Experience the Complete Quartets
Tucked away in an English Tudor mansion, south of downtown on Main, is an arts group that may not be on your radar, but should be. Chamber Music Tulsa has tilted the tipping point of artistic success its way due to more than six decades of dedication and stellar programming. Chamber musicians from Tokyo to Tel Aviv know Tulsa well. Renowned chamber music groups from around the globe have performed on the CMT series and asked to come back. This month, Chamber Music Tulsa takes its programming to a new level by presenting the Beethoven Winter Festival, Feb. 17–26. A rare event and a coup for Tulsa, the complete 16 string quartets of Beethoven will be celebrated during the festival, performed by four masters of technical finesse, the superb Miró Quartet.
“Playing all of Beethoven’s quartets in one marathon week is an act of Olympian virtuosity. It takes great artists, like the Miró Quartet, and a large sophisticated audience to engage with them,” says CMT Board President Cherie Hughes. “Usually these types of intense musical productions are held in only the greatest and largest cultural centers like New York, London and Tokyo. For Tulsa to put on this Beethoven extravaganza is a tribute to the vitality of the arts in Tulsa, and to the high quality of Tulsa audiences.”
Warmly referred to as “a conversation among friends,” chamber music dates back to medieval times, but developed into the form we recognize today under Beethoven’s teacher, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). Although rooted in classical music, a chamber music concert is very different from an orchestral performance. Imagine being ensconced with other music lovers in the cozy salon of a privileged home or palace chamber. A handful of select musicians, each with an individualized role that is voiced by their instrument, create an experience that pulls you deeply into glorious sound. A melody or motif is introduced by one player and the others carry it forward. A back-and-forth response between instruments and performers can be as interesting to watch as it is to hear. “Each of the musicians plays his or her own part and that part is different from what is played by the others,” explains Hughes, “yet, together, the players present a unified work of art.”
Palace chambers and private salons have given way to concert halls over the years, but chamber music is still best appreciated in an intimate space. Chamber Music Tulsa, founded by Juilliard graduate Rosalie Talbott and known for decades as Concertime, held its events for many years at the Harwelden Mansion. As interest grew, the series moved to the Tulsa Performing Arts Center’s Williams Theatre. This season, along with the Beethoven Festival, CMT is presenting five chamber music groups on Sunday afternoons at the PAC. In addition, a series of salon concerts, including dinner and wine is offered by CMT on Saturday nights in the Center’s Westby Pavilion. The Westby will be the venue for the Beethoven Winter Festival and decorated with a Viennese flair for the occasion.
Due to a string of sold-out salon events, CMT recently began offering a different kind of salon concert experience on Friday nights at Harwelden. The gatherings have become popular with younger music enthusiasts, and that makes CMT Executive Director Bruce Sorrell very happy. Over the course of several seasons, Sorrell has made it a mission to expand CMT’s outreach, holding concerts not only at schools, but at venues as diverse as Fassler Hall, the Children’s Hospital at St. Francis, the Tulsa Boys Home and the downtown Tulsa bus depot.
“Several elements came together to lead to where we are today,” reflects Sorrell. “It was the perfect storm: a talented and engaged board that actively participated in the life of the organization, and a legacy gift from a supporter that significantly expanded our investments.” Added to that is Sorrell himself. He assumed the role of executive director in 2012. A charismatic musician and conductor, Sorrell brought the business skills, musical background and fresh enthusiasm needed to give the organization new confidence.
That confidence had peaked when the Miró Quartet approached CMT two years ago about presenting Beethoven’s complete string cycle. “They thought the Tulsa audience was ready for this,” says Sorrell. “So were we!”
“The Miró Quartet is a young quartet that has been to Tulsa several times,” says Hughes. “We keep having them back because they are so good. They are among the best quartets in the world, and at such a young age! The Miró believes Tulsa will enthusiastically embrace the festival concept, and Tulsa has, indeed, been knocking on CMT’s door for tickets. One couple is flying in from Seattle for the entire festival.” Community events related to the festival have been taking place since October, and several more are planned for February involving both the Miró and the guest Aeolus Quartet.
Formed in 1995, the Miró Quartet — Joshua Gindele, cello, violist John Largess, and violinists Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer — was awarded first prize at several national and international competitions. The Quartet in Residence since 2003 at the University of Texas, Austin, was the first ensemble to be awarded the coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant. The group is deeply committed to music education and enjoys collaborations with such music-world luminaries as André Watts, Wu Han, Jeffrey Kahane and Jon Kimura Parker. Miró’s performances of the complete quartets have drawn acclaim from audiences, peers and critics alike.
Beethoven’s 16 quartets are deemed the “Everest of the repertoire” by the world’s most vaunted ensembles and were written during a period from 1802 to 1825. They are considered to be a bridge from the classical realm of Haydn and Mozart to the Romantic period. The quartets are often categorized by Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods, with some of Beethoven’s most astounding work coming from the last phase of his life. “Art demands of us that we do not stand still,” Beethoven said of his late works. His Op.131, written near the end of his life was the composer’s favorite. It was the music that Beethoven’s contemporary, Franz Schubert, requested to hear on his deathbed. Miró Quartet’s Largess also claims Op. 131 as his favorite. “The movement says so much that is utterly beyond words,” he writes.
When questioned about the accessibility of his Op. 59, a technically demanding benchmark quartet, Beethoven offered that it was “not for you, but for a later age.” His original ending to his Op. 130 was so daunting, so nearly impossible for the musicians of his time to play and so removed from anything anyone was accustomed to hearing that he was pressed into writing a substitute finale. The composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) commented that the notorious original ending, Grosse fuge (“Grand Fugue”), was “an absolute contemporary piece that will be contemporary forever.” It will be performed at the Winter Festival in addition to the replacement ending. The latter was the final piece Beethoven wrote before his death in 1827 at age 56. “Indeed, these pieces were completely unprecedented works in their time, and remain truly inimitable in their depth and profundity by any compositions in any genre written by anyone since,” notes Largess.
“What is unusual about Miró’s approach in presenting the quartets,” suggests Sorrell, “is that while the complete cycle is often organized so that each concert has an early, middle and late quartet, Miró likes to perform them in the order in which they were composed, which brings a fascinating glimpse into the development of one of the singularly most important composers in all Western music. Beethoven’s last composition was a string quartet movement and the great ‘Late’ quartets were composed from a state of complete deafness. For me, I expect the concert series to be a transformative experience, spiritual even, and something I will talk about the rest of my life. Encounters with great art leave us changed forever.”
Adds Hughes, “Our Beethoven Winter Festival is our way of saying, ‘Hey, look at us. We have something fantastic to share with you.’ Chamber Music Tulsa has always prided itself on bringing the very best chamber artists to Tulsa. Maintaining our high standard is something we shall never compromise. That is our pledge. One can literally hear the best music in the world right here in Tulsa!”