The final concert in the 2001-2002 Jewel Edgerton Williamson Chamber Music Series (its third season) filled Kenan Recital Hall at Peace College on Monday, April 8. Peace President Laura Carpenter Bingham greeted the crowd, praising Worth and Sarah Williamson, who were in the audience, for establishing the series in memory of his mother.
Monday's program had one of the largest on-stage gatherings, with eight members of the North Carolina Symphony and pianist Milton Laufer from the Peace faculty. Although the program had no official title, the three works were related by Russian and Jewish oppression. The usual complaint about the lack of program notes on the works was counteracted by the intelligent, often humorous commentary, as well as explanatory musical excerpts, from the musicians before each piece.
Opening the program was Aaron Copland's Vitebsk, Study on a Jewish Theme, for Piano Trio, written in 1928. Cellist Elizabeth Beilman explained Copland's use of a Yiddish folk melody he had heard in a production of The Dybbuk a popular play by Shloyme Z. Rappoport. Copland decided to write a piece which would reflect the harshness of Jewish life in Russia, giving it the name of the town in which Rappoport (and also Marc Chagall) was born.
The single-movement work is in three sections. The first opens with violin and cello playing quarter tones in strong chords, which Beilman likened to church bells, but which also have been noted as imitating shofar calls. This sections evokes a cold, barren terrain with a brisk wind blowing. The middle section is a lumbering dance, building to a whirling frenzy, bringing to mind villagers dancing to keep warm. The final section returns to a cold intensity as if brought on by the chilly night after sunset.
Along with Beilman, violinist Jeff Thayer and pianist Laufer gave the piece a moody reality, the strings confidently slicing the air with their microtones, the piano building tension underneath and sometimes adding little flashes of color. This was a sobering piece played with professional verve.
Following the Copland came the Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass, a four-movement work from 1925 by Czech composer, Erwin Schulhoff. This composer has received attention in the last decade as one of many whose music was labeled Entartete Musik (music forbidden as degenerate by the Third Reich) and whose output was cut short by the concentration camp. Violist David Marschall explained the composer's use of idioms from Ruthenia, the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia: a Russian Orthodox chant, dance rhythms of the furiant, and a Ruthenian love song.
The first movement was underpinned by the rich vibrancy of Leonid Finkelshteyn's double bass contrasted with Marshall's dark toned viola, over which Mary Boone's flute brightly fluttered. For the second movement, Boone switched to a piccolo, which added a sprightly zing to the ever quickening furiant, accompanied by soft strumming on the strings. The love song of the third movement was passed from instrument to instrument, simple and lyrical, sometimes melancholy, sometimes brooding. The last movement was again a dance, Boone again on piccolo, the men supplying sharp pizzicato underneath. The piece had similarities to the Copland with its stark and rough qualities, made palatable by the musician's commitment and understanding.
The concert ended strongly with a performance of Prokofiev's Quintet in G Minor, Op. 39, commissioned in 1924 as a ballet score entitled Trapeze, depicting various elements of the circus, including clowns, acrobats and laborers. Clarinetist Jimmy Gilmore explained how Prokofiev achieved tension and touches of the grotesque by having the instruments play in the extremes of their registers. The six short movements go from the awkward strutting of the first and the boasting energy of the second, to the motor-like rhythms of the third, the murky waves of the fourth, the jazzy, insistent whirring of the fifth, ending with the ticking and trilling of the sixth. All of Gilmore warnings of angst and shrillness aside, the piece was fascinating throughout, a trait of Prokofiev's music, no matter the period or type. Unfortunately, this was exactly the type of music that Prokofiev had to renounce in later decades to please the Stalin regime.
Joining Gilmore, Marschall and Finkelshteyn were violinist Rebekah Binford and oboist Michael Schultz. The energy and thrust they provided as a group was admirable, with Schultz the standout due to the work's near-soloist emphasis on the oboe. Prokofiev did not make it easy for the players, what with the ever-changing rhythms and switching off of the melodic lines, but these five were undaunted, finishing the evening with a bravura display.
The Williamson Chamber Series has been a valuable addition to the Triangle's music scene. These free concerts, giving individual NC Symphony players a chance to shine along with the estimable Peace music faculty, should be on the calendar of every serious music lover in the area.