On Tuesday, at Alice Tully Hall, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented a selection of music inspired by America, as the program notes put it, with works by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Antonin Dvořák, Charles Ives, and George Crumb.
While the composers crossed multiple centuries, the cross-generational instrumental talent included society veterans such as Gilbert Kalish on piano, baritone Randall Scarlata, as well as percussionists Christopher Froh, David Rosenbaum, Ayano Kataoka, and Eduardo Leandro, with violinist Chad Hoopes and pianist Michael Brown.
The program began with Gottschalk’s piano piece “The Union: Concert Paraphrase on National Airs,” a spectacularly dazzling nine minutes of patriotic paraphrasing of “Yankee Doodle,” “Hail, Columbia,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This is what should accompany Macy’s fireworks displays, I thought, not the pop star du jour. Michael Brown displayed a virtuosity one could only dream of, turning the Steinway piano into a one-piece marching band complete with trumpet calls and realistic sounding drum rolls with the left hand attacking keys in the bass while playing “Hail, Columbia” with his right hand. More trumpet, more octaves, and a triumphant finish left the audience only wanting for a fireworks reprise.
Written in the summer of 1893, Dvořák’s “Sonatina in G major for Violin and Piano” displayed much of the raison d’être behind the composer’s move to America. As he came to absorb American music as much as he had done with the Czech folk idiom in his native land. The piece’s three short movements are part Bohemian folk song, part Indian, and part American. Dvořák drew inspiration from a visit to Minnehaha Falls in Minnesota for the second movement and his longing for his homeland for the finale.
Six songs by Ives spanned the late 1800s to the first few decades of the 20th century, including one piece “The Indians,” which showed the influence of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the composer. “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” presents the audience with an impressionistic landscape, while Scarlata’s “Charlie Rutlage” is a subtly charged cowboy ballad.
In his series of “American Songbooks,” avant garde composer George Crumb – the only composer of the evening still among us – blends spirituals, folk songs, and hymns with haunting and almost hallucination-inducing percussion. (The score directs the pianist to strike the piano’s music stand with a percussion mallet and use string piano techniques including plucking and sweeping across the strings.) At one point, Kataoka came over to sweep her hand across the Steinway grand’s strings while Kalish continued to use the keyboard.
The percussion effects throughout the piece – and I counted several dozen instruments being used by the percussionists – were astonishing.
The result was a surreal majesty that left the audience spellbound, although one can only wonder what listeners on the radio were thinking was going on without the benefit of the visual aspects of the performance art that accompanied it.
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