Program note by Sarah Rothenberg
At the time of this live performance in Houston, we were celebrating the centennial of Polish-Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, born in 1919; and with tonight’s stream we commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death on February 26, 1996. But until very recently the works of this prolific and brilliant musician were unknown outside of Russia. His artistically bold and historically important opera, The Passenger, much of which takes place in the Auschwitz concentration camp, was completed in 1968 but not performed until 2010, and received its U.S. premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 2014. Such critically-acclaimed performances, as well as reissues and new recordings of many of his more than 150 works — which include 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 28 instrumental sonatas, seven concerti for various instruments — are now earning Weinberg his rightful place alongside Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich as one of the greatest Russian composers of the twentieth century.
The tragedy of Weinberg’s personal biography reflects the historical tragedies of the century in which he lived. Weinberg’s father, a violinist and conductor in Yiddish theater, left Moldavia in 1909 following a pogrom against Jews in which both his father and grandfather were killed. The family settled in Warsaw, and Mieczyslaw was born ten years later, in 1919. Evidencing unusual musical talent as a child, he began studies at the Warsaw Conservatory, where it was expected he would become a great piano virtuoso. But Weinberg’s studies were interrupted in 1939 when the rise of the Nazis forced him to flee further east to Minsk, and it was here that he began to focus on composition. In 1941 he was forced to flee again to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. His family did not escape Poland; Weinberg’s mother, father and sister were murdered by the Nazis.
While in Tashkent, where many Russian intellectuals and artists had been evacuated, Weinberg met the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, whose portrayal of Shakespeare’s King Lear had earned him fame throughout Europe and fans beyond Jewish audiences — Shostakovich spoke of him as Russia’s “greatest King Lear.” Weinberg married the daughter of Mikhoels, and it was, in fact, Mikhoels who sent the score of his young son-in-law’s First Symphony to Dmitri Shostakovich. With Shostakovich’s support, Weinberg and his wife succeeded in establishing residence in Moscow in 1943. At the time, one needed official permission to reside in the capital, and this was especially difficult for Jews to obtain.
Although there was some loosening of anti-Semitic policies during the War, a returning wave of cruelty against Jews under Stalin was announced with the brutal murder of Solomon Mikhoels by Stalin’s secret police in 1948. Staged as an accident but ordered by Stalin himself, the assassination threatened all Jews. Given Solomon Mikhoels’s unique significance as a leader, the murder was also viewed as a message of death to Yiddish language and culture within the Soviet Union.
The friendship between Shostakovich and Weinberg was deep and long-lived. Shostakovich was thirteen years senior and his career was already established when Weinberg arrived in the Soviet Union, but the relationship is not characterized as that of mentor and student, but rather as two musical colleagues who admired each other’s work. The families resided in the same apartment block in Moscow for years, and Dmitri and Nina Shostakovich proved their loyalty when the Stalinist police arrested Weinberg in 1953 on trumped-up charges of treason – only five years after the murder of his father-in-law. Fearing that the arrest of his wife would follow soon after, the friends quickly drew up papers assigning to Shostakovich the power of attorney for the Weinberg’s seven-year-old daughter, should she be left without parents, as Weinberg was taken away. Shostakovich also apparently made calls attesting to Weinberg’s innocence, risking potential danger to himself by doing so. Stalin’s death a few months later, in March 1953, plausibly spared Mieczyslaw Weinberg from a possible death sentence, and the composer returned to Moscow where he lived the rest of his life.
The Piano Quintet was composed in 1944, when Weinberg was 25, and received its premiere in Moscow by the renowned pianist Emil Gilels and the Bolshoi Theatre Quartet in 1945. A wonderful pianist himself, the composer recorded the work with the Borodin String Quartet. The enthusiasm of the Soviet Union’s most esteemed musicians for Weinberg’s music — in addition to those mentioned, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor Kiril Kondrashin, and violinist Leonid Kogan all championed his works — is testament to the high regard in which he was held by his contemporaries. One of Weinberg’s greatest compositions, the Quintet takes its place alongside the nineteenth-century masterworks in this form by Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak and has few equivalents in its own century; the Shostakovich Quintet of 1940, with which it shares certain characteristics, comes to mind, but the Weinberg may even surpass it in overall intensity.
