IN: Reviews

Good Company at the Goethe-Institut


Scott Wheeler accepts kudos at Rockport last suymmer (Michael J. Lutch photo)
Scott Wheeler accepts kudos at Rockport last summer (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Wistaria, the Chamber Music Society of Western Massachusetts, gave a neatly varied concert under the heading of “The Company of Virgil” on Saturday in Northampton, and repeated it on Sunday afternoon at the Goethe-Institut Boston. Wistaria’s director David Perkins described the commemoration of the 25th-anniversary of the death (at age 92) of Virgil Thomson, whose music was featured during the first half of the program. The main event, however, honored Boston’s own Scott Wheeler, who spoke informally at the intermission about his friendship with the composer and critic whose Bostonian and Parisian connections formed the basis of a long and respected career.

Virgil Thomson’s reputation as a composer hangs on a few major works, principally the operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All to libretti by Gertrude Stein, and an unfinished Lord Byron, as well as several film scores, Louisiana Story (Pulitzer Prize, 1948) and The Plow That Broke the Plains. He composed prolifically in all genres, instrumental and vocal, but is seldom performed today; one would like to get to know some of his larger works, especially the choral music. But the world remembers Thomson today chiefly as a brilliant and worldly-wise writer on music, an astute critic and essayist who wrote for the New York Herald Tribune for years, and who cultivated friendships among musicians, writers, and artists here and in Paris all his life. He acknowledged his many friends in a series of over 100 short pieces called Portraits hardly larger than Albumblätter, chiefly for piano but sometimes with flexible instrumentation. It was four of these Portraits that we heard yesterday, in Luigi Silva’s arrangement for cello and piano. Scott Wheeler told us later that “Bugles and Birds” was about Picasso, and its easygoing waltz rhythms and rough-hewn bitonality were reminiscent of Satie’s Avant-dernières pensées. Another one, “Fanfare for France,” had quotes from “Yankee Doodle” and a French folksong whose title I can’t remember. Thomson had met Satie in Paris a few years before Satie’s death (1925) and considered him a significant influence, but one not calculated to please Nadia Boulanger, with whom Thomson was studying at the time. (Probably at Melville Smith’s recommendation, Thomson went to Boulanger in 1921 as one of her very first American pupils.) One finds in Thomson’s “Portraits” a stark and sometimes serene musical simplicity that is characteristic of much of his other work, as well as a strange self-consciousness like that of Satie’s music, though less subtle. In fact another portrait that we heard, an elegant two-part invention called “Free-Wheeling” that Thomson wrote for piano in 1981 and dedicated to Scott Wheeler, was the most amiable of all of these vignettes.

Thomson’s vocal offerings were frankly more interesting. Four songs on Shakespeare texts (from Much Ado About Nothing, All’s Well That Ends Well, Merchant of Venice, and doubtless written for specific productions) were smooth and pristine with a folksong charm, and one felt that the light arpeggiated piano accompaniment, in a sensitive performance by Monica Jakuc Leverett, could have sounded fine with a lute. Peter W. Shea, tenor, sang these with clear round tone and perfect diction. He was followed by soprano Junko Watanabe in an eloquent “Prayer to St. Catherine of Siena,” with a piano accompaniment in an entirely chordal, hymnlike style.

Gary Steigerwalt and Dana Muller, whose expertly expressive duet performances I have long admired, played Thomson’s Synthetic Waltzes for piano four hands, very much like Schubert waltzes with judicious wrong notes. Dating from 1948, these delightful pieces show how comfortably Thomson fit into the post-Les Six milieu in which he got his start.

This was the first time I ever heard (if that’s the right word) a performance of John Cage’s legendary 4’33” from 1952. It actually stretched out to more than six minutes, which included the pauses between the three movements. Cage’s In a Landscape, a hypnotic and almost entirely monophonic 12/8 dribble for piano in E Minor Dorian, was a little reminiscent of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, also in E, but even more strongly it showed how Cage is less a composer, and even less an inventor (as Copland said of Cowell), than he is a philosopher of music, given to Zen-like pronouncements that may or may not actually have substance in sound. (I liked the piece.) Edward Rosser was the patient pianist. The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (text adapted from Finnegans Wake) is another Cage monument, nicely sung and enacted by Watanabe and Jakuc Leverett. The piano accompaniment consists entirely of beating on the closed keyboard lid, punctuated in quintuplet knocks.

The first half of the program concluded with Lou Harrison’s Suite for cello and harp. In five movements, the last recapitulating the first, the work features mostly chordal textures, short repeated melodic figures, and a plain harmonic environment that probably echoes the composer’s interest in the music of India — some of the harp’s près de la table was like a sitar’s sound. Alan Hovhaness’s music evokes a similar spirit of central Asia. The performance, by Franziska Huhn, harpist, and Astrid Schween had impeccable and even lovely sound, but I couldn’t get interested in the work itself.

Virgil Thomson (file photo)
Virgil Thomson (file photo)

The second half of the program was all Scott Wheeler’s. It began with four of his own “portraits”: “Cookie Galop with Waltz” (a portrait of Elizabetha Cranstoun at age 7), “Morningside” (Monica Jakuc), “Alphabet Dance” (for Arthur Berger on his 80th), and “Birthday Card for Tony” (Further study in chords — after V.T.; for Anthony Tommasini). Ms. Jakuc Leverett played these pieces; her own “Morningside” was replete with trills, birdcalls, and polyrhythmic whole-tone writing mostly à 2, while the “Birthday Card,” for the current New York Times critic, was full of well-ordered jazzy harmonies. But these agreeable and lightweight pieces were overshadowed by the afternoon’s main offering, Spirit Geometry for cello and piano, a suite in four movements. The composer explained that the high register of the cello was featured in the opening Prelude and the third movement, “Orders and Diversions,” while the second movement, “Gentle Breezes,” was entirely pizzicato. Here the plucked cello functions like a jazz bass beat in 6/8, A minor, while the piano takes over the high register of the texture with complex harmony. Only in the fourth movement, a free-ranging passacaglia, does the low register of the cello appear. Based on a “De profundis” by Lully, this movement has a tragic atmosphere, with gloomy piano chords emerging now and then into an expressive A minor — and ending with an appoggiatura and a half cadence. This was an impressive work, and it was impressively projected by Astrid Schween, cellist, and Randall Hodgkinson, pianist. Hats off to them; they also played the Portraits that unostentatiously began the program. And hats off not only  to Scott Wheeler for his music, but also to David Perkins for expertly organizing the entire afternoon.

See related interview here.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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