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At 3:00 p.m. on February 26, we gathered at Asheville's St. Mary's Episcopal Church on Charlotte street, a quaint, charming, and intimate wood frame setting, for an afternoon of duo chamber music, specifically flute and guitar, with Kate Steinbeck and Amy Brucksch.
This instrumental combination has near-legendary status for versatility, flexibility, utility, mobility, and wide timbre options. Especially during the 20th century, the guitar has come forward amid the ranks of chamber instruments to take a seat at the Big Table. This is due, in part, to volume; a greater number of competent players have poured out of our music institutions, and contemporary instruments are louder than their counterparts of 100 years ago. Also, composers discovered this "new" combination that has a wealth of effects and opportunities. All good, so far. Yet here, out of eight composers on the program, only three wrote specifically for this combination. The other works were transcriptions, arrangements or "settings."
This is The Year of Mozart – celebrating his 250th birthday, though just why is beyond me because I can't imagine actually needing such a construct reason to hear his music – and the program opened with the luscious "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" from The Magic Flute, K.620, written in 1791. It was a tasty introduction and good warm-up with balanced playing.
Next came the "Fantasia Mulata," composed in 1986 for this combination by veteran American composer Ernesto Cordero. Though widely linked to Puerto Rico, where he grew up as a child and then taught and composed, he was born in 1946 in New York. He studied composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Madrid, Spain until 1971, then did post-graduate work in composition with Roberto Canggiano in Rome, Italy ('72 to 74) and with Julian Orbón in New York ('77 to 78). The title of this loosely constructed work suggests the mulata of Cuban culture; a woman neither black nor white, but a unique blend, linked closely to the island's national identity since the 19th century.
Next came Three Landscapes composed in 1988 for violin and guitar by Tania Gabrielle French, another American with foreign travels. These tonal "walks in nature" ("Rolling Hills," "A Winding Path," and "A Quiet Heath") exhibited solid command of compositional skills and employed both instruments fully. The composer, now a resident of Asheville, worked with the players to affect the transition from violin to flute and was present for this performance. While not exactly program music, it is possible to extract the visual scene suggested. These pieces were first performed in January of 1989 at Merkin Hall in New York, so I inquired if the composer had any reservations about hearing such an early work many years later. She said, with obvious relish, that she enjoyed both this new combination and hearing the pieces again.
After these walks came "Pièce en forme de habanera" by Maurice Ravel, composed in 1907 for piano and voice. This arrangement was by Clare Callahan of the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, Brucksch's teacher. The score is marked "presque lent et avec indolence" suggesting heat, humidity, siesta time, and everyone powering down. The rhythm presents a lusty sway while the flute soars.
Before intermission, the program returned to the classic era with two movements from the Hamburg Sonata, W.133, by C.P.E Bach. We heard the Allegretto and Rondo, written in 1786, and here it is easy to understand why the guitar is such a popular continuo instrument. Full marks for tempi and ornaments!
After a brief intermission Steinbeck played a work for flute alone. Be Still My Soul (2003), by Rhonda Larson, is based on the hymn of the same name used for "Finlandia" by Jean Sibelius. Here, Larson has taken the arpeggio technique and fixed the melody either above or below in a series of cycles joining the sections by breve tones. There are no dedicated passage materials or scales at all. It is a very nice work, clearly of virtuoso calibre, and well played, too.
It was followed by two movements from Robert Beaser's Mountain Songs dating from 1985 and composed for this combination. The fantasia "Hush You Bye" and "Cindy" were both extracted from the eight-movement work of memorable Appalachian folk melodies, cloaked in new settings. It's hard to miss the bluesy nature in "Cindy," and the fantasia is an elaborate development using the usual composition devices including augmentation, diminution, and expansive scale and counterpoint work.
This program ended in South America with original music by Celso Machado – the "Sambossa," a bossa nova from 1987, and "Piazza Vittorio," a fairly traditional choro maxixe. Here the rhythms of South American culture come to the front. A lone encore, "Samba choro," was similar; it was obviously an attempt to bring some warmth to what was a chilly but sunny afternoon. The audience, numbering around 50, enjoyed both the players and this program. We'll see and hear more from these artists once the Keowee Festival begins in June.