Tag Archives: Rebecca Clarke

No Joke: Al Fresco Continues in a Modern Vein With “Romance of the Viola”

Review: Al Fresco concert under COVID

By Perry Tannenbaum

On the day of the latest Al Fresco concert, Charlotte Symphony had good news and bad news. Getting ready to set a YouTube reminder for my Chromecast hookup to the 7:30 webcast, I was encouraged to discover – on the Al Fresco webpage – that the Wednesday night series had been extended through at least July 29. Unfortunately, that good news may have been an outgrowth of the bad news announced earlier in the day: Symphony had canceled their Three-Week Summer Festival, slated to begin on August 7. All of the Festival events – a finely judged assortment that included Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” The Best of James Bond, Peter and the Wolf, On Tap at the Triple C brewery, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a free community concert – had been scheduled at indoor venues, running afoul of public assembly restrictions mandated in Raleigh and still in effect. It was merciful that Al Fresco concerts are pre-recorded, for host Alan Black and his “Romance of the Viola” guest musicians would have certainly been downcast if they were giving a live performance in the wake of this daunting setback.

As the latest program began in Black’s bosky backyard, with the CSO principal cellist in conversation with violist Kirsten Swanson, the series’ subtitle, “changing venues for changing times,” more than ever seemed to evoke an escape from Charlotte’s barren cultural climate under COVID siege, a welcome oasis in the musical wasteland. Adding to the freshness, Swanson and Black were discussing a pair of composers few Symphony subscribers had come across, Kjell Marcussen (1952-   ) and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979).

Black admitted discovering Marcussen a mere three weeks earlier while combing the internet – and, presumably, streaming services – in search of music written for the unique viola-cello instrumental combo. As a cursory YouTube search will confirm, the Norwegian composer does favor viola among orchestral instruments. Black could easily have found Marcussen’s “Berceuse” there, for it’s the first video that comes up in a Google search for the composer, but the composition also pops up readily on Spotify in a 2017 album, Dedications, recorded by the same Duo Oktava musicians, violist Povilas Syrrist-Gelgota and cellist Toril Syrrist-Gelgota. In solo compositions, Marcussen gravitates toward his own preferred instrument, the guitar, so it’s not at all surprising that guitarist Anders Clemens Øien shares the spotlight on the CD.

After watching Swanson and Black perform the “Berceuse,” I must say that I found the Oktava video stuffy and pretentious by comparison, and I’m only finding a new way to praise Bob Rydel’s audio engineering when I say that the sound at this Al Fresco concert was richer and more detailed than either the YouTube video or the CD (available on Apple Music as well as Spotify). Black gets a rich dark tone when he moves to the forefront in the exposition of this morose lullaby, but he’s more varied in his dynamics – and the pace is quicker, cutting more than 25 seconds off the Oktava’s fastest performance. The real difference maker, though, is Swanson when she takes the lead in the concluding half of the work with her lighter tone, making for a far more poignant experience than the Norwegian duo can muster. To be fair, I should say that I’ve been captivated – and perhaps swayed – by the open-air informality of the Al Fresco format, which certainly accentuated the élan of Black’s approach.

I have no record of hearing or reviewing Clarke’s music before March 2019 at the Savannah Music Festival, where chamber music host Daniel Hope reprised the composer’s Dumka, a piece the famed violinist had played on a Naxos recording of Clarke’s music. That estimable album, recorded in 2007, showcased Clarke’s most famous work, her Viola Sonata – played by violist Philip Dukes. As you may know, Dukes would have succeeded Hope as the chamber music director at Savannah Music Festival this year if the 17-day event hadn’t been canceled. Black and Swanson discussed Viola Sonata in the context of Clarke’s stature among her contemporaries. Clarke herself was a world-class violist (and violinist), and she submitted her chef d’oeuvre to a 1919 competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at the Berkshire Festival. Ernest Bloch and Paul Hindemith were also among the 72 entries, Swanson noted. Depending on which account you read, Clarke either tied Bloch for the Coolidge Prize until Coolidge bumped her down to second place, or she took the runner-up spot outright.

