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Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was born on February 3, 1809 and only a scheduling problem prevented the University of North Carolina School of the Arts' bicentennial concert from taking place in 2009. When given lemons, it's best to make lemonade and this precipitant celebration was both imaginative in programming and satisfying to the musical taste buds. An enthusiastic and receptive audience of students and music lovers in Watson Hall heard a broad sampling of chamber music and lieder across the composer's career.
Pianist Eric Larsen anchored the first half of the concert. He ably supported soprano Marilyn Taylor for a fine selection of four songs. The spirit of Mendelssohn, the composer of fairy music hovered over the fleet and airy "Neue Liebe" ("New Love"), Op. 19/4 (Heinrich Heine) in which the singer describes seeing the fairies and their Queen pass by. "Das erste Veilchen" ("The First Violet"), Op. 19/2 (Egon Ebert) was cast in a slow, typical Romantic setting. "Frühlingslied" ("Spring Song") is the title of at least three settings by the composer, Op. 34/3, Op. 47/5, and Op. 71/2 but the program only gave the title and the name of the poet, Karl Klingemann. A hasty search of Mendelssohn by Duke University's R. Larry Todd failed to pin it down. The song was varied in tempo and had an interesting, rhythmic accompaniment.
Fairies were not the composer's only obsession, witches being another. There is the choral and orchestral setting Die erste Walpurgisnacht and a number of songs such as the dramatic "Hexenlied" ("Witches Song"), Op. 8/8 (Ludewig Hölty) which ended the set. Throughout the set, Taylor's diction and intonation were excellent, her voice was firmly focused and supported, and her tone was warm and pleasing. For the "Hexenlied" she brought out all the weapons of a dramatic singer, including facial expression, broad gestures of arms and hands, and control of dynamics and timbre, to convey a witch's ecstatic description of a May First Black Sabbath.
Mendelssohn, the mature composer, was represented by a fine, impassioned performance of the First Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49 (1839) by pianist Larsen, violinist Joseph Genualdi, and cellist Brooks Whitehouse. Unlike the Second Trio which is conceived more instrumentally and is programmed less often, Op. 49 abounds in long, Italianate melodies such as the lush one the cello plays to open the second movement. Unlike his early chamber music, such as the Piano Sextet that ended the concert, the composer gives equal measure to the strings instead of dominating them with the keyboard. Larsen, with his Steinway piano's lid fully raised, balanced his dynamics perfectly with his colleagues, never once covering a string player's line. String intonation was excellent with Genualdi's high notes always precise while Whitehouse produced a full, rich cello sound. They played with the sure ensemble of a touring trio.
Since the program notes did not cover Mendelssohn's "The Evening Bell" for harp and piano, harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett shared some of its background from the stage. The composer was staying in the home of Thomas Attwood (1765-1838) while he recovered from a knee injury. Composer, pianist, and organist Attwood had been a student of Mozart and was a close friend of Mendelssohn. The title of the song refers to the doorbell of the house. This score is typical of the kind of work publishers of the period loved, easy works for the amateur home market. Bartlett said this combination was very common. The harp would not have been a modern model intended for large concert halls. The pattern seemed to be for the harp to play a theme or melody which would be taken up by the piano while the harp elaborated over this base. It was visually and aurally striking that the keyboard part was very confined to the second quarter of the keys of the piano. The pianist's hands never crossed and rarely strayed even below the "and Sons" under the Steinway label. This allowed scope for the harpist to display both the high notes and the resonant low notes of its range. Allison Gagnon's piano accompaniment ably supported Bartlett's able and tasteful execution of this trifle.
Mendelssohn's early chamber works are rarely recorded and even more rarely heard in the concert hall. Most had their premiere in his family's musicales to which many of Berlin's intellectuals, Goethe for example, were invited. The composer was an accomplished pianist and the keyboard dominates most of these early works such as the Sextet in D, Op. 110 for piano, violin, two violas, cello, and double bass. It was published posthumously and was composed in 1824. According to Larry Todd, "The last two movements of the Piano Sextet betray Felix's immersion in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and its technique of thematic recall." There are structural links between movements such as the restating of the theme of the third movement Minuet, marked "Agitato," in the rondo finale. The piano dominates the second movement adagio with the strings often muted or silent. The fashionable rhythm of the galop is featured in the finale. According to John Horton in Mendelssohn Chamber Music (BBC Music Guide), the composer's "growing admiration in Bach" is reflected "at such movements the string group divides into five real parts, with independent movement between cello and bass."
Allison Gagnon played the piano part with aplomb and fire. Violinist Kevin Lawrence made the most of his two opportunities to soar in the last movement. Violist Sheila Browne was joined by her student and teaching assistant Laura Manko whose Emerging Artist 2008 concert was reviewed by CVNC. Their darker timbre was added to the sonorous lower strings which were in the able hands of bassist Paul Sharpe and cellist Brooks Whitehouse. These artists made the strongest possible case for the sextet, revealing its fine craftsmanship and its never-ending flow of melodies.