MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

BBC Proms 2021

The recently concluded BBC Proms concerts are available online. Here’s a guest review of the 2021 edition of the Proms by Tom Luce:

BBC PROMENADE CONCERTS 2021: REVIVAL OF PUBLIC MUSIC-MAKING DURING THE PANDEMIC

Last year, in compliance with pandemic restrictions, the BBC had to limit both the number and accessibility of its annual Promenade Concert Festival concerts. There were fine and interesting concerts as usual in London’s huge Albert Hall. They were all broadcast but had no public audiences present.

This year, with great skill and imagination, the BBC has achieved a full program which complies with pandemic public health precautions. The Albert Hall stage was enlarged so that orchestral members could social distance from each other and the audience, and the public were admitted after showing proof of double vaccination or negative Covid tests. So nearly a year and a half after the near closure of public music-making, it has been revived.

The 46 concert programs had great diversity in content and performers. The classical composers and their modern successors were fully represented, but there was also a lot of non-European music and popular and folk-based items. How many festival programs have included not only Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, along with the usual Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Stravinsky, etc., but also music by Florence Price and Gity Razaz, n accordionist playing a Piazzolla tango, an evening devoted to a jazz saxophonist and composer, and another to the Golden Age of Broadway?

International travel restrictions meant that nearly all performing groups were based in the UK. As well as the BBC’s own and other regular British orchestras, a fine concert was provided by the Chineke! orchestra, and a chamber group consisting largely of members of the Kanneh-Mason family (cellist Sheku having memorably played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Seattle Symphony three years ago), which delivered a charming performance of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals.

All of the concerts remain internationally available on BBC Sounds until mid-October. It’s hard to pick those most worthwhile to hear out of such a fine collection. My own preferences include a wonderful St. Matthew Passion performance by the Baroque-style Arcangelo group under their founder and director Johnathan Cohen, who with excellent soloists delivered both the dramatic crowd interventions and the intimate and reflective arias and recitatives with equal effectiveness (9 September); a magnificently played and conducted Tristan und Isolde from the Glyndebourne Festival (3 September); John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi team in a Bach cantata and a stunningly energetic performance of Handel’s Dixit Dominus (1 September); Simon Rattle and the London Symphony in a Stravinsky program (22 August); a fine delivery of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony by an orchestra of pandemic-impoverished freelance musicians specially brought together by the BBC (8 September); the Chineke! Orhcestra’s fine evening with rarely performed but very welcome  music by Florence Price, Samuel Taylor Coleridge Taylor, and Felo Sowande, as well as a Vivaldi concerto (24 August); and a superb rendering of Mozart’s last three symphonies by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (1 August).

In accordance with British tradition, the first and last nights were national events. I have elsewhere described the first night’s programming as very suitable to pandemic circumstances. A remarkable feature of the last night was a  beautiful choral arrangement of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Arranging the words from the Agnus Dei (“Grant them rest……….Grant us peace”) to this celebrated expression of grief was a wonderful addition to a public concert  occurring on 9/11, 20 years after the tragic events in the USA — a commemoration subtly conveyed by Hall ushers gently lifting the Stars and Stripes as it was sung.

All of the concerts I observed were attended by thousands in the Albert Hall, who responded very strongly, and these performances were no doubt heard by millions via radio. To experience such a public revival of real concerts and the profound effect of music on society has reminded me of two historic observations on music’s importance:

-Plato’s comment: “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe and wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm to sadness and gaiety to life and to everything”.

-”Musica: Laetitia comes medecina dolorum” (“Music: pleasure’s companion: grief’s remedy”), the inscription on the virginal in Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson.

Filed under: BBC Proms, review

What’s Happening to Seattle Symphony’s Thomas Dausgaard?

Seattle Symphony just announced that Thomas Dausgaard, who was reportedly unable to join his orchestra for last weekend’s much-anticipated gala concert and comeback to live performance, has been “further delayed due to pandemic restrictions.” As the official press release phrases it: “Due to continued and unavoidable governmental delays, the Seattle Symphony’s Music Director Thomas Dausgaard is unable to join the orchestra for his originally scheduled Delta Air Lines Masterworks Series concerts in October.”

Why the “continued and unavoidable governmental delays” when other artists have successfully managed the paperwork and roadblocks? Are they really unavoidable?

