Friday, March 24, 2017

Discovering Late Hummel in the Tenderloin

I am a firm believer that anyone serious about listening to music should take an interest in discovering new works regardless of the period in which they were composed. There is too much of a tendency among recitalists to either adopt or commission recent or brand-new works while always falling back on the “same old same old” when it comes to any of the preceding centuries. This afternoon at the Cadillac Hotel the duo of cellist Rebecca Roudman and pianist Noel Benkman provided a striking opportunity for such discovery involving a “Grande Sonate” composed in 1824.

The composer was Johann Nepomuk Hummel; and, when one considers the scope of his life, it is more than a little disappointing that his music is not played more often. He was born on November 14, 1778 and showed a talent for music at a very early age. Indeed, that age was so early and the talent so notable that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart not only took him as a pupil when Hummel was only eight but also arranged for Hummel to stay in his house. While on tour in London, Hummel received instruction from Muzio Clementi; and, after he returned to Vienna, his teachers included Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Joseph Haydn, and Antonio Salieri. By 1824 he had a reputation in just about every city in Europe that had a serious commitment to the performance of music.

One of the interesting things about that year, however, is that it predates Frédéric Chopin’s move to Paris and the beginning of his notable reputation as a composer. Thus, Hummel’s “Grande Sonate” predates Chopin’s Opus 3, his C major “Polonaise brillante” with an introduction, by about half a decade. Yet there are so many adventurous moves in Hummel’s sonata that one has to wonder why the more conventional Chopin work gets so much more attention. The 6/4 metre of the opening Allegro cantabile e grazioso movement makes it clear from the opening gesture that this is not the sort of rhetoric one is used to encountering in “classical” sonatas. Less unconventional may be how the structural plan migrates from A major to A minor; but there are still any number of “stops along the way” at which the attentive listener will wonder why (s)he had not previously encountered this music.

That said, the lobby of the Cadillac is not the most ideal spot for encountering unfamiliar chamber music. The Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, a fully-restored 1884 Steinway Model D Concert Grand, is always prepared for performance the previous day. However, the space is a lobby of a working hotel. One cannot avoid a fair amount of coming and going against a “background wash” of ongoing chatter. Nevertheless, where the seats are set out, there are always listeners intently focused on the performers; and, considering that one is in the heart of the Tenderloin, these tend to be audiences that show the performers more respect than might be encountered at free concerts in “better” parts of town.

Roudman and Benkman followed their “discovery offering” of Hummel with two more familiar composers. The first of these was Ludwig van Beethoven with the first (in C major) of his two Opus 102 sonatas. They then concluded their program with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 99 (second) cello sonata in F major. This made for a lot of music. Cadillac events usually run for about an hour. However, it was clear that the Brahms was going to exceed that limit; and there were occasional signs that Roudman and Benkman were trying to pick up the pace a bit. Nevertheless, both of these pieces said what they had to say with a suitably energetic rhetoric and the occasional surprising turn of phrase.

The Cadillac calls itself “The House of Welcome Since 1907;” and that welcome clearly extends to those who are serious about both making and listening to music.