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English Impressions

John Ireland, Frank Bridge and Howard Hanson, Le Salon de Musiques, October 12, 2014 —

A jewel in the crown of Los Angeles culture has returned for its fifth season, Le Salon de Musiques – Masters Rediscovered, continues its series of chamber music concerts devoted primarily to late 19th and early 20th century compositions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s Fifth Floor. The opening recital, played on October 12th, carries on Le Salon’s tradition of presenting obscure but always insightful treasures from the post-Romantic era. All of the pieces–two from British composers John Ireland and Frank Bridge, one by an American, Howard Hanson—deserve a wider audience and greater recognition.

Ireland (1879-1962) and Bridge (1879-1941) were both taught by an influential composer and conductor, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Born in Dublin in 1852, Stanford spent most of his life as a professor in England, first at the Royal College of Music and then at Cambridge University. Before his death in 1924, his pupils included Sir Arthur Bliss, Gustav Holst and most notably Ralph Vaughan Williams. Today we can hear a distinct “Englishness” in the works of these composers; for that, thanks are owed to Stanford. He loved the symphonies of Brahms but stressed the mighty composer’s more intimate chamber music to his students. He encouraged them to listen to–and incorporate into their own compositions–English folk tunes, simple choral pieces and popular song.

A generation of British composers was influenced by Stanford’s enthusiasm for the Romantic Era. That, combined with the lush, seductive sound of Ravel and Debussy, helped to create a loose “school” of English Impressionists. A good example is the music of Frederick Delius. He lived in France for most of his life but his beautiful, sensuous music, often based on country folksongs and bucolic themes, definitely sounds English. This Romantic/nationalistic tradition was carried on in the music of Edward Elgar, William Walton, Arnold Bax and Benjamin Britten, who was a pupil of both Frank Bridge and John Ireland.

Francois Chouchan, the Artistic Director of Le Salon de Musiques, invariably engages first-rate musicians with sterling credits to perform at his concerts and the fifth season’s premiere was no different. Two violinists, Jessica Guideri and Serena McKinney, violist Yi Zhou and cellist John Walz joined pianist Adam Neiman in various combinations. Despite very little rehearsal together and three unfamiliar scores, the hard-working musicians were all exceptional. After introductory comments by Julius Reder Carlson, the always informative musicologist, the first selection played was John Ireland’s “Phantasie in A minor for Piano Trio”.

The term “phantasie” used here deserves explanation. During five centuries of music history, often with different spellings– e.g., fancy, fantasia or fantasie–the term had different meanings: it could suggest instrumentals or vocal music but usually meant “theme with variations”. Early in the 20th century, Walter W. Cobbett, a wealthy English businessman with a passion for chamber music, began to commission short pieces and to give awards for composing what he chose to call “phantasies”. To win the Cobbett Competition, music had to be performed without a break in its thematically-related “movements” and could be no longer than fifteen minutes. Thanks to the almost unsung Mr. Cobbett, a number of important pieces of music were produced between 1905 and 1937. The list of winners includes Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, Malcolm Arnold, Eugene Goossens and, on at least two occasions, John Ireland.

John Ireland

Ireland’s “Phantasie” in A Minor is a richly-textured trio from 1908. The composer, then about thirty, won his first Cobbett Competition for it. (He destroyed most of his early compositions, but happily not this one.) Ireland was a slow, careful writer and never wrote a symphony; he created a great many works, but the early chamber music seemed to suit him best. This piece, a single movement in three unbroken sections, is alternately meditative and lively, dramatic and yet reflective.  The musicians shared a vigorous, structured “conversation” with their instruments–loudly at first, then in almost a whisper. This was pianist Adam Nieman’s first appearance at Le Salon and one hopes not his last. He’s a strong player and attentive to his fellow musicians: the wonderful, emotive violinist, Serena McKinney, and the Co-Artistic Director of Le Salon, John Walz, in particularly fine form on his cello all afternoon. Each swirling piece of this musical puzzle fell perfectly into place.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a very busy man. He studied music in New York, taught in California, then spent the early 1920’s in Italy, having won the American Prix de Rome. When he returned to the U.S. in 1924, he was appointed Director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and held that post for 40 years. He spent his life promoting “American” music as a national goal for a still-new country lacking Europe’s centuries-long traditions. In his tenure at Eastman, he conducted over a thousand new pieces of music, many by his own pupils. In the late 1950’s, Hanson toured Europe to introduce his newly-formed student orchestra, the Eastman Philharmonia, made several recordings, appeared on television, wrote text books and won a Pulitzer Prize. And, of course, he was a prolific composer in the Neo-Romantic style: seven symphonies (perhaps his most famous is named “The Romantic”), an opera, cantatas, pastorales, songs for chorus and orchestra as well as chamber music.

hanson

Howard Hanson

Hanson’s work on Le Salon’s program was the Concerto “Da Camera” in C minor, opus 7, for piano and string quartet, composed in 1916 on the eve of World War I. The three musicians heard previously were joined by two more: the excellent, focused violinist, Jessica Guideri, Associate Concertmaster of the L.A. Opera; and the same organization’s Principal Violist, Chinese-born Yi Zhou. (This energetic competition winner rushed upstairs to join Le Salon’s concert on the fifth floor immediately after spending three hours in the orchestra pit on the first floor, playing “Swan Lake”!) Dr. Carlson, in his comments about the Hanson composition, emphasized the roiling musical undertow that permeates the concerto’s frame; he pinned it squarely on the war that was then consuming most of Europe. Hanson feared the U.S. would soon become involved in the conflict, “our boys” would be sent overseas and thousands would die. A year later, his fears were realized.

