at Orchestra Hall
AMERICAN WOMEN COMPOSERS–MIDWEST
at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery
Since the three members of the Stoltzman/Goode/Stoltzman Trio are superb musicians, and since their program looked unusually interesting, I had high expectations when the group made its local debut last week as part of Chamber Music Chicago’s 30th-anniversary series. Some of those expectations were met, but some were not.
The biggest challenge in presenting an ensemble made up of violin (Lucy Chapman Stoltzman), piano (Richard Goode), and clarinet (Richard Stoltzman) is that there is only a scant bit of repertoire written for that combination. Part of the program was to have been filled by the premiere of a major new work, commissioned by CMC and two other organizations for the trio, by Mel Powell: Settings for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano. But Powell was too busy working on the concerto that recently won him the Pulitzer Prize to have finished the trio in time. What he sent along instead was one five-minute setting called “Madrigal,” which CMC nevertheless advertised as a “world premiere” instead of a brief preview of a work in progress. It is difficult to determine much about the final piece based on this excerpt–which was repeated to help fill out the program. Suffice it to say that the piece contains little that seems able to stand on its own structurally–context is everything, and we will have to wait for that.
The only other piece on the program that was actually written for the trio’s instrumentation was Bartok’s Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano. The work has an unusual history in that it was commissioned by Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti and big-band clarinetist Benny Goodman. Szigeti, a longtime friend of Bartok’s who moved to this country in 1926, thought the work would give his friend greater popularity here (Bartok was still in Hungary because his mother was ill). Goodman had requested that the work fit on two sides of a 78 record, but since the last movement made it too long for that, Bartok extended the work even further by adding a slow middle movement. When Bartok finally made his way to America in 1940, recording the work with Goodman and Szigeti was one of his first projects. Their collaboration is one of the most memorable ever committed to record–not only because of its obvious historical importance, but also because the three capture perfectly the unique flavor and modality of the piece. It was said that Bartok wrote this work with the unique sounds of his colleagues’ playing in mind, and while it is not always–or even usually–true that composers are the best interpreters of their own works, no one could play Bartok’s piano writing the way Bartok did.
I have heard several live performances of the work over the years, but none has captured that original essence as well as Stoltzman/Goode/Stoltzman. The piece calls for a unique combination of Hungarian devilishness and jazzlike playfulness that completely eludes most classically trained performers. This trio obviously did their homework. Stoltzman’s playing may not have had the lyricism of Goodman’s (whose does?), but he more than compensated by offering a wider palette of dynamics. His wife’s violin playing was not as hard edged as Szigeti’s, but her eloquent phrasing and expressiveness–to say nothing of varieties of timbres–were quite effective. Goode’s playing was also very solid and formed the appropriate backdrop to showcase his colleagues. The trio’s ensembling and balancing as well as the way they concentrated and carefully listened to one another was extraordinary. Theirs was a performance to be long remembered.
Also on the program was an arrangement of a suite from Stravinsky’s Agon ballet. Even in its original form this is extremely frivolous music; paring it down to trio proportions, which the composer did not intend, makes it sound even more frivolous. The justification here is apparently that since Stravinsky arranged The Soldier’s Tale for violin, piano, and clarinet, why not Agon? Well, why take a second-rate ballet, remove the dancing, use only a suite, and then pare that down to trio proportions? Not even these extraordinary performers could rescue that.
Having done all they could in the way of trios, what was next? Some duos, of course–for violin and piano, and for clarinet and piano. The violin-piano work on the program was the Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor, Op. 30, no. 2, which was given a very frothy reading by Stoltzman and Goode. Things were so mushy in this account that there was little to hold on to, which surprised me, given the usually solid performances both musicians have offered here in the past. Apparently they share a vision of Beethoven as an overly sweet Romantic composer, a view they presented with conviction, but which fell flat because it’s so far from what this music is about. Stoltzman’s violin tone, usually a model of contrasting timbres and textures, was much the same throughout the four-movement work, a considerable disappointment given the range I would have expected from her. Goode was right with her every step of the way, with one movement as ponderous and unfocused as the next.
The program opened with a clarinet-piano arrangement by Debussy himself of his Premiere rhapsodie, a piece originally written for this combination. It was later revised and orchestrated, and the revised version was then reduced to the original combination–the version heard here. The performance was on the highest possible level, with both Stoltzman and Goode striving for delicate, transparent textures and subtle, pastoral colors–all woven together for an extraordinary overall effect.
I cannot possibly imagine what motivated a transcription for clarinet of nine of Charles Ives’s songs, but that is what the largest portion of the second half of the program was taken up with. These are wonderful songs, among the finest American songs ever written, but to perform them in this truncated manner without the words that give them meaning and context makes no sense whatsoever. The texts were provided in the program, so apparently you were supposed to follow along with the clarinet and imagine it “singing” them. At times we were even helped by Stoltzman’s own self-serving, ineffectual attempt to dramatically “narrate” sections of a couple of the songs. This was musical ego at its worst–it made the Kronos Quartet playing Jimi Hendrix seem like high art.
