in: Reviews

November 5, 2011

Rugged American Elegance

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Those who attended American Century Music’s concert of sonatas and piano trios in the Sanctuary of First Church in Boston last night, November 4, experienced a wonderful evening of new gems and delights. This concert (far too sparsely attended) highlighted the wonderful talents of Gabriela Diaz (violin), Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello), and Yoko Hagino (piano) in infrequently heard music by Frederick Converse, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, and Arthur Foote.

Frederick Converse’s Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (1913) in two movements opens with a tri-partite Adagio, the opening lush, late Romantic theme yielding to a faster, dancing b-section in the middle. There are stylistic affinities with the work of Boston composer Amy Beach, especially in the opening theme, while the soaring melodies in the faster section might be best described as more akin to Korngold. The second movement, Allegro gioioso e risoluto, opens with a rapid, virtuosic passage. This movement has swift changes of mood and incorporates seeming folkloric elements. Popper-Keizer and Hagino gave a masterful reading of this work, full of tight ensemble playing. There are several moments of lovely music here. Since the work was published during the composer’s lifetime, I presume this two-movement sonata is an intentional form; after one hearing, I must admit the sonata seems disjointed and it is difficult to discern connections between these two movements. Regardless, it is a work that deserves a wider hearing.

The program then moved forward in time to 1966 and Walter Piston’s Piano Trio No. 2. This work begins with a turbulent opening, and I was immediately struck by more discordant harmonies than in the Converse: the intervening fifty years of history were rough ones, and the music reflects that from the outset. The opening Molto leggiero e capriccioso ends on a mournful, elegiac theme, here beautifully rendered – especially the matching, wide vibrato of both Diaz and Popper-Keizer. The Adagio continues in a more introspective vein. Come the Vigoroso finale, however, and the mood changes; it opens with a rough-hewn, monolithic chorale, ceding place to a scampering passage recalling the capriccioso of the opening. The chorale provides the kernel for a slower, sostenuto melody before returning as at the opening, now endowed with a sense of fated inevitability and so rounding out the movement and the work. Again, the coherence of the ensemble and the justice of interpretative decisions came together to produce an insightful and persuasive reading of this work.

After intermission, Diaz and Hagino took the stage to present Roy Harris’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1942). From the expansive opening theme of the Maestoso, recalling some of Copland’s music from the same period, Gabriela Diaz offered a full, rich tone with wonderfully smooth bow changes. The second movement, “Dotted Quarter = 72,” opens with lilting arpeggios in the piano, sounding not unlike a harp; above this the muted violin alternates between a legato melody, at times in double-stops, and a similarly lilting, dotted rhythmic figure complementing the piano part. The interplay between violin and piano made of this movement a highly entertaining dialogue. The third movement, “Sustained,” starts in the piano intoning a somber line verging on the lugubrious, which the violin interrupts with an expansive, wide-interval melody. The final movement, “Dotted Quarter = 100 – 110,” foregrounds a jazzy, dancing theme, then a romantic melody in the midst of fast, virtuosic left-hand work for violin, and momentary allusions to American fiddling traditions. A hymnic theme offers a momentary respite, creating a very American sense of space. The sonata ends on a moment of excitement and happiness – both of which must have been very hard to come by in the difficult year — 1942 — of this work’s composition; as much as the merits of the music itself, this historic fact must have factored into the work receiving the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Medal that year for “eminent service to Chamber Music.”

The last work on the program was Arthur Foote’s Piano Trio No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 65 (composed 1907/08). The Allegro opens on a theme worthy of a formal dance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a nod to America in the Gilded Age looking abroad for culture and validation; Foote rapidly transforms this theme into one that is more playful, more popular. Then the movement ends quietly, reflectively. The Lento espressivo opens with a cantabile passage for cello and piano, almost a page from a cello sonata. When the violin does join in, it is a descant to the singing melody on cello. The muted violin at the end of this movement is haunting, and here executed perfectly. The Allegro con brio finale starts with clockwork speed, here rendered with mechanical precision. This migrated quickly into a more joyful and spirited music, combining melody in alternation with fast, playful passages. The trio as a whole highlights the cello more than the violin, and this emphasis seems of a whole with Foote’s music. This piano trio is a lovely work and one I hope to hear again many occasions.

American Century Music and the performers are to be commended on an exemplary performance and for bringing such innovative programming and now-overlooked repertoire to us. It is a shame that so few Bostonians turned out for this concert: the music, and the musicians, deserved a wider hearing than they received.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

1 Comment

  1. As current music director at First Church in Boston, I can’t resist mentioning that Arthur Foote was music director from 1878-1910. This is cited in a book by another former music director, Leo Collins, “This Is Our Church: The Seven Societies of the First Church in Boston 1630-2005.” Click here

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — November 6, 2011 at 8:05 pm

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