The piece that Swanson and Black would play, “Lullaby,” was more modest in its aspirations than the brooding, turbulent, three-movement Sonata – its epic first movement is marked Impetuoso! – but this more abbreviated work probably dates from the same period, in 1918. Black was quick to point out the piece’s accidental relevance to today, written during the Spanish Flu pandemic, and though Swanson remarked on how such periods of confinement often prove fertile for creativity, this “Lullaby” had an unmistakably mournful sound, not unlike Samuel Barber’s more funereal “Adagio,” with a similar peak before taking a breath for the last third of the piece. As beautiful as the playing is, from Black in particular, this duo’s interpretation lacks the contours you’ll find on the excellent Centaur recording of this work, where both cellist Moisés Molina and violist Kenneth Martinson assert themselves more forcefully and emotionally.

With Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) taking us back to the brink of the modernity with his 1902 Serenade in C Major for string trio, Al Fresco completed its second consecutive concert of music written entirely since the dawn of the 20th century. Both Swanson and Black lauded the solos Dohnányi had written for viola at the outset of the Romanza second movement and toward the end of the theme-and-variations fourth movement. Submitting his regrets for sitting out the trio, Black was replaced onstage by cellist Marlene Ballena and associate concertmaster Joseph Meyer.

I found this performance more likable, in the early movements and in the Rondo Finale, than on my 2003 Naxos CD with members of the Spectrum Concerts Berlin, where the players sounded too slick and harmonious after hearing the fresher, livelier Charlotte trio. The Symphony musicians skipped over the middle Scherzo movement and didn’t find nearly as much emotion in the Tema con variazioni because their pacing and dynamics were more monochromatic. Yet in the passages extolled by our host and Swanson in their conversation, the violist lived up to the hype. Even so, it can be said that Swanson’s softly accompanied solo in the Romanza, about 75 seconds in length, became a launchpad when Meyer entered with his violin, picked up the pace, turned up the volume, and soared. Between Swanson’s best bits in the Tema con Variazioni, Ballena had her finest moments. Rydel’s engineering also merits special praise here, for the entire trio is subtly encased in a warm concert hall ambiance.

With the cancellation of Charlotte Symphony’s Three-Week Summer Festival, extension of this Al Fresco series was obviously a logical move. But it should be remarked that, with the cancellation of six upcoming programs, and with no orchestral programming on the near horizon, more of Symphony musicians’ energies can be devoted to future Al Fresco concerts. In their sound and musicianship, they can’t get much better, but in their scope, we can certainly anticipate bigger things to come. If there’s anything to carry away from Al Fresco – and carry over to CSO programming when it returns to our familiar concert halls – it’s the notion that repertoire isn’t merely a balancing act between what the public craves and what Symphony’s maestro longs to present. As we’ve already seen, Symphony’s musicians also have some entertaining and rewarding ideas.

Hope Plays His Swan Song in Savannah in an Epic Exit

Review: Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival is weathering a series of transitions that began less than a year ago. After 16 seasons as the SMF artistic and executive director, Rob Gibson abruptly resigned last summer. Marketing director Ryan McMaken moved up to the artistic directorship and David Pratt, formerly with the Queensland Symphony in Australia and the Savannah Philharmonic, returned to the US as the new SMF chief executive.

The new leadership didn’t stumble dramatically in the shadow of a 2018 classical lineup that included guest appearances by Murray Perahia, Audra McDonald, Marc-André Hamelin, the Zukerman Trio, Yekwon Sunwoo, and a residency with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, newly headed by star violinist Daniel Hope, SMF’s associate artistic director in the classical sphere. Lars Vogt, Juho Pohjonen, The Tallis Scholars, and the Jerusalem Quartet are on the bill for 2019, and in the first full-scale collaboration between the Festival and the Savannah Philharmonic, a new piece by jazz pianist Marcus Roberts will premiere in a Phil concert that will also include works by Borodin, Stravinsky, and Gershwin.

