in: Reviews

January 31, 2011

Brandeis Faculty Earn Credits

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“New and Recent Music with Violin” is a not-entirely-accurate heading for a recital by faculty member Daniel Stepner, violin, with guest artists tenor Frank Kelley and pianist Donald Berman in Brandeis University’s concert series on January 29. The program in turn featured work by several Brandeis faculty members, namely Eric Chasalow, Yu-Hui Chang, and Stepner himself, along with a premiere from Howard Frazin and some rarities by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Carl Ruggles, plus an uncommon live performance of the Ives Second Violin Sonata.

Stepner, widely known locally for his work with the Lydian String Quartet, the Boston Museum Trio, Aston Magna, and until recently, the Handel and Haydn Society, is less well known as a composer. He opened the program with his Short Suite for solo violin, three of whose four movements were premieres. The work is an affectionate tribute to the unaccompanied partitas of J.S. Bach, and while certainly not as aesthetically deep as its models, it proved both entertaining and — as was undoubtedly its partial intent — a springboard to display some instructive virtuosity. The opening prelude contained some imaginative timbres, with wonderfully executed transitions between harmonics and loco pitch, in a Bachian matrix. The “Ghetto Fughatto,” cheekily and not entirely sensitively titled, worked jazz inflections into a contrapuntal texture not quite as daunting as Bach’s. The “Who’s Contracting This Gigue?” (PDQ Bach, maybe?), the only previously performed movement, is musically the most complex, with outer sections featuring short scalar passages cleverly offset harmonically, surrounding a central one based on a fingering exercise by Stepner’s teacher, Broadus Erle, with some nice left-hand pizzicato against a flowing bowed melody, and a chuckle-inducing “Beethovenitis” ending that was unable or unwilling to close. The finale, “Tangocito,” entertainingly arrayed some stereotypical tango tropes (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” anyone?); Astor Piazzolla would not feel threatened, but it was innocent fun.

Much less innocent, but entirely gripping, was the set of eight songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams on texts by A.E. Houseman, daringly scored for just tenor and violin (this cycle is sometimes titled Along the Field, but the program for this performance did not use that name). The texts were drawn mostly from A Shropshire Lad, that flowing fount of sentiment and rue so much favored by British composers, including RVW himself in On Wenlock Edge, and from Houseman’s Last Poems. Most of them concern death in one way or another, or separation, or disappointment, with Houseman’s characteristic punch-line approach. Although mostly written in the 1920s, a period in which Vaughan Williams was exploring more austere sonorities and dissonant harmonies, these songs were touched up and not published until 1954, a period that also saw another set of songs, on Blake texts, for voice and oboe. The use of two melody instruments without much ability to fill in harmonies leaves much to the imagination — even now that we “get” the characteristic RVW sound — and much exposure for the players. Frank Kelley, who has had a long and distinguished career in opera and recital, was an ideal choice to put this work across. We have, in truth, heard him in better voice than he was Saturday, though his singing was seldom less than thrilling and never worse than extremely good. His superior dramatic skills, perfect diction and spot-on pitch, however, were wholly admirable. This was a particular necessity in the third number, “The half-moon westers low,” an uncharacteristically chromatic bit of writing for Vaughan Williams. Much of the settings give each player extended unaccompanied passages, and whether as stage-setter, bolsterer or underminer of the text and vocal line, Stepner was an equal contender for the listener’s attention, which was always well rewarded.

Another vocal work followed the Vaughan Williams, the premiere of Howard Frazin’s setting — the first part of an extended work in progress — of Edward Lear’s Mr. and Mrs. Discobbolos. Lear, of The Owl and the Pussycat fame, brought his keenly observed nonsense to this tale of a couple who climb a wall for the view, and only then figure out that they might not be able to get down again. Frazin’s setting for tenor, violin and piano, in three stanzas, contrasts a naïve, gently rocking and vaguely bucolic lightly scored section (opening with a charming mandolin-style plucking of the violin) against dense and anguished passages at the points where Mrs. D.’s acrophobic anxieties surface. The pattern cleverly reverses in the last stanza, when Mr. D. takes up the cry but then beatifically accepts and makes the best of their stranded fate. This was good old-fashioned text setting that tells its story well. Kelley once again put it across with drama and charm, and Stepner and Berman supported with grace.

