Our arrival in Krakow just after dark on Tuesday evening was spot on time and every bit of baggage arrived with us too — what a relief! Clearing customs without incident, we loaded up a pair of cabs while enjoying the welcome chilly breeze. It was brisk but refreshing with the unmistakable waft of spring in the air. Having spent what amounted to 24 hours hermetically sealed-up while transiting in and between planes and various airport lounges, the relief of fresh open-air was welcome. The twilight on our approach had enabled us just to make out the greening fields and red-roofs of the surrounding arable fields and farmsteads; something of the southern Polish topography that we’ll look forward to enjoying later in our visit when much of our ongoing itinerary within the country will involve travel by car in daylight. Meanwhile however, the short 20 minute taxi-ride into the city yielded some entertaining banter as the various quartet and film-crew members entertained each other, beginning to relax after a long day’s travel. We volunteered a few serious but mostly silly interpretations, on the unfamiliar language on the suburban signage.
The approach to our hotel in the Historic Quarter involved a clockwise circuit around the traces of the old city wall, weaving between trams, busses, cabs and pedestrians, yielding impressive views of the floodlit castle to our left and the various steeples, spectacular gables, towers and landmarks of the old town to our right. We eventually turned off and wended our way in toward the heart of the city on ever-narrowing cobbled streets giving way finally to a pedestrian only precinct and the intersection of our own Pod Roza Hotel on the Florianska street. Our welcoming and attentive logistics personnel from the Beethoven Association stayed with us just long enough to oversee the check-in to our gracious accommodations and we were left to settle in for the night.
A sumptuous breakfast in the hotel’s light-filled winter-garden dining room was the perfect way to start our first full day in Poland and, a FULL day it certainly was. We elected to walk over with our guide to the local music high school, just 6 minutes by foot, for a rehearsal from 12-3. Our concerns were primarily to touch up on the problematic spots in the demanding program for the first evening’s concert and to ensure that we all felt rested, that the instruments (and the musicians) were settled and acclimatized to the new weather, and that there were no nasty surprises. Everything checked out well and with that under our belts, we returned to rest for a while at the hotel and get a bite to eat. We dressed for the concert and headed out again at 5:30 to walk all of 3 minutes in the opposite direction now, to the beautiful Sukiennice which houses the National Museum of Krakow and where we were to play in the spectacular Cloth Hall.
What a venue! The stunning 19th Century canvases of Polish artwork which surrounded performers and audience alike left us speechless. Seeing such an overwhelming array of exquisite work on such a monumental scale, all by artists who’s names remain unknown to most of us was a humbling, almost intimidating experience. We knew we had to give our utmost in this setting but in that, we were met by the most welcoming and distinguished of audiences we might ever wish for. The assembled audience included many celebrated Polish and American dignitaries, renowned academics, musicians, students and musicologists and music lovers. Included in the very front row were US Consul General, Ellen Germain, Krzysztof and Mme Elzbieta Penderecki who is the President of the Beethoven Association, and our presenters, as well as guests, Maestro Leonard and Mrs Slatkin.
It was an illustrious gathering to be sure in a stunning setting and happily, much of the evening was recorded and captured on film. The program was warmly received and we were delighted to offer as an encore, a transcription by Zak Grafilo of the first of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues in C Major. It was a relief to have completed the first program of our tour on the first day of the trip. It was probably the most physically and mentally challenging undertaking of the trip, dealing with travel fatigue while conjuring the extra concentration and focus demanded to deliver the challenging program well.
With just a moment to walk the 3 minutes to our hotel where we secured our instruments, we were driven to the beautiful home of US Consul General, Ellen Germain, who hosted a relaxed and gracious reception in her Krakow home in honor of the ASQ and the Beethoven Association. It was a lovely gathering, providing an opportunity to unwind and visit in the company of many new and even some old friends, while celebrating the wonderful music that brought us all together! The “Sister-City” communities of Krakow and San Francisco seemed particularly well-met in this lovely and convivial setting, reflecting on a great deal in common. Our sincere thanks to Mme. Germain.
