Brentano String Quartet to perform Martin Bresnick’s “The Planet on the Table”

Brentano String Quartet

The Brentano String Quartet, left to right: violinist Serena Canin, cellist Nina Lee, violinist Mark Steinberg, and violist Misha Amory. Photo by Ian Christmann

Faculty composer Martin Bresnick’s String Quartet No. 4 was inspired—instigated is perhaps a better word—by the poetry of Wallace Stevens, including The Planet on the Table. “In this string quartet, also entitled The Planet on the Table, my planet is made of the music and sounds of a remembered time or of something heard that I liked,” Bresnick explains, borrowing from and sharing the first stanza of the title poem’s text:

Ariel was glad he had written his poems,
They were of a remembered time
Or of something seen that he liked.

“The quartet has five movements, each headed by a quotation from one of Stevens’ poems as a point of departure or pathway into those remembered sounds and music,” Bresnick explains.

In The Planet on the Table, “Stevens … speaks through the character of Ariel from The Tempest,” Brentano String Quartet violinist Mark Steinberg writes in his program notes. “Martin Bresnick’s quartet is a ‘musical meditation’ on this poem, on the transformational value of art, the power of the creative act.” The piece was commissioned for the Brentano String Quartet and received its premiere in March.

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Nina Roberts

Bresnick tells us: “Stevens wrote [that] it was not important that his poetry survive, which is also true of my work.” Stevens’ poetry did survive, of course, as it was read and shared, just as Beethoven’s music has survived through performance and as Bresnick’s work will through the musicians, organizations, and audiences with whom it resonates.

The Brentano String Quartet, the Yale School of Music’s ensemble-in-residence, will perform The Planet on the Table on a September 24 Oneppo Chamber Music Series program that also includes Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132. The program will also feature readings of Stevens’ work by the poet (by way of a recording) and by writer and editor Christian Wiman, who teaches at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and the Yale Divinity School. During the Beethoven, lines of text from Steven’s poems will be projected above the stage.

Just as Bresnick has found inspiration in the work of Wallace Stevens, among others, Stevens, as countless artists have before and since, felt connected to Beethoven’s music. Thus the pairing on this concert program of The Planet on the Table with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15. It’s a program that explores “the power of the creative act,” as Steinberg describes the artistic process—the reach, across time and discipline, of inspiration. Countless artists have lit fires under countless others. Here, the Brentano String Quartet presents three who are connected by, and connect us to, the “transformational value of art.”

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Published September 24, 2019
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Brentano String Quartet to perform program of “Lamentations”

Brentano String Quartet

The Brentano String Quartet, left to right: violinist Serena Canin, cellist Nina Lee, violinist Mark Steinberg, and violist Misha Amory. Photo by Ian Christmann

Commenting on a concert program called “Lamentations,” Brentano String Quartet violinist Mark Steinberg explained, “There exists an old tradition of professional lamenters, who, as a service to those who grieve, digest and transfigure that grief in giving it voice,” asking, “What greater faith in art can be imagined?” The program, Steinberg said, “celebrates that art of cathartic expression in songs of lamentation from Purcell through Bartók and Carter, evincing strength and vulnerability in equal measure, through the intimacy and immediacy of the string quartet.”

The Brentano String Quartet, YSM’s outstanding ensemble-in-residence, will perform its “Lamentations” program at Yale on Tuesday, Jan. 29. We spoke recently with the group’s violist, Misha Amory, about the program.

Q: What are the origins of this program? How did you and your colleagues conceive “Lamentations” and choose the repertoire?

A: This project is a brainchild of Mark’s and has two origins behind it. One is the idea that music of mourning or lamentation is everywhere in our canon, composed and expressed in all periods and in all styles, and Mark felt it would be interesting to gather up examples of this into a single program so that we can appreciate how a diverse body of music can spring from a single, universal urge. The other idea propelling the project is perhaps more of a practical one, which is that each of these little pieces, taken on its own, is awkward to fit into a conventional string quartet program, which typically consists of three or four substantial works in several movements. In that type of program, smaller works might end up marginalized or lost in the bigger picture. This program enables us to perform these beloved pieces in a setting where their power is not dimmed, but rather thrown into relief.

Q: What other works of art, if any—literature, visual art, etc.—have you considered as you’ve developed this program?

A: We have not referred to works of art or literature that are not directly connected to the pieces on the program. That said, almost every piece on the program has some point of reference beyond “pure music.” The Haydn [“Eli, Eli” from the Seven Last Words of Christ] of course is music depicting the spirit of Christ’s final utterances, meant to provide time for meditation during the Good Friday service; Lekeu’s Molto Adagio is similarly religiously themed. [Purcell’s] Dido’s Lament connects us to Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic poem of antiquity, and more nearly to the world of Baroque opera, intertwining the sensibilities of two artistic periods pre-dating the string quartet. Shostakovich’s Elegy is his own transcription for string quartet of the extraordinary aria from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: like the Purcell, it displays the grief of a solitary and unloved one, and like the Purcell it is from an opera based on a great literary work of the past. The Gesualdo madrigals have their own poetic texts (of course not heard in a quartet performance), and madrigal form is the most literary of music, with every note and turn of phrase intimately connected to and entwined with its text. All in all, this program has deep ties to many primary strands in Western culture.

