IN: Reviews

The Gilded Cage Premiered to the World


Composer Curtis Stewart

Newport Classical’s Festival Artists in Residence Lun Li and Ariel Horowitz, violins; Edwin Kaplan, viola; Titilayo Ayangade, cello; and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, piano; delivered a grand-slam finale Saturday at The Breakers, including a debut work commissioned for the festival.

Schumann’s mighty Quintet in E-flat Major Op 44 bristled with dynamic energy and intensity. The opening chords outlining a theme of inwardly telescoping intervals were crisply delivered at a very brisk, exhilarating tempo which, in the very live acoustic, maintained clean sound from even the thickest of textures. The theme itself is suggestive of some of the melodies and sidenote doodles of Bach, whose images of spirals might have suggested something close to a tone row as a means of establishing intervallic temperament (the baseline for any number of tuning systems, something that was subject to experimentation in Bach’s time, and is occasionally visited in our time as well). Schumann drew upon this first theme for other motives, and ideas, many of which he treated contrapuntally―in the manner of Bach—with great attention and care to line and texture. The sensitive interpretation never drew attention to itself, but rather, stayed focused on the music, showing form and line with expressive clarity and integrity.

Much in this work calls to mind the great song cycles Schumann completed during the creative years of 1839 – 1841 with the quintet being written in 1842, and in that sense, there is a suggestion of a storyline, although it is left to the imagination of the listener to figure out the unwritten plot. One can clearly hear the suggestion of a funeral procession in the second movement, the run and play of games and the rustic country dances of the scherzo, even a hint of the dances of Eastern Europe in the trio section, always on the fringes of an otherwise cosmopolitan aesthetic. The final movement likewise opens with a rousing dance like theme, but this time we return to the Bachian influence of fugal treatment for this theme and its countermelody, which recalls the Slavic flavored passage of the Trio of the previous movement. Finally, there is double fugue using this theme against the very opening theme of the first movement, and in this magnificent finale one cannot help also hear the tribute to Beethoven using this very same technique to conclude his Ninth Symphony.

Then the Festival Artists turned to a lesser-known gem of the Romantic era. Max Bruch is best known for his works for the violin, notably the first concerto and Scottish Fantasy, and his setting of the Hebrew melody Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra [he was not Jewish]. His wrote the posthumously published Quintet in G Minor in Liverpool in 1866. It opens with a hymn-like statement from which a quietly restless theme emerges. Soon march-like rhythms appear and propel the music forward. The opening material returns to conclude the first movement, again recalling the idea of cyclic music. The adagio movement which follows carries the dotted march-like rhythm from the previous movement now in a slow three eighth notes to the bar. There are interesting key relationships in this movement, but most stunning is the middle section with its soaring melody in unison in the strings over a full range or arpeggiated chords in the piano, which in their fullness of sound resembled that of a grand organ, the whole reminiscent of the Adagio of Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C Minor Organ (1886). The playful theme of the Scherzo movement returns from the Introduction of the first movement, this time treated as in a child’s nursery rhyme or game. Running scales, sometimes in unison, at other times in contrary motion, complete the games. The arpeggiated piano textures return for the Trio, while the melodic material in the principal violin is undergirded by a chorale-like texture from the other strings. A fiery finale concludes the work, its contrasting section again containing a march over a sustained (pedal point) note.

After a brief intermission, as we returned to the opulence of The Breakers, built in 1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II and a symbol of the Gilded Age, the audience was asked to consider all those “others” connected with that space. Not those who built it, nor those who lived in or visited it, but those Newporters who maintained it:  the polishers, cleaners, tradesmen and women, painters, cooks, and butlers who with such great care managed for decades the magnificence of those great houses. Such were the spirits who were a part of that place ― those who composer Curtis Stewart asked us to remember ― the “other” people, who lived in Newport and were a part of its history and fabric, inspired Stewart’s The Gilded Cage.

As Stewart researched Newport, its stories and histories, he found the most inspiration from his own family stories: his father grew up in Newport, where his grandfather was associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, formerly known as Touro Chapel*. There is a wealth of history here, connected with some of Newport’s first churches of color, from unions of Congregational, Baptist, and AME churches. All of this is captured in The Gilded Cage, about which Stewart remarked quoting Jamie Wade Comstock: “the gilded cage was much more interesting when it still had the birds inside it.” Stewart’s work was evocative of those spirits, echoes of a lost time, eerie, mystical sonorities opened like breezes through the curtains – open textures from the strings, ghostlike, often employing harmonics contrasted with closed clusters from the piano, later reversing themselves, an occasional waft of a walking bass, or a gentle, jazzy riff, sometimes evoking a hymn or a slight breeze. Out of this the tones emerge gradually of the hymn by Baptist preacher and musician Thomas A. Dorsey “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” – not in its usual gospel setting, but rather in the misty mood of the work at hand, gradually gaining in strength, sonority, and confidence. The energy and excitement of a world premiere was not lost on the performers, who with aplomb and integrity unfolded this stunning and evocative work, as the gentle, kind and always encouraging persona of the composer stood in back watching this “precious” moment take place.

Lisette Rooney photo

I had asked of the composer’s father, who was in attendance: “Are you nervous, or confident?” He replied unequivocally: “Confident.” He then went on to tell how Curtis, who like his father teaches at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Juilliard School of Music, both in New York, was always reaching out to teach, encourage and mentor others. Awake to all that is happening around him, he gravitates to the stories of humanity, and tells them through his music, imbuing them with that sense of love and peace, experimentation and creativity that are becoming trademarks of his ever-developing style. An accomplished violinist, Stewart weds the discipline and structure of a classical conservatory trained composer-performer, with the creative freshness of jazz, rap, and other modern popular styles. He hears the African American voice as part of something bigger and truly American, and crosses lines of color and culture with ease, preferring instead to see a rich tapestry of peoples interconnected by their stories and their musics.

The threading of this with Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 gave added poignancy to both, as they both called forth deep reflections upon humanity. Shostakovich himself premiered the quintet in Moscow in 1940 and followed close upon the heels of the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, all these sharing thematic material and a similar esprit. Shostakovich was in a sense “put on trial” during those years and seemed to come out of it not only with official affirmation but also with the Stalin Prize for this quintet. What precisely was on trial was Shostakovich’s adherence to the Soviet aesthetic for the arts that it termed “Realism”. Somewhat contrived, it was required to convey the noblest ideals of humanity but in the idealized version of the Revolution and its goals for the proletariat. What was specifically not allowed was any expression of interior feelings or depth of emotions, so any music filled with pathos became suspect. Shostakovich couched his beautifully moving Adagio, so suggestive of the themes of the fifth symphony, in the form of a fugue, and thus as a nod to J. S. Bach could pass muster with the critics. The finale does express a great deal of human optimism, it must be for both the performer and the listener to decide if Shostakovich genuinely felt that, or not, but as for this performance, the Festival Artists lavished all the love and devotion to the music that it deserved. They rendered virtuosic and sensitive performances with integrity, authenticity, and sincerity. They brought out the human elements of the work and wove them into expressive and passionate musical narratives. The whole shone forth clearly because of the greatness of its parts.

Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.

* Judah Touro provided for African American places of worship as well as synagogues and the Bunker Hill Monument. Keith Stokes, Touro’s descendant by his freed slave, is active in Newport today, telling this compelling story.

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