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Transcendentalists Musically Evoked


Rhonda Ryder, Lois Shapiro and Bayla Keyes (file photo)
Rhonda Rider, Lois Shapiro and Bayla Keyes (file photo)

Eric Sawyer’s new triple concerto Concord Conversations was launched Friday evening at a world premiere event performed by the Triple Helix trio and the Concord Orchestra.  Leading a program titled “The Transcendentalists”, the Sawyer work beautifully evoked the animated, antagonistic debates so characteristic of the high-minded leaders of the 19th-century movement.

Sawyer said in a pre-concert talk that he found it “quite exciting to perform right here where the history took place.” The premiere was staged at the Concord Performing Arts Center and will be repeated Saturday night.

The concept for this work was first mooted about a year ago by Helix pianist Lois Shapiro who suggested Sawyer compose a full-blown triple concerto honoring the Transcendentalists. Sawyer plunged into the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and others from the movement and came up with three intellectual giants whose conversations alternated from the harmonious to adversarial. The protagonists in the piece are Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott.

The result is a highly effective modern musical interpretation of verbal ideas and challenges, stated first by the trio then developed and echoed by the orchestra. Sawyer said he strived to “engage not so much with the philosophy but with the people”. He mentally assigned each distinctive style to a Helix player. The strong Transcendentalist personalities lend themselves to the diverse voices and complex rhythms that Sawyer produced.

The music can be experienced as a “centrifugal force that spins the protagonists apart” who simultaneously strive to come together as a community, Sawyer said. On the other hand, he rightly believes the concerto can be appreciated without foreknowledge. “It is perfectly possible to listen to this as an abstract piece of music.”

The music indirectly quotes Charles Ives in one passage, paying homage to a later New Englander of similar persuasion.  (Ives’ Concord Piano Sonata sought to capture the spirit of the Transcendentalists.)

The Triple Helix performances were stunningly polished for a world premiere—a risky enterprise in the best of conditions. As the volunteer community Concord Orchestra provided the initial backdrop, Violinist Bayla Keyes (representing Margaret Fuller) first stated a beautiful lyrical theme, intermittently challenged by Lois Shapiro’s piano (Emerson’s voice) and vigorously answered by Rhonda Rider’s cello in the style of Bronson Alcott. One could almost hear the human voices in parallel with Sawyer’s music.

As in any debate, a listener can scarcely help guessing who comes off best in such a contest. I judged it a three-way draw.

The program also included Ives’ The Unanswered Question, a short, contemplative piece with a recurring atonal trumpet theme, played offstage with only a few fluffs. Ives inserted short bursts of response to the “perennial question of existence” by three flutes and clarinet, punctuating the stillness with rising dynamics and faster tempos, and providing a pleasant, humorous change of pace. Ultimately the question goes unanswered and the strings quietly prolong their pure G major triad “into eternity”, the program quotes Leonard Bernstein as writing.

Orchestra Music Director Richard Pittman was at pains to justify including a third piece in the program, Symphonie fantastique.  Composer Berlioz was an outspoken, independent thinker, as were the Transcendentalists, but the relevance seemed to end there. The orchestra struggled somewhat to bring off the revolutionary (for its times) instrumentation and cadences.

The Paris premiere in 1830 left the audience agog at the sound of bells, cymbals, and expanded string sections including nine double basses.  The Concord players in reduced configuration took on the challenge, but in the barn-like setting of the Performing Arts Center they could not quite reproduce the overwhelming impact of the 90-piece orchestral sound originally intended by Berlioz.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.

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