This concert at St. Matthias Church presented Franklin Keel, cello, Kara Poorbaugh, viola, and Brian Hermanson, clarinet. All are Eastman School-educated musicians now resident in Western North Carolina. Poorbaugh and Keel are the low strings of the Opal Quartet and principals in the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. Hermanson is a newcomer, and this was his first concert appearance in the region. The program consisted of “three B’s” (Bach, Beethoven and Ernest Bloch) and three less-known composers (Rebecca Clarke, Shulamit Ran and Maximilian Heidrich).
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was a violist and composer born in England to a German mother and an American father. Her later decades were spent in the United States. Clarke’s Prelude, Allegro & Pastorale is a 1941 composition, from which Hermanson and Poorbaugh performed the Prelude. The musicians tightly coupled the darker color of the viola to the reedy flavor of the clarinet, creating the effect of one voice with a timbre that underwent subtle modulation. This was chamber playing at its best.
Keel performed the Suite No. 1 for Violoncello (1956) by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), a Swiss-born composer who settled in the United States in 1916. This piece shows a fusion of musical influences – the modern German romanticism of Richard Strauss, French impressionism and traditional Jewish music – in a traditional baroque form (four movements slow-fast-slow-fast). The first movement is wistful, the second cheerful (including a section with a double-stopped bass drone), the third aetherial, and the fourth a rollicking hora. Keel looked as though he enjoyed every strong emotion, as did the audience.
Poorbaugh performed the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 3, S. 1009, with the beautiful open tone that we have come to expect from her. The viola is imperfectly designed; it would be impossible to play if it were 150% the size of a violin, as acoustics would demand, so its size is a compromise between acoustics and practicality. As a result, many violists of lesser caliber produce a restricted tone, but not Poorbaugh.
Poorbaugh and Keel performed Beethoven’s Duo for viola & cello in E-flat (WoO 32). This unpublished work (WoO stands for Werk Ohne Opus or work without opus) was written during the period when the twenty-something-year-old composer was writing sonatas for cello/piano and violin/piano as well as string trios and piano trios. He was exploring how to present complicated ideas with two or three instruments, thus allowing him to present even more complicated ideas with his first string quartets. This work for viola and cello shows some self-conscious contrapuntal development that would later give way to the assurance of his quartets a few years later.
Shulamit Ran’s For an Actor: Monologue for Clarinet is a 1978 composition by the Israeli-American composer (a 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner). The commissioned work explores a broad range of possibilities on the clarinet: multiple tones, microtones (a little like what one hears on the Arab oud) and other special effects. Hermanson has the full kit of technical tools and gave a good representation of the piece. My reservation is that while the work is a veritable catalog of “pretty sounds,” where is the tension and release that great music is based on?
The final work of this concert brought the three musicians onstage for the second movement Andante of Maximilian Heidrich’s Trio for Klarinette, Viola and Violoncello. His dates are 1864-1909, and German romantic composers of this era are often either Brahms-wannabes or Wagner-wannabes. Not Heidrich. He shows his own individual voice, and this work was a discovery. We live in a wonderful age for music. The World Wide Web allows one to explore the scores of forgotten composers (or at least those scores whose copyright has expired). And talented and adventurous musicians such as Keel, Poorbaugh and Hermanson bring these works to life, to our pleasure and edification.