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Howarth, Poulenc Elégy at Tufts


Tufts Sunday Concert Series at Granoff Music Center’s Distler Performance Hall presented Anne Howarth, horn; with guest artists Valerie Thompson, cello; and pianist Julia Scott Carey, in “Transformation.” At the reception, Howarth mentioned having had doubts about putting the Francis Poulenc’s hard-to-take Elégie on the program. A first for this listener was hearing this piece live and, another, a first time in Distler Performance Hall. From the very opening notes, deep, full, and reverberating, Howarth’s horn played to the hall.

So, while British composer Liz Lane’s Linear Lines musings on a chant by the singular German Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen unfolded, the gaze mostly fell upon the horn’s splendor in Distler, an esthetic to be much appreciated. After all, horns and halls are some of most notoriously difficult instruments to play and spaces to design respectively. Such connection truly made for a special treat. At times, Lane’s 2009 work would lead expectant listeners with the sound of the chant, spirituality somehow being on the outside; in other instances, Lane’s curious musings over the entire range of the instrument would prompt attention.

Poulenc followed, leaving an indelible musical mark, dedication from Howarth and pianist Julia Scott Carey ever present despite moments of a clanging piano. Elégie expresses Poulenc’s reaction to learning of the fatal automobile accident of the young and gifted British horn player Dennis Brain, the result of his passion for fast cars. It is next to impossible not to be able to sink into the anger and sadness Poulenc wrote into his deeply personal score.

Harsh, reflective, and hardly easy listening, Elégie begins and ends with Serialism’s tone rows creeping in perhaps to convey the composer’s feelings of rage at his friend’s crashing into a tree only a short distance from his home. Howarth’s horn blasts pierced the hall, her dulcet tones calmed, and, together with Carey, pronounced Poulenc’s French signature touchingly. 

Many know Anne Howarth from her performances as founding member with Radius Ensemble, senior member of the wind quintet, Vento Chiaro, core member of Juventas New Music Ensemble, and with an impressive array of orchestras throughout New England. Others know her as a teacher at Tufts University as well as at other local institutions.

Before each piece, Howarth spoke about transformation in its various forms: Hildegard-Lane and Poulenc-Brain. For Canadian composer Elizabeth Knudson’s Alchemy she suggested we think about the supposed transformation of matter, particularly transmutation of base metals into gold. The work for horn, cello, and piano lasting some 20 minutes looked over personal musical matter, leaving the horn mostly silent during the middle of its three movements.

Amy Dunker’s When There Are Nine refers to the question about women serving on the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg thought transformation would take hold when all the Justices would be women as opposed to nine men. Dunker’s nod to pageantry in an American voice vividly and simply spoken by Howarth and Carey reintroduced real music making.

Barbara York’s Every Day an Alleluia, originally written for euphonium and tuba, made sense for the horn, but leaving the cello to cover for the tuba did not quite make it, despite Valerie Thompson’s doing her best. Carey effectively rolled out the prairie piano style, Howarth resounded the alleluias.    

Guest artist Valerie Thompson is a Boston-based cellist/composer/songwriter/improvisor who has performed national and internationally in rock bands to string quartets to folk ensembles as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department. Guest artist Julia Scott Carey, pianist and composer, is accompanist for at Boston College University Chorale, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the BSO Children’s Choir among others. She is also a core member of Juventas.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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