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Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26

February 7, 2020

On this week's lecture, resident lecturer Bruce Adolphe discusses Brahm's Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26. Featuring a performance by Anna Polonsky, piano; Arnaud Sussmann, violin; Jeremy Berry, viola; Mihai Marica, cello.

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Welcome to the Inside Chamber Music Podcast presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I'm Bruce Adolphe, Resident Lecturer at CMS, where I started the lecture series in 1992. In 2011, we began livestreaming the lectures on our website. The audio for this podcast comes from the ever growing archive of videos made available live and on demand at ChamberMusicSociety.org.

We look at the music from a compositional perspective and find parallels in novels, plays and poetry. Plus, we explore historical context and with live musicians in the studio during the lectures, we experiment with performance issues. Today's lecture is on Brahms Piano Quartet number two in A major Opus 26. Originally recorded February one, 2017. Hello. Thank you. Welcome to spring.

I guess that's what they call it. But spring lectures. We're starting with Brahms. There's a word that is very well known in German culture and it's probably pretty well known here, bildung. And it's a German word, obviously, and it means the gradual cultivation of the self. It has to do with a harmony, discovering a harmony of the intellect and the emotions brought about by introspection, study, challenging one's beliefs, but also literature, music and the visual arts.

And Brahms was a big supporter of the concept of maturing through the arts, and he thought, quite reasonably, that music was a very important part of this maturation process and that to bring together philosophy with one's inner life, with the outer world and society, and to grow as a human being had to be done through education, but primarily artistic education.

And there are novels, of course, about this that are called the Bildungsroman. But I want to postulate that actually his music, quite a lot of it, is about that process. In other words, the first movement of this piece you're going to hear is a parallel to a maturation process, starting with a self which is not that developed and examining it in every way, challenging it in every conceivable way, having it blossom and then also examining it again.

And maybe... it even seems to be a lifelong process. And then there seems to be a nostalgic look back at what you've achieved at the end. There are many ways to describe what is called sonata form, but Brahms is so past sonata form. As I always say, it is so not a form. And this is a process.

And what he does that's different is it's in constant development and constant examination. I'll get back to that at some point. Probably every 7 minutes. So look for it. So I think what we should do is start with the music by Brahms as written, and we'll play from the beginning until bar, by bar I mean a measure, but we're not going anywhere. Bar 37. ( music)

Alright, we'll stop there. There's no good place to stop. So that's what happens. It's better than pulling the needle off a record, you know. Remember what that was like? But then that became an entire profession. Okay. I think it's always important to see what he's already said before we go on. So I'm going to take a look at that.

You all have to change chairs now. You can stay, oh, you can stay. You're moving chairs. I see. It's fascinating. Okay. First, the opening is not a full blown melody. It's it's almost a melody. And this is typical of a big structure because, except for Schubert, who sometimes wrote full melodies at the beginnings of pieces, if you have a closed, finished melody, it's hard for the piece to go on.

But it's important to look at what's there. So the piano part has this interesting, and what's already interesting is that there are two rhythms. There's (singing) and (singing) and in a sense that's almost all there is. The music is not much more than that. So we know that the argument is going to have to do with (singing) and (singing).

Threes against two which is one of Brahms's favorite arguments. He puts them together all the time. It's unusual to separate them like this and make a little point, but then when you have the cello come in, (music) we need to see where that came from. And the reason we need to see that, I mean, you hear it, but I'm going to bring it out into the open and expose it.

And the reason for that is that Brahms, at this point, Opus 26, he's already very highly developed and on his bildung path because he doesn't do anything that isn't related to something else. It's all incremental, everything grows organically. So this little phrase, if we take the end of it, it's the beginning of this. You see what I mean? Is that clear?

Okay. Okay. But even, every little thing that happens from it when we have- it stays there. For example, there, it's at the beginning. (singing) And now here it's at the end of the measure and then ornamented and then it starts to come back. There's also a simplicity here which asks for development in that all the chords are in root position, as if he was playing the guitar for only two weeks.

It goes. (music) In other words, the bass notes are all the lowest note of the chord, and then they're not here. We're moving into a new idea. Now, what you never, never get is a complete melody based on this. What you get instead is a complete melody that grows from it and is very different. That's very important because- don't go back yet.

