Mark Kosower, cello & Jee-Won Oh, piano

Chamber Concert
Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church

Frequent guests at international chamber music festivals, Mark Kosower and Jee-Won Oh have collaborated extensively, appearing in concert together and recording together worldwide.  Recent season highlights include a tour of South Korea and Cambodia, and performances in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Ms. Oh also concertizes internationally as soloist and chamber musician.  Mr. Kosower is Principal Cellist of The Cleveland Orchestra and Teacher of Cello at the famed Cleveland Institute of Music. Find more information on Mr. Kosower’s cello residency in Oak Ridge at www.ORCMA.org.  

Notes by Becky Ball:

It is a rare privilege to hear a whole program devoted to sonatas for one or two instruments. The romantic sonata developed similarly to the symphony and concerto, with the main trends being the interrelation of themes between movements and the interlocking or merging of movements. After Beethoven, Brahms ranks first in importance in the history of the sonata form. The spotlight today is on a cellist and pianist whose sonatas will contain three movements in contrasting tempos: Fast-Slow-fast or Exposition-Development-Recapitulation.  And blessed be, they begin with Samuel Barber.  Fair or unfair, mention Barber and we immediately think of the movie Platoon and its stirring use of Adagio for Strings.

Sonata for Cello and Piano, Opus 6 - Samuel Barber (1932) – Neo  Romantic

At an early age, Barber became a charter pupil of the Curtis Institute of Music, where at age 14 he became one of the first students to study piano, composition, conducting, and singing.  He could have been a professional baritone, but he opted for composition under the eminent teacher Rosario Scaleroe. Since we are dropping names, the story goes that Barber and his life partner Gian Carlo Menotti went to see Arturo Toscanini to deliver two of Barber’s works for him to consider. Weeks went by with no word. Finally, both pieces were returned without comment. Barber was furious, but it turned out Toscanini liked them so much he memorized them, and both were premiered on nationwide radio with the maestro conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra on May 5, 1938.

Musical talent ran in Barber’s family, and we think Samuel‘s lifestyle played an important role in a style which didn’t have to conform. He said no thank you to modern trends in composing, blithely ignoring the influence of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He was an avid reader, especially of great literature.  That disposed him to niceties like melodic writing and poetic ideas.  A poem by James Agee inspired his Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for voice and orchestra.

Later in his career he won travelling scholarships with his Violin Sonata and overture to The School for Scandal.

What is a winner without rewards?  How about the American Prix de Rome and two Pulitzer and Guggenheim Fellowships.  And yet when asked what happens when he composed, his reply was “I really don’t have the faintest idea.”

BONUS FACT – A portion of a letter written to Samuel’s mom on the

subject of football: I was not meant to be an athlete.  I was meant to be a composer.  I’ll ask you one more thing – don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football – Please!  Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me very mad (not very).   Shortly after, Samuel began advanced lessons at the Curtis Institute and the subject of football never came up again.  

Sonata  No. 2 for Cello and Piano, Opus 117 - - Gabriel Faure (Late Romantic )

Faure lived and composed in an age of musical diversity.  His unique harmonic innovations and modal scales went well with impressionist paintings and symbolist poetry.  While strolling through the park one day, the very young Gabriel spied the town organ.  It was love at first sight. Fast forward now to his long distinguished career as a church organist before he inherited the directorship of the Paris Conservatory.  Among his VIP students was Ravel, and he himself was Saint-Saens’ favorite student. Speaking of Saint-Saens, a quote attributed to him informs there is nothing more difficult than talking about music.”  Did he try writing about it?  Anyway, Faure’s influence on other 20-century composers was huge. Debussy and Sibelius certainly benefitted.

In 1921 Faure was commissioned by the French government to write a funeral march for the 100th anniversary of the death of Napoleon. He immediately stored the melody in his head, but his increasing health problems made it difficult to complete the piece.  Finally, he announced he was turning it into a sonata, and sure enough, it was premiered in May 1922.

As we follow the three movements, listen for many contrasts in themes, the change of meters and keys, canonic surprises, and intriguing tonal textures.    For sure, we will learn how much fun hard work can be, especially for spectators.

