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Morrison Artists Series: Alexander String Quartet with special guest David Shifrin, clarinet

Sunday, September 29, 2013
3:00pm
Photo of the Alexander String Quartet and David Shifrin
SF State's longtime quartet-in-residence performs with renowned clarinetist David Shifrin. The concert program will feature the world premiere of a new work for string quartet by Pulitzer Prize-winning Professor Emeritus Wayne Peterson. Free.
Directions: 
Creative Arts Building, McKenna Theatre

Alexander String Quartet

The Alexander String Quartet, SF State’s longtime quartet-in-residence, has performed in the major music capitals of five continents, securing its standing among the world’s premier ensembles over three decades.

Widely admired for its interpretations of Beethoven, Mozart and Shostakovich, the quartet has also established itself as an important advocate of new music through more than 25 commissions and numerous premiere performances.

The Alexander String Quartet is a major artistic presence in San Francisco, serving as directors of the Morrison Chamber Music Center at SF State and ensemble-in-residence of San Francisco Performances.

David Shifrin

One of only two wind players to win the Avery Fisher Prize, David Shifrin is in constant demand as an orchestral soloist, recitalist and chamber music collaborator. He has appeared with the Philadelphia and Minnesota orchestras and the Dallas, Seattle, Houston, Milwaukee, Detroit and Denver symphonies among many others in the U.S., and internationally with orchestras in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

In addition, Shifrin has served as principal clarinetist with the Cleveland Orchestra, American Symphony Orchestra (under Stokowski), the Honolulu and Dallas symphonies, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and New York Chamber Symphony. He has received critical acclaim as a recitalist, appearing at venues such as Alice Tully Hall, Weill Recital Hall and Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, the 92nd Street Y in New York City and Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Much sought after as a chamber musician, he collaborates frequently with such distinguished ensembles and artists as the Guarneri, Tokyo and Emerson string quartets, Wynton Marsalis and pianists Emanuel Ax and André Watts.

Program

  • Mozart (1756–1791): Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 (1789)
  • Peterson (1927–): Bright Reflections (2013)*
  • Intermission
  • Brahms (1833-1897): Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 (1891)

*World premiere

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Program notes

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791): Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 (1789)

While Mozart reportedly did not care for the sound of the flute, he felt a special fondness for the clarinet. He first heard the newly invented instrument at age 7, while on a visit to Mannheim, and his fascination with the clarinet’s mellow sonority and wide range stayed with him throughout his life. Mozart was one of the first composers to use the clarinet in a symphony, and the instrument figures prominently in important late works such as his Symphony No. 39 (1788) and the operas Così fan tutte (1790) and La Clemenza di Tito (1791).

Part of Mozart’s fascination with the clarinet late in life resulted from his friendship with the Austrian clarinet virtuoso Anton Stadler (1753–1812), one of the composer’s fellow Freemasons in Vienna. It was for Stadler that Mozart wrote his three great works featuring the clarinet: the Trio, K. 498 (with viola and piano); the Quintet, K. 581; and the Concerto, K. 622.

Mozart wrote the clarinet quintet in summer 1789, just before he began work on Così fan tutte, finishing the score September 29. The quintet had its first performance in Vienna the following December 22, with Stadler as soloist and Mozart a member of the quartet. This is truly sovereign music, full of the complete technical mastery of Mozart’s final years and rich with the emotional depth that marks the music from that period.

The strings have the first theme of the Allegro, and the clarinet soon enters to embellish the opening statement. The second subject, presented by the first violin, flows with a long-breathed lyricism, and the movement develops in sonata form.

The Larghetto belongs very much to the clarinet, which weaves a long cantilena above the accompanying strings. New material arrives in the first violin, and the development section is Mozart at his finest.

The Menuetto is unusual for its two trio sections: the first for strings, while in the second the clarinet leads an Austrian ländler-like dance. In place of the expected rondo finale, Mozart offers a variation movement based on the violins’ opening duet. The five variations are sharply differentiated, and the quintet concludes with a jaunty coda derived from the first half of the original theme.

—Eric Bromberger

Wayne Peterson (1927–): Bright Reflections (2013)

Wayne Peterson (born September 3, 1927, Albert Lea, Minnesota), won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1992 for The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, crowning a long and distinguished career. Peterson’s catalog of more than 75 compositions includes works for orchestra, chorus and chamber ensemble. He has been honored with fellowships and commissions from the Guggenheim, Koussevitzky, Fromm, Gerbode and Djerassi foundations, as well as an award of distinction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Peterson was professor of music at San Francisco State University for more than three decades. He received his Ph.D. from University of Minnesota and was a Fulbright Scholar at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1953-54. His music is published by C.F. Peters, Boosey and Hawkes, Seesaw Music, Trillenium Music, and Lawson-Gould.

Bright Reflections for string quartet, which receives its world-premiere performance on today’s program, was written for and is dedicated to the Alexander String Quartet. Peterson writes of this short piece, “My relationship with these wonderful musicians dates from their definitive recording of my first three quartets in 2008. The initial 143 measures bears some resemblance to a traditional ‘exposition.’ A variety of melodic, rhythmic and textural passages are clearly presented and then freely developed, ultimately leading to an exciting, fortissimo conclusion.”

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897): Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 (1891)

Brahms intended his viola quintet in G major of 1890 to be his last work. At age 57, he felt that he was done composing. In December of that year he sent his publisher some corrections to that quintet with a brief message: “With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop.” But it was not to be. A few weeks later, at Christmas, he went to Meiningen to hear the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, and was so captivated by Mühlfeld’s playing and by the possibilities of the clarinet that he undertook four new works that have become the heart of the clarinet literature.

Mühlfeld (1856–1907) joined the Meiningen orchestra as a violinist but taught himself to play clarinet and became the orchestra’s principal clarinetist at age 23, later serving as principal of the Bayreuth orchestra. In summer 1891, Brahms retreated to his favorite summer spot—Ban Ischl, high in the Alpine lake district—and wrote the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, and the Quintet, Op. 115. Two sonatas for clarinet followed in summer 1894. These four pieces, all written for Mühlfeld, were Brahms’ final instrumental works.

First performed in Berlin on December 12, 1891, by Mühlfeld with Joachim’s quartet, the Clarinet Quintet in B minor is one of Brahms’ late masterpieces. Rather than writing a display piece to spotlight Mühlfeld’s playing, Brahms carefully integrates the clarinet into the string texture.

The Allegro opens with a violin duet that hovers between D major and B minor, this tonal ambiguity marking the entire quintet. The thematic material is introduced in the first moments of this movement, the undulating theme of the first two bars giving way to the slightly swung shape of the third and fourth bars, then the clarinet’s rising entry in the fifth. These three shapes will appear in some form throughout the movement.

The Adagio is in ABA form, beginning with a simple clarinet theme over a rhythmically complex string accompaniment. The unusual middle section shows the influence of Hungarian gypsy music as the clarinet leaps and swirls while the accompanying strings whir beneath it before the opening material returns.

The principal themes of the final two movements are closely related. The Andantino opens with a smooth little tune for clarinet, but in the center section the music rushes ahead and never returns fully to the opening material. The finale, marked Con moto, is a set of five variations on the opening theme. Of particular interest is the conclusion, where the final variation gives way to the theme that opened the first movement, and the quintet winds its way to the quiet unison B of the ending.

—Eric Bromberger

Mozart and Brahms program notes copyright Eric Bromberger. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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The Morrison Chamber Music Center is supported, in part, by a generous gift from the May Treat Morrison Chamber Music Foundation.

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