I saw that. Okay. If you're thinking of a person's development, they don't- or a child, they don't just become a bigger version of what they were. They change. Some people may argue with that, but basically they grow and develop and become more mature. It's the maturation process. And what Brahms does, I'll give you a little foreshadowing, is it...

Of course, the tune is never completed. Instead, it matures. It turns into something bigger, something richer, something also minor in the middle of the piece. And it moves from a simple major to a big, expansive, complex minor. And that actually is what happens to us. You know, we start off kind of a little bit major key and we think everything's about us and it's very simple.

I mean, you know. And then eventually as we grow up, we discover that things might end up in a minor key. And a minor key is not a bad thing. A minor key is very beautiful. Minor is not sad and major is not happy. You know what I mean? Minor has complexity and richness and it has, like a person who is wise, has sorrow built into perception.

It's different. It's a complexity which sorrow is in. So let's go back because I think I felt like, what would it be like if he did finish the tune and simplified it? So this is not a piano puzzler. I hear you laughing. Because I'm not turning it into anything else. I'm just going to simplify what we just heard.

First, I'll remove the rhythmic complexity and just give you this. (music) So it's all like that. So what you're going to hear is if this had been like a folk song that Brahms had in the back of his mind, which he maybe did, I don't know. But I'm simplifying the antecedent to the opening, and then I supply the simplest Brahms-ian consequence.

So there's a question and then an answer. You never get that in the piece. So I think it's interesting to know what you don't get. (music) So that never happens. And if you did... That's like when you see a movie trailer and you think, and it turns out that none of that actually happens like that. Anyway. So then they make a big statement of the same thing, if you recall, it goes and- but it keeps growing and growing.

And when they stopped, they were in a new key, which was E minor. They were about to go into E minor. So let's go on a little bit further and we're listening now for what happens to the theme and how does it transform itself? We have time, but not only does Brahms build themes, but he takes them apart.

And in this case, it's very unusual. He takes this thing apart before he builds it up. It's almost like he- which makes sense from the bildungs point of view. In other words, you have to examine your ideas first before you can grow. I know that's not in fashion, but basically, one should examine one's ideas and it's very important to realize that also that Brahms was doing this most effectively in instrumental music.

He was the only person who was writing extraordinary chamber music. There were a lot of people writing chamber music, but they're your favorite composers, like Robert Folkman, Carl Goldmark, Gertz, who's not bad. Actually, they're, none of them are bad and Herzogenberg who's also not bad, but it sounds a lot like Brahms. But the big names of the time, you know Wagner and Bruckner and Liszt, they were not writing chamber music.

So the chamber music was his area of exploration where he did this incredible thing, even more than in the symphonies, where this exploration of the self happened. And he also, and we should all be grateful, he saved chamber music for us. In a way, it's really, really true because, you know, Mahler and all that, nobody was interested except Brahms and then Schoenberg and Debussy and Ravel, the next era.

Okay, so let's go, I think go right from where you stopped a little before. How about at Bar 32? And this time we will take it up to... oh, let's go up to... It isn't possible to stop anywhere, isn't it? Somewhere around 61, two, three, four. I'll stop you. I love stopping it. (music) You and. Okay, great. We'll stop there.

That took us through a transition into the second theme. I'll just say a few things about that, but I'm going to bring this over there. The feeling of this, (music) these two notes back and forth becomes very important in every way. In the duples, two notes connected, it's going to get more and more important. But this little transition theme right from where we started is all in two notes. (music) One, two, groups of two, and then (music) the little things building up to it.

And those are also like... (music) everything starts to feel like that. And if you think I'm exaggerating, wait till you see what he does with it. Okay. And then we have again little duplos. (Music) So that (singing) Now, listen to this and do you hear something from the opening here? (music) It's that basic gesture which, if you stop here on the grace note, then it's just right.

But it's a grace note. Then we get into a rhythmic pattern. I'm going to ask you to play this together again starting at 855, 56, 57. But let's just hear the piano alone once and think about where the beats are, because this is one of Brahms's favorite techniques. Just the piano at 57. (music) Right. Now, you could hear upbeats anywhere you want there.

And in terms of one and two, play it again and I'll conduct it in various ways. (music) One, and two, three, and one, and two, three and one, and two, three. But that's not what it is. Let's do it again. It's (music) one, two, three, one, two, three, one. You see now for musicians who play the piece, that's what it sounds like because we're looking at the page.

