Morrison Artists Series: St. Petersburg String Quartet with special guest Mack McCray, piano

Saturday, November 16, 2013, 4:00 pm
The Grammy-nominated St. Petersburg String Quartet performs with special guest Mack McCray, piano. Free.
Creative Arts Building, McKenna Theatre
May T. Morrison Chamber Music Center
SF State Box Office
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St. Petersburg String Quartet

The St. Petersburg String Quartet is one of the world’s most esteemed chamber ensembles. Its rise to fame has included a Grammy nomination, Best Record honors in both Stereo Review and Gramophone, an opening-night performance at Mostly Mozart at Lincoln Center, a five-year residency at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and hundreds of concerts on many of North America, Europe and Asia’s most prestigious series and festivals. Founded in 1985 as the Leningrad String Quartet, the quartet quickly won First Prize at the All-Soviet Union String Quartet Competition, Silver Medal and a Special Prize at the Tokyo International Chamber Music Competition, First Prize and both Special Prizes at the Vittorio Gui International Competition Firenze, and First Prize and the Grand Prix Musica Viva at the Melbourne, Australia, International Chamber Music Competition. When the city of Leningrad resumed its historic name, the quartet changed its name to the St. Petersburg String Quartet.

Mack McCray

Mack McCray won the silver medal in the International George Enescu Competition, first prize in the Charleston Symphony and San Francisco Young Artists competitions, Juilliard’s Edward Steuermann Memorial Prize and a grant from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation—all in 1969–70. He has been an invited guest artist at the Festival d’Automne in Paris, Seville’s Great Interpreters Cycle, UNESCO Festival of International Artists at Monte Carlo, Bucharest Philharmonic’s Bach/Beethoven/Brahms Festival and the Hong Kong City Hall Series. He has performed under conductors such as Michael Tilson Thomas, Edo de Waart, Josef Krips, Leon Fleisher and Arthur Fiedler. In 1991, he performed the U.S. premiere of John Adams’ Eros Piano. Recently he has performed with the Japan Philharmonic, at the Carmel Bach Festival and on the Trinity Wall Street concert series. McCray is artistic director of Italy’s Zephyr International Chamber Music Festival in and has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music since 1971.


  • Medvedovskaya (1974–): Quartet No. 1 (1991)*
  • Britten (1913–1976): Three Divertimenti for String Quartet (1933, revised 1936)
  • Schumann (1810–1856): Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842)
  • Intermission
  • Franck (1822–1890): Piano Quintet in F minor (1878)

*San Francisco premiere

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Program notes

Medvedovskaya (1974–): Quartet No. 1 (1991)

Nataliya Medvedovskaya was born in 1974 in St. Petersburg and graduated with a double major in composition and piano from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. She received two awards at the “Young Virtuosi” International Piano Competition (1989, Czech Republic), one of them for “performance, musicality and deep understanding of music,” and also won First Prize at the International Composers’ Competition of the Gartow German Musical Society. Since 2003 Medvedovskaya has lived in New York City, where she enjoys an active and versatile career as a pianist, composer, arranger, songwriter, poet and lyricist.

The String Quartet No. 1, written when Medvedovskaya was 17 years old, received its world premiere in St. Petersburg by the St. Petersburg Quartet, which has also performed it widely in France, Germany and the USA, to critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times wrote of the piece, “The most significant addition [to the program] was an amazingly mature Quartet No. 1 by Nataliya Medvedovskaya....Only eight minutes long, the piece has a tight, arching structure, good ideas that are bounced around the instruments and a restless, dramatic temperament.” The work is dedicated to the victims of the 1991 revolution in Russia.

Britten (1913–1976): Three Divertimenti for String Quartet (1933, revised 1936)

Britten’s stature as a composer rests primarily on his mature vocal and stage works: art songs, choral compositions, highly praised operas and the monumental War Requiem. But Britten also produced a compelling variety of chamber music from his youth to his final years. Particularly prized are his string quartets, a Phantasy for oboe and string trio, a cello sonata and his three remarkable suites for solo cello dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich. His mature string quartet cycle comprises three numbered quartets plus the Three Divertimenti for String Quartet written in 1933 when Britten was in his early 20s, then revised quite extensively in 1936.

