Addicts to classical music in live performance face a rough transition between the end of summer music festivals and the beginning of the Fall Season. The intriguing programs of the Carolina Summer Music Festival, held in a variety of Winston-Salem venues, provide a vital "fix." The musicians are drawn from the Carolina Chamber Symphony which is made up of many of the state's finest local faculty members, free-lancers, and orchestra players. The theme of this program, held in the intimate Babcock Hall of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, was "Old Wine in New Bottles." This often involved modern composers utilizing older forms in a contemporary style.
An innovative approach for this concert was to have author-poet Shona Simpson read selected poems from Chamber Music (1907) by James Joyce (1882-1941) throughout the entire concert. Three of the poems were set by Samuel Barber while others could be "stretched" to complement the pieces. Simpson delivered the lines with clarity without use of a microphone. Director of Public Programs for the museum, Phil Archer, drew attention to modernist Joyce's use of Elizabethan and Jacobean forms in his poems during his introduction to the concert.
The concert opened with Suite de Ballet for flute and piano (1924) by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The four movements are "Improvisation," "Humoresque," "Gavotte," and "Passepied," and they feature the composer at his folksiest pastoral mood. The traditional dance forms would clearly make an ideal accompaniment for dancers. Flutist Elizabeth Ransom played with fine breath control, phrasing, and tone with clear articulation in the fastest passages. Pianist Paul Gillies provided alert and carefully balanced accompaniment.
Next, Gillies provided ideal keyboard support for tenor Glenn Siebert's mellifluous performance of Three Songs, Op. 10 (1939) by Samuel Barber. This set consisted of "Rain Has Fallen," "Sleep Now," and "I Hear an Army." The latter often turns up on vocal recitals sampling American art songs. Every Siebert performance is a master class in how to deliver this literature.
The next selection, Duo for Violin and Cello (1925) by Czech composer/pianist Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was a fascinating sample of what might have been. Schulhoff was just one of a whole generation of European composers who were put to death in Nazi concentration camps. The young composer had been encouraged by Dvořák, he studied with Max Reger, and among his musical influences were Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy (with whom he had private lessons), and Alexander Scriabin.
Schulhoff's Duo is dedicated to Leoš Janáček and is a superb example of the composer's blending of folk models with contemporary elements. Todd E. Sullivan, in notes for Cedille 90000047 Double Play: Duos for Violin and Piano, writes "the first movement's initial pentatonic counterpoint quickly 'modernizes' with the free introduction of chromatic pitches." This material is recycled throughout the remaining three movements as a method of integrating the whole work.
The finale begins with a compressed version of the opening duo. Central European folk music is characterized by "five-beat meter and complex subdivisions." Among the many string fireworks are "left-hand pizzicatos and artificial harmonics" and "fiery Hungarian fiddle playing in the second Zingaresca movement.” Schulhoff also seems to apply "Janácek's technique of rotating variations of simple melodic cells" in the last two movements.
Violinist Jacqui Carrasco and cellist Evan Richey (who was also recording engineer for the whole concert) turned in a spectacular, white-hot performance as musical elements were quickly tossed back-and-forth between players as the widest tonal ranges of each instrument were probed. Carrasco's triple stops were readily matched by Richey's. The catalog of string effect ran the gamut from hushed muted strings to powerful pizzicatos. This extraordinary work received its full due from Carrasco and Richey.
Pianist Paul Gillies was featured as soloist to open the second half of the concert. He proved to be an elegant, refined interpreter, ideal qualities when approaching the French repertoire. The first selection was À la manière de Emmanuel Chabrier: Paraphrase sur un air de Gounod-Faust, deuxième acte (1913) by Maurice Ravel followed by the composer's À la manière de Borodine (1913). Claude Debussy's La plus que lente (1910) concluded Gillies' fine set.
The concert ended with another winning work by a neglected composer, the Trio on Popular Irish Tunes (1925) by Swiss composer Frank Martin. He may be better known for his choral works such as his Mass for Double Choir or his oratorio Golgotha. An American commissioned Martin to compose a piano trio based upon familiar Irish folk tunes. According to Philip Reed, in a program note for a concert by the Osiris Piano Trio on the Harry Jacobs Chamber Music Society, Augusta Georgia, January 16, 2009, "Martin immersed himself in the rhythms of ancient Greece, Bulgaria, and the Near East and applied them to ancient Irish tunes that he found in the Bibliotèque National de Paris. The patron backed out. The melodies are distributed over the three movements and recombined with each other in numerous ingenious ways."
Among the work’s many delights are the cross-hand piano pyrotechnics in the first movement, the haunting slow movement's plaintive cello solo and the give-and-take between the strings, and the last movement's gigue with its traditional Irish lilt and its snow-balling concluding acceleration. Pianist Paul Gillies, violinist Jacqui Carrasco, and cellist Evan Richey turned in a truly breathtaking performance in which fiery intensity was married to superb technical control.