But for people who are not looking at the page, it sounds like it's off. It's hard for you to hear that probably, right? Because it's so obvious what it is. Now, they are also adding a regular pattern against it. So let's put the strings back in. But their pattern is threes (singing) and she's playing in twos and fours, which, again very Brahms.

But it also relates to the opening. Let's hear that. (music) Okay, great. Now, if you... you probably are wondering, and if not, you will now, because I'm going to suggest that you do. What was I going to say? No, you're going to wonder about other people and threes and twos and rhythmic displacement. Brahms loved to have the beat off from where you think it is and to actually move beats around the bar lines.

He originally got the thought from Schumann, but then he became a musicologist, really. Brahms is one of the first composers to study the past in depth. And that became common. Like, Stravinsky is a great example of looking back and thinking about how the past can influence his thought process. So, Brahms looked back quite a lot, and he looked at Renaissance music in which patterns and rhythmic patterns were very different from anything going on around him.

The closest thing was Schumann. But, so, he became very systematic. Then there were a group of composers that, whose music you probably don't know and you may not get to hear it too often, who were very influenced by Brahms doing this. I'm going to play a little bit of something. Not by Brahms. Not by Brahms. It's by Heinrich von Herzogenberg, who was actually a very important guy.

He was a friend of Brahms, very close. He later became a composition teacher and a famous composer in his time. And his wife studied piano with Brahms and was a fine pianist and did some composing. And they were very connected. And not a name we know too much now, but here. (music) You know what? I'm going to do that again. (music) What's interesting is you don't know that it's off beat until this happens... (music) Because it actually starts on an upbeat. (music)

It's three, one, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three, one, two. And you think it's (music) one, two, three, one, two, three. So he actually waits a long time before he straightens it out. I think I'll play that one more time because it's like a simplified version of what Brahms does. (music) Get the idea?

So, in the middle, when you feel uncomfortable, that's the first time it's on the beat. Okay. Now let's go a little further, because, here, something really extraordinary happens that got the attention, among other things, of Arnold Schoenberg and by- I mean, not among other things, I mean of other things that got Schoenberg's attention. And Brahms. Let's play, except I won't. From Bars, let's say 71... How about 71 like the last beat?

I know that's strange, but you can go one two and come in because all the rhythms are off. So we have to start at the end of a measure and let's play up until 93 or four. Now here, Brahms does something extraordinary. He actually takes the music apart until it's only got two notes in it. (music) Okay, now, does it remind you of anything?

I found this sketch. Nobody ever believes me when I say I find a sketch. Just because I find them on my computer doesn't mean anything. Okay. This is a sketch that Handel seems to have left unfinished. (music) And then he decided it was ugly. No, but, you know, this... (music) Right at the very beginning of the piece when we have (music) and then it ends up being... (music) those two notes...

How familiar was Brahms with The Messiah? Very. He had conducted it already. He conducted the whole thing more than once and, actually, a few days before the premiere of this piece, he happened to have just heard it again. Not that he went back and rewrote it, it's just that it was an affirmation probably in his mind that people would know the reference.

He did a lot of conducting and when he conducted The Messiah, it wasn't as well known as it would be now, of course. He had been working briefly in Detmold, a little town, in the 1850s, and then he would go back and forth to Hamburg where he was born. And then in 1862 he moved to Vienna. In 1861 he wrote this piece.

In 1862, he didn't realize it, but Debussy was born. And I think it's interesting, though, because it's a weird thought, you know. You know, Brahms' circle of friends who loved his chamber music and played his chamber music, mostly met in people's homes. They had concerts, too, but they met in people's homes a lot, and everything was four hand piano arrangements.

And a lot of these people were the most intellectual people of the time in Vienna. They didn't really share ideals with the other musical crowd, which was Wagner and Bruckner. And people think that it was a musical argument, but it's primarily not. It is primarily two things, an esthetic thing that is not about music, but about the stage versus the home, about beautiful music without words that tells its own story, and that it's about edification versus big displays of mass public entertainment.

