in: Reviews

April 11, 2010

Fragment of Frazin’s Oratorio-in-Progress, with Ives, Copland, and Schoenfield at Wellesley

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I had heard Triple Helix once before in this big hall— Houghton Memorial Chapel of Wellesley College — playing Beethoven. One might worry that sound of a chamber group would be lost, but in fact the acoustic proportions seem ample, and there is no cavernous echo. Triple Helix, in residence for quite a while at Wellesley, consists of Bayla Keyes, violin; Rhonda Rider, cello; and Lois Shapiro, piano. They were joined by soprano Sarah Pelletier.

The program on April 10 began with Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950), which are late-middle Copland, the composer exploring a lean, spare style with thin, widely-spaced piano textures in some of the songs and a thicker, more Romantic sound in others; they have always been ranked among his most admired works written after Appalachian Spring. The texts are sensitive but very far from delicate. Some keys, like E-flat major, return from time to time, from the first song, “Nature, the gentlest mother,” to “The world feels dusty” which is almost a sarabande, and “Heart, we will forget him.” All kinds of remarkable, subtle sounds are found in these transparent settings, like the G and A five octaves apart at the end of “Dear March, come in!” I was struck, too, by what is likely a chance connection in “There came a wind like a bugle.” My friend George Perle, who died last year, composed a memorably scary setting of this same text in 1978, much more violent than Copland’s, and I noticed that both composers wrote middle-register trills, chasing away the “green chill upon the heat.” Sarah Pelletier had a rich, strong sound throughout; Lois Shapiro’s accompaniment was always precise and clear, as vigorous or discreet as need be but never subdued.

The full trio and Pelletier gave a good first account of Simple Grace, with text by Joan of Arc as cited by Mark Twain, part of an oratorio-in-progress by Howard Frazin. Joan is giving testimony before the ecclesiastical court. Whole-tone harmony in “I came from God; I have nothing more to do here” yields to upper-register parallel triads, a state of purity rather like Satie’s Socrate, in “If I be not in a state of Grace.” This short and attractive excerpt makes this listener look forward to the complete work — perhaps in a staged version?

Charles Ives’s Trio (1904-1911) is the chamber-music counterpart of his First Sonata for piano, with flashes of blazing inspiration side by side with episodes of internal contradiction. The first movement is short, with long stretches of C pedal points in the piano and thickly dissonant harmony above. It is followed by a second movement, TSIAJ (This Scherzo Is A Joke), in which everything seems to be slung together: “Jingle Bells,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” football songs that I couldn’t recognize, snatches (maybe) from the “Hawthorne” movement of Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, whole-tone thirds from the echo ensemble in the Fourth Symphony, and (more definitely) ostinati from his Over the Pavements. I’ve heard this movement played much faster, and was grateful to hear it this way, when I could discern more of what was going on. It is in the long (nearly 14 minutes), slow third movement that Ives’s most eloquent and essential voice comes out most effectively. The program notes describe it as a “lyrical rondo,” and the recurring themes included melodies with successive and stacked fifths, wildly dissonant but surreptitiously Brahms-like chordal textures, echoes of the E-flat major harmony in “The Alcotts” of the “Concord” Sonata, and bell-like major-minor triads spaced in the high and middle registers. At the end, cello and violin alternate in a soaring dialogue with Thomas Hastings’s famous “Rock of ages, cleft for me” (1831), and this is one of the finest moments Ives ever wrote. I remember when this was played in 1974, at the American Musicological Society’s annual meeting during the Ives centennial year, and the audience of my fellow musicologists laughed; they should have known better.

Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music (1987), a boisterous escapade in three movements, in which a klezmer band is reborn without its wind instruments, concluded the concert. I had expected to hear William Bolcom’s Second Violin Sonata, a personal favorite of mine, but the Schoenfield was certainly an acceptable trade, and the audience loved it.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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