IN: Reviews

Psychopomp Evokes Germanians’ Lighter Side

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The quaintly printed single-page program said it all: “Chamber Music Charlestown, along with St. John’s Church and the Friends of the Charlestown Library present Germania Musical Society Dance Music: Waltzes, Quicksteps, Polkas, Marches, and Galops…”, with a period lithograph from the 1850s showing 21 mustachioed players from the Society’s orchestra. This jolly afternoon concert, relocated from the Harvard Musical Association after an avoidable conflict, drew an audience of about 90 HMA loyalists and friends as bright sunlight poured through the stained-glass windows of the small and acoustically gratifying church just a few hundred yards from the Bunker Hill Monument.

The duo-pianists Xiaopei Xu and Chi-Wei Lo, who call themselves Psychopomp, assembled an agreeable program—carefully winnowed, rearranged, and improved—from the  19th-century favorites and forgettables in the HMA Library. Carl Zerrahn (1826-1909), German-American flutist and conductor who taught at NEC and conducted all over the Boston area, was centrally featured as a composer, with a Forget-Me-Not Grand Waltz and Hungarian Mask Galop, both in A-flat major with nocturne-like cantilena and echoes of Chopin. Joseph Gung’l (1809-1889) and Carl Bergmann (1814-1865) were similarly represented with polkas and waltzes of lighthearted parlor flavor, much of it with dominant-tonic alternation and treble trills and tremoli to the end of time, and many who heard this music remember how much fun it was to play at home even decades ago. Bergmann’s Evening Polka earned plaudits for Psychopomps sparklingly improvisatory variations in the styles of composers ranging from Bach to Schoenberg.

Some weightier music filled out the program, too: Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, heard in this four-hand transcription, sounded almost like a new piece, reminding us that when its orchestral original was composed by a 17-year-old genius, Beethoven was still alive. I had not heard the Overture to Ludwig Spohr’s Jessonda since 1962, but it sounded freshly revived, with Wagner lurking around the next corner. The program ended with Johann Strauss Jr.’s immortal Radetzky March, and several in the audience were seen to be clapping in rhythm.

Through their Psychopomp Ensemble (meaning spiritual guide), international performers, Doctors of Musical Arts recipients, and conservatory teachers Chi-Wei Lo and Xiaopei Xu downplay any sense of either pomp or psychosis;  they have a very superior unity as a duet team, and especially to their credit, they do not bang out the fortissimo style. Their execution was as sensitive as it was sensible. Lo has an electric aura and Xu produced an exquisite singing tone on the 1870 Chickering Concert Grand. A YouTube video is HERE. I’d like to hear more of them in some of the lesser-known four-hand repertory, such as the inches-thick volume of Schubert duets, and the last two Mozart sonatas.

Our feature HERE gives an interesting account of the Germania Musical Society.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

7 Comments »

7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A spot on review, that perfectly describes the concert. It was great fun, and I concur that we want to hear more from Psychopomp.

    Comment by Leon Golub — March 4, 2024 at 2:58 pm

  2. The concert was a delight, and yes, that sunlight was almost ethereal. The coordination between these two musicians was impeccable, enjoyable to hear and watch.

    The concert also gave us the opportunity to hear music on an instrument of the time–pre-Steinway. I found myself reminiscing about my grandparents’ player piano…

    I suspect that DeVoto and I have the same opinion on what music is “forgettable.”

    As for the rather amusing improvisations in the Bergmann. A few were identifiable, especially when one realized they were chronological, but I’ll be damned if I got Beethoven, even though I anticipated it.

    All in all, a veritable romp in a gorgeous setting, all thanks to Lee Eiseman.

    Afterthought. In our times, with devastating and unnecessary conflicts killing people throughout by the world, is it necessary to have one on our own backyard, destroying amity and mutual love of music?

    Comment by Norton — March 4, 2024 at 8:05 pm

  3. I should have mentioned that, although the “period instrument” aspect was a bit of enjoyable historic accuracy, I am glad that Steinway came along.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — March 4, 2024 at 10:47 pm

  4. As sweet an afternoon as can be had. Music that was as much fun to watch being played — with some gymnastic reaches across many hands — as it was a delight to hear. It was a repertory that has faded as tastes have changed but all the more interesting because of that. The pianists were a two-person tour-de-force who generated good vibes along with their fine music. All complemented by a reception after with homemade cakes, cookies and deviled eggs. Many thanks to the always inventive Lee Eiseman for putting it all together.

    Comment by Steve Landrigan — March 5, 2024 at 8:12 pm

  5. Bettina Norton, you are so right! May those who fail to grasp the priceless value of cordial fellowship, which was so vibrant at this concert, heed your wise words. If music doesn’t lift us up to something higher than pettiness, what will? It’s never too late to make amends and change course. As The Winter’s Tale teaches us. May the grace of music give us hearts of flesh.

    Comment by Ashley — March 6, 2024 at 8:35 am

  6. For a moment music can soothe the savage breast and can blunt the serpent’s tooth of ingratitude

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 6, 2024 at 10:40 am

  7. And readers can decide what they think of the piano by clicking on the video HERE.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 6, 2024 at 9:58 pm

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