Another super breakfast kicked off our 2nd full day. Quartet members and SFState DocFilm Institute colleagues congregated spontaneously, even if it seemed by previous appointment. An important contributing factor to our coordinated orientation must be that we have quickly discovered that Krakow is a city of superb coffee — and pastries — a destination could surely not be outdone by the likes of Vienna or Florence. We all seemed inclined to linger over yet another coffee as we plotted the activities of the day ahead. My own voluntary assignment was to swing through a traditional street market with cameraman Warren Haack. Whenever visiting a new city, country or culture, I tend to search out authentic street life featuring the local residents, check out the less “spectacular” land-mark churches, synagogs, mosques, anything to escape the kind of self-conscious tourist-centric historic city center where our hotel is based. I had scoped it out the day before so we were able to efficiently navigate the scenic five minute walk through the northern ancient city-wall gate, off the Florianska, finding our way into the compound of tented market stalls. Here is where everyday transactions flourish among farmers, merchants and peddlers of all colors dealing in the everyday necessities of Krakow’s city dwellers. The exposure afforded tremendous insights into the local economy, the standard of living and the common values of Poland’s real people — not the movers and shakers but rather the salt of the earth kind of folks who make an honest living, sometimes in the most unsophisticated of ways. As a Brit., born in the mid-20th century and who came of age, studying, living and working in western Europe, I was particularly interested in and affected by my colleague Warren’s reactions to the scene. Warren is close to my age and although very well traveled in the southern hemisphere, this was his first visit to Europe. We found ourselves compelled to take frequent off-camera breaks to debrief each other on our impressions of this lively street scene. Warren’s spot on assessment in my view was that these people are hardworking, live close to the land and within their means, eating wonderfully fine fresh food – (and incidentally, consistently non-GMO).
Returning to the hotel to pickup instruments and colleagues, we made our way to the fine music-centric high school where we had been invited to conduct an open rehearsal in the superb atelier concert hall. We set up on the floor with the audience (rather than elevated and removed on the stage) amongst the assembled students faculty and neighbors who came to watch us rehearse our program for the 2nd evening’s concert. It was a delight, during our frequent breaks to field lots of perceptive questions and comments from fellow musicians young and old, whether experienced or less so, whilst we got on with the essential work at hand, hosted within a generous and enthusiastic cocoon of curious and supportive well-wishers. No time to loose, we headed back once more to the hotel to rest briefly, snack and change for our second evening at the Sukiennice. A very different and somewhat unusual program for Thursday, we featured early and late Beethoven, including the Op. 131 to close the 1st half! It was was a “first” for us to bookend this monumental work and something that in hindsight felt quite surreal. The concert finished with the Brahms C Minor quartet and to close. Spurred on by thunderous and rhythmically unified applause, a hallmark of European audiences, we offered another encore. Tonight, it was Zak’s disarmingly beautiful transcription of Brahms’s beloved Op. 118 # 2 Intermezzo, originally for piano. This evening’s completely chronologically sequential and ultimately very satisfying program came off beautifully although curiously for my colleagues and I, it was an unanticipated surprise to find ourselves mustering strength and focus anew in order to perform another huge and romantic work on the 2nd half. Having successfully recovered from the spending of such emotional effort on the Op. 131, typically the final work on a program, it proved a welcome and insightful learning opportunity, in particular because we will perform in similar sequence next week in Warsaw’s Royal Castle. Now we’ll know what to expect.
Happy and deeply gratified by such an enthusiastic response to the evening’s program, there were still more treats in store as we moved on to an unforgettable post-concert celebratory dinner hosted by Mme. Elzbieta Penderecki, President and General Director of the Beethoven Association and Festival. We gathered at the stunning restaurant of the inimitable Hotel Copernicus, situated on one of Krakow’s oldest and most noble streets in the shadow of the Royal Wawel Castle. We were treated to some of the finest cuisine, spectacular wines and convivial company as we once again gave thanks in the tradition of bringing people of cultures, generations and nationalities together through the universality of great music.
