Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Summer Music Festival

For me, one of the major draws of Indiana University - besides its neuroimaging program - was the presence of the Jacobs School of Music, one of the best conservatories in the world. I had studied piano as a kid and have continued to keep it up as a hobby, so for me, a music school within spitting distance from my apartment was a major attraction.

Last summer the Jacobs School began a summer music festival, where nearly every night for the entire summer term there are musical performances. Solo piano recitals, string quartets and chamber music, and symphonic works are performed continuously, with soloists and music ensembles traveling from all over the world to play here. Tickets are six dollars for students, and piano recitals are free. For a piano addict like myself, with Carnegie Hall-caliber performances going on all day, every day - this is bliss.

One of the themes this summer is a complete cycle of the sixteen Beethoven string quartets. I had heard a few of the earlier works, but had put off listening to the later quartets because I didn't feel quite ready for them yet - many of them are tremendously difficult to listen to, approaching colossal lengths and levels of complexity that are almost impenetrable. Although immensely rewarding, this is not the same as saying it is a pleasurable experience.

However, I decided to go through with it anyway, and on Sunday I witnessed a performance of one of the last works ever composed by Ludwig van, the string quartet in B-flat major, opus 130. Back when it first premiered Beethoven had composed a gigantic, dissonant double fugue as the final movement, stretching the entire performance to almost an hour. It was met with resistance from the public and critics alike, and Beethoven's publisher convinced him to substitute a lighter, more accessible ending. Beethoven relented (begrudgingly), and published the fugue separately, entitling the work "Große Fugue", which means Great Fugue, or Grand Fugue. Because of its tremendous duration and emotional scope, the work has since been frequently performed on its own as an example of Beethoven's late style and contrapuntal daring.

Which is why I was surprised that, before the performance, the second violinist addressed the audience and informed us that contrary to what was on the program, they were going to play the work with the original fugue ending. Holy crap, I thought: It is on.

The next hour was intense, with the titanic opening, middle, and ending movements flanked by smaller, intense interludes, an architecture that characterized much of Beethoven's late output. The Fugue, as expected, was gigantic, and the musicians were sawing away at their instruments, squeezing the lemon so to speak, and somehow sustaining the whole thing without letting it degrade into complete chaos. I was extremely impressed, and recommend that anyone who has the chance should see these guys live, or at least listen to one of their CDs.

During the performance, one interesting musical reference I noticed was a theme consisting of a leap followed by a trill - a similar theme that opens the finale of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, also in B-flat major, and also ending with a fugue on acid. The jump in that work is much larger and more dramatic - almost a tenth, I think - but the similarity was striking. In the following video, listen to the trill theme starting around 7:45, and then compare with the opening of the Hammerklavier fugue. And then you might as well watch the whole thing, because Valentina Lisitsa's spidery, ethereal hands are beautiful to watch.

In all, it was a heroic performance, and I am looking forward to completing the cycle over the next couple of weeks.

The next couple of days will see a return to the cog neuro side of things, since it has been a while since I've written about that. I have a new program written for building regions of interest in AFNI, as well as some FSL and UNIX tutorials which should be online soon. Stay tuned!

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