Here’s the complete wording of the press release:

Seattle, WA — Due to continued and unavoidable governmental delays, the Seattle Symphony’s Music Director Thomas Dausgaard is unable to join the orchestra for his originally scheduled Delta Air Lines Masterworks Series concerts in October.

As Dausgaard’s work visa process continues to be severely stalled due to COVID-19-related travel issues, the Seattle Symphony has confirmed two renowned guest conductors as substitutes. Eight-time Grammy winner Giancarlo Guerrero will take to the podium on October 7 and 9 for vibrant concerts that include Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Arturo Márquez’s Fandango, a new violin concerto featuring revered soloist Anne Akiko Meyers. Meyers will be performing instead of the previously announced violinist, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who also encountered pandemic travel restrictions. Music lovers can also stream the October 7 concert on Seattle Symphony Live. Then, on October 14 and 16, Stefan Asbury will make his Seattle Symphony debut for a performance featuring soprano and composer Adeliia Faizullina and her Tatar Folk Songs, which won the Seattle Symphony’s 2020 Celebrate Asia Composition Competition.

Filed under: music news, Seattle Symphony

Rebecca Saunders World Premiere at Lucerne Festival

The British-born, Berlin-residing Rebecca Saunders is this summer’s composer-in-residence at Lucerne Festival. Tonight brings the culminating event of her residency: the world premiere of her piano concerto to an utterance. She wrote it while working closely with the soloist Nicholas Hodges, in her signature fashion, to explore aspects of the instrument’s sound potential.

The premiere was originally to have taken place last summer and had to be postponed because of the pandemic. In another twist, Ivan Volkov, who was originally scheduled to conduct, had to bow out just last week for reasons of health. Composer-conductor Enno Poppe will lead the newly named Lucerne Festival Contemporary Orchestra. They will then take the work to Musicfest Berlin.

“The solo piano within this concerto was conceived as a disembodied voice,” explains Saunders. “It seeks to tell its own story, wavering, almost painfully, inevitably failing to sustain its uncertain striving. It seeks to attain the silence of its end through its own excessive speaking: an incessant, compulsive soliloquy on the precipice of non-being.” 

The clip above is from a piece titled “Study,” based on the solo part, that Saunders presented last year at the Musikfest Berlin.

to an utterance is the tenth in the series of Roche Commissions sponsored by the pharmaceutical giant Roche. The latest composer to be commissioned has also been announced: Thomas Adés, who will write a violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter to be unveiled in the summer of 2022.

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, music news, Rebecca Saunders, Roche Commissions, Thomas Adès

2021 George Enescu Festival

The 25th annual George Enescu Festival is now underway in the composer’s native Romania. This year’s edition, held between 28 August and 26 September 26, is presenting over 3,500 international and Romanian artists. Most of the performances take place in Bucharest, but some are planned for other cities around Romania.

Paavo Järvi conducted the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra in the opening night concert–Ensecu’s Romanian Rhapsody Op. 11, no. 2, the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 on Saturday, with Hilary Hahn as the soloist. A complete listing of events programmed for this ambitious festival can be found here.

Filed under: George Enescu, music festivals, music news

Seattle Opera Returns with an Abridged Concert Walküre

Saturday evening, 28 August, at Seattle Center, starting at 7pm, Seattle Opera returns to performance with a live audience with a “Welcome Back Concert” consisting of highlights from Die Walküre. More than 2,000 people are expected to attend this special outdoor opera performance, which I’m chagrined I will have to miss.

It’s sold out but jumbo screens will allow anyone who strolls down to the Seattle Center Campus to enjoy the performance at various non-ticketed areas.

The cast: Angela MeadeEric OwensAlexandra LoBianco (most recently Seattle Opera’s Tosca), Raymond Aceto, and Brandon Jovanovich. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra will be led by the group’s former leader Maestro Ludovic Morlot.

Filed under: Ludovic Morlot, music news, Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony

Houses of Zodiac: Poems for Cello

I’m looking forward to Houses of Zodiac: Poems for Cellothe first album collaboration between Paola Prestini and former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler (her husband).

Zodiac presents Zeigler’s performances of Prestini’s solo cello works, along with poetic interludes featuring the writings of Anaïs Nin (which are read by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings fame), Pablo Neruda, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Natasha Trethewey. The album also includes Prestini’s score for We Breathe Again, an award-winning documentary performed by musicians Tanya Tagaq and Nels Cline and others.

