NEW YORK—Walking into the Renaissance-style McKim, Mead & White-designed Casa Italiana at Columbia University, one is treated to wine, a lively atmosphere, and a beautiful, intimate theater space.
Then, before the concert begins, one is eased into the Romantic era of Vienna.
The audience is introduced to the city through old paintings, maps, and anecdotes dotted with humor in a presentation that flies by. The concert is to span a century of Romanticism in Vienna, from Schubert (born in 1797) to Brahms (who died in 1897).
“This was a period of huge change—in everything,” said Stephen Johnson, who writes about music and is a BBC radio broadcaster, during the Jan. 26 concert presented by Aspect Foundation for Music and Arts.
It’s not quite the pre-concert lecture form so familiar to concertgoers, but more of a collection of atmospheric trivia.
We learn that near the beginning of the century, Napoleon came and went; toward the middle, there was massive reconstruction of theaters, museums, and palaces; and near the end, the wall running around the entire city was replaced with a road.
We learn that instruments, too, were going through rapid changes. New ones were being built and then going out of fashion—like the six-stringed arpeggione—and others, like the piano, were being expanded and fortified. We learn that Brahms at age 31, the same age Schubert was when he passed away, did not yet have his iconic, bushy beard.
Through images and anecdotes, Johnson illustrates for us the spirit of the time. It was a period when artists, these romantic idealists, paradoxically looked to dreams and other worlds while exemplifying the very concrete and grounded idea of “gemütlichkeit”—to be in the company of good friends, during perhaps a pleasant, balmy evening.
It all goes quickly, before concert pianist Vsevolod Dvorkin and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra principal cellist Rafael Figueroa take the stage and perform Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata.
Perhaps the characterization of Schubert as a particularly noncompetitive composer who wrote very few virtuosic pieces helped listeners notice the sense of camaraderie between the cello and piano voices. Perhaps learning about the extinct arpeggione helped audience members see how, though the cello part didn’t sound difficult, Figueroa deftly navigated the piece on four strings instead of six.
The journey Dvorkin and Figueroa embarked on gave the audience much to discuss by the time intermission rolled around. It is only the second concert the previously London-based foundation has put on in the city, and it’s proved to be a very welcome addition to the chamber music landscape of New York.
Purity and Pleasure
“I am a purist—and a perfectionist—in everything I do,” said Irina Knaster, founder of Aspect. For five years, she had put on a concert series in London with the concept of presenting music in its original context and gained devoted followers. Last fall, after moving to New York with her family, Knaster put on her first concert in the series.
Friends and advisers were understandably skeptical before it happened. Another music series in New York? Why? How would you get people to come?
The secret, according to Knaster, is that the experience is incredibly simple. You come in, have a free glass of wine, take a seat in a beautiful and welcoming space, and have great music by top-tier musicians come to you. People with absolutely no interest in or knowledge of classical music can come and just have a very pleasurable evening, she said.
Her goal has been to create deeply enriching experiences for the sake of great music, but not make it a chore for audiences. You don’t have to make a big effort, or put emphasis on this being about expanding your horizons, she said. “And from what I’ve seen in the last five years, it really works.”
The world today—”and I’ve been around long enough to see how the world has changed”—does not exactly encourage us to feed our souls and expand our minds, Knaster said. Everything is either a commercial or social project; there is rarely something pure. We don’t have time to read, or do things simply for pleasure. Most people still try to maintain their body and spirit by working out and going to work and spending time with family. These are necessities.
“But I think there has to be something pure sometimes, just for pleasure, and for the soul,” she said. “That’s what art is.”
“You can hardly say that art is a necessity for one’s survival, but art is a necessity for one’s soul. Is that too deep?” Knaster said.
As such, she seeks to present music at its purest. She wanted to present chamber music—which she strongly believes there is much more room for in the city—in a beautiful space with all of the art and spirit of its original context piped into the experience in an unobtrusive way.
“It’s really to bring back this live interest in something,” she said. “The aim is not to lecture, not to teach the audience. The aim is to pique their curiosity.”
She has a overflowing notebook with concert concepts “for the next eight years,” connecting literature and music, examining great muses, looking at music capitals, and such. Knaster herself has great curiosity about the world this music lived in, and connecting the dots between art and culture through history. She compares Brahms to the Roman god Janus—looking forward as one of the most innovative composers of his time and looking back to the classical masters he so revered. She remembers discovering the German writer Goethe’s love for Arabic poetry and the trend of orientalist art and poetry in his time. She reads everything on the topic when an idea for a program grabs her.
But the most important thing is finding the very best musicians for a particular program.
“Maturity in a musician is so important. There are so many of them who are not young and sexy, but have that maturity and can present the music through the prism of their molded personality, with the intellect and required knowledge,” Knaster said.
They have so much experience and knowledge to share, she said, but aren’t interested in creating a stir in our fast-moving and increasingly digital world. Some of her collaborators, like Dvorkin, though quite successful and musically brilliant, don’t even have a website.
They’d met through a mutual violinist friend, Dvorkin said, and he loved the idea of making classical music more accessible.
During the height of classical music, people were really playing music of their time, he said. Then it was the age of virtuosic and charismatic interpreters who would mix and match music of the past with some of their own. Today, there is just such a chasm between the listener and the music. “But I think this [Knaster’s] idea is the way,” he said.
Many concertgoers confirmed Knaster’s hypothesis during and after the concert. After the Schubert piece, Johnson gave the audience a bit of insight into Brahms and the expansion of chamber music from Schubert’s time to his, before an intermission. Then violinists Arnaud Sussmann and Emily Daggett Smith, violist Paul Neubauer, Figueroa, and Vsevolod Dvorkin performed Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor for an audience so engaged that some burst into applause twice during pauses. That people were not bored and glued to their phones while waiting does say a lot about the atmosphere.
A great Schubert fan who had never heard the Arpeggione Sonata live felt incredibly fulfilled; and a newcomer to the series came specifically to hear her favorite and most familiar Brahms piece, and was filled with joy at the experience.
People who had attended the concert series in the fall came again, bringing others, including some less familiar with chamber music. The experience seemed to hold various high points for many.
The next concert explores another musical capital: Prague, through the lens of Czech Romantics. Violinist Arnaud Sussmann will perform again with pianist Michael Brown, and historical musicologist Nicholas Chong will give an illustrated talk.
“Czech Romantic music just speaks directly to my heart,” said Sussmann, who will give a brief presentation during the concert as well. “There is a kind of honesty to it that just goes straight to my heart.”
Aspect Foundation‘s next “Musical Capitals” concert will take place on Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Casa Italiana at Columbia University. Violinist Arnaud Sussmann and pianist Michael Brown will perform Smetana, Suk, Janacek, and Dvorak.