Q: Mark has asked, rhetorically, “What greater faith in art can be imagined?” What has music meant for you during times of grief and what is it about music that it can reach us so deeply?

A: This question needs a whole book to answer! I believe, personally, that the power of music in this sense is somehow connected to its non-verbal nature. Nobody can escape the experience of grief, and yet it will come to each person differently. Likewise, virtually no one is unaffected by music, but each listener will hear his own version. Music does not explicitly state its meaning in performance, leaving the listener to construe it according to her own lights. Sometimes music can be consoling, sometimes unbearable to one who is grieving; either way, it unquestionably penetrates deep into the psyche.

Q: What have conversations between you and your colleagues been like as you’ve rehearsed this repertoire? In what ways have you explored the composers’ motivations and intentions?

A: Mark once told me a story about being coached by Fritz Maag, a great cellist and musical thinker who was on the faculty at Indiana University. Mark was in a student group that was playing the grief-stricken opening of the finale of Beethoven’s Op. 95, a devastating passage of just a few bars. Mr. Maag memorably said, “As human beings, I hope you never have to experience the suffering contained in this music … but as artists, you have to be able to imagine it.” This is about as good a set of marching orders as there is for a musician aspiring to meaningful expression. We are always method actors of a sort, trying not just to understand the composer’s intention, but to crawl into his mind, to become him, or the person he is depicting. Of course it is part of every performer’s job to be well-grounded in the biographical and stylistic details of the composer he is performing, and I believe that this knowledge casts a kind of penumbra that deepens the performance and gives it resonance.  However, the chief part of our labor consists in engaging with the piece itself, at a molecular level: pondering the expressive aspects of a subphrase, meditating on the contours and textures of a single work by a single person, identifying what makes it unique by dwelling within it as a primary source. In fact, to spend too much time examining external considerations (for example, events in the composer’s life in the year of the composition) can have an oddly distracting, or diluting, effect on our work. We do best when we scrutinize the composer’s motivations and intentions as seen in the music that is on the page, before our eyes.

Q: Does this repertoire require a unique performance headspace? To what extent is each of you experiencing catharsis through playing this music and is that something you’ve discussed?

A: This program of lamentations is certainly concentrated on a special theme, a special state of mind. At the same time, the fabric of Western music is shot through with threads of grief and mourning—it is a powerful and ever-present trait in the music we play, and I can’t think of an important work that doesn’t contain at least moments of sorrow. So it would be fair to say that the feeling of playing music of this sort is almost second nature to us. I expect that an audience member might be surprised if he could enter into our thoughts as performers during a program, how they might seem dry and practical in comparison to the music itself. This is the double nature of being a performer, to take care of the laundry list of details while never losing sight of the transcendental nature of the art that confronts us.

Having said that, we find that the audiences that have heard this program do indeed enter into a “unique headspace,” which is very much what we hope for. Taken as a body of work, the pieces on the program slow down time; they invite a meditative state and ask for the listener’s compassion as she contemplates these manifold expressions of grief and loss expressed from so many different times and places. The catharsis will take place, it is hoped, in the minds of those who are listening.

The Brentano String Quartet will perform its “Lamentations” program on Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 7:30 p.m., in Morse Recital Hall.

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Published January 22, 2019
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Miami String Quartet performs April 5

Miami String Quartet

Miami String Quartet

The Oneppo Chamber Music Series at the Yale School of Music presents the Miami String Quartet on Tuesday, April 5 at 7:30 pm. The quartet will perform works by Beethoven, Schulhoff, and Mendelssohn.

The program will open with Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, “Serioso,” which Beethoven initially composed to experiment with compositional techniques, never intending it for public performance. The resulting work contains the initial attempts at many techniques that Beethoven would come to perfect in his later works.

Next on the program is Schulhoff‘s Five Pieces for String Quartet, a neoclassical work that offers a glimpse into two eras by layering the spiky dissonances and rhythmic drive of the avant-garde atop an ornate baroque dance suite.    MORE

Published March 9, 2016
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Tetzlaff Trio plays music of Brahms and Dvořák Feb. 23

tetzlaffThe Oneppo Chamber Music Series at the Yale School of Music presents the Tetzlaff Trio on Tuesday, February 23 at 7:30 pm.

The trio features violinist Christian Tetzlaff, known for his “soaring charisma” (Strings Magazine), along with his sister, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, and pianist Lars Vogt. They will perform music by two prolific 19th-century composers: Johannes Brahms and Antonín Dvořák.

