Tucked away in a small gallery on the lower level of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is an intimate, glittering jewel of an exhibition entitled “Art of the White Mountains.” This mesmerizing collection of moody, glowing, atmospheric canvases presents the viewer with varying idealized depictions of the rugged topography of northern New Hampshire. The North Country Chamber Players, an accomplished group of musicians from that bucolic corner of the world, headed south to the MFA on Mother’s Day 2013 to present a program inspired by the exhibit, aptly entitled “A New England Afternoon.”
Now in its 35th season, the NCCP is involved in a diverse array of concert activities including a popular summer festival, vibrant outreach program, and a variety of events that often take them far afield from their northern New Hampshire home. Here in Boston they presented an All-American program that would warm the cockles of any mother’s heart.
Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was a truly remarkable late Romantic composer whose creations, unfortunately, continue to remain both underappreciated and, consequently, underperformed. Born in Henniker, New Hampshire, her prodigious musical gifts were apparent almost from birth. By the age of one she could sing some 40 tunes; her first compositions were written when she was just four. In 1875 her parents relocated to Boston in order to provide their young daughter the opportunity to study with the leading piano pedagogues of the day. Less than two years after making her debut with the Boston Symphony at age 16, Amy sustained a finger injury and sought treatment from a local physician. Within a year she was Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, wife of Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a man slightly older than her father. Dr. Beach was of the opinion that it was unseemly for women to concertize; he thus limited his wife to just one performance per year. This helped to focus Mrs. Beach’s powerful musical lens on composition, a discipline in which she was almost entirely self-taught. Her extensive oeuvre came to include more than 150 works, among them a symphony, a mass, a piano concerto, chamber works, and myriad songs. She’s recognized as one of the leading American composers of her day and a trailblazer among women. First up on today’s program was Beach’s Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor, Opus 67, composed in 1907, just one year before another trailblazer, Anna Jarvis, initiated the Mother’s Day holiday here in the U.S.
As a preamble to their performance, NCCP pianist Bernard Rose regaled us with some illuminating introductory remarks, including the fact that the 10-year-old Amy Cheney and her highly-developed ears were recruited by a California ornithologist in his quixotic quest to notate bird songs. But enough about the composer (fascinating though she is!) Amy Beach’s quintet is a quintessentially Romantic three-movement composition that wears its throbbing heart on its sleeve. This is passionate, lyrical, well-crafted music featuring sentimental upwellings of emotion that continually ebb and flow—a lush musical vocabulary vividly evoking both natural as well as psychological landscapes. A squall across the surface of Lake Winnipesaukee subsides rapidly to placidity; Brahmsian yearnings quickly segue to puckish chromatic flourishes and pizzicato passages reminiscent of Saint-Saëns. The North Country instrumentalists were more than up to the challenge of navigating these musical hairpin turns and whitewater rapids; in particular, violist Ah Ling Neu molded some soaringly beautiful melodic lines. Though slightly out of sync in the early going, violinists Ronnie Bauch and Aaron Boyd quickly found their groove and offered a solid, coherent rendition. This is music that should be liberated from the written page more often.
Diametrically opposed in terms of exposure, Appalachian Spring, written by Aaron Copland (1900-1990), has become one of the most ubiquitous and beloved pieces in the American classical music repertoire. Originally composed as a ballet in 1944, Copland arranged the piece as an orchestral suite the following year. In his enlightening opening comments, clarinetist Allen Blustine noted that Copland limited the instrumentalists in his original score to a baker’s dozen: precisely the number that fit in the pit of the Library of Congress, site of the ballet’s premiere, and, coincidentally enough, precisely the dimensions of the MFA stage. It should also be noted that the work’s title was applied après-composition; Copland’s guidance was actually rather vague, involving some sort of frontier theme. Finally, it’s interesting to realize that ‘Spring’ in this case (from a poem by Hart Crane) refers not to the season, but rather the water source.
But I digress. Truth be told, given that this piece is well-worn to the point of being threadbare, this reviewer was not expecting anything particularly groundbreaking. Sometimes low expectations are a good thing! Refreshingly enough, this work turned out to be the shining, star-spangled centerpiece of the concert, at least to these ears. The North Country Chamber Players performed with verve and precision in a rendition that was as rock-solid as the White Mountains, breathing new life into this iconic piece of Americana. Arpeggiated major triads sparkled; perfect fourths rang out broadly; syncopated sections were crisp and tightly wrought; clarinetist Blustine contributed velvety, shimmering passages. This confident and uplifting performance precipitated an enthusiastic and prolonged standing ovation, certainly an atypical response for a penultimate piece. In hindsight, this actually would have made a rousing way to end the program.
Instead, our all-American musical journey came to a close with the subdued and achingly beautiful Alleluia, here in an arrangement for strings, composed by Randall Thompson (1899-1984). Originally scored for a cappella chorus, this work was commissioned by the inimitable Serge Koussevitzky, who, as director of the Tanglewood Festival, was in search of something along the lines of an upbeat “fanfare.” Given, however, that it was July of 1940 and a war was raging across Europe, Thompson appropriately opted to present Koussevitzky with a breathtakingly poignant and introspective work in which the somber realities of the times reverberated in every bar. The NCCP’s performance was reflective and emotionally freighted, providing a moving, thought-provoking ending to a toothsome afternoon of American music.
The North Country Chamber Players are a sophisticated group of experienced, passionate, focused, and obviously talented musicians. Certainly a treat when they venture forth from their idyllic rural home to share some of their high-caliber music-making with us city slickers! More information on the NCCP’s upcoming summer festival and other activities may be found here.