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Remembering Nick Gordon at Music Mountain

Music event
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon May 21st, 2018

Peter Serkin with The Shanghai Quartet

This past Sunday a Memorial Concert to celebrate the life Nick Gordon, who passed away last October 5, 2017, was held atop the mountain whose music he has curated since 1975. Nick (his family called him Nicky) possessed a near-encyclopedic knowledge of chamber music. The program offered a combination of talks about him and a concert of free music followed by a rather lavish reception with hors d’oevres and refreshments. While dark billowing clouds threatened, their boast was merely a five-minute light shower of no account. There was no thunder, yet there was real emotion under the timbers of Music Mountain Hall.

The St. Petersburg Quartet led by Alla Aranovskaya on a million dollar violin loaned to her by a former student (from Oberlin College), specifically for this memorial concert, opened with W.A. Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478 (1785). They played one of my favorite Mozart compositions with finesse, especially Victoria Schwartzman on piano and Aranovskaya’s lyrical flight into that unusual nimbus and nexus of joyous resonance characteristic of Mozart. This was Mozart’s first piano quartet and it shocked staid Viennese society by it difficult demands, dark textures, and passionate, emotional coda. Those mystical textures were intensely supported by Boris Vayner on viola and Adrian Daurov on cello as the piano urged the violin to soar to ethereal realms. This one of my favorite Mozart compositions and I wondered if Nick felt the same about its roiling emotional texture.  

 Music Mountain Board Member David Conte recalled how his friendship with Nick began after he attended a Music Mountain Concert and ran into Nick on a train platform (to NYC); their friendship blossomed, which should be no surprise in that Nick encouraged other music lovers to talk to each other. Nick’s niece Helen Gordon spoke of how as a child she once overheard Serge Koussevitzky plotting (in Russian) to found a musical venue (Tanglewood) to surpass Music Mountain. Helen with deep emotion spoke of how her father sent the train bell to Nick at Music Mountain, which became the familiar ding of a concert beginning. Legendary oboist Bert Lucarelli told anecdotes of Nick as a teacher and performer who profoundly touched everyone Nick ever met.

Alla Aranovskaya Boris Vayner played a short piece, Reinhold Glière’s “Cradle Song.” Susan Gordon, Nick’s daughter, limned Nick’s “wicked” sense of humor and his astounding knowledge of the canine world, his comprehensive knowledge of French cuisine and his telling his children that if a French chef prepares your food, you must eat it all or he will commit suicide. (And that has recently happened!) Bill Janeway, Nick’s first cousin, spoke of Nick’s provocative and successful role in radio from the 1960s to 1980s.

The concert’s finale played by The Shanghai Quartet and Peter Serkin was Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1864) by Johannes Brahms, a noted masterpiece from his work in the 1860s. Small motivic movements eventual erupt into large-scale tonal disturbances or celebrations, as if it describes the dynamic between meditative thought and what happens in public society. Peter Serkin on piano captured that dynamic intensity and dramatic contrast with quicksilver fingers as he provoked or conversed with the strings. Honggang Li on viola tenaciously provided tonal shape, while Weigang Li explored the upper extremes of emotional sincerity and pathos. Yi-Wen Jiang on violin adopted his questioning role with canny self-confidence as Nicholas Tzavaras registered the more robust edge of emotion. My favorite movement of the four movements is the second movement, the Andante, with its sweet, melancholy fatalism. The intricately knotted joys of the third and fourth movements appear to have described Nick Gordon’s can do-it optimism and joy in working out difficult problems during the course of his life.

The Shanghai Quartet will be back on June 10 to kick off the new season at Music Mountain which features their performance of the complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets.