Orchestra 2001’s opening weekend (1st review)

Confronting death (and Utah, too)

Barone: A problem with musical Utah.
Barone: A problem with musical Utah.

One of the most endearing aspects of the music world is the lives of families that devote themselves to music. Orchestra 2001 opened its latest concert with the premiere of a sonata for two pianos commissioned in memory of the parents of its conductor and driving spirit, James Freeman.

The piece was commissioned by Freeman and his brother Robert, who is a distinguished pianist, musicologist and music educator. The brothers had planned to play the premiere together, but Robert couldn’t make it to Philadelphia, so Charles Abramovic took his place.

Henry and Florence Freeman played bass and violin, respectively. Henry played with the Boston Symphony from 1945 to 1967, but the Boston Symphony rejected Florence solely because she was a woman. Both of them played in the Rochester Symphony when they were young and, in their later years, in the Denver Symphony and the orchestra of the Boston Opera Company.

A quartet for two

Their greatest loves, according to the program notes, were the Mozart and Haydn string quartets that they played at home— Florence playing first violin and Henry playing the cello part on his bass, with the second violin and the viola “existing only in their inner ears.”

Most sonatas for two pianos exploit the complex interactions that composers can create with two complete keyboards at their disposal. For this piece, composer Gunther Schuller produced a dialogue between two distinct voices, with one pianist playing on the lower half of his keyboard and the other pianist playing on the upper half.

Within that framework, Schuller maintains a three-movement flow of creative effects and interesting developments— an unsentimental, thoroughly enjoyable conversation worthy of the civilized lives it commemorates.

”˜Murdering babies’

The program’s second premiere, Chris Rogerson’s Fishing, sets a poem by Joan Hutton Landis that depicts a very different aspect of family life.

The poem begins with the narrator’s husband taking their two grandsons fishing for the first time. The boys return, excited, with nine fish. Then the grandfather cuts the heads off the fish and one boy discovers that the orange things inside are eggs.

“You’re murdering their babies!” the boy explodes. “How can you do it? It’s not—just!”

The grandmother understands that this “brutality” is part of life but wants to tell her grandson, “He was right and brave to take the fishes’ side.” The boy refuses to eat the fish at dinner, and the poem ends

"Somehow my chance to tell him how I empathized,
Shared his deep disgust at hooking, killing fish,
Admired his choosing of the great word—“just,”
Darkened like the day, then guttered
And went out."

Profound moment

In many settings for voice and instruments, the vocal line is the least interesting part musically. Rogerson avoided this problem by settling for a narrator and assigning all the music to a clarinet, cello and piano trio. His instrumental writing starts off bucolically, changes as the subject deepens, and includes some beautiful, flowing moments for the clarinet and the cello.

At times I felt the music sounded overwrought, but I decided I was wrong. The poem depicts a profound moment: a boy’s confrontation with the realities of life and his grandmother’s remorse at her failure to comfort him. Rogerson has turned it into a moving performance piece that received a first-class treatment from narrator Catherine Slusar, clarinetist Allison Hertz, cellist Lori Barnet and the aforementioned pianist Charles Abramovic.

Crumb’s loose inspiration

Marcantonio Barone shouldered the entire second half of the program— the East Coast premiere of David Crumb’s Red Desert Triptych for solo piano. Barone did a masterful job with a lengthy, demanding score. But this was, for me, the least satisfying work on the program.

Crumb says the piece was “loosely inspired” by visits to Utah’s national parks. In his notes, he relates musical effects (like musical textures and colors) to visual experiences, such as the way the light falls on certain kinds of formation.

For me, that raises a basic question. How do you relate to the music when you have no personal images of the subject that inspired it?

If a composer tells us his music expresses his feelings about the Grand Canyon, say, or the sea, most of us can call up some visual images that tell us how the different elements of his music hang together. In this case, I’ve never even seen a picture of the geological formations described in Crumb’s notes.

Economics lesson

To be sure, you can listen to a piece like this solely for its musical effects. But that doesn’t work when the structure is closely linked to the extra-musical subject.

The most satisfying part of Red Desert Triptych was the final movement— a Fantasy, Passacaglia and Fugue on a Theme by J.S. Bach. That I could relate to.

But that’s the risk you take when you attend new music concerts. If you want to hear works that offer you new kinds of musical experiences, you must be willing to hear music that doesn’t vibrate on your wavelength. As economists like to remind us, there’s no such thing as risk-free investing, whether you’re hazarding time or money.♦

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