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It may be the time of March Madness for basketball lovers but two Triad classical music presenters have found that "the best laid schemes o'mice an'men/Gang aft a-gley!" Last week the folks at Music in a Great Space had to scramble to find both a baritone and an accompanist when their scheduled singer broke his leg and needed surgery. For the March 18 Artist Faculty Chamber Music Series concert, UNCG wanted to present an entire program of Czech music under the conceit "Czech, Please!" (2004 is the Year of Czech Music and much information can be found at http://www.czechmusic.com/* [inactive 11/07].) Family illness prevented the performance of Ernö Dohnányi's Sextet, the entire second half of the concert, and nothing remotely Czech could be substituted on short notice.
Doryl Jensen, from UNCG's Honors Program, provided a brief and witty commentary by drawing upon a phone interview with one non-Czech composer and his own extensive experience in the Czech Republic.
What a Gramophone reviewer called Bohuslav Martinu's "busy yet unfussy neo-classical style" was just one of the charms of his Quartet (1944) for oboe, violin, cello and piano. It was played by Mary Ashley Barret, John Fadial, Beth Vanderborgh and Inara Zandmane, respectively. "Almost Mozartean in effect," according to Nancy Monsman in program notes for the 10th Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival, "the first movement... is structured in traditional sonata form. The oboe introduces the first theme, soon imitated by the violin and piano, and the cello presents a lyrical second theme. After motivic development, the first theme returns, again heard in the oboe, violin, and piano. The second movement opens with a distinct change of style and atmosphere. Dissonant piano chords lead into a violin and cello dialogue, and the instruments freely imitate themes. Ideas from the first movement return at the allegro conclusion." Barret excelled in maintaining beautifully seamless long lines. Glowingly presented by cellist Vanderborgh, the lyrical second theme of the first movement had Martinu's signature sound, as defining as that heard in many of Copland's works.
Pianist Andrew Harley gave a master class in perfect balance as he accompanied Fadial in Dvorák's Romance in F Minor, Op. 11. The music, dominated by a graceful and gentle flowing tune, originated in the slow movement of his 1873 F Minor Quartet. He salvaged the essential lyric material for this duo setting and later arranged it for violin with small orchestra. Fadial's full, warm tone was ideal, and his gorgeous statement of the theme in the high register was memorable.
American composer Ellwood Derr, Professor of Music Theory and Counterpoint at the University of Michigan, has no direct Czech connection, but the text source for his song cycle for soprano, alto saxophone, and piano, I Never Saw Another Butterfly , does. Mined by many composers for solo and choral settings, the words were written by the children held in the Nazi "model" Jewish ghetto, Terezin, Czechoslovakia. Of the 15,000 children who were held prisoner there, only a handful survived. In a phone conversation with Jensen, composer Derr said that he had "tried to get inside the minds of children trapped in a hopeless situation." The third song, "The Old Man," makes extensive use of minor thirds which "are often used by children when they sing." The burnished alto saxophone was wielded by Steve Stusek while Zandmane accompanied. Both instruments were used sparingly, often starkly underlining the horror. With a firm and even soprano voice, graced by a bright and precise top, Carla LeFevre portrayed the nightmare of children surrounded by the certainty of Death. Youth was crushed by the angst of what ought to have been that of the elderly.
Tuba player Dennis AsKew was quite a comedian relating his failed attempts to find even a tenuous Czech connection for his two "filler" selections. Domenico Gabrielli's unspecified Ricercare was composed for the cello. More than once during AsKew's valiant effort, I was reminded of a Little Rascals short from the 1940s in which an aptly named "Froggy" plumbed the depths of the song "Asleep in the Deep." John Lennon's "Blackbird" was a tour de force, featuring a multiphonics technique in which AsKew sang one note while playing another on his tuba. I had heard this done on a horn but on a tuba the effect was astonishing. I can't resist using Dr. Johnson in a very politically incorrect mode: "Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well: but you are surprised to find it done at all." AsKew had no want of virtuosity but composers will want to use this technique very sparingly.
Zoltán Kodály was not Czech but his Duo, Op. 7, for violin and cello, is one of the greatest in the literature. In the spring of 2002, then North Carolina Symphony Associate Concertmaster Jeffrey Thayer and Principal Cellist Bonnie Thron toured much of the state with a performance of this work establishing a high benchmark. While the husband and wife duo of Fadial and Vanderborgh didn't quite have the hair-trigger attack of their NCS colleagues, the GSO principals' interpretation lacked nothing in ensemble, insight, or technique. A bit of logistics suggested by Fadial worked really well to bring out the full warm tone of the cello. Like a soloist with an orchestra, Vanderborgh played seated upon a resonant wooden box. She said it also had the advantage of placing them on the same level for eye contact. It wasn't Czech, but this part of the program was a splendid and richly satisfying musical goulash.
*Radio Praha reports (at http://www.radio.cz/en/article/49158 [inactive 7/06]) that "2004 is a year of Czech musical jubilees. It's a hundred years since the death of the greatest of all Czech composers, Antonín Dvorák, a hundred-and-fifty years since the birth of Leos Janácek, composer of 'Taras Bulba' and The Cunning Little Vixen; and the great 19th century symbol of the national revival in Czech music, Bedrich Smetana, was born a hundred-and-eighty years ago. By an uncanny coincidence there are at least a dozen other major Czech musical anniversaries that you can add to the list. So it's hardly surprising that this year has been declared Year of Czech Music...."