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Gypsy Night with the BCMS


The music of the European Roma—more commonly known by their less preferred name “Gypsies”—seems to have captivated Western musicians throughout the Classical and Romantic periods.  Though the Roma had been in Europe for centuries by then, they were still considered dangerously yet attractively foreign by the general population. On August 22nd in Longy’s Pickman Hall, the BCMS presented a program—the third in the Hamel Summer Series—featuring music that, to varying degrees, highlighted this Western fascination with the exotic music in its own backyard.

When 18th-century composers wanted to create an “ethnic” effect, they often turned to certain features of Roma music. Quick and dramatic mood changes, liberal use of ostinati, and a tonal color that favors the minor modes were prominent characteristics that Western composers adapted and wove into their own musical voices as needed.

The program opened with a work that exemplified this intermingling of styles. Violinist Steven Copes, cellist Ronald Thomas, and pianist Mihae Lee performed F.J. Haydn’s Piano Trio in G major (Hob. XV: 25), subtitled “Gypsy.” The first two movements—a filigreed andante and a lovely poco adagio—give no hint of the flavor implied by the subtitle. They are classically late and light Haydn, to which Lee brought an animated albeit somewhat heavy touch, Copes a musical yet somewhat-too-Romantic approach, and Thomas a color and sensitivity that was perfect for the work. The final movement, the Rondo all’Ongarese is where the composer features his own take on the Roma sound. The recurring rondo theme, a sprightly romp that is “typically” Western, alternates with dance-like sections that feature short, repeated melodic phrases, quick alternation between major and minor modes, and stubborn ostinati—musical gestures that Haydn would have considered “Gypsy-esque.” The three players reveled in these Roma-tinged sections to great effect with exaggerated rubato and aggressive tone-colors.  If only they had overstated the refined “normalness” of the rondo theme as well, it would have made the amusing contrast, one in keeping with Haydn’s mischievous humor, even funnier.

By the mid 19th century, certain European (especially Germanic) composers had engaged more intimately with Roma music, adapting more of its characteristics to their own musical personalities. No one did this better than Johannes Brahms, whose music is often heavily laced with Roma gestures. To the more obvious features favored by his predecessors, he added rhythmic and phrasal ambiguity, and a busy textural thickness that captures the exciting “buzz” common to the music of Austro-Hungarian Gypsy bands. His Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8, the last work on the program, is a prime example of this composer’s rich and intuitive absorption of Roma sounds and gestures; and the three players certainly made the most of it. Copes and Thomas were a near-perfect match in temperament, bringing wild exuberance to the fiery sections and earthy, indulgent lyricism to the more delicate sections, especially the adagio. Lee, though unable to really let go and dive into the fray with the others, nonetheless provided momentum and solid musicianship for a truly exciting performance.

It might be a stretch to associate the music of Claude Debussy, a decidedly non-Germanic and non-Romantic composer, with that of the Roma. There is, however, one feature of his Cello Sonata that at least parallels Roma expression, namely the frequent, almost conversational changes in mood and gesture, especially in the second movement. Roma or not, the performance of this work, sandwiched between the two “Gypsy” pieces, was the highlight of the evening for no other reason than Ronald Thomas’s brilliantly nuanced playing. Throughout the evening, Thomas showed himself to be a musical chameleon of the highest order, almost as if he were three different cellists: his Haydn was appropriately powder-wigged and his Brahms teutonically emotive. Similarly, his Debussy was delicately Impressionistic, with finely hued colors and expressive variety. Most importantly, he displayed a musicality that made this beautiful yet oddly patch-worked piece make sense. It was a performance on a par with musicians of the highest caliber, Roma, Western, or otherwise.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

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