One of the more unusual musical series in the Triangle area-and now fighting for its life-is the "Composers in Context" program, sponsored by WUNC-FM and the N.C. Museum of Art. Led by N.C. Symphony's Composer in Residence, Nathaniel Stookey, the concerts have given composers the opportunity to present and discuss their music in an informal ambience while relating it in often novel ways to the music of the past.Last Sunday, September 30, the theme was Fathers and Sons, with music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Duke composer Stephen Jaffe and his father Howard. With nearly a dozen musical events scheduled that afternoon and evening, music lovers had an embarrassment of musical riches to choose from, and the audience for the concert was sparse.
Howard Jaffe (b.1919), a geologist and geochemist by profession, was an avid musician and amateur composer in both popular and classical styles. As a student he teamed up with classmate folk-singer Oscar Brand, writing the music for some of Brand's inimitable lyrics. He also wrote over a dozen classical compositions for solo piano and for piano and voice. Stephen Jaffe unveiled two of his father's compositions in transcription for flute, harp and viola, and voice, flute, harp and viola.The program opened with violist Jonathan Bagg playing a transcription of J.S. Bach's Suite in d minor, originally written for unaccompanied cello. In keeping with the Baroque practice of substituting instruments, Bagg's performance on viola was excellent, aided by the depth and volume of his instrument.
To contrast father with son, the program featured C.P.E.'s quirky Sonata in a minor for solo flute. Unfortunately, flutist Anna Wilson had great difficulties with the Sonata's spiky leaps, especially in the low register, where breathiness and a heavy vibrato obscured both the musical line and pitch. The juxtaposition of the two Bachs, however, was particularly telling. While Johann Sebastian's Suite is magnificently and unerringly crafted to make the solo instrument seem like an entire harmonized ensemble, the wild leaps in Carl Philip's Sonata gives little sense of full harmony and seem to have been put there to trip up the performer and wow the listener. A proponent of the EmpfindsamerStil (emotive style) the younger Bach veered sharply away from the mathematical and cerebral-although hardly less expressive-style of his father.
The relationship between the Jaffes, however, is the reverse of the Bachs; it is Howard, the father who was the composition hobbyist and his son the professional composer. Howard Jaffe composed Woodland Dusk in the 1940s, and, while never performed in public nor published, the work became a staple in the Jaffe family household. Woodland Dusk is a short mood piece with some surprising harmonic progressions. His son's transcription, with harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett joining Bagg and Wilson, brought to mind Debussy's Sonata or the Ravel Introduction and Allegro. Frankly, we would have liked to hear it in its original piano version as well, but, then, this was a concert featuring transcriptions of the works of both fathers in the pairings. Howard Jaffe's vocal setting of Thou Shalt Love the Lord Thy God, the Jewish liturgical equivalent of the Lord's Prayer, was sung by soprano Terry Rhodes, with the piano part again transcribed for flute, viola and harp. Stephen fondly recalls hearing it in the jaffe home, with his father at the piano and his mother singing while washing dishes and shouting at his father when he played a wrong note. The influence of such a musical household, even though neither parent was a professional musician, inspired all three children to become professional musicians.
After intermission Stookey interviewed Jaffe fils, who not only explained the background of his father's musical avocation, but also gave some pointers about the form and structure of his own upcoming piece. Jaffe's Offering, for flute, viola and harp, composed in 1996, is an elegiac piece that uses more conventional tonal harmony than we usually expect from him. It is also in one long movement, evolving from a five-note opening phrase. Bagg, Bartlett and Wilson brought out the pensive mood, but Wilson again had some difficulties, especially in the low register.
A combination of pre-concert lecture and performance, the Composer in Context concerts are invaluable for introducing new music and providing a forum for contemporary composers to offer the listener deeper insight on how to approach their works. The series' survival, however, is threatened since WUNC-FM went tone-deaf. We hope that some other contributing or performing organizations will keep it alive. The radio station is committed to broadcasting the concert at some point, although determining when to interrupt the new all-talk and folk-music format may be beyond the ability of its powers that be.