The last time we heard the Borromeo Quartet with Richard Stolzman, they performed a clarinet quintet by Paul Hindemith). Composed in 1977 and dedicated to the Belgian clarinetist Eduard Brunner, it is unmistakably “Jean Françaix” in the very finest sense. Pursuing a formally classical design featuring a first-movement sonata, a scherzo, a slow movement, and a rondo finale, the piece delights with sparkling melody, rhythmic vitality, superb craftsmanship, and the conversational finesse that is the sine qua non of the finest chamber music. The wide expressive range of the clarinet is fully exploited throughout—in the jaunty insouciance of the first movement’s main theme; in the elegant, swaying second theme; in the roguish pranks in the scherzo (reminiscent of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel); in the wistful reverie of the slow movement, featuring the deep and warm “chalumeau” register (the chalumeau is a single-reed woodwind instrument of the late baroque and early classical era); and in a stunning cadenza in the finale that briefly recalls the main themes of all the movements in a rich, compact reprise and conclusion.

While Françaix does not become bogged down in heady development of a more “Germanic” nature, he does subject all his materials to engaging variation so that nothing ever literally repeats: there is always a fresh embellishment or transformation to entertain. This approach is notably present in the recapitulation of the first movement, in the reprise of the scherzo in the second, and in the recurring rondo refrain of the fourth. One of the most striking transformations occurs in the finale: during the middle when the rondo “comes around” again, the clarinet plays in 2/4 while the strings play in 6/8, creating a startling feeling of “slow motion” with the kind of rhythmic interplay for which Brahms was famous. Françaix similarly evokes Mozart, albeit in a much more general way: the music consistently flows with ease and elegance while, just beneath the surface, there is plenty of detail to admire.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581, “Stadler” (1789)

Often inspired to write for a particular musician, Mozart twice wrote a chamber work for his clarinetist friend Anton Stadler: the “Kegelstatt” trio and, three years later, “Stadler’s Quintet.” In a single work, Mozart combines three genres in which he was master: opera, the concerto, and the string quartet. Mozart’s instrumental music “sings” with a vocal character as it develops a compelling dramatic narrative; with skillful and fluid textures, Mozart conjures solo arias, duets, dances, and choruses from an ample cast of five. Likewise, Mozart single-handedly elevated the concerto to a high plane of dramatic art, and his chamber works with colorful soloists tend to evoke intimate concerti. With the clarinet as operatic diva and concerto soloist, the string quartet emerges as the remaining “embedded” ensemble, with much music in the quintet devoted to its elegant, self-sufficient art.

The quintet opens with a moderately paced sonata form clearly articulated by no fewer than three fully lyrical themes, in which the strings coax the clarinet to comment, elaborate, and finally sing. The brief development is given mostly to the rich strands of the string quartet, while the reprise offers even greater fruition, with the exquisite elaborations Mozart so frequently lavishes upon the attentive listener. It all wraps up with the five voices as ribbons tying a rococo bow, with a streamer of laughing triplets from the clarinet tumbling into the last echo of the opening theme.

The Larghetto is the heart of the piece, a wistful nocturne for the mellow, indescribable humanity of the clarinet. Beginning as a touching aria, it becomes a duet as the violin joins like a lover, trying to gently soothe her troubled counterpart. At first enlivened, the clarinet sings more deeply of its longing before miraculously transcending into upward scales of magical grace, made especially effervescent by the atmospheric sheen of muted strings.

The Menuetto changes the scene from a starlit serenade to a glittering society dance, where the rustic frankness of the clarinet happily strides into an unlikely contradance with the urbane, refined, aristocratic strings. To accommodate the rich partitioning of the quintet ensemble, Mozart supplies two trios—one for the slightly serious elegance of the string quartet and another for the simple song of a clarinet that succeeds in charming a wayward violin into a folkdance for two.

Mozart explores every last possible set of relationships in this little chamber opera for five with a theme and variations finale. Through a variety of scenes, the characters talk, laugh, lament, and dance with ever-shifting moods and alliances while recalling the same story from a different angle each time. Mozart masterfully manages the dramatic narrative, including the somber, suspenseful penultimate variation, its resolution, and a coda that brings all five instruments back together again for a final, lovely bow.