Monday, November 7, 2016

Shall we gather at the river?

Congratulations and thank you to the Fine Art Music Company for its exhilarating program of American music this weekend in Philadelphia. The performances, held Saturday evening at Ivy Hall and Sunday afternoon at the Ethical Society, were timed -- intentionally, I am told -- to correspond with Tuesday's general election. I joked, ruefully, that it might be the last time I feel good about being an American for a long time to come.

But feel good I did. The program was well-chosen and lovingly presented. I was familiar with most of the music, but two pieces -- Paul Bowles's Six Preludes for Piano and William Grant Still's Suite for Violin and Piano -- were new to me.

Bowles's Preludes are short, finely etched studies that the pianist, Kasia Marzec-Salwinski, compared to the character pieces of Schumann. Still's Suite shoehorns elements of jazz and spirituals into rather a conventional framework.

By contrast, Charles Ives's Fourth Violin Sonata, which opened the second half of the program, does away with frameworks altogether. Subtitled "Children's Day at the Camp Meeting," it is not one of Ives's more avant-garde works, but it bristles with mischief, and Jonathan Moser, the afternoon's violinist, navigated the mood swings with remarkable clarity of tone, while Kasia, on piano, more than held her own in a piece that mocks the very notion of holding your own.

The Ives was one of two high points of the afternoon for me. The other was the finale, Gershwin's ubiquitous "Rhapsody in Blue," in Henry Levine's arrangement for piano four hands. This is not a piece I need to listen to a lot, though I certainly don't avoid it. Gershwin's concert music is often better remembered than heard -- that is, the melodies are so good they stick in the mind long after you've forgotten just how clunky the structures are. But any doubts as to the music's ultimate value were banished here. Kasia and Rollin Wilber breezed through it with an enthusiasm that proved infectious. It was obvious they were having a high old time.

I don't want to leave out flutist Elivi Varga, who performed Copland's Duo for Flute and Piano and Samuel Barber's Canzone (with  Rollin on piano in the former, Kasia in the latter). These are relatively minor works, but they are pretty, and Varga gave a radiant luster to both of them. She was especially effective in the Barber.  

I also want to thank the musicians for inviting me to join them onstage for the Q&A session after the concert, when I was asked to say a few words about Charles Ives. In gratitude, I kept my comments short.

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