The Atlanta Chamber Players graced New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Thursday evening, April 7, with a program entitled “American Milestones: A Salute to Boston.” The program featured recent pieces by John Harbison and NEC’s own Michael Gandolfi as well as an earlier work by the American Romantic composer Arthur Foote. The group was well received by an enthusiastic (if modestly sized) audience, delighted to hear our guests from the South perform less-than-familiar compositions by familiar local composers.
John Harbison’s Songs America Loves to Sing, co-commissioned by the ensemble in 2004, sets ten well-known traditional songs (senza singer) for pierrot ensemble —flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The piece is inspired by the (perhaps lost) family ritual of singing traditional songs around the piano. In a similar sentimental way, the piece engages a large amount of the American musical canon. The opening number, a setting of Amazing Grace, embellishes the familiar tune in the flute, played with sensitivity by Christina Smith. Toying with the tonality of the original tune, the song meditates on the overtone series with lifting piano lines and cello harmonics. Much of the cycle operates on the fringe of tonality reminiscent of Charles Ives, shifting within a wide and beautifully nebulous spectrum between consonance and dissonance. Some of the songs, such as Canon: St. Louis Blues dive head first into the gospel/blues idiom, albeit with a good deal of added complexity. The musicians, especially pianist Paula Peace, were able to step successfully out of the typical rigidity of chamber playing to portray convincingly the movements that were a bit more c aricaturish in nature. Clarinetist Laura Ardan’s playing in the cadenza-like Solo: Poor Butterfly was a particularly revealing moment of exceptional writing married with captivating performance. Anniversary Song ends the set with the instrumentalists all playing harmonicas, repeating the melancholy tune with a certain unexpected quirkiness.
The ensemble then treated us to the Boston premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s Canzona Nova: Fractured Fairy Tale, which was commissioned just this season by the Atlanta Chamber Players. The piece (scored for oboe, string trio, and piano) is a fast-paced amalgam of rapidly moving inner-parts and broad lyricism. The piece is saturated with imitation, building off of the sixteenth-century instrumental canzona with surface motion and narrative style; in a brief intro to the performance, Gandolfi described his work as a “pre-sonata piece in a post-sonata world.” While harmonically conservative, Conzona Nova is quite adventurous in its layering of complex rhythms. The piece opens with a visceral energy that remains throughout. Gandolfi cites jazz/rock influences, which were particularly evident as musical themes characterized by expressive, falling triads in the strings were repeated, transposed up a whole-step (a trait more conversant with popular music forms). In one of the most absorbing new pieces I’ve heard lately, the music eventually dissipates into the motoric clockwork of the cello and piano – a truly compelling ending. The musicians, Elizabeth Koch, Justin Bruns, Catherine Lynn, Brad Ritchie, and Paula Peace deserve special note for a meticulous performance. The ensemble skillfully balanced the mechanical precision the piece calls for, while highlighting the piece’s larger gestures and inherent musicality.
Arthur Foote is known for being one of very few late nineteenth-/ early twentieth-century composers to receive his musical training exclusively in America. That said, there seems to be nothing of his style that differentiates it from his European counterparts; he is just as much a product of the European tradition as Brahms or Fuchs. Nonetheless, Piano Quartet in C Major, Opus 23 is an exemplary and sophisticated artifact of late Romanticism. The Scherzo stirred with excited energy, and the Adagio was part to a beguiling interpretation by violinist Justin Bruns. The ensemble gave an inspired performance, and deserves the highest praise for not only championing the music of living composers, but the music of composers whose music they feel is undeservingly disregarded by concert programmers at large.
The program credits support from the National Endowment for the Arts American Masterworks Program, which helps many groups like ACF disseminate their wonderful interpretation of American Composers’ works to audiences around the country. Hopefully we will find that this (and the rest of NEA’s) programs have survived the cuts when the new federal budget is made public.
Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.