in: Reviews

March 20, 2012

Stepner Beyond Technical Virtuosity in Vivaldi

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Conductor Steven Lipsitt with violinist Dan Stepner (James Walker photo)

Let each celebrate the arrival of spring in his own way. Last Saturday, March 17, the Boston Classical Orchestra presented a spring-themed chamber orchestra program in Faneuil Hall amidst the crowds of green-sequined- and jersey-clad faux-Irish revelers. Pleasing but forgettable arrangements of George Chadwick and Brahms were paired with a truly fresh and invigorating interpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with Daniel Stepner on violin. (A work which also chronicles revelry and revels in boisterousness; perhaps we high-culture concertgoers do indeed have common ground with the St. Patrick’s Day partiers in all their drunken glory.)

Music Director Steven Lipsitt arranged the first two selections for string orchestra: Brahms’s Der Frühling, originally for soprano or tenor and piano, and Chadwick’s Spring Song, originally for women’s choir with piano. In between, Lipsitt spoke briefly about the “bloom of spring” running through the program’s first half as a common thread; the Boston musical climate of Chadwick’s day, highly influenced as it was by European romanticism; and the pre-recording era tradition of transcriptions. A good transcription demands a lot of composer, transcriber, and performers equally; Lipsitt’s arrangements were intermittently successful. The Brahms was mainly comprised of a busy, sing-song accompaniment which never quite achieved the undulating smoothness of fine pianism, and the “singers,” violin and cello soloists, were a bit at variance on their joint melodies. The Chadwick, similarly orchestrated, grew more successful as the orchestra acclimated to a common sound; changes in register gave shape to the piece and direction to the accompanimental waves, which the quartet of solo violins rode elegantly.

The third selection, Chadwick’s Serenade in F for string orchestra (a North American premiere, according to Lipsitt), did indeed evoke the new music scene of a bygone, genteel era. Paired with the reminder of yet another era of local history — in the form of surrounding paintings featuring such dignitaries as the signers of the Declaration of Independence and Washington next to his horse’s rump — the appeal of heritage was clear. And although I don’t regularly go out of my way to experience Chadwick’s brand of innocuous melodicism, I found the connotations of national cultural identity interesting to ponder (especially in the context of the hubbub outside the hall). As Americans, we are so intertwined with the Old World (wherever that may be) that we are constantly defining ourselves. Do we do it by creating our own chapter of the club (Chadwick and his Romantic proclivities), by loudly and casually embracing our real or adopted heritage (perhaps by painting shamrocks on our cheeks), or through deliberate efforts to display our originality and to innovate (thinking of Ives, for example, and the myriad of other American composers who have lived and worked in the century and a half since Chadwick)? In any case, kudos to the BCO for giving this little piece a performance; if it was a rather rough one, such is the way of a composition given life for the first time, without the benefit of the polish and refinement of past iterations.

In contrast, the orchestra and soloist Daniel Stepner were faced with the opposite problem in presenting one of the most beloved works of the Baroque cannon: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. I was highly anticipating the interpretation that Stepner, who has a diverse career including longtime former concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society, would bring to this crowd-pleaser. Many modern orchestras barrel out lush, note-heavy readings of Baroque classics and many period orchestras present self-consciously “correct” ones; is there a tasteful meeting-place? The answer is yes, and Stepner and the BCO found it. Performing on a modern instrument, displaying the body and depth necessary to stand up to a healthy chamber orchestra, Stepner’s attitude and technique nevertheless bore the stamp of connoisseurship. His playing was risky, the perfect tribute to a composer known for madcap virtuosity in a time when improvisation and invention were the rule. This sense of daring was evident in the speeding tempos of movements like the opening of “Summer,” his creative and supple use of bow (the cultivation of a wide and experimental range of bowstrokes being one of the great traits of virtuosic Baroque players), and most of all in his constant engagement with the orchestra, even when navigating a slew of runs and double-stops. He shone equally well in slow movements; the famous largo from “Winter” was a unique and moving interlude, romantic in the emotion and scope of the large gestures, Baroque in the small quirks of detail and ornamentation.

The Four Seasons was very much a joint effort, however, and the orchestra’s participation and response to Stepner’s leadership brought the pieces to life. Along with Lipsitt at the harpsichord, Stepner’s role was less of a maestro with dutiful minions than that of a ringleader in ordered mayhem. The violins, in antiphonal seating, shimmered with heat in “Summer,” throwing blustery cascades of notes back and forth. The group followed the recitative-like twists and turns of “Autumn” with aplomb, and frequently achieved just the perfect amount of presence without overwhelming the soloist in accompanimental sections like the taut sul ponticello backup in “Winter” and (my personal favorite) the lumbering barking-dog viola part in “Spring.” The orchestra-soloist dynamic was perhaps best summed up in the slow movement of “Summer,” in which Stepner responded to the welling thunder-rumbles of the orchestra with poised bow and raised eyebrows, turning a full 360 degrees to draw the players together in Vivaldi’s project of scene-painting. I was left marveling at the complexity that emerges when a performance examines the many collaborative aspects of a concerto beyond mere technical virtuosity.

Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor. She currently also is the BMInt intern.

6 Comments

  1. I wasn’t at the BCO concert (I’m sorry to have missed it), but I feel a need to respond to Ms. Kemmerling’s rather sniffy-sounding belittlement of Chadwick, who was, in my and many others’ estimation not only the finest American composer of his age but one who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the finest in the Western musical tradition. Just because one thinks of Ives (as I do) as a great creative genius does not justify using him as a measuring rod–or worse, a Procrustean bed–against which to assess the worth of others. Was Schumann as good as Beethoven? Does it matter? As it happens, Ives thought very highly of Chadwick’s music; I believe his First Symphony may have been more closely modeled on Chadwick’s Second than on Dvorák’s Ninth.

    If the Serenade the BCO performed was a North American premiere, then chances are it was a student piece from Chadwick’s days with Rheinberger; in other words, juvenilia (although his first two string quartets were also, and they are wonderful). Chadwick’s later style was, though this is not really relevant to an inquiry into quality, a distinctively American one, and a distinctively personal one. More to the point, though, why knock Chadwick for not using American idioms? Virgil Thomson famously wrote that there were two requirements for being an American composer: 1) be a composer; 2) be an American. Franck and Chausson were highly influenced by Wagner and don’t sound anything like Debussy; should we strip their epaulets therefore and say they weren’t French? And are all those international-style modernists after World War II not American because they were writing faux-Webern?

    There’s a lot going on in Chadwick’s music (at least, as much of it as I know, which is essentially only what’s been recorded), if one pays attention.

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 21, 2012 at 1:13 pm

  2. Nice to see Vance Koven (to rework Ives) “stand up and take a good consonance like a man.” The Chadwick Serenade is a strong piece, I believe —- and composer Paul Chihara, BCO concertmaster Sandra Stecher Kott (not onstage for this outing), and several other musician colleagues in the audience found the work well-made, charming, heartfelt, pleasing. It can certainly stand with the string serenades of Josef Suk and Victor Herbert, and perhaps even Dvorak and Tchaikovsky.

    That said, we were of course delighted to have Zoe Kemmerling in attendance, and especially pleased that she was alert to the nuances, imagination, depth & richness of Dan Stepner’s Vivaldi and the orchestra’s hand-in-glove collaboration with him. (At BCO we think of sympathetic “accompanying” as one of our hallmarks…)

    Respectfully,
    Steven Lipsitt (BCO music director)

    Comment by Steven Lipsitt — March 21, 2012 at 8:04 pm

  3. As a Chadwick specialist and also the program annotator for the BCO concert, I wanted to express my delight that Steve Lipsitt chose to program this all-but-unknown work, which I find a very attractive piece of music and one that certainly stands up well against most of the string-orchestra pieces of the late 19th century.

    Chadwick composed it in 1890 after having worked at that year’s Worcester Festival with Victor Herbert, whose Serenade, Op. 12, for string orchestra was given in Worcester that year. In his memoirs (mostly written during the World War I years) Chadwick explained how taken he was by the unusual string sonorities of Herbert’s piece, far more imaginative than works by composers like Golterman, which were popular in the day, so he tried his hand at it. It is not clear why it was never performed in full in his lifetime (by the time he wrote the memoir, he sighed that “it is probably too late now”, implying that musical styles progressed too far in the ensuing 25 years to allow anyone to be interested in the piece.

    In the 1980s and early ’90s, I was giving a lecture to the conducting class at Tanglewood every year in the hope of introducing them to the very substantial repertory of well-written American orchestral compositions between about 1875 and 1925, and that naturally included Chadwick. One year Hobart Earle asked me if the Boston Romantics had written anything for strings alone, because he had a chamber orchestra in Vienna that was not able to do full orchestra works such as I had presented. I put him onto the Chadwick Serenade and another work by Henry F Gilbert. He performed both of them in Vienna and recorded them, too. (Neither of us knew at the time that it was probably the world premiere of the Chadwick.) And Steve Lipsitt told me last week that Keith Lockhart has just recorded the Chadwick in London — which is good news, because the work really benefits from a full symphonic string section, with the existing recording does not offer.

    As for the somewhat dismissive tone of Ms. Kemmerling’s discussion of the music of Chadwick and his contemporaries (a very common viewpoint among many musicians, I’m sorry to say), I would like to offer a historiographic idea that I think we overlook at our peril, if we want to make a just evaluation of the music of the late 19th century.