We spent a greatly anticipated and yet still, unimaginably magical Friday morning. We were transfixed, finding ourselves at the Library of the Jagiellonian University where we had been invited to examine several manuscripts as well as sketches of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late quartets. It was stunningly impressive to have these priceless treasures at hand. Some of the works that came to hand included a combination of sketches and/or complete manuscripts of Op. 74, 127, 133, 130. 131. These treasures were presented on a felt covered table in a private showing where we spent every minute of time available to us marveling over the markings, the corrections, notes in margins and a few seemingly undecipherable scribblings. We each had many particular passages and measures that we were hoping in manuscript would reveal decisive answers to the countless hours my colleagues and I have spent in debate (or worse) over more than three decades of digging for resolution. We were so honored and yet bemused to behold these troves. It seems entirely appropriate that not a single tormented argument from these three and a half decades, most of which seem entirely obscure in hindsight were resolved and no one was vindicated. Perhaps we’re just doing what is inevitable as we continue to mine for meaning in Beethoven’s masterworks.
Alas we were torn away to our next appointment which was to play an informal program of music for the students, teachers and parents at the remarkable International School of Krakow. We were hosted at the delightful campus on the outskirts of town playing for students from 1st through 10th grades for an hour. We were delighted to present several selections from Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and were invited to field some significant and probing questions from students of all grades, as well as several faculty. It was a great pleasure to be welcomed, along with Maestro Krzysztof and Mme Elzbieta Penderecki at this impressive school. Although there are many superb musicians resident in Krakow, many of whom would probably happily to volunteer their services to visit the ISK, exposure to native English speaking musicians is less common and therefore greatly appreciated. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and signed countless autographs, and consumed lovely home-baked treats in the process!
I’m wrapping up this 2nd installment on our Polish blog at breakfast this morning. This is our last full day in Krakow, City of Kings and Poland’s earliest capital city and we’re preparing our last commitment, a masterclass at Krakow’s Music Academy. We’ll be met and escorted by foot to hear no fewer than seven string quartets performing most of the Op. 18 quartets as well as some Prokofiev and Borodin. Evidently Ludwig v. Beethoven is alive and well in Poland!
The weekend preceding our two week European trip was about as intense as they come. Coming off a week spent in northwestern Pennsylvania in subzero weather, we returned to a week back home in San Francisco packed with preparations and distractions. These included a wonderful expansion campaign launch for one of our favorite San Francisco causes, the venerable 100+ year old Community Music Center and a fine celebratory concert to get the ball rolling at the ever spectacular home of Gordon and Ann Getty. More mundane distractions however included an unscheduled visit to our fine Ellen M. Egger Quartet luthier (our “Maker”), Francis Kuttner to revisit and fine-tune a few modifications, occasioned by exposure to such dry atmospheric and freezing conditions of the week before. Almost all of us had a variety of medical/dental appointments and to boot, the week was crammed with make-up teaching at SFSU and including two chamber music recitals featuring our students in the Morrison Chamber Center’s Instructional Program.
I think we all escaped the classrooms on Friday evening to get an early stab at packing logistics, not missing the always anxious check that we have all technical supplies and the sheet-music. The latter must include pre-discussed un-programmed encore options in our folders for the ensuing two weeks (eleven programs with just a few overlaps and no duplications)! I know my preparations included a stiff martini along with family-night supper and a home movie!
The kickoff trifecta three concert weekend in our hometown is a phenomenon we have come to take in our stride and while not entirely “routine,” we’ve learnt to carve out and preserve some dedicated downtime at home to pace ourselves. The past weekend’s programs were all-Mozart with our friend and collaborator Robert Greenberg. The first on Saturday morning was with San Francisco Performances at SF Jazz for the 3rd in our “Mozart in Vienna” series including his D and E flat major “Prussian” quartets. The audience is familiar and wonderfully welcoming and appreciative of these informal presentations. We dress informally and chat at the intermission and end of the programs with friends and regular attendees – a tradition now in its 22nd season! We even had opportunity on Saturday to talk directly to the audience as Bob Greenberg interviewed the quartet members about the Egger quartet of instruments that we’re traveling with, yielding as usual, some surprising answers and a good deal of hilarity. Dim sum lunch with friends frequently follows and thereafter in this case, a run around town dealing with last minute haircuts, dry-cleaning, prescriptions and other travel necessities.
