Last night at Old First Church, Frequency 49 returned for their second performance in the Old First Concerts recital series. The group is a sextet that brings pianist Margaret Halbig together with a woodwind quintet of Carmen Lemoine on flute, Ryan Zwahlen on oboe, Jeannie Psomas on clarinet, Yueh Chou on bassoon, and Leslie Hart on horn. The title of the program was Americana, and the selections covered works by five American composers (one a naturalized citizen) written between 1946 and 2009. (To give a sense of that scope, the composer of the most recent piece was born two years before the earliest piece was written.)
The naturalized citizen on the program was Vernon Duke, born as Vladimir Dukelsky in the Minsk Governorate of the Russian Empire in 1903. His was a noble family of mixed Georgian-Austrian-Spanish-Russian descent. In the wake of the Russian Revolution his family joined similar refugees in Constantinople, obtaining visas to sail to New York in 1921. He was soon befriended by George Gershwin, who is credited with suggesting that Dukelsky Americanize his name. Duke then began to build a reputation as a Tin Pan Alley song writer. When he became a citizen he took Duke as his legal name but would write classical music under the name Dukelsky, just as the classical composer Dukelsky had previously written popular songs under the name Duke.
Last night’s composition, three short pieces for woodwind quartet (a wind quintet without the horn) and piano, was written more than fifteen years after his naturalization. (This was also the period when he wrote his cello concerto.) His three little chamber pieces were as fascinating as they were brief. One could almost see Dukelsky pulling Duke into a domain of richer harmonies and more extended phrases. (One could also detect a sense of liberation from the need to provide a reference pitch for a vocalist.) On the other hand Duke had endowed Dukelsky with the common sense of knowing when to stop. At a time when too many composers felt that “serious” music required an equally serious duration of time, Dukelsky was not afraid to live by the precept that brevity was the soul of wit.
Two years after Dukelsky had composed these short pieces, William Grant Still composed his collection of folk songs called Miniatures, scored for flute, oboe, and piano. Still may not have had Duke’s chops for knocking out popular songs, but he definitely appreciated music from indigenous American sources. The five songs collected in Miniatures provide a brief tour of the variety among those sources. (Still shared with Dukelsky that gift of brevity.) Ironically, the first of Still’s selections, “I Ride an Old Paint,” had already been given treatments by Virgil Thomson (in his music for the film “The Plough That Broke the Plains”) and Aaron Copland (in the score for the ballet “Rodeo”), both written in 1942.
Last night Frequency 49 began their program with Adam Lesnick’s arrangement of Still’s score for wind quintet. Lesnick made some shrewd choices for instrumentation that clearly broadened the sonorous palette of the original setting. In addition, he seemed to seek out a “personality profile” for each of the five instruments. Thus last night’s performance gave the impression of being as intent on capturing the characters of the folk singers as it was on delivering the musical content of the songs.
Copland was also represented on the program by a much later composition, a duo for flute and piano that he composed in 1971. By that time Copland had experimented with a variety of different approaches to composition, including even the use of a twelve-tone row. However, this duo was a memorial piece for William Kincaid, who had long held the chair of Principal Flute in the Philadelphia Orchestra. (The piece was jointly commissioned by Kincaid’s many students, listed as “no fewer than seventy” in the program notes.) Copland thus went back to his comfort zone of a lyrical use of wide intervals in both his melody lines and his chords. The memorial rhetoric was concentrated in the second movement, marked as Poetic, somewhat mournful. The outer movements, on the other hand, had the almost prototypical Copland rhetoric of wide open spaces, given a perfectly approachable presentation by Lemoine and Halbig.
The Copland selection was followed by “Summer Music,” the Opus 31 wind quintet by Copland’s contemporary, Samuel Barber. This was written about fifteen years before Copland’s duo; but it has a very similar rhetoric, capturing the same spirit of Americana that he had portrayed so well in the vocal domain with his Opus 24 “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Both pieces establish their respective moods through repetition of thematic material that seems to have less to do with formal musical structure and more with a sense of memories arising through free association. Thus, the essence of the music lies in the clarity of those melodic “cells,” which were delivered exquisitely by the Frequency 49 players.
The only real disappointment came with the most recent work on the program, Bill Douglas’ quartet for flute, oboe, bassoon, and piano. Back in 1986 when RCA agreed to produce the album on which clarinetist Richard Stolzman would play “New York Counterpoint,” which Steve Reich had written for him, producer Jeremy Wall seems to have called on Douglas to make the album more palatable as a whole. Thus, Reich’s exquisite homage to Benny Goodman delivered as an elaborate fabric of overlaying motifs was “introduced” by ten other tracks, all of which, regardless of composer, were delivered with the most insipid pop-rock rhetoric one could imagine. Douglas was keyboardist and composer of three of those tracks.
His later work has shown some improvement. He no longer grates the nerves of the serious listener waiting to hear the Reich (s)he had expected; but he is still not particularly imaginative. Where Dukelsky and Still could draw upon familiar sources and endow them with fresh points of view (all while working back in the Forties), Douglas never seems to progress much beyond rehashing his own familiar sources; and his final movement, “Bebop Cantabile,” seems to miss the point of both of the nouns in the title. (Ironically, Reich did far better justice to both of those same nouns in “New York Counterpoint.”) Fortunately, this quartet was the outlier in an otherwise highly engaging evening of chamber music.