August 7, 2010
Music@Menlo Illuminates City of Light Composers
Music@Menlo opened a broad umbrella for “La Ville Lumiere: Paris, 1920–28,” with composers as various as Milhaud, Prokofiev, Fauré, Copland, Antheil, Ravel, and Gershwin all gathered underneath. Variety, in both style and delivery, proved to be the prevailing spirit of Saturday’s musically sprawling program at the Center for the Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton.
No sooner had the brawny string sound of Jorja Fleezanis and thundering tone clusters (with witty tom-tom echoes) of pianist Alessio Bax in George Antheil’s Violin Sonata No. 2 faded away than the percolating bucolic charm of Sergei Prokofiev’s Quintet in G Minor, Op. 39, took over. Then, after intermission, it was sweetness and light, as Bax returned for a translucent account of Gabriel Fauré’s Barcarolle No. 13 in C Major, Op. 116.
And so it went all evening. As if to suggest Paris’ famously febrile light, the music kept glinting off in new directions. Aaron Copland’s sparely lyrical Movement for String Quartet gave way to that bracing Antheil outburst. The deftly woven lines of Francis Poulenc’s wry Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon, Op. 32, winningly done by Todd Palmer and Dennis Godburn, were followed by the dense, decisively accented conversation of Wu Han and Ken Noda in the unpublished two-piano arrangement of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris.
None of this was randomly chosen or organized. In an evening that began and ended with Jazz Age milestones — Darius Milhaud’s Le Création du monde and Gershwin’s American — listeners were invited to make connections and correspondences. Some of them were obvious. Ravel’s Berceuse sur le Nom de Gabriel Fauré was a pendant logically affixed to the Fauré Barcarolle. Violinist Erin Keefe joined Bax for the tender handiwork.
Two of the works on the program, the Milhaud and the Prokofiev, have balletic roots. Other congruences unfolded in the performances. The Poulenc–Gershwin juxtaposition, for one, was a study in contrasting duet tonalities and mirroring effects. The woodwind dialogue was supple, seductive, quietly exultant. Palmer and Godburn seemed to take a spontaneous delight when Poulenc’s melodies suddenly matched up in parallels, or when one of the two players uttered a plaintive little yelp. The two pianists, when they answered and elaborated on each other’s Gershwin phrases, seemed to greet each occasion as a challenge. The result was a showy, semiexhausting duel, with Noda getting in some aggressively odd blows.
“La Ville Lumiere” got off to a murky start. The Jupiter String Quartet, in its Music@Menlo debut, came at the Milhaud in a tentative, scratchy way. There was little sign of the sensual pleasure and pulse-quickening rhythms this ballet score holds, as transcribed for quartet and piano (Han). Violinist Nelson Lee and violist Liz Freivogel had their moments, but they were fleeting. The Jupiter fared somewhat better and also looked more relaxed in the six-minute, single-movement Copland. Perhaps a little stage time banished some opening-night jitters.
Originally meant for the ballet Trapeze, the music in Prokofiev’s Op. 39 Quintet wound up colorfully scored. The Menlo performers (oboist Jonathan Fischer, clarinetist Todd Palmer, violinist Erin Keefe, violist Beth Guterman, and bassist Scott Pingel) made the melodies dance right away. More than a few in the audience must have found that the composer’s Romeo and Juliet score came to mind. In six brightly contrasting movements, Prokofiev’s ingratiating piece bristled and lumbered, scampered and went tense and taut. It was one of several happy discoveries of the night.
Antheil’s heady, burlesque-ripened sonata was another. Commissioned by Ezra Pound for his violinist beau Olga Ridge, the piece is full of angular joints, brash flourishes, and popular music allusions. The composer described his style as “cubistic Tin Pan Alley.” In this fully committed performance, with Fleezanis attacking every phrase avidly and Bax apparently determined to bloody his fingers on glissandos and sacrifice his wrists to those tone clusters, a sense of avant-garde Paris in the 1920s came most fully to life. It all happened in under 10 minutes and ended quietly, with Bax turning away from his keyboard to lightly thump a pair of drums as Fleezanis murmured out her final, wistful phrases.
There we all were, on a Saturday night in a California suburb, spinning through the reckless, nostalgia-laced City of Light in 1923.
Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.