Filmmaker Murat Eyuboglu has additionally created a full-length film featuring dance and choreography by Butoh master Dai Matsuoka and New York City Ballet soloist and “Rogue Ballerina” Georgina Pazcoguin.

Filed under: music news, new music

Michael Morgan RIP (1957-2021)

It’s heartbreaking to learn of the death on Friday of Michael Morgan, a much-loved conductor and generous colleague who devoted three decades to his work with the Oakland Symphony. “Our entire organization is grieving a profound loss,” Jim Hasler, the Symphony’s Board Chair said. “Michael’s impact on our community and the national orchestra field cannot be overstated – and he has left us too soon.

Writes Joshua Kosman in his touching tribute: “Michael was an excellent conductor, but more than that, he was a superb music director. His overall ambition was less to perform the symphonies of Beethoven or Schubert well — though naturally that was also part of the plan — than to find ways for the Oakland Symphony to be a force for good, in both the artistic and the civic arena. That’s why his programming was so restless and innovative, so devoted to championing the work of the underrepresented and the little-known.”

“In the manner of an older generation of conductors who came to an area and stayed put, Mr. Morgan spent the last 30 years of his life mostly in the Bay Area and its environs,” according to Tim Page in his Washington Post obituary.

Here’s a sample of Michael Morgan’s artistry — a clip of him conducting the Stony Brook Symphony Orchestra in John Corigliano’s 1977 Clarinet Concerto:

Filed under: conductors, music news

Tippet Rise on Tour: August Festival 2021

Running August 19-22Tippet Rise on Tour: August Festival will premiere seven short classical performance films captured at unusual locations across the country: from a tractor barn in Colorado and Ensamble Studio’s Cyclopean House in Massachusetts to the Noguchi Museum in New York City.

The films feature cellist Arlen Hlusko; flutist Brandon Patrick George; pianists Michael Brown, Jenny Chen, and Anne-Marie McDermott; violinist Geneva Lewis; and the vocal ensemble The New Consort.

The festival is free to everyone. The films will stream each day at 8PM ET. Starting at 7:30PM ET this Thursday, August 19 is a live “backstage” gathering via Zoom that will include a discussion with Tippet Rise co-founders Cathy and Peter Halstead and Ensamble Studio’s Débora Mesa and Antón García Abril, the creators behind three monumental sculptures at Tippet Rise—the Domo, the Beartooth Portal, and the Inverted Portal.

Thursday’s location is Cyclopean House, the Brookline, Massachusetts, home and workplace of Débora and Antón, where violinist and rising star Geneva Lewis will perform an eclectic mix of works. Next up is New York and the Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center for a performance by Brandon Patrick George, flutist of Imani Winds.

Friday, August 20, brings a visit to one of the most tranquil and beautiful places in all of New York City—the Noguchi Museum—for a program of new works and poetry performed and read by cellist Arlen Hlusko, followed by a film featuring pianist Jenny Chen at the Blue Gallery in Manhattan.

Saturday, August 21 is set in a tractor barn nestled in Colorado’s Vail Valley at nearly 9,000 feet, where pianist Anne-Marie McDermott devotes her program to Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat major.

The festival concludes in New York on Sunday, August 22 with two films: one beneath a church in Brooklyn at The Gymnasium-Gymnopedie, featuring the solo-voice ensemble The New Consort, and then again at the Blue Gallery for a performance by pianist Michael Brown, featuring a work of his own composition, Breakup Etude for Right Hand Alone, along with works by Chopin and Mendelssohn.

Full program details:

August Festival | Day One | August 19, 2021 | 6PM MDT
Geneva Lewis, violin
KAIJA SAARIAHO: Nocturne
HEINRICH IGNATZ BIBER: Passacaglia
EUGÈNE YSAŸE: Sonata No. 5 in G Major for solo violin, Op. 27
Filmed at Cyclopean House, Brookline, Massachusetts
Jean Coleman, filmmaker; Noriko Okabe, audio engineer. Duration:

Brandon Patrick George, flute
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Partita in A Minor for solo flute, BWV 1013
TŌRU TAKEMITSU: Air
DAVID LANG: Thorn
Filmed at Jerome Robbins Theater at Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York
Tristan Cook, filmmaker; George Wellington, audio engineer. Duration: 21’

