Musical Masterworks played to a full house in its February 9th concert at the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme last weekend. The beautiful meetinghouse, built in 1910, has incredible natural acoustics that make it a great spot for the chamber music presented by the 29-year old organization.
Artistic Director Edward Arron presided over the event, in a pre-concert talk as well as introductions to each musical piece during the concert.
Arron is an engaging and affable speaker and educator, and these qualities translate into his cello playing. His character on cello is that of a considerate, attentive conversationalist who speaks in soulful and transcendent phrasing. Arron gathered a group of similarly talented musicians, most of whom have had long experience working with each other, for the varied program.
The audience, seated in cushioned pews in the cream-and-gold-toned church interior had the luxury of chamber music up close and personal in this space, and the benefit of hearing the individual voicings of each performer.
The program began with a sonata by German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, originally created in 1740 for viola de gamba and harpsichord, now rearranged as a trio for cello, violin, and double bass.
Arron, playing the melodic line of the viola da gamba, was joined by Tessa Lark on violin, taking over the right hand of the harpsichord, and Michael Thurber on double bass taking on the left hand of the harpsichord.
Lark and Thurber next focused in duet form, on four original, co-written compositions. These pieces were one of the highlights of the afternoon. Because they were works of “living, breathing” composers, as Arron noted, the immediacy, exploration, and lived-in comfort was readily apparent.
All of these works — “Wooden Soldier, “Weather Vane,” “Cedar and Sage,” and “Tumble Time” — were inspired by Bach’s work in structure and counterpoint lines of melody and harmony, but used contemporary tonalities and timings that made for truly breathtaking moments.
Lark and Thurber’s careful attention to the entrances and exiting of their bows on the strings were sonically and visually beautiful. A potpourri of American cultural elements — Appalachian music, bluegrass, jazz, and contemporary and classical stylizations — blended with ease and fluidity. The sheer range of tones, textures, and volumes drawn out on both Lark’s violin and Thurber’s double bass were part of the innovative exploration. Lark and Thurber, as dueting voices, really listened and spoke to each other and the audience in these spare, engaging pieces.
Closing the first half of the program was Joaquin Turina’s Piano Quartet in a minor, Opus 67. Jeewon Park on piano and Ettore Causa on viola joined Lark and Aaron in this work. Turina, a Seville-born composer from the late 19th- early 20th centuries, created a work of strong Andalusian stylization, conveyed in strong, passionate unison phrasing by the string instruments, interspersed with delicate support and phrasing from the piano.
The second half of the program was devoted to Austrian Franz Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 “Trout” from 1819. This five-movement piece includes an unusual fourth section of theme and variations, in this case built on an earlier, quite popular song composed by Schubert. Its lyrics involved the unfortunate adventures of fish who is ultimately captured by a fisherman on the bank.
The Trout Quintet was composed while Schubert summered with one such patron, Sylvester Baumgartner, who suggested Schubert include the catchy song about the trout. The quintet has gone on to become one of the most famous and beloved pieces in the European classical canon — as Arron noted, “it even makes it on to people’s ‘desert island lists.'”
In this work, all five musicians are given the chance to take a central voice at moments, to dialogue with each other, and to try on melodic lines in various ways. Park on piano, Causa on viola, and Arron on cello in particular thrived in the dialogue within this work, their lucid, three-dimensional, shaded voicings coming through with both strength and delicacy.
Such sensitive interpretations led this listener to think about that elusive quality that makes a musician disappear in their instrument, or the instrument disappear into the musician — either way, the sound comes across as “hollow” — able to be filled with the demands of the particular piece.
Stringed instruments — including the piano — are often associated with the element of air, but the element of water has struck me as just as apt an association. In achieving a watery, bubbly sound on the strings, it seems a musician approaches the tone from underneath, from below the waterline, and brings the tone up. Just like a fisherman and a fish.
Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clares Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont.