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The Sherman Ensemble Explores More than Travel

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Aug 31st, 2019

From left: Eliot Bailen, Margaret Kampmeier, Jill Levy, Paul Woodiel, Sarah Adams

At St. Andrew’s Church in Kent last night, The Sherman Ensemble opened with the American Premiere of a flute composition by a Boston composer Edith Hemenway who will turn 93 years old in December. Questions of Travel, inspired by an Elizabeth Bishop poem with that title, was first written in 1999 as a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano; Premiered in 2010, it appeared last year on the Etcetera label in To Paradise for Onions. Flutist Susan Rotholz loved the piece and wrote to Hemenway, asking if she would create an arrangement of this work for flute, cell, and piano. Hemenway did and the wonderful result arrived at the audience’s ear. The transcription for flute was a marvel and I hope The Sherman Ensemble will be able to record this version. There is a haunting lyricism to this work, which Rotholz coaxed with artful delicacy as she was accompanied on cello by Artistic Director Eliot Bailen as pianist Margaret Kampmeier. There was sprightly humor in “The Dog Plagued by Fleas” and “The Rented Car” movements. My favorite of the seven movements was the mysterious “Journey of the Ancients.” The work concluded with ironically tinged nostalgia in “Think of the Long Trip Home.”

Pianist Margaret Kampmeier played two short but delightful pieces: Felix Mendelssohn’s “Venetian Boat Song” which wound through scenic lapping, canal turns, with astonishing melody, and Mexican-born Manuel Ponce’s Intermezzo #1, the first in a series of modernistic re-inventions of the Nocturne which incorporates dissonance into its pianistic meditation. Kampmeier played with superb panache.

Four Swedish folk compositions by the Danish String Quartet (the house quartet at both New York’s Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society and BBC 3) followed. These were led by noted virtuoso violinist Paul Woodiel with great humor. “Five Sheep, Four Goats” featured a Nyckelharpa instrument played by Woodiel, as he was accompanied by string players Jill Levy, Eliot Bailen, and Sara Adams. Originating in the fourteenth century, the nyckeharpa is part viola with harp resonance that employs key-actuated tangents to change the pitch. This Swedish tune resembled an Irish reel with comic intonation. “Bosse Nordin Schottis” offered a modern pop version of what a Bossa Nova sounds like to a Swede; Eliot’s cello was key to the success of this number. “Ack Varmeland du Skona” also heavily relied on cello and featured an amazingly timed silent gap where musicians resumed with perfect unity. Jill Levy on violin excelled in “Skstur from Vendsyssel,” which featured marvelous harmonies.

William Elgar was an Edwardian composer of melodious charm; he had the honor of being the first important English composer since Henry Purcell. Some claim that his work was predominantly derivative of other European musicians, yet a distinct originality remains in his scoring of melody, harmony, textual sound, and tempo. There is deep feeling combined with dignity in his work The Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84 (1919), which is generally considered his greatest chamber work; one of the great music critics of that era, playwright George Bernard Shaw, certainly thought so.

The opening prelude sets the table with a theme of conflict. The conclusion of the opening Allegro question finds restatement at the end. To me the first movement explores the question of England’s responsibility for engineering the Great War; Magaret Kampmeier on piano struck hard in leading this critical charge, avoiding the temptation of bombast while delivering challenging questions to the other instruments for thorny resolution. The second movement, a rather Brahms-like Adagio, casts a look backward to discover the civilized joys of life before the Great War, as Elgar records the joys of his marriage. The deep voice of nostalgia displayed in Eliot Bailen’s cello operated most attractively in the lower register, while Sarah Adams on viola was especially effective in the upper register, thus offering a male-female dialectic of conjoint happiness before the Great War and the terminal illness of Elgar’s wife.

The third movement Andante was dominated by the fierce first violin of Jill Levy who played with memorable intensity while raising the stakes of conflict, both personal and social—emphasizing those costs, until a social optimism of reversal emerged from the themes of conflict in the opening prelude; a common vision of social renewal is suddenly discovered, as all four strings and piano arrive at a triumphant, balanced vision of mutual cooperation. Neither piano nor any single instrument dominates here in the web of wondrously textured dynamics. Played with such feeling, this was a palpable, joyously inflected resolve to address the problems of humankind with positive patriotic direction. Yet after the death of Elgar’s wife in April of 1920, Elgar produced little else of great merit.

A concert that began with a delightful postcard motif transported the audience around the globe yet concluded with trenchant political analog concerning our American present.  Will we be able to come together and reverse our current inclination regarding the looming tragedy of fascism? Will we return to the humanitarian and idealistic vision of our Founding Fathers?

This unusual and rare program will be repeated today at the Lake Mauweehoo Club in Sherman at 8 pm. All six of these supremely talented musicians provided perhaps the most memorable concert of the year.