It has certainly been the case historically that women composers have seldom garnered the respect men have. That situation is clearly changing–as New Music Chicago executive director Sidney Friedman pointed out in introducing a concert of all women composers last weekend, for the first time in history, women are now recognized among the major composers of every genre–jazz, pop, even “serious” music.
All of the compositions on this program sponsored by the midwest chapter of American Women Composers were by women. That in itself would mean very little if it weren’t for the extraordinary creativity each of these composers displayed, irrespective of their gender. In fact, if I have one overriding reservation about this concert, it is that the majority of the women whose works were heard were not presented in the best possible light.
Not that there was anything wrong with the setting–in fact, the Rhona Hoffman Gallery turned out to have a charming atmosphere and suprisingly good acoustics. Nor that the performers were less than distinguished–for all were good and some were even first-rate. The problem stemmed from the fact that much of the concert needlessly relied on tape that was played back through what appeared to be a muddy home stereo system.
Electronic hardware and software have come so far in the last decade that scoring for tape is pretty old hat. Tape used to be the only method of creating interesting sounds that were not capable of being produced live, but the price was high, particularly if a live performer played along. That performer was literally tied to the tape and little or no variation was possible in his or her performance. And, obviously, no dialogue was possible with something as static and lifeless as a tape. Polyphonic synthesizers and digital processing have made such techniques obsolete; today unusual sounds and sound transformations can be made in real time by a live performer who is a flexible and creative part of the performance.
Laurie Lee Moses’s Raindrum Song would have been far more interesting if its electronic accompaniment had been performed in this manner. As it was, Moses improvised the alto saxophone layer live over a canned accompaniment fed through the poor system, which made her playing excessively bright by comparison. Yet as a result both the tape, and Moses’s live performance seemed inordinately static.
Likewise, Ruth Lomon’s Furies featured Patricia Morehead alternating oboe, oboe d’amore, and English horn live over a “Music Minus One” tape. There was the obvious problem of brightness and timbre balances, though it might have worked given the proper sound system. But why perform this piece in this manner? Furies is a study in rhythmic outbursts and register extremes whose effects would have been far more interesting if all of the voices had been performed live. Apparently the decision was purely economic, because the instruments on the tape had not been transformed whatsoever. Presenting these “instruments” on tape made the whole performance rather cold.
Kathleen Ginther’s A Room of Wishes was presented totally on tape and featured many sound transformations, although these too could have been done within the freedom of a live performance. The work is a clever series of shifting sonorities whose basic sound source is a music box that eventually plays “When You Wish Upon a Star” in an exaggerated manner. It incorporates everything from wind chimes and steel-drum sounds to mock transistor feedback as it unfolds various frequencies. It is a fun and clever piece that could undoubtedly be done far better. It’s hard to accept having gone to a “live” concert only to have heard a piece performed in a manner far inferior to what I could have heard staying at home.
The other four pieces on this program were presented entirely by live performers. Under the circumstances this was unusually refreshing. The most substantial live piece was Darleen Cowles Mitchell’s Dichotic Sounds, a piece for alto flute magnificently realized by Mary Stolper. The work owes much to the sense of musical gesture in Varese’s Density 21.5 and to the technique of having the flutist hum and play at the same time of George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. Cowles Mitchell has gone a step further, in that her thematic gesture is taken through a more extended development and in that the flutist is often required to hum in a different octave from the one in which she is playing. The piece is wonderfully lyrical and very symmetrical in shape; it was given a stellar performance by Stolper, who has a wonderful variety of timbres, vibrato, and dynamics–all of which became frenzied and extreme toward the center of the work, then returned to the initial serenity by the conclusion.
Also included on the program was a song cycle composed by Patricia Morehead, who had played the live sections of Furies earlier on the program. The work, titled Zoological Garden, was commissioned by the Exsultate Trio (soprano Maria Lagios, flutist Monty Adams, and harpist Phyllis Adams) for a premiere performance earlier this year at the Brookfield Zoo. It appears to be a work for children; its musical content is very simple and aimed only at illuminating the juvenile texts. Taken on that level it’s fun, and each song effectively communicated the message of each text. Lagios played up the text-painting, relishing every syllable of the nonsensical, surrealistic “Jellyfish Stew.” The harmony and accompaniment was always quite sparse, the harp being used like a troubadour’s lute and the flute merely for decoration. One senses that the cycle could have benefited from a more equal musical partnership without losing its charm.
Marilyn Shrude’s Evolution V was performed by the Chicago Saxophone Quartet with guest alto sax soloist Mark Engebretson. It is largely a series of fanning tritones that are heard in a variety of guises while it explores the more subtle timbral shadings of the saxophone. The work is full of interesting ideas but goes on much too long. It was also marred by the fact that the performers often didn’t blend together or listen well to one another. Still, the group’s dynamic palette was impressive, and they sometimes sounded almost flutelike in quieter passages.
Janice Misurell Mitchell’s Transfusions is a full-blooded salute to brassy bebop, scored for alto and tenor sax, trumpet, and trombone. It’s a fun work, although the use of a conductor (Mitchell Arnold) seemed pretty pointless given that he evoked little in the way of dynamic contrast and that his balancing was such that the trombone could barely be heard in the overall texture.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Clem Kalischer.