On Saturday, November 3rd, 2018, we were treated to a truly spiritual and breathtaking performance by Music from Copland House. The concert contained four works spanning neo-romanticism to more contemporary styles, all with their own entrancing narratives and emotional undertones, and all referencing the principal theme of the night’s concert — A Journey. The members of the ensemble, violinist Curtis Macomber, cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach and pianist Michael Boriskin, were playing Shostakovich’s very first Piano Trio in C Minor and Fauré’s very last Piano Trio in D Minor, as well as two commissioned works where clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein was added to the mix: one by Chamber Music Monterey Bay (Puts’ Living Frescoes) and one by Music from Copland House (Lam’s Fragrance of the Sea).
Dmitri Shostakovich’s Trio No. 1 opened the concert, and as pre-concert-lecturer Kai Christiansen said, it was written when the composer was only 16 years old and studying at the Petrograd Conservatory. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and while at the sanatorium, his heart was stolen by a woman to whom this piece ended up being dedicated, giving the motive for the piece’s first title: Poème.
It began in a mood that’s well-familiar and expected from Shostakovich: dark, somber, and subdued. As momentum gathers and accumulates from its dark origin, more harsh dissonances and rhythmic ideas develop. At the midway point in the piece, the peak of vulgar and anarchistic energy, a beautiful cantabile emerges from the cello accompanied by swaying eighth-notes from the piano, a sound unimaginably far from Shostakovich’s more expected territory. The lovesickness becomes tormented after enough repetition, some of the somber themes from the beginning get wound up with the heart-wrenching and passionate melody. A marriage of the sentimental and the grotesque is established and elaborated upon as motifs are turned on their head until a finale is absurdly brought together with the piece ending at a screeching halt.
The next work we heard was a five-movement programmatic work by Kevin Puts with the iconic instrumentation of Messiaen’s Quartor pour la fin du temps (Violin, Cello, Clarinet, and Piano.) The piece was inspired by a video installation by Bill Viola titled Going Forth by Day. Puts’ Living Frescoes was presented with a slideshow of images behind the musicians. Each of the movements were introduced with a sprightly, off-kilter melody for a prelude.
The first movement was called “Fire Birth,” and it began with incohesive, muddy piano figuration in the lower register. As other instruments joined in, the music gradually rose in pitch but always gave an impression of struggling right up until the piano ends with playing its highest note on the keyboard. The following movement was titled “The Path,” which hinted to folk music, featured angular interjections by the piano with ostinato accompaniment from pizzicato violin and cello, gaining energy and passion but throughout persisting the clock-like eighth-note pulse.The next movement, “The Deluge,” was, in my humble opinion, the most masterful and virtuosic display of composition presented in the entire performance, where the piano ticked away notes like a metronome, but the strings and clarinet would unexpectedly interrupt him with watery, impressionistic wisps of sound. The penultimate movement was “The Voyage,” and this was the only movement that wasn’t preceded by a prelude. It featured an austere and atonal barcarolle from the piano which lent itself to several interruptions from the other instruments alluding to the melody from the prelude.The final movement, “First Light,” was despite being in a minor key, cinematically triumphant, and a great finale to the first half of the concert.
After intermission, the building was treated to a California premiere of Angel Lam’s Fragrance of the Sea, with the same instrumentation as the previous piece.This work narrates the multi-generational journey of Lam’s family from rural China, to Shanghai, Hong Kong, and finally Manhattan. The first movement, “Southern Sea,” was based on the pentatonic scale, harkening to traditional Chinese folk music, where we heard the cellist vigorously slapping the strings against the fingerboard, sounding like a plucked bass from a polka band.The crossing of the Ancient Sea had its own movement, where unforgivingly passionate melancholy rung through the strings with chimes from the piano, eventually regressing into more open voicings with increasingly unpalatable dissonances. “Shanghai 1945” sounded very much like French accordion music, and the piano’s triplet runs were lively and spirit-lifting, yet it still retained sophistication from its complex development of melodic ideas. The journey from Hong Kong to Manhattan was fused into one movement (the last), having instruments chromatically leading into almost every note, giving a careless and drunk levity to the movement. The counterpoint between all of the instruments was complex and enveloped, until they began to park on a single chord and feature repeated phrases in the minimalistic style of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. This work was a special treat to hear, since California was hearing it for the very first time.
The concert ended with Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Trio in D Minor in 3 movements, which, for its heroic and brilliant fanfare character, is a piece that could’ve only been written by someone who had already lived a long life as an esteemed composer and was planning on writing their own musical epitaph. As a whole, the piece was marked for its frequent modulations and passing along of melodies. The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, had a beautiful motif embellished with flowering harmonies and off-beat pulses. The second movement, Andantino, visited darker places, reminding me of the second movement of Autumn from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The writing was canonic, with unconventional harmonies and dense, dark chords of unplaceable quality. The final movement was marked Allegro vivo, which suggested a Spanish passion, devolving into volcanic chromaticism that grew in intensity, later finding its way into a gigue and ending with all instruments play-fighting into many mini eruptions, a perfect way to close the show.
The performers received a well-deserved standing ovation, and audience members were left with a thoroughly refreshed soul and reawakened spirit. This concert was nothing if not unforgettable, and has truly left me with a reinvigorated passion for music itself.