Philomusica Quartet Offers American Themes

With Dvorák's 'American' string quintet and two works by American women.

By - Apr 20th, 2024 02:41 pm
Philomusica Quartet.

Philomusica Quartet.

The Philomusica Quartet will celebrate a Vibrant Spring in a chamber concert Monday evening at Wisconsin Lutheran College.

The Quartet, violinists Jeanyi Kim and Alexander Mandl, violist Nathan Hackett and cellist Adrien Zitoun, will be joined by Robert Levine, principal violist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

An active chamber musician, Levine was once a member of Toronto’s Orford Quartet. His active commitment to issues concerning orchestra musicians locally to internationally has limited his availability for guest chamber appearances.

The evening is designed around a work of Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904). Johannes Brahms and others were impressed by Dvorák’s works incorporating Czech Bohemian melodies and dances into a late 19th-century Romantic style. His success prompted an invitation in 1892 to direct a new National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. Dvorák was charged to seek an American sound that would parallel what he had done with Czech “roots music.” His New World Symphony, the American String Quartet, Op. 96 and a String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97 (1893), also known as the “American,” all represents his efforts to do this. The last work will be performed at this concert.

Dvorák incorporated themes and rhythms from American Indian and Afro-American music. Mandl points out that the simple pentatonic five-note scale used in Bohemian village music was also appropriate for interpreting Indian and Afro-American tunes. The scherzo also incorporates a complex rhythm that Dvorák heard at programs by an Iroquois performing group during a summer in Spillville, Iowa, a town settled by Czechs.

The Philomusica will expand the theme with two works by African American women.

Jessie Montgomery, a contemporary composer and violist found an appreciative audience for her energetic Strum for String Quartet (2006). As melodies move around the players, others accompany with a pizzicato reminiscent of banjo strumming. Montgomery writes that the composition salutes “American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement.” You can preview this short work with Montgomery on viola with the Catalyst Quartet. The popular work was reprised in a version for orchestra that the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has performed.

In July 2021, Montgomery began a three-year appointment as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence. She also has active relationships with Vanderbilt University, Bard College and New School in New York City. Her works have been described as “turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life” by the Washington Post. Her growing body of work includes solo, chamber, vocal and orchestral works, as well as collaborations with distinguished choreographers and dance companies.

The Quartet will also play String Quartet No. 1 in G major (1929) by Florence Price (1887-1953). Price is noted as the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Price composed over 300 works: four symphonies, four concertos, as well as choral works, art songs, chamber music and music for solo instruments. Her contribution has received renewed attention in recent years. In 2009, a substantial collection of her works and papers was found in her abandoned summer home.

Program notes by Emlyn Johnson executive director of the group Pro Musica, describe the quartet by Price:

“The first movement is reminiscent of late Romantic string quartets by composers like Grieg and Borodin. The first theme is sweeping and hopeful, followed by a magical transition to the waltzing second theme first presented in the viola. The second movement takes a more songlike approach, presenting a lushly harmonized folk-inspired melody that begins and ends the movement. The two iterations of this beautiful melody are divided by a contrasting section with a lively lightness reminiscent of ballet music.”

A rare reconstructed chamber work by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) will complete the concert. His String Quartet in D Major (c. 1880-1883) has basically been lost. But adaptations of the Quartet for other chamber instruments have been reverse-engineered to recreate the original. The Philomusica will play the first movement, Allegro moderato; the only movement with the original string scores intact.

Mandl was surprised to discover that the Quartet, which was basically a student exercise, was the source for music in some of his later operas. “The music is very fresh. It’s light. You can hear that that is an operatic conversation with the instruments right away. And it has a very, very, very delicate timbre.”

The American sound was to be revised by Aaron Copland with a very different compositional style, but these late romantic works, including the recent one by Montgomery, share a popular attraction, with open melodies inspired by American themes and a simplicity often underscored by the use of the more transparent five-note pentatonic scale.

The Philomusica concert begins at 7:30 p.m. at Schwan Hall (8815 W. Wisconsin Ave.) on the Wisconsin Lutheran Campus on Monday, April 22. Tickets may be purchased at the box office (414-443-8802) or online.

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us