As is its custom, Washington Musica Viva (WMV) will create an authentic shared musical experience when it brings seasoned musicians to an audience in the intimate setting of the BannerArts studio in Takoma Park. The Sunday, June 11, concert will feature piano quartets by Robert Schumann, a Romantic Era German composer, and Bohuslav Martinů, a 20th century classical Czech composer.
The players—cellist Steven Honigberg, violist Nana Gaskins Vaughn and her husband, violinist Michael Vaughn—said pianist and WMV founder and co-director Carl Banner, “are as good as it gets!”
The four have performed together in various combinations before. “I was fortunate to meet Nana and Michael through the violist Amadi Azikiwe, who organized an amazing chamber music party at my house on Labor Day in 2015. We have performed together several times since then,” Banner said. “Steve played the Martinů Piano Quartet with me at the Czech Embassy in 2011, and a program of Brahms and Copland Quartets with Nana and me last season.”
Honigberg, son of a concert pianist who started all her four children on instruments, grew up in the Chicago suburbs. He began learning cello at age 6, “I suppose in part due to the growing popularity of the instrument in the 1960s.” The Juilliard School of Music alumnus has played cello with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) since 1984. He is proud “of having become an NSO member when still in school and having been chosen by the late great Russian cellist and then-NSO Music Director (Mstislav Rostropovich).”
Among Honigberg’s other accomplishments, he was the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s chamber music series director for eight years; has recorded extensively with the Potomac String Quartet; and is a member of the Smithsonian Chamber Society and the Phillips Camerata. “I love exploring the chamber music field whether it be in duos, trios, quartets or quintets,” Honigberg said. “It is an endless stream of fascination for me.”
Both Vaughns are graduates of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where they met, and worked with the Fishers Chamber Players—she as violist, he as artistic director; for 20 years, they were members of the Carrollton String Quartet. The couple moved from Indiana to Ellicott City, Maryland, in 2009.
Nana Vaughn grew up in Carmel, Indiana; her mother’s family in Japan “are mostly professional musicians,” although she did not study music, and her father was “a self-taught folk guitarist—just for fun.” “Very supportive” of their children’s musical aspirations, Nana started violin “at the relatively late age of almost 11” and her brother became a professional cellist. Viola came later, in graduate school, and she switched instruments because more viola work was available. “I do love it now,” Nana said. She is the Assistant Principal Violist with the Reading Symphony Orchestra and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus (UMBC).
Michael Vaughn, from Richmond, Virginia, said Nana, had a “grandfather (who) was a beautiful church singer, but not a professional.” His twin brother Matthew is co-principal trombone with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“Michael’s first instrument was violin, although he originally intended to play trumpet,” said Nana, speaking on her husband’s behalf because he was working. “The day he was supposed to sign up for his instrument at school, he had a sore on his lip and thought it would hurt to play trumpet. So, he changed his mind and chose violin because it wouldn’t hurt his lip.” Michael is employed as Assistant Dean for Information Technology at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.
The Vaughns’ proudest musical accomplishment is that their three teenage children “love and appreciate classical music,” said Nana. “Two are aspiring artists, and one hopes to be a percussionist and timpanist.”
After studying with teachers including Harold Zabrack, Leon Fleisher and Leonard Shure, Banner performed as soloist with the St. Louis Symphony and continued performing regularly while earning a doctorate in cell biology from Harvard University (1982). He retired from his administrative position at NIH in 2004 so he could devote all his time to music.
He has found his second career infinitely satisfying and fascinating. “I get profoundly excited when I discover a new level of meaning for a musical phrase and find a way to render it simply at the piano. And I get tremendous joy from interacting with other musicians in a chamber ensemble.” Most of all, he said he is “most proud” that “after 50 years of playing chamber music, these experiences still move me.”
Banner is excited about the two works on the program, neither of which is new to him. “I got to know Martinů’s First Piano Quartet–he called it that, but did not write a second–when I produced a Czech music series at the Embassy of the Czech Republic for almost a decade. It is a work that moves me deeply, and I play it as often as possible.
“Martinů grew up in the church tower of Policka, and the 143 steps to his room seem to me to be reflected in his chromatic scales. There are also evocations of church bells, the organ, and the amazing vistas of the countryside in this music.”
Honigberg considers the Martinů piece “the unusual work on the program. It contains rhythmic drive, quite different from the melodic Schumann piano quartet we will perform. The rhythms in the Martinů are fascinating in that they must be figured out well in advance of the first rehearsal or else things will continuously fall apart. Once in sync, though, there is a wonderful flow and vibe to his music.”
Schumann’s Piano Quartet, Banner said, “has some of the most creative, inventive, exhilarating and tender writing of (the composer’s) career. There is a passage in the Andante that is perfect for a loving couple like Nana and Michael: a beautiful viola melody entwined by sympathetic violin filigree. In the same movement, the cellist discreetly tunes the lowest string of his cello one whole tone down during a rest, so that he can provide a very low Bb octave pedal tone in the coda.”
The Vaughns, said Nana Vaughn, “have performed a Martinů Duo for Violin and Viola twice, and (we) really like the piece. Martinů’s quartet is similar–a bit quirky, with really different, fresh ideas and interesting ways of intertwining the rhythm.” She noted that the duo has “an advantage in that we can practice the parts together, so we’re really getting to know how the violin and viola parts bounce off one another.”
Banner shared his plans for WMV’s next season. “I hope to double the number of concerts that we produce by repeating each program in another venue. There is a large pile of new scores on my piano, in the hopper, so to speak. We also plan to commission the composition of a new chamber music work.”
And one additional worthy musical goal, he added: “We are planning to do some benefit concerts for organizations and causes we believe in.”
Washington Musica Viva presents Schuman and Martinů Piano Quartets at 4:30 p.m. June 11 at BannerArts, 7502 Flower Ave., Takoma Park. Admission is $15, online only. Visit www.dcmusicaviva.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.