Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Life Journeys

Western sonatas and Eastern reverberations

Glacier National Park, Montana ----------------------------------------- ---Photo: Rodney Punt

Emerson Quartet performs Dvorak string quartets
April 16, ACE Gallery, Beverly Hills

Musica Angelica presents Beethoven and Schubert duo sonatas
April 25, First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica

Pacific Serenades in sonatas and a new work by Mark Carlson
April 27, UCLA Faculty Center, Westwood

Commentary and reviews by Rodney Punt

Every once in a while, Father Time breaks his silence and speaks to Mother Earth. Musical memories and some recent performances are the subject of this commentary.

The past fourteen music-drenched days also reawakened an ancient friendship, announced an expected but still surprising departure, invoked remembrance of things past, and connected East with West. These random events made sense, as is so often the case, only in retrospect.

Two weeks ago I received one of those e-mail notices: “Ken Clark added you as a friend on Facebook.” Was this the Ken I sang with decades ago in the chorus at Morningside High School? It was. A brunch at my place a few days later with Ken and two other friends, one a New Yorker I hadn’t seen in over a decade, reminded us all of musical experiences in school days, and how quickly time skips by.

We had been raised in the Eisenhower-Kennedy post-war era. In our fortunate state of California, Earl Warren and Pat Brown governed with optimism and an eye to the future. It was before the age of assassinations, before tax anger, before terrorism.

It was Camelot.

We were sitting around the table and remembering, each with his own musical story. My journey began in Inglewood, in its public schools from kindergarten through high school. Already on piano at home, from the age of nine I also took lessons at school on clarinet. Music ensembles flourished at all grade levels. After two years of clarinet in high school band, and another playing oboe in the orchestra, I was ready for something more musically social (that is, with girls) as a senior.

Speaking a little Latin and French from school studies, and with a successful reading of two Shakespeare passages in Bob Doyle's earlier English class, I had joined a nearby church choir over the summer directed by Don Fontana. In his high school chorus when my senior year began, to my surprise I landed a role in the musical, L'il Abner. And then we graduated in 1963, some of us off to college, and for me more singing in the UCSB Glee Club, University Chorus, and The Schubertians. Stints as a choral director at various local churches and a prep school in Los Olivos helped pay the bills.

Camelot, however, had quickly passed into history by the mid-1960's. Stories from those days still haunt us. As Paul McCartney sang to our generation forty years ago, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.”

Over the many years, we had lost our beloved high school choral director, Don Fontana, and our schoolmate Johnny Carl, also a talented choral director. I remembered a fellow high school senior, Larry Swarbrick, who performed 'L’il Abner' to my 'Rasmussen T. Finsdale' in the De Paul/Mercer musical. He had once memorized Poe’s long The Raven in lieu of an English final. But his would be a life lost to the pointless Viet Nam War just a few years later. In cosmic compensation, it would seem, his younger sister, Carol Swarbrick, went on to a considerable career on the musical stage and television, and is still active today.

Perhaps the most talented of us all, a pianist by the name of Bruce Gaston, fled the USA during the 1960’s to avoid the draft, and settled in Thailand. Taking to its native music, he became a permanent resident and a Thai composer of international reputation. West blended into East. These days it is Thailand that is politically troubled, and concerns for Bruce's safety went around the table. We wondered if we might regain contact with him through an Internet search.

The brunch concluded with promises for more.

Five days later an eminent local music critic died. My old acquaintance - we were sometimes guests in each other's homes - had not gone to the beyond easily, his later years painful for himself and for those who knew him. Inner demons, outer anger, the struggle to stay in the game, the fight against unbeatable odds, and always the battle against an involuntary behavioral affliction that had riddled his personal relationships. But now there was peace; he was somewhere with Mozart and Schubert, and life renewed.

I have always felt that musical forms, such as dances, themes-and-variations, scherzos, rondos, and so forth, are all in some way analogous of the patterns of our own lives. For me, the sonata form is the most encompassing musical analog yet discovered or invented for the portrayal of the life journeys we all undertake. These recent days have been filled with sonata sounds by a variety of groups, with musings on life and death, love and loss, war and peace.

Emerson Quartet in Dvorak string quartets

I wonder what Alan Rich would have thought of the all-Dvorak program at the ACE Gallery in Beverly Hills on April 16. Had he been in good health he surely would have attended; Dvorak was one of his pantheon composers. The Emerson String Quartet, perhaps the most accomplished such today, performed a sampling of their new DG-CD release,
Old World – New World, well worth your attention. Selected Dvorak quartets are grouped with a collection of song transcriptions, The Cypresses.

This evening it was their passionate performance of the
Quartet in G Major, Op. 106, which most impressed me. Dvorak’s long American residency had produced the New World Symphony and other works that deepened the Bohemian composer, ushering in new regions of compositional freedom. This quartet was Dvorak’s first completed work upon returning to beloved Czech soil, and it resonated in the ACE Gallery’s near perfect acoustics like a Slavic music of the spheres.

Historically informed Beethoven & Schubert sonatas

More works in sonata form came nine days later at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, courtesy of Musica Angelica. The Schubert and Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano, performed by Natalia Grigorieva on an 1829 Broadwood forte piano, with Ilia Korol on a gut-stringed violin, had about them the novelty of antiquity.

Most of us know Beethoven’s
"Spring” Sonata in F major (Op. 24, No. 5), and a few know his Sonata in E-flat Major (Op. 12, No. 3). Anybody who says Beethoven was not lyrical listens too much to his middle period heroic works. Powerful as they are, they show only one side of the many-sided Beethoven, who both launched and rounded off his career with inwardly rapturous and deeply felt expressions, as were the two sonatas on this program.

