Curtis Presents the Dolce Suono Ensemble

From Barber and Rorem to Kramarchuk and Zhou

Shall we discuss the singers or the songs? Dolce Suono’s latest concert at the Curtis Institute of Music could be viewed from either perspective, but the eight pieces packed into the program formed an eminently discussable lineup. They were all composed by Curtis graduates (and one current student), and they constituted an impressive sample of the best work produced by American composers since Curtis opened its doors 91 years ago.

The Curtis Institute around the time of its founding in 1924.

You may take it for granted that all the musicians listed on the program hit all the right notes. You can even assume they did it with expressiveness and an intelligent understanding of the composer’s intentions.

Ned Rorem’s 1960 trio for flute, cello, and piano is a mesmerizing work that offers the audience a continuous flow of musical inventiveness. Mimi Stillman says it’s become a major work for this combination of instruments, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. I’m certain I would have remembered it if I had. Strikingly, Rorem is able to turn the entire trio into a single, multi-voiced percussion instrument — if you can imagine a percussionist playing a flute, a piano, and a thumping cello all at the same time. But the trio also includes flashy flute passages, cello songs, and a swinging piano part crowded with rhythms and flourishes that have to be played just right. Like all the great chamber pieces, it creates its own world.

Inventive and fascinating

The other trio on the program deserves the same high place in the repertoire. Richard Danielpour wrote Remembering Neda in response to the repression in Iran, but it can stand by itself as a piece of inventive, fascinating music or a general expression of the emotions listed in the titles of its three movements. Remembering Neda impressed me when Dolce Suono premiered it in 2010, and it seemed even stronger the second time around.

Like the Rorem, Danielpour’s trio surprises you with beautiful, passionate novelties. In the first movement, Lamentation, the wail of the cello mingles with warbling flute work that resembles the sounds Middle Eastern women make when they mourn. The second movement, Desecration, possesses all the wild passion of a Shostakovich scherzo. The final Benediction includes a gentle flute song, another cello song, and a passage for plucked piano that adds the silvery timbre of a harpsichord. The benediction is the longest movement — almost half the length of the entire piece — and it ends the trio with a broad evocation of peace.

Samuel Barber’s 1931 Dover Beach was the indisputable classic on the program. Barber’s setting for bass-baritone and string quartet creates a subdued, melancholy frame for Matthew Arnold’s subdued, melancholy poem. Barber maintains a taut balance between despair and stoic restraint from the first notes by the string quartet to Arnold’s famous final vision of mankind fumbling on “a darkling plain. . . where ignorant armies clash by night.”  If I were in charge of the world, Dover Beach would be played at the beginning of every political rally, right after the national anthem. Its final image is the best description of an American political campaign anyone has ever set to music.

Latin literature

The two youngest composers on the program wrote their pieces on commission for Dolce Suono’s Música en tus Manos outreach program, which brings chamber music to Philadelphia’s growing Latino community. Both composers wrote pieces for flute and string quartet based on classic Spanish and Latin American literature.

The student on the roster, Katerina Kramarchuk, based her contribution on Isabel Allende’s first novel, The House of the Spirits. Her title, Rosa’s Green Hair, refers to the sister who dies near the beginning of the book. The sister possesses paranormal powers, and Kramarchuk’s score creates an appropriate atmosphere of magic and mystery. Kramarchuk mostly uses the quartet as a rhythm section, but she handles it with imagination, pairing the flute with a solo violin in one section and a string trio in another.

Zhou Tian (Curtis ’08) turned to the legend of Spain’s medieval warrior hero, El Cid. Viaje (Journey) focuses on the second wedding of El Cid’s daughters, who were beaten and abandoned by their cowardly first husbands. Passages that capture the fulfillment of the wedding mingle with flashbacks to the harrowing saga that preceded it, with suggestions of stately, stiff-backed Spanish dances alternating with the clatter of arms.

Revisiting earlier works

Jennifer Higdon and David Ludwig provided the less intense works on the program. Ludwig composed his 2010 Flute Sonata No. 2 (Canzoniere) for the standard sonata pairing of a solo instrument with piano accompaniment. He arranged it for flute and string quartet for a special occasion, and he noted, in his onstage remarks, that this was the first time he had heard that version performed. It was composed in honor of Tony Checchia, the founding artistic director of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and it deliberately captures the flavor of Monteverdi’s Italian Renaissance style.

Jennifer Higdon’s pieces were both early works, composed when she was still a student. Autumn Reflections, for flute and piano, is a poetic, colorful work permeated with a subdued passion. Lullaby, for baritone, flute, and piano, is the first Higdon I ever heard. It was performed at Curtis 25 years ago on a program devoted to works by student composers. I’ve remembered it all that time, which should give you all the information you need.

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