What we heard at Le Salon was stunning. There is a melancholy beauty throughout the single movement which began with lush string passages–quiet, majestic, pensive, modern. Then the piano entered urgently, rhythmically, and built an intense, lyrical fugue. Deep piano chords and the low, bowed strings of the cello added to the dark, brooding theme. Somewhere, a phrase reminded me of the sad, haunting “Maiden and the Nightingale” by Enrique Granados. (In the year Hanson wrote this concerto, Granados and his wife were drowned when a German U-boat torpedoed the ship on which they were sailing.) Occasionally, all music completely stopped, allowing for two or three seconds of absolute silence. Then, repeats of the concerto’s opening theme, intricate interplay between the violins and viola, recapitulations and the coda’s peaceful ending.

The audience at Le Salon is small–perhaps 150 or 200 people–with everyone seated on the same level as the musicians, almost surrounding them. It’s possible to be close enough to see the muscles tensing in a violinist’s hand, to hear the cellist breathing during a spirited passage. You can watch the musicians watching one another, timing their next cues visually. This is why attending concerts at Le Salon de Musiques is so rewarding; audience members are part of the process. The Hanson piece was a concerto “da camera” which means “in a chamber”–a room. In a concert hall or opera house, a patron can be so far away from the musicians that binoculars are a necessity. At Le Salon, you are always “up close and personal”.

 Frank Bridge

The final selection at the concert was the Piano Quintet H.49 in D minor(1906) by Frank Bridge. An excellent viola player, Bridge was a member of the English String Quartet as well as other chamber groups. He was no stranger at the Cobbett Competitions and is mostly remembered today for his chamber music pieces. Composer Herbert Howells wrote about another Bridge quintet, written in 1910: “there are few modern chamber works–English or other–more fluent, more judicious in gesture and technical ‘behaviour'”.   Bridge was a popular conductor before devoting himself full-time to composing. As a pacifist, he was deeply troubled by World War I; following the war and influenced by Schoenberg, his writing style became much more modern but lost favor with the public. His greatest service to music is likely his discovery of 14-year old Benjamin Britten. He became the boy’s mentor, taught him composition (as did John Ireland) and they remained close friends. (Britten wrote a wonderful work for string orchestra called “Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge”. And when Britten was about to depart for America in 1939, Bridge met him at the ship and gave him his viola.)

Bridge’s Piano Quintet, unlike the earlier two selections at this concert, has three distinct movements. (He wrote it with four in 1906 but made considerable revisions before it was published in 1912; the first movement was almost completely re-written and the two middle movements were combined into one.) The piece began with brooding, almost threatening low notes on the piano, soon joined by a complicated rush of strings. Bridge was a great craftsman and the five instruments sounded more like fifteen when everyone was playing. The writing for the strings, rich and complicated, gave a hint of Ravel in places. Neiman had a real workout on the piano, accomplishing speedy runs on the keyboard that would have given Rachmaninoff pause. And to the surprise of everyone present, he was reading his score on an electronic tablet, which sat neatly on the glorious-sounding Steinway in place of sheet music!

The second movement opened with a muted theme on the piano. Themes kept appearing, disappearing then reappearing throughout the entire composition, giving it a cyclical, organic feel. The strings picked up the tempo rapidly (in what may have been the last vestiges of the former third movement). The piano scampered while the violins, viola and cello coalesced smoothly in a tender melody. Bridge saved the best for last, though, in his final movement. Marked “allegro energico”, this section was definitely full of the promised “lively energy”. Yi Zhou played a sweet tune on the viola which was further developed by Neiman on piano. The violins of McKinney and Guideri and Walz’s cello were interspersed and the race was on. More Ravel influence, repeated motifs from the first two movements, chords and passages sounding far more modern than a century-old score should allow. There was even a brief and delightful bit of a tango, danced by the violins.

There are eight more Le Salon concerts scheduled between now and June. Several of them feature the two outstanding violinists, Serena McKinney and Jessica Guideri, who enhanced this week’s concert. Ditto cellist John Walz; he’ll appear in January with his long-running Pacific Trio, as a featured player in other concerts and in a much-anticipated Stravinsky/Rachmaninoff recital with pianist Steven Vanhauwaert. February brings an all-Schubert night, including “The Trout” piano quintet. A Mozart quintet and a Poulenc sextet, both scored for piano and winds, can be heard on April 19th. Francois Chouchan will share the Steinway with Edith Orloff that afternoon and soprano Elissa Johnston will perform French songs. Violinist Martin Chalifour, Los Angeles Philharmonic’s concert master, is scheduled for March; that concert will mark the Los Angeles and/or United States premiere of two works and there are half-a-dozen additional premieres throughout the season.

Contact Le Salon de Musiques to get seats for the next scheduled concert on November 9. For those who become “Friends of Le Salon de Musiques”, there are reserved seats practically in the laps of the soloists, a gourmet buffet from Patina, French champagne and brilliantly performed music in a perfect setting as well as special invitations to surprise events.

Comments

  1. Hey, cool review–commentary…Smart. And informative.

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