Chamber Music Society marks 50 years with golden American program

Wed Oct 16, 2019 at 1:18 pm
Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring was performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Tuesday night.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center opened its new season at Alice Tully Hall Tuesday night with a look back at its founding. The Society held its very first concert 50 years ago, and is celebrating that golden anniversary in what is now its 51st season. But who’s counting?

Tuesday night’s event was not just a concert but a ceremony of sort. There were extra-musical stretches, including the presentation of a mayoral proclamation at the start and, before the end, artistic directors Wu Han and David Finckel gave clarinetist David Schifrin an award recognizing his own important tenure as CMS artistic director. Fortunately, inside all of this was some truly fine music making.

The program was a well-made set of American and “American” music, anchored by Aaron Copland but otherwise full of surprises and subtle, deep thinking. Leading up the the Appalachian Spring suite for chamber ensemble were pieces from Henry T. “Harry” Burleigh, Dvořák, and Leonard Bernstein.

Each piece was a pleasure in itself, especially given the superb playing, and taken together they amounted to an intriguing and thoughtful look at the meaning and essence of American musical culture.

The music of the first half wove something of an origin story of this country’s classical music. Wu Han and violinist Chad Hoopes opened with Burleigh’s Southland Sketches, which was followed by Dvořák’s Op. 97 String Quintet, known as the “American.”

Burleigh, whose grandfather had been a slave, studied at the National Conservatory of Music, with the aid of Edward McDowell’s mother, who was the registrar. Dvořák was the Conservatory’s director, and the story goes that his discovery of African-American music came through hearing Burleigh (who was a renowned baritone) sing spirituals. While this may be apocryphal, it is also logical and sensible.

What Southland Sketches and the Quintet had in common were a 19th century, rural flavor, with more than a bit of nostalgia. Burleigh was raised in New York State, so his nostalgia came from his imagination and also from the culture of this country circa 1916, which was already both industrialized and captured by a pernicious Arcadian sentimentality about the antebellum United States. But Southland Sketches was sweet and warm, a song without words. Though Hoopes layered a sticky vibrato, the performance had a light, friendly touch.

The Op. 97 Quintet came out of Dvořák’s sojourn in Spillville, Iowa, an enclave of Czech and Bohemian immigrants. Both more abstract and more rural than the first piece, it is one of the composer’s finest of an excellent and deep catalogue of chamber music. A quintet of violinists Arnaud Sussman, Angelo Xiang Yu, violists Matthew Lipman and Paul Neubauer, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis produced a glowing, organ-like sound, one heard the Midwestern plains shining under the sun as well as the rolling hills of Dvořák’s homeland. The group’s forward-moving energy was terrific, the rhythms of the Allegro vivo were danceable, and the Larghetto showed the composer’s unique sense of beauty—affecting without ever reaching for pathos.

Schifrin and pianist Gloria Chien partnered in an expert performance of Bernstein’s fine and under-appreciated Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. With this piece came the complex sound of urban America, a balance of intellectualism, heart, assurance, and doubt. The gentle penumbra of Schifrin’s tone was ideal for Bernstein’s sinuous melody, which moves through the kind of surprises that keep the listener emotionally off balance. The pair’s muscular but light-footed playing of the fast music at the end was a good jumping-off point for Copland’s masterwork.

Photo: Cherylynn Tsushima

This idyllic America of Dvořák’s imagination is at the center of Appalachian Spring, but heard through the prism of Copland’s modernism. The ensemble of CMS players, which included Schifrin and flutist Ransom Wilson played Appalachian Spring with an utterly gorgeous corporate sound. Bright, silken, perfect string intonation, resonant piano, woodwind colors, all make for a substantial amount of meaning and feeling in this music, as do precise and energetic rhythms—the former paint narrative moments and characters, the latter the dramatic movement. This CMS ensemble had it all, and this was as superb a performance as one will ever experience.

The Orion String Quartet plays Haydn and Mozart in the next CMSLC program 5 p.m. Sunday, October 20.

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