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Old First Concerts presents chamber music written by composers in their twenties

Portrait of Beethoven painted in 1801
by Carl Traugott Riedel (1769-1832), from Wikipedia (public domain)

Yesterday in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church, cellist Jerry Chang and Yun Jie Liu viola joined forces with several of their colleagues for an afternoon of chamber music. For the first half of the program they played two string trios with violinist Debra Fong, the first by Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 9, Number 1 in G major) and the second by Ernő Dohnányi (his Opus 10 serenade in C major). After the intermission Chang and Liu returned with Diane Nicholeris on violin, Charles Chandler on bass, and Gwendolyn Mok on piano to present Franz Schubert’s D. 667 (“Trout”) quintet in A major.

Whether by accident or design, what was particularly interesting about the arrangement of the program was the ages of the composers when each of these pieces was written. The exact dates of composition of the three Opus 9 trios are unknown. However, it is known that Beethoven sold them to publisher Johann Traeg on March 16, 1798 and that they were first announced the following July 21. Beethoven would have been 27 years old at the time. Dohnányi was only slightly younger (26) when he composed his Opus 10; and Schubert was only 22 when he composed D. 667. The program was thus in the descending order of the ages at which their respective composers wrote the pieces. Whether or not the ordering was intentional, the overall theme suggests a twist on a popular motto from my student days, “Never listen to music by anyone under 30!”

While all of the performers are highly experienced professionals, there was a decidedly youthful vigor in their approach to each of the compositions on the program. The Beethoven trio emerged as yet another example his abundant capacity for wit; and one can imagine that, in 1798, he still had a nagging urge to one-up his former teacher, Joseph Haydn, in such matters. One can thus discern a competitive streak in his imaginative inventiveness but not a nasty one. Similarly, Dohnányi was never shy about his prankish nature, even if the first decade of the twentieth century was not the best time to be a Hungarian (or any other European national, for that matter). Fong, Liu, and Chang therefore brought out all the best qualities of good-natured rhetoric in both of these compositions, even if they were separated on the timeline by a little more than a century.

D. 667, on the other hand, was clearly composed in a good nature and intended for a good-natured setting. That was clearly how it was received by yesterday’s performers and executed accordingly. This is music that always benefits from a concert setting, not only because the high spirits of the performers never fail to spill over into the audience but also because there has yet to be a recording that does the necessary justice to the bass part. It is only by the physical presence of the act of making music that one can appreciate the imaginative approach Schubert has taken to providing the ensemble with a well-defined bass line above which everything else unfolds. In particular, this leaves the cello with more liberty to be a “melody instrument;” and, in yesterday’s performance, some of the melodic duo work involving Liu and Chang was absolutely heavenly.

Taken as a whole, then, the program waxed enthusiastically over the joys of youth, making for an appropriate celebration of the summer solstice.

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