Sunday’s trip up to UC Davis’s Mondavi Center was a familiar run too, loading up a rental van for the weekend with five guys and a cello. In this case, in addition to the last Prussian quartet in F major, K. 590, we included an exciting first collaboration with guest violist, Charith Premawardhana playing Mozart’s last chamber music composition, the E flat Viola quintet, K. 614 from 1791. This was a first for us ALL though certainly not the last. We’ll present this program once more at SF Jazz for SF Performances on May 9th. Once again Bob Greenberg presented these works with us incorporating his inimitable insights with a generous dollop of humor and pathos.
The program was repeated in the evening without Greenberg but incorporating a post-concert discussion between the audience and the 5 musicians. These afterglow chats yield ever evolving perspectives and appreciation of the relationship between performer and audience. The insightful comments and probing questions from the audience keep us all on our toes and provoke very thoughtful and illuminating discussions.
It was good to get home and finally to bed having dropped everyone off and returned the rental car. Only last minute packing to accomplish on Monday morning and then a run to the airport for the non-stop to Frankfurt.
The flight was uneventful and on schedule. A relatively light load with quite a few empty seats and and excellent crew. We’re as well rested as possible and now, ready to continue to Krakow in a couple of hours hopefully to sleep well before our first performance tomorrow night.
I always have pre trip preparation concerns when we are leaving the country. This week is no different I that respect, but given our past experience with amazing music lovers in Poland I am truly excited about this trip. I’m also happy that we will visit many young people in a few cities for the master classes and open rehearsals planned. The opportunity to see many key historical and living Jewish communities thrills me— and sobers me at the same time.
Musically I’m overjoyed to play Brahms with our dear friend Joan-Enric. From the first notes we ever played all together in our luxurious Canary Island hotel some 28 years ago we have cherished every moment with Joan, and his family.
And years after first hearing the brilliant pianist Boris Berman we now will play Brahms Op 34 with him. A double treat for our two weekend concerts in Warsaw before flying home to San Francisco at the very end of our two week jaunt.
Thanks to WIFI our adventures will be quickly posted and also sent to our loved ones at home. Sharing our experiences makes it even more worthwhile. Maintaining such a prestigious concert schedule also makes us better teachers. These experiences are exactly what we are preparing our students for in the future.
Charith Premawardhana (viola) was born in Sri Lanka, raised in Chicago, and has been a resident of San Francisco since 2004. He holds performance degrees from The Ohio State University, Rice University, and a chamber music degree from San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Charith is the founder of Classical Revolution, an organization which promotes live music performances in neighborhood and community venues. What started in 2006 years ago as a weekly chamber music reading session at Revolution Cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District has grown into a worldwide phenomenon, with over 30 active chapters in cities around the US, Canada, and Europe. Classical Revolution is very active in the SF Bay Area, having presented more than 1200 live performance events since 2006.
Charith is a proponent of new music of different styles, and has premiered more than 300 new works since moving to San Francisco in 2004. In addition, he has recorded and performed with diverse groups such as world chamber ensemble Musical Art Quintet, pop group Third Eye Blind, jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux, rock band The Mars Volta, Indian/jazz percussionist Sameer Gupta, folk rock band Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, hip hop orchestra Deltron 3030, gypsy folk group Rupa & the April Fishes, and numerous other ensembles from various musical styles. With all of these different projects, Charith’s main interest is in chamber music, and he brings the experience gained in performing in a string quartet to each of these non-classical chamber groups and vice versa.
Charith has held positions in orchestras around the US including the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Columbus (OH) Symphony, Houston Ballet, Berkeley Symphony, Monterey Symphony, Sacramento Philharmonic, Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival, and Aspen Music Festivals. He has performed at the Newport, Montreal, Monterey, San Jose, Playboy, Vancouver, and Victoria Jazz Festivals.
