Guest review by Phillip Ayers
The audience who gathered in the blessed, air-conditioned space on the Reed campus Thursday evening (July 26) was treated to a feast of Antonin Dvořák’s chamber music that included an arrangement of a famous movement from one of his symphonies. I felt that a two-hour offering of Romantic music would put me to sleep after a long day of fighting the heat or wouldn't thrill me as much as something peppily Baroque. Maybe the Chinese opera offering earlier in the week would do better at keeping me alert and awake. But I was pleasantly surprised that not only did I stay awake, I found myself at times on the edge of my seat!
First on the program was Robert McBride’s arrangement of “Goin’ Home,” the so-called “spiritual” (not really, though) that Dvořák used in the Largo movement of his “Symphony from the New World.” In the symphonic rendition, the tune, original with the composer, is plaintively played by an English horn; McBride arranged it to be sung by a bass-baritone with a string quartet. The text was written by William Arms Fisher, a student of Dvořák. Russian-born Anton Belov sang it with a dark, almost tomb-like sound, more bass than baritone. Fortunately, the words were supplied in the program as the singer’s articulation of the words was at times unclear. He reached the higher notes with his fine vocal resonance and color intact.
The Miró Quartet accompanied Belov with great sensitively. The program notes explained the origin of the text and how the marriage of text and tune, laid out in ABA form, came to be. It is an interesting story, one of many associated with the composer’s “American Chapter.” As a Kansan, I can relate to Dvořák’s time that he spent in Iowa, loving the prairies. This tender music evokes plenty of childhood memories. I've found recordings by singers such as Bryn Terfel and Paul Robeson are worth a listen. The arranger, one of the most skillful classical music programmers at KQAC (All Classical), and now happily retired, acknowledged the applause following the piece with a “Namaste” sign to the singer and string quartet. McBride said to me afterward, when I remarked that “Goin’ Home” is often sung at funerals: “I want it sung at mine!"
The Miró Quartet was joined by violist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith for the performance of Dvořák's String Sextet in A Major,, B. 80, Op. 48. Chamber music performances are as much visual as they are aural, to me at least; and this was a perfect example of that. Gestures, expressions of delight, joy, concentration on musical nuances, even pain, were evident.
The sextet is in four movements, each one with a distinct quality and flavor, often including folk melodies from the composer’s native country; as Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Sourek remarked, “In his Sextet, every theme is like a drop of Slavonic blood.” The two middle movements are based on folk dances: a dumka and furiant. The former is introspective and melancholic, the latter by contrast “explodes in a rhythmically boisterous whirlwind of sound,” as the program notes by Elizabeth Schwartz say. (Question: “Does furiant have the same root as furious?) A theme-and-variations final movement had a hard-to-get theme to it, but the contemplative silence between the variations was appreciated. Playing in the highest registers, at times the violins sounded a bit screechy, but it was offset by the richness of the violas and cellos
This is the first chamber work of Dvořák’s heard outside Bohemia, and it helped to boost his reputation in Europe and elsewhere, including New York City. It came from his “Slavonic” period (1878-1880), so called because his music featured Czech/Bohemian/Moravian elements with folk dances or melodies taking after folksongs. Dvořák's music is noted for musical surprises, and this sextet is full of them.
After intermission, the Montrose Trio, consisting of Jon Kimura Parker, pianist, Martin Beaver, violinist, and Clive Greensmith, cellist, were joined by Parker’s spouse, violist Aloysia Friedmann, for Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, B. 162, Op. 87. This work, written some eleven years after the sextet, revealed a “new” Dvořák, who had become an internationally renowned composer and a champion of his native culture. No longer a backwater violist, at 48 he had become a self-confident composer and as Schwartz says in her notes, “Opus 87 is music written by a man who knew what he wanted to say and had mastered his craft.”
The many shifting moods in this music, especially in the first movement, are due to the harmonic inventiveness and well-developed musical complexity. The Lento movement features a cello solo which was well and sensitively played by Greensmith, alternating serene melody with turbulence in contrasting keys. The varied qualities of the third movement, Allegro moderato grazioso, with its waltz-like theme, is “juxtaposed with a highly rhythmic section that races through tonalities with the ease of a horse galloping over a meadow [Schwartz].” The final movement is bewildering, opening with a theme in, E-flat minor (rather than E-flat major). Dvořák is never at a loss for a melody and here was tunefulness that was singularly beautiful, his favorite instrument (viola) often introducing the new melodies. He wrote to a friend that, in composing this quartet, “…melodies are coming to me in droves.”
A melodic, excitingly engaging evening of chamber music played by experts in their field whose rapport with their audience is simply terrific and cannot be beat! I'm already looking forward to next season.