But beyond that, it was political. And I'm just mentioning it because it seems relevant. But, you know, Brahms' circle of friends included a lot of intellectuals and a lot of Jews. Wagner didn't allow Jews in the Wagner Society, and neither did Bruckner when he took over in Vienna. He was the head of the Bruckner... Bruckner was the head of the Wagner Society of Vienna.

And the Jews were barred. Cosima Wagner, who was much, much younger than Wagner. But, you know, Liszt's daughter who married Wagner, she recorded in her diary that when the Ringtheater, the Ring Theater, burnt down, which was heavily attended by a Jewish audience, because they did primarily a certain kind of operetta that was supported by a Jewish community.

Hundreds of people died in the fire. And then there was an investigation and they decided that there would be safety procedures and it would be built differently. But Wagner said to Cosima, and she recorded this, that he hopes the new one burns down too and finishes the job. So this is this is what we were dealing with. And don't think that Brahms did not know that the whole Wagner, Bruckner cult was a rising populist nationalist cult.

It was. And so there is actually, in this discussion of bildung and the development of the self and the looking inside oneself and discovering humanity. This is not just theory. This is really what it is. And it is in direct opposition to this mass popular, Germanic thing. So I just thought I'd throw that out there. Now I'm done.

Not really, but almost done. Okay, so now I'd like to have the musicians play a passage where the rhythm really is quite extraordinary. You know, we're still in the exposition. Can you believe that? We're still at the opening of this piece. It's huge. We haven't gotten to the developmental section, but that's ridiculous, you think. And you're right, because the development has been going on all this time.

It's developing and developing. This is what Schoenberg called developing variation. But, you know, he learned it from, I mean, Brahms learned it from Schubert and from, a little bit from Schumann, but more Beethoven and Bach, the idea that something is continually growing and changing. But with Brahms, though, there was a sense of this philosophical examination that had a sense of also nostalgia, in that it looked back to the past in order to keep this tradition going, which was a new thing, ironically.

So to look back to the past for Brahms was not actually conservative in a- even though he was considered a backward composer by some people, he actually was doing something new, which was connecting to the past in a different way, which has become what most composers do now. Which is look back to a tradition and try to see how they fit in.

People weren't doing that. He is doing that. So, let's start at where the two notes happen. Let's say 86 and go through... Stop at the first ending (music) Okay, great. Yeah. There were two endings and we got both just now. Okay. You probably noticed again that it was the simple rhythm going on in the cello (singing) and the, above it.

If you try to notate it, you would probably have to think about it quite a lot. Where is one? Where is two? Where is three? But that, you can also let that float. Even in the cello part though, there's a little bit of interesting confusion about that. Can you play the cello part at 114? Not you. No, I'm kidding. (music)

Okay. Did you get confused in there? Try it again. One, two, one, two, whoops, one. Okay. What it really is, is it's a pattern that goes one two- like one, two, three, one, two, three. In terms of the low notes. Let's try that again. (music) Two, three, one, two, three, one. Okay, now let's just do the piano over that. Same spot. 114. (music) Okay, great.

It's delightful. It kind of... It's actually, you know, Stravinsky supposedly developed musical cubism. Nobody calls it musical cubism. Many people do now, which is the dislocation of rhythm from the phrase lengths, you know, so that it's just like this. This, I should say, dislocation of rhythm from meter. So you still have a pulse and a meter, but where the pulse is moves like a cubist painting off to the side.

Or you turn, you see both eyes, you know, on the same side, just the way you hear both, two different downbeats at the same time. And you could have two people dancing this, one to the cello and one to the piano beat. In fact, are there any volunteers? Okay. I wasn't kidding, but okay. Now, eventually this goes through a transition of several keys, but the main thing that happens is it arrives at C minor, which is pretty far away from A major.

And what does that mean? It's close in a strange way, in a Brahms-ian way, and far in a normal way. The far is that if you think of keys as going down in fifths and we'll take minor as being related to a major key. So if you're in A major, to get to C minor, you have to go from A major supposedly to E-flat and it's relative to C minor.

Just pretend you got that because you could look at that on your phone. Okay. Now, it's called it's called a circle of fifths. So, you're starting in A major, you have to go A to D, to G, to C, to F to B flat to E flat. That's pretty far away. That's six stops on the train. And the reason that's far is then you come back because there is, when you've gone six notes away and you're on your way back now because there are only 12 pitches.