Opening and closing the program are two trios by Brahms: the Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87, and the Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8, respectively. The ensemble earned a Grammy nomination for their recent recording of the complete Brahms piano trios, and Strings Magazine raved that the ensemble makes the trios “fresh and immediate again… These lovely recordings capture the heart of the composer’s deeply personal, intimate expressions… consistently illuminating.” MORE

Published February 11, 2016
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Brentano String Quartet presents music by Dvorák, Haydn, and Shostakovich Jan. 26

brentano-homeThe Oneppo Chamber Music Series at the Yale School of Music presents the acclaimed Brentano String Quartet on Tuesday, January 26 at 7:30 pm. The quartet, which joined the Yale faculty in 2014, will perform music by Joseph Haydn, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Antonin Dvorák.

The concert will begin with Haydn‘s Quartet in F-sharp minor, Op. 50, No. 4, Hob. III:47. The work is part of a set of six quartets that Haydn dedicated to King Frederick William II of Prussia, himself an amateur cellist, and the piece contains some notable passages for the cello.

Next on the program is Shostakovich‘s String Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp major, Op. 142. Like the preceding work, this quartet was dedicated to a cellist, Sergei Shirinsky (who premiered several of Shostakovich’s string quartets), and features the instrument throughout the piece. MORE

Published December 21, 2015
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Imani Winds Present Dance and Variations on Dec. 8

imani_windsThe Oneppo Chamber Music Series at the Yale School of Music continues on TuesdayDecember 8 at 7:30 pm with the distinguished quintet Imani Winds.

Presenting music celebrating dance and its variations, the concert includes a wide variety of music, including selections by Latin American composers and Imani members, as well as traditional dance music. MORE

Published November 19, 2015
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Dover String Quartet performs music by Dvořák, Berg, and Schubert Nov. 17

DoverString_027The Oneppo Chamber Music Series at the Yale School of Music presents a recital by the acclaimed Dover String Quartet on Tuesday, November 17 at 7:30 pm.

The program features quartets by Dvořák and Berg as well as Schubert‘s String Quintet in C major, with cellist Peter Wiley.

The recital will open with Antonin Dvořák‘s Quartet in F major, Op. 96, nicknamed the “American.” Dvořák wrote this work on a long visit to the United States, right after writing his famous Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” Dvořák was inspired by American folk music, especially African-American spirituals, and by the peaceful midwestern landscape of his Iowa vacation home. MORE

Published November 3, 2015
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eighth blackbird performs music from Sleeping Giant Oct. 20

eighth-blackbirdThe Oneppo Chamber Music Series at the Yale School of Music presents the new-music ensemble eighth blackbird on Tuesday, October 20 at 7:30 pm. The acclaimed eighth blackbird will perform Hand Eye, and evening-length work by composition collective Sleeping Giant.

The six pieces that comprise Hand Eye are each written by a single member of the collective: Checkered Shade by Timo Andres, South Catalina by Chris Cerrone, Conduit by Robert Honstein, Mine, Mime, Meme by Andrew Norman, By-By Huey by Ted Hearne, and Cast by Jacob Cooper.

Sleeping Giant is “rapidly gaining notice for their daring innovations, stylistic range and acute attention to instrumental nuance” (WQXR). All six members are graduates of the Yale School of Music; the collective was formed in New Haven and named for the eponymous park in Hamden. The pieces of Hand Eye were inspired by works of art in the private collection of Maxine and Stuart Frankel. MORE

Published October 8, 2015
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Brentano Quartet plays music of youth and of old age Sep. 29

brentano_vThe Oneppo Chamber Music Series at the Yale School of Music presents the acclaimed Brentano String Quartet on Tuesday, September 29 at 7:30 pm. The Brentano Quartet, which joined the Yale faculty in 2014, will play music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Benjamin Britten, and Felix Mendelssohn.

Selections from Bach‘s masterful Art of the Fugue will open each half of the concert. The first half features Britten‘s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94, written late in the composer’s life. Britten wrote the quartet on his last visit to Italy and incorporated quotations from his opera Death in Venice.

The concert will conclude with Mendelssohn‘s youthful, lyrical String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 12, written when the composer was only 20 years old. MORE

Published September 18, 2015
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Winners of 2015 Chamber Music Competition announced

spraguechambergroupThe winners of the 2015 Chamber Music Competition have been announced. The winning ensembles will perform on a concert presented by the Oneppo Chamber Music Series at the Yale School of Music on Tuesday, May 5.

In announcing the winners, Wendy Sharp, the coordinator of chamber music at YSM, noted that the judges “were impressed with the overall high level of playing and great variety of repertoire. When picking the program, we considered not only the performances, but also what might make an interesting concert, the variety of work and instrumentation, and overall length.”

The winners, in program order, are: MORE

Published April 9, 2015
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