    The musicologist Nicholas Temperley once made this point in a 19th-century music conference at Oxford. Virtually every country with a European musical culture in the 19th century was to some degree under the musical hegemony of Germany/Austria, especially the example of Beethoven. (Italy was largely excluded because of its interest mostly in opera, and France had its own traditions, though by the late 19th century, both Beethoven and Wagner had begun weigh heavily there too. Yet the 19th century was also a great age of nationalist movements in music.

    Temperley suggested that whenever a country’s artists undertake to free themselves from the dominant musical culture, it takes three stages. (1) A generation in which the national artists must prove that they understand the art of music thoroughly and can do anything that the Germans can do. (2)A generation in which they begin to absorb native elements into music that is still fundamentally based on the Germanic heritage (this can include folk songs and dances; operas on national subjects, and so on). And finally, a third generation that essentially breaks free of the older tradition and builds a new musical language largely on native sources. All three of these stages are really necessary. One cannot imagine a Charles Ives or an Aaron Copland suddenly appearing in 1850.

    Every European country that adopted “German” music in the early part of the century went through these phases, and in most cases the composers from stage 1 and 2 are still performed and honored, at least in their own country. This has not been the case in the United States.

    In this view, John Knowles Paine was the pre-eminent figure of the first generation. (Gunther Schuller calls his Symphony No. 1 “the best Beethoven symphony that Beethoven never composed.”) Chadwick was often the clearest leader in the second generation. Many of his works, even as early as the 1880s, sound quite clearly American, because he often created original themes with the melodic and rhythmic character of folk song, hymn, and dance (and without ever, to my knowledge, simply quoting existing tunes, as Gilbert, for example, did so often). Chadwick’s teachers and fellow students in Leipzig and Munich often commented on how “American” his music sounded — even works that might now seem so to us. And the humor often found in works like the last movement of the Symphonic Sketches of 1895–the alcoholic haze of the “morning after” among the hoboes encamped along the railroad tracks that Chadwick used to observe when taking the train to rehearsal for the Springfield Festival–is like nothing I know of in any European music in 1895 (when he wrote it). And it was written by a composer from stodgy old Boston!

    We can, of course, choose to ignore our past. Indeed, we have done so very effectively for the last 80 years. But it is unfair, in my view, to fault Chadwick and his colleagues for not being Ives or Copland. After all, a great part of their music also relies on the change of musical style that brings African-American elements from ragtime and later jazz to rub elbows with the music of the concert hall. It is profoundly unhistorical to be concerned that the Boston romantics did not use jazz (or whatever) in their music. We often think of Dvorak as showing Americans how to compose “American” music, at least in the romantic style. But Chadwick’s 2nd symphony, the Allegretto scherzando of which is as purely “American” in sound and character as any orchestral work written in the 19th century, dates from 10 years before Dvorak’s arrival–and before any large works of that composer had spread beyond Bohemia.

    I am, of course, riding my hobby horse here…but I like to think that it is worth giving credit where credit is due.

    Comment by Steve Ledbetter — March 22, 2012 at 5:17 pm

  4. I’ve been expecting all day for Steve Ledbetter to weigh in. Not to “pile on”, but I cannot
    resist seconding his thoughts. Boston was thrilled to have a new worthy composer
    when Chadwick burst on the scene (well, he returned from Germany) in the early 1880s, and that Scherzo from the Second Symphony was premiered by the BSO before the rest of the Symphony was completed. It created such a sensation that it was the first music in BSO history to be encored.
    I encourage all to give the Second and Third Symphonies a listen, the later String Quartets and
    especially the Piano Quintet, and of course the Symphonic Sketches. I believe one of the movements of the Symphonic Sketches was played at the Boston Pops Gospel Night in 2010, and it was very well received, better than some of the more “famous” classical pieces.
    My spies tell me that Chadwick might be part of the current Boston Pops season this spring.

    Also consider the following: that we blithely forget our 19th Century performers as well as
    composers at our peril (this website notably excepted). I submit to you that learning how
    Theodore Thomas and others eventually succeeded in establishing a classical music performance
    tradition in this country can provide clues to help preserve that tradition.

    Comment by Brian Bell — March 22, 2012 at 11:30 pm

  5. I was also hoping Steve Ledbetter would fill out the brief for Chadwick, and especially the Serenade (can’t wait for the Lockhart recording! will it include the Herbert?).

    In response to one point he made, “One cannot imagine a Charles Ives or an Aaron Copland suddenly appearing in 1850.” The adoption of “modernist” harmony is neither a necessary nor sufficient precondition for Phase Three of Temperley’s program. Gottschalk’s Symphony #1 appeared in the 1850s, and boy was it ever not like Beethoven!

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm

  6. One of the benefits of being involved in this concert was a chance to hear the Chadwick, wonderfully played and conducted by the BCO under Steve Lipsitt. One comes to this music with too many preconceptions and expectations, perhaps, and I was delighted to hear a really fine work. Particularly memorable was the deeply felt slow movement.

    Comment by Daniel Stepner — March 25, 2012 at 7:32 am

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