At 4:00 p.m. on January 19 in Duke's Nelson Music Room, a group of four members of the Duke Music Department gave a most interesting and well-performed recital entitled "Cosmopolitan Americans" to a respectable if far from full house. The oldest work presented turns 50 this year: Darius Milhaud's Sonatine for Violin and Cello, Op. 324, which opened the program. Milhaud, one of Les Six, was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1892. He came to the US in 1940 to escape the Nazis and taught at Mills College in Oakland, CA, from then until 1971. This reviewer is not certain he can truly be called an American composer as a result, because he also taught at the Paris Conservatoire from 1947 to 1971, and his style is distinctly French, not American, for the most part, this light, generally bright, melodic work not excepted. It was glowingly presented by Hsaio-Mei Ku and Fred Raimi, and Ku's full, rich sound on her new violin filled the hall well.
Next up was André Previn's Four Songs to texts by Toni Morrison, composed in 1994, presented by soprano Penelope Jensen accompanied by Raimi and pianist Jane Hawkins. Previn was born in Berlin in 1929, trained in the Berlin and Paris Conservatoires, and became an American citizen in 1943; he now resides in London. There is a considerable variety among the somewhat jagged texts, although all of them feature repetitions of one sort or another, and the modernistic musical settings suit the variety very well. Jensen picked up on this and made the most of it in her presentation. Several of them also featured lovely introductory or concluding passages and/or interludes for the instruments in solo or duet as well, all likewise admirably played. These are a long way from Schubert and Schumann, and from the Baroque, in which style Jensen excels, but it is a fine cycle.
After the intermission, whose necessity was questionable in view of the total length of the program, Raimi and Hawkins offered the last three of Paul Schoenfield's Six British Folksongs , composed in 1985. Schoenfield, born in Detroit in 1947, received his doctorate as a student of Robert Muczynski in 1969 and currently lives in Israel. "The Parting Kiss" had a lovely melody passed back and forth between the piano and the cello, "The Lousy Tailor" featured a sewing machine rhythm primarily in the piano, and "A Dream of Napoleon" was appropriately dark. It would be nice to hear all six one day.
The concluding work was the eight-song cycle for soprano and piano trio, Voice of the River Han , composed in 2001 by David Mullikin. Mullikin, born in Lexington, KY, in 1950, with degrees in music performance from the Universities of Cincinnati and Michigan, is a cellist long affiliated with the Colorado Symphony and the Ariel Trio. This work was the prizewinner from a field of 31 for the 2001 Music Teachers National Association Shepherd Distinguished Composer of the Year Award and was premièred by the Ariel Trio at the convention in Cincinnati in 2002. Ku and Raimi were also called upon to play some percussion instruments from time to time -- a small drum and a triangle, and a cymbal and small chimes, respectively. The texts, English adaptations by the composer of Korean poems by various authors [including two anonymous ones and three by Chong Ch'oi (1537-1594)] dating from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Some of them incorporated authentic Korean melodies; all had melodies that sounded as if they were of folk origin carried by one or another of the instruments, and the percussion added to the feel of authenticity. The music was well married to the words to illustrate the texts. The melody, one of the authentic ones, of "I bade you farewell," for example, was appropriately slow and sad. "A dash of rain" featured raindrops in the piano and pizzicati notes in the cello accompaniments. Its concluding lines by Chong Ch'oi ("Mind, be like the lotus leaves, Unstained by the world's madness") seemed appropriate to our times. The cycle is not mere exoticism but a successful incorporation of Korean elements into an original work lovely in its own right. Jensen's crystal clear voice and diction made this the high point of the afternoon's fine performance, although it was a bit marred by inappropriate applause after the fifth song, when a page turn was necessary to follow the texts. (Latecomers and earlyleavers also interrupted the proceedings more than once, alas.)
Enthusiastic audience applause was rewarded by a presentation of Leonard Bernstein's 1944 "Dream with me" by all four musicians.
The printed program provided the list of works with dates of composition and their composer's names with life dates, complete texts of all the songs and artist bios, but nary a word about the composers and the works. None were spoken either. This is perhaps explained by the not unworthy concept of letting the music speak for itself, and it most certainly did with the fine performances that these musicians gave, but appreciation is generally enhanced when something is known of the creator and the inspiration and genesis of the compositions. Duke is an institution of higher learning, and education was definitely one of its goals the last time I checked.