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Viola, Piano, and Poetry


One might expect a bit of levity from a viola recital given on April Fool’s day, yet the program presented as part of the String Masters Series at the Boston Conservatory with Lila Brown (viola) and Judith Gordon (piano), was all business. The first half of the program featured works from the 20th century, which Brown confessed was her favorite era due to the “amazing range of styles” and different directions that composers took. Brown and Gordon began with Darius Milhaud’s Quatre Visages, a musical portrait of four women commissioned by Germain Prévost, the violist of the Pro Arte Quartet. Despite being written in war-torn 1943, the piece doesn’t come across as reactionary; rather, it seems vaguely nostalgic and light-hearted. Notoriously fond of women, Milhaud and Prévost apparently shared some inside jokes that don’t necessarily come across from the movements’ titles: “La Californienne,” “The Wisconsonian,” “La Bruxelloise,” and “La Parisienne.” “La Californienne” was coolly languid, though some moments of disjunction between the viola and piano disrupted its nonchalant lines. “The Wisconsonian,” a movement that seemed slightly volatile in its energy, featured a peppy moto perpetuo rhythm in the viola. “La Bruxelloise” highlighted Brown’s dark tone as she plumbed the lower registers. “La Parisienne” began with a rousing piano introduction; Gordon shone throughout, with flourishes that propelled rather than simply ornamented the musical line. Despite some lapses in ensemble unity, the Milhaud was a treat.

Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life was an exercise in sparseness, reminiscent of a minimalist painting that shifts the focus from the big picture to single brushstrokes, ephemeral gestures. While Feldman’s earlier works emphasize almost total flatness, The Viola in My Life does not entirely conform to this aesthetic; as Brown drily noted, in this work “Feldman includes crescendos in the viola part.”  The piece was hypnotic and mysterious and Brown’s playing, delicate and almost fragile, emphasized minute timbral differences while the piano rumbled beneath.

Michael Radulescu’s Sonata for Solo Viola, the most modern piece on this program, was written for a European competition in 1985. Despite this fact, the sonata opened with a decidedly anti-virtuosic beginning; it moved hesitantly, with an improvisatory feel. But when it gained intensity, Brown certainly did not shy away from grit; she delivered an exciting performance and a well-executed ending that seemed to simply evaporate.

Next came a section entitled “Music and Poetry—Conversations,” featuring poetry recitation by John Hadden. This smorgasbord of musical and literary tidbits combined selections from J. S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 and György Kurtág’s Signs, Games, and Messages with an eclectic array of poems. As Brown noted, the juxtaposition of music and text was intended to complement and/or augment the meaning found in each.

Pairing Andrew Marvell’s carpe-diem poem “To His Coy Mistress” with the inexorably progressing Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 seems rather natural, given their respective evocations of timelessness. Brown’s stripped-down performance of the Sarabande managed to be desolate yet intimate, weaving in and out of Hadden’s energetic recitation. The poem’s final line, “…yet we will make him [the sun] run” propelled Brown into a fleet and flowing Gavotte full of tumbling notes that she handled with great aplomb. This in turn led to a Yeats poem, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” given an enthusiastic reading from Hadden. Brown performed Kurtág’s Thomas Blum In Memoriam, composed mainly of double-stopped open and dissonant intervals. I was struck by Kurtág’s distillation of music into mere gestures, fragments where the silence was as important as the notes — the inexpressible meeting the ineffable? Brown alternated between aggressive and sul tasto playing but ended peacefully.

The pairing of Kurtág’s Silent Lines to Laszlo Dobszay and Samuel Beckett’s bleak Cascando seemed particularly apt. The piece opened with eerie muted double stops, the dull repetitions building up to a disturbing sense of something being not-quite-right. Brown pointed out in her program notes that Kurtág’s directive to repeat the final phrase ad lib. mirrors the poem’s futilely obsessive repetition of words. The pair then struck a lighter note with a simple and sensitively-played duet of Lord Byron’s So We’ll Go No More a Roving. The “Conversation” finished with a rollicking perpetuum mobile and e.e. cummings’ ecstatic darling! because my blood can sing.

The final piece, Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, had a good characterization of moods but seemed somewhat under-rehearsed. Brown chose an airy sound was effective in certain passages, playing close to the fingerboard (there’s a clear Debussian influence, after all), but in parts that needed more heft the piano overpowered her delicate sound. I wished the pair would have made more of the breathless swells and dynamic contrasts in the first movement.

Full of virtuosic harmonics, pizzicati, and general pyrotechnics, the Vivace movement begs to be played up; Brown could have had more fun with it and really shown off. In the Adagio, Gordon took quite a few interpretive liberties but to great effect; she luxuriated in the harmonies and turned the movement almost inside out, emphasizing parts that tend to go unnoticed. Though this exposed-seams approach stood slightly at odds to Brown’s no-nonsense playing, the piece remained communicative and engaging.

Elizabeth Oka is in the process of acquiring as many impractical degrees as she can. She holds a B.A. from Tufts University where she double majored in English and music and is pursuing a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory in viola performance.

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