The Oak Ridge String Quartet returns to the Oak Ridge Chamber Series, with a program featuring compositions that will transport audiences around the world and back again to Tennessee. Formed by the talented string players of the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra, the quartet includes violinists Karen Kartal and Sarah Ringer, violist Sara Cho, and cellist Theodore Kartal.
Program notes for the first two pieces are as follows:
Quartet No. 3 in F, Op. 73 Dmitri Shostakovich
For many years, Russia was a good place to hear serious art music – think Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky for starters. That state of affairs was just fine with Dmitri Shostakovich, who had a disdain for middlebrow taste and who composed his share of longhair Soviet masterpieces. His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District opened in 1934 to critical acclaim both in Russia and abroad, but the Leninist movement and Stalin intervened, demanding that art must expose the crimes of Capitalism while also communicating directly and simply to the common person. No elitism allowed said they, and you can bet your sweet vodka that this state of affairs was NOT fine with Shostakovich. After seeing Lady Macbeth, Stalin denounced it for its “deliberate dissonance and muddled stream of sounds.” Furthermore, rather than being genuine music that the masses could understand, it was “formalism music” which was designed to appeal to the unwholesome tastes of the bourgeoisie. We have to remember that Stalin did not have the advantage of Dan Allcott’s informative pre-concert classes. We also need to remember that Stalin and Shostakovich were playing a tug-of-war game that could go bad. So Shostakovich wisely put aside his fourth symphony, already in rehearsal, and created the safer and more accessible Fifth.
Shostakovich was a brilliant student who took his music and his wartime obligations seriously. It all began when at age 9 he could play all the preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, and at age 11 he wrote his first composition (a reaction to the Revolution of February 1917). While getting super educated at Moscow Conservatory, he rose in rank and became one of the greatest Russian composers of the 20th century.
Of late, Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets have garnered a lot of respect, beginning with his first that followed his Fifth Symphony. This Quartet No. 3 was dedicated to the members of the Beethoven String Quartet, who also gave the first performance in Moscow on their namesake’s 176th birthday. Listen for the Beethoven flavors throughout the five contrasting movements. The complexity of the quartet is as interesting as the complexity of Shostakovich’s personality, part witty-part gritty, part scornful-part ingratiating, part playful-part earnest, and all shaped by wars. We may even “hear” the bullets of censorship dodging each other or “see” Shostakovich in his fire-fighters helmet while doing his bit for the Russian Resistance to Hitler’s armies. It is easy to understand why this “War Quartet” was the only composition Shostakovich composed in the whole year of 1946.
We call your attention to the players playing in the upper ranges of their instruments and to the abundance of chromatics, which appear to be purposely obscuring a clear tonality. You cannot miss the brilliant solos or the unusual but lovely dolce beginning. The very dark Allegretto pulses confidently on a two-note cadence, and the Moderato con moto is a heavy-laden waltz. No one is likely to miss its downbeat. By contrast, the Allegro non troppo explodes, alternating 2/4 meters with 3/4 meters. The crown jewel is the expressive Adagio, which will remind you of Beethoven’s late quartets. Intense melodic beauty is curiously augmented by pizzicatos and a bass line that thinks it is a Passacaglia. Shostakovich gradually brings back themes from earlier movements. Your favorite may be in the mix. Enjoy!
By now, you have probably determined that Shostakovich is not for sissies, but did you know that the composer had little patience for people who wrote program notes or reviews? Hmmmm.
BONUS FACT - From a page in Testimony, Solomon Volkov’s Memoirs of Shostakovich.
This is Shostakovich talking about himself and Alexander Glazunov: “I despise sentimentality, can’t bear it, and I am not reminiscing so that sensitive ladies can bring their scented hankies to their eyes. I am remembering that in our time, Alexander Glazunov was a living legend with no false sentimentality, and he was revered for his good deeds by every working musician in the country.
Five Novelettes Alexander Glazunov
It is true that a group of composers arrived on the scene after the zenith of the Russian nationalist composers and before the modern era. Glazunov, however, was the most prolific. He composed when he really wanted to, without giving thought to “ideological rules”. He admired the music of Beethoven, Liszt and Wagner. His own music was more cosmopolitan than nationalistic, and his most popular pieces were the ballet The Seasons, The Fifth Symphony, and the Violin Concerto.
Glazunov was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and a teacher of Shostakovich and thousands of other students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He sacrificed everything for the conservatory – his time, his serenity, and finally his creativity.
The Five Novelettes expose tuneful virtuosity and flowing lyricism. Maybe it is time for a resurgence of interest. All good music deserves to be heard.
BONUS FACT – You might want to hear more of Glazunov’s good deeds as quoted in Testimony: “Prime Minister Stolypin sent an inquiry to the Conservatory asking how many Jewish students were enrolled. The reply was ‘We do not keep count’.”