For me, music that speaks to our troubled time more powerfully than any other is anything by Beethoven and anything by Brahms.
Luckily, in this summer of political discontent, there’s a lot of Beethoven and Brahms on the roster for Music in the Mountains.
On Tuesday, the Cézanne Quartet will play both Brahms and Beethoven in what looks like an unofficial opening chamber concert. The young, prize-winning quartet-in-residence from Southern Methodist University will be here for several appearances. Two concerts feature a big Brahms work. The second will be with pianist Avi Reichert over in Pagosa Springs. The quartet will also perform July 16 in Buckley Park, and July 27 in the Bayfield Library.
On Tuesday in Roshong Recital Hall at Fort Lewis College, the ensemble opens with Beethoven’s Quartet in F, Op. 18, No. 1, followed by the younger composer’s Quartet in A minor. It’s one of only three that Brahms composed compared to Beethoven’s prolific output of 16, culminating in the majestic final quartets. Apparently, Brahms, the perfectionist, suffered from near paralysis under Beethoven’s spell.
Brahms began work on the A minor quartet in his mid 30s. Five years later, in 1873, he finally agreed to a published version.
Listen closely and you’ll hear energy from the world of Gypsy music. At once virile and turbulent, lyrical and life-affirming, the minor-key spirit of Gypsy czardas expresses a bittersweet combination – life’s simultaneous pain and beauty. Brahms turned that juxtaposition into musical currency, and it accounts for the tragedy and transcendence in so much of his music.
As my older sister often says: “Whenever I’m under stress, I listen to Brahms. His music gives me courage.”
If Beethoven and Brahms were not enough on a program exploring a way out of despair, a new work by a contemporary composer in the same vein will.
The Cézanne Quartet will close Tuesday’s concert with a 2007 work by American composer Kevin Puts. Ironically, “Credo” was commissioned by the Miró Quartet to “explore the lighter side of America,” as Puts writes on his website.
“I wasn’t sure I could deliver,” he writes. “It was 2005 – hard to find things to sing about.”
Despondent over a nation trapped in political polarization and traumatized by a sequence of mass shootings, Puts notes: “I found solace in the strangest places.”
“Credo,” (I believe), is a 19-minute, through-played string quartet piece. If you listen on YouTube, there are sections but no movements as such. And for me, there is an otherworldly link to Brahms. A combination of sadness and euphoria seems to be embedded in the music. Warm sonorities and a pulsing sense of inevitability suggest a dark Brahmsian beauty.
The Cézanne Quartet consists of four Meadows School of the Arts students or alumni: violinists Eleanor Dunbar and Mai Ke, violist Steven Juarez and cellist Elizabeth White. Together, they won the Peak Fellowship Ensemble-in-Residence competition, the first ensemble to hold this SMU residency. The fellowship includes a $40,000 annual stipend, support for self-directed, career-advancing projects, a commissioned recording, studio space and concert tours.
Presumably, the quartet’s participation in our summer festival is part of the fellowship. Hear them now or travel to Dallas where they will be in residence until next May.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.