Old and New: April 3 & 9

April 2016 ESF concludes its MainStage series with an epic program including Brahms Clarinet Quintet, Mozart Horn Quintet, and a new Sextet by Sheridan Seyfried. 

  • Sunday April 3, 6:30pm at Valley Presbyterian in Portola Valley
  • Saturday April 9, 5:00pm at St. Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco

Kevin Rivard, Rebecca Jackson, Moni Simeonov, Matt Young, Jonah Kim, and Christine McLeavey Payne will be joined by guests clarinetist Jose Gonzalez Granero and violist Joy Fellows. Read on to learn more about these seminal works from Kai Christiansen. 

This concert is made possible through a generous grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music.

 The ESF Piano Quintet reunites in April! Left to Right: Matt, Christine, Rebecca, Jonah, Moni

The ESF Piano Quintet reunites in April! Left to Right: Matt, Christine, Rebecca, Jonah, Moni

 Kevin Rivard 

Kevin Rivard 

 Jose Gonzalez Granero 

Jose Gonzalez Granero 

 Joy Fellows

Joy Fellows

Brahms, Clarinet Quintet

Early in 1891, supposedly retired, Brahms became intoxicated by the clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld and was inspired by this fresh muse to compose once again. Between 1891 and 1894, Brahms composed a clutch of four final chamber works featuring the clarinet: a trio, a quintet and two sonatas in that order. These are positively magical works. Mellow, melancholy, warmly nostalgic and fleetingly dire, the music perfectly exploits each of these signature characteristics of the colorful clarinet for a composite mood that has often been called “autumnal.”

The first movement is a lengthy sonata of sweeping breadth where the initial theme appears in several closely related variations throughout with vivid contrasts between the powerful string ensemble and the intimate charm of the vulnerable clarinet.

The otherworldly adagio is undeniably the center of the quintet. A languid nocturne softly dreams of a warm summer night with a muted sheen of strings and the clear reedy bell of the clarinet sustaining long, quiet tones. The reverie all too soon gives way by to a much darker mood full of tension, protest, even despair. The clarinet takes center stage here with its full tonal and expressive range pushed to the edge of piercing stridency. Eventually, the mood shifts back again to the calm nocturne.

Brahms concludes the work with two much shorter movements that almost bind together into a single continuum. The third movement initially comes as a surprise; instead of a lively scherzo, one finds a moderately paced song, a vintage Brahms melody. This is a framing device that serves to introduce and conclude a lively scherzo nestled within. The finale is a theme and five variations where Brahms will eventually recollect the beginning: the first theme from the opening movement returns, perfectly dovetailing with the stream of variations. Despite all the ample warmth, the sweetly sorrowful nostalgia, the intimate and friendly tone of the clarinet, Brahms ends the quintet with a single, sobering chord: just beyond the warm Indian summer he seems to anticipate winter’s chill.

Mozart, Horn Quintet

Mozart wrote his horn quintet in 1782 for Ignaz Leutgeb, a horn player in the Salzburg orchestra who also inspired Mozart’s four horn concertos. The entire personality of the quintet is influenced by the horn, not only by its presence but also by the motifs and harmonies that so naturally, even affectionately, highlight its essence. (For rich variety of primary intervals, chord inversions, pedals and blending, this is an ingenious and supremely musical study). A work of grace and balance, it nonetheless demands much of the horn player to achieve an effortless effect, particularly if played on the valve-less “natural” horn of Mozart’s time.

The work is curiously scored for two violas rather than two violins. With the weight shifted to the lower voices, the horn enjoys a more kindred, warm accompaniment. In addition, the single violin becomes more prominent. The quintet might be considered closer to a concerto than a chamber work of equal players, but if so, the concertante ensemble that includes the violin as well. Much of the texture features the interplay of the violin and the horn against the backdrop of the lower strings. Upon attentive listening, the quintet reveals a constantly shifting texture featuring different sub-groupings: the string quartet and the horn, the violin and the horn, the pairing of the horn and the cello, and the string quartet alone.

The quintet has three movements. The first movement sonata features the antiphony between violin and horn. As is often the case with Mozart, it is the development in the recapitulation that is just as interesting than the development section itself. The return of the opening material is treated to delightful elaboration with elongated phrases, richer lines and a refreshing key change. The second movement is literally the heart of the work: it is a sweet and even longing andante with the truest chamber textures in the work in the full range of shifting alliances. The final movement restores the bright mood with a lively rondo, playful but always elegant. Its last episode and rondo refrain satisfy any want of chamber texture with excellent part writing including the final bow of each instrument in five-part imitation for a witty close.

-Program notes by musicologist Kai Christiansen

 Seyfried, Sheridan Sextet

The Sextet is a spirited piece that embraces a range of stylistic influences, including Beethoven, rock and roll, the blues and bluegrass. It uses a standard three movement fast-slow-fast pattern. The last thing I composed was the introduction to the first movement—writing an effective introduction is easier when you know where you’re going! The dark but highly energetic first movement is contrasted with a singing and lyrical second movement. This movement is the heart of the work. It features the interplay of melancholy music (clarinet and strings) and more hopeful music (piano and strings). The tension between the two forces (and instrumentations) is only resolved at the end of the movement. The drama gives way to an exuberant, joyous finale.

-Program note by Sheridan Seyfried


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