I put the Lazy Sunday Covers playlist together because I like to listen to acoustic versions of songs when I’m relaxing. I also love to hear what other artists do with material. I included some of the songs in the Fairmount String Quartet’s pop music catalogue because as a classical violinist I frequently joke that I’m a professional cover artist. There’s just something special about a really good cover like Cake’s version of I Will Survive. I hope you enjoy these versions!
When Spring Garden Records producer Starkey asked me to put together a “Quarantunes” playlist for the SGR Spotify page, my goal was to share some of the music that has touched, inspired, and spoken to me throughout my life. I listen to many genres, so I wanted the list to reflect that. I started dropping tunes into the list and then moved them around a bit, so the transitions wouldn’t be too jarring and sent it off.
It wasn’t until last week that I listened to the list from beginning to end during a run down on Forbidden Drive. It ended up being a list that is truly a reflection of the times we are living in. I was struck by the beauty and power of the lyrics, the significance of each selection and, how, though many were written and recorded decades ago, they still resonate today. Humankind continues to struggle against the same evils and continues to look for spiritual strength and guidance. I hope you find the playlist inspiring. It’s a great soundtrack for a run in the woods.
Today we released our debut album “Spoken with Strings” on the Spring Garden Records label which describes the album as “nine carefully chosen and artfully arranged selections from the contemporary pop canon as interpreted by the singular brilliance of players Rachel Segal (vn), Leah Kim (vn), Beth Dzwil (va) and Mimi Morris-Kim (vc).”
After 30 years of recording for others, making demos and recording live performances, how is it that this is our debut album? Why this and why now?
The seed for this project came from a music department meeting at the Community College of Philadelphia where I am an adjunct professor. Department chair, Paul Geissinger, spoke of the launch of the college’s new record label, Spring Garden Records. SGR was designed to give students in the Sound Recording and Music Technology program an opportunity to get hands-on experience in the recording industry. They were looking for artists in a variety of genres to record with the label. We could give them the kind of variety they were seeking, and they could take care of all those things we haven’t had the time, money or expertise for in the last 30 years. We are all passionate educators, as well as performers, so moving forward with this project was an easy decision for us.
We decided to record an album of pop music and to record in the chapel at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler where we rehearse regularly. It was a comfortable space for us with a beautiful sound.
Recording is probably the most stressful work we do as musicians. There is so much focus on getting EVERYTHING PERFECT. We talked to Paul (who engineered the album) about how we did not want to edit the life out of our music in an attempt to achieve perfection. We wanted to be free of as much equipment in our faces as possible so that we could just play.
On the day of the first session, he set up two overhead mics and took a seat in the back of the room with two students and the rest of the equipment. We played. They stayed out of the way, making minimal comments, mostly when we asked for feedback. It was so relaxed and dare I say it…easy! We did at least two takes of each tune “just in case,” but the reality is Paul did very little editing. It’s pretty much a live album.
Listening to recordings of my playing can be painful. All I hear is what is wrong, and it takes several listenings to truly hear the beauty. When I received the files I braced myself for that first listen, but I didn’t need to. It was beautiful! The recordings had life! Paul did a stunning job of mixing and mastering them. Rachel, Mimi and Leah all had the same reaction.
About a month after delivering the recordings, Paul invited us to his Music Entrepreneurship class to speak with the students about our ensemble and the recording. They would have the option of choosing between three artists to develop a marketing plan for their album as a class assignment. Rachel and I attended, wondering how they would receive our take on these pop tunes. We listened to some of the tracks with them and smiled as we saw them gradually tap their feet, move to the music and even sing along to “Hey Ya.” One of the students remarked on how he could use some of our music in his DJ’ing – a use that had not occurred to us. We talked about how we didn’t yet have a title for the album. We were playing with things like “Without Words” and “Unspoken.” One of the students, a lyricist, gave us the title of “Spoken with Strings” – perfect! (Thank you Tegan!)
Rachel and I returned a few months later to view the presentations of three groups of students that had chosen our album for their marketing plan project. Their presentations and ideas were wonderful and included things that had never occurred to us – like a dance video contest!
