There has been a lot of discussion in recent months and years about a perceived need to make classical concerts less stuffy and formal, with the aim of attracting audiences beyond those who normally choose to attend them. Friday night’s opening of the 43rd season of the Mohawk Trail Concerts at the Federated Church in Charlemont, MA, could have served as a fine model. The music was well chosen (much of it rarely heard but eminently worth hearing), the performers were dressed in summer casual (only a shade less casual than the audience), and each piece was introduced with a brief but entirely suitable and informative commentary from one of the performers. But most important of all, this music, most familiar and unfamiliar, was played with care and skill and affection, thus offering a splendid evening’s entertainment. The venue is not large; it is a shade live for fortissimos, but it tenderly projects the softest passages, some of which were among the high points of the evening. And the intermission refreshments — cookies and lemonade — perfectly suited the place, the season, and the temperature. (Each concert in the five-week series is performed both on Friday evening at 7 pm and Saturday at 7:30. The festival continues on that schedule until July 29th.)
The planners for this summer’s Mohawk Trail Concerts have chosen to feature four composers whose birth or death dates are some multiple of 50 or 100 from 2012, and a fascinating, varied group of composers it is: Claude Debussy (born 1862), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (died 1912), John Cage (born 1912), and Fritz Kreisler (died 1962). But they are not, by any means, the only composers represented. In fact each program of the five is shaped with a variety of character and mood that keeps the audience eager and attentive.
This program offered music by three of the featured composers (only Kreisler was missing) as well as songs by Beethoven, Schubert, and Vaughan Williams. The performers were the New England Piano Quintet (Peggy Spencer and Kathy Andrew, violins; Marcia Cassidy, viola; John Dunlop, cello, and Gregory Hayes, piano), and the tenor William Hite. (The quintet’s regular first violinist, Colleen Jennings, was sidelined with a rotator cuff injury.)
Debussy’s late Cello Sonata was masterfully performed by John Dunlop and Gregory Hayes; Dunlop’s range of color and sonority, both when bowing and when plucking (as the work calls for him to do a great deal) provided a vivid range of moods, especially drawing out the passages that Debussy marked with adverbs like “ironically” or “fantastically.”
Tenor William Hite joined Hayes for one of Beethoven’s best-known songs, Adelaide, written in 1795, when he was still an up-and-coming young composer in Vienna. But Hite announced that he was going to add a little surprise: another setting of the same Matthisson text by the young Schubert, from 1814. This was a splendid idea, for few have ever heard the Schubert setting, and it provides an enlightening capsule comparison of the difference between the two composers in the realm of song. Hite also beautifully differentiated in his vocalism between the more intimate Schubert song, which treated the poem as an occasion to express a mood, and the bigger-scaled Beethoven piece, which took the text as a framework to lay out an almost instrumental work, with much word repetition to justify the musical architecture.
The first half ended with the principal piece on the program, the Opus 1 of the gifted and tragically short-lived African-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). This was a large, dramatic, slightly Brahmsian piano quintet which was long lost and only revived as recently as 2001. It is a remarkable first composition, filled with energy, a strong lyric impulse, imaginative harmonies, excellent coloristic use of pizzicato, and a lively Trio to the Scherzo movement that seems suddenly to come from the world of folk music. The New England Piano Quintet gave a solid account of it, though momentarily unsettled at the outset. It was in the more forceful passages of this piece that the live resonance of the church seemed too much, but below fortissimo the ensemble was responsive and colorful.
Coleridge-Taylor’s work also began the second half. Hite sang the most famous passage from the work that made the composer immediately famous: the aria “Onaway! Awake Beloved!” from Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, a number that used to be the favorite parlor piece of countless tenors. Here it received a warm transparent reading of great lyric beauty. It was sandwiched between two instrumental numbers for violin and piano (the violinist was Kathy Andrew), both evidently making use of sketches discarded from the big Hiawatha cantata: A Dance (which sounded like an evocation of African-American rhythmic dances with elaborate fiddling, including dissonant stretches that were presumably intended to sound improvised) and “A Tale” (from Hiawatha Sketches, op. 16) that was more abstract but equally tuneful.
Then came the number that pianist Gregory Hayes described as the one many of the audience was probably terrified of: John Cage’s In a Landscape of 1948 for solo piano. But there was no cause for alarm, Hayes assured the audience. The piece comes from a period when Cage was creating a lot of piano music, sometimes with the standard instrument (as here), sometimes with “preparations” such as screws and bolts inserted between the strings to give the instrument a more “machine-like” sound. But as the title suggests, In a Landscape is more of a gently unfolding nature tone-poem — not that it has any specific pictorial elements, but rather that it moves in a steady gentle pace of rising and falling, not too different from the sounds of Erik Satie, almost always played in flowing lines of just one note at a time, though on occasion a bass note suggested some kind of harmonic rhythm.
The final selection was just two songs (of six) in the early cycle for tenor and piano quintet by Ralph Vaughan Williams, On Wenlock Edge, set to poems by A. E. Housman. The performers chose to present only the second and sixth. (To include the other four would have put them well over the normal length of a concert today.) This was a shame, because the work not only is rarely heard, but also Hite’s smooth lyricism and clear diction made him an excellent singer for this repertory. (Happily, the same performers will program the whole piece at Dartmouth in November.) The closing song, “Clun,” devolves into a long silence that left the audience holding its breath. Few performers dare to end a concert with the quietest music of the evening, beautifully and movingly rendered by Hite, but here it was a perfect choice, and it generated sustained and enthusiastic applause.