The Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth is giving itself a 30th birthday present.
“This is a real celebration of the organization and its accomplishments,” said CMSFW artistic director Gary Levinson, referring to a new work commissioned by the ensemble, which has been presenting miniatures from the masters for 30 years now.
The piece, a piano quintet, was composed by Rice music professor Pierre Jalbert. And it will be unwrapped at the Saturday concert by CMSFW at the Kimbell Art Museum’s Renzo Piano Pavilion.
This marks the first time CMSFW has been involved in commissioning a new work (the group partnered with two other chamber music ensembles, La Jolla (Calif.) Music Society and the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, to make it happen). It has been performed in Arizona, but Levinson said the initial performances by all three commissioning ensembles will be treated as “world premieres.”
“The first two weeks are agony. You don’t know anything. It’s all unfocused,” said Jalbert, explaining the process by which he created this work, as well as the many others he has composed. “Then you start to get some ideas. And it gets a little better. Then it starts to flow. So the whole first month or two is about finding that flow. And from there, it starts snowballing. Then it becomes fun. Not just work.”
Jalbert said it took him five months of steady effort to create this four movement piece, which runs about 15 to 20 minutes in performance.
“I kind of equate [composing] to building a house. You don’t just put a wall here and a wall there and wait to see what happens. You typically have a blueprint of a planned structure. Then it goes up gradually. That is the way I write music,” said Jalbert, who is a native of Vermont.
And, surprisingly, although Jalbert is an accomplished pianist, he is not always at the keyboard when he is composing.
“Especially initially in the process, I do a lot of my composing away from the piano. If I sit too much at the keyboard, I’ll end up writing piano music. If I am writing for strings, I want to write a string piece.
“I will use my own sort of shorthand process at a desk. I will sort of sketch out the contours and gestures of what I am hearing. And then I will go to the piano to work on the details of what I am hearing in my mind. So it is a lot of back and forth between the desk and piano, trying to shape the piece, looking at it as the big picture and getting all the details in there too,” said Jalbert, who counts a half-dozen string quartets among his many compositions.
Levinson is quite pleased with the results.
“I think it has turned out to be a marvelous piece,” said Levinson, who also serves as senior principal associate concertmaster with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. “The first thing to know is that Pierre writes very much in a tonal style. And he has always had his own voice.”
Jalbert also has a sense of humor coupled with a cosmic imagination. The first movement of his new piano quintet is titled “Mannheim Rocket” — a musical term dating to the 18th century, when orchestras were growing larger and making bigger and bigger sounds.
“It begins with these rising figures that grow louder and louder. Then it launches into space and makes an entry into weightlessness. That was the idea behind it, and hopefully it works musically,” said Jalbert, who will attend Saturday’s performance.
Helping Levinson and Jalbert blast this piece into orbit will be an especially impressive lineup of players, which includes two greats making their debuts with the CMSFW: 2009 Cliburn Piano Competition gold medalist Haochen Zhang, and renowned violinist Cho-Liang Lin, who is a colleague of Jalbert's at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music.
In addition to the new work, Saturday’s program also will feature Zhang in Shostakovich’s “Three Pieces for Two Violins and Piano,” and the string players in Dvorak’s “Terzetto,” a piece for two violins and viola.
But the centerpiece of the concert might be the Brahms Piano Quintet, which dates from 1865 and serves as something of a bookend to pair with the brand work in the same form.
“We have a masterpiece from Brahms and what we hope will be a new masterpiece of the 21st century. That’s why we have titled the concert 'Passing the Torch,' ” said Levinson. “I would like for the audience to wonder what it might have been like if you were sitting in a concert in the middle of the 19th century listening to the premiere of the Brahms quintet. And now here we are in the 21st century listening to a Jalbert quintet. It is a real journey for the audience and a real journey for the musicians, which I think adds an extra layer of excitement.”
Passing the Torch
The piano quintet
A piano quintet is, strictly speaking, any work for piano and four other instruments. But the term almost always refers to the union of a piano with a traditional string quartet —two violins, viola and cello. The most commonly heard exception to this rule is Franz Schubert’s famous “Trout Quintet,” which drops one violin and adds a double bass to the mix.
The composers of Mozart’s era, when the piano was still a relatively new instrument, structured piano quintets in various ways. But Robert Schumann (1810-1856) is often credited with solidifying and popularizing the form as we know it today. Among the other composers known for having an outstanding piano quintets in their bodies of work are Cesar Franck and Antonin Dvorak.
The appeal of the form for both composers and audiences is that it amounts to a scaled-down piano concerto, where a keyboardist can interact with string players and still have a little room to show off. But, unlike a concerto with full orchestra, all the parts are pared down to their most basic and essential structures (two violins, instead of the dozen or more in a full concerto setting, for example), making for a clear, lean approach to developing and revealing musical ideas.
The piano quintet form, however, must also be a bit of challenge to create. Among the greats of the Romantic Era known for their quintets (Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Franck and Dvorak) only Dvorak wrote more than one. He wrote two of them. And with the exception of Franck, all of those other composers wrote more symphonies than piano quintets. Even the mighty Beethoven, who seemed to write a defining work in almost every form, wrote only a single piano quintet, with wind instruments standing in for the strings. And it is not heard nearly so often as those of some much less lionized composers.
— Punch Shaw