in: Reviews

December 1, 2014

Unusual Musical Ruminations in Concord

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Thomas Martin and Andre Previn in 2011 (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Thomas Martin and Andre Previn in 2011 (Michael J. Lutch photo)

The watchwords for the Concord Chamber Music Society’s Sunday concert at Concord Academy might well have been “keep calm and carry on,” since all the works presented were essentially laid-back and ruminative. Sometimes one wished they had been a bit less so in performance.

The program opened with a delightful rarity, the Pastorale for violin, clarinet and piano by the sadly neglected American composer Daniel Gregory Mason (1873-1953). Mason represented the last of the three generations of Mason composers (still an American record, footnoting that of the four generations of Tcherepnins only the current one is American-born), starting with the great hymnodist Lowell and including D.G.’s uncle William. D.G., born and raised in Brookline, studied with Paine at Harvard, Chadwick at NEC, and Vincent D’Indy in Paris, and became Edward MacDowell’s successor in the music department at Columbia, where he was influential not only as a composer and teacher, but as a popular writer about music. As a composer, he was an interesting case: his output was relatively small, and, despite some notable French influences (you can hear it in his exceptional clarinet sonata), seemed to find the affect of Brahms most congenial to his generally rueful and nostalgic disposition. He didn’t eschew American subject matter—his third symphony was a study of Lincoln, his most popular orchestral work, the overture Chanticleer, was based on Thoreau, and his wonderful string quartet was based on spirituals—but like most of his generation (Ives and Ruggles being the only real exceptions, and the latter only from the 1920s on) he stuck with the expressive means of the European tradition, only gradually incorporating some of the acridity of 20th century technique.

The Pastorale, completed around 1912, is a bit unusual in that it isn’t the least bit broody; on the contrary, it is a gentle, charming little piece, full of winsome melody and genial sunshine. Its most novel feature is a central fugal section that, as Steven Ledbetter’s program note quotes the work’s initial clarinetist, Burnet Tuthill, didn’t seem very pastoral except to the extent that sheep do tend to go their own way unless carefully herded. We’re grateful that clarinetist Thomas Martin, violinist Wendy Putnam, and pianist Vytas Baksys resurrected this piece and performed it with the consummate skill they brought to it, but Martin seemed quite a diffident fellow, facing Baksys rather than the audience, and thereby producing a muffled sound that was not exactly great salesmanship for an unfamiliar work.

The first half closed with another work one doesn’t hear much locally (high marks to CCMS for imaginative programming!), the 1994 violin sonata (with piano), subtitled “Vineyard,” by André Previn (it’s either sonata No. 1 or No. 2, depending on whether you join the composer in disowning his actual first, written in 1960). Previn’s quaquaversal talents (we love those Nicolas Slonimsky words), like those of Leonard Bernstein, together with his similar celebrity status, sometimes inspire skepticism of his work as a serious composer, though he has been steadily amassing an impressive catalog of well-ordered, refined work, and quite a lot of chamber music, which he favors as a classical pianist. Nobody but the composer seems to know why the work has the subtitle it has, but one can imagine him soaking up the sea breezes on Martha’s Vineyard or reclining under an arbor in Napa Valley, given the general songfulness and repose of its music. Putnam’s line in the first two movements floated effortlessly and sonorously over the sometimes thick accompaniment, in which Previn introduces chord structures that have definite jazz origins but without the rhythmic feel of jazz (he claims to use a modern harmonic structure “with a tendency toward tonality,” though in this work one could scarcely detect anything but—in fact, this music betrays a family resemblance to the Mason). Baksys traversed all this with sensitivity and discretion, coming to the fore from time to time with lavish piano passagework. Another resemblance we detected was to the Samuel Barber of the Violin Concerto, the first two lyrical movements of which were followed, as here, by a more agitated one, beginning with a short violin cadenza that recurs just before the end, and involving more nimble fingerwork from Baksys. In the end, though, the lyricism prevails, with a lovely slow central section forming the prevailing impression. This sonata is not a work with very complex intentions or deep messages, but it is certainly worth a listen on a Sunday afternoon.

