For those of us who had not been ANYWHERE south this winter, Sunday’s Rockport Music Shalin Liu Hall provided a cure for the midwinter blues with an inspired and inspiringly-played concert by a quartet of four extraordinarily gifted friends who have played together in various permutations; they should really take it on the road.
Usually not a fan of pre-concert lectures, I loved these friends from the moment they began to give us funny, smart, and charming commentary to the packed house. Pianists Michael Brown and Orion Weiss, cellist Nicholas Canellakis, and percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum radiated joy and love of performing. Everyone could sense it, although few knew most of the repertoire. As current hip punctuation would have it: They. Had. Major. Chops. Plus. Charisma. Everyone seemed to have fallen under the spell of these musicians and their music-making.
The imaginatively assembled “Soul of the Americas” focused on connections among composers of North and South America who had befriended, mentored, and encouraged each other. The composers fit comfortably in the category of Usual Suspects/ Iconic Composers (Copland, Bernstein, Barber, Golijov, Villa-Lobos, Ginestera, and Gershwin), and only first piece was new to me.
Pianist Michael Brown deftly opened with Bernstein’s arrangement for solo piano (1941) of Copland’s El Salón México (1932-36), which includes four Mexican folksongs. Known as the “Father of American Music,” Copland became lifelong friends with Bernstein, who, at age 23, arranged this fun piece for solo piano, piano duo, AND two pianos-four hands.
While Saturday’s snow fell intermittently from the roof and white birds sailed by, Canellakis and Brown, who perform often as a duo, and who cleverly curated this show, gave us a handsome take on Bernstein’s Three Meditations from Mass (1971) with percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum, who cleverly consolidated four percussion parts. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis commissioned Mass for the opening of the Kennedy Center. Bernstein arranged two of the Meditations, which began life as instrumental interludes, for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and later revised the third for cello as well. Rostropovich championed this work, and this performance helped us understand why.
Samuel Barber’s six-movement Souvenirs, Suite for piano, Four Hands, Op. 28 (1951-52) provided great fun to hear and to watch, especially as the two pianists tried to make room for each other during the Waltz, Hesitation Tango, and Galop. These two pianists took palpable, and contagious pleasure in their interplay. Barber wrote it simply for the amusement of himself and a friend, but after hearing it only one time, the ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein commissioned Barber to orchestrate it for the Ballet Society (soon to become The New York City Ballet). These musical vignettes recalled a beloved meeting place of which Barber wrote, “One might imagine a divertissement in a setting reminiscent of the Palm Court of the Hotel Plaza in New York, the year about 1914, epoch of the first tangos; Souvenirs– remembered with affection not in irony or with tongue in the cheek, but in amused tenderness.”
Argentinian-born Osvaldo Golijov’s 1999 Mariel for Cello and Marimba gives the composer’s traumatized reaction to finding out his dear friend Mariel had suddenly died in a car accident. The elegiac cello playing along with marimba (memorized) benefited from a sky slowly moving from mostly pink into a darker bluish hue. The composer wrote, “I wrote the original version of Mariel in memory of my friend Mariel Stubrin. I attempted to capture that short instant before grief, in which one learns of the sudden death of a friend who was full of life: a single moment frozen forever in one’s memory and which reverberates through the piece, among the waves and echoes of the Brazilian music that Mariel loved.”
Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, championed by pianist Arthur Rubinstein and composers Stravinsky and Copland, was represented here by a four-minute Divagação for Cello, Piano and Drums (1946), played colorfully and introduced by pianist Orion Weiss as “a strange little piece” along two even shorter works, all for solo piano. Cannelakis and Brown gave a shimmering performance of Argentinian composer Alberto Ginestera’s rhapsodic Pampeana for cello and piano (1950)
Gershwin’s glorious Cuban Overture for Piano, Four Hands and Percussion (1932) closed the show. Originally entitled Rumba, it had debuted for 18,000 people in an all-Gershwin concert with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium. But what could cellist Nicholas Cannelakis do with himself in the absence of a part for his instrument?
He outfitted himself with two black circular sticks with which to telegraph the clave rhythm. Suddenly, black birds, for the first time this afternoon, flew across the windows. I suspect they heard the Gershwin, and loved it like we all did.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.