It is not likely that many people left the auditorium of the North Carolina Museum of Art whistling tuneful new melodies here on this summer-like afternoon. They had just attended the latest edition of Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s series, “Sights and Sounds on Sundays.” The “newness” came about by way of the program entitled NEW @ WFU, with violinist Jacqui Carrasco and pianist Louis Goldstein from the music faculty at Wake Forest University, and percussionist John R. Beck, who has taught at Wake Forest and the NC School of the Arts. The offerings included none of your everyday slice-of-life fare.
Six Melodies for Violin and Piano (1950) by John Cage served as the “old” piece on the program. None of the six was provided with a name, so no programmatic ideas were advanced. They all tended to belie Cage’s “far out” reputation. The piano parts were of such a fluid nature that they could well have been written by Erik Satie. The two instruments operated as equals (indeed in the fourth melody, the piano predominated). One attendee observed that, rather than six melodies, it was more like one melody with six variations.
In her useful explanatory comments, Carrasco pointed out that Steven Mackey’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1996) was written in standard sonata form. It is doubtful that many would otherwise have known. The second of two movements was entitled “Sputtering, with perseverance,” perhaps to mean sputtering for the players and perseverance for the listeners. The sounds seemed designed more to startle than to entertain. Could it be that the composer has deliberately engaged in a form of reductio ad absurdum: How far afield can I go with unmusical sounds before even the most gullible listener will rebel?
Beauty returned to the stage with the closing Varied Trio for Violin, Piano, and Percussion (1986) by Lou Harrison. This five-movement work featured a percussion collection replete with drinking glasses, kitchen pans and chopsticks, along with more orthodox instruments. It would be wrong to conclude that such an assemblage amounted to mere gimmickry. All of these movements were tuneful, even a bit romantic and eminently accessible. In the “Gending” (or Gendhing, an Indonesian piece) movement, the piano was sometimes “picked” as a harp. The drinking glasses with chopsticks served as “Bowl Bells,” in the movement of that name. The glasses constituted the solo instrument in an altogether pleasing melody, with piano and pizzicato backup. The “Elegy” was a lengthy violin solo, almost unaccompanied and fittingly somber. The “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard “ was a lively piano and violin duo, and the closing “Dance” made for a happy trio featuring all players more or less equally.
Three first-rate musicians have brought forth a splendid artistry that both taught and entertained an appreciative audience. They demonstrated contemporary music all the way from the sublimely beautiful to the other end of the music spectrum.