Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Jon Manasse plays in the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in New York and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in London. He is also a leading chamber musician and plays with The Chamber Society of Lincoln Center, and at festivals from Aspen to Caramoor. He has been a guest soloist with the Amadeus, Borromeo, Lark, Shanghai and Ying Quartets, and has collaborated with violinist Joshua Bell, as well as pianist Jon Nakamatsu.
He currently serves as principal clarinetist of the American Ballet Theater Orchestra and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. In 2003-2004, he was principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under James Levine. He is a member of the faculties of the Eastman School of Music and the Julliard School. His recordings include the complete works for clarinet and piano of Weber, as well as works by Mozart, Nielsen, Copland, Bernstein, Gershwin, D'Rivera and Novacek.
Jon Nakamatsu gained international attention in 1997 when he was awarded the Gold Medal at the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Since then, he has pursued a successful international career as soloist, collaborator with major orchestras, and in chamber music. He is particularly esteemed for his performances of Chopin and Brahms. He has recorded works by Lukas Foss, Rachmaninov, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, and Gershwin, among others.
Mr. Manasse and Mr. Nakamatsu have recorded the two Brahms sonatas for clarinet and piano, and the works on our program by D'Rivera and Novacek, for the Harmonia Mundi label. Their recording of the Brahms sonatas was selected as a Recording of the Year by the New York Times.
The Manasse-Nakamatsu Duo is managed by Parker Artists.
The clarinet stands out among instruments for its singing tone and exceptional range. It is a special instrument for me. I can still remember the day in junior high school when I got a used Buffet ("bu-fay") clarinet. I must confess, therefore, to a complete lack of objectivity concerning the instrument.
Three composers were particularly enamored of the clarinet. Mozart wrote a beautiful clarinet quintet, and clarinet trio, as well as the greatest of all clarinet concertos. He considered the clarinet tone to be closest of all instruments to the human voice. Carl Maria von Weber wrote several excellent works for the clarinet. Brahms, in a story similar to Mozart, heard the outstanding clarinetist of his time (Stadler for Mozart, Mühlfeld for Brahms), and was inspired to write a series of late masterpieces - a trio, a quintet, and two sonatas for clarinet and piano, the second of which we will hear.
The Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 120, No 2 (1894), is one of Brahms's last works, and his very last piece of instrumental music. He had announced his retirement from composition after finishing the second quintet for strings, but Mühlfeld's playing brought him back to his desk, to our eternal benefit. The two clarinet sonatas are among the greatest of his twenty-four works of chamber music.
The first movement has the unusual indication for Brahms of Allegro amabile (fast and congenial), and is much more relaxed than the agitated opening movement of the Sonata No 1. Lest we conclude that Brahms is totally in autumnal mode in this piece, the second movement is marked Appassionata, ma non troppo allegro (passionate but not too fast). Emotion intensifies, but the player must not get carried away. That could be a perfect description of Brahms. There is a photograph of him in old age with a long white beard looking out the window that makes him look like everyone's favorite uncle. But he was passionate, and could be a curmudgeon. There is a story that after a string quartet performed one of his quartets, the violist asked him what he thought about their tempos. Brahms replied that he liked all of them, especially the violist's.
The second movement is in the unusual key of E flat minor, a key that Bach associated with death. Things are not so grim here. The Trio evokes, for the last time in Brahms, the Hungarian music that he loved. The third movement employs, also for the last time, the theme and variation form that he used throughout his career. In what is surely deliberate, Brahms's theme has a strong affinity with the theme of Robert Schumann's Andante and Variations for Two Pianos, which (and this is the key) Brahms used to play with Clara Schumann. Robert Schumann launched Brahms's career, and Brahms carried a torch for Clara his entire life. She died two years after he wrote this sonata, and he followed one year after that. This lyrical, valedictory piece brings the curtain down on Brahms's career, and an entire arc of music reaching back to Beethoven and Schubert.