Our time with the students was truly a highlight of this project. We were thrilled to give them an opportunity for hands-on learning, and as always when you teach, you learn. We are thankful to them for the ways they helped us to think outside of the box and to develop this album.
We are looking forward to seeing where this music will land and hearing the feedback of listeners.
You can listen to “Spoken with Strings” on Spotify and purchase it for download here.
Claude Debussy was a young composer in 1893. Just 31 years old, he was a relative unknown and had yet to make his mark. (That would happen the following year with his orchestral masterpiece, “Afternoon of a Faun.”) Like most composers of his generation, he, had for a time, been infatuated with Wagner and Wagnerian opera. He even made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth to see it performed live, but ultimately he rejected the hyper-Romantic Wagnerian path and went his own way. The String Quartet in g minor, Op. 10 is one of his first forays into his new style.
Debussy determined that he would no longer be constrained by the conservatory decreed rules of harmony and composition. He wanted to live and write “entirely for pleasure,” and write music whose sole purpose was to be beautiful. In this, he was strongly influenced by both the Symbolist poets and the Impressionistic painters of his day. The Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889 had also made an enormous impression on him. He spent days absorbed by listening to the music of non-Western performers, composers and improvisers and was particularly taken with the music of the Indonesian gamelan. The second movement of the string quartet, with its unusual use of pizzicato, may well be his take on this aural experience.
Despite his determination that beauty was to be the sole criterion, this string quartet is a tightly constructed work. The opening theme in the first movement is the germ for almost all the motivic material of the piece and reappears in various guises in all four movements. It is also interesting that this is the only work he composed for which he included a key (g minor) in the title. It’s sort of in g minor, but not entirely.
When talking about Impressionism in music, the composer’s use of texture and sonority has often been compared with the Impressionistic painter’s fascination with light. Points of clarity and points of mist and the interplay of both are created through new textures and new harmonic colors. In this way, this quartet can be seen almost as a musical painting, in much the same way that Jennifer Higdon’s Sky Quartet is. Both are a musical expression of light.
Join us this Friday, April 26th at 8:00 PM at the Presbyterian Church in Chestnut Hill Chapel or on Saturday, April 27th at 7:30 PM at All Saints Church in Princeton, NJ to hear this beautiful work as well as works by Jennifer Higdon and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Admission is free. A suggested donation of $25 for adults and $5 for students is requested to keep our music accessible to all.
“When I began composing “Sky Quartet”, I envisioned the wonder and immensity of the Western sky. This is especially appropriate since the Da Vinci Quartet resides in Colorado. Every time I’ve been west of the Mississippi, I’ve always marveled at that exquisite canvas of blue and clouds. This work paints musical portraits of the sky in various stages: start of a day, the rapture of its “blueness”, a storm-wrenched fury, and its vast immensity.
This work was commissioned by Frances Hettinger for the Da Vinci Quartet. Originally composed in 1997, it was revised in 2000.”
Classical music can take many forms. When we hear the term “String Quartet,” we usually think of a four-movement work for two violins, viola, and cello. The first movement is usually Sonata-Allegro form, the second and third movements are a slow movement and a Minuet and Trio or Scherzo, and the last movement is often a Rondo or other fast movement. Rarely does a four-movement string quartet deviate from this structure and use sound to paint a specific picture, but Jennifer Higdon’s “Sky Quartet” does exactly that. It is more of a tone poem than anything, inspired by the vastness and changeability of the Western sky. Having lived in Colorado for twelve years from 2003 to 2014, I have seen the sky go from bright sun to torrential downpour in the span of five minutes. I have also experienced some of the most breathtaking sunsets of all time. Recently, Mimi and I were discussing the Arizona sky and I remarked that I could understand the native cultures’ belief in spirits because of how the light can play tricks on you. It also brings to mind for us vast expanses of land, trees, and flowers.
I personally find her music to be an entirely new brand of “American” music with all of the vastness of other great American composers but with complex and sophisticated tonalities that are all her own. I had the pleasure of being part of her opera Cold Mountain at Opera Philadelphia a few years ago, and her writing brought the scenes in the book to life in a stunning way. I have also performed her orchestral works “Blue Cathedral” and “Concerto for Orchestra.” This is the second piece of Jennifer Higdon’s we have performed in the Fairmount String Quartet, the first being “Variations on Amazing Grace.”
