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Goosby and Wang Emote For Ashmont


Zhu Wang, pianist (Jiyang Chen photo)

On the way to Logan airport after his concert for Ashmont Hill Chamber Music yesterday afternoon, the extraordinary young violin phenom and unabashed romantic Randall Goosby told us about the most important career advice he had never heeded. “Just play the notes on the page so that the composers can speak directly to the audience and let the audience supply the interpretation,” one teacher admonished him. But Goosby took another path, that of the invested advocate for composers and engaged communicator with his listeners. Cool detachment was not his way.

The cohesive announced program adhered to a theme of extrovertedly melodic yet technically demanding music by channelers of African-American song, African-American composers’ own works, and the overheated Third Sonata of Grieg. Never diminishing to cool or even lukewarm, the playing from Goosby and his super-expressive pianist partner Zhu Wang often inflamed the passions of the snowed-in full house to the utmost degree.

But first violist Nathan Theodore, a shining example of the Project Step-Ashmont Hill partnership, had joined Goosby in the Rondeau from Mozart’s Duet No. 1 in G Major for violin and viola. After having studied the viola for 11 years and played for five years in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, the Watertown High School senior, who plans to matriculate at Notre Dame in chemical engineering and viola next fall, more than held his own. Without any shyness he stood his ground with Goosby, exchanging fire and dominance as Mozart required. His tone projected well and accurately, but beyond that, his show of confidence and engagement beyond his years gave great pleasure to his many rooters. His instrument spoke quickly and sweetly as he aligned perfectly with the Strad-wielding Goosby, and he never less than held his own.

Dvořák’s Sonatina in G Major, Op. 100 (1893) constitutes something of a summation of his embrace of American musical exceptionalism. “I am convinced,” he famously wrote, “that the future for music in this country must be based on what are called Negro melodies.” The New World Symphony, the American String Quartet, and the afternoon’s Sonatina all learnedly but generously fold our nostalgic native song into a European forms while expanding and developing the material into irresistible concert works. Of course Dvořák provided both pianist and violinist chances not only to show off their chops, but also to project unbridled passions. Neither player stinted in either regard. Wang’s face betrayed what he was feeling to an unusual degree, while the masked Goosby’s mien could only be judged by his rising and falling eyebrows. One could broadly characterize the Allegro Risoluto as alternately declamatory and amatory, and having lived with it together for some time, the duo delighted us with both aspects, bringing an almost bluesy take to some of the tunes, while embroidering them with sensitivity to the twisting harmonies and virtuosic forms. The Larghetto summoned universal yearning through inflections that always played to the heart. The Scherzo came across as something of a fast cakewalk, and the Finale, recalled Steven Foster, but with development. The instruments acted like bellows in reheating the glowing embers of congenial campfires into blazing bonfires of emotion.

Some 50 years later, Florence Price was also adapting and enlarging folk song into works for the concert stage. Her Fantasy No. 2 in F-sharp Minor places an unnamed folk tune or tunes into a powerfully glittering setting. John Michael Cooper writes:

The main theme bears a resemblance to “Talkin’ ’bout a Child That Do Love Jesus,” especially as arranged by William Levi Dawson (1899-1990). However, the corpus of other Price papers clearly reveals that she actually set “I’m Workin’ on My Buildin’.” Price’s version of this tune does not concur with any other published version, but one of the autographs specifies that her version was “as sung to Fannie Carter Wood of Chicago / by her grandmother Malinda Carter / a former slave of Memphis Tennessee.”

Wang’s flexible and idiomatic take on the introduction fully foreshadowed by going down, down, down chromatically, somehow suggesting the more familiar “Go Down Moses.” And throughout, the expressive ambiguity of Price’s sophisticated language (she graduated from NEC) kept us guessing. Turn, and turn it did, while building to a fierce climax with scrupulously executed, rapidly descending fast figurations in the violin. The tension and release befit its placement between Grieg with Dvořák, but more than that, if you will forgive my suggestibility, the performance from these young Orpheus figures would have melted Pharaoh’s heart and God could have dispensed with the plagues.

Gardner Museum Music Director George Steele suggested the next work, Dawson’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, to Goosby and Wang.

When I first heard Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony about 20 years ago, I was smitten with it. It is wonderful piece, beautifully written for the orchestra. Yet the only other music of Dawson’s I knew were choral works.  The nagging hunch that he must have written other instrumental works led me to explore the collection of his papers at Emory, where to my delight and astonishment, I happened upon his wonderful Violin Sonata, along with two additional versions of its slow moment. We included the ravishing version for string quartet in the opening “Deep River” episode of our video series “Witness.”  And I immediately contacted Randall about possibly playing the full sonata.  

Goosby and Wang will reprise this “wonderful and unknown music” at the Gardner on April 24th. Details HERE.

While the work again dresses what might pass for simple tunes in formal academic attire, it does so on a much more even keel than we heard in the more volatile Price Fantasy. And because the work is new to the performers, they seemed at times to be seeking pathways through the cyclical-feeling thickets. Nevertheless, certain moments clicked, such as the transition in the Largo-Scherzando second movement. A dignified quiet reserve morphed into a jolly lilt as piano and violin alternated in the theme and a serpentine embrace thereof. The movement closed bathed in golden-hour hues. A re-hearing in April may disclose more reason for rescuing this work from oblivion. For me, it somewhat overstayed its materials.

Edward Grieg penned his Sonata No. 3 in C Minor (Op. 45) for violin and piano only seven years before Dvořák composed his Sonatina; in terms of learned treatment of vernacular music and raging hormones, the two works made for perfectly matching programmatic bookends. At times operatic and at times folkishly Peer Gyntish, the sonata felt purpose built for the striving, incandescent artistry of Wang and Goosby. In the first movement Wang wooed us with pearlescent rippling; as Goosby joined the affray, the affect metamorphosed into a sorcerers’ cauldron bubbling over with almost orchestral force. At times in the third movement, the throbbing g string on Goosby’s Strad evoked Verdi’s Azucena in full fury. Their over-the-top communicative generosity made welcome captives of us all.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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