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Charisma Conquers at 275-Year-Old Athenæum


Abraham Redwood and his company of 45 literate colleagues commissioned Peter Harrison (his Touro Synagogue came a decade later) in 1747 to design and build a rusticated Georgian library. They could hardly have anticipated how, 275 years later, the namesake joint would be jiving. During Newport Classical’s gala cocktail party and concert, charismatic clarinetist Anthony McGill and captivating pianist Anna Polonsky presided; the two players, having been sometime partners since summer camping at Interlochen decades ago, engaged with each other and the responsive audience with stunning rapport.

True to Artistic Director Gillian Friedman Fox’s vision for the Newport Classical Festival, the artists chose three accessible modern (but not modernist) American compositions in the company of a digestible, jazzy Lutoslawski and fiendishly and doubly virtuosic Carl Maria von Weber. The audience didn’t know where to clap for the first of these, Amanda Harberg’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (2016), since the title page of the excellent seasonal program book (now free but in years past, an expensive investment) did not list the three movements. According to the annotator Susan Halpren:

The New York Times has described the music of Amanda Harberg as “a sultry excursion into lyricism.” According to Cleveland Classical, Harberg weaves classical Western tradition with contemporary influences to create a distinctively personal style which “conveys a thoroughly original sense of happiness in music.” “She invigorates the brain and touches the soul,” says composer John Corigliano.

The composer writes of her sonata:

It has three contrasting yet closely related movements: 1. Gently, Playful, 2. Interlude, and 3. Agitato. The first movement begins with a sweetly mellifluous opening melody contrasted by a playful secondary theme and is a nostalgic exploration of youthful innocence. The second movement serves as a bridge into another emotional space, colored by sadness and loss. The final movement transforms the material from the opening movement into an insistent dance full of dark, agitated energy.”

The sonata begins with a restful, reflective soulfulness; in ensuing variations we find the piano and clarinet in a lively, serpentine embrace.  A jazzy exchange … back to soulful opening…additional variations with a more independent piano part, then something of a point, counterpoint relationship between the players. The Interlude searches mysteriously…loud-soft alternations…McGill played with signal steadiness, elegant at every dynamic level…tragedy then trills (simultaneously) into a livelier episode…piano strides…back to quiet inwardness…clarinet snake charms over block chords and arpeggios…McGill magnificent in cadenza of the entire dynamic and coloristic range …then it stops.  

Witold Lutoslawski’s (5) Dance Preludes (1955): No. 1, Allegro molto, No. 3, Allegro giocoso, and No. 5, Allegro molto. No. 2, Andantino, and No. 4, Andante, represented his “farewell to folklore” before turning Darmstadtery. Over nine minutes, contrasting episodes―some jagged, others reflective―evoked Poulenc and Copland for this writer. All the preludes danced, and all contained surprises. We also imagined the dominating Polonsky as a puppet master pulling clarinetist Petrushka’s virtual strings. It ended in a fine frenzy, more happily than in the Stravinsky ballet.

McGill celebrated the Copland’s Sonata for Violin and Piano for its simple, beautiful American openness. The composer averred: “It is certainly one of the least complex pieces that I’ve ever written…. It is an uncomplicated and direct statement of rather uncomplicated and direct musical ideas that I enjoyed developing. Above all, the work is lyrical and emphasizes the singing qualities of the violin.” In 1970 Copland transcribed the 1943 sonata in memory of clarinetist Harry Dunham. The WPA-ish work unmistakably comes from the pen of the author of Appalachian Spring. It’s redolent of church anthems, but with luscious dark, ripe undercurrents. Polonsky impersonated the noble parson, while McGill played a stunning church organ of a single pipe. Church bells tolled, themes unfolded and amens ended phrases.  The Lento second movement discoursed Bartokian syncopations as well as counterpointing a Bachian three-part invention. It ended with the simplicity of Piemen’s monolgue (from Boris Godunov) before moving attacca in the Allegretto giusto finale. The alternations of calm with peasant-dance liveliness kept us riveted, while setting the stage for McGill’s demanding soliloquy—delivered with transcendent chops and received with open warmth.

Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941): Fantaisie for Clarinet and Piano, having been cut, the second half began with Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941): The Blue Bag. McGill suggested we think of the work, which he wrote for and dedicated to McGill, as an embrace of Nina Simone and Ella Fiztgerald [and why not Pete Fountain?]. That may be, but the piano part certainly summoned Fats Waller and Art Tatum. The room now rocked like a dive bar; McGill adjusted his tones appropriately to a brighter, sometimes raucous call and response with a very free sounding Polonsky. In mixing and overlaying blues, boogie woogie, stride, and yes, modern jazz, Hailstock’s 1992 score developed an almost Ivesian layering. The performance rewarded us with a real celebration.

The painted worthies lining the walls seemed to smile when the strains of Carl Maria von Weber’s Grand Duo concertant for Piano and Clarinet wafted so heroically. Herein, a treaty was executed between time and place. The extraordinary showpiece for both free-shooting players gave them carte blanche not only for rapidfire, perfectly executed scales and show-off effects, but also to sing out with an operatic sense of drama, whether melancholic or, menacing, or consoling. It cannot be doubted that this concerted work came from the author of the Wolf Glen scene. McGill and Polonsky not only mowed down every performance hurdle, but they also entwined in in emotional songfullness replete with a powerful exhilaration that banished any intimations of HIP. Whether their scales ran contrary or parallel, their work always converged artistically. This A team left us smitten.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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