As if Benjamin Franklin hadn't already done enough for America in his role as author- politician- printer- scientist- inventor- diplomat, it turns out that he also composed a string quartet. The work is Quartet No. 2 in F major for Three Violins and Cello (which means he must have composed at least two string quartets) and the publication date is unknown. The Franklin Quartet will be performed as part of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's Winter Festival. Titled American Voices 1750 _2008, this courageous and eclectic festival offers an unprecedented opportunity to experience American chamber music in depth, from the Colonial period to present. In just four programs presented at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, the Chamber Music Society will delve into two-and-a-half centuries of our nation's musical history.
"It's a really funky piece," beams Wu Han of the Franklin opus. Wu Han, who is the artistic co-director of CMS, explains that the Franklin work was written in a square-dance style, with the instruments played on open strings, but each tuned differently. "It's experimental," she says, "like Ben Franklin."
The American Voices Festival is certainly experimental, too, and Wu Han feels that the derring-do of embracing over two-and-a-half centuries of American chamber music from all corners of the repertoire in a single festival fits snugly with the spirit of rugged American individualism that helped create the music in the first place.
For a familiar highlight, the Jupiter String Quartet performs Samuel Barber's Op. 11 String Quartet: which includes the celebrated Adagio: on February 12. But with over 20 composers featured in the festival (which runs February 8, 10, and 12, and a fourth program February 22 repeated February 24), selections include lesser-known chamber works by canonized composers. The Jupiter also performs George Gershwin's Lullaby for String Quartet (Feb 12), which directly
preceded Rhapsody in Blue: the tune later became part of his one-act opera, Blue Monday. Leonard Bernstein's Clarinet Sonata, a work that presages the curving melodies and persuasive rhythms of West Side Story by a good 15 years, will feature soloist David Shifrin (Feb 12). Lukas Foss departs from his usual neo-classic bent in his late work, Time Cycle for Soprano and Ensemble, which, in a series of arias featuring soprano Barbara Hannigan, alternately defines and destroys tonality (Feb 10). The ever avant-garde John Cage's Amores for Prepared Piano and Three Percussion Players, concerns, in the words of the composer, "the quietness between lovers" (Feb 10). George Antheil, the self-titled "Bad Boy of Music," will be remembered with his Sonata No. 2 for Violin, Piano, and Drums (Feb 8). Charles Ives's Piano Trio (Feb 22, 24) finds the American maverick in an early, lyrical style, with snippets of American song inserted throughout the work.
Anthony Philip Heinrich, once known as "the Beethoven of America," makes Ives look tame with his Americana _inspired work Sylvan Scene in Kentucky or Barbecue Divertimento (Feb 22, 24) written in 1825, nearly 50 years before the birth of Ives. Henry Cowell, called by Cage "the open sesame for new music in America" and known for his wild experimental sound, has a trio of featured works (Feb 8) that includes The Banshee for Piano Strings and Quartet Euphometric for Strings. An early 20th-century composer, Louis Gruenberg emigrated from Russia and took to the sounds of ragtime and jazz. He composed, among other works, Four Diversions for String Quartet (Feb 8). Turn-of-the-century composer Amy Cheney Beach, who Wu Han describes as "gloriously Romantic," will be featured for her raw and wondrous Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor (Feb 8). Edward MacDowell (1860 _1908), renowned for his piano concertos and evocative piano miniatures, will be remembered with a performance of his Piano Etudes (Feb 10). The brief life of Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884 _1920), an Impressionist influenced by the French and Russian schools, gifted America with his White Peacock for piano, as well as other works for keyboard, notably Three Tone Pictures (Feb 10). An instrument-maker from Pennsylvania, John Antes (1740 _1811) possessed a lively musical imagination, demonstrated in his Trio in D minor for Two Violins and Cello (Feb 12). Folk-music specialist Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901 _1953) was an American modernist, whose String Quartet
(Feb 12) features captivating dissonant counterpoint and American serialism. A progenitor of ragtime, the music of New Orleans composer and pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 _1869) will be on display February 22 and 24 in the form of his Union for Piano.
Three world premieres by living composers round out the Festival's coverage of 250+ years of chamber music: Mario Davidovsky's Piano Septet (co-commissioned by CMS) (Feb 10); Joan Tower's A Gift for Piano, Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn (Feb 12); and Alan Louis Smith's Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman (from the Daily Journal of Margaret Ann Alsip Frink, 1850) (Feb 22, 24). The Smith work features mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, a de facto co-commissioner of Covered Wagon Woman. A champion of Smith's music, Blythe opened the CMS season with the composer's Vignettes: Ellis Island. Smith and Tower will each hold pre-concert chats before their respective concerts.
Of course the Quartet of Benjamin Franklin, surely the preeminent mascot of the American inventive spirit, has fittingly been chosen to open the CMS's American Voices Festival on February 8.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's Winter Festival: American Voices 1750 _2008 runs February 8, 12 and 22 at 7:30 pm, and February 10 and 24 at 5 pm at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. For tickets, call 212.875.5788 or visit www.chambermusicsociety.org.
Ben Finane is Managing Editor of Playbill's Classic Arts Division and the author of a book on Handel's Messiah, forthcoming from Continuum Books.