IN: Reviews

. . . Trio’s Engagement and Apologias


Arthur Foote ca. 19190 Alice Boughton photo (Harvard Musical Association Collection)
Arthur Foote ca. 1910 in Alice Boughton photo (Harvard Musical Association Collection)

The Ellipsis Trio (let’s see: there’s a piano, a violin and a cello; what’s missing? We know what violists would say) has, since its founding in 2013, performed a typically broad repertoire, but has also delivered an ongoing series focusing on American work, broadly understood as being written by Americans or, if not, influenced by America (they cite Dvořák as an example, but none of his piano trios was a product of his American sojourn). In its most recent installment of “The American Experiment,” like the others given at MIT’s Killian Hall, the ensemble covered three centuries of an impressively varied stylistic terrain which they performed with technical prowess and sympathetic emotional engagement.

They began with the oldest piece, Arthur Foote’s youthful Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 5, from 1882-3. One of the finest American composers of the Romantic era, Salem-born Foote is regaining some of the renown he lost when sharp-elbowed newcomers successfully dissed all their predecessors (with one principal exception, also on this program) in the hugger-mugger lurch to 20th-century modernity. Virtually alone among the three generations of American composers from this period, Foote built an impressive and varied oeuvre of chamber music—three string quartets, two piano trios, sonatas for violin and cello, a flute quartet, piano quartet, and piano quintet—that are worthy of admiration, affection, and inclusion in standard repertory. Of his two entries in the genre, the first trio is perhaps less played than the second, which made the Ellipsis performance the more notable.

In the usual four movements, with scherzo second (Foote’s personal preference), in many ways it pays homage to the Mendelssohn D minor trio (an enormously influential work in the 19th century) in the first movement, and to Mendelssohn more generically in the scherzo and the finale. That’s not to say that it’s a totally derivative piece, since Foote’s personal voice was already apparent, especially in the lyrical second subjects in the outer movements and in the wonderfully singing slow movement, with its gentle dissonances offering a French counterpoint to the usual “international” German style of the day. The performance was immensely pleasurable: violinist Amanda Wang and cellist Patrick Owen produced a sonorous, resonant sound, while pianist Konstantinos Papadakis flowed, lilted and swung. The overall impression was of passionate intensity but without loss of delicacy when the music demanded it. The paradigmatically Mendelssohnian scherzo, fleet and elfin with a honeyed trio, was impeccable, nowhere more so than in its swift pizzicato ending.

The relatively brief concert paused for intermission after the Foote, and resumed with the premiere of “…who can depart from one’s pain without regret…” (a double ellipsis!) by Igor Iwanek, a Polish-born composer who left the Boston area to take up positions at Millsaps College and Mississippi College. As the composer explained in his notes, the expressive intent of this two-movement work, whose title comes from Khalil Gibran, was to conjure the feelings surrounding his (or anyone’s) departure from familiar, even if painful, surroundings to take up a new life elsewhere. In Iwanek’s case this has been true at least twice. The first movement is full of sonic clouds, chordal passages, wisps of melody, fragmented thoughts, that never settle down, though a questioning melodic idea in the cello comes to dominate. The music seems tonally grounded without the sense of functional tonality (Iwanek claims late Scriabin as an influence, so that makes sense). A brisker passage near the end of the movement adumbrates the second movement, which is a kind of chorus-and-verse alternation of rapid, Bachianic piano arabesques and rhythmically pronounced chugging with ruminations on the music of the first movement. There are abundant clever effects, like pizzicato slides and glassy harmonics—nothing too avant-garde, mind—and a droll ending, quietly, on a V-I cadence (hold that thought). It left a pleasant impression, and the Ellipsis players adroitly negotiated its complexities.

The concert ended with the only piano trio by Charles Ives, which, despite its knuckle-busting complexity and often spiky sounds has become a repertory staple, at least for the last couple of generations of performers. It holds a special place in Ives’s output, as well, dating from the first decade of the 20th century, while Ives was working on his Third Symphony. It is, as J. Peter Burkholder explained in his magisterial treatise on Ives’s compositional techniques, All Made of Tunes, structurally and substantively different from almost everything else he wrote. For one thing, except for the raucous quodlibet scherzo, famously titled “TSIAJ” for “this scherzo is a joke,” and the closing quotation of the hymn “Rock of Ages” (“Toplady” is the name of the tune, by Thomas Hastings), the themes are all Ives originals. For another thing, the first movement employs a structure Ives never again used. It’s actually a very clever approach: a melody begins in cello and the piano’s upper register (sometimes played with one hand, but Papadakis used both), which progresses from atonal complexity to tonal simplicity. Then, the violin and piano lower register goes over the same territory with different notes, and then all the parts play the same notes together, revealing the “complete” musical material, ending on a major chord. As Ives put it in a note to accompany the work’s public premiere in 1948, the movement depicts a lecture by a Yale philosophy professor (the whole work is a reminiscence of Ives’s college days, at the time of writing less than a decade gone by), with the auditors gradually moving from perplexity to comprehension.

As noted, the scherzo is a gallimaufry of tunes, one of Ives’s few actual quodlibets, mostly now-long-forgotten college songs, plus a handful of recognizable popular tunes of the 19th century (e.g. Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”) all jumbled together in different keys, kaleidoscopically distorted, rhythmically pushed and pulled, and ending, most incongruously of all, on a short V-I cadence (nobody called out the echo of the Ives in the Iwanek, so we’re doing it here). It ought to bring forth guffaws, but the decorous MIT audience withheld its mirth. The Ellipsis band didn’t miss a fractured beat, but the title of a Schumann piece kept popping to mind with respect to their demeanor: Fast zu ernst; it might help explain the audience’s inhibitions.

