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High Bar for Boston Conservatory String Series


On a chilly Sunday evening, November 28, after the long Thanksgiving weekend, an enthusiastic audience gathered in Seully Hall at The Boston Conservatory for a recital by Sharan Leventhal (violin) with Randall Hodgkinson (piano). The concert was another installment of the Conservatory’s String Masters Series, and Leventhal, long a champion of modern music, presented a program of diverse American compositional styles appropriate to the holiday and to her own remarkable talent.

Titled “American Voices, Past and Present” the concert opened with a work by the first widely recognized American compositional voice, Aaron Copland. His Sonata for Violin and Piano from 1943, written in the middle of his “Americana” period, is rich on the surface with the characteristics of the period, most notably the marked shifts between tender nostalgia and New World exuberance. While Leventhal’s interpretive warmth brought out this populist version of Copland’s Americana, she also paid attention to the piece’s sophisticated underlying structure, such as the developing variation with which Copland treats the work’s recurrent motive. The clarity of Hodgkinson’s line assisted Leventhal’s interpretation and allowed Copland’s musical idyll to achieve grandeur. The performance represented an ideal balance of intellectual and emotional interpretation.

Leventhal brought the same measured interpretation to the next piece, Seymour Shifrin’s Concert Piece (1959). Influenced by the Second Viennese school, Shifrin’s work expresses high passion through chromaticism, reminiscent of Arnold Schoenberg’s early works. Leventhal and Hodgkinson performed it with such gravity that, at its completion, an astonished momentary silence preceded the audience’s thunderous applause.

Finally, the first half of the recital closed with three portraits by Virgil Thompson, Scott Wheeler: Free Wheeling (1981), In A Bird Cage: A Portrait of Lise Deharme (1940) and Tango Lullaby: A Portrait of Mlle. Alvarez de Toledo (1940). Lighter than the Shifrin, Thompson’s Portraits, in Leventhal’s interpretation, supplied an intimacy and wit that was a relief after Shifrin’s seriousness.

After intermission, the second half of the program opened and was dominated by Scott Wheeler’s “neo-neoclassic” Sonata for Violin and Piano (1985). The piece is in a four-movement classical organization, with the first and last composed in a version of sonata form. Wheeler, in a short introduction to the piece, pointed out that it was his long professional relationship with both Leventhal and Hodgkinson that partially inspired the composition. The first movement’s opening dialogue between the instruments was flawless in conception and interpretation; the “Bumptious Waltz” was, well, bumptious, and the atmospheric opening of the fourth movement was simply magical. Leventhal and Hodgkinson’s familiarity with the music provided an intimate and beautiful reading.

The concert closed with Fred Hersch’s Tango Bittersweet (1990/2006). Described on the composer’s website as a “minor-key, lyrical tango,” following Wheeler, one might call the piece “Neo-Neo-Romantic.” The tango is stylized and simply too slow to dance to, with a long, lugubrious melody in the violin reminiscent of Rachmoninov’s Romanticism. Ending the concert with this piece revealed the Leventhal-Hodgkinson duo’s virtuosic ability to interpret works of nearly every style imaginable and put a finishing touch on Leventhal’s amazing collage of American music. On February 6, Patricia McCarty (viola) with Eric Larsen (piano) will perform in The Boston Conservatory String Masters Series.

Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.

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