We Were Enraptured

04.15.09
Anne-Marie McDermott
Present Magazine

American music can be a tough sell to classical music lovers.  When I learned that the Harriman-Jewel Series concert set for Tuesday night, April 7th, carried the title American Voices, I'll admit I wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect, despite the draw of Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  But after listening to the richly diverse program presented that night, in the words of an American song of a different genre, now I'm a believer - and not the only one, judging by the lively Q&A session that followed the concert.  One audience member framed his appreciation in the form of a question to ask, "Do you always perform every work with such elegance?  We were enraptured!"  

The program began with the Trio in D minor for Two Violins and Cello, Op. 3, No. 2, a charming piece composed by John Antes in 1780 that harmonically and structurally could have been written by Haydn.  Violinists Lily Francis and Ani Kavafian played standing, facing each other, with cellist Pricilla Lee in the middle, in a very well-balanced interpretation that proved to be the perfect piece to lift away the concerns of the work day and draw one in to the musical oasis of the Folly Theatre.

Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman, by Alan Louis Smith followed.  Commissioned for Stephanie Blythe, Warren Jones and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, they were joined in this performance by violinist Ani Kavafian, and cellist Pricilla Lee.  Despite the publicity buildup surrounding Stephanie Blythe, nothing could have prepared me for the astonishing beauty of her voice, the magnitude of her full, round sound that filled the hall with ringing tones, or diction so clear that a printed text was not needed.  But as Warren Jones noted in the forum afterwards, for all of Blythe's formidable talent and technical command, it was her "inner mush ball" that drove the interpretation.  

Smith's work was accessible and engrossing in structure and content.  Based upon the actual pioneer diary kept by Margaret Ann Alsip Frink while she crossed the continent from Illinois to California in 1850, Smith crafted 13 vignettes depicting, among others, a romping wild buffalo hunt and the other-worldly ambience of a Sioux encampment that the covered wagon passed, played hauntingly by cellist Lee to conjure the sound of an ancient wooden flute.  In 'Lost Boy' a frenetic triplet figure in the piano portrayed Mrs. Frink's frantic emotions the day she became separated from her son Robert.  When the boy was found, Jones delivered a marvelous ascending arpeggio in the style of a harp, while Blythe soared to the top of her range on the word ‘joy' with a radiance that elicited goose-bumps.  The 'Epilogue' presented another high point of the evening when cellist Lee played a brief quote from Bach's Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1, above which Blythe hummed a lullaby in a beautiful brimming tone that embodied the text ‘full of promise.'    

Following the intermission, the graceful jazz harmonies and swaying rhythms of Gershwin's Lullaby were played deliciously by the quartet of strings, including violist Paul Neubauer.  

As moving and remarkable as Covered Wagon Woman was, the last work of the evening left an even more indelible impression - the Quintet in F-sharp minor for Piano and Strings, Op. 67 by Amy Cheney Beach.  Magnificently passionate and complex, it is beyond this reviewer's comprehension how such an important work could be obscure today.  Written in 1907, and premiered to critical acclaim in Boston on February 27, 1908 by the Hoffman Quartet with Beach at the piano, the work is a compelling example of the late romantic period, comparable to Brahms and Rachmaninov.  Joined by pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, the quintet rendered an enthralling interpretation full of nuance and drive.  The second movement Adagio expressivo was as heart-wrenchingly beautiful as music can be. Paul Neubauer bathed the passionate viola solo in the third movement in liquid tones of beauty and warmth, then relayed the line to the violins, who together with p ianist McDermott, built the tension to masterful perfection.  McDermott's sparkling wall of cascades set up cellist, Lee in opening a fugue that led into a fantastic chromatic piano climax full of tortured pathos.  As fine as the ensemble was, and they were sublime, I would love to hear this piano quintet performed by an established quartet, to hear the added dimension of nuance that a seasoned ensemble might coax from this brilliant work.

Fortunately, for the new converts to Amy Beach and Alan Smith, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has released an excellent CD on the CMS Studio recording label of the Beach Quintet performed by McDermott and the Escher String Quartet, and paired with Smith's Covered Wagon Woman, performed by Blythe, Jones, Kavafian and Lee.  The sound quality of the CD is excellent, and provides a bridge for what one hopes will not be too long a gap before these works may be heard again live in the concert hall.