Jennifer is a Philadelphia-based composer, a graduate of Bowling Green State University, The Curtis Institute of Music, and the University of Pennsylvania and is a Pulitzer Prize and two time Grammy Award winner. She currently holds the Rock Chair of Composition at The Curtis Institute of Music.
Join us on Friday, April 26th at 8:00 pm at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill Chapel or on Saturday, April 27th at 7:30 pm at All Saints Church in Princeton to hear this beautiful work.
Admission is free. A suggested donation of $25 for adults and $5 for students is requested to keep our music accessible to all.
Amy Marcy Cheney Beach was one of America’s foremost female composers, and the first American woman ever to have her music performed by the Boston Symphony. Her Gaelic Symphony was performed by them in 1896 when she was only twenty-nine years old. While it was received extremely well by her fellow male composers of the day, it is said that “whatever the merits or defects of the symphony were thought to be, critics went to extraordinary lengths in their attempts to relate them to the composer’s sex.”
Born in 1867 in Henniker, New Hampshire, her family excelled at art and encouraged their daughters to pursue careers in visual art and music. Considered a child prodigy, Amy Beach taught herself to read music at the age of three without the assistance of a piano, and began piano lessons at age six. She made her public debut at age sixteen with the Boston Symphony, performing Beethoven’s Concerto No.3, with a cadenza that she composed herself.
She married a much older man at age eighteen and was made to give up most of her public performance, since at the time it was considered unbecoming of a woman of her status, and the proceeds from what few public performances she was allowed to give were donated to charity. She did, however, maintain the freedom to compose, although she was forbidden to study with a tutor and instead had to teach herself. Her works were published under the name Mrs. H. H. A. Beach. In the words of Fanny Mendelssohn, “Music will perhaps become his [Fanny’s brother Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.” Despite these hurdles, she persisted, composing hundreds of works for solo piano, orchestra, chamber groups, songs, secular and sacred choral works, and the opera Cabildo, a sweet but tragic pirate love story in one act. She resumed her performance career after her husband’s death, appearing with the orchestras of New York, Chicago, and Berlin, and received commissions from all over the world under the name Amy Beach. She was once even asked if she was the daughter of Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, the famous composer.
The String Quartet, Op.89 in one movement, was originally sketched out in 1921 and premiered in 1930. It had a number of performances, including by the Society of Women Composers, which Beach helped found. It was inspired by Eskimo and Inuit themes, and employs a rich tonality found in Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss’s works. It is in “arch” form, beginning and ending with slow sections with a fast middle section. A proper European-style composer, it even features a short Fugue in the middle.
It is a pleasure and a privilege for us to have the opportunity to perform her music and the music of other prolific women. Composer George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931) wrote to Beach after the Gaelic Symphony’s premiere in Boston, saying that he and his colleague Horatio Parker (1863–1919) had much enjoyed it. In his words, “I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine work by any of us, and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you [like it] or not – one of the boys.” Despite the gendered beliefs of the day, she was the youngest member of the “Boston Six,” and perhaps the most remembered of them all.
We welcome you to join us on February 23rd at Eastern University’s Fowler Hall and on February 24th at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, to hear this wonderful quintet. Also on the program, Brahm’s Piano Quintet in f minor, Op. 34 and Mozart’s String Quartet in Eb, K. 428.
Johannes Brahms’ piano quintet had a long and difficult gestation. He composed it initially as a string quintet in 1862, modeling it after the great cello quintet of Franz Schubert. He sent the first three movements to his friends and mentors, pianist Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim. Their enthusiasm for the piece was decidedly tempered. Joachim said, “what it is lacking, is, in a word, charm.” Brahms went back to the drawing board. The next year he presented it and performed it in concert as a two piano work. The reviews were not great. Clara Schumann praised its musical substance and urged him to edit it further. In 1864 Brahms rewrote it again and this time scored it as a piano quintet: string quartet plus piano. The third time, the iteration we are performing on this concert, proved to be the elusive charm that Joachim sought.