The second half of the relatively short program consisted of Mozart’s great Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581 (for some reason the CCMS program book listed it as “Quintet No. 1,” though Mozart never wrote another, apart from some sketches for an incomplete movement). This, perhaps the first work of its kind, was the inspiration for much other music for this combination (even Previn has just written one), the greatest of which was of course Brahms’s Quintet B Minor Op. 115, which tips its hat to Mozart by quoting the first three notes of the latter in the tune of the slow movement. While containing some of Mozart’s most radiant music, the quintet doesn’t display the emotional depth of many of his late masterpieces; rather, it is agreeable, amiable, and ultimately playfully joyous, with wonderful turns for the soloist (Anton Stadler, for whom it and just about all of Mozart’s clarinet music was written, was—we owe this observation to Ledbetter’s carefully studied note—famously adept at both the upper and lower registers of the instrument, which apparently wasn’t universally the case in the 18th century). It stands with the Brahms as one of the two most frequently played clarinet quintets, and for this reason may properly be called a warhorse of the repertoire.

For this reason, the performers’ handling of it must be assessed, since the music needs no selling. What the CCMS ensemble, consisting of Martin, Alexander Velinzon and Putnam, violins, Steven Ansell, viola, and Michael Reynolds, cello, provided was an approach we have often seen when BSO players get together for chamber music (all the musicians are with the BSO except Reynolds, who is the cellist of the Muir Quartet). That is, they displayed technical perfection, a high sheen, exquisitely calculated details of articulation and dynamics (especially noticeable, of course, were Martin’s micro-swells and diminuendi). In short, the perfect performance for a Music 101 class. What was missing was anything quirky in the interpretation: no unexpected tempi, no emphatic tension in the string playing, and no deviation from mean. One quasi-exception was the subtle rubato Martin employed in the Adagio variation in the finale. So, for anyone unfamiliar with this piece, this was the piece; for those familiar with it, it was nice and slick, but no revelations were forthcoming.

As a footnote to this review we should mention that before this CCMS concert there was a program put on by young musicians involved in Project STEP, which provides classical music training for talented minority students. We didn’t arrive in time to hear this except muffled through the doors, but we did hear the very warm reception these young players received.

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.

5 Comments

  1. “That is, they displayed technical perfection, a high sheen, exquisitely calculated details of articulation and dynamics (especially noticeable, of course, were Martin’s micro-swells and diminuendi). In short, the perfect performance for a Music 101 class.” Sounds like a long-winded way of saying it was dreary to me.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 1, 2014 at 7:24 pm

  2. Not so. And I suspect that Koven did not mean it that way, either. As for what seems to M. Johnson as “long-winded” was needed by Koven to make his point. I do disagree with him that nothing was unexpected; usually, I am of this sympathy, but this piece is just so sublime that simply hearing it well played is a treat. And it was.

    Koven was a bit more enthused about the Mason than I, but I respect his judgment enough that I will try to hear another performance (YouTube?). In the fugue, I thought the final few bars emanated a discordance that, unlike so many musicians that make it beautiful (a mantra of Gunther Schuller), like Frank Martin, this one was neither appealing nor meaningful. Again, I may eat my words upon a rehearing.

    One more comment: What a fine violinist is Alexander Velinson!! And what a beautiful-sounding violin!

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — December 2, 2014 at 5:46 pm

  3. Dreariness is in the ear of the listener from my point of view. The impression from this review is that business was as usual ie predictably well executed, polished, manicured but ultimately dull. Personally, I go to concerts hopefully to be uplifted, questioned, made joyous, stimulated, provoked etc. Not to attend a Music 101 class.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 3, 2014 at 8:00 am

  4. The Mozart left me uplifted, joyous, stimulated and provoked! Sometimes perfect playing, without innovation, is just what is needed. Mozart deserves this sort of wondrous self-effacement on the part of these accomplished musicians. Their phrasing was beautiful, their dynamics were subtle. This was not “business as usual” so much as an oasis of grace, modesty and truth in a fractious world. I, for one, felt full of gratitude.

    Comment by Ashley — December 3, 2014 at 9:21 am

  5. Talking about Music 101… I think of myself and my know-it-all attitude as a typical 18-year old, who assumed that an introductory course in music would ruin my developed taste, so I didn’t take it, from Wellesley’s renowned music dept.! My loss.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — December 3, 2014 at 11:26 am

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