Your Cart UMS

The Inside Scoop: Chamber musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic

Some people like to attend a performance with a blind ear, letting the musical experience wash over them afresh. Others like a more informed approach, seeking out the musical particulars that promise to make an ensemble’s approach to their program unique. Guest blogger and U-M graduate student composer Garrett Schumann is the latter type of audience member and brings us this glimpse of what we can expect to hear from the chamber musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin, this Wednesday evening in Rackham Auditorium.

Wednesday night’s performance by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin – chamber musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic comprising an octet of string quartet, contrabass, horn clarinet and bassoon – will certainly present new instrumental textures to its audience. The evening’s program revolves around Schubert’s major chamber work, Octet in F Major, an arrangement of Anton Dvořák’s Czech Suite in D Major and also includes a very new work for octet by composer Keeril Makan entitled Tender Illusions.

As evidenced by this collection of pieces, groups like the Scharoun Ensemble who adore performing Schubert’s Octet typically depend on arrangements and new commissions to fill their repertory. In fact, this reality is closely tied to the Octet’s origins: Schubert received the commission from Austrian noble Count Ferdinard Troyer who – being an amateur clarinetist – sought a new chamber work he could perform alongside Beethoven’s Septet. Schubert deviated from this model by adding a second violin, but structured the piece very similarly to Beethoven’s work.

The Octet’s instrumentation gives the work a very unusual and personal character, particularly because its winds have a very condensed spectrum of register. The horn and bassoon have similar ranges, though the bassoon is more of a bass instrument, which automatically makes the clarinet extremely prominent, a fact not lost on Schubert. Prepare to identify the clarinet as an important melodic role-player in the work, namely in the second movement where it introduces the primary theme above accompanying strings. Along these lines, the absence of a flute incidentally adds brightness to solo violin passages: our ears yearn for a more piercing soprano sound than the warmth of the clarinet and the violin is the only instrument we hear in the Octet whose range enters the heights we expect from a full compliment of orchestral winds. Beyond the uncommon makeup of Schubert’s ensemble, the ways he combines these instruments are particularly stunning and remarkable.

To my ears, I am always impressed by the delicacy with which Schubert treats the contrabass, whose sonic breadth further imbalances the low end of the ensemble’s range. The scherzo third movement demonstrates the weight of the contrabass as Schubert contrasts a primarily loud minuet featuring the whole ensemble with an elegant trio in the movement’s mid-section. Here, the contrabass is pretty much absent, engendering the music with a refreshing lightness. Of course, contrabass players are capable of being quite sensitive with their instruments, which Schubert knew as well. Just listen for the expressive and agile triplet arpeggios in the contrabass part in the second variation of the fourth movement; you’ll know you’re here because it is the first point in the piece where the horn and bassoon play.

These and other textures will certainly populate Ulf-Guido Schäfer’s arrangement of Anton Dvořák’s saccharine Czech Suite in D major, which the composer began writing in March 1879. Deeply nationalistic, this work is full of musical references to Dvořák’s homeland a Bohemian-style minuet – the “Sousedeska” – and many folk tunes. Although intended for full orchestra, the piece is very heavy on winds and should suit the Scharoun Ensemble quite well. The final two movements – “Romance” and “Finale” – open with wind solos accompanied by strings, but feature oboe and flute, not the Scharoun ensemble’s lone clarinet. The arrangement’s approach to these sections will be especially interesting to discover in light of Schubert’s treatment of register in the Octet. Will the violin simply cover these high wind parts? Or, will the clarinet play them lower to maintain the general color of the moment: wind solo against strings?

In contrast to Schubert’s unique Octet, the Czech Suite comes from a long line of 18th and 19th century orchestral compositions dubbed, “serenades.” These works – such as Mozart’s beloved Eine Klein Nachtmusik – were like the easy listening music of the day; simple forms with straightforward ideas and clear textures. These characteristics make the Czech Suite transparently evocative, depicting an idealized Bohemian landscape and culture in its melodies, rhythms and orchestral spacing. Very little of these qualities should be lost in the hands of the Scharoun Ensemble’s smaller instrumental battery; if anything, the scene Dvořák attempts to paint will appear more intimate. Clearly, Dvořák’s full palette of orchestral colors is trapped in the work’s original version. Yet – as we saw with Schubert’s Octet – a group like the Scharoun Ensemble is capable of a vast number of textures, which should prove and exciting arena in which to hear the Czech Suite.

With these more traditional octet applications in mind, we will turn to composer Keeril Makan’s new octet composition Tender Illusions. The Scharoun Ensemble premiered the piece on March 6th, so it is safe to say Mr. Makan’s work is the absolute cutting edge of octet writing. Mr. Makan’s website provides interested parties with sound bites of a diverse range of works for small and large ensembles. The pieces Mr. Makan showcases on his site range from the highly aggressive string quartet and electro-acoustic works The Noise Between Thoughts and Threads to the slowly unfolding, introverted and contemplative solo piano work Afterglow.