The work has 4 movements. For me, it is fascinating to hear the influence of Schubert throughout. The grand and tragic first movement has counterpoint that harkens closely to the music box, doily-like intricacy of Schubert’s quartet writing. The second movement is imbued with the lyricism of a Schubert lied. The third movement with its dogged wrestling between Db and C comes close to a direct quotation of the final moment of the Schubert quintet. The 4th movement is its own animal. I had never quite understood how Schoenberg considered Brahms the father of modernism until I studied the beginning of this movement. The opening is mysterious, creepy even in its harmonic ambiguity. The rest of the movement, a gypsy hybrid of rondo and sonata form, is more conventional. In this movement, we can see Brahms handily pointing both forwards and backwards in time.
We welcome you to join us on February 23rd at Eastern University’s Fowler Hall and on February 24th at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, to hear this wonderful quintet. Also on the program, Amy Beach’s String Quartet in One Movement, Op. 89 and Mozart’s String Quartet in Eb, K. 428.
Mozart’s String Quartet in Eb, K. 428, one of six dedicated to Haydn, was written in the summer of 1783. In 1781, after meeting Haydn and hearing Haydn’s Op. 33 string quartets, Mozart was inspired to master this medium. These quartets were written without commission and were truly a labor of love. The manuscripts contain more erasures, changes and corrections than any of his other manuscripts. Along with the first two in the set, this quartet was premiered on January 15, 1785 at Mozart’s Vienna apartment with Mozart playing the viola. Haydn was present and afterwards told Mozart’s father “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition”
On September 1, 1785, Mozart sent the the quartets to Haydn with this dedication:
To my dear friend Haydn,
A father who had resolved to send his children out into the great world took it to be his duty to confide them to the protection and guidance of a very celebrated Man, especially when the latter by good fortune was at the same time his best Friend. Here they are then, O great Man and dearest Friend, these six children of mine. They are, it is true, the fruit of a long and laborious endeavor, yet the hope inspired in me by several Friends that it may be at least partly compensated encourages me, and I flatter myself that this offspring will serve to afford me solace one day. You, yourself, dearest friend, told me of your satisfaction with them during your last Visit to this Capital. It is this indulgence above all which urges me to commend them to you and encourages me to hope that they will not seem to you altogether unworthy of your favour. May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Friend! From this moment I resign to you all my rights in them, begging you however to look indulgently upon the defects which the partiality of a Father’s eye may have concealed from me, and in spite of them to continue in your generous Friendship for him who so greatly values it, in expectation of which I am, with all of my Heart, my dearest Friend, your most Sincere Friend,
We welcome you to join us on February 23rd at Eastern University’s Fowler Hall and on February 24th at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, to hear this wonderful quartet. Also on the program, Amy Beach’s String Quartet in One Movement, Op. 89 and Brahms Piano Quintet in f minor, Op. 34, with pianist Ken Lovett.
“The idea of writing the Danzón No. 2 originated in 1993 during a trip to Malinalco with the painter Andrés Fonseca and the dancer Irene Martínez, both of whom are experts in salon dances with a special passion for the danzón, which they were able to transmit to me from the beginning, and also during later trips to Veracruz and visits to the Colonia Salon in Mexico City. From these experiences onward, I started to learn the danzón’s rhythms, its form, its melodic outline, and to listen to the old recordings by Acerina and his Danzonera Orchestra. I was fascinated and I started to understand that the apparent lightness of the danzón is only like a visiting card for a type of music full of sensuality and qualitative seriousness, a genre which old Mexican people continue to dance with a touch of nostalgia and a jubilant escape towards their own emotional world; we can fortunately still see this in the embrace between music and dance that occurs in the State of Veracruz and in the dance parlors of Mexico City. The Danzón No. 2 is a tribute to the environment that nourishes the genre. It endeavors to get as close as possible to the dance, to its nostalgic melodies, to its wild rhythms, and although it violates its intimacy, its form and its harmonic language. It is a very personal way of paying my respects and expressing my emotions towards truly popular music. Danzón No. 2 was written on a commission by the Department of Musical Activities at Mexico’s National Autonomous University and is dedicated to my daughter Lily.”
