NOTE: The March 5 concert listed in this article has been canceled due to bad weather.
In early 1916, composer Enrique Granados attended the premiere of his opera Goyescas in New York City. Tragedy struck as he was returning to Spain: His passenger ferry was torpedoed crossing the English Channel, and Granados drowned trying to save his wife.
On Monday, March 5, the Hill House Chamber Players are performing the Intermezzo from Goyescas. That programming is part of a seasonlong commitment to showcase the works of composers whose lives were affected, and in some cases ended, by World War I. (November will mark the 100-year anniversary since the Armistice was signed.)
"We found that the early 20th century was such a watershed moment culturally, with the world order being upended and musicians being free to explore new directions," violinist Catherine Schubilske says. "There's such a wealth of material. We thought our audience would enjoy comparing the different responses from one composer to the next."
She points out the striking contrast of the "cheerful folk" character of Julius Rontgen's rarely heard 1915 D-major string trio to the "more contemplative" Hindemith viola sonata of 1919, begun when its composer was still in the German Army. Both pieces are on the Hill House Chamber Players' March 5 program.
Do any similarities run through works written against a bloody wartime background? Schubilske thinks so.
"Each piece is individual," she says. "But what I see, in general, is that there are composers who are writing very personal responses to their wartime experience and loss of their friends. The other trend is this nationalism, which, while it might not necessarily contribute to war peace, started an exciting new world of material for composers like Rontgen and others to work with."
The imposing yet intimate vintage venue that the Players perform in is a striking place to hear works dating from the early 20th century. The James J. Hill House, standing proudly at the head of St. Paul's Summit Avenue, was built in 1891.
"We have been so fortunate to have a longtime collaboration with the Schubert Club and the Minnesota Historical Society," Schubilske explains. "So we play music that was written during James J. Hill's lifetime and share it in an intimate and authentic historical space, which would have been typical of chamber music performances of the time."
The venue also fosters a close connection with patrons.
"We're keenly aware of our audiences," Schubilske says with a laugh. "They're often 2 or 3 feet away from us."
Despite the appeal of the venue that inspired their name, this year the Players are also performing at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, honoring their season's theme by bringing music to veterans.
"It has been a privilege but also a challenge to adapt and change the programs to accommodate different size spaces," Schubilske says. She credits much of the success of the outreach to "genius actor and director" Craig Johnson, who shares World War I era poetry and stories at those performances. "He's the key to making it work."
The experiences of composers who lived and died 100 years ago might feel distant, but the Hill House Chamber Players are determined to prove their modern relevance.
As Schubilske says, "We really hope audiences will be touched by the composers' deeply felt response to the overwhelming upheaval of the era. They somehow created art that's both comforting and moving."
Emily Hogstad is a freelance writer and creator of the Song of the Lark classical music blog. She also leads preconcert talks for the Hill House Chamber Players.