Perhaps the news that was forthcoming from Hope was telegraphed when Zurich did not commit to repeating its visit in 2019. Stating that the decision had been made “to reduce the amount of international travel time to which he is obligated,” the announcement that Hope’s 16th season at SMF would be his last officially dropped on March 5 – barely three weeks before the 2019 Festival began.

We can begin to grasp the impact of Hope’s departure on SMF’s 2020 programming by surveying the scope of his participation this year. Easily the most active performer at the Festival, he is slated to appear in five of the six “Daniel Hope & Friends” concerts. During the 17-day festival, Hope is also performing with the Atlanta Symphony (March 30) and teaming with Saebstian Knauer on an “Homage to Yehudi Menuhin” (April 12). In what will no doubt be a touching valedictory, Hope will play and his novelist father will narrate “Christopher Hope Presents ‘My Son the Fiddler.’” (April 13).

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In his first three performances of 2019, Hope was playing with a zest and dedication that indicated he is sorry to be leaving. Few of the occasions I’ve covered in the past 10 years – only the “Kreutzer Sonata” he played with Knauer in 2011 comes instantly to mind – saw Hope in the same fiery form he brought to the stage of the Lucas Theatre on Saturday night, playing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony, pianist Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel.

The crowd, the occasion, and the gauntlet laid down by Beethoven’s score – not to mention having his name up in lights on the Lucas’s movie theatre marquee – might have actually given Hope a touch of the jitters as he fussed over the location of his iPad-holding music stand near the lip of the stage. Frankly, Finckel was the steadier string player in the first solo salvos of the Triple’s opening Allegro, but after the ebullient trialogue with Han and a spirited interjection by Robert Spano and the Symphony, Hope was locked in and absolutely brilliant, his double-bowing as sharp as steel.

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Finckel was a mellowing agent throughout, graciously restoring calm in the outer movements and surpassing himself with a heartfelt intro to the middle Largo. Han proved to be an equal partner and provocateur in the outer movements, especially conspicuous in the closing Rondo alla Polacca where she delivered dreamy excursions in the middle and an extended ramble away from closure before Hope pounced on the presto-paced exchange that carried us to the end. Hope’s fireworks with Han had made it obvious that applause was forthcoming at the end of the epic opening movement, and a standing ovation was no less inevitable here.

Gravitating toward the extreme downstage at the Lucas, Hope and his trio mates were unintentionally underscoring the acoustic problems faced by Spano and his orchestra. Behind the proscenium, the strings tend to get muddied and high frequencies are noticeably muffled. Cellos and clarinets sound best, but extra piccolos would have made the ending of “Overture to Egmont” sound more like Beethoven intended, though Spano beautifully judged the contrast between the final rousing rally and the calm that preceded it.

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Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony No. 1 showcased Spano’s deftness even better, with sharper section work from his players and balances that played better with the hall. There was fine thrust from the strings stating the opening Andante, although brighter percussion sounds other than the triangle were missing on the fringes of the later Allegro marking. Cellos and French horns excelled in the ensuing Larghetto, where Spano sculpted the fluid tempos and dynamics into pleasing shapes. Repetitions of the big tune never dulled the penultimate Scherzo, and the Allegretto animato e grazioso brought the evening to an exciting close, with the drums, trombones, and strings delivering the knockout punch.

Hope didn’t appear at the first “Hope & Friends” of the season on Friday night, and his entrance at the Lucas the following evening, notwithstanding the marquee, was without any fanfare marking his farewell season. Touchingly, that moment came late Sunday afternoon when Han mounted the Trinity United Methodist Church platform and warmly dedicated the ensuing Chamber Music of Lincoln Center concert to Hope, describing the joys of his playing and the joys of playing with him. Han also proved quite adept at emceeing, personably introducing the three piano quartets on the bill. She vividly described the relationship between Suk and Dvořák and detailed the despondency that sparked Brahms’s Quartet No. 3, along with the gun-to-the-head moment that concludes it.