The String Quartet No. 3 in F major, opus 73, was the only work Dmitri Shostakovich composed in 1946. He was very pleased with it. He wrote to the second violinist and manager of the Beethoven Quartet, for whom he wrote the piece, that “it seems to me that I have never been as pleased with a composition as with this Quartet. Probably I am wrong, but that is exactly how I feel right now.”
His original plan was that the quartet would reflect the history of World War II in Russia and that each of its 5 movements would have a programmatic title.
Movement 1, Allegretto, was to be “Calm unawareness of future cataclysm”
Movement 2, Moderato con moto, was to be “Rumblings of unrest and anticipation”
Movement 3, Allegro non troppo, was “The forces of war unleashed”
Movement 4, Adagio, was “Homage to the dead”
Movement 5, Moderato, was entitled, “The eternal question- Why? And for what?’
After the initial performance, Shostakovich withdrew the titles, and no one is sure why. It may have been that he wanted to avoid political pressure. His previous work, the 9th Symphony, was widely criticized by the government and even Stalin himself. Bruised by that experience, he may have wanted to lay low. It also may have been that he saw in the work a more universal experience and expression, one that perhaps he did not want to tie so distinctly to one time and one place.
As a performer it is helpful to have the titles. The opening of the 3rd movement with its alternating 2/4 and 3/4 measures sounds exactly like gunshots, and in the creepy second movement waltz, it is easy to see a metaphor for the unraveling of Russian and European society in the face of the horrors of war. And yet, as someone two generations removed from that war and a continent away, I can appreciate its universality. The eternal questions, Why? And for what? are as relevant in the churches where we are performing this in Chestnut Hill and Princeton as they were in 1946 Leningrad.
First heard by the public on New Years Day, 1773, the original hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by former slave ship captain and slave trader John Newton, later ordained by the Church of England. It was published in 1779 but wasn’t heard in the United States until the early 19th century, and was set to the now-famous tune of “New Britain” in 1835. The irony that a famous spiritual was penned by a former slave trader is not lost on us. This is a piece that can easily move a listener to tears without knowing why, and its history of catharsis may be unmatched by any other piece of music.
Jennifer Higdon’s deeply personal and moving setting of Amazing Grace is not what you would expect from a piece written in 1998. Originally composed as part of the larger vocal choir work Southern Grace, the string quartet version was arranged for the Ying Quartet. A lush and classically tonal theme and variations, it moves through different tempi without pause, creating a feeling of inertia and momentum, until it finally comes back to rest in the coda.
Jennifer has given me permission to include that this was the first piece of music she wrote after her younger brother’s death, and it still holds both solace and grief for her.
A short documentary on the history of Amazing Grace:
One of my favorite days of the year is when we get together to decide on repertoire for the coming season. Last Spring at that meeting I immediately put in a request for this Haydn Quartet, wishing to revisit a staple of my young musical life. I was first introduced to this piece at about age twelve in my chamber music program at Temple Music Prep. Like most young musicians, I wanted to play the bigger romantic works and was bummed to be put in the annual Haydn Quinten group. I later had the opportunity to dive deep into it at Taos School of Music during two weeks of constant chamber music bliss. Revisiting it as a professional has been wonderful. What I know now is that this was the perfect piece for an aspiring musician as it shows a complete and elegant mastery of the DNA of classical harmony. One should expect no less from “Papa Haydn.”
The Op.76 no.2 quartet has been nicknamed the “Quinten” because of the four-note descending motive of perfect fifths that permeates the first movement. In musical terms, a “fifth” is the distance between two notes, five notes apart from one another. Another recurring theme in this piece is the juxtaposition of D Major and d minor (the saddest of all keys), which Haydn moves between with ease and grace throughout the entire piece. The two most basic harmonic elements in classical music are fifths and and the Major/minor relationship. The instruments of the string quartet are tuned in fifths; the “circle of fifths” is how we learn about keys; parallel Major/minor keys are built from the same starting pitch. While the fifths permeate the first movement, the Major/minor relationship is most prominent in the Minuet. This movement has been called the “Witches Minuet,” which we think is perfect for Halloween. It features the quartet in perfect canon, beginning with the violins in octaves, followed by the viola and cello. The two pairs seem to be arguing the same point back and forth, an example of the very human nature of Haydn’s quartet writing.
