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Heavenly-Earthly Music at Smithfield Church

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jul 14th, 2018

Jill Levy, Elizabeth Perry, Richard Wolfe, Matthias Naegele, Eliot Bailen

The Sherman Ensemble with friends from Holland performed a concert of Beethoven, Corigliano, Ginastera, and Schubert at Smithfield Church in Amenia as warm summer temperatures mellowed. Performers were unanimous in demanding the air-conditioning be quashed.

The subsequent performance showed that the artists were correct: the acoustics in the church were such that one could hear each instrument distinctly, as well as the ensemble as a whole. They opened with Beethoven’s Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano' (Will you dare give me your hand?) from Mozart's Don Giovanni which Beethoven turned into a violin trio: of violin, viola, and flute. In Mozart’s opera this six- minute scene depicts a marriage proposal that is rejected. In Beethoven’s musical arrangement the piece is twice as long, since the flute turns down the proposals of not one but two suitors. Susan Rotholz on flute offered convincing charm and momentary interest in proposals; her polite rejections floated with light, delightful comedy as she rejected two insistent suitors from Holland, Elisabeth Perry on violin and Richard Wolfe’s rather attractive antique 1799 viola (with whom he is obviously in love).

John Corigliano’s Voyage was a beguiling cross between Debussy’s more mellow impressionism and Aaron Copland’s moody and airy arrangements. While listening I could not rid myself of Baudelaire’s poem of that title, but that was my problem, as I felt transported to a realm both familiar and unfamiliar. It’s a place I would not mind revisiting. Eliot Bailen played his cello in the lower register to compensate for not having a double bass and I would not have known that but that he accidentally let that slip. This was a sensible arrangement stripped down from orchestral arrangement and that austerity made the piece more nuanced and mysterious. I was hooked on the mystery.

Impresiones de la Puna by Alberto Ginastera employs native folkloric tunes within modernistic methods of composition. Ginastera and Villa-Lobos were the greatest South American composers in the twentieth century. Puna is the word for high plateau grasslands with dizzying drops and panoramic views; the world is also a pun for ditzy mountain delirium or sickness. A showpiece for the flute, Susan Rotholz rose to the high panoramas and made sudden descents with momentary panic compensated by cool recovery, ready to meet the next technical or rhythmic surprise.

Rev. Douglas Grandgeorge, who sports electrically clear diction and courteous aplomb, made some invitational comments at intermission. The Big Event arrived with great anticipation: Quintet in C Major by Franz Schubert, his longest chamber composition composed in the last year of his brief thirty one years (during which he wrote over 600 songs and much other music). The first movement is such an arresting gem of lyricism that it may be the most charming lyrical passage in chamber music. In introducing this work, Bailen confessed that this was the work that inspired him to become a professional musician.

Yet Bailen was not the only cello on stage. Matthias Naegele (cello) of The Rietveld Ensemble based in Utrecht sat next to Bailen. I think the reason that this chamber masterpiece is not played as often as it should be played is that one needs to get two really good cellists to sit comfortably next to each other. I’m happy to report this worked superlatively—it was considerably better that my feeble recording by Pablo Casals and Paul Szabo. There’s nothing like live music when the musicians are focused and generating self-confidence and joy from each other’s playing. I must say that Bailen and Naegele excelled in the first and second movements, the second being a slow Adagio. Violinist Jilly Levy, first violin of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, was brilliantly fierce in the third movement Presto with Elizabeth Perry supplying deft support.

As for the more extroverted Allegretto finale, the quintet was sailing with clear skies and in such triumphant unison that the audience was leaning forward in their bench-pew seats as near-ending was supplanted by near-ending. Enthusiastic applause ended the concert, but the concert was not really over, since home-baked desserts by church members and liquid refreshments, generously provided by Cascade Winery, produced the true parting glass. For a brief interview with Eliot Bailen click this link.