The Sherman Ensemble performed a program entitled “Ode to Bernstein with a Dvořák Nightcap” at St. Andrew’s Church in Kent last night. The first half of the program offered a miscellany of works. As Prologue, soprano Jennifer Groves sang William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 accompanied by flute, violin, and cello. Cellist Eliot Bailen had composed the work commissioned by Ellen and Michael Ebert for their 50th wedding anniversary and performed last night on her birthday. Eliot introduced the piece as an interpretation. And it was that, eloquently swimming on the romantic surface of a poem laden with underworld bawdy. The shimmering romantic surface kept Shakespeare’s bawdy at bay and in an odd way reversal highlighted the bawdy to those who understood the double-entendre of the punning play that came natural to the Great Wit.
At the age of nineteen in 1937 (before he had graduated from Harvard University) Leonard Bernstein, under the tutelage of Aaron Copland, composed Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano. This was an enterprising revival of a forgotten piece that displayed Bernstein’s melodic gift. Bailen’s cello began with a theme and passed it to Jill Levy, first violinist for the Albany Symphony. This dawdling lyric beginning is quite attractive and given the modernist trends of that day ran counter to Schoenberg, Webern, etc. What developed was an engaging, civilized conversation of the instrument where none dominated as they made contributions to the evolving conversation. This was an example of Erasmus-like colloquium, the purported ideal of graduate school education, which is more commonly anything but Erasmine. There is a post-Brahms element of Romantic nostalgia that is balanced by a sense of wonderment about what may happen next—there is no panic, just a charming, musing wonderment of what the future might bring. At the piano Benjamin Hochman aptly caught the echo-like quality of that musing.
It made sense to move on to Aaron Copland, the mentor who had influenced Bernstein the most. Copland’s Duo for Flute and Piano (1971). This composition was dedicated to noted flutist William Kincaid (1895-1967), whose students had commissioned the work. Like the Bernstein piece, it opened with placid serenity. Reverting to earlier style Copland endowed the flute with its traditional pastoral lyricism which Susan Rotholz favored with a hauntingly introspective, gorgeous tone in this opening soliloquy labeled as “Flowing.” The piano accompanies the flute in the second movement, yet the ambiance of an encasing melancholy is reinforced by the piano. The tranquility of the second movement discovers abrupt contrast in the third movement labelled “Bounce.” And, yes, this was rhythmic dance between piano and flute. This near-sonata took nearly four years to write, the second movement creating the bulk of the challenge where Hochman and Rotholz were clearly unified on the same page. To me this work presented a program meditation on the Three Ages of Humankind: the simplicity of early pastoral life and its pleasure, the transformation into medieval communal living, and finally the transition into the dynamic bounce of the modern commercial world: something lost and something painfully gained.
They then played a catchy West Side Medley, asking the audience to engage in percussion by snapping fingers.
Yet the real feast was the second half of the concert: Antonin Dvořák’s Quartet for Piano and Strings, No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 87. This is not only a delightful and demanding work, but it wields historical significance. This was the first time that Dvořák employed Slavonic folk melodies and this work caught the ear of Brahms, who was to acclaim this non-German his musical heir and future star. The work demands a dense interplay of all five instruments. Weakness in any of the instruments will cause the piece to descend into sentimental tripe. That did not happen here I am happy to report. There was both balance and intensity in all instruments as they navigated parallel tracks in treble and bass. Jill Levy was fierce and tender, Eliot Bailen appropriately calm, resolute, sonorous. Hochman on piano delivered the slightly harsh joyousness the work conjures. On viola Sarah Adams proffered a questioning tone that was not strident but politely insistent. The mystery of memory and the vitality of life electrified and revivified by music enlivened the lives of the audience who rendered long applause.