American Century Music (ACM), an organization relatively new to the Boston music scene, gave the second of three concerts on Friday afternoon, July 16tat 12:30 pm, that they are contributing to Boston Public Library’s “Concerts in the Courtyard Series.” The free concert drew a motley lunchtime crowd on a very hot day — some were there by happenstance, others came to hear the ensemble, and still others came as regular attendees at the Courtyard Series, which began July 2 and features free lunch hour concerts every Friday through August 27.
ACM is dedicated to performing 20th-century American repertoire, and with this concert, entitled “An Eclectic Trio,” offered three works by George Antheil, Elliott Carter, and Walter Piston. While Carter is well known to Boston audiences, particularly given his recent centenary celebrations, Antheil and Piston seemed to be more foreign, at least to the audience members with whom I spoke. Antheil’s 1923 Symphony for Five Instruments displayed the talents of Thomas James Wible on flute, Adam Smith on bassoon, Kyle Spraker on trumpet, Keith Almanza on trombone, and Zoe Kemmerling on viola. The scoring, to be sure, is rather unusual, and comes from the pen of one of the more colorful characters in American music history. In addition to his self-described “bad boy” compositions, Antheil also collaborated on a torpedo guidance system with actress Hedy Lamarr and dabbled in topics as wide-ranging as female endocrinology and film music criticism. The Symphony premiered the year before his most famous work, Ballet Mécanique, and unlike the latter piece, is relatively conservative if unorthodox in its instrumentation. ACM’s Artistic Director Scott Parkman remarked that the work, as was the fashion of other contemporary composers at the time, poked fun at existing forms. And while it is true that a five-member ensemble does not a symphony make, there are symphonic gestures and a sensitivity toward texture that suggest Antheil was not completely tongue-in-cheek in his chosen title for the piece.
Parkman admirably conducted the ensemble, gently negotiating the interesting presence of symphonic counterpoint in a chamber-music context. The ensemble playing was excellent throughout, particularly in the middle movement Largo, which calls for incredible sustained control from the wind and brass, punctuated by a light pizzicato in the viola. While the brass solos in the first movement seemed at times a bit unsure, this was smoothed out by their elegance in the Largo and the energized Stravinskian rhythms of the final movement Presto. Wible, in particular, offered tremendously lyrical and beautiful flute lines, highlighting Antheil’s skill for melodic writing against the jaunty staccato motives of the trumpet in the first movement.
Elliott Carter’s Eight Etudes and A Fantasy for Woodwind Quartet (1950) illustrated the immense talents of Wible and Smith again, in addition to Claire Cutting on oboe and Kevin Price on clarinet. The quartet played five of the eight etudes (I, III, IV, V and VI) and the Fantasy, exhibiting both the pedagogical and compositional value of the work. In the first etude (Maestoso), the ensemble had excellent and expressive focus on the sonorities created by the exploitation of each instrument’s range. But it was the second etude, marked Adagio possibile, which was most marvelous. With an opening similar in emotional evocation to that of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, the Adagio hints at the possibility of tonal blooming but never delivers, instead creating a delicious harmonic tension that was beautifully balanced by the quartet. In all of the etudes, in fact, the quartet had an explicit awareness of the parts as well as the whole, giving each of the etudes a significant and remarkable interpretation, but saving something for the Fantasy that throws all the material together. The seventh etude, Allegretto leggero, showcased Wible’s facile flutter tonguing but also the intense energy that all four musicians brought to each note. In the extraordinary Fantasy, the ensemble had a tremendous sense of metric modulation, navigating seamlessly through the score in beautifully articulated fugal counterpoint. Here Adam Smith shone, delighting in the active participation of the bassoon. At some points the quartet’s sforzando punches sacrificed tone, but they otherwise respected the compositional control and finesse in Carter’s writing — even in a fantasy.
Walter Piston’s Divertimento for Nine Instruments (1946) brought the concert to a close. In addition to being Carter’s teacher, Piston was a very apropos addition to the program, given the composer’s connection to the Boston Public Library; it houses over 2,000 items that belonged to Piston, including 25 manuscripts and holographs. Parkman set the stage for the piece by remarking that Piston was the “anti-Antheil.” While this generality is true is most respects, the Divertimento shared the sympho-chamber qualities of the Antheil work. Capitalizing on the historic divertimento, the ensemble (comprised of the wind quartet and joined by Liza Zurlinden and Jae Young C. Lee on violins, Kemmerling on viola, Javier Caballero on cello, and Max Judelson on bass), delivered an exemplary performance of all three movements, but as with the Antheil, really illuminated the slow movement. Cutting’s oboe solo and the gorgeous tone of Zurlinden’s violin brought a poignant, mournful quality to Piston’s “Tranquillo.” The final Vivo was a celebration of 18th-century divertimento rhetoric in modern garb, with its sprightly bassoon figurations and the excellent work of Caballero and Judelson in the low strings. Parkman kept it dancing, even as the relentless Boston sun swallowed pockets of shade in the courtyard.
Parkman’s expressed goal for ACM is to “examine and perform the hundreds of works by 20th-century American classical composers — music that is underrepresented on today’s concert programs.” After the concert, the gentleman sitting next to me asked the woman to his left, “Do you know Piston?” She shook her head. “I don’t either,” he continued. “This is the first I’ve heard him,” he admitted, while clapping enthusiastically. Parkman and the ACM seem to understand that it isn’t about presenting modern music for the sake of its modernity, but for its musicality. Their offering in the dignified piazza of the BPL on a hot and balmy Boston summer day declared hope for renewed dialogue and community for American 20th-century music.