in: Reviews

July 26, 2011

Agreeable Diversity at Yellow Barn

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If, like us, you rely on BMInt’s calendar listings to decide what concerts you want to attend, three words of caution are in order, taken from the wisdom of the Gipper: Trust, but verify. We were preparing to cover a concert on July 22 at the Yellow Barn summer series in Putney, Vermont, consisting of works by two Canadian composers, plus Shostakovich and Schubert. A cautionary peek at the YB web site told us we were instead going to hear a concert offering work of Philippe Hersant (French), Jonathan Harvey (English), Robert Schumann, and Antonin Dvorák.  However, now you know that things like that sometimes happen, and forewarned is forearmed. (No, Reagan didn’t say that.) [Ed: the program was changed by the presenter, and BMInt was not notified.]

In any event, the two-plus hour trek to Putney gave us our first visit to this now 42-year-old series run as an adjunct to a summer chamber music school that has evolved from a retreat for the winter students of founders David and Janet Wells to a dedicated program with numerous faculty and students who apply to it. Its original eponymous performance space has also given way to a purpose-built venue in the modern barn vernacular style, seating about 120, with carefully crafted (but idiosyncratic —read on) acoustics and amenities such as comfortable padded seating and (a blessing on that scorcher of a day) air conditioning.

The program presented, if not what we originally anticipated, was an agreeably diverse one with much of interest. We have not previously encountered the work of Philippe Hersant (b. 1948), this year’s YB composer in residence. He was a student of André Jolivet at the Paris Conservatory and has adopted a stylistic approach that draws on Jolivet’s and Messiaen’s humanistic outlook rather than the pseudo-scientific sound technology of IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique). Hersant’s Tenebrae  for viola and piano (2005) begins with a swirling sfumato of arpeggiation against which the viola, sumptuously played by Pei-Ling Lin, intones a plaintive melody. The tune is not exactly varied, but it serves as the basis for a variety of excursions that keep returning to the original keening mood. Pianist Michael Bukhman combined delicacy and power, abetted by an especially sonorous Steinway whose lower notes filled the room. The piece left a strong impression and is definitely something to seek out, as well as other work by its composer.

Jonathan Harvey, nearly a decade older than Hersant, is a product of the generation from which arose Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Like him, Harvey, who has spent his career mostly in academe, seems to have reacted strongly against the reticent conservatism and bucolia of earlier generations of British composers (a trend that has only intensified in later generations, despite the somewhat contrary motion of John Tavener, Judith Weir, and sometimes Thomas Adès). He has made the pilgrimage to IRCAM, but one individuating characteristic is his attraction to the more abstract connotations of religious concepts, using them to suggest compositional techniques.

Lotuses, a 1992 quartet for flute and string trio, opens with a shriek of dissonance that punctuates the work at several other points. The title, per the program note’s quotation from the composer, relates to the Buddhist significance of that flower, symbolizing “the rich individuality of forms of being.” The texture of the work thus emphasizes distinct sounds from the four instruments, from vaguely Japanese/Chinese microtonal pitch bending to drumming on the body of the cello. The melodic ideas are often quite simple and scalar, set in an atonal harmonic milieu. The flutist, the doughty and technically impeccable Ray Furuta, got to trot out his entire arsenal of equipment: piccolo and bass flute in addition to the regular one. There are many colorful and atmospheric touches in the music, from wide tremolos and delicate coordinated harmonics to the effects already mentioned. In fact, the piece started to sound like a compendium of effects rather than a sustained musical argument, which is probably not true, but we were not feeling generously inclined to seek it out for repeated exposure. The performers, all of whom were superb, were, in addition to Furuta, the estimable Curtis Macomber, violin and Margaret Dyer, viola, and Han Bin Yoon, cello.

The first half concluded with one of Robert Schumann’s oddest compositions, the C major Fantasie for violin and piano, op. 131 (Anthony Marwood and Bukhman). A product of Schumann’s last years and written originally for violin and orchestra for the young Joseph Joachim, it is a quirky bit of virtuoso flashiness that out-Florestans Florestan on Schumann’s manic side; it often conjured in our minds the fearsome technical fireworks and aesthetic shallowness of a Sarasate or Vieuxtemps. Schumann’s piano reduction does not disguise the work’s orchestral origins. It comes across as a sketch for the first movement of a violin concerto, cadenza and all, awaiting only the depth Schumann would ordinarily have woven in. Marwood threw off a big, vibrato-rich sound and a full-throated Romantic abandon, while not neglecting some delicate refinements such as a perfectly modulated spiccato. Bukhman matched Marwood’s ardor and mercurial mood swings. The performance brought the house down, as well it should; we only wish the work itself were better Schumann.

The post-intermission part of the concert consisted of Dvorák’s op. 77 (really op. 18) Quintet in G major for string quartet plus double bass (called Quintet No. 2, although his first — op. 1! — used an extra viola rather than the strikingly unusual bass). Written when the composer was thirty-four and still treading cautiously when moving from standard Germanic models to his more overtly nationalistic style, it nevertheless shows off many of Dvorák’s musical virtues, such as gorgeous melody, infectious rhythm, and strong developmental sense. It also has a few drawbacks, such as a bit of prolixity in the opening movement and what may have been a misfire in the instrumental color — or at least in matching color and musical substance. Now, there are darned few quality chamber works for double bass, and we wouldn’t begrudge any fine player (and Dae Hee Choo, who played it here, is definitely one of those) resorting to any of them. Composers have normally (if you can use that word in such a small universe of examples) gone for the upper range of the instrument to bring it within the scale of chamber music, unless, as with Rossini, comic effect was intended. Dvorák, however, writes extensively for the lower registers, possibly to free up the cello for more lyric duty, but by so doing considerably darkens the overall ensemble sound. The trouble is that the actual music, although quite dramatic at times, is not really that sort of music, leaving an oddly disconcerting impression. The situation was not helped by the acoustic of the YB hall, which, as adumbrated by the previously mentioned lower-range resonance of its piano, seems to amplify those low-frequency sounds. The result in the Dvorák was an often muddy texture.

Having said that, after a bit of early-on intonation wobbles and one or two lapses of ensemble, we were very pleased, as was the rest of the capacity crowd, with the quintet’s performance. The second-movement scherzo, of all the four movements, showed Dvorák in Czech folkloric mode, in high spirits and full of charm. The slow movement gave first violinist Violaine Melançon a rare opportunity in this work to show off a brilliant and singing upper range, and the rousing finale was spot on on all counts. The other fully praiseworthy members of the ensemble were Wan Zhen Li, second violin, Nathan Schram, viola, and Michael Katz, cello, all of whose body language evidenced a good time being had on stage as well as in the audience.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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