The first half closed with the premiere of Eric Chasalow’s Scuffle and Snap for violin and electronics. Chasalow has for many years divided his compositional output between purely instrumental and live-with-electronics works. Here, he has taken some relatively simple and vaguely tuneful materials for the violin and accompanied it by pre-composed (i.e., “fixed,” in his terminology, rather than interactive) electronic sounds, which function like a typical accompaniment, except that with electronic media he is able to take the violin sonority and extend it in ways that even other string instruments would not be able to do. There are successive motives and sections, most of them attractive and charming in their own right, with clearly developed ideas. What we couldn’t quite get a handle on was the logic of the succession or of any overarching shape to the entire work, which isn’t to say there wasn’t one. Stepner negotiated his end with aplomb and finesse, not the least of which was the coordination with the unforgivingly fixed-timing electronics. Such are the vagaries of compositional life that it was left to the composer to set up and operate the computer-driven electronics.

After intermission there was a brief acknowledgment of the death earlier in the day of Milton Babbitt, with whom both Stepner and Berman have worked. (Hoist a glass of Anchor Steam, his favorite brew, in his memory.) Then the second half proceeded as a pure violin-piano recital. The first item was Mood: Prelude to an Imaginary Tragedy by the American pioneer Carl (Charles Sprague) Ruggles. This work, pieced together by Ruggles’s artistic executor John Kirkpatrick from sketches in Ruggles’s papers, dates from around 1918. It is thus not only a somewhat speculative piece but from an earlier period than the handful of works on which the composer’s fame rests. As such, it represents a significant transitional piece between his presumably Romantic early work — he seems to have destroyed all but a couple of published songs—and the dense chromatic and atonal polyphony of his later period. Mood, to judge from Kirkpatrick’s reconstruction, is rhapsodic, thickly textured but also thematically lucid and, for the Ruggles we know, quite melodic. Stepner and Berman, who were both colleagues and students of Kirkpatrick, are steeped in the Ives/Ruggles traditions, and their performance was passionate and compelling.

Yu-Hui Chang’s 2008 Worries Just as Real, her note informed, was written for a seventeen-year-old violinist and was intended to reflect some of the agony and wonder of adolescence. Its three movement titles, “Pierced heart,” “Momentary eternity,” and “The thrill and unease towards the unknown,” convey the sense. The first movement features a soulful violin melody against low-and-high throbbing piano sonorities, all of which thicken and intensify before thinning and fading to a lonesome thread in the violin, to a repeated heartbeat left-hand pizzicato. The next movement is also slow, but this is static and solemn, with solemn chords like great granite blocks. The finale leaps to rhythmic life with jazzy undercurrents featuring some deft use of manually damped piano strings. (We love how composers working in this country, regardless of their origins, lap up this idiom for their end-pieces). The overall effect of this sonatoid — Chang didn’t, she told us, conceive the work as a sonata, but its structure gives it that feeling — is an insightful view of that stage of life. The musical treatment was imaginative and inviting, and the performances by Stepner and Berman could not be faulted.

The closer was a bang-up performance of our personal favorite among the four Ives violin sonatas. In Ives’s often-employed church-sonata structure (slow-fast-slow), it is, like all his works in this genre, classic middle-period Ives — forward in its feeling, texturally penetrable, developmental in its handling of materials, and illustrative of the characteristically Ivesian form that J. Peter Burkholder has so brilliantly explicated in several works, especially All Made From Tunes. Ives begins a movement with development, usually of two themes derived from well known (in his day) hymn tunes, gradually working backwards to straightforward presentations of the counter-tune and then the main one. In the Second Sonata this operation applies to the first and last movements, while the rollicking middle one evokes a dance set that eventually focuses on the Civil War Battle Cry of Freedom, an Ives favorite. The finale, entitled “Revival,” begins with simple devotion and builds to a passionate fervor centered on the tune “Nettleton” (“Come thou font of every blessing” is the usual text). While this masterpiece and its brethren have been often recorded, including by Stepner with Kirkpatrick at the piano, it and they do not appear together often enough in live recital. Stepner and Berman (who has performed and recorded almost all of Ives’s keyboard music) gave compelling evidence why they should be heard more often. They did it exactly as it should be done, as if they were playing Brahms, with big Romantic gestures coupled with precision and delicacy, and, as is mandatory in Ives, galumphing fun. Their bravura rendering of “In the Barn” got deserved applause. This was as good a performance of this sonata as we have heard, live or on record, and we hope Stepner and Berman are encouraged to favor audiences in future with the whole cycle.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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