Jason Neukom, Andrew Giordano, Violins
Sean Neukom, Viola Ryan Ash, Cello
Franz Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in G major, Op. 33 (“Russian”), No. 5, Hob.III:41
Yann Tiersen (arr. Jason Neukom): La Noyée (from the film “Amélie”)
Sean Neukom: El Balcón (Written for Beo String Quartet)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Contrapuncti Nos. 1, 2, 5, 9, and 11 from ” The Art of Fugue ”
With 65 world premieres to its credit and 150 concert works played throughout the United States, South America, and Europe, the iconoclastic Beo String Quartet does what it loves best: playing classical repertoire, contemporary, rock, and experimental music. From the Latin “to make happy,” Beo started as a lark. Two Mexican-American brothers, Jason Neukom and Sean Neukom, decided to record a song entitled “Happy, Happy,” composed by Sean, but for that, they would need two more players. And so in 2015, the Beo String Quartet was formed. Touring the world, composing, performing, recording, teaching, and having fun, Beo has since then founded Beo Publishing, built a recording studio, and started its recording label, NeuKraft Records.
Full Bio: https://www.beostringquartet.com/about-beo
In 1781, after a lapse of ten years, 49-year-old Joseph Haydn turned to the string quartet again, composing a set of six that were published the following year as Op. 33. The publication bore a dedication to the “Grand Duke of Russia” and so these quartets are most commonly known as the “Russian” quartets. The alternate nickname, “Gli Scherzi” (The Jokes), refers to the fact that Haydn replaced the traditional “Minuet” with “Scherzi,” (meaning “jokes” in Italian). Whether these dance movements were any different than their predecessors is difficult to determine, but the birth of a new movement genre is undeniable, as history would prove. The nickname is apt here because with Op. 33, Haydn did recast the essential character of the string quartet by making it somewhat more lighthearted. Yet he also made it more sophisticated in terms of musical construction, resulting in cleverness and, in several places, literal musical jokes based on confounding the expectations of common music forms and devices. In this respect, the quartets are a great historical watershed. Haydn himself advertised his quartets in private subscription letters as having been written in a “new and special way.” An impressionable Mozart heard these quartets in 1781. Astonished, Mozart responded by writing his own set of six masterworks that he lovingly dedicated to Haydn.
The quartet starts with a little fragmentary motif, a tiny final cadence that feels more like a conclusion than a beginning. The whimsical surprise has given the quartet its nickname with words that mimic the motif, “How do you do?” The gesture appears twice more: to announce the recapitulation and, in extended form, where it serves its ultimate purpose as a coda with the final resolution it suggested from the very start. In between, Haydn writes a lively sonata-form movement with two clear themes, the intensification of development and a recapitulation full of just as much extended development.
With three of the movements in a lively, upbeat mood, the second movement stands alone, almost severe with its dark, melancholy cast. It is a spacious and delicate aria for the first violin with subdued accompaniment by the three remaining players. Haydn ends this doleful song with a stark cadence, all harmony blanched from the melody played in forceful unison.
The third movement scherzo is just that: a true scherzo in a fast tempo with the rhythmic muscularity of a Beethoven scherzo. A preponderance of upbeats keeps the scherzo skipping forward setting up a lovely contrast for the sweet poise of the trio. Haydn finishes the quartet with a gently loping theme and variations where a winning tune provides a vehicle for the ensemble to “jam” in a series of charming permutations. The last variation changes from Allegretto to Presto for a kind of slingshot of final energy to “bring it all home.”
Yann Tiersen is a French Breton musician and composer whose career is split between studio recordings, music collaborations, and composing film scores. His music incorporates a large variety of instruments, from the electric guitar and violin to the toy piano and even the typewriter.
Tiersen rose to fame upon the release of his third studio album, Le Phare (The Lighthouse) in 1998. The album was recorded during two months in self-imposed seclusion on an island at the most north-western point of territorial France. At night he would watch the Phare du Creach, one of the most powerful lighthouses in the world, and was fascinated by the stunning scenery repeated every night.
Three songs from this album, including “La Noyée” (The Drowned Girl) were later featured on the 2001 soundtrack of the 2001 French romantic comedy Amélie.
When Jason and I were young boys, our mother told us a fantastical story that, by her accounts, was true. Set in Mexico, a young girl heard a noise in the alleyway. She looked over her balcony to investigate, and she fell over the railing. As she was holding on with one hand, body dangling, she felt a spirit push her up over the balcony. She, of course, was the girl in the story. El Balcón (“The Balcony”) is a musical depiction of this tale. The quartet is used as four “guitars,” as a vocal quartet, and ultimately as a string quartet in the formal sense. This emotional journey has one foot in classical sensibility and the other in a cinematic sound world. —Sean Neukom
Cuando era joven
Ella me contó una historia
sucedió en México
es un sueño
fue real no?
sentada en su cama
un ruido e afuera
puertas balcón abiertas
mirando hacia la calle
I remember when she told me
her eyes they glowed with joy
she believed every word
holding on with one hand
she felt an angel’s presence there
floating up she let go
she let go
Of the six or so major works Bach composed in his last ten years (including The Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations, Mass in B minor, etc.) one could make the case that The Art of Fugue really is the hardest to swallow out of these famous pieces. Fourteen fugues, four canons, all in the same key, all based on the same melodic material, all in a row . . . would that not be a bit much for an unsuspecting concertgoers?
But The Art of Fugue isn’t like other works. It’s lifetime music. I’ve been getting to know it little by little, year after year, and it’s always still around when I’m ready to learn a little more. It doesn’t suffer when we experience it in short bursts; in fact my colleagues and I find performing just a few of the fugues as a set to be very attractive. You’ll be hearing one of those sets today.
There’s lots of brainy, technical genius packed into The Art of Fugue that the professional (and the curious) can find. But despite the intellectual rigor (and all the alarming sameness mentioned above), each fugue is alive with its own mood, character, and personality–more than enough for the concert stage!
There’s another reason we’re tackling these pieces. Fugue is a type of music wherein each musical line is equally independent and interesting on its own, yet all the parts must work together to weave the whole sound. Should you find such a balance between four independent individuals, you just might have yourself a string quartet. Happy listening!