Weinberg (1919-96) made his first big splash on American radar early this year when Houston Grand Opera staged the US premiere of his 1968 opera “The Passenger,” dealing with the moral complexities of the Holocaust. Weinberg was himself a Polish Jew who fled advancing German troops in 1939 — virtually his entire family was killed — and took up a new life in the Soviet Union, jumping from the fire into the frying pan, as it turned out.
He studied composition at the conservatory in Minsk for two years, and in 1941 he was among many musicians and other artists the Soviet government evacuated to the
If Shostakovich clothed the most intense feelings in cogent formal structures, Weinberg let them run around naked.
Theodor BlumerPhoto: Ateliers Foto Schröter, Leipzig
Camerata San Antonio, Olmos Ensemble
October 8, 2014
Two chamber concerts of extraordinary interest, on Oct. 5 and 6, shone brilliant light on several underexposed composers.
Camerata San Antonio paired works by two close friends, the String Quartet No. 3 of Dmitri Shostakovich and the Piano Quintet of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Oct. 5 in Christ Episcopal Church. The next evening in First Unitarian Universalist Church, the Olmos Ensemble reached back to the origin of the wind-quintet literature with one of Anton Reicha’s 25 essays in that genre and followed it with fascinating 20th-century works for the same contingent.
east for their safety. He settled in Tashkent, where he met fellow evacuee Shostakovich. They struck up a lifelong friendship, and after the war they became next-door neighbors in Moscow. Both had reason to fear for their lives at one time or another under the quixotically brutal yoke of Stalinism, but Shostakovich’s international reputation gave him some measure of protection, which he used to shield Weinberg. On a professional level, the two composers admired one another immensely.
Weinberg was extremely prolific, producing 20 numbered symphonies, 17 string quartets and numerous concerti, along with film scores and seven operas, of which “The Passenger” (suggested to him by Shostakovich) was his first. But while Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets were widely performed and recorded in the West, especially after 1960, Weinberg’s music remained virtually unknown.
In remarks prior to the performance of the Weinberg Piano Quintet, Camerata co-founder and cellist Kenneth Freudigman expressed confidence that Weinberg would soon be generally afforded equal stature with Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, the most important composers of the Soviet era.
It may be too early to second Weinberg’s nomination to the pantheon, but his Piano Quintet of 1953 makes a strong case for his inclusion. It also suggests the reason for his neglect: His music is very strange and hard to pin down. It puts down roots into late Romanticism, but it is also adventurous in its modern harmonies and its means of development — more adventurous and protean than the music of Shostakovich.
Weinberg’s music, like that of his friend, dips into the sardonic and the grotesque, but Weinberg’s grotesqueries (such as an over-the-top schmaltzy waltz in the third movement of the Piano Quintet) are more extreme, more disturbed. Weinberg’s structures meander more, and he takes more risks. His counterpoint is often ambitious, but the four in octaves, followed by a declamatory piano solo.
If Shostakovich clothed the most intense feelings of fear, grief, anger and disgust in cogent formal structures, Weinberg let them run around naked. Maybe his time has come.
Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3 in F, from 1956, opens with a deceptively jaunty allegretto, but the second movement is a descent into delirium, the third is feverishly malevolent, and the fourth is an elegy. Light returns in the finale, but, as is often the case with Shostakovich, the light seems artificial.
The performances were top drawer, fully attentive to the technical and emotional aspects of both works. It would be hard to imagine a more engrossing account of the Shostakovich. Unusually fast tempi in the second and third movements heightened the sense of inexorability. The Shostakovich drew a particularly brilliant performance from Matthew Zerweck, who played first violin in both works. His rhythmic acuity, his care with dynamics and his utterly convincing details of phrasing and articulation elevated this to one of the greatest chamber-music performances in my experience.
His splendid colleagues were Anastasia Storer (violin), Emily Freudigman (viola), Kenneth Freudigman (cello) and, in the Weinberg, pianist Viktor Valkov.
The one disappointment in the Olmos Ensemble’s concert was the scrubbing (for the second time) of the promised Schoenberg Wind Quintet, one of the supreme achievements of the 20th century. According to founder and artistic director Mark Ackerman, one of the musicians didn’t want to play it. Oh, well….
In its stead we got the Quintet, Op. 52, by Theodor Blumer, an obscure German who, to judge from this zesty music, deserves a wider hearing, and the Six Bagatelles of György Ligeti, a Hungarian who became an important figure in the German avant-garde of the 1960s and beyond.
The Blumer work shows some influence of Richard Strauss in its chromatic harmonies and complex textures. Three of the movements are glittery and celebratory, but the second (Romanze) beguiles with a lovely mottling of light and shadow. The first and last of Ligeti’s short movements are witty sprints; two are dark and mournful, deploying plangent tone clusters; the third is a gently floating pastoral, and the fourth somewhat recalls a boisterous Renaissance dance.
Reicha was born in Prague but settled in Paris, where he taught in the Conservatoire. He was a friend to Beethoven, whose music Reicha’s somewhat resembles. While in Paris, Reicha composed 25 works for wind quintet, thus establishing that combination of instruments as a staple in chamber music. For this concert, Ackerman chose the one Reicha quintet that is not available in published score.
It proved to be a delightful piece — not a life-changing experience, but thoroughly enjoyable and sophisticated enough in its harmonic modulations and inventive counterpoint to keep the mind alert. Some passages intriguingly prefigure the “Scene in the Fields” from the “Symphonie fantastique” by one of Reicha’s more-distinguished
students, Hector Berlioz.
Mr. Ackerman, who normally plays oboe in Olmos concerts, sat this one out. Taking his place was his former student Jennifer Berg, principal English horn for the San Antonio Symphony. She did a bang-up job, with assertive but supple tone and nimble fingers. Her first-class colleagues, all Olmos regulars and San Antonio Symphony principal players, were Martha Long (flute), Ilya Shterenberg (clarinet), Sharon Kuster (bassoon) and Jeff Garza (horn).