Wealth of Duos at Mills

Jules Langert on October 15, 2007
Every year the music department of Mills College in Oakland presents a concert prominently featuring the music of Darius Milhaud, in celebration of the long and fruitful association between the college and the composer, who was in residence there for many years. On Friday, violinist Graeme Jennings and pianist Christopher Jones performed two early sonatas by Milhaud, concluding their program with pieces by Stravinsky and Carter, both of whom were among Milhaud's friends and admirers. Milhaud's Sonata for Violin and Piano Op.1, No.3. was composed in 1911, when he was 19. A violinist himself, Milhaud wrote for the instrument with ease and fluency, but relegated the piano mostly to accompanimental support, underpinning the violin line with lush, modal harmonies reminiscent of Faure's music. The Sonata No. 2 was composed six years later and is listed as Op. 40 by the famously prolific Milhaud. In this piece we find the composer gradually coming into his own style. Moments of polytonality, pentatonic scale patterns, tone clusters, and more extended counterpoint make this a much more sophisticated and interesting composition. It points the way to a musical career that would lead to Milhaud's becoming one of the most original and preeminent French composers of the 20th century. The highlight of the evening, Stravinsky's Duo Concertante for Violin and Piano, dates from 1932, and is one of the most potent and appealing chamber works of his neoclassical period. Its five fairly brief movements provide a wealth of contrast, from the serenely lyrical Eclogue II and the bouncy, effervescent Gigue that follows it to the expansively meditative Dithyramb, which concludes the piece with an echo of the opening movement. Jennings and Jones often played with all the tenderness, grace, and virtuosity Stravinsky demands, though occasionally a warmer, more emotive tone from Jennings would have been welcome. He plays in a cool, rather detached style, and this piece needs some visceral engagement to get beneath its neoclassical sheen. There is hearty good humor in the Gigue, and a kind of questing fervency in the slower movements that has to come out in order to fully realize the music's expressive range. By contrast, Jones is an excitable, energetic pianist who should restrain his tendency to bang the keys in some of the lively passages. In this performance the instrumental balance sometimes suffered because of a certain brashness from the piano, especially since its lid was fully raised, perhaps in response to the hall's dry acoustics.

Fruitful Dialogue

Elliott Carter's seldom heard Duo for Violin and Piano of 1974 was the final work. Its uncompromisingly dissonant, postserial complexity places great demands on the violin especially, and Jennings seemed in superb control. The clarity and precision of his playing were admirable, and it is easy to see how well he must have fit in as a member of the formidable Arditti Quartet, where he played second violin for a number of years. Jones was a sensitive partner, matching the violin's nuances with a variety of timbres and dynamics in an ongoing dialogue for the two instruments. Here the piano sometimes echoes the violin, adding a muted commentary. Then again it offers an extended conversation, and occasionally challenges the violin for supremacy. This piece, composed in the year of Milhaud's death, is miles away from Milhaud's esthetic. Its abstract, systematic rigor goes against the Frenchman's intuitive, empirical approach. Yet Milhaud was in some ways both a formalist and an experimenter. He was a devotee of fugue, jazz, and free improvisation. Perhaps that explains his interest in Carter, Stravinsky, and the avant garde — but also in the music of Dave Brubeck, who was one of his favorite students. One final word of approval should go to the fascinating and sumptuous array of catered food and drink at the reception following the concert

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