in: Reviews

September 16, 2010

Barber and Schumann with Unusual Instrumentation at Longy SeptemberFest

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The Longy School of Music in Cambridge is offering to the public its SeptemberFest series of concerts featuring Longy faculty, alumni, students, and guests, and celebrating the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s birth and the 100th anniversary of Samuel Barber’s. The third program, entitled Romance and Nostalgia, was presented on Wednesday, September 15.

The program opened with Barber’s Canzone, op. 38a for flute and piano, set forth admirably by Marco Granados and Diane Lim, respectively. The thematic material of the Canzone was particularly dear to the composer who used it again in the slow movement of his Piano Concerto, op. 38. The performers gave a warm rendition of this largely gentle, caressing piece with occasional touches of melancholy.

Three Romances, op. 94 of Schumann for oboe and piano are perhaps more frequently heard played by violin, clarinet or flute, so it was good to have an opportunity to hear them on the oboe. Robert Sheena, principal English horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was the oboist here, playing with fantasy and a wide range of colors. Diane Lim was again the capable collaborating pianist, expertly following her partner’s quicksilver rubato. My one reservation was that the piano sounded somewhat recessed fairly often, rather than being an equal partner. This seemed also to limit the piano’s range of color, most noticeably in the more extroverted middle romance. Overall, though, this was a loving performance of some of Schumann’s most beautiful yet underperformed instrumental music.

As one of the many definitions of the word romance is “song”, it was apt that the next group was comprised of songs of Robert Schumann, and underperformed ones at that! The texts of the Seven Lieder, op. 104 are the work of Elisabeth Kulmann who died in 1825 at the age of 17. The composer assembled poems of diverse moods and, one assumes, deliberately set them to music of varying styles. Especially fascinating was the third, “Poor Girl,” You Call Me whose theme strongly pre-echoes the Mimí of La bohème: “If you think I am a poor maiden, you are wrong; I have the daily glory of sunrise and sunset.” This is succeeded by The Finch, a song of overflowing energy to depict the young student’s May release from school and song competition with the bird. The final three songs, concerned with themes of death and suffering, nonetheless are shaded with optimism as well as pessimism. Soprano Karyl Ryczek and pianist Esther Ning Yau, devoted advocates for these under-performed songs, were ever responsive to their texts and relishing their variety of styles and moods.

The first half concluded with Samuel Barber’s wind quintet Summer Music, op. 31 for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, played by Marco Granados, Robert Sheena, Michael Wayne, Thomas Novak, and Jason Snider. The piece has a lingering nostalgia reminiscent of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, but in fact, it is largely an alternation of two elements, one effusively energetic, the other languid and yearning. It is the unpredictable changes between the two that, one imagines, make it technically tricky for a chamber group without a conductor to maintain cohesive ensemble. However, one soon puts aside such considerations in the face of such persuasive musicmaking. It was clear these musicians were of one mind about all expressive details, and the result was thoroughly satisfying.

The second half went farther afield, opening with Schumann’s arrangement with added piano accompaniment of the Chaconne from J. S. Bach’s Partita no. 2 for solo violin, BWV 1004. This arrangement is an unusual combination of Baroque and Romantic styles. Initially, the piano part is no more than harmonic filling-out, but as the violin part becomes more florid, more “baroque” in the original sense, the piano part does likewise and thus paradoxically becomes more romantic in terms of 19th-century chamber music. Mariia Gorkun impressively conquered the myriad technical challenges of the violin part and received accomplished, sensitive support from Jane Chan at the piano.

The most adventuresome piece in the context of this program was a jazz improvisation on Barber’s Adagio for Strings, op. 11 by saxophonist Stan Strickland and pianist Peter Cassino. In his introductory remarks, Mr. Cassino noted that, contrary to popular belief, an improvisation is not equivalent to a theme and variations and need not even use the main “tune” of whatever piece it may be based on. And indeed much of this improvisation did not incorporate recognizable thematic material from Barber’s most famous composition, though it did appear intermittently. Eschewing the keening grief of the original, Messrs. Strickland and Cassino employed contrasts of texture, tempo, and mood. A chromatic presto section was particularly ear-catching. This was an unusual and affecting salute to the celebrated piece played at the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Albert Einstein, and used in several films.

The concert closed with still another seldom-heard piece, Schumann’s Romances for Women’s Voices, op. 69, a set of six songs to poems written or translated by poets familiar to lieder-fanciers, Eichendorff, Kerner, Mörike, and Uhland with the optional piano accompaniment omitted here. The featured singers were sopranos Rachael Chagat, Anney Gillotte, and Jayne West, and mezzo-sopranos Grace Allendorf, Ashley Episcopo, and Michelle Vachon. The songs are for the most part strophic and mix homophonic settings with polyphonic (the final piece, The Chapel, being a double canon). Possibly the most striking of the collection is Mermaid (No. 5). Starting with seeming innocence but gradually progressing to something sinister, the so-called mermaid is in fact a Siren who lures ships and sailors to their watery demise. The whole set was sung with clear diction and unfailing attention to texts. Additionally, one or more of the listed mezzo-sopranos coped well with what was clearly contralto writing. It is regrettable, though, that especially in faster tempi, the overly generous vibrati frequently obscured the harmony. Perhaps in this instance, the piano accompaniment might have been of service. Nonetheless, one feels much gratitude to all the evening’s performers — and The Longy School — for ferreting out such worthwhile but seldom performed repertoire and doing it so well.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. Currently, he sings in the choir of Trinity Church and accompanies the Boston Choral Ensemble under Miguel Felipe.

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