in: Reviews

August 22, 2014

PCMF Delivers Robust Performances

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Marc Johnson dies in April t the age of 67.

Marc Johnson died in April at the age of 67.

The final weekend of this year’s Portland Chamber Music Festival kicked off on August 21st at the Abromson Center on the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine. Featuring works of Boccherini, Copland and Elgar, it was dedicated to the memory of Marc Johnson, long-time cellist of the Vermeer Quartet and PCMF participant for the past five years.

The opening work was Luigi Boccherini’s Cello Sonata in A Major, G. 4, or rather two-thirds of it. Cellist Brant Taylor explained that it is common to omit the final minuet on the ground that it’s an anticlimax after the opening adagio and the following allegro. Several of Haydn’s early symphonies, as we recall, end with minuets, so it may be doing Boccherini a bit of a disservice to condemn the practice on the esthetic grounds of our own age. Be that as it may, the remainder of the sonata that Taylor performed with harpsichordist Peter Sykes, expanded our rather meager knowledge of this composer, who lived from 1743-1805 and was therefore sandwiched between Haydn (b. 1732) and Mozart (b. 1756). He was himself a respected cellist who spent most of his career in Spain, rather far from the cutting edge of European musical development. This seemed especially evident in the cellos sonata, written fairly early in his career (there are 35 cello sonatas in Gérard’s catalog, but the first 19 occupy G. 1-19, and no. 20 jumps ahead to G. 562). It reflects a Rococo influence that Haydn had largely succeeded in shedding by this time. Nevertheless, the work has its charms, and Taylor combined strength of attack with a languid elegance in the adagio; in keeping with period style he employed very little vibrato. Sykes, meanwhile, provided a continuo both supple and discreet. In the allegro, Taylor got to display more bravura chops in passagework that reminded one of Vivaldi, with brilliant arpeggiation utilizing the fingering more than the bowing hand. One amusing detail was that Sykes, with whom Taylor got to pair up in some lovely passages in parallel thirds, was reading his part from an iPad rather than a paper score—not exactly a period performance practice.

The first half closed with Aaron Copland’s Sextet for clarinet, piano and string quartet−the composer’s 1939 re-scoring of his 1932 Symphony No. 2, the “Short Symphony.” The symphony hadn’t been getting much love from conductors and orchestras, prompting the chamber version, and to this day the latter is more often performed. In reducing the instrumentation, Copland was able to sharpen the effect of the acrid harmonics, jagged rhythms and quirky melodic contours  (his trademark octave displacements become prominent here for the first time). While not exactly fully-formed Copland—his debts to Stravinsky hadn’t yet been fully sublimated—it is definitely clear in retrospect that, more than in his earlier First (Organ) Symphony and jazzy Piano Concerto, this was the path the composer would follow into his maturity.

Jesse Mills and Frank Huang, violins; Jonathan Bagg, viola; Claire Bryant, cello; Todd Palmer, clarinet; and Rieko Aizawa, piano; dove into the first movement (of three−all connected) with energy and gusto. The fact that Copland down-scored the piece from a symphony may account for most of it being a thoroughly ensemble undertaking, without many passages highlighting individual instruments, as a purpose-built chamber work tends to do. The only really good solo lick was Palmer’s transition to the slow movement, in which he brilliantly receded to near-silence and swelled back for the new movement. In the second movement, the twining lines of the clarinet and strings got solid support from Aizawa’s stalwart bass, counting nearly as a continuo. Palmer again had a lyric moment (Copland’s writing for clarinet seemed to stress the strident upper register) in transition to the dotted “B” section of the movement. The finale is also rhythmically complex (these challenges being what worked against the symphony version both then and now), and the ensemble laced into it, finding its groove early on and keeping it going. The performance was both expert and persuasive; the only problem was that the effort of making it so was sufficiently apparent that the illusion of effortlessness couldn’t be sustained.

The final work of the evening was another seldom-heard work by an acknowledged master, Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor, op. 84. We should take this opportunity once again to commend PCMF Artistic Director Jennifer Elowitch for her skill in putting together diverse and engaging repertoire that doesn’t rely on old warhorses. The temptation in summer music festivals is to play music everybody knows (or that frequent concertgoers know, on the theory that a lot of people who don’t otherwise hear classical music might end up in the audience); but summer audiences can be every bit as sophisticated as winter ones, and it is, as PCMF makes clear, entirely possible to have audience-pleasing programs without banality.

Despite its coming somewhat late (1917) in its composer’s career, the Elgar is a strangely uncharacteristic piece—nothing of the grand English rhetoric of his First Symphony or even of the contemporaneous Cello Concerto. And, for Elgar, it’s a rather concise work. It grows from and is dominated by a gnarly little motto announced at the beginning, whose melodic and harmonic contours inform the principal theme that follows. Among its paradoxes are themes that reek of old Vienna, as filtered through a Brahmsian sensibility. It’s almost as if Elgar were paying tribute to the people against whom Britain was then at war, with a wistful desire that the old order could be re-instituted after all the present unpleasantness was put to rest.

The performances by pianist Aizawa, violinists Huang and Elowitch, violist Dov Scheindlin,  and cellist Taylor were cogent and robust without being overpowering or wallowing in sentiment. Unlike in the Copland, each of them had and capitalized on opportunities to stand out. Scheindlin made a lovely noise introducing the theme of the slow movement, and Aizawa shone in the finale, along with turns for everyone else. While having a full-bodied Romantic work after a wispy pre-Classical and acerbic Modern one would have encouraged it anyway, the audience rightly rewarded this work, its players, and the entire program with standing accolades and multiple curtain calls.

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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