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Haydn meets Ellington with the Leipzig String Quartet

Jazz and classical music to blend in unique concert at the Massry Center

Saturday, March 5, 2011
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The Leipzig String Quartet are, from left: Tilman Büning, second violin; Matthias Moosdorf, cello, Ivo Bauer, viola, and Stefan Arzberger, first violin.
The Leipzig String Quartet are, from left: Tilman Büning, second violin; Matthias Moosdorf, cello, Ivo Bauer, viola, and Stefan Arzberger, first violin.

— Put a little jazz with some classical music on a concert and what do you get?

“Maybe someone in the audience will say ‘Aha. This is interesting,’ ” said Stefan Arzberger, the first violinist of the Leipzig String Quartet about their concert with jazz musicians saxophonist Steve Wilson and pianist Pete Malinverni on Wednesday.

The concert, which is being billed as a special Ash Wednesday performance, will feature one classical work, Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Meditations on the Last Words of Christ,” with interludes that Malinverni wrote based on the thematic material of each of the seven Haydn movements. A few Duke Ellington tunes suitable to the material will be included.

No strangers

The Leipzig, which includes Arzberger, violinist Tilman Büning, violist Ivo Bauer and cellist Matthias Moosdorf, are not strangers to jazz.

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For Gazette music writer Geraldine Freedman's review of this show, click here.

“Its symmetry and different harmonies and modern sounds. . . . We love to listen but we can’t play it,” Arzberger said in telephone interview from Leipzig, Germany.

The quartet did venture into jazz territory a bit in 2009 when it performed British rocker Elvis Costello’s “The Juliet Letters,” which originally was recorded in 1993 with the Brodsky Quartet on Costello’s 14th album. The piece is a song sequence with voice, piano and string quartet, but all the parts were written out — there was no improvisation.

This was a novel experience and very different for a quartet that was founded in 1988 by four musicians who were born in Leipzig, trained at the Leipzig Conservatory and still live there.

“That’s why we named it the Leipzig,” Arzberger said laughing. “We’ve known each other for 25 years.”

The group has won several competitions and awards, traveled the world, had its own concert series since 1991 at the Gewandhaus, premiered countless works by such composers as Wolfgang Rihm and Christian Ofenbauer to expand the repertoire by as much as 100 new compositions, and worked with such luminaries as pianists Alfred Brendel and Christian Zacharias.

The quartet’s almost 70 recordings of works from Mozart to John Cage have won critical international acclaim, including four ECHO-Klassik awards, the Diapason d’Or and the Quarterly Prize of the German Record Reviewers.

With a repertoire that includes more than 300 works, the Leipzig has often performed this Haydn work and even recorded it (Dabringhaus & Grimm Music Productions 2009).

Written for orchestra

Written in 1786 as a Good Friday service for the Grotto Santa Cueva church near Cadiz, Spain, it was originally for orchestra. The idea was to have the priest speak a word or phrase and then as he fell to his knees to pray, Haydn wrote 10 minutes worth of music in a slow tempo. This would be repeated six more times.

Haydn was quoted as saying how difficult it was to keep to the 10-minute time frame and how concerned he was that with so much slow music he wouldn’t fatigue the listeners.

Over the years, the work was rearranged for oratorio with solo voice and chorus, solo piano and for string quartet.

“We have heard the orchestral version, but the string quartet version is very pure,” Arzberger said. “All the information and emotions are there.”

Before they performed it the first time, they researched how it might have been done in 1786. So they’re using baroque bows and little vibrato. Since Haydn didn’t provide tempo markings, they based the speed on the words.

“You get a feeling from the words — how they’re pronounced and how you say them with all the emotions,” Arzberger said.

Although the tempos are generally slow, it’s never boring.

“The music tells the story and gives the direction,” he said. “We must get into the music and leave everything else out.”

Expanding the work

But last year, when they were thinking of performing the Haydn, they were wondering how to expand the piece from its 70 minutes. A conversation with their manager started them thinking of using jazz in between each section. Wilson was suggested, a performer with stellar credentials — he’s played with everyone from Chick Corea and Michael Brecker to Don Byron and Maria Schneider — and with more than 100 discs.

Arzberger said they gave him a call. Wilson in turn called Malinverni, a longtime colleague, who interestingly worked with Costello in 2010 when Costello hosted Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz Part I” on National Public Radio.

“I immersed myself in the Haydn,” said Malinverni, who usually writes for winds, string bass or gospel choir. “I took a lot of time listening. I wanted a feeling for the mood. Then I took his melodies and used them to improvise and wrote some segue material to support the next movement.”

Last spring, the Leipzig, Wilson and Malinverni performed at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City.

“It was very successful,” Malinverni said. “We had no intermission. We just blasted right through.”

Arzberger said the quartet was very happy with the result but found it difficult to sit there on stage listening, primarily because they can’t play jazz. Malinverni said he was inspired to hear the Leipzig, especially when he heard the melodic material he’d used passed around as they played.

“The soul was the same. More connects us than separates us. People can get it,” he said.

For this concert, the jazz musicians will also play Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” “Heaven,” and “Solitude.”

A little leery

But Arzberger said he’s not sure how putting jazz with this solemn, rather sacred piece would work outside a religious context or in Europe.

“You must be careful with this piece,” he said. “It’s very holy. It’s normal to do it only in churches or holy places, but with jazz included, it is a strange thing. Here in Europe, Christ is an underpinning for everything. I’m not sure it would work.”

For now, the Leipzig won’t have to find out. This is the only time they’ll play the Haydn work with jazz on their tour, which includes visits to Texas, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and New Mexico.

 
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