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Connecting With Boston Composers


The Whitman sampler that Winsor Music proffered Friday at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center yielded some sweet morsels. Structured around a theme of composers with mostly solid connections to Boston (and a few not so solid), it sought to package new flavors with old favorites—or at least what the ensemble would like to be old favorites. Co-Artistic Director and violinist Gabriela Diaz stated the aim succinctly as focusing on the more-heard-about-thank-heard “Boston Six” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these being, in alphabetical order, Amy Beach (1867-1944), George Chadwick (1854-1931), Arthur Foote (1853-1937), Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), John Knowles Paine (1839-1909), and Horatio Parker (1863-1919). Of these, Beach, Foote, MacDowell and Parker featured. Into this mix, with one other historical entry in the form of Florence Price (1887-1953), Winsor nestled three premieres, two by local eminences Eric Chasalow and Yu-Hui Chang, and one by Afghani Milad Yousufi.

Beach and Foote were represented by short-ish duo works, the former’s 1893 Romance for violin and piano, op. 23 and the contemporaneous “Pastorale” movement from the latter’s Three Pieces for oboe and piano, op. 31. The Romance is sort of an extended song without words, premiered at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and displays Beach’s immense gift for supple melody joined to sometimes daring, though never obtrusive, chromaticism in harmony. Diaz and pianist Yoko Hagino projected tender ardency. The Foote, though written for oboe, is most often heard in its alternate scoring for flute, and we’re grateful for its welcome appearance here in its original form, especially as expounded by the redoubtable Peggy Pearson, with Hagino. A comparison of the two versions is instructive: with their distinct timbres, even with all the same notes they come across as two distinct pieces, with the oboe by far the more pastoral in quality. A revisit to this composition in its entirety would be welcome.

The first of the new pieces was the Ghost Songs by Chasalow, who along with Chang is a mainstay of the Brandeis composition faculty. He detailed their somewhat convoluted evolution in their current scoring for mezzo-soprano, clarinet and piano as recompositions from a series of five for voice and piano, and represent something of a Covid lockdown project. The composer wrote his own texts in a burst of inspiration, he said, to express feelings of loss; and, indeed, as the overall title and the individual ones (“First Ghost,” “Two Ghosts,” “Ghosts of Key West”) indicate, haunting absence is the prevailing motif, though they present as anything but lugubrious. In fact, drawing to a considerable degree from his work with his wife, Barbara Cassidy, as a pop duo (shades of Bolcom and Morris), in these pieces he has embraced a pop, jazz, and in the final song Latin, sensibilities one seldom encounters in his electronics-heavy oeuvre. The first of the songs also presents a text that is in itself a kind of minimalist piece, with gradually evolving riffs through repeated lines, sung with a plummy Broadway-cum-pop elegance by Sonja Tengblad, against a fragmented piano line (Hagino) to which the clarinet (Co-Artistic Director Rane Moore) contributes, forming with the piano a detached commentary to the vocal line. The second song shades modal folksiness with the Broadway vibe, while the jauntier finale adds in a Latin beat spicing up more standard “classical” idiom (there’s even counterpoint!). This is, overall, a very worthy contribution from Chasalow that ought to be heard again.

The explanation for the second premiere perhaps took longer than the piece itself. As part of its commissioning program, Winsor requests the commissionee to provide, in the season after the “main” work, another short one of hymnic mien on themes of peace, love, brother/sisterhood, and suchlike. Yousufi, now age 27, whose biography and commission/performance/awards list would be impressive for someone twice his age, is now a master’s student with Dalit Warshaw in New York (his chief connection to Boston seems to be the commission he got from Winsor). His entry, Love Story, Song for the Spirit is a deceptively simple, nearly diatonic piece offset with some clever chromatic slides in parallel harmony. In a true innovation in concert annotation, its one-page short score constituted its own program note. After a run-through by the entire Winsor ensemble (Tengblad, Pearson, Moore on bass clarinet, Diaz, Jan Müller-Szeraws on cello, and Hagino), the audience was invited to participate on the next round. Fittingly for someone (the composer) who among other things teaches music notation using the Sibelius program, the sound of this hymn, to these ears, came with a Sibelian accent.