Combining classicism with deeply felt folk roots, the Quintet opens melodically with a lyrical theme in the piano, contrasting with the rhythmic, march-like second theme. The second movement, Allegretto, in B minor, alternates between fragmented unison brooding melodies in the strings and a cadenza-like, highly ornamented piano solo. The movement quickly catches on fire before shifting back down to a hushed moodiness. The Presto third movement is a scherzo, sharing much in common with similar movements by Shostakovich — notably in his Second Piano Trio, composed in the same period. The waltz and tango of this movement have a manic quality, as Weinberg pushes the limits of virtuosity. The fourth movement, Largo, is majestically tragic. The longest movement of the work, its stoic unison theme is filled with both mourning and strength. The violin breaks out in an ornamented lament taken over by a long piano solo, free, expressive and powerful.
The fifth movement is a tour-de-force of macabre intensity, an amazingly original statement. The fortissimo hammered opening material relaxes momentarily into a lilting folksy melody that goes through various contrapuntal permutations before building back to the ferocious opening material, leading to a dramatic return of the opening themes of the first movement. This forceful recapitulation gradually seems to lose strength, and we arrive at a sequence of slow soft chords in the piano — an unanticipated stop, as though the composer can no longer go on. Muted strings enter fitfully. After a silence, the intense opening material of this agitated movement resumes, but no longer as an allegro agitato; instead we play in a measured, pianissimo moderate speed. The piano punctuates the strings’ repeated notes with the clipped-rhythm staccato octaves that characterize this movement. The piece dies away – morendo – in an effective statement of irresolution. There is no real conclusion, no answer; we end with a quiet and haunting question.
Praised by The New Yorker as “a fresh and vital young participant in what is a golden age of American string quartets,” the Daedalus Quartet has established itself as a leader among the new generation of string ensembles. Since winning the top prize in the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2001, the Daedalus Quartet has impressed critics and listeners alike with the security, technical finish, interpretive unity and sheer gusto of its performances.
Since its founding the Daedalus Quartet has performed in many of the world’s leading musical venues; in the United States and Canada these include Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center (Great Performers series), the Library of Congress, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and Boston’s Gardner Museum, as well as on major series in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Abroad the ensemble has been heard in such famed locations as the Musikverein in Vienna, the Mozarteum in Salzburg, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Cité de la Musique in Paris and in leading venues in Japan.
The Daedalus Quartet has won plaudits for its adventurous exploration of contemporary music, most notably the compositions of Elliott Carter, George Perle, György Kurtág and György Ligeti. Among the works the ensemble has premiered are Huck Hodge’s The Topography of Desire, commissioned by the Fromm Foundation; David Horne’s Flight from the Labyrinth, commissioned for the Quartet by the Caramoor Festival; Lawrence Dillon’s String Quartet No. 4, commissioned by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts; and Fred Lerdahl’s Third String Quartet, commissioned by Chamber Music America, as well as Lerdahl’s Chaconne, commissioned by New Music USA.
To date the Quartet has forged associations with some of America’s leading classical music and educational institutions: Carnegie Hall, through its European Concert Hall Organization (ECHO) Rising Stars program; and Lincoln Center, which appointed the Daedalus Quartet as the Chamber Music Society Two quartet for 2005-07. The Quartet won Chamber Music America’s Guarneri String Quartet Award, which funded a three-year residency in Suffolk County, Long Island from 2007-2010.
