Yesterday evening in the Salon of the Hotel Rex, Lara Downes presented the latest installment of The Artist Sessions, her occasional series of “close encounters between musicians and audiences” (her words). Her guest for this particular event was violinist Rachel Barton Pine; and the central topic of both conversation and performances was composers of African descent. The program was framed by the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor from England and William Grant Still from the United States. Taken together, the careers of these two composers spanned about three-quarters of the twentieth century; yet their presence on concert programs has never been much more than sparse.
Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875 and studied composition at the Royal College of Music with Charles Villers Stanford. One of the first public performances of his music took place at the Three Choirs Festival, where his work was included on the program on a recommendation by Edward Elgar. The author of his Wikipedia page states that “Coleridge-Taylor sought to do for traditional African music what Johannes Brahms did for Hungarian music and Antonín Dvořák for Bohemian music.” To this end his Opus 59 (published in 1905) was a collection of 24 Negro Melodies for solo piano. Written in ternary form, each provides an exposition of the source melody, which is then complemented by a “reflection” in a different mood in the middle section.
Last night’s program began with the tenth of these, “Deep River,” in an arrangement for violin and piano by Maud Powell. Curiously, Jascha Heifetz seemed to have had a love for this spiritual and would sometimes play it as an encore selection. The background material for his RCA recording claims that Heifetz played his own arrangement for violin and piano. However, those who have heard both versions are likely to agree that Heifetz was probably aware of Powell’s arrangement (which, like Coleridge-Taylor’s original, was published in 1905).
At the other end the program concluded with the first movement, entitled “African Dance,” from Still’s suite for violin and piano. Still himself knew little about African music, so the thematic and rhythmic vocabulary of the score is entirely original. Nevertheless, one can sense the sorts of impressions of Africa that motivated the spirit behind his composition; and Pine and Downes had no trouble capturing and delivering the essence of that spirit.
The other African-American composer included on the program was Daniel Roumain with a performance of his “Prayer” for violin and piano. In many respects this amounted to a reflection over about a century of the opening selection on the program. While “Prayer” was an original composition rather than an arrangement, both pieces shared the perspective of profession of faith through understated rhetoric; and both Pine and Downes seemed aware of this parallel in their approach to performance.
The most fascinating “African connection” in the evening, however, was an acknowledgement of George Bridgetower, the first violinist to perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 47 sonata in A major. Because Beethoven later had a falling-out with Bridgetower (apparently over a woman), he changed the dedication of the sonata to Rodolphe Kreutzer (who never performed it, finding it too difficult). However, the original title page carries the dedication “Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e compositore mulattico” (mulatto sonata composed for the mulatto Bridgetower, great fool and mulatto composer). Pine and Downes thus honored Bridgetower’s significant role in early nineteenth-century chamber music with a vigorous account of the Presto movement that concludes Beethoven’s Opus 47.
Pine also included a selection by Johann Sebastian Bach, the Gavotte movement from the BWV 1006 E major partita for solo violin. While this piece had no “African connection,” Pine explained to her audience that this was a French dance form that was both exotic and “modern” to Bach, who knew of little beyond his own relatively limited corner of Germany. She also observed that Bach’s decision to set this “exotic” dance as a rondo, rather than conventional binary form, suggests that, in this one movement, Bach was looking to the future while so many of his other pieces were looking to the past.
Considering that these Artist Sessions tend to run about an hour in duration, last night offered a generous serving of content. The prevailing tone of the evening was one of devoted appreciation to the music, and it was an appreciation that could easily be received by the listeners. Pine clearly has great interest in researching the background of the music she chooses to perform, and she has just as much delight in sharing her discoveries with her audience without ever letting her enthusiasm bog down in pedantry. The San Francisco concert scene definitely needs more events like those Downes presents through The Artist Sessions.