The Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts’s marvelous tribute to an extraordinary composer Saturday at Slosberg Hall Brandeis celebrated Irving Fine. He died, tragically, at the age of 47 (b. 1914-d. 1962), created the Brandeis School of Creative Arts, and at its founding, brought together an extraordinary group of composers, sometimes referred to as the Third Boston School, even though half of them lived in NYC. They included Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, Arthur Berger, Harold Shapero, Leonard Bernstein and Fine, himself. It did not go unnoticed that these Jewish artists belonged to a group that had been excluded from university appointments because of anti-Semitism. This made for a historical, as well as a moral achievement. Saturday’s program examined the influence of Irving Fine’s mentors Nadia Boulanger and Walter Piston. What did he receive from each? The music we heard oﬀered a convincing argument for a musical connection between teacher and student.
Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1911-1914), wonderfully performed by cellist, Joshua Gordon and pianist, Steven Beck, evoked her teacher, Gabriel Fauré , especially the opening movement, moderato. It had great charm, the cello oﬀering a lovely melody in its upper registers. ‘Sans vitesse et a l’aise’, (not fast, and relaxed), in ‘Aeolian’ mode, gave a lush evocation, again of Fauré. ‘Vite et nerveusement rythmé’, (fast and nervously rhythmic) came across precisely so. If the pianist overpowered at time, the players delivered elegantly overall.
Mezzo-soprano Catherine Hedberg and the pianist, Leslie Amper gave us Mutability (1952), a song cycle by Irving Fine for voice and piano. Hedberg, a definite candidate for Brünhilde, came onstage wearing a heavy, green gown, rather low-cut, with a small transparent upper-arm covering in a contrasting color. She had to sing through the words of a diﬃcult text, and although her pitch was exacting, her words did not project. Reading the poems afterwards, I sympathized with the difficulty of uttering those thorny words even without the musical setting.
Hedberg seemed more focused on voice production than on a sense of drama; we would have welcomed a little more animation and expression. The late, great soprano. Jan de Gaetani, could have brought these songs to life. Pianist, Leslie Amper, sounded a precise, if rather business-like partner, perhaps to enhance articulation.
The Harvard Musical Association commissioned Walter Piston’s 1964 Piano Quartet at the request of BSO violist (and HMA member) George Humphrey. Julia Glenn, violin; Mark Berger, viola; Josh Gordon, cello; and Steven Beck, piano ‘got’ the excitement of this dramatic work. An antidote to the Boulanger lyricism, its 12-tone infusions, driving rhythm, and harsh character still strike us as ear-bending after almost 60 years….it will definitely get you out of bed in the morning.
The opening movement, Leggero e scorrevole (lightly & flowing), begins with the strings playing in unison. A demanding, ‘Age of Anxiety’ for Piano Quartet ensues. The second movement, Adagio sostenuto with an opening cello line, oﬀers a lyricism but a harsh one at that. The last movement, Allegro vivo I found the most appealing of the three, but still favoring rock-concert-level dynamics. All instrumentalists were in top form, with especial mention going to Julia Glenn, the young, blonde, as well as beautiful, violinist. The audience loved it.
The second half revisited the early 20th-century world of Nadia Boulanger and the French Art Song tradition of Fauré , Duparc, and Debussy. The Hedberg/Amper duo came back on stage and this time they delivered five songs to poems by Verlaine, Camille Mauclair, Nadia B. (Soir d’hiver) with absolutely gorgeous results, through impeccable French; they executed the long legato lines with ample space and breath in the voice. Hedberg sang with complete control, purity of language, and the emotional distance that this music requires. Amper partnered gloriously. This time I joined the audience in calling the players back several times with applause.
The closer, Irving Fine’s 1946 Sonata for Violin and Piano, exemplified the mentee aspect of the program by showing the Piston influence. Violinist, Julia Glenn came onstage resplendent in a sequin-studded burgundy gown (eye-catching but is it appropriate for an early-afternoon concert?). She proceeded to say more than a few words, many of which I missed.
This appealing sonata in the neoclassical tradition found both instrumentalists sharing a lyrical, tonal and rhythmic motif in the first movement; in the slow second movement the piano picked up a sweet violin melody. The sonata sonified America, reminiscent of our Western plains. Would it work for the next Brad Pitt movie? I happen to believe that the future of composition lies in the movies, i.e., Ligeti, Philip Glass, Frederic Rzewski, et al.). The home crowd rooted for its home composer, calling Julia Glenn and Steven Beck back many times.
We thank Brandeis and the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts for this welcome event. Boston is lucky to have so many free concerts presented by its universities and conservatories.