The Three Divertimenti are, as the title suggests, a set of individual character pieces intended as “pleasing entertainment” without necessarily meaning to convey any serious import or larger formal considerations as might be implied by a work for string quartet in multiple movements. The bristling rhythms, glissandi (sliding notes) and colorful harmonics of the first piece, “March,” immediately place the music in the 20th century stylistically. As with most of Britten’s compositions, the music is in a broadly appealing tonal language. Clear suggestions of Stravinsky, Bartók and Britten’s primary teacher Frank Bridge are prevalent in the music. The second movement, “Waltz,” is a bit tamer technically, with compelling textures and more conventional chamber music dialog among the instruments, and with a whiff of the character of an English pastoral. The last piece, “Burlesque,” reprises the unmistakable vibrancy of 20th-century rhythms, techniques and sonorities in a small-scale masterwork of color and dynamic contrast.

—Kai Christiansen

Schumann (1810–1856): Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842)

In September 1840, Robert Schumann married the love of his life, Clara Wieck. Clara was a gifted pianist and composer in her own right and Schumann obviously found her inspirational. The 12 months after their marriage saw the completion of his famous song cycles, his first two symphonies, several other orchestral works and the first movement of his piano concerto. Despite Clara’s obvious positive influence, their relationship could be quite tempestuous. When she embarked on a concert tour of Denmark in 1841, Schumann felt slighted and his creativity seemed to stall. He launched himself into a study of the string quartet scores of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, drowning his melancholy in “beer and champagne.” When Clara returned, he once again took up his pen. It was during this period of renewed productivity that Schumann completed not only this piano quintet, but also his three string quartets Op. 41, and his piano quartet. Joan Chisell writes, “In the first happiness of reunion with the piano, his creative imagination took on a new lease of life.”

Schumann was one of the first significant composers to pair the piano with the string quartet. By 1842, the string quartet was well established as the most important chamber music ensemble, and advances in the design of the piano had expanded its power and dynamic range. In combining these instruments, Schumann’s piano quintet took full advantage of the expressive possibilities of both string quartet and piano, alternating between conversational passages among the five instruments and more concertante passages in which the combined forces of the strings are massed against the piano. Schumann’s work established the quintet for piano and string quartet as a major Romantic genre. The first public performance of the work took place on January 8, 1843, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, with Clara at the piano; she continued to play the work often throughout her life.

Franck (1822–1890): Piano Quintet in F minor (1878)

Though musically precocious, César Franck never became the money-making piano prodigy his father desired. After moving out of his parents’ house in Paris (where the family had moved from Liège in 1835), Franck supported himself by teaching and playing the organ. While acquiring fame for his organ improvisations, his composing remained intermittent, and he mostly focused on monumental, labor-intensive oratorios and operas, until a blossoming of creative energy in the late 1870s that continued until his death. This period produced several symphonic poems, distinctive chamber music, important piano and organ pieces, and the Symphony in D minor, all displaying Franck’s characteristic tonal architecture, cyclical thematic transformations and intensely chromatic harmony.

The Piano Quintet was composed in the winter of 1878–9, a time during which some biographers suggest he was infatuated with one of his students. An ultra-expressive work (Nadia Boulanger remarked that it contains more pianissimo and fortissimo markings than any other piece of chamber music), it may have been inspired by this new passion, which might also account for the disdain Franck’s wife publicly expressed for it.

The architecture is in many ways classical: a slow introduction leading to a surging allegro in sonata form for the big first movement, another sonata form for the slow movement, and a fiery finale with a coda variation. The second theme of the first movement’s allegro, a very plastic rotation of intervals, turns up in the other two movements as well, becoming the cyclical tie that binds the work together in its entirety.

This structure is also supported by Franck’s tonal architecture with its flexible chromatic harmony. Franck heard the Prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde in 1874, and that famous touchstone for sinuous chromatic voice-leading was certainly influential, as it was on many composers; but Franck made something very personal of it, treating harmony like color, as something subtly variable across a broad spectrum. His students, including Henri Duparc, Vincent d’Indy and Guillaume Lekeu, among many others, said that his most common instruction was always to modulate. In the case of the Quintet, the urgent romanticism expressed through constant harmonic movement found quick public enthusiasm, but evoked the opposite response from its dedicatee and the pianist at the premiere in January 1880, Camille Saint-Saëns, who so disliked the modulations that he stalked off the stage, ignoring both the audience’s applause and the composer’s offer of the manuscript in thanks for a magnificent performance.

—John Henken