August Festival | Day Two | August 20, 2021 | 6PM MDT
Arlen Hlusko, cello
JOHN CONAHAN: Philly ‘hood Flashes
NICHOLAS YANDELL: Restless/Release
MICHELLE ROSS: Haiku
DAVID JAEGER: The Blue Trees Rise Again (1. Landscape, 2. Evening, 3. Conjure You)
SETH COLE: Mi’Mahalah L’Mahol (From Sickness to Dancing)
Filmed at The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, Long Island City, New York
Jean Coleman, filmmaker; Noriko Okabe, audio engineer. Duration: 20’

Jenny Chen, piano
FRANZ LISZT: Three Concert Études, S. 144, Étude No. 3 Un Sospiro
FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN: Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60
FRANZ LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10, in E Major, S.244/10
Filmed at Blue Gallery, New York, New York
Xuan, filmmaker; Noriko Okabe, audio engineer. Duration: 25’

August Festival | Day Three | August 21, 2021 | 6PM MDT
Anne-Marie McDermott, piano
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
Filmed at Tractor Barn, Edwards, Colorado
Tristan Cook, filmmaker; Jim Ruberto, audio engineer. Duration: 45’

August Festival | Day Four | August 22, 2021 | 6PM MDT
The New Consort, vocal ensemble (Madeline Apple Healey, Rhianna Cockrell, Clifton Massey,
Nathan Hodgson, Brian Mummert)
CARLO GESUALDO: “Moro, lasso, almio duolo”
CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI: “Zefiro torna e’l bel tempo rimena”
TED HEARNE: Ripple
SAMIH CHOUKEIR, arranged by Shireen Abu Khader: Lau Rahal Sawti
Filmed at Gymnopedie, Brooklyn, NY
Jean Coleman, filmmaker, Noriko Okabe, audio engineer. Duration: 30’

Michael Brown, piano
MAURICE RAVEL: Jeux d’eau
MICHAEL BROWN: Breakup Etude for Right Hand Alone (2020)
FREDERIC CHOPIN: Impromptu in F-sharp Major, Op. 36
ALEXANDER SCRIABIN: Poème in F-sharp Major, Op. 32, No. 1
FELIX MENDELSSOHN: Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14
Filmed at Blue Gallery, New York, New York
Xuan, filmmaker; Noriko Okabe, audio engineer. Durati

Filed under: music news, Tippet Rise

Music on the Strait: Opening Weekend, Part 2 (at Concerts in the Barn)

The Barn entrance; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

For the first time since it began in 2018, Music on the Strait (MOTS) is partnering this summer with Concerts in the Barn to present a third performance for each of the festival’s two weekends. Scheduled for Sundays in Quilcene (about an hour southeast of Port Angeles), these concerts repeat one of the Friday/Saturday programs and are available to the public on a free/pay-what-you-can basis (prior registration required).

Determined to have the full experience of MOTS both at its Port Angeles venue (Peninsula College’s Maier Hall) and at the Barn, my partner and I caught the Takács Quartet on Sunday afternoon in its repeat of Friday’s opening program. Connected with the Concerts in the Barn series is a moving story of its own involving reconciliation with the descendants of the Japanese American family who had owned the land before they were forced into internment camps in the Second World War. Alan Iglitzin, the legendary violist who founded the Port Townsend-based Olympic Music Festival and cofounded the Philadelphia Quartet, established the series in 1984 in an abandoned dairy barn at Trillium Woods Farm near Quilcene (venue pictured above and just below).

With the Takács, MOTS’s co-founder, the Grammy Award-winning violist Richard O’Neill, was able to present what he has been up to most recently as the newest member of that revered ensemble. He offered some prefatory comments recalling his epiphany in this very space, as a youngster spellbound in the audience on July 3, 1993, when he heard a performance of the Death and the Maiden Quartet and realized he wanted to spend his life making music like this. O’Neill gave a touching tribute to Iglitzin (who remains active as he heads into his 90s), pointing out how his efforts have left a lasting imprint.

Inside the Barn; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

We found a comfortable spot atop a hay bale for the first half and tried out the loft in back for the second; the acoustics were consistently warm, natural, direct. As far as could be ascertained, this was the first time the Takács Quartet was performing in an actual barn (though O’Neill and violinist Harumi Rhodes had individually appeared in the same space before). The relaxed setting, with audience reclining on the grass outside and listening via speakers, was inversely proportional to the intensity of involvement in the music-making (for the Takács and audience alike).

