Since orchestra conductor Alexander Platt, took over as music director of the Maverick Concerts series, he has been taking opportunities to use his various talents in the series. The annual Chamber Orchestra Concerts have become highlights partly due to Platt’s interesting programming and partly due to his conducting skill. The past couple of years have seen solo items interspersed with the (very small) orchestra items, I presume because they help reduce rehearsal costs. They’ve also added to the variety of the concerts. Not a bad deal all around.
Last summer a solo recital of keyboard works by John Cage and Henry Cowell played by Adam Tendler reached a highpoint. This year, Tendler served as the main guest artist at the orchestra concert, given on Saturday. My admiration for Tendler’s gifts remains undiminished although I had some reservations about his contributions. Platt built his programming around the use of three each of violins, violas, and cellos needed for Aaron Copland’s rarely-performed Nonet for Strings, beginning with Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 4, in A, in which Tendler played the solo on the piano. A pianist who can handle Cowell’s music won’t have any trouble with Bach’s relatively-simple concertos, and Tendler didn’t. He is also Bach-savvy enough to embellish the rather simple basic text of the keyboard part. Nevertheless, his Bach playing was a little too flexible with the tempos for my taste. A musician friend of mine said she thought he was bending tempo to accommodate his embellishments; I thought it was just a stylistic choice. A minor detraction, anyway.
Copland’s Nonet comes from 1960, a period when he was alternating “Americana” pieces with more adventurous works. This one is a hybrid. It starts very stark and gloomy, but during the course of its 20 minutes of dancelike passages occasionally relieve the somber qualities. It’s not the most “fun” Copland, but it’s a fine piece. The deep sonority from this small string group was almost startling in its power and richness, and Platt led an interpretation which sounded thoroughly convincing Ginastera’s Punena No. 2 for solo cello followed as a 100th birthday for the composer. Emmanuel Feldman had played the piece at Maverick three summers ago and if memory serves, he was even more convincing this time. This is late Ginastera (1976), more adventurous than the folkish pieces that made the composer’s reputation in the 1940s and ‘50s. Ginastera had obviously been studying the Kodâly Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello for ideas about advanced techniques but he used them for quite different musical purposes.
Copland’s three major piano solo works are surprisingly rare these days. The rarest of them is the last, and largest, the Piano Fantasy, completed in 1957. Copland had been greatly impressed by hearing William Kapell play his Piano Sonata (a performance miraculously preserved from a radio broadcast and issued years later by RCA), and had set to work on a new piano piece for the Kapell. After the pianist’s death in a plane crash, Copland continued work on what became a memorial to him. It’s very long single movement, in the recordings I checked out, runs 29 to 31 ½ minutes. If you’re familiar with Copland’s work you can hear many references to earlier music in the Fantasy, especially the Piano Variations, which the Fantasy sometimes seems like an enlarged version of. I suspect that I found this piece more involving than did many in the audience simply because I was able to appreciate this aspect. Even for me, though, it seemed to go on quite a long time, perhaps because it’s not exactly a tightly-constructed. But it might also be because Tendler, who played extremely well, stretched it to over 34 minutes; the slow pace might have diminished cohesiveness. Maverick’s excellent Yamaha seemed to have gone somewhat out of tune by the second half.
The closer certainly did not drag. Platt and his players charged into Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto at a hellacious tempo, leaving me with a mixed impression of “Hey, that’s too fast!” and “Wow!” For the second movement, Tendler, playing continuo, did an improvisation in a style which seemed to me like a hybrid of Bach, Copland, and American musical theater. And then came the last movement, even faster than the first. I don’t think I’d want to hear it that fast again but it made for an exhilarating ride. All credit to the “Maverick Chamber Players” (mostly members of the Boston group Aurea Ensemble) for their spirit and adeptness.