Back by popular demand Opus One returns to perform a program that features both the classics and the new. Opus One is the result of a mutual love of music making between four extraordinary instrumentalists and friends.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) – Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola, & Cello in E-flat Major, Op. 16
This work began as a Quintet for Piano and Winds inspired by the great work of Mozart, the Quintet, K. 452. Both Mozart and Beethoven’s works are in the same key, have the same form, the same instrumentation and many other compositional techniques in common. Beethoven then arranged his quintet for a piano quartet, the version we hear this evening. This was a common practice in his day, when publishers encouraged composers to arrange their works for other groups in order to expand touring possibilities.
Whether one hears it either as a quintet or quartet, it seems hard to believe that it could be as brilliant with any other instrumentation, but it is truly magnificent in both versions. Written in 1796 when Beethoven was living in Vienna and making a great career as a pianist, the work reflects his earlier classical period, the writing filled with brilliance, charm and humor. It was a time before his dreadful hearing loss and before his life changed so dramatically. He was known as an extraordinary improviser and apparently angered his colleagues during the first performance of this very work with extensive solos at the piano. The quartet opens with a slow introduction employing a dotted rhythm that is first stated softly, then loudly, the work progresses shortly to the main body of the movement, with the piano introducing the tuneful theme, followed by the strings. Spectacular melodies are passed through all of the instruments in the second movement, which is a magical, soulful gem. The finale has a rollicking, fun character, which belies the difficulty that was to shortly take over Beethoven’s life.
By Ida Kavafian
Roberto Sierra (b. 1953) – Fuego de ángel Quartet for Piano & Strings
Fuego de ángel, Quartet for Piano and Strings (2011) was written for OPUS ONE, commissioned by and dedicated to Music from Angel Fire with the support of the Bruce E. Howden, Jr. American Composers Project and Friends of Music from Angel Fire.
Fuego de ángel presents a fiery dance that conjures the back-and-forth emotional intensity of a heated battle. In Sierra’s own words:
The inspiration for Fuego de ángel was a place (Angel Fire, New Mexico) that, although I have never visited, triggered my imagination. The idea of an angel in conjunction with fire reminded me of images from renaissance and early baroque religious paintings; in particular some of the Latin American early colonial works which, in fantastic and unusual ways, depict celestial battles between good and evil— such as the many representations of the archangel Michael defeating the devil.
Musically, this manifests as a series driving rhythms, striking dynamic shifts, and mood shifts from frenetic urgency to sublime expressiveness. At times undeniably modern and challenging, and at others unquestionably beautiful, this interpretation of the conflict between good and evil translates to exciting and rewarding musical moment.
By Tyler Roe
Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) – Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola, & Cello in E-flat Major, Op. 87
Chamber music was extremely important to Dvořák, both as a composer and as a performer. The Quartet in E-Flat was written when he was at his creative peak, in 1889. From the first bold statement of the strings in octaves to the rousing final notes, this work is filled with the joy, excitement, depth of feeling and distinctive character that can only be Dvořák.
This is the second of his two forays into this combination of instruments. Though his earlier piano quartet, Op. 23 also contains these typical qualities, the second quartet is the work of a mature compositional genius, brilliantly and tightly constructed. When he wrote this work, Dvořák had not yet had his stint in America as Director of the National Conservatory in New York City, with the summers spent in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa. Those years in America produced works that were “New World” in character. Tonight’s work however, is thoroughly Bohemian in style and feeling. Dvořák himself wrote to a friend, “As expected, it came easily and the melodies just surged upon me, thank God!”
After the distinctive unison opening material, the first movement brings the greatest of contrasts including the most explosive piano writing with supporting punctuation from the strings, to the most tender, intimate sections, this time punctuated by soft heartbeats. The movement builds up with great intensity, again employing unison playing before coming to an exciting close. In the second movement, Dvořák shows his deep love for the cello in one of the great solos in the chamber music literature for that instrument, subtly accompanied by gentle chords and pizzicati in the piano and upper strings. There are two passionate, turbulent sections but the movement finishes the way it began, calmly and sweetly. The graceful third movement is almost waltz-like in feeling, but with a lilting, uniquely Bohemian folk-type character and a trio section of contrasting material. Dvořák even writes in a cimbalom style for the piano to achieve this wonderful flavor. The Finale is filled with tremendous spirit, with a fiery ascending four note motive throughout. The closing of the piece is both thrilling and satisfying, providing the listener with the feeling that they have journeyed along with the musicians through much of Dvořák’s magical world.
By Ida Kavafian