After Friday’s gala, celebrity opening of the 36th Rockport Chamber Music Festival, the first regular concert got down the serious business of chamber music Saturday, as pianist David Deveau began his 22nd and final year as the festival’s artistic director. Violinist Bayla Keyes, violist Steven Ansell, and cellist Michael Reynolds, three of the founding members of the Muir Quartet, of which the latter two are still members, joined him in a concert which included a world premiere of a locally themed work by MIT composer Charles Shadle.
Beethoven’s String Trio in C Minor, op. 9 No. 3 is conventionally numbered either 4 or 5, depending on whether one considers the op. 8 Serenade part of the sequence. Although Beethoven wrote no further string trios after the three numbers of op. 9, there are lots of interesting things about the format and the pieces themselves that attract performers and audiences. Because there’s only one violin, the overall sound of the ensemble shades darker than a string quartet, and because it isn’t being drowned out by two violins, the viola gets to stand out to a greater degree than in a quartet. While the three instruments create less harmonic depth, they offer much clearer and sharper lines. Beethoven took full advantage in the c minor trio (already his second work in that significant key for him) of these facets of the ensemble: he creates a driving and mysterious opening movement that, despite being early days, adumbrates many of the devices he would explore more fully later in his career. The players were on the case here, as throughout, in terms of intensity and balance, and drew lots of juice out of the superficially Haydnesque tune of the slow movement. They attacked the outer sections of the spooky scherzo with devilish glee, while providing angelic contrast in the trio. They brought elegance to the finale, right up to the sweetly joking abrupt soft ending. Our only cavil is that in the outer movements, Keyes did not articulate the notes in the rapid passagework with anything like the clarity they should have gotten.
In Charles Shadle’s written note and in his remarks from the stage about the premiere of his Dogtown Common for piano quartet, he stressed the importance of place in his compositional process, in this case, the ghost-town community of Dogtown, which straddles the border between Rockport and Gloucester. Adding some local color to a commissioned work is far from unusual, and we can recall at least one other piece commissioned for Rockport that has done so, namely Scott Wheeler’s Piano Trio No. 4, which even threw in some gull cries. As an inspiring setting, we’d put Dogtown right up there with Fingal’s Cave: a scene of simultaneous natural beauty and haunted history. The principal theme of Shadle’s single movement nails that dichotomy brilliantly.
By way of slight digression, it would seem that neo-tonal composers such as Shadle can be divided into two types: one uses basically triadic or extended triadic harmony but combine it with compositional techniques drawn from the modernists, and in particular with a kind of rapid cinematic cross-cutting that subverts any sense of ongoing development and linear “storytelling.” The other type, like, say, Easley Blackwood and Shadle, draw the listener back into the mainstream European tradition by using classical forms and key relations, albeit with the occasional reminder that theirs is new, not old, music. All this is by way of preparing the observation that, having established clear moods with his themes, they are rooted in the abstract expressive devices of earlier days. The principal keys are B minor and its relative major, D (for a tune that is both dignified and folk-like); the piece is in sonata form, and while there are some notable harmonic twists, the musical argument is tight and follows, rather than fights, the logical structure of its framework. Refreshingly handsome, it’s worth hearing again; its 18 minutes went by quickly. Deveau, Keys, Ansell and Reynolds seemed completely sympathetic and expressive without suggesting that they had exhausted the work’s content.
The low opus number of the Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor, op. 15, by Gabriel Fauré is a slight misdirection: while he composed the first three movements in the late 1870s, he withdrew and rewrote the finale almost totally, so that the whole thing didn’t come together until 1883, just a couple of years before his op. 45 second (piano) quartet. That said, while both are staples for this form (and there’s even one performing group called the Fauré Quartet), the two occupy different worlds. While the second is nearly giddy with sliding chromaticism, the first takes as its point of departure a Romantic pseudo-medievalism that exalted modal melodic patterns set into a matrix of contemporary harmonizations. This is especially true in the first movement, but the trio of the second movement scherzo has touches as well.
Deveau and friends addressed the opening movement’s noble and mellow main theme with chaste restraint and a wonderful blending of sonorities. While Deveau has made a mark as a soloist, he remains a consummate chamber musician, and in this performance eschewed any temptation to dominate the texture. The scherzo maintained the restraint and delicacy, and in the slow movement the ensemble conveyed a seething desire to break the chains of self-suppression, as Ansell and Reynolds combined at the end in an anguished groan. After that buildup over the first three movements, it was a touch disappointing that the finale continued the air of elegance rather than taking a rougher and more jagged approach (it being, you know, Fauré ) to its up-thrusting main theme. Still, the ensemble playing was flawless and the entire four movements sparkled as a gem of chamber musicianship.