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Post Marination, Goosby Impresses

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Barthé African Dancer

To your ever-expanding list of young artists worthy of serious attention add the name of Randall Goosby, 23, a former child prodigy now entering artistic maturity after careful marination in the kitchens of Juilliard and environs under master chefs Itzhak Perlman and Catherine Cho. After an earlier turn at the Gardner in September, he and collaborator Zhu Wang presented a violin-piano recital Sunday at Peabody Hall in Dorchester under the auspices of Ashmont Hill Chamber Music of an impressively mixed program united by the theme, Goosby sheepishly admitted, of “pieces I love.”

Fair dos, as the cousins say. We were able to adduce a theme of sorts, which relates not so much to the music as to the way it’s played. They began with a favorite among violinists not so much known to the more general public, the Chaconne in G minor by Tomaso Antonio Vitali (1663-1745), originally for violin and continuo (presumably cello or gamba and harpsichord) in the arrangement that marked its first publication, by Ferdinand David in 1867. It’s a remarkable piece, with far-ranging rhythmic, textural and harmonic variety for something written in the early 18th century, which has been the source of musicological controversy nearly from the get-go. Among other things, it veers off into keys, such as B-flat minor and E-flat minor, that would have raised contemporary eyebrows, and employs some chromatic passages that were fairly daring even when used by J. S. Bach decades later in The Art of Fugue. There has always been a suspicion that David may have dressed the original up a bit (though recent manuscript research has produced evidence supporting its authenticity). The “theme” (for a chaconne it’s really just a series of chords setting out the harmonic progression) begins in the piano, with Wang offering a dark and mysterious background to Goosby’s forward and creamy entrance. The two players, extremely well matched throughout the afternoon (Wang is a Juilliard undergraduate, but the duo has concertized often), lit off then through Vitali’s mostly energetic pyrotechnics. Goosby applied vibrato and portamento in a style David (or for that matter Leopold Stokowski) would have understood, enhanced by the powerful voice of Goosby’s Guarneri del Gesu.

Goosby and Wang took a similarly meaty approach, by and large, to Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor (1917), the composer’s last substantial work and the third of his projected cycle of six “sonatas for various instruments” that included the Cello Sonata of 1915 and the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp of 1916. Debussy, who even before World War I took to signing himself as a “French musician,” made clear in his comments about these sonatas that he wanted to rid French music of all debasements stemming from the hated boches, especially stuff like sonata form, dramatic development, and so forth, to bring French music back to the supposed purity of Couperin and Rameau. Be that as it may, as Debussy expert Mark De Voto has explained, the first movement of the violin sonata does contain elements of sonata form, sensu largo, while the return of the opening movement’s theme in the finale raises the specter of cyclic form as practiced in the 19th century by Germans like Beethoven and Brahms (to say nothing of the monster Wagner) and German-influenced français like Franck and Chausson. Oh well.

The sonata is full of shifting moods and fleeting motivic ideas, to which Goosby and Wang were highly attentive, with dynamic contrasts to match; Goosby’s portamento in the “second subject” of the first movement hinted at Ravel. The mercurial second movement showed Goosby as the Perlman protégé he is, with a commanding bowing arm and exceptional articulation (though his pizzicati sometimes didn’t project that well). When it wasn’t swirling with activity, the finale was smoky and sultry. On the whole, while it’s clear that Goosby and Wang had a clear grasp of what this sonata is about, it will take a little more time in the cooker to refine the tone to match the composer’s intentions.

Randall Goosby (file photo)

There isn’t all that much chamber music in the œuvre of William Grant Still (1895-1978), but his Suite for Violin and Piano (1943) is a gem that we’re grateful Goosby and Wang brought out and that should be heard more often. Apparently, Still wanted to write something that would evoke the sounds of native African music, but the research materials available to him were meager. Instead, what came out was something classically African-American, expertly spiced with mid-century (or slightly earlier) harmonic updates. The three-movement suite was also meant to play off three artworks from the Harlem School of the 1920s and 30s, with reference specifically to the sculpture African Dancer by Richmond Barthé, the painting Mother and Child by Sargent Johnson, and Augusta Savage’s sculpture Gamin. The first of these, strongly modal, seemed, as Goosby averred, strongly influenced by African-American church music (there’s even a hint of “Let My People Go”). The second, lyrical with an agitated middle, is pentatonic and soulful in both particular and universal ways, sounding simultaneously like black music and the things produced by the “Indianist” school like Cadman and Farwell; in the end it’s pure Americana. The finale springs and bounces, or perhaps dodges, in the cadences of jazz, but (we think) more specifically of blues, whose chord progressions we detected running throughout. The duo, once again perfectly synchronized stylistically, brought ample energy, pathos and charisma to this charmer.

The post-intermission portion of the program focused on one piece, which Goosby claimed to be his favorite of the moment, the Sonata in E-flat Major, op. 18 (1888) by Richard Strauss, which is the last real piece of chamber music Strauss produced (except for chamber arrangements of excerpts from two operas and a final 1948 short work for violin and piano). For this young man’s piece (Strauss was 23, the same age as Goosby now) the muscular and heroic style the young performers brought was just right. Goosby joked that the sonata was really a concerto for piano with violin accompaniment, but that’s not really the case—Strauss played both instruments and matched the parts well. The opening movement (which you can hear him performing on his website HERE) bounded with youthful vigor (and a few hints, mostly in the piano part, of the more adventuresome harmonies he would later embrace); the slow movement, with a tenderness seldom this noticeable in his later orchestral work (he was courting his Pauline at the time, so this could well have been a billet-doux to her), brought out Goosby’s most sonant moments. We enjoyed how Wang, after the intense middle section, tinkled the delicate arabesques that accompanied and then survived the transition from it to the main melody’s return. The big reveal of the sonata, though, is the finale, which, after a few bars of pondering introduction, burst forth with what was essentially the first draft of the principal theme from Don Juan, Strauss’s third tone poem. It should be kept in mind that this sonata was Strauss’s op. 18, while Don Juan was op. 20, written the same year. He knew a hit when he heard one. The sonata’s finale also features a broadly lyrical tune in the manner expected by late-19th-century audiences, and the Goosby-Wang duo executed it all with requisite virtuosity and bravura. They went out with an encore, Elgar’s old chestnut Salut d’amour.

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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