We travel from Vienna to New York. Lowell Liebermann is a prolific composer and also a fine pianist, who carries on the tradition of the composer-performer. He studied at Julliard with Vincent Persichetti and David Diamond (who gets my vote as the greatest American symphonist). Jon Manasse played the premiere of Liebermann's Clarinet Concerto in 2011.
Liebermann's large output is distinguished by a strong connection with players and listeners. Jeffrey Biegel said of Liebermann's Third Piano Concerto, "His lyricism is haunting. One can sense the inspiration from Brahms, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Barber, but Liebermann's musical language is his own, and gives the listener every emotion needed to enjoy his music." Pianist Stephen Hough, a Julliard classmate, praised Liebermann's music: "Everything about his music feels natural. He's a musician of tremendous intelligence and sensitivity."
The Elegy for clarinet (2012) was written in memory of Mr. Manasse's father.
The history of Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise for solo piano is unusual. In 1830-31, Chopin wrote the Grande Polonaise Brillante for piano and orchestra, just after he composed his Piano Concerto No.1. In 1834, prompted by an invitation to play in Paris, he wrote the Andante Spianato for solo piano. To create a calling card for France, he combined a solo piano version of the Grande Polonaise with the Andante Spianato. So it is a hybrid, sort of the Prius of piano music.
The polonaise is a Polish dance of aristocratic origin in triple time, rather ceremonial and stately in nature. "Spianato" means smooth or even, and describes the quiet rippling effects and generally unruffled character of the introductory Andante, although the piece has something of the nostalgia for Poland in Chopin's Nocturnes and Mazurkas. A fanfare passage connects the two pieces. The Grande Polonaise is an extrovert dance. The main theme is restated, then followed by a more subdued middle section, then returns again and leads to a brilliant coda. We are fortunate to hear this played by Jon Nakamatsu, who is a distinguished Chopin player.
Claude Debussy wrote the Première Rhapsodie pour Clarinette in 1908 as an examination piece for the Paris Conservatory. Debussy being Debussy, the piece is much more than a technical exercise. The original version was for clarinet and piano. Debussy later orchestrated it. There never would be a deuxième rhapsodie, by the way, although he did write a comparable piece for saxophone (because an American paid him a lot of money for it). After an introductory passage marked Rêveusement lent (dreamily slow) - probably the inspiration for the first movement of Aaron Copland's beautiful Clarinet Concerto - the music becomes lively and virtuosic. Debussy liked the piece, and said it was "one of the pleasantest pieces that I have ever written," an unusual statement by a composer who agonized over everything he wrote.
Like a startling cut in the movies, we jump from Debussy to Cuban-born composer Paquito D'Rivera. He is an expert clarinetist himself. The Cape Cod Files was written for the 30th anniversary of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, of which Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu are Artistic Directors. The first movement pays homage to jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, who also played classical music. The second movement evokes the bandoneón, the button accordion brought to Argentina from Germany, the sound of which instantly evokes the tango. The third movement pays homage to the Cuban pianist and prolific composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963). Chiquita Blues is an evocation not of the banana (to get the inevitable joke out of the way), but of the Cuban danzón, and the popular early 20th century Cuban vaudeville singer known as Chiquita. All four movements look to the past, but the piece gives a contemporary twist to it all.
John Novacek, our fourth pianist-composer, wrote four rags for Jon Manasse and Jon Nakamatsu. We will hear the second and fourth of them. The rag was put on the map by Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake, but several American composers - notably Novacek and William Bolcom - have been fascinated by the rag. Novacek's rags range from music with the easy swing of Joplin, to sharper harmonies and vigorous, even somewhat manic energy. 4th Street Drag probably puns on Bob Dylan's song Positively Fourth Street (which contains the cheerful line "what a drag it is to be you"), and the parallel fourth intervals that structure the piece. Full Stride Ahead beams the rag to regions where no rag has gone before, and is the perfect concert closer.
Program Notes by Chris Rochester