BONUS FACT – Faure , in a letter to his son Philippe (1908): “For me, music exists to elevate us as far as possible above everyday existence.”  HEAR! HEAR! I might add especially during these ill-tempered partisan days.

Pezzo capriccioso, Opus 62  - -  - Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky  (Romantic)

Tchaikovsky’s first musical impression came in early childhood when he heard opera airs tinkled on little mechanical instruments.  From a tinkle to a canon in the 1812 Overture?   Holy Moses! What images do you see (or hear) when you think of Tchaikovsky?  Is it Van Cliburn’s winning of the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow during the cold war, or something a little less electrifying like the Nutcracker Suite?  Any work Tchaikovsky wrote, it was sure to be melodically superior, instrumentally colorful and emotionally complex.  Be happy for the volumes and volumes of music that poured from his pen, because “happy” was not in his dictionary. To put it simply, he lived a wretched life.

His enticing Pezzo capriccioso plants a seed (a simple theme).  Our privilege is to “hear” it grow and marvel at all the composer’s decorative treatments, including a key change.  The big surprise is its somberness, not usually associated with capriccios.

BONUS FACT – “Tchaikovsky’s music is not only one of the cornerstones of Russian culture and world music, it is also a creative and technical encyclopedia which all Russian composers have referenced in the course of their own work” – Dimitri Shostakovich

 

Piece for Cello and piano, Opus 39 - - - Ernest Chausson

French music just got better with Chausson’s Symphony in B-Flat, “the best German symphony ever written by a Frenchman” says Jim Svejda in Record Shelf Guide, but Chausson really belonged to a group of French  composers who were inspired by Cesar Franck. The proof is in the common traits of mysticism, poetic beauty, calmness, emotional restraint and introspection in their works.  But guess what, we will never miss the fiery climaxes or extravagant emotions, because they would be out of place in Chausson’s intentional or unintentional understated peep into Impressionism.

BONUS FACT –  A very sad one - - At the precious age of forty four, Chausson died after riding his bike downhill and smashing into a wall.  Just think what might have been.

 

Cello Sonata, H.125  (1913-1917) -    Frank Bridge

English composer Frank Bridge was one of the most accomplished musicians of his day (1879-1941).  He composed in many genres but was particularly good with chamber music.  He began his career as a violinist, having studied at the Royal College of Music, London, but he wound up as a virtuoso violist.  With that instrument, he played with the Joachim and English String Quartets.  His early works (quartets, songs, and piano pieces) were romantic in style, but eventually he began to experiment with atonality. The cello sonata supposedly acts as a bridge between the world of pastoral intoxicating innocence and the world of war-torn madness.   

The talking points here are unconventional time signatures, strange melodic turns, and even some whimpering. The piece opens under the time signature 5/4.  Splitting the 5 into 2+3 has the effect of a repeating accent.  The overall effect creates an asymmetry that suggests a poem in free verse. An earnest and noble cello begins its march to the accompaniment of the highest notes on the piano, and immediately we are entranced with the tonal textures and undulating lyricism. Richness and tension increase as the imagined tools of war take flight. Are thoughts of war gone?  The finale cheers briefly and then says Maybe.  What’s in your mind?   What’s in your mind? 

BONUS FACT:  This sonata is a favorite of Bridge, and the most widely performed.

Pljaska – Danse russe (nach Lyadov)       Gregor Piatigorsky

Gregor Piatigorsky was born in Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine in 1903. By age 8, he was already a professional cellist with jobs in restaurants and theaters.  At age 15 he was principal cellist of the Bollshoi Orchestra.  At age 18 he escaped from Communist Russia and guess what, he became principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic.

During World War II he was forced to leave Europe with his family, settling first in upstate New York and then in California.  In 1960 , along with his close friend Jascha Heifitz, Piatigorsky began teaching master classes at the University of Southern California.  About the Danse russe, we can tell you that you have to be a virtuoso to attempt it.

Bonus Fact: He was known as a great musician, raconteur, art collector, and a man of great warmth and generosity.

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