Newport Classical concluded the second season of its year-round Chamber Series Friday in a glowing and powerful recital by violinist Stella Chen and pianist Henry Kramer at Emmanuel Church in Newport. A series of renovations in partnership with Newport Classical have produced a warm, rich, and vibrant acoustical environment for the newly named Newport Classical Recital Hall.
Chen attacked even the most difficult phrases with solid confidence and propelled them forward with brilliant virtuosity, eloquent sound, and a sense of architecture that made sense of the variety of unusual musical structures that the program offered. She coupled this with a sound that was equally varied, at times intense, and passionate, elsewhere dark, and restless or in contrasting passages ethereal and serene. Then she produced those those plaintive moments that literally wept tears, showing artistry worthy of the exquisite Stradivarius violin she plays upon.
Henry Kramer, a distinguished soloist in his own right, showed himself as an exceptional collaborator, strong and secure, with a clear and singing tone, he could step forward and lead in those passages where the piano predominated, yet had the ability also to hold back and offer support without ever overpowering the violin. As an ensemble, the duo shared a finely nuanced approach to the variety of light and dark moods that the program offered. Chen and Kramer met at the Juilliard School and have been performing together since then to create a finely honed ensemble, technically precise and musically dynamic, coupled with innovative and creative programming that made for a most memorable evening.
Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in A Minor, op. 105, turbulent and passionate opened the concert, and the closer, Grieg’s ebullient Sonata No. 2 in G Major, op. 13, sparkled and danced with the sounds of the Norwegian countryside, notably the springar (an uneven ¾ dance) and the sounds of the open fifths of the Hardanger fiddle, (which had under-strings for sympathetic resonance and a flatter bridge for easier playing of double and triple stops – the term for playing “chords” on the violin). While it contains the more traditional forms of sonata and, as well as unifying elements that bind the themes of all three movements together, one hears the work overall as a succession of folk-melodies, short laments followed by brisk dances.
Two darker and more contemporary works by Polish violinist and composer Grażyna Bacewicz, her Partita for Violin and Piano, and the Jamaican-born British pianist and composer Eleanor Alberga, No-Man’s-Land Lullaby occupied the center place. Bacewicz’s four movements, Preludium, Toccata, Intermezzo, and Rondo cleave together in traditional “slow-fast” pairings common to all Eastern European music that is rooted in folk traditions, while the partita itself follows a Baroque form which roots itself in the sequential ordering of dance movements, called “suite” in French (from “suivez” – to follow, as in succession one after another) and “partita” in Italian (literally ‘parts’ – or movements, as in a suite). Bacewicz writes intense, sometimes dissonant but never displeasing music. The slow movement opening gives the piano an undulating ostinato pattern in the lowest and darkest registers of the keyboard, over which a painfully searing violin expounds its motive. ‘Melody’ is perhaps too strong a word, as the thematic content itself has few notes, thus it resembles more a series of cell-like motives, which also create unity among the movements as they are easily traceable to the ear. This is followed by a movement rapid passagework that is wild and frenetic, or sometimes lighter and more humorous, but always of great virtuosity. The subsequent two movements follow a similar concept, with the Intermezzo not quite as dark but still somewhat melancholy, while the final Rondo sounds lighter and brighter. The composer later orchestrated it.
Eleanor Alberga said of her Lullaby: “Visiting parts of central Europe over the summer of 1996, I was struck by the almost unreal beauty of the landscapes. Yet, I received a heavy sadness in the atmosphere that took me back to the events of half a century ago, some of which had been played out against this very scenery. At the same time, I was visited by a melody. It arrived unbidden and would not leave me alone.” She was speaking of the events of the First World War, which gave the inspiration for this dark and intense work — hence the “No-Man’s-Land” title of what eventually settles into a more serene and ethereal setting of the traditional “Lullaby” so popular and universally known (the famous lullaby itself was adopted from a Waltz by Johannes Brahms). Alberga recorded her Lullaby with her husband, violinist Thomas Bowes, but, at least in the opinion of this writer, last night’s version would have been an equal contender that would have met with her approval.
This review opened with the words that this concert represented the close of a season, but, in another sense, it could be viewed as a prelude to the summer festival that begins on July 4th; we’re particularly looking forward to hearing Simone Dinnerstein’s recital at the Breakers on July 6th . Newport Classical, steeped in the traditions of the former Newport Music Festival, is ever expanding itself by building new audiences, increased public awareness, greater public awareness, and diverse programming that offers opportunities for education and outreach to children, commissioning of new works, and truly exciting and memorable performances in time honored settings that reflect the beauty of Newport’s Gilded Age. You can see a full schedule of upcoming festival performances HERE.
Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.