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Visions from Another Era

New York
Church of the Good Shepherd
01/08/2024 -  & January 8, 2024
Charles Ives: 1st String Quartet “From the Salvation Army” and “A Revival Service”
Scott Joplin: “A Real Slow Drag” from Treemonisha
George Gershwin: Excerpts from Porgy and Bess (arr. Bill Holcombe)
Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins: Rêve Charmant
Amy Beach: Piano Quintet

Amir Hoshang Farsi (Flute), Roni Gal‑Ed (Oboe), Vadim Lando (Clarinet), Gina Cuffari (Bassoon), Karl Kramer (Horn), Xiao‑Dong Wang, Isabelle Al Durrenberger (Violins), Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt (Viola), Miha Marica (Cello), William Wolfram (Piano)

“Blind T”. Wiggins/A. Beach

With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums, I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is be an American, and then write any kind of music you wish.
Virgil Thomson

Each Monday, the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players–an ad hoc group comprising some of the New York’s finest free‑lance and orchestral players–offer rare, esoteric and obscure chamber works. Albeit with a few chestnuts thrown in when necessary.

This afternoon was a rare “theme” recital, embracing older American music, from the mid‑1800’s to an arrangement here of Porgy and Bess. And to misquote Walt Whitman, they sung the body eclectic, from early Ives to early Gershwin, from Joplin’s only opera, to a very strange work by Amy Beach. The music was not all of the same quality, but when they were good, they were very very good. Even foot‑stompingly good.

What else could you expect with an opening of John Philip Sousa. Not Stars and Stripes Forever, but the same idea. No band here, no marching 76 Trombones, but an excellent wind quintet, giving a few marching steps before launching into the march itself.

This was the wind quintet at its most jaunty. True, one was anticipating a bass drum or two (the triangle tried but was hardly percussive). And the arrangement by one Kenneth Abeling gave ideal solos to all instruments. I had never thought of Sousa in a “classical” program, but he sure could write.

The following work, a sort of suite from Porgy and Bess, I found more than disappointing. This had nothing to do with the players. But Gershwin’s Porgy had the glory of Ferde Grofe’s lightning-sharp orchestration, brilliant lyrics by DuBose Heyward, the most beautiful beautiful songs by George Gershwin, and a feeling that–though the music itself was ersatz African-American–Gershwin composed a verisimilitude that still hasn’t been approached.

Maurice Ravel knew his stuff: when he came to America, he only wanted to see Gershwin, and the two spent several joyous nights in Harlem.

Yet no wind quintet can do justice to Porgy. This is literally inimitable music. Winds fluttering around themselves produced a kind of painter’s patina, where one couldn’t find the sparkle of the music itself.

Both works were transcriptions, with expected shortcomings. Charles Ives’ early string quartet had four players (see above) filled with all the energy and, poking through the textures for popular songs, weird cadences and even a fugue or two.

The first movement, based on From Greenland’s Icy Mountains, plunged on with all the technique of an American Bach. Later, Ives transcribed most of it for the Fourth Symphony third movement. Yet the String Quartet had one sin of omission.

Ives played with the fugues and the hymns, but toward the end of the symphonic movement, he inserted part of the Christmas carol, Joy to the World. Specifically “Let Heavens and Angels Sing”. It is one of the great chorales in music, making Mahler’s Resurrection sound like “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window”.

(Just jokin’, Maestro).

The quartet came back with the splendid pianist William Wolfram for Amy Beach’s String Quintet. He had already given a performance by that eccentric probably autistic “Blind Tom” Wiggins. His life is worthy of any number of books. This tune was nothing to write home about. Partly salon, partly a little second‑rate Chopin (more like John Field), but played by Mr. Wolfram with grace, with elegance and real feeling. Whether “Blind Tom” was a genius or not, he evidently knew how to write pleasing music of the 1800’s, and Mr. Wolfram gave it everything on the piano.

S. Joplin/C. Ives

Onto the longest work, Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet. With her studies in Europe, impressing Brahms, before returning, one could imagine a sort of compositional Edith Wharton. The Piano Quintet–this was my first hearing–was anything but 19th Century Central European. Instead, we had a moody, mysterious opening.

While the important piano was dazzling with powerful octaves and Lisztian complexity, the strings entered a chthonic universe, Did Ms. Beach know Gustav Mahler? She certainly had the same shadowy texture in the first movement. The slow middle movement had a melody which could have been written by Schubert. And the final movement changed tempos and mood ending with a short feverish Presto.

The most surprising production–if not the music, which was minor Scott Joplin–was called “A Real Slow Drag.” Mr. Wolfram was again at the piano, and bassoonist Gina Cuffari did the singing. Now came the show business (for this was from an opera). The other musicians surrounded Ms. Cuffari, dancing a slow quadrille (when necessary), or when the words said “Hop and skip, dance slowly, prance slowly”, the chorus followed directions.

That could have been parody. But the movements, voice and song were gentle, soothing, movements from another time, another era.

And as usual, an original setting for the Jupiter Players.

Harry Rolnick



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