Yu Hui Chang’s Resurfacing in rehearsal (Sam Brewer photo)

In her remarks prefacing the debut of Resurfacing, Chang also invoked pandemic confinement as an overhang to its genesis, in which she considered the meaning of “normality” (who was it wrote “’Normal’ is what other people are, and you are not”?). Scored for oboe, bass clarinet, violin and cello (Pearson, Moore, Diaz and Müller-Szeraws), the instruments mostly stake out ostinati or other characteristic patterns, and as the work unfolds, they struggle and finally succeed, provisionally, in obtaining a kind of collective regularity, which partially dissolves but partially doesn’t. Life’s sort of like that. The ending is quite lovely, with a charming and not at all “normal” chord progression. In sound and structure Resurfacing is quite different from what we have heretofore known of Chang’s style (full disclosure: Chang was a co-artistic director of Dinosaur Annex during our long association with that group); afterwards, we asked her if this was her “new normal,” and she demurred, but frankly we’d love to hear more like it.

Once upon a time, MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose,” the first of his ten Woodland Sketches for piano (1896), occupied the top spot on the chart of the most popular music in America. Based on a melody taken from a Wisconsin offshoot of New England Native American tribes, it was as well-known and ubiquitous as Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song,” though we don’t know if it ever scored a Loony Tunes. MacDowell’s setting insinuates advanced harmony into the simple tune but doesn’t overpower it. Much anthologized and now probably mostly restricted to student performance, it was given a straightforward reading by Hagino that didn’t seem to add anything to our understanding of it.

Despite Diaz’s game attempt to shoehorn Florence Price into the Boston Six as its seventh member (she studied at NEC with Chadwick but made her career chiefly in Chicago), there are other composers who were more closely associated, for example Frederick Converse. Nevertheless, from an esthetic standpoint Price, the vast bulk of whose work is only now being rediscovered and who is having a definite moment, may rightfully be said to be the culmination of the late-Romantic American style most closely associated with Our Fair City. The set of seven songs sung by Tengblad and accompanied by Hagino covered an interesting range of texts and underscored the variety of Price’s moods, notably in the central “Four Encore Songs” that played up her humorous vein; Price had a weakness for Ogden Nash, it would appear. Price’s settings of African American poets, with Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “The Sum,” Langston Hughes’s “Bewilderment,” and Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr.’s “An April Song” came from her more typical vein. There, the gravitas and cadences of the Black experience came forward, seasoned with harmonizations from the world of Chadwick and MacDowell (considered very much obsolete in the 1930s when these pieces were written). Tengblad returned to the art-song vocal style with impeccable richness and suppleness of tone and tight vibrato control. Except in the “funny” songs, though, her expressive voice and face went unmirrored in her hands and body, the employment of which would probably have enhanced the overall effect.

The concert closed with another one-movement excerpt from a longer work, Parker’s Suite for Piano Trio in A Major, op. 35 (1904). Take a moment to shed a tear for Parker, once hailed as America’s finest composer, and whose opera Mona ran at the Met; he is now remembered, if at all, as the teacher whom his student Charles Ives damned with faint praise (“a fine technician”), and whose meticulously crafted stentorian oratorios evoke Mark Twain’s remark about Wagner’s music being “better than it sounds.” When he was not taking himself with utmost seriousness Parker could create sparkling, delightful and evocative pieces like his music for the opera Fairyland and this trio, where he takes harmonic liberties somewhat suggestive of what his vexatious student was doing a half decade earlier. Diaz, Müller-Szeraws and Hagino rendered the sprightly, melodically engaging finale of the Suite with an elan that demands fleshing out the complete work; Mistral, another local ensemble, has done so.

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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