in: Reviews

April 9, 2011

The Philadelphia Story Played in Cambridge

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The four core Musicians of the Old Post Road (MOPR) took a side trip to Christ Church Cambridge on Friday night, April 8, to present a concert of early American chamber music entitled, “The Philadelphia Story,” i.e., music in Philadelphia ca. 1792. Why Philadelphia and not Boston? Probably because there was almost no secular music performed here publicly in the eighteenth century, except in theaters. (The arrival of the German-born oboist, conductor, music publisher, and instrument dealer Gottlieb Graupner and his wife, both engaged as musicians at the Federal Street Theatre in 1797, changed all that within a few years, but that’s another story.) In Philadelphia subscription concerts featuring chamber orchestras began as early as 1757.

Even so, the character of this evening’s concert was definitely Hausmusik (music performed in private homes). This was emphasized by brief readings of contemporaneous documents (newspaper and diary excerpts, etc.) that were humorous to twenty-first-century ears, and revealed early Americans’ attitudes toward their music. The concert was presented in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the organization, Early Music America, which does not really have anything to do with American music per se, but rather with support of early European music in the current United States. “American music”? Yes, if that means music in America: concert music written by European composers, some of whom had migrated here, and some who had not, but whose works can be documented as performed here. That documentation was richly provided by the program notes, which reflected the MOPR’s characteristically prodigious research

The concert opened and closed with the Adagio-Vivace, and Finale-Allegro movements of Haydn’s 85th Symphony (“La Reine”) arranged for flute (Suzanne Stumpf), violin (Sarah Darling), cello (Daniel Ryan), and fortepiano (Michael Bahmann), by the Bohemian hornist, composer and arranger, Ludwig Wenzel Lachnith (1745-1820). The MOPR could not prove that this arrangement was actually performed in Philadelphia, although the symphony was, in a public concert of 1792, and such reductive, as well as “sandwiching” practices, were common. The opener prepared us for the particularly rich sound quality produced by the gently vaulted ceiling over the nave in Christ Church, and the closer nearly shooed us out the door with its prestissimo tempo—it was almost a scramble, but an enthusiastic one. These were also the only two pieces performed by all the players, Bahmann on a fortepiano by Jacob Kaeser (1992), after Johann Walter (1785).

The intermission provided another occasion to “sandwich”: two sonatas by Raynor Taylor (1747-1825), a London-born major figure in the Philadelphia musical community of the time (beginning in 1795). His Sonata No. 4 in D major for cello and continuo is in three movements; the piano really is the continuo, expertly realized by Bahmann, and has few independent phrases. At the same time the cellist functions both as the soloist and as a continuo partner, reinforcing the bass line in the piano. Ryan has had plenty of experience with this phenomenon, and brought it off well in spite of the difficulty of the solo part. Taylor’s Sonata in E-flat Major, op. 2, no. 6, for violin and fortepiano is strangely dark, beginning with the Andante maestoso pomposo (delightfully exaggerated by Ms. Darling and Mr. Bahmann), but particularly in the Largo e sostenuto. The final Giga also had a dark mid-section in a minor key and was played at a stately tempo.

Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831) certainly never came to this country, but his music was indeed popular here. MOPR turned to Benjamin Carr’s Musical Journal, published in Philadelphia from 1799 to 1803 to promote his publications, among which was his arrangement of Pleyel’s Sonata in D Minor for flute (originally violin) and fortepiano (Benton 5765). The Journal contained piano music almost entirely, and this Sonata is also a charming, three-movement piece for piano with flute obligato, i.e., mostly accompanying. Bahmann’s performance emphasized the Sonata’s charm and good spirits, and Stumpf played with obliging good humor.

Next MOPR turned to another Philadelphia publisher, George E. Blake (1775-1871), whose Collection of Duetts; for Two Flutes, Clarinets or Violins; Selected and Arranged from the Works of the Best Authors was published in 1807. From this they chose works for flute and violin: two by William Shield (1748-1829), a British composer best known for his comic operas, and one Siciliana (Andantino) by Jacob Wragg, author of a Flute Preceptor published in many editions. Wragg also self-published a separate set of duets for two flutes (London, 1796), from which Carr may have selected his, announcing on the title-page that they are “composed in a pleasing & familiar style. . .“ Indeed the Siciliana was, familiar as they all are, and graceful, too, in the hands of Stumpf and Darling. The works by Shield were probably written originally for the theater, and perhaps for this reason the ladies exaggerated their characteristics. Swift as Time certainly was, and the Allegro con spirito was almost a race to the finish.

The Italian composer Giacomo Gotifredo Ferrari (1763-1842) moved to London in 1792, where he quickly became a prominent voice teacher. MOPR selected his Rondo in G major, for flute and fortepiano from Carr’s Journal, but here the flute participates more as an equal partner with the piano. Although the rondo form led to delightful variations and graces on the part of Bahmann and Stumpf, there is nevertheless an “oom-pah-PAH” rhythm that gently prevents us from taking this music too seriously.

The German born John Christopher Moller (1755-1803) did come to Philadelphia from London in 1790 and was a leader in musical life there until 1795, when he moved to New York. With Henri Capron, he managed a music store and established one of the earliest American presses devoted exclusively to music. The work listed on the program as “Piano Trio in A major, op. 4, no. 5” was originally self-published by Moller in London, ca. 1782, within his Six sonatas for the harpsichord or piano forte with a violin accompanyment & violoncello ad libitum, opera IV. This explains the texture: the piece is really a piano sonata, with the violin playing obligato, and the cello playing continuo (i.e., reinforcing the bass line). Here again Bahmann rose to the occasion stylishly, while Darling and Ryan accompanied—Darling with reticence, and Ryan with vigor.

These four core performers have developed an enviable trust and ease with each other over the years. Their playfulness was particularly appropriate in this genre. Together with the fine contextual notes and readings, this turned what could have been a yawn-producing historical exercise into a charming evening. It is to be repeated Sunday, April 10, at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester at 4:00 p.m. Details are on BMInt’s “Upcoming Events.”

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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