From left: violinists Keith Stanfield & Zsolt Eder, pianist Julie Coucheron,violist Ashley Stanfield and cellist Daniel Ketter. cello.

Review: Opus 76 Quartet and Julie Coucheron perform in a medley of patriotism, ragù and Brahms

June 17, 2021
Midwest Trust Center, “Eat, Drink & Play” Digital Series
Episode 6: “V is for Victory”
Keith Stanfield & Zsolt Eder, violins; Ashley Stanfield, viola; Daniel Ketter, cello; Julie Coucheron, piano

Johannes BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34


Standing 217 feet tall from base to top, plus another 48 feet to ground level, Liberty Tower of the National World War I Museum and Memorial (originally the Liberty Memorial) is one of the most recognizable sights in the Kansas City, Missouri. At its top, the memorial tower features a novel “flame effect” of steam illuminated by bright red and orange lights which at night presents the observer with the illusion of a burning pyre. It can be seen at a considerable distance. It is one of a handful of war memorials in the greater Kansas City area.

Two patriotic observances take place in the United States during the month of June, although neither is an official Federal holiday: D-Day and Flag Day. D-Day is observed June 6, the anniversary of when in 1944 some 156,000 American, British and Canadian forces stormed a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified beaches in Normandy, France. Flag Day, celebrated on June 14, commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States in 1777 by the Second Continental Congress. The observance was officially established in 1916, in the middle of World War I, by proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson; then as National Flag Day by an Act of Congress in 1949, four years after the end of World War II. [*]

All of these things came together as impetus for the final digital concert of the Midwest Trust Center’s “Eat, Drink & Play” series, streamed on Thursday evening, featuring the their string quartet artists-in-residence, the Opus 76 Quartet, with Atlanta-based guest pianist Julie Coucheron. The musical part of the video, the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 of Johannes Brahms, was recorded in the otherwise closed Midwest Trust Center’s Yardley Hall on the campus of Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, a substantial “greenfield” suburban city on the southwest side of metropolitan Kansas City. The main goal of the series, says promotional material, is to demonstrate the essential role of music in society, and how it relates to daily life.

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With that purpose in mind, the big question of me is: How do you square the music of Brahms with a premise of remembering the veterans of U.S. wars, in particular the two World Wars? Not easy, not necessarily successful, but at least the Opus 76 Quartet made the effort to glue Part A and B to Part C. For those only interested in the musical performance, it came out well – an admirable performance. Those interested in military veterans and in cooking got something out of it too.

First violinist Keith Stanfield also hosted the show, sought to have this episode focus upon “celebrating veterans and understanding something of the sacrifice, struggle and success they managed to achieve” – a noble and honorable objective in and of itself. He expressed on camera the hope that having the musicians visit the Memorial and “take it in” might somehow inform the forthcoming performance of the Brahms Quintet.

The video then turned to an interview with local resident, retired Lt. Colonel Hadley Turner who served in United States Army, to have him talk about feelings and memories what serving in the military meant for him, both in reserve and active duty.

If you’re wondering where the “Eat, Drink…” segment would come in, that was next.

Another military veteran, Aaron Prater, who is both a professional chef and associate professor Johnson County Community College, shared on screen his approach to cooking ragù. Following two tours in the United States Marine Corps as a journalist and public relations specialist, Prater developed a career the hospitality industry, first selling wine, and later in the culinary arts.

Chef Aaron Prater outlines the ingredients of his ragù recipe. (video frame capture)

Chef Aaron Prater outlines the ingredients of his ragù recipe. (video frame capture)

You can forget the brand name Ragù and its panoply of tomato sauces. Genuine ragù, of which there are many variations in Italy, was one of many favorite recipes which veterans of the Second World War brought back to the States. Prater is quick to point out that a good ragù either involves just a little tomato or none at all – and there is great debate among chefs as to whether or how much. In any case, it is a meat-heavy ragù, not the heavy tomato ragù known today in this country.

Prater begins with the three aromatics (onion, carrot, celery) in equal proportion, sauteed until they just soften enough to release their flavor. In another pan, he renders out the fat of a combination of ground beef and ground pork (the latter to soften the taste of the beef). The two pans are combined, plus some garlic and only two tablespoons of tomato paste, light spices (in this case, a branch of rosemary, removed partway through), a little wine, and some water for a creamy texture (taken from the pasta that has been simultaneously been cooking in a pot). Finally, he adds the nearly-cooked pasta to the pan of “Sunday gravy” and lets it finish cooking there. A simple dish, as is the Italian way, and well-made.

For many of us, the connection between cooking and music is quite natural, and we could have happily gone directly to the Brahms Quintet without the interlude of the relationship between the composer and Clara Schumann, in order to evoke the video’s themes of “duty to take up great sacrifices, suffering and struggle to achieve success,” in parallel to emotions of military service, as the cause of selecting Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor for the video’s featured musical selection.

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Frankly, that seems to be stretching any putative connection between Brahms and the American veterans theme more than a little bit. What’s more important, frankly, is that we like the Brahms Piano Quintet on its own musical terms rather than try to stitch it to the preceding segments of the video.

It’s not that on-topic music isn’t available to fit the war veteran theme. Consider the chamber music of composers who actually served in action in World War I. To cite just three hypothetical examples: the Piano Trio of Maurice Ravel, the Piano Quartet of Arthur Bliss, even the two string quartets of Ralph Vaughan Williams, though the first was composed before WWI and the second during WWII.

But none of those are piano quintets. If you’re looking for one of those to fit the totality of musicians on board, you might have to turn to a composer Edward Elgar and his Quintet in A minor for Piano and String Quartet, Op. 84, written during the final year of WWI, though he was by that time already in his 60s and not in great health, so not in active military service during wartime. There also exists a Piano Quintet written in 1919 by Bliss, who, again, did serve actively, but it’s unpublished and obscure – just try to find a copy of the music or a recording.

Personally, for the video’s theme and the American patriotic flavor of much of his music, I might have been inclined to consider the 27-minute Piano Quintet (1936) of American composer Roy Harris, who studied briefly with Bliss. The point is: excellent music, including other piano quintets, that are better suited to the prescribed theme can be found.

Norwegian pianist Julie Coucheron

Norwegian pianist Julie Coucheron

All said and done, what we got was the magnificent if somewhat off-topic Piano Quintet of Brahms, robustly and superbly played by Coucheron and the Opus 76 Quartet. One would think, or at least hope, then, that the desire to program the Brahms came first, and in that light the “Victory” context second. Or even third, for that matter, as the connections between the performing musicians are also an important part of a concert program’s context.

Pianist Julie Coucheron, who is from Norway but is based in Atlanta, Georgia, got to know violinist Keith and violist Ashley Stanfield, who are married, at the Royal Academy of Music in London (UK) where they were all students. Such friendships can be most fortuitous, as in this case of a reuniting of classmates for this concert.

The musical communication between the three of them, violinist Zsolt Eder and cellist Daniel Ketter (who became the newest member of the quartet just this month), was excellent. One could have as easily started viewing with just the Brahms performance at 19 minutes into the video and been totally satisfied. But in watching the whole, a little under an hour total duration, we also got a fine lesson in a basic piece of Italian cuisine and an introduction to a place of historical interest smack in the middle of America’s heartland. Pack your van or truck. That could be a call for a road trip. ■

*Author’s note for clarity, because the episode is entitled “V is for Victory”: Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day, sometimes called Victory Day), marking the World War II Allied victory in Europe in 1945, is celebrated on May 8, not in June, but is also not an official U.S. observance.

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer for EarRelevant. He has been a music journalist for over 30 years, and a composer of music for much longer than that.