The program presented three hefty staples of the repertoire, in the process tracing a branch of the Viennese Classical tradition and an early modern offshoot. Melancholy and subdued serenity took the lead at the start of Haydn’s F minor Quartet from the genre-defining Op. 20 set of 1772.

Edward Dusinberre’s exquisite descants in the slow movement had the flexibility of first-rate jazz, blooming across the basic lilt of the siciliana, while ensemble ebb-and-pull at a breakneck pace imbued the double-fugue finale with thrilling emotion. From this kind of realization, it became understandable how Beethoven would later mine such potential from what must have seemed, to contemporaries, the hopelessly antiquated constraints of string counterpoint.

Gears were immediately shifted for Ravel’s sole essay in the genre, the early Quartet in F major from 1903, both modeled on and knowingly independent of Debussy’s contribution from a decade before. O’Neill’s rich, demonstrative viola personality — amply on display as Ravel’s writing ventures ever further into timbral experiment — was but one strand of a winningly characterful account. At one moment of mysterious tremoli, a dulcet breeze wafted through the open barn doors and across the space, a perfectly timed accompaniment.

Time and again, as in András Fejér’s superbly articulated solo work in the cello-centered variation of the second movement of the Schubert, the Takács demonstrated their winning secret of accommodating strikingly individual voices while maintaining coherence and unity of purpose as an ensemble. This is, in large part, the result of the sort of close listening that allowed such an impressive display of dynamic range and control in the Assez vif, as well as such infinite tenderness amid the tempo changes of Ravel’s slow movement.

An intriguingly balletic quality enriched the final movement. Dance of a far more dreadful vividness was the driving force in the last two movements of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden from 1824, to which the concert’s second half was devoted.

Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O’Neill, and András Fejér) ; photo credit J. Gustavo Elias

But the Takács set the stage with a surprising take on the opening movement: here, they almost downplayed the obvious drama and emphasized melodic consolation instead, clinging to Schubert’s Siren-like phrases as if to a life raft. As the afternoon sun stole through a crack in the wood above the players, a gleam briefly lit up the body of Fejér’s cello during the variation movement from which Schubert’s Quartet got its nickname; later, the whispered violin-and-viola reprise of the theme was as chilling as a prolonged death rattle.

The final tarantella kept looping back in terrifyingly relentless repetitions, a nightmare Groundhog Day with no escape in the Takács’ feverish, sweat-soaked rendition.

There is one more weekend to experience the 2021 Music on the Strait Festival; both programs feature Jeremy Denk, James Garlick, Ani Aznavoorian, and Richard O’Neill. Friday’s concert (20 August) is titled A Belated Beethoven Celebration; on Saturday (21 August), the Barn-Burning Brahms finale presents music by Jessie Montgomery, Paul Hindemith, and Johannes Brahms, which will be repeated Sunday (22 August) at 2pm as part of the Concerts in the Barn series in Quilcene.

–Review (c) 2021 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, Music on the Strait, review

Music on the Strait: Opening Weekend, Part 1

James Garlick and Richard O’Neill; image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

In 2018, local sons James Garlick and Richard O’Neill together founded Music on the Strait (MOTS) in partnership with the Port Angeles Symphony, as a summer chamber festival in Port Angeles. The aim is to make chamber music performed by artists of international caliber accessible to residents of the Olympic Peninsula. This marvel-filled region on the “other side” of Puget Sound — paradise for nature lovers — is surprisingly close to Seattle but vastly distant in ethos and even climate. Though only 80-something miles away, Port Angeles requires a substantial day trip from the Emerald City (via either a ferry ride or a longer detour by land).

The prolonged, silent fermata caused by the pandemic intruded after just two years of building up momentum (though Music on the Strait was able to produce two live-stream programs over the past year). Even so, MOTS pulled off an inspired and inspiring opening weekend with a return to live performance at Maier Hall on the main campus of Peninsula College located in Port Angeles. It’s a small, warm, intimate space ideal for chamber music and seemed to be pulsating with anticipation as the audience gathered on Saturday night for the second program of this opening weekend (the first I was able to catch). MOTS required vaccination cards as well as masks, and patrons effortlessly complied.

