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Sherman Chamber Ensemble at Smithfield Church

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Aug 9th, 2019

From Left: Doori Na, Susan Rotholz, Eliot Bailen, Michael Roth

The Sherman Chamber Ensemble at Smithfield Church opened with “Three Preludes for Lancelot” by Rosy Wertheim, a Dutch underground composer during World War II. Since the composition has nothing to do with Medieval lore, I presume the title to be an amusing sobriquet for an acquaintance or a lover: a tri-partite sketch of a personality. Influenced by French Impressionism, these charming sketches energize an amusing edginess concerning perspective and color in three impressionistic, perhaps even cubist, descriptions of a man who thinks he knows himself, but ironically doesn’t. There is much self-confident wit at play and the canvas is never dull, as any instrument at play has the agility to flip witty perspective. Although dating of the piece remains uncertain, its composition is so adroitly witty that it floats free of time. It is a pleasure to hear rather unknown gems.

“Passagalia for violin and cello” by Norwegian Joan Halverson (1864-1935) offers variations on a tune by Handel. Jill Levy, first violinist of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, took turns with cellist Eliot Bailen in playing “straight man” to the jester. The old Haydn-Mozart joke of stopping before finishing re-circulates with humorous confusions as each instrument changes leads, while the other is reduced to comic repetition. If one were to read Country Tipperary Lawrence Sterne’s eccentric invention of the autobiographical novel Tristram Shandy (1759-67), this would suffice as analogous background music because one never knows whether one is coming or going, or whom the joke was on. Levy and Bailen caught the humor without ever letting go of the lyric resonance in the humor.  

The first half concluded with Theme and Variations for flute and strings, Op. 80, by Amy Beach. Beach, employing her 1896 composition “An Indian Lullaby” as the principal theme, shows her inclination for late romantic invention in this emotionally effective set of variations for flute and string quartet. The ambiance of the work freights subtle, but polite, conflict. According to Stephanie J. Burgess “The Theme and Variations is a setting of and variations on Beach’s first Indianist composition, her four-part song for women, ‘An Indian Lullaby.’ Though the song evokes Native American imagery primarily through its text, removing the words to transform it into a theme and variations does not divorce the piece from its indigenous influence” where “the first violin lifts the song’s melody note-for-note, and the chord progressions mirror that of the song.”

While this piece exhibits nativist folk influence, its inspiration probably derives from Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1895), which flutist Susan Rotholz has often played to perfection in past concerts. Although Debussy’s composition appears to inhabit a rural realm of allegorical, perhaps primitive “fawn” freedom before the evolution and angst of self-conscious Romantic freedom, Beach’s composition idealizes the nativist flute melody as a pragmatic voice that struggles initially against the accompanying quartet. The flute is silent in the first movement opening theme, as if shocked by the confrontation of Western society. Rising to give voice in the second movement, it conjures an Otherworldly anthropology that offers a challenge to the perspective and presumptions of the string players. The second Allegro movement dramatizes flute and strings mired in misunderstanding. The third movement Andantino appears to lament the mutual misunderstanding that was temporized. The Presto arrives at some tentative anthropological understanding of the cultural conflict, yet the following Largo appears to lament whatever solution is at hand. The concluding Allegro offers a quasi-hopeful outlook, while expressing doubt on the part of the flute, that some satisfactory outcome may be acceptable to all parties. The cultural conflict displays such aural ambiance that the listener is deeply drawn into the utter strangeness of the situation as the mystery of this conflict evolves. Beach’s vocabulary and landscape of sound remains lyrical, arresting, and aurally compelling.

As with any concert, The Sherman Ensemble saved the best for last: String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). This May lament for his sister Fanny’s death was Felix’s last quartet, since he died a few months later in November of that year from heart attack, as did Fanny. It remains astonishing that so many of Felix Mendelssohn’s compositions were not published until after the 1960's; a complete edition of 150 volumes is remains eagerly anticipated. Mendelssohn remains the most intimate and emotionally accessible composer. His lament for his sister (and sometime co-composer) remains one of the greatest elegies ever composed. In this performance Jill Levy excelled fortissimo in the first and last movements. Violist Michael Roth and second violinist Doori Na shone in the spotlight during the second movement. The Adagio third movement belonged to the lower resonance of Eliot Bailen, while the Allegro Finale achieved such fierce unity that it felt like a transfiguration experience. I nearly burst into tears in the third movement.  

The acoustics of Smithfield Church are superb; I hope to hear many more concerts at that venue. The affable Meet & Greet with refreshments was most amiable.

This Sherman Chamber  Ensemble program will be repeated Friday, August 9 at 8 pm, St. Andrew’s Church, Kent, CT; and Saturday, August 10, 8 pm, at The Jewish Community Center in Sherman, CT.