The finale, a reflection on a campus church service ending with the quoted hymn, is sincere, in a simpler harmonic style (thus making the work mirror the processes of the first movement, or perhaps vice versa) and tinged with late Victorian sentiment. The principal theme is given to the cello, and Owen was eloquent with it. A jazzier midsection brought out some fine playing by Papadakis. Owen’s rendition of the hymn in the coda was heartfelt, but the emptying out of the Protestant churches in the Northeast in the late 20th century has largely stripped away this music’s context for contemporary audiences, and even for the players. Ives would have taken the audience’s familiarity with these tunes for granted, but in his introduction of the trio before the performance, Owen allowed as how he knew the tune was for “Rock of Ages” because it said so in his score. Still, this was as fine a performance of the trio as we’ve heard in the last few years.

The foregoing was the review of the concert, properly speaking. What follows may be seen by some of you as more in the nature of a rant, so for those with no taste for such things, you may stop here and allow your attention to wander to other pages.

It has become customary in recent years for performers to supplement, or even substitute for notes with oral elucidations from the stage. The value of this enterprise varies, depending on the familiarity of the works presented, the scope of the printed notes, and the stage presence of the musicians. The guiding principle should be that audiences are better listeners when they are informed listeners. In the event that the repertoire is largely unfamiliar, as it was here, musicians do a service when they can explain why they included these pieces, and what makes them worthy. This can also be done with written notes, which were supplied, but it is often felt that the personal touch from the stage is more effective. So far so good.

What is not so good is when either the program notes or the oral presentations (or, in this case, both) provide misinformation or effectively undercut the message that the works on offer are significant additions to the audience’s store of knowledge. Case in point: Arthur Foote, a composer of enormous merit, who, along with his teacher John Knowles Paine (not Thomas Paine, as misstated from the stage) and contemporaries like George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, Horatio Parker (now almost exclusively known as Ives’s teacher), Edward MacDowell, as well as a host of composers from the next generation including Henry Hadley, Edward Burlingame Hill, Daniel Gregory Mason, John Alden Carpenter, and Frederick Converse, was unjustly pilloried by generations of modernist composers and musicologists for writing in a “German” style rather than an “American” one. This was unjust for a number of reasons, first because the so-called “German” style was simply the prevailing international one of the period. Artists as varied as the French composers Onslow, Farrenc, D’Indy, Chausson and Franck, the English Sterndale Bennett and Brian, the Irish Field, Stanford and Victor Herbert, the Russians Arensky, Medtner and Rubinstein (and for that matter Tchaikovsky), the Danish Gade and Nielsen, the Swedish Stenhammar, and even Dvořák for the early part of his career, could be said to have written in the “German” style. So what? Who howled that later American twelve-tone composers were writing in a foreign “German” or “Austrian” style? Second, as it happens, most of these earlier American composers had personal voices that, when you get down to it, could only have come from Americans. The point is that modern scholarship and analysis has gotten beyond the tendentious stereotypes that people like Paul Rosenfeld, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and other self-interested partisans used to promote themselves at the expense of their forebears. We can now listen to earlier generations of American composers without the cloudy overhang of opprobrium. The message that came from Amanda Wang’s live introduction and the uncredited program note, though, was the same piffle it has taken a century to overcome. If all that were true, why should the audience listen to this music, and why did Ellipsis play it? Don’t apologize for what you are about to impart.

The problems presented by the group’s handling of the Ives were different, but equally doleful in effect. In Eftychia Papanikolaou’s notes, there were minor errors of fact (Ives primarily played baseball, not football) and, surprisingly in an otherwise erudite description, major omissions of analysis (nothing about the structure of the first movement that hints at its formal novelty, which is why we went into it in such detail here), while Patrick Owen’s oral introduction would lead one to believe that Ives was important only because he was wild and wacky, with no attention to what scholarship has revealed about the serious thought he gave to structure and content. We remember that 30 and more years ago, young musicians would smile at the mention of Ives and patronizingly commend his boldness while observing that the music was technically defective and that he couldn’t possibly have heard all the lines he was writing. While it’s certainly fair for anyone to love Ives for his radicalism, it would have been useful to put that radicalism in context, as someone would do who had studied any of the large body of writing now extant about him, from the technical analyses of Burkholder to the excellent general biography by Jan Swafford.

Ellipsis Trio (file photo)
Ellipsis Trio (file photo)

None of these failings would have set off this screed had they not so contradicted the premise of the concert and series. Here is a young trio doing great service by specializing, at least for a discrete part of their concert calendar, in American music over the centuries (an enterprise to which they contribute first-rate performances), yet when it comes time to writing or speaking about it, while their enthusiasm is commendable they appear not to be fully informed about the repertoire and, worse, repeating old shibboleths that can only achieve the opposite purpose to what they presumably want, which is to gin up audience’s desire to hear it. If one wishes to communicate about music beyond simply playing it well (and there’s a good case to be made for doing only that), one should do so on the basis of evident superior knowledge, because the best enthusiast, the best proselytizer, is the well-informed one.

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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  1. Rather than a “screed”, I’d call this a sermon for players who value ingratiation more than information. Right on, VK!

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 24, 2015 at 10:20 am

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