Han, Finckel, Hope, and violist Paul Neubauer did the rest of the talking with their instruments – until Neubauer’s ill-fated maiden voyage playing with an iPad after intermission. While Hope sat back in his chair, grinning and laughing and in no hurry, Han explained the situation and helped turn the damn contraption on. Hope’s ease and relaxation probably served him best in the ensuing Dvořák Piano Quartet No. 2 when we reached the luscious Lento second movement. After yet another achingly lovely intro by Finckel – and an exquisite fadeaway – Hope began the same melody extremely softly yet piercingly, working up to a blaze of high intensity. Another ebb then flowed into a reprise from Finckel. With Han’s interjections, the movement was like a miniature concerto until the give-and-take abruptly ended with a couple of unison sforzandos that tossed us into a maelstrom.

The Suk that opened the program was brimming with inspiration and showy bowing. Yet it was useful for Han to have reminded us that this was Josef Suk’s Opus 1, finished with Dvořák’s encouragement and premiered when the composer was just 17. For all its excitement and appeal, I couldn’t push away the thought, especially in the tempestuous outer movements, that a Beethoven or a Brahms would have made even more of the inspired materials that Suk was working with. The inner Adagio, with another soulful Finckel intro was a nice foretaste of the Lento to come from Dvořák – not to mention the wondrous Andante at the heart of the epically anguished Brahms 3, which began with an eloquent and sad intro from Finckel and featured Neubauer’s best moments.

Both the Brahms 3 and the Dvorak 2 had been presented twice before in Savannah at previous festivals, but the Suk was an SMF premiere. With such a dazzling quartet of musicians advocating for it so passionately, the Suk proved worthy of such esteemed company.

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A similar mix of familiar and unfamiliar informs the “& Friends” concerts. Hope sat out the all-Mozart opener that I attended, but Pohjonen was at the keyboard for both piano quartets – with an extraordinary feel for the composer – so all was well. This was the second go-round for No. 1 and the fourth for No. 2, but the String Duo No. 2 for Violin and Viola and the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 for String Trio were new to Savannah. The “& Friends” sequel offered edgier fare, with Hope playing lead violin opposite Vogt in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, the third time this gem has been presented during Hope’s tenure, alternately raucous and haunting in its pivotal Scherzo and Lento movements.

Otherwise, Hope sat on the sidelines. Rebecca Clarke’s Dumka, ranging from pizzicato delicacy to Gypsy fire, was presented by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips, Neubauer, and violinist Simos Papanas. Nice to know that this piece, championed by Hope on a Naxos recording, was getting a second hearing at SMF, but Schubert’s Fantasy for Piano Four Hands and Niels W. Gade’s String Sextet were actually receiving their SMF premieres.

As the stage was being reset for the Sextet, Hope sauntered to the front of the church from his seat in the second row of pews, not bothering to climb up onstage, and gave us an impromptu introduction to Gade. Our host emphasized Gade’s talents, his travels back and forth from his native Copenhagen to Leipzig, and his association with Mendelssohn, then the director of the Leipzig Orchestra. It was the first time Hope had addressed an audience at the 2019 Savannah Music Festival, seemingly spontaneous and unplanned.

Keeping Hope’s remarks in mind, I suspected that Gade had taken some of Mendelssohn’s influence back home with him when he wrote his Sextet some 16 years after his mentor’s death, for there are echoes of the elder’s Octet in the Dane’s music, especially in the opening movement. The Kim brothers, violinist Benny and cellist Eric, longtime members of the Festival’s “& Friends” ensemble, played the leads on their instruments, prime reasons why this premiere was a resounding success.

Getting ready for the long drive home to Charlotte, I turned around in my front row seat and told Hope, “Well done, sir.” Shrugging, he replied, “They did all the work,” no doubt assuming that I was referring to his prefatory remarks.

Reading this, he’ll likely see otherwise.