Recently, the Daedalus Quartet recorded Fred Lerdahl’s Chaconne, which will be released by Bridge Records as part of a disc of Lerdahl’s collected works, and Vivian Fung’s Frenetic Memories (with clarinetist Romie deGuise-Langlois), written for the group. The quartet’s other recordings include the music of Joan Tower, Lawrence Dillon, Ursula Mamlok, Kai-Young Chan, and Brian Buch. Strad Magazine praised the quartet’s “exemplary intonation and balance.” The quartet’s debut recording, music of Stravinsky, Sibelius, and Ravel, was released by Bridge Records in 2006. A Bridge recording of the Haydn’s complete “Sun” Quartets, Op. 20, was released on two CDs in 2010.
A pianist of “heart, intellect and fabulous technical resources” (Fanfare) and “power and introspection” (The New York Times), Sarah Rothenberg has a unique career as performer, writer and creator of multidisciplinary performances which she conceives and directs linking music to literature and visual art. Renowned for her innovative programming as a concert curator, prior to her arrival at DACAMERA, Sarah Rothenberg was co-founding Artistic Director of the Bard Music Festival. The Wall Street Journal recently described her as “a prolific and creative thinker.” Her most recent recording is DACAMERA’s Music for Rothko Chapel: Satie, Cage and Feldman on ECM, included in the 10 best classical recordings of 2015 by the Chicago Tribune and called “hypnotic and moving” by London’s Guardian in a 5-star review.
Sarah Rothenberg’s most recent original production, A Proust Sonata, premiered at DACAMERA in February, 2016. It had its New York premiere at FIAF French Institute Alliance Francaise in January 2018. This new production, with a Tony and Obie award-winning production team, explores the creative world of Marcel Proust’s literary masterpiece and the music, paintings and people that inspired it. Previously, In the Garden of Dreams, connecting the music, art and ideas of fin-de-siècle Vienna, premiered at Da Camera in 2013 to critical acclaim. The Blue Rider: Kandinsky and Music, a staged concert with video, was commissioned by Works & Process at The Guggenheim for the museum’s Kandinsky retrospective, premiered to sold-out houses at New York’s Miller Theater of Columbia University in 2009. She has performed her original production, Chopin in Paris: Epigraph for a Condemned Book, at the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival/Fontana Arts, University Musical Society of Ann Arbor, Yale Repertory Theatre and Kravis Center for Performing Arts. Duo-piano performances with partner Marilyn Nonken include appearances at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge, Baryshnikov Arts Center and Montclair Peak Performances following rave reviews for their CD release of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen (Bridge Records) here and abroad. Sarah Rothenberg’s Music and the Literary Imagination series, produced by DACAMERA and inspired by the writings of Proust, Mann, Kafka and Akhmatova, was presented by Great Performers at Lincoln Center for five consecutive seasons to sold-out houses; Moondrunk, a staging of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire with soprano Lucy Shelton and performance artist John Kelly, inaugurated Lincoln Center’s New Visions series in 1999.
Committed to performing the music of our time and to the rediscovery of forgotten repertoire of the past, Sarah Rothenberg’s recordings for Bridge, Arabesque, GM, Koch and Naxos include the U.S. premiere recordings of Fanny Mendelssohn’s Das Jahr (Independent Record Companies Award for Best Solo Classical Recording 1996); Rediscovering the Russian Avant-Garde: Lourié, Mosolov and Roslavetz (GM); Shadows and Fragments: Piano Works of Brahms and Schoenberg; and works of Wuorinen, Carter, Perle, Ran, Tower and Tsontakis, in collaboration with the composers. She has performed over 80 world premieres and was a member of the New York contemporary music ensemble, Da Capo Chamber Players, from 1985 to 1994. Recent new music performances include the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s Piano Quintet in Houston; Charles Wuorinen’s Ashberyana in New York under the direction of maestro James Levine; and the world premiere of Poul Ruders’s Romances with violist Hsin-Yun Huang, for which she received the Sam Sanders Collaborative Artist Award from the Classical Recording Foundation following the CD release and performance at Carnegie’s Weill Hall. Sarah Rothenberg and the Brentano Quartet’s performance of the Picker Quintet appears on the Tzaddik label 2014 CD Invisible Lilacs.
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