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Appalachian Spring Used All 13 PCMF Musicians


For the closing concert of its 2012 season, the Portland Chamber Music Festival put up a pleasantly wide-ranging program capped by a bright idea. Specifically, after two weeks of small-scale chamber works utilizing numerous performers, Artistic Director Jennifer Elowitch scheduled one piece that could use all of them. So it was that on August 18th, in the Festival’s customary venue in the Abromson Center at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, the PCMF finished up with the chamber version of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, for 13 instruments. More about that later…

The concert kicked off with Mozart’s String Quintet in C Major, K. 515. This was the third of his six works in this genre, which invariably in his case involved adding an extra viola to the standard string quartet rather than the more commonly employed extra cello. This third and the fourth quintets were conceived as a pair, wearing the masks of comedy and tragedy respectively. That said, the C-Major is a substantial work with lengthy and complex developments in the outer movements and some unusual and affecting writing in the inner ones. Mozart, who like Beethoven enjoyed playing viola in string quartets, did not make the extra viola in this quintet an especially prominent part, so one must be a bit cautious in the use of the conventional term “viola quintet.” His objective here is to balance out the sonorities of the inner voices.

The performance that K. 515 received at the hands of violinists Miranda Cuckson and Harumi Rhodes, violists Carol Rodland and Rebecca Albers, and cellist Marc Johnson, was indeed balanced, polished and sprightly. We especially liked Cuckson’s radiant tone and Johnson’s balance of lightness and expressivity. Unless we missed something (always a possibility), the ensemble forwent the exposition repeat in the first movement, a practice to be discouraged in any case in which the composer has indicated one, but particularly so in Classical-era works, where sectional balances, even in a longish piece like this quintet, are essential to the esthetic of the era.

After the Mozart, PCMF’s resident emcee, Suzanne Nance of Maine Public Radio, conducted a short interview with Sebastian Currier, the composer of the next work on the program, his violin-clarinet-piano trio Verge, a 1993 commission from the Verdehr Trio. The clarinet trio with violin is perhaps not as popular a compositional format as the one with cello (à la Beethoven and Brahms), but it has certainly amassed quite a few wonderful works, including the Ives trio, Stravinsky’s chamber arrangement of L’histoire du soldat, and Bartók’s Contrasts. Currier, however, took his cue for this piece not from any of these, but from the title of a Schumann piano piece, specifically no. 10 from the op. 15 Kinderszenen, called in English “Almost too serious.” From his fascination with the “almost too…” concept — although Schumann was almost too certainly applying it to the child depicted in the piece and thus carrying over to a degree in the music— Currier devised a suite of nine miniatures, reaching for, but holding back just at the threshold of excess. Currier’s schema was to group the movements into threesomes, each of which contains a pair of opposites plus something else, each “almost too” something: fast, slow, mechanical; dark, light, fractured; much, little, calm.

The piece received an animated and seemingly accurate performance from clarinetist Todd Palmer, Cuckson, and pianist Yuri Funahashi. The work itself left us a bit cold: it is very skillfully written but strikes us as too clever by half. The movements, only one of which (“much”) is long enough to convey any kind of structure beyond the exposition of its personality, seem like spoofs of other styles of composition: a bit of Webern here and there (“slow” and “little”), ‘70s plink-plonk in “mechanical,” even Bernard Herrmann with a soupçon of Bartók in “dark,” and so on. The effects could certainly be amusing, and “fast” and “much” offered up quite a bit of virtuosity, which suited the players and audience no end. It’s a nice novelty, a conceit, but less than meets the ear. Many of Currier’s other works are much better.

Following intermission came the best concept of all in the Copland — using all of the musicians from the entire festival season in one piece. This being the 19th PCMF season, we hope Elowitch carries the concept forward to next year. In the event, the baker’s dozen who assembled for Appalachian Spring consisted of all the foregoing plus flutist Elizabeth Mann, bassoonist Adrian Morejon, violinists Elowitch and Robert Lehmann, cellist Claire Bryant, and bassist Carolyn Davis Fryer. As a side note, Copland only in 1970 authorized performance of the original chamber instrumentation over his full orchestra version of the “suite” — in practice more a tone poem, since the sections are played without pause and have much musical linkage.

The last time we heard it live was on the opening season of the Shalin Liu Performance Center a couple of years ago, and the arrangement of players then was more linear than the essentially orchestral positioning employed at Abromson (where in the Baroque style, everyone but the cellists and pianist stood). We mention the performer deployments because the slight acoustic imbalances which we detected in Rockport, particularly the over-prominence of the flute, were not at all in evidence in the very different stage and hall configurations in Portland.

The work itself is too familiar to warrant detailed explication. The performance, though, was radiant, committed and fabulously tight — and without a conductor! In their prominent roles, Palmer and Morejon were excellent, as was Funahashi, acting often as the rhythm section. This was, in fact, one of the best and most persuasively rendered performances of A. S.  that we can remember; a great way to end the season.

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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