With the program's Schubertian counterparts, few may be so well acquainted, and more’s the pity. His so-called “sonatinas” for violin and piano are not diminutive in the least; that was a contemporary marketing ploy to make them more attractive to amateur performers. The relatively early works, in D Major D384 and A minor D385, are major efforts, often reminiscent of their Mozartian and Beethovenian models, but full of Schubert’s magical melodies, song reminiscences, and idiosyncratic piano figurations.

Grigorieva and Korol performed the four pieces with exquisite phrasing, completely idiomatic and comfortable in the classical idiom. The delicate tones of each “authentic” instrument were well balanced. The Broadwood’s three distinct sound registers: a buzzy-punchy bass, a slightly metallic but melodious middle, and a soft-singing, pingy top provided ample opportunity to appreciate how these works originally sounded to audiences.

The performance was sabotaged, however, by the forte piano’s inability to stay in tune. Several pauses between movements for retuning ensued (even necessary within movements, but not acted upon). The Broadwood’s owner and keeper, Curtis Berak, explained to me later that moving the forte piano from Pasadena to Santa Monica had unsettled its balance and caused the dizzying migration of pitch. Despite this, it was worth hearing these works played by a pair of knowing professionals.

Duos and trios and a new work by Mark Carlson

And so we arrive at last evening, when Pacific Serenades took on two iconic composers, again Beethoven, but now coupled with Dmitri Shostakovich. Squeezed between these titans was a delicate new work by the artistic director of the series, Mark Carlson.

Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major (Op. 102, No. 1) was a new departure for the composer in 1815, beginning what was to become known as his third period. Just the year before, he put a full stop to his middle "heroic" period with one last regrettable entry, the fraudulent and forgettable victory cantata of 1814, Der glorreiche Augenblick, composed for the reactionary crown heads of Europe and celebrating Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat. Beethoven knew the world’s hero-worshipping days were now empty and over. And his internal world had collapsed with the failure of his last love affair in 1812, followed by the unexpected guardianship of his nephew in the year of this new work.

Beethoven had turned inward to confront and reexamine his existence and to reinvent himself, as deafness closed in, and with no close or distant love he could fantasize might make him a life companion. This and many revealing and profound works would follow. You could almost feel him reaching out from his loneliness to embrace a new lyricism, with a human vulnerability completely alien to his heroic works. He went back in time, to Handel and old musical forms like the fugue, to move forward his art and give meaning to his remaining life. This cello sonata and a companion in the same opus were among the first entries in the new phase of Beethoven's creativity.

Cellist David Speltz gave the sonata only a so-so performance, however, a better contribution coming from his pianist partner Ayke Agus. Speltz possesses a big-boned, lovely tone, but his articulation of passagework was rough and his interpretation in this instance not the most fully thought-out.

Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67, was an entirely different affair. A work inspired by the human catastrophe of the Holocaust during World War II, and made more intense by the sudden loss of a dear friend, it is one of the composer’s most deeply felt works, full of sadness but also of bitter irony. From an opening of bleak loneliness and loss, it moves on a journey of dialogue between the instruments, here agitated, there despairing, to a destination of sinister resignation. Violinist Roger Wilkie, along with an inspired Speltz and Agus, formed a committed unit, and realized the work's grim implications nobly.

Bravely placing his work in the middle of these two formidables, Carlson’s newly composed
Batik, for violin and piano, held its own and made us momentarily forget its two elder siblings. Dedicated to retiring Pacific Serenades pianist Agus, its title word "Batik" means “Life Journey” and, as the composer explained, it consciously relates to Agus’ journey from her native Indonesia as a musical prodigy to the USA. Carlson employs two variations of pentatonic-scaled gamelan music, pelog and slendro, which help locate Agus’ Indonesian identity in this essentially Western score.

Too free-form to be classified a violin and piano sonata, Carlson's
Batik still has the feel of one. The first of its two movements, Waves, suggested to me a protagonist violin in an alteration between a soaring, dreaming imagination of what the future might hold and the practical work of purposeful travel on a long journey, the latter underscored effectively with a pulsating forward drive on the piano. The second movement, The Homeward Heart, suggested a series of reflections of a homesick young girl, remembering who and what had been left behind.

Carlson knows how to write 'melancholy', not of the neurotic or depressed variety, but that of those lonely and stoic people who occupy Edward Hopper paintings.
Batik is a lovely work and a well-crafted tribute to Agus. Her piano and Wilkie's violin gave its second public performance, two days after its Pasadena premiere, great heart and presence.

Ayke Agus’s life journey has blended East into West. Bruce Gaston’s similar journey in the other direction has blended West into East. We have all logged-in our own miles and memories, and, if we have been lucky, experienced personal transformations as profound for our existence as those of the composers and performers mentioned here.

To Life!


CeruleanBlonde said...

My G-d, what a wonderful musical analysis, Rodney! It not only feels like Love, but also ecstasy and oh, how I am moved, deeply moved, by your interpretations of all the music as well as your comments about Alan Rich, with whom I had no connection except to either agree or disagree about his critiques. Oh, I am so thrilled to read your comments about music! Somehow you and I have found the joys of our hearts in this, our musical world! Thank you, Rodney, for letting me into your world!
I have been out of town, first, on an Egyptological expedition, then up to Monterey for a writers' convention, and then to an Egyptological meeting in Oakland. Keep me in your most wonderful Loop, will you, please?!
Love, Deborah

Rodney Punt said...

Will certainly keep you in the loop, dear cousin. Thanks for your nice words.

To tell you the truth, I had no known of your love of music, or "art" music, but I do think it is somewhat an inherited gene in our family - not all get it, but when it's there, it's unmistakable.

Welcome back to our town.