At the age of 65, with all of his Symphonies behind him, Haydn chose to come back to these most basic building blocks of music and create a tour-de-force quartet. It has been a joy to rediscover this piece with my colleagues and friends.
The Fairmount String Quartet will perform our annual “Harmony for Humanity” concerts on Saturday, October 20th at 7:30 PM in the Chapel at the Presbyterian Church in Chestnut Hill and on Sunday, October 21st at 3:00 PM at All Saints Church in Princeton, NJ. These performances are part of the Daniel Pearl World Music Days.
Daniel Pearl was a journalist and violinist who used music to build bridges between cultures. In 2002 he was murdered by terrorists while investigating a story in Pakistan. Danny’s family and friends decided to continue his work of connecting people through music and communication by starting the Daniel Pearl Foundation.
Daniel Pearl World Music Days is an international network of concerts that uses the power of music to affirm our commitment to respecting differences and honoring our common humanity. Every October, we join musicians all over the world who dedicate their concerts to a shared belief in the power of music to lift people of different backgrounds and beliefs above the differences that set us apart. Since 2002, Daniel Pearl World Music Days has grown to include the participation of more than 13,900 performances in 140 countries.
We hope you will join us as we perform music of different cultures – music of joy, despair and, most importantly, hope.
As with all Fairmount String Quartet concerts, we suggest a donation of $25 for adults and $5 for students, but there is no admission fee for our performances. We want everyone to have the opportunity to experience this wonderful music and to be inspired to bridge cultural differences in their own lives.
For more information on the October 20th concert
For more information on the October 21st concert.
I recently experienced a phenomenon with my mom like nothing I’ve seen before. I had just finished creating the raw files for Alight, my recording project with the composer Amanda Harberg at the piano, and had them with me in my phone when I went to visit my mom in her memory care facility. She is 96 and has been at this level of care for four years as she is nearing the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Although she is still mobile and can feed herself with physical cuing, she does not have the ability to communicate or understand even basic verbal cues.
We have been active in the Music and Memory project that I helped get accredited in her community, and I know that music opens up another level of cognizance and strengthens her ability to listen, understand and respond, but it is all within what is now becoming for me a more predictable range.
I shared the recording I made of Prayer (which incidentally was composed by Amanda for her loved one who was in the hospital) and it took much of the four minutes getting mom to understand that I wanted her to listen; she thought that I was trying to get her to see something. At the end she said, “that was nice!” so I knew she was listening.
I told her that she was the first person to hear my recording and she held her head up in pride and said “well”.
In the past year this might be the extent of having a good listening day, and I would be very happy.
As I jotted down on my phone what transpired, mom asks what I’m doing! I told her I’m writing the things down that she said and then she asks “what did I say?!”
I said that we were having this great conversation because we were just listening to my music. When I put Prayer back on I mimed me playing the flute and I knew she grasped that. I then pulled out some photos and showed her my girls and told her my daughter is marrying and showed her the photo of her fiancé. Mom lit up, and I knew she understood me. She said, “how old is he?” And made a nice reply about him that made sense.
So as we walked along the hall together I am thinking about what just happened and how my music got through to my mother and I begin to tear up. Mom said, “what’s wrong?”. That’s when I lost it, crying and laughing, at the same time, saying “nothing’s wrong, I’m just really happy.”
On April 23rd, the Fairmount String Quartet will perform:
Hugo Wolf – Italian Serenade
Benjamin Britten – Simple Symphony
Maurice Ravel – String Quartet in F
I have been looking forward to this program all season! Three important works that I just adore! and if you’re a Wes Anderson Fan, you will love this concert. Both the Ravel Quartet and the Britten Simple Symphony have been used in his films.
Check out the second movement of the Ravel Quartet on the opening credits of “The Royal Tenenbaums”
and Playful Pizzicato from Britten’s “Simple Symphony” on “Moonrise Kingdom”
See you at the concert!