So it's very, very far away. But for Brahms, that's not what he's thinking. Brahms is thinking A major is the parallel to A minor and the relative therefore to C and it's parallel to C minor. For him, A major and A minor are the same and C major and C minor are the same because that's a very romantic concept.

So, for, all he has to do, pardon me, all he has to do if he wants to, he's in it-You can stay right there. He's in A major. (music) He has to go through A minor or C major to get here. I'm just playing the chords. If you listen to it, we'll start from, you're going to hear a chord in C major, it goes to A minor, back to C and then it goes to B-flat minor.

But we're still basically in C, but then it becomes C minor. And when that happens, that is disturbing. All these other keys, they're wonderful. But when it hits C minor, even though he got there easily, we hear it as far away. We feel how strange it is. And then this is where you get a full blown, enormous blossoming of a melodic idea based on everything we've heard so far.

So let's start at 124 and you'll- actually, can you, just in the piano, just play the C minor bar where the tune comes in at 140. (music) When you hear that in the piano, that's where the big tune is about to happen. So you can really, it's a signal and then it starts in the strings. Okay, so let's go back to 124. (music) Okay, yeah. I know it's not really quite over, but that's where the tune officially ends and then it continues on its way to C major.

But that's an enormous tune. It never comes back like that. It never comes back in A major, for example, like you're hoping. But why doesn't it? It's not supposed to in this tradition. It's what happens in the middle of the development. It's a vision. It's this fantastic but structurally unique moment because it's not part of the exposition.

So even though Brahms is doing this incredible developing variation, that is very unusual and personal. This is in the development. It's not part of the exposition, so it's not going to come back. It's sad. But so when he looks back on his life in the recapitulation, it looks back at this music. He forgot about this. Either that or he doesn't want to tell you about it, or it's in his diary.

We'll find it one day. But you know what he also doesn't do? He doesn't ever write the clear, simple version of this, let alone in A major. So I have it for you. I really think you need to hear these things. Let's see if I can figure out where I put it. Is it sitting there? Hold on. It's here.

Don't worry. Hm. Wait, I know I have it. Okay, if it's not here, then it's in the other room. So is Derek here or anybody? Wait, I'll tell you where it is. It's just in the conference room, in my backpack. Hilarious. Right? Okay. Yeah. I should have used an iPad for it. It's worth hearing, though, because it is...

It takes the tune, it puts it into A major and then simplifies it. So actually, what I think we might as well do it while that's happening is listen to the tune again, but only from the pick up to 142, 143, 444 from bar 144 into 145 and ending at 156. Okay. This is the, the tune in its...

Oh, let's see. You've got it. Okay. All right. But let's hear that anyway because it'll help. (music) Okay, good. Because that's the main body of it. Now, again, it's only in minor. And how does it relate to the opening? That's something worth mentioning. But, you know, you have (music) which comes from (music). Right? It's actually pretty clear. We never hear it in major.

So here it is in major. And finished off and rounded off again. And I think the reason I do this is not just to entertain myself, or you, but because it gives you a perspective of what he didn't do and what he was avoiding, actually. (music) So, if that were an intermezzo by Brahms, that's what he would have done.

He has many intermezzos that sound a lot like that because it's just a translation of the C minor back to its original key where this comes from into A major and then rounded off in an A1, A2 form with a very simple Brahms-ian cadence. All right. Now, then we get to this remarkable way that he gets back to the recapitulation.

It's quite extraordinary because a lot of music in Sonata form, a lot of first movements, build to the recapitulation. It's a huge arrival. That is the tendency. It's like the hero comes home, especially in Beethoven, but in a lot of music and a lot of Brahms. You come back in triumph. Here, he comes back exhausted, which makes a lot of sense.

So, let's, how about we start at bar 193 and then make our way into the recapitulation and I'll stop you. (music) Okay, now exhausted was humorous. You don't have to think of it that way, but it comes back in a lower octave and instead of big and triumphant, it's quiet, thoughtful, and it goes along with what develops in Brahms's music more and more.

And this is fairly early. It's Opus 26. It's the development of a reflective which later became, we call it autumnal, but it became a reflective, more mature way of composing for him. It doesn't always do this, but it has to do with the idea that the journey, you learn something from it and you can reflect.

