A Key to How Joseph Schwartz Composes a Concert


I just heard Joseph Schwartz play, for the third time, a concert with piano pieces by Beethoven, Ravel, and Chopin. Now, without hearing him play, one would think, “Oh, of course, these are Romantic composers.” But I expressed in an earlier post how Joe’s music creates “visible” vignettes and pianistic panoramas. He also is an excellent teacher, which relates to the previous post about great artists being quite humble…he is as comfortable on the concert stage as he is at home. His interpretations of the music he plays is a direct channel to the most intimate feelings and intents of the composers he plays.

When he selects work for a concert, it becomes a “variation on a theme,” where each composer relates to the others in a profound manner. For example, this concert, which I heard at his home (dress rehearsal), at the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, and today at a public venue in Clearwater, is like chapters in a book where one can explore similar themes or effects of three composers, separated in time and place. It’s related to how I construct a painting, so that all parts work together to produce a harmonious “tapestry,” where each part relates to each other and to the whole.

Let’s start with Beethoven’s Sonata in E flat Major (Op. 81 A). Before he plays, Joe explains the chronological circumstances: the Viennese are fleeing their homes and palaces as Napoleon approaches the city (Adagio-Allegro, “Les Adeiux). I noticed the motif of a clock striking, of the flurry of footsteps in hallways, and a contrasting sense of dread and hope which Beethoven cultivates in his music. . .

In the next movements (Andante Expressivo– l’Absence,and Vivacissmamente– Le Retour) the clock tempo slows down, and the rooms (perhaps with furnishing draped with sheets) remain silent and empty. The scene cinematically shifts in darkened passages with a wistful sense, profound pauses, and a Mozartian flash of light embellished with trills. In a colorful burst of notes conveying activity, the cobwebs of neglect seem swept away, but a deeper voice cautions that all is not well. It’s as if the classicism of Mozart and Haydn goes a bit baroque, like a fugue. Then it is like birds singing ecstatically, like they do in Maine in the summer at 4 a.m., then the notes become a tiny stream, where the water bounces off stones in little waterfalls, gathering speed, until the clock strikes again, and the piano seems to be falling down a series of steps in a musical staircase to the sea. I know this sounds absurd and somewhat surrealistic, but Beethoven is “big,” and I can’t help remembering that he loved long walks in the woods. After all, he was a Romantic, wasn’t he? And Joe plays his music this way…I know in my heart, just as he wrote it.

Now a good generation or two in time forward, we are hearing Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” As Joe says, it’s not really about a tomb for a composer at the French court during the time of Louis XIV, but a memorial to Ravel’s friends who lost their lives in World War I. Joe is playing four of the movements, which are the Prelude, the Rigaudon, the Menuet, and the Toccata. The prelude is like a deep Dufy blue sky filled with birds, all atwitter, and his fingers are moving up and down the keyboard at an amazing rate of speed. He has briefly mentioned Ravel’s “esoteric harmonies,” and two simultaneous “voices,” which makes me think of the new paintings I am creating on wood with plexiglass areas a level above the wood. The cross hand playing and the haunting melody of the Riguadon is “signature” for the entire work, with its minor ambience, ends in those birds twittering in the tree tops again. The thoughtful, contemplative Menuet seems to look back to Beethoven’s “L’absence,” but is gently lyrical, with pentatonic overtones. The Toccata ( played at almost breakneck speed) was all “fiesta,” with a vivacious conversation between the treble and bass, running through the hallways, hammer strokes recalling the Beethoven piece, albeit impressionistic. In fact, there is, in the two layers, an almost Gershwin verve and vivacity. I think you begin to see how Joe weaves these pieces into tapestry of a program.

Now, for the “denouement.” The second half of the program is Chopin, but Joe didn’t realize there was an intermission. It was more than OK; he was on a “roll.” He played the Barcarolle in a way I’d never heard before. I could share my notes from last year, when I described this piece played by Joe as “the essence of love.” But today, I heard the same “twittering birds” that were in the Ravel prelude, and then the same wistfulness as in the Beethoven “absence.” And a similar “hesitation” as in Beethoven’s feeling of “darkness” counterpointed by the treble voice of light. With the insistent “basso ostinato” , the lighter, higher voice was the sunlit laughter of wavelets that crisscrossed as they met each other and created an undulating pattern. Here is romantic element of nature, which we heard in the Beethoven piece, and Ravel. Of a bird soaring higher and higher to see the entire panorama of the Venetian canals and gondolas, an aerial shot ending Chopin’s “cinematography.”

Thanks, Joe, for weaving a musical web of correlative sounds and visualizations.

We all rose to our feet for a standing ovation!

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