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When Late is Better than Good at The Music Shed

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Aug 12th, 2017

From left: Luther Warren, Katherine Arndt, John Belk, Rachyl Duffy, David Shifrin

Friday night’s program at the Norfolk Music Shed had announced “Late Music” as its theme. Artistic Director Melvin Chen had culled a small anthology of late works from Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, and Francis Poulenc. This appeared to be an eclectic yet interesting program of some important pieces that are not often played. David Shifren on clarinet joined Melvin Chen at piano for Poulenc’s “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano.” Poulenc had written this in homage to his departed friend Arthur Honneger, both noted students of Nadia Boulanger of the group she named Les Six.

The first movement, Allegro tristament, was puckishly modern with sudden contrasts, propulsive rhythms suddenly severed. Themes were about to be developed but aborted, a salad of great musical drafts going nowhere, the clarinet being experimental and bursting with ideas, the piano somber—a cornucopia of creativity coming to a halt. The following Romanza (très calme) sounded as if it were both grieving for the death of his German friend and a lament for a slow style of German music that could not keep pace with the 20th century. The Allegro con fuoco (très animé) delved into lively nostalgia of those happy days when the two musketeers were young and full of promise. The first movement’s theme returns to give an ABA format, thus strengthening the motif of creativity cut short. Little did Poulenc know that he himself would die of a heart attack the next year. How something so sad and shocking could be so entertaining is a marvel. I love Poulenc, yet his music remains so compact and dense, I always feel I’m hearing only two or three matching colors of a Rubik cube amid Poulenc’s absolute, lightning abstractions. This was in some bizarre manner a sonata, but whether Poulenc or Elliot Carter killed the sonata is debatable. Both players captured that certain jazz-like spontaneity the composition demanded.

Debussy’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor” was nearly as eccentric, since the composer was more interested in melodic lines, color, and dreamy nuance than formal structure. Tonal ambiguity and fluidity become the new structure. No need to look to Germany when there is Asia. The tone of Jennifer Frautschi’s Stradivarius was exceptionally pure and resonant, yet there were exciting moments when the violin strings were abruptly abused in a manner that would have caused Stradivarius to close his eyes in horror. The middle Intermezzo was lit with such fire and wit that the audience was no longer in Connecticut and we were for some moments delighted not to be on any map but Debussy’s. We were lost, but the rousing Finale made us feel that we were back in a concert hall. Chen’s melodic tinkling tricks and runs on the piano apparently kept Frautschi from levitating. Debussy knew he was dying, yet he was defiant to the end.

Schuman’s short Märchenerzählungen for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, Op. 132, written in three days, offers musical commentary on four German Fairy Tales. My favorite was the concluding lullaby of the third, Ruhiges Tempo, mit zartem Ausdruck. These charming pieces provided some needed relief from the previous two pieces, which contained death-hauntings. Shifrin, Frautschi, and Chen delivered delight instead of heady excitement.

After intermission, came the rain storm and Brahms’ famous Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115. Shifrin was in top mellow form as he led a quartet of Fellowship Students in this concert favorite where melodies are adroitly handed from one instrument to another, each transfer becoming more gorgeous than the next. The role of the cello in this quintet requires such steady support to all performers that I was terribly pleased to see John Belk bowing the instrument (his pizzicato had that tormented mellow sound). I had heard Belk at Bard over the years and knew that he was immensely talented, yet when he graduated this past spring, I wondered what had happened to him. Rachyl Duffy on viola, whom I found intently impressive and expressive, gave Belk a friendly pat on the shoulder during the quintet’s excited third bow to an excited audience. Luther Warren on first violin had a delicate, pristine tone, yet might have been more resonant. Katherine Arndt on second violin was robust, clear, replete with mysterious Romantic nuance. Shifrin was beaming—they had all performed to the master’s expectations. And seeing such young players performing at this level offers just one of the myriad delights that a wonderful concert can deliver, even in a storm.