in: Reviews

February 8, 2013

Warm Tribute to Ruth Gessner Schocken

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Ruth Gessner Schocken (1914 – 2012)

Wednesday night’s concert at Longy’s Pickman Hall by A Far Cry string ensemble, joined by pianist Victor Rosenbaum, was a memorial—and memorable—tribute to the late Ruth Gessner Schocken, longtime supporter of music and musicians in the Boston area (1914-2012). Schocken helped launch A Far Cry in 2007, hosting the first fundraiser in her musical salon. It was appropriate, then, to start the concert with a work by John McDonald, commissioned by Mrs. Schocken for A Far Cry, in memory of herself and  Ben Snyder, and dedicated to Judith Wechsler: Gentle But Uneasy Dance Music: Suite For Strings, Op. 505 (2012). The work premiered in Jordan Hall last month. Hearing it in Pickman Hall, along with the entire program, gave a real sense of intimacy and immediacy. You could often hear the 18 musicians breathe as an ensemble—musically and literally. You could also hear the whispers of bows across strings.

To quote the composer:

The Lanterne that frames the suite is both a “little light” (imitating the shape of a Japanese lantern) and a syllabic poem form, the 1-2-3-4-1 pattern of which can be heard most clearly in the violas at the outset and in the first violins in the final moment of the work. I thought of these little verses as empathic musical offerings to Judith. Two sessions of “gentle but uneasy dance music” connect to these lanterne frames, seeking a feeling of elegant discomfort, always searching the dance floor for equilibrium but never quite achieving it. The “danceable miniatures” that form the second movement of the suite are an arrangement of notebook sketches from a pair summer of residencies I enjoyed in New Hampshire in 2011, during which time I got to know Crier Jae Young Cosmos Lee; I think of them in the spirit of Schubert’s “social music” (most often in the form of sixteen-bar piano dances)—unassuming, almost plain, but with occasional surprising steps or flashes. The third movement is an elegy for Ruth and for Ben, but should not be heard without noting the humorous touch of the three-note theme Ruth asked me to write on when she was 95: A, G, E. Upon La, Sol, Mi took its original form as a piano piece that I premiered for Ruth in her above-mentioned concert room, and it appears in the present suite as a centerpiece.

The opening lanterne motives—starting with a single note, becoming two notes, then three notes, then four, then back to one—brought to mind Copland and Bernstein before becoming something else. The centerpiece elegy also made extensive and effective use of the lowered seventh “Ti” alternating with “Do,” providing some grounding for the movement before introducing and developing the A,G,E (“La”, “Sol”, “Mi”) 3-note theme. This was pensive, reflective, and beautiful music—sensuous but not sentimental. In fact, the whole work was lovely to hear, having tightly woven, with much wit, intelligence, and grace, abounding in conversations, duos, and trios framed within the larger work. Accessible but provocative, it was a fitting piece for this ensemble.

There was more grace and charm, along with a little stateliness, to the Variations on an English Theme (for string orchestra) written collaboratively in 1952 by six English composers: Lennox Berkeley, Benjamin Britten, Arthur Oldham, Humphrey Searle, Michael Tippett and William Walton, to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The opening theme, harmonized by William Walton and orchestrated by Imogen Holst, took us back a few centuries with a lively dance tune. (Reputedly, the theme was “Sellinger’s Round” or “The Beginning of the World,” an anonymous Irish dance tune, harmonized for the keyboard by William Byrd, a leading composer from the time of Elizabeth I.) And about five seconds into the first variation we knew we were in a second Elizabethan era.

With 18 string players on stage, predominately violins and violas, A Far Cry rotates players in these sections between pieces. There is no conductor but the “first” violin for each piece does have opportunity to take some lead with the group, and play any solos a particular piece, as in the first movement by Oldham. With so many composers at work in one piece, there was a ton of variety to the set, with lots of neo-Renaissance flourish that gave the players opportunity to show off a bit, and with an overall programming effect of “more” with thicker texture and more sound, particularly in the last variation.

The inner two movements of the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings—Waltz and Elegy—were performed without their outer movements, instead framed by the rest of the program, extending a “dance” and “elegy” theme of this memorial concert. The Waltz was played with energy, buoyantly happy. The Elegy was stately, more retrospective than solemn, but still the most sentimental music of the night. And such lush playing from the ensemble!

The final piece was Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 414. With his introductory comments on the work, Victor Rosenbaum turned that piece, too, into something of an elegy, linking his interpretation of the work to his memories of Mrs. Shocken and her personality: 1st movement—simplicity and clarity, grace, and charm; 2nd Movement—warmth, and giving of spirit; and the 3rd movement—playfulness, mischievousness. This was a salon-style, intimate performance, appropriate to the evening. From the opening phrase, Rosenbaum was able to voice the many different musical motives and melodies with both nuanced and dramatic shifts in articulation, voicing, and dynamics, while extending the phrasing and moving the work forward. Already one of Mozart’s most lyrical piano concertos, Rosenbaum made the piano sing (he sang a bit himself, too). When he wasn’t playing, he turned to watch and enjoy the string ensemble at work, or at play, and that was fun to watch. In the slow movement, Rosenbaum stretched the phrasing and rubato to the verge of being too much, but he got away with it, letting the strings provide structural and rhythmic support. The last movement was playful, and a bit mischievous, as promised.

Kudos goes to the un-credited transcriber of the work from its original orchestration; oboes, horns, and bassoons were not missed. Whether the Criers replicate a full string orchestra, or emulate a supercharged string quartet, their warm, lush playing certainly pleases.

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

2 Comments

  1. Ruth Gessner Schocken’s was the widow of Charles Gessner, then married the late violinist Wolfgang Schocken.

    Comment by Susanne Potts — February 9, 2013 at 9:51 pm

  2. I very much appreciate your fine review of John McDonald’s piece in memory of Ruth Gessner Schocken and MY husband,
    Dr. Ben Snyder. Please note the correct spelling of Wechsler .

    Comment by Judith Wechsler — February 11, 2013 at 8:07 pm

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