Unable to play orchestra concerts, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are playing chamber concerts—which are presented on the Web. I have written about one such concert for my forthcoming chronicle in the magazine. How about another one here?
To find out about these concerts in general, follow this link. I will now tell you about a concert that began with Beethoven and ended with Beethoven. In between came music by Florence Price, the American who lived from 1887 to 1953.
Speaking of my “livestream chronicles” in the magazine: I had occasion to write about Price in our September issue (here). She is an interesting figure in America’s musical history.
In the CSO chamber concert, four members of the orchestra played Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet. What folksongs? A beloved old English song: “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” (words by Ben Jonson). A spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” And, of course, three others.
I must say, the music touched my mystic chords of memory. I dare anyone—certainly any American—to try not smiling during Price’s treatment of “Shortnin’ Bread.” This whole composition—through all five songs—is imbued with affection, and it was played that way—with due warmth, plus the right spirit—by the Chicagoans.
The concert began with a rare duo: a piece that Beethoven wrote for viola and cello (and nobody else). He dubbed it a duet “with two obbligato eyeglasses.” Thus, the piece is known as the “Eyeglasses Duo.”
There must be a story. What is it? Something like this: Beethoven wrote the piece for his friend Count Nikolaus Zmeskall and himself to play. Zmeskall played the cello, Beethoven the viola. We know that Zmeskall had weak eyesight—Beethoven would tease him about it a bit, in letters. Maybe Beethoven needed glasses as well?
In any case, the duet is an enjoyable work, combining Beethoven’s songfulness with his storminess. I thought of the phrase “strong merriment.” The piece is gemütlich—but the Gemütlichkeit is robust, maybe not as sweet as Schubert’s. The duo is pure Beethoven.
It was played by Sunghee Choi, a violist from South Korea, and Katinka Kleijn, a cellist from Holland. I think they would have done Beethoven and Zmeskall proud (though neither of them wore glasses). (They did wear masks, and kept a “social distance.”)
Incidentally, the viola and the cello can make a very full sound together—an amazingly full sound. Certainly when those instruments are in the right hands (and perhaps when they have the right room).
The concert closed with Beethoven’s Sextet for Two Horns and Strings in E flat, Op. 81b. This is another one of those robust, masculine pieces in E flat that Beethoven wrote. They seemed to fall out of his pockets. The sextet is a piece of chamber music, to be sure, but it also may be thought of as a little double-horn concerto. The four string players serve as a little orchestra.
Beethoven’s sextet closes with a rondo, naturally—and you can tell, when hearing it, that the young man knew his Mozart horn concertos. (Mozart wrote four of them, three of them in E flat.)
The Chicago players were skillful and “committed”—that is, dedicated to the task. I imagine it’s a kick for orchestra members to play chamber music, even when forced to do so by a pandemic. Maybe even especially then.