Timeless Explorations
Notes on the Program

June 25, 2022

The music on this program represents more than 200 years of creativity, spanning the first and last decades of the 19th century and fast-forwarding to mere months ago. These “Timeless Explorations” reveal how composers learn from the past even as they establish their own artistic visions. The two works from distant eras promise to be novel experiences for many listeners, the name Beethoven notwithstanding. His Piano Trio No. 6 isn’t performed as often as many of its colleagues in the genre, despite its superlative qualities. The English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor may be a new name to some audience members, but his Clarinet Quintet likely will whet the appetite for further encounters with his music.

In the case of Yevgeniy Sharlat, ChamberFest Cleveland is welcoming a composer who savors the opportunity to devise works based on the gifts of specific artists. The musicians who will give the world premiere of Sharlat’s piece, commissioned by the festival, are all family members — Franklin Cohen, his children Diana and Alex, and Diana’s husband, Roman Rabinovich. The fact that they play, respectively, clarinet, violin, percussion, and piano means that Sharlat will have explored a range of timbral and expressive possibilities to what can only be called an unusual instrumentation.

He has become admired for doing so in many genres. Sharlat was born in Moscow in 1977 and studied violin, piano, and music at the Academy of Moscow Conservatory before arriving in the United States at 16. He studied composition in the pre-college program at Juilliard and earned degrees at the Curtis Institute of Music and Yale University. Sharlat, who serves as Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Texas at Austin, has been commissioned by international ensembles, and he is the recipient of many honors.

What his new piece ChamberFest will sound like won’t be known until performance time. But Sharlat made his views on composing clear in an interview for the Kronos Quartet’s “Fifty for the Future” commissioning project: “I think it’s helpful and healthy for every performer to try to compose, whether they succeed or not. In composing, they will discover that nothing can ever be cast in stone. Every idea is fluid. You change your mind. You go back and forth on making a choice when writing a score. Once you experience this kind of transience, you think differently about traditional repertoire. You think of a Beethoven quartet not as a frozen-in-time piece but something that gets recreated a different way every time. That’s impossible to understand without having composed.”

Which brings us to Beethoven, a virtuoso pianist who composed works monumental and otherwise. In the genre of the piano trio, he had formidable models — Haydn, who wrote nearly four dozen (more than half of which are exceptional), and Mozart, who composed seven gems, as well as the “Kakadu Variations.” The most well-known of Beethoven’s trios are the “Ghost” (Op. 70, No. 1) and the “Archduke” (Op. 97). The two Op. 70 trios were written during the summer of 1808, and the Piano Trio No. 6 in E-flat Major, Op. 70 No. 2, has much in common with the generally sunlit work Beethoven composed just before these scores, the Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”).

The gleaming E-flat trio’s three movements, partly indebted to Haydn, are master classes in compositional sorcery, both in their frequent and surprising departures from norms and the sheer eloquence of the contrasting narratives. The first movement’s introduction begins with a pensive phrase handed from cello to violin to piano. It turns up again in the Allegro section, where Beethoven shifts from key to key with startling agility. The variations in the slow movement are a grand series of flights and encounters, with the instruments often in affable contest. In the third movement, Beethoven is at his most gentle, the instruments dancing a delicate minuet before violin and cello answer the piano in the central trio section and then they all return to the initial festive material. The finale is full of Haydn-esque high spirits and harmonic twists, but with Beethoven’s special brand of musical suspense.

Just as Beethoven turned to Haydn and Mozart for stimulus, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) had two towering models for his Quintet in F-sharp minor for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 10 — the Clarinet Quintets of Mozart and Brahms. When the Irish composer-conductor Charles Villiers Stanford, his teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music in London, insisted that no one could write a Clarinet Quintet without Brahmsian traits, Coleridge-Taylor thrilled the professor by writing a quintet of striking originality — with a few traces of another great Romantic composer, Dvorák. Given that Coleridge-Taylor was only 19 when he wrote the piece, his Clarinet Quintet (1895) must be considered a revelation.

As was this composer’s short-lived career. Of mixed race, Coleridge-Taylor began playing violin as a young man and advanced quickly. He switched his major to composition at the Royal College and worked as a musician and conductor before devoting himself to the creative life. His most heralded piece is Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the first part of a trio of cantatas with the overall title The Song of Hiawatha. Stanford conducted the premiere of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast at the Royal College in November 1898, when one of the attendees was Sir Arthur Sullivan, the esteemed composer of operettas with W. S. Gilbert. After the premiere, Sullivan wrote in his diary, “Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original — he has melody and harmony in abundance, and his scoring is brilliant and full of colour — at times luscious, rich and sensual.”

Much the same could be said of Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet, if on a more modest scale. The four movements provide equal opportunities for all of the instruments, rather than serving as star vehicles for the clarinet. The opening movement establishes the sweeping sonic world found in most of Coleridge-Taylor’s music, with sundry rhythmic and thematic elements animating the narrative. A hint of folk music gives the slow movement’s main theme an endearing quality, and the subtle interplay of instruments is beautifully achieved, with the solo clarinet having a tender moment in the sun toward the end. Coleridge-Taylor’s admiration for the music of Dvorák can be felt in the Scherzo, its metrical zest and lilting lyricism nodding to the Czech composer, and in the finale, in which the players engage in affectionate and rambunctious escapades.

© 2022 Donald Rosenberg

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