in: Reviews

January 18, 2010

BCMS’ Take Two on Time Probes Beethoven, Child, Dvorák

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The Boston Chamber Music Society presented the second installment of its ambitious Winter Festival at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on January 16 with a program of works for strings in groups of three, four and five: Beethoven’s op. 3 String Trio, Peter Child’s third string quartet, titled Skyscraper Symphony (you’ll see why below), and Dvorák’s op. 97 String Quintet, the “American.” These were further illustrations, per festival organizer Marcus Thompson, of various approaches to time in music.

As with all three programs in the series, this was a tripartite affair, with a forum/panel presentation at 4 pm, a box dinner with the panelists and players at 5:30 pm, and the concert at 8 pm, a pretty full day if you did it all. Your correspondent took in the first and last of these. The forum, with music theory professor Deborah Stein and Piano Department Chair Bruce Brubaker, both of New England Conservatory, and MIT professor and composer Peter Child (a fourth scheduled participant, film music historian Martin Marks, could not attend), delved into various ways music invokes and messes with memory as a means of interpreting the perception of time. The presentations ranged in approach from Music Appreciation 101 to free-form philosophical musings, but all the panelists had some insightful things to say, and provided supplemental commentary on the works to be performed on the concert. Time travel, of course, is what music is all about—it has nowhere else to go!—but the speakers on this occasion stressed its ability, by artful repetitions and allusions, to invoke past emotional states, extramusical memories and associations, even as it contends with the present moment and adumbrates the unknown.

Child, with the aid of the BCMS players, discussed the genesis of his Skyscraper Symphony, whose title derives from the experimental silent film of 1929 by director Robert Florey (who in the same year directed the Marx Brothers’ first—distinctly not silent—film “The Cocoanuts”). This was a grand, lyrical, you might even say gushing, tribute to the Manhattan skyline of the day (sans Chrysler and Empire State Buildings). In Child’s case, the time connection and invocation of memory lay in his response in 2003—two years after the terrorist destruction of the Twin Towers—to Florey’s optimistic take on office towers and other tall buildings as monuments to Progress.

With all the build-up of the live presentations and the written program notes with the excellent introductory essay by Michael Scott Cuthbert in the festival program book, the actual experience of the music on which all this analysis fell was, for this listener, a bit of a letdown. Not that any of the music was unworthy—far from it—but that shoehorning the unifying festival theme onto these works does a disservice to their unique features, and frankly does not particularly illustrate what’s most interesting abut them. The Beethoven trio, his first of four, all of them early pieces, was ostensibly included because of Beethoven’s supposedly surprising return to the beginning of his opening theme before the transition passage to the secondary one in the first movement (of six, this being a work styled after Mozart’s Divertimento for string trio). All very well, but that seems fairly trivial when looking at this work as an example of what Charles Rosen referred to as Beethoven’s “classicizing” early works that adopt the forms and gestures of Haydn and Mozart, but eschew the Apollonian balance on which the Classical style rests. The second “Minuet,” for example, with its off-accents and eccentric phrasing pushes and pulls against the bars of Classical expression, as does the rough texture of the “Andante.” The BCMS players here, violin Jennifer Frautschi, viola Roger Tapping, and cello Andrew Mark, seemed well tuned in to what Beethoven was up to and brought brio and a well-judged minimum of suavity to this subversive work.

The Child quartet, with Harumi Rhodes taking first violin to Ms. Frautschi’s second, and with Marcus Thompson on viola, received its first live performance at this concert, the 2003 rendition having been a recording-studio effort by the Lydian Quartet. Child said in his earlier remarks that he had lived with the Florey film for some time before writing his music, absorbing its rhythms and colors. His score, though it begins with a proper 1920s skyscraper-music flourish (think Carpenter’s “Skyscrapers” ballet and Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody) and offers some appropriately woozy bars to accompany Florey’s swirling handheld camera, does not on the whole indulge in simple tone-painting, but essays its own commentary on the subject matter, a kind of urban Grand Canyon Suite. It has its own independent musical integrity, which is good, since Florey’s film is a bit rambling. The one sour note is the flash-forward Child spotlighted in his talk: at the film’s close there is a scene of construction equipment at work, to which Child’s post-911 musical commentary is a rasp of sul ponticello scraping and downward-plunging motifs to bring Florey’s grand statement literally down to earth. Fine performances from the BCMS quartet kept the alternately propulsive and dreamy score on its trajectory.

The Dvorák American Quintet of 1893 appeared on the program as an example of cyclical composition, so beloved of later Romantic composers as a way to turn musical narrative into a memory play. (Back in the old days, we were taught it was to provide a unity that attenuated key relationships could no longer support, but another day, another certitude.) The vehicle for these memories was the nearly obsessive use of pentatonic themes, which the panelists averred was Dvorák’s pointer to African-American and Native American music as the source of a genuine American musical nationalism. Never mind that pentatonic melody is a nearly universal aspect of folk music worldwide—notably including Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Celtic, African, Asian and Balinese traditions—and that Dvorák’s “discovery” provoked considerable dissent, among others from the contemporary American composer George Whitefield Chadwick, who by then had already written numerous works using them. Still, Dvorák’s American efforts resulted in some of his finest music, and it’s best not to rehash the ethnographic arguments and just enjoy it. The scherzo of the Quintet, in particular, is a delirious mélange of ethnic references all wrapped in the composer’s joy in being among his own people in Spillville, Iowa. Curiously, in this performance, although it got off to a full-throated start and although there were no audible problems of ensemble, the BCMS players (Tapping joining as the viola given most of the lovely solos) developed an emotional distance bordering on diffidence, especially in what should be the melting slow movement. It pulled together a bit better in the rambunctious finale, but it somehow never quite gelled as the other pieces on the program did.

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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