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Voyage of Discovery Finds Less-Known Early-20th-Century American Works


Maudsley's outdoor concert setting. (BMInt staff photo)

American Century Music’s Artistic Director Scott Parkman is on a voyage of discovery: to uncover in dusty archives those works by American composers of the first half of the 20th century that are deserving of revival by his young musician-recruits. ACM’s local concerts have so far been in unconventional spaces. This summer a series of three took place in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library. On Sunday, August 21, a decommissioned barn at Newburyport’s Maudsley Center for the Arts was the venue. The concert by a quintet of excellent Boston freelancers fielded by Parkmann was, in fact, the first classical event presented there.

Originally intended to be outside in a concrete-walled patio, because of rain the performance  was moved into an acoustically much more appropriate though rather long and height-challenged 1920s barn. Set up with green plastic tables and chairs for a Pops-style food service, the room had rather pleasant acoustics, since  it opened above the ceiling framing into a voluminous wooden truss space. Perhaps because this was the first classical music concert presented by The Maudsley, there was often some commotion in the background, such as movement of the food-service volunteers over the concrete floors and conversations just outside.

The performances by a string quartet of Gabriela Diaz and Omar Chen Guey, violins, Frank Shaw, viola, and Alexei Gonzales, cello were excellent for an ad hoc assemblage. Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, op. 11 got a stirring reading. The first movement’s pulse never wavered, thanks to the dramatic leadership of first violinist Diaz, and the famous adagio was emotive without being maudlin, due both to her restraint and the unanimity of the ensemble.

Flautist Jessi Rosinksi joined the quartet for Walter Piston’s Quintet for Flute and Strings, a “wheels within wheels” neoclassical construct written for Doriot Anthony (later Dwyer) in 1942. It has a certain reflexive spikiness and a Copland-esque wrong-note lyricism. While the five players could not always provide the dramatic accents and turn-on-a-dime risk-taking of an established ensemble, their playing did show an estimable investment in the unfamiliar and difficult-to-pull-off music.

The Nocturne and Scherzo for Flute and String Quartet of Arthur Foote is a lovely trifle of gossamer exoticism without any disturbing storm or stress. We’d like to hear it again. Gershwin’s familiar and much-transcribed Lullaby for String Quartet has no real destination, though the performance lent it very pleasant barcarolle-like quality (even though the piece is in 4) and a sense of a pleasant, reposeful journey. The closer was a broad and brio performance of Ives’s String Quartet no. 1 “A Revival Service,” a veritable plum pudding of hymns that deserved and received a grateful Amen.

Lee Eiseman is publisher of Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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