In fact, he used silence in this last section in a way that is very unusual. Silence in the history of, let's say Viennese classicism tended to be originally put at actual turning points in the music. It was kind of a signal. It was almost punctuation. So you would have a theme and silence and a new theme. Eventually, that became trivial and a cliche, but there are lots of important silences along the way, which then are gone.

He puts one back after it's terribly out of fashion to have any silence except for maybe a fermata and a pause where the conductor is just waiting, you know, an all powerful moment. But here, let's go to that silence. It comes right before this very reflective and beautiful coda. So let's start at... how about 323? And you'll see how it fades into a silence.

And then we get this coda. Now a coda, structurally, of course, it means an ending, but it means that the structure has now fulfilled its obligation to balance the first section. So you have the exposition with all its ideas. In this case, in lots of development, you have your new beautiful, incredible theme in minor, which is very mature and complex.

Then it gets back to a quiet, reflective version of the opening, which then goes through the material we heard originally, but all sticking to A, the key of A and then it winds down into a silence and the coda is a new way of thinking about the material, a new way of imagining this rhythmically. And it's extremely special because having thought of what you hear with a coda, it could have been part of the development.

It could have been in all kinds of interesting places. But he saves this very special thought for the very end. So let's start at 323? (music) Okay, let's stop there. There's a little more to the coda than that and you see the juxtaposition of the triplets (singing) as two overlapping like a little bit of counterpoint but very delicate. It's brand new.

And there is this gorgeous moment where the phrases are, again, displaced from the beat. Anna, Is it really, do you think it's possible to play those phrasings that are in, where the left hand and the right hand are not together, but they're all playing the same rhythm? Where is that? This? Oh, yours is not phrased the same way as mine.

But even this. Even this. Yeah, okay. Never mind. But I have very weird phrasing and I'm going to look into the history of that. This is quite interesting. Very often the simplest things, the notes are the same, the rhythms are the same, but the phrasings in this one passage are different. So I'm going to look at that and I'll get- I'll tweet it to you.

Okay. Now, before they play it, I want to do two things. I want to play you a simple version of what it means to write a development, a developing variation, because this is a complex, long piece. And then I'm going to read you something and then we'll hear the whole thing. Now, this may sound trivial, but when you hear it, it's not.

I took happy birthday, okay? We all know it. And what made me think of Happy Birthday is not because it's now public domain, which it is, but because (music) you know, it has a lot of Brahms in it. But I, what, the reason I wrote this, this is not a variation. This is not a development. You will not hear the tune in the normal way at all.

You'll hear fragments because this is a developing variation. This examines the melody and fragments of it- I make some reference to Brahms for fun, but basically fragments from it are removed and put back together to give a sense of development from Happy Birthday without stating it completely. Okay? So, this is supposed to be a lesson in developing variation.

You understand me? (music) There you go. Okay, but I hope you got the point. Other than being fun, right? You could see that the tune is never fully there and you get fragments of it turning into other things. No phrase in there is without happy birthday in it. That's the thing. And overlocking. Now, before we hear this entire first movement, I want to read just a short thing from a recent novel. There's a novel by Ethan Canin, fairly new, maybe six months out called A Doubters Almanac.

It doesn't have much to do with music, but there is, at the at the end of the novel, there's some philosophy that comes pouring out. And I had the pleasure of talking to him recently about it. And he has a lot of people in music in his family, his cousins, Serena Cannon is in the Brentano Quartet, for example.

So we had a conversation about what I think now relates to the Brahms. It has to do with the mood of the Brahms. And if you were to find a sentence in English or a few sentences that captures the mood of Brahms and also the philosophy that might be connected with it, I think it's in this book, so I'm going to read you these little bits from the book.

Are there not a thousand forms of sorrow? Is the sorrow of death the same as the sorrow of knowing the pain in a child's future? What about the melancholy of music? Is it the same as the melancholy of a summer dusk? Does one grow wise in increments? That's what I'm going to end with. So we're ready to play this?

Okay. (music) We hope you enjoyed the podcast. Visit ChamberMusicSociety.org to watch videos of these lectures as well as masterclasses and concert performances. And while you're there, check out the calendar of upcoming Chamber Music Society events in New York and around the world. We'll be back in two weeks with another Inside Chamber Music podcast.