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Intercultural Understanding

August 14, 2007

[email protected] concluded its festival last week with a program titled "Borrowed Cultures." Thursday night's concert in Stent Family Hall, at the Menlo School in Atherton, showed the program to be a potpourri like the previous main concerts this year. Nine musicians performed five works that variously incorporated folk ideas, blended classical and popular music, or set traditional texts. But the concert could also be heard as a contrast between the classicism of Beethoven and Brahms on the one hand, and three works of uncompromising 20th-century modernism on the other.
The modernist tradition showed itself alive and well in Marc Neikrug's tiny cycle of Pueblo Children's Songs. Neikrug grew up literally under the piano listening to his mother compose serialist music, so he considers it a native language, and he married into the Tewa culture of New Mexico, which provided the texts but not any music for the cycle. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, who had commissioned the work in 1995, sang it, accompanied by her husband, Kevin Murphy.

With the exception of a jumpy little piece about chipmunks, the music is slow, gently lush in style, and harmonically loose in a manner recalling Debussy or Messiaen. Soft rolling piano chords supported the singer's delicately expressive voice. During the cycle's recurring "Naming Chant," Kevin Murphy repeatedly reached into the piano to give an unresonant, tamped pluck on one of the strings, the only "Indian"-sounding touch to the music.

The Murphys were joined by Erin Keefe, violin, and Colin Carr, cello, for five of Beethoven's arrangements of Scottish songs from his Op. 108. Scottish publisher George Thomson shipped vast quantities of traditional British melodies to Vienna in the 1810s, and Beethoven, who was taking a several-year break from major composition, sent back these charming, classically restrained arrangements. As they're not technically original works, and as there is little decoration to the vocal line — there's a tiny cadenza in the last verse of Again my lyre, but nothing else — they're rarely played. But they're fine little songs that would lighten many a lieder recital.

Beethoven spoke no English, but he asked Thomson to send him the lyrics (many of them newly commissioned by the publisher) anyway. The composer must have paid some attention to the meaning of the words, judging by his setting of Oh! sweet were the hours, in which a blithe chorus alternates with melancholy verses. The instrumentalists were sensitive to the problem of having three of them accompanying one singer. Erin Keefe in particular was careful to keep her tone soft when playing the melodic line, to avoid overpowering Heidi Grant Murphy's light voice.
Crisp Precision
Keefe was far more steely in Copland's Vitebsk: Studies on a Jewish Theme, in which she was joined by festival directors David Finckel, cello, and Wu Han, piano. This work is Copland in his fiercest 1920s modernist style. Conductor Walter Damrosch had famously said of a Copland work that its composer would soon be ready to commit murder, and here Copland is, a few years later, "murdering" a Jewish folksong from the Belarussian town of the title.

The cello plays the sad theme straight a few times, but all three instruments wrench it apart, playing agonized motifs from it in quarter-tones, abruptly restarting rhythms in typical Copland style, and otherwise violently storming up and down the keyboard and fingerboard. The performers were clearly conscious of the need for absolute precision, in both tone and ensemble, in this complex work. They turned in a crisp and powerful performance.

Colin Carr reappeared for Brahms' Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25, together with Ian Swensen, violin, Paul Neubauer, viola, and Gilbert Kalish, piano. The stomping "Gypsy" rondo finale is what earned this work its place on the program. Despite the disparate character of the four movements, the performance took the work as one thick, solid wad of powerful music. The instruments overlaid each other in carpets of sound.

It was Brahms in the traditional style, so powerful indeed that it felt ready to blow out the windows of Stent Hall's tiny ballroom. But the only alteration of mood came when even greater intensity appeared at a few points: the reappearance of the Trio at the end of the Intermezzo, the climax of the middle-section march in the slow movement, and the recurring main theme of the Rondo. It was impressive, but it was more war than music.

Swensen and Kalish showed far more nuance in Ravel's Violin Sonata. Ravel didn't believe the violin and piano were compatible instruments, and sent each wandering off in different styles and directions. Kalish let the piano chatter away while permitting his partner to take the lead. Swensen, playing from memory and mostly with his eyes closed, began each of the three movements, even the Perpetuum mobile finale, in a carefully hesitant fashion, gradually starting to exploit each movement's energy and even its comedy.

This worked particularly well in the Blues second movement, the sonata's highlight and its contribution to the "Borrowed Cultures" theme. Playing unaccompanied at this point, Swensen meandered in without pause from the end of the previous movement, but it took only a couple of minutes before he had hit full speed, literally leaning into his glissando slides, grinning and obviously having a great time grooving with Kalish. In the first movement, the most conventionally modernistic of the three, Ravel asks for the greatest variety of techniques, and in this both performers were excellent, particularly Swensen in a passage that calls for a cold, shivering tone prefiguring late Shostakovich. The work was the highlight of the evening.
A Delightful Prelude
But however fine the concert was, it was outclassed by the free Prelude Performance that preceded it in the Martin Family Hall next door. The 11 young International Program students who perform in these concerts (plus the substitutes for one pianist who had to return home early for a family emergency) have been impressing their audiences throughout the festival, and this was their finest of the events I heard. The three works fit into the "Borrowed Culture" theme, alluding to a culture other than the composer's own. Esther Park, piano, Arianna Warsaw-Fan, violin, and Yu-Wen Wang, cello, were elegantly restrained in Haydn's Piano Trio in G Major, Hob. XV: 25, which, like the Brahms, has a "Gypsy" rondo finale.

Cellist Adiel Shmit and substitute pianist Gloria Chien (who learned the work only that week) produced a brisk and confident performance of Stravinsky's Suite italienne, a neoclassical work that draws from the arrangements of Italian music he had used in his ballet Pulcinella. Shmit tickled the audience prior to performing by describing the suite in a poem of his own composition.

Last and best of all were Shanshan Yao and Katie Hyun, violins, Brenton Caldwell, viola, and Yotam Baruch, cello, in Dvořák's "American" Quartet. This was an individualistic, almost contrapuntal performance, with intriguing swells of sound. Each performer was clearly audible, making altogether the most fresh and engaging rendition of the work I've ever heard.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.