It is impossible to say what Tender Illusions will sound like, but it is clear from the works Mr. Makan chooses to share that he has an affinity for rhythm and creates very clear, visceral musical textures. Keeping those pieces in mind, I imagine Tender Illusions will employ some unconventional instrumental techniques – just listen to the string quartet writing in The Noise Between Thoughts – but not for the sake of experimentation. Based on Mr. Makan’s comments about The Noise Between Thoughts, he chose anguishing string sounds to effect a clear expressive – and in this case, political – goal. In light of this, I can assure Wednesday’s audience members that Mr. Makan will pursue all necessary force to express his goal in Tender Illusions. Whether violent or reflective, I have no doubt you will walk away from Rackham Auditorium having felt the emotional impression Mr. Makan hopes to convey, regardless of its complexity.

Armed with Mr. Makan’s Tender Illusions, the Czech Suite and Schubert’s Octet, the Scharoun Ensemble should also leave an indelible mark on its audience. Their instrumentation grants them much of the breadth of an orchestral group, but also allows for the flexibility and intimacy audiences love in chamber music. Wednesday’s concert will not only display the individual and cohesive excellence of the Scharoun Ensemble, it will also present a wide range of musical textures and styles. Every listener should be pleased and blown away.

UMS Staff Picks: The Cripple of Inishmaan selected by Sara Billmann, Director of Marketing & Communications

SN: The multi-award winning Druid and Atlantic Theater co-production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan has been described as “a break-your-heart, cruelly funny evening” – what kind of theatrical journey can audience members expect to experience when they see this production?

The Cripple of Inishmaan

SB: I don’t want to spoil the story, but suffice it to say that it will be quite an emotional ride.

I’ve seen two of Martin McDonagh’s plays when they were produced in New York in the mid-late 1990s, and they are simply brilliant pieces, in part because of the way they force you to re-examine your own morals.  He sets up these outrageous scenes that are absolutely hilarious, then delivers the knock-out punch that makes you realize you’ve been laughing at something that is, in fact, incredibly tragic.  The June issue of <i>Opera News</i> put it perfectly: “As anyone who’s ever sat through a Martin McDonagh play can attest, sometimes the only response we can muster when confronted with the searing emotional or physical pain of others is a laugh.”

I read this play poolside while visiting my in-laws in San Antonio and found myself laughing out loud on any number of occasions.  Let’s face it, there are many plays where you chuckle inwardly, but something that produces a spontaneous outburst while reading to yourself is extraordinary in its own sense.  And based on every production I’ve seen of McDonagh’s work, the live production will far exceed what’s on the page.

So that we could all familiarize ourselves with the play, about a dozen members of the UMS staff did a “read-through” this summer.  I hope that some audience members will be interested in doing the same — we’d be interested in putting together play-reading groups for others and loaning the scripts. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the dialects and turns of language that really bring the piece alive.  And, of course, a great way to meet new people too.

SN: What are you most looking forward to about this UMS debut performance?

SB: It’s pretty simple, really – I just can’t wait to see what they do with the production to bring it alive.  I have friends who saw this production when it was on Broadway a few years ago and raved about it.  Having grown up in a small town, I recognize some of the quirky characters and look forward to seeing how they are realized on stage.

SN: What other events are on your “must see” list for the 10/11 season?       

SB: Just about everything!  As a trained classical musician, I’m particularly interested in the big orchestras and piano recitals.  I was turned on to Denis Matsuev about two years ago by someone who had heard his recording in Gramophone magazine.  His playing is really quite extraordinary.  I also adore Schubert and am looking forward to the three Tákacs concerts, as well as the Scharoun Ensemble performance of the Schubert Octet.  I’m also looking forward to Grupo Corpo – what a great company!  I could go on and on.  The beauty of being the marketing director for UMS is that I start to research all of the artists we’re presenting long before we announce the season, and I always get turned on to things I never would have thought I’d enjoy…which ultimately means that the entire season becomes a “must see” for me.

SN: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

Sara Billmann

SB: I have two kids – Elisabeth is 8 and going into 4th grade, and Harry is 6 and going into 1st grade – who keep me plenty busy. I was about to respond that I do laundry outside of work, until I saw the word “enjoy” in the question.  Elisabeth loves to play baseball, so I think I’ve spent the better part of July attending her games and taking her to see the Tigers when time permits.  I’m also hopelessly addicted to The New Yorker and steal moments here and there to try to stay caught up.  Other hobbies include wine tasting and walking the dog – we acquired a boxer/pointer mix from the Humane Society three months ago, and I’ve become the family’s designated dog walker, which fills up a shocking amount of time each day.

SN: What have you been listening to on your iPod?

SB: Ha!  The day I get to listen to my iPod will be a great day indeed.  Lately my kids have been torturing me, making me listen to “Stayin’ Alive” and 1980s dance tunes (oh, to return to the days when my daughter would watch “The Barber of Seville” by choice…).  But when I can wrestle it away from them, I mostly listen to Schubert lieder, Maria Joao Pires performing Schubert and Chopin, Denis Matsuev playing Rachmaninoff, and Mahler, though truth be told, the iPod doesn’t do Mahler justice.  Murray Perahia‘s recital in 2000 of the Bach/Busoni Chorale Preludes and the Goldberg Variations will always rank among my top UMS performances, and I often bring back that memory with the recording “Songs Without Words” released around the same time.  Angelika Kirchschlager and Fritz Wunderlich are among my favorite singers, though I will confess that I also enjoy Pink Martini in my less serious moments.  And I recently loaded on a CD by a wonderful Iranian group called Ghazal.