The Alexander String Quartet is heading to Poland next month — only our second visit ever to this eastern European gem and a trip to which we look forward with great anticipation.
Poland is curiously more similar in size and population to our home state of California than any other western European country. It is also enjoying a surging economy albeit just a quarter the size of California’s own, but citing Joe Matthew’s recent commentary in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Poland’s investment in infrastructure and education is exemplary, dwarfing California’s efforts in similar areas.” By happy coincidence as we began to anticipate this exciting trip, we learnt almost a year ago, that our home town of San Francisco is twinned with Krakow, our European “Sister City.” Although the grand finale of the two week tour will wind-up with two collaborative concerts in Warsaw’s Royal Palace, we’ll get to begin with several days in Krakow where we’ll play two programs at the legendary renaissance Sukiennice. Better known to tourists as the Cloth Hall (similar to Leipzig’s Gewandhaus’s reputation) in the Main Market Square, it is home to Poland’s National Museum and in addition to a vibrant shopping center, it also hosts some of Poland’s most exceptional works of 19th century art.
Of very particular interest to the ASQ in Krakow is the fact that Beethoven’s manuscripts for both the Op. 131 and 132 Late Quartets are in repository at the famed Jagiellonian University Library. Thankfully, the XIXth Annual Beethoven Easter Festival, which is our host for this entire tour, has arranged for special exhibition privileges during our visit to Krakow. This could scarcely be more exciting for the ASQ, which has performed the entire cycle of Beethoven’s Quartets many times over more than three decades and recorded them all twice, for both BMG and most recently, for FoghornClassics.com Both Op. 131 and 132 are programmed for our concert presentations in Krakow, along with Mozart, some early Beethoven, Shostakovich and Brahms quartets. Op. 131 and 132 will also be featured later during the tour which will also incorporate performances in Rzeszow and Gdansk and culminate in a pair of festive performances in Warsaw’s Royal Castle within the full context of the Easter Beethoven Festival. The ASQ particularly looks forward to collaborations in Warsaw with some of our most distinguished and favorite fellow musicians in quintets by Brahms with clarinetist Joan Enric Lluna and pianist Boris Berman.
During our sojourn in Krakow, we will certainly be visiting Krakow’s Academy of Music where we eagerly anticipate a masterclass with a half dozen of their finest student ensembles as well offering some open rehearsals at the local JCC. We will also visit the Polish-American High School among other institutions — all in close collaboration with the US Consulate in Krakow which is assisting in the coordination of our activities in this remarkable twinned Sister-City Celebration with San Francisco.
We also look forward to masterclasses at the conservatory in Gdansk where we also plan to make time to visit some of the most stimulating cultural attractions along the way, including the Solidariyy Museum in Gdansk. In the same vein, we eagerly anticipate a visit to the newly opened Museum of the Jewish People in Warsaw.
It’s particularly gratifying that we will be accompanied on this two week trip by a team of documentary film-makers from the celebrated DocFilm Institute from our home institution of SFSU’s College of Liberal and Creative Arts
A particular feature that we eagerly look forward to on this tour is that the ASQ will perform on an exclusive quartet of matched modern instruments made by the San Francisco/Cremona based luthier Francis Kuttner. Francis, besides many more in the interim, has crafted a superb quartet of instruments known now as the Ellen M. Egger Quartet in honor of the late dedicatee. The ASQ has been privileged for many years to perform and record regularly on this exceptional quartet of instruments, made in 1986. We are particularly pleased to be able to perform these important programs in Poland on this uniquely celebrated set of San Francisco manufactured instruments. It is also of note that in addition to Kuttner, the maker of ALL of the ASQ’s ultra modern bows, Berndt Müsing, founder of the ARCUS company will also be on hand during this exciting visit to Poland. Müsing’s bows, like Kuttner’s instruments have all be featured exclusively on the Alexander String Quartet’s extensive catalogue of recordings for Foghorn Classics over the past dozen years
We look forward enormously to this exciting trip. We are particularly happy and proud to have have received very welcome support toward the Quartet’s travel from (USAI) US Artists International, administered by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. USArtists International is made possible through support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation