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Ushers counted and recounted the few empty seats in Reynolda House for the August 14 Foothills Music Festival Concert. New fire code regulations strictly limit seating to only 120. According to Benjamin Wolff's fine program notes, the musicians would present an attractive program of Bach, Feininger, Copland, and Dvorák that would link the music to art works in the collection by Emanuel Leutze, William Merritt Chase, Georgia O'Keefe, and visual artist and composer Lionel Feininger.
Co-founder/director Rachel Matthews played four preludes and fugues (in C, F Minor, C-sharp Minor, and E) from J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier , Book I, using the small Steinway grand. Her fingering seemed effortless, and all the voices could be easily followed as they entered and were developed. The bass line was rock solid while a broad palette of color bathed the treble. The only complaint I heard was that this group was too short.
Before playing the Fugue No. 3 (Gigue), in G, by Lionel Feininger (1871-1956), pianist Byron Schenkman gave some background about the painter for whom music was not only an inspiration but also an avocation. This piece is one of three fugues for piano from a set of twelve; the other nine are for organ. The G Major fugue, modeled after the fugue in Bach's Fifth French Suite, is full of devices such as inversion, mirroring, fragmentation, and augmentation. Feininger was no Bach, but his effort forms a minor tributary. Besides being a pianist, Schenkman is a superb harpsichordist who has made numerous recordings for the Centaur label, and this experience showed in his hand positions and fingerings, which allowed for mercurially fast passages, realized with uncommon lucidity.
The visual arts links to the music Wolff mentioned was clear at intermission, when audience members could view two works by Feininger and one by O'Keefe. Feininger's elegant and precisely balanced elements in "Church of Heilingenhafen" and "Rainbow II" echo the attributes he admired in Bach. O'Keefe was part of a circle that included photographer Alfred Stieglitz and composer Aaron Copland. They shared an aesthetic that sought a more lyrical view of America in contrast to what Wolff described as "the crass industrial boom of the 1920s and seemingly bottomless bust of the 1930s." The spare elemental colors and lines of O'Keeffe's "Pool in the Woods, Lake George," paired well with the concert's Copland selections. In 1892, while Dvorák taught at the National Conservatory of New York, he experienced the vibrant and nationalistic artistic ferment represented by Emanuel Leutze's "Worthington Wittredge in His Tenth Street Studio," and William Merritt Chase's "In the Studio." The artists were creating an American image in the visual arts while Dvorák did much to foster ideas about American music.
Set No. 2 of Copland's Old American Songs was composed in 1952 in response to the popularity of his first set, of 1950. Both sets draw upon a wide variety of sources. "The Little Horses" comes from a lullaby; "Zion's Walls," from a revivalist song; and "The Golden Tree" is a variant of a ballad called "The Golden Vanity." "At the River" is a hymn tune, and "Ching-a-Rung Chaw" is a minstrel song, shorn of racist elements. From records - and in live concerts by the singer who premiered them, baritone William Warfield - I have always had them imprinted as being for a low voice ranging from mezzo-soprano through bass. For the Foothills series, Schenkman accompanied soprano Julia Matthews, who has specialized in early music. This was reflected in the near absence of vibrato in her performances. Her projection was excellent, every word was clearly enunciated, and her unaffected delivery was apt. Her lack of a low range was a liability mostly in the third song, "The Golden Willow Tree," with its repeated line, "way down low." Perhaps next season Copland's less frequently performed Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson would be a better use of her vocal range. Schenkman gave Copland's spare score its due while never covering Matthews' vocal line.
A performance of Dvorák's glowing and gorgeous Viola Quintet in E-flat, Op. 97, needed no qualifiers or reservations. This work, unjustly neglected in our region (but scheduled for a performance in Raleigh on 9/12*), bursts at the seams with infectious melodies and rhythms. Moreover it's a tour de force for a pair violas, the most neglected of the "inner voices." It is startling that the composer opens it with a solo by the second viola, which also launches the second movement. A soulful melody played by the first viola dominates the pensive trio of the second movement. There is no lack of warm melodies and vibrant pizzicatos for the other strings. The fourth variation of the third movement's theme has a marvelous, impassioned solo for cello over rapid tremolo strings. The concluding rondo is exhilarating. The intimate setting of Reynolda House allowed for the most refined playing of quiet passages, giving the impression of overheard whispers. The consummate musicians were violinists Andrea Schultz and Katherine Wolfe, cellist Benjamin Wolff, and violists Jessica Thompson and Marie Winget. I look forward to hearing more from the latter two, both of whom were new to me.
*Dvorák's Viola Quintet, Op. 97, will be performed by the Miró Quartet and violist Amadi Hummings at the Long View Center, Raleigh, at 3:00 p.m. 9/12. See our calendar for details.