Sunday, April 22, 2018

MUSA’s Candlelight Concert

Yesterday evening at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Director of Music Eric Choate presented the latest installment in his Candlelight Concert series. These events are free and therefore depend significantly on donations left when the members of the audience depart. Yesterday’s concert was given by the local early music ensemble MUSA.

The program was MUSA’s fourth installment in a series called Art Inspiring Art, organized around new repertoire for harpsichord and string quartet. The quartet consisted of violinists Tyler Lewis and Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo, violist Sarah Bleile, and cellist Gretchen Claassen, all playing relatively recent instruments but with gut strings. The harpsichordist was Derek Tam, one of the group’s founding members.

On this program the source of artistic inspiration, so to speak, came from Abbie Phillips Walker, the author of several “sandman” books of relatively short stories that parents could read to their children at bedtime. Nick Benavides selected six of these as inspirations for the movements of a suite he entitled The Color Festivals. Walker’s tales tended to have ironic twists and often eccentric characters. Benavides could thus use MUSA’s instrumentation to explore Walker’s character traits through the contrasts between the “contemporary” sonorities of a string quartet and the “dated” connotation of the harpsichord. Also, in recognition of continuo tradition, he afforded the harpsichord several opportunities for improvisation.

Benavides took the time to summarize each of the stories before the performance began. This was useful, since I (at least) had never previously heard of either the author or her stories. However, the details were less important than the overall rhetoric of idiosyncrasy, which set expectations for how the music would reflect on each of the stories. For the most part those expectations were satisfied; and I, for one, hope that this music will be given further performances. Each piece was engagingly clever on the surface, and I suspect that each will be able to hold up to repeated listening by gradually revealing more substantive foundations.

The preceding selections on the program came from the twentieth and eighteenth centuries, respectively. The earlier work was by the Catalan composer Antonio Soler. Soler is best known for his keyboard music, which is currently the subject of an ongoing recording project by Naxos. He is also associated with a fandango, but there is now some question as to whether he was actually the composer of this piece. In 2016 this site discussed a collection of six concertos for two organs, which were probably written for pedagogical purposes and had a fascinating backstory about how they were originally played.

In 1776 Soler published a collection of six quintets scored for strings and obligato keyboard. The strings were the instruments of the string quartet as we now know it. (For the record, Joseph Haydn’s first collection of six string quartets was published in 1764.) There is some indication that the preferred keyboard instrument was an organ. Yesterday MUSA performed the fifth (in D major) of these six quintets with Tam taking the keyboard part on harpsichord.

What was interesting was the extent to which this music tended to sound more like a concerto than the sort of piano quintet encountered during the nineteenth century. Thus, the opening movement begins with an extended passage for the strings during which the keyboard part does nothing other than double the cello line. This is then followed by a duo between the keyboard and the first violin:

original manuscript of the beginning of the keyboard solo (from IMSLP, public domain)

One wonders how Soler would have fared had he been in Vienna, rather than at the court of King Philip V of Spain.

The opening selection was a concertino for harpsichord and string orchestra by the British composer Walter Leigh. Born in 1905, Leigh was best known for “functional” scores he composed for stage and screen. He was particularly adept in the techniques of creating film soundtracks, beyond his skills at simply composing music for those soundtracks. He joined the British Army to fight in the Second World War and was killed in action in 1942 during fighting near Tobruk in Libya.

The concertino was written in 1934 for Elizabeth Poston, who was primarily a pianist. In other words this was not one of the many harpsichord concertos commissioned by Wanda Landowska to promote her “revival” of the instrument, the best known of which were composed by Manuel de Falla (1926) and Francis Poulenc (1928). Listening to Leigh’s score, one gets some sense that he knew about these pieces but still had no trouble finding a way to bring his own voice to his concertino. In the sanctuary of St. Mary the Virgin, the string quartet proved to be just the right size to balance effectively with Tam’s harpsichord work.

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