Garlick is a violinist who hails from Port Angeles itself but is currently based in Minneapolis, while the violist O’Neill, a native of nearby Sequim, has long been a regular presence at the Seattle Chamber Music Society festivals. Earlier this year, O’Neill joined the storied Takács Quartet and won his first Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental solo (for his recording of Christopher Theofanides’s Viola Concerto).

image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

The two MOTS cofounders and artistic directors started off the program with a duo for their respective instruments by the Norwegian composer, conductor, and violinist Johan Halvorsen — or rather, Halvorsen’s late-Romantic elaboration on the Sarabande from Handel’s D minor Harpsichord Suite. The harmonic sequence is mighty reminiscent of the ear-wiggy La Folia craze that took Europe by storm centuries ago — hence the nickname “Handel’s Folia” — but Halvorsen’s treatment engraves the music with a tremendously “non-HIP” solemnity that requires its own historically informed practice, so distant has this Victorian era aesthetic become. It was intriguing to hear (and see) Garlick and O’Neill exchange and fuse their notably different playing styles and gestural languages.

Jeremy Denk; image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

Jeremy Denk has close ties to MOTS — he was a featured artist in the inaugural season — and he is cast in a central role in the 2021 edition as well. Though his mask made him appear slightly surreal in the heat of the moment (especially given his fondness for turning from the Steinway to glance at the audience or, later, his fellow musicians), the pianist’s gregarious, stimulating, and entertaining artistic personality was fully on display. Denk prefaced his account of J.S. Bach’s G major Partita No. 5, BWV 829, by describing it as the work of a “wicked, smiling, rambunctious rapscallion” who delighted in confounding the church elders with wild modulations and far-roaming fantasies. And that was just how he played the Partita, emphasizing every moment of wit and invention with a willful, winning eccentricity. It seemed very much of our time, of a desperate need to accentuate how music matters, even at its most playful. Amid all the frolicking, the Sarabande had a directness that was deeply touching.

Denk approached the final Gigue as if it were a study for late Beethoven (admittedly, easier to do with Bach-on-piano). Similarly, he found in Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins’s The Battle of Manassas a provocatively avant-garde take on program music and a fascination for sound collage and cluster chords decades ahead of Charles Ives. The piece also calls for spoken (shouted) “tags” from the pianist, with Denk briefly pulling down his mask to announce such events as the approach of the Southern Army in this extraordinary evocation of the 1861 victory of Confederate forces in the First Battle of Bull Run — a musical equivalent of the once-popular panorama paintings that were 19th-century precursors to film.

The Battle of Manassas was part of a set that included Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s transcription of They Will Not Lend Me a Child (Op. 59, no. 4), played with spacious grandeur and an affectionately meditative account of Scott Joplin’s 1907 Heliotrope Bouquet (cowritten with Louis Chauvin), culminating in one of the North American Ballads by the late Frederic Rzewski. Denk chose Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, inspired by a folk song connected to the labor struggle of textile workers at a South Carolina plant in the 1930s. Rzewski’s grinding, machine-like ostinati suggested a provocative counterpart to the “Blind Tom” Wiggins piece — in both cases, Denk thundered relentlessly from the lower depths, using the keyboard to transport us inside the action. But the victory in Rzewski’s mini-epic is intensely rewarding: the emergence of song, of humanity, that hoists itself above brutal, indifferent implacability.

Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Harumi Rhodes, Richard O’Neill, and András Fejér); image credit: J. Gustavo Elias

Denk joined with the Takács Quartet — another clear win for this edition of MOTS — in a deep dive into Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op. 44 (which the Takács has recorded with Marc-André Hamelin). They reveled in the enormous diversity of this pathbreaking score’s emotional terrain, at times stretching the flexibility of its language to a near-breaking point. The opening movement, with its outsize exuberance, plummeted into gloom in the funeral march that ensues and which they rendered with a powerfully effective slow burn — seemingly encapsulating the composer’s polar extremes. It’s become a challenge not to read a subtext of our recent collective suffering into these familiar musical journeys — in this case, the nervous pauses and pent-up tensions of the march seemed especially telling. The Scherzo, effusive and ebullient, helped light the way back toward a hope that took root in the finale’s polyphonic splendor, brightening into plausible joy.

–(c)2021 Thomas May — All rights reserved

Filed under: chamber music, Music on the Strait, review

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