MARK GRESHAM | 18 MAY 2021
Recent relaxation of pandemic restrictions made it possible for a live, in-person audience of well over 100 to attend the final concert of the 2020/21 season by the Atlanta Chamber Players that took place Sunday afternoon at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta.
The church had been hosting internet-streamed chamber concerts starting last summer, most of the to video without audience, plus rare instances where a handful of privately invited individuals, but no access to the general public.
Sunday’s event required masks be worn at all times by attendees, and by musicians who did not have to remove them to perform. Although there were no designated seats, people seemed to reasonably distance at their own volition, spread out among the pews in the sanctuary.
It felt like a good time to hear some spunky modernist music, which we got in the first half of the program.
Igor Stravinsky completed the music for L’Histoire du Soldat (“A Soldier’s Tale”), a theatrical work for actors, dancers and musicians, in 1918. The music was originally scored for a septet of instruments which does not include piano – after all. the show was intended to travel easily. But Stravinsky himself later created a five-movement Suite for a trio of violin, clarinet and piano, which is what we heard opening this concert.
Performed by Helen Hwaya Kim, Alcides Rodriguez and Elizabeth Pridgen, this Suite retains the raw, rackety, anti-Romantic character of the original with its shifting accents, obsessive ostinatos and crackling dissonances, yet affords a better opportunity for the music to be heard in what are so frequently piano-centric chamber concerts.
Composer and pianist Paul Schoenfield is known for combining popular, folk, and classical music forms and idioms. His Café Music for piano trio was inspired by Schoenfield’s turn as house pianist at Murray’s steakhouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota (“Home of The Silver Butter Knife Steak since 1946”). It is instantly accessible and engaging despite the high-end complexities in its astonishing admixture of classical, jazz, klezmer and whimsy that occasionally threatens to run off the rails before suddenly re-coalescing, back on track, and at an often hyper-energetic pace.
I personally thought this three-movement work to be the highlight of the afternoon, performed by Helen Hwaya Kim, Charae Krueger and Elizabeth Pridgen, with some especially astonishing show of technique by Pridgen in her raucous piano part. It put the term “eclectic” into a good light – which it often isn’t due to simple overuse.
It is debatable as to whether the best known work by Max Bruch is his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor or his Kol Nidrei, but they are both are regarded so well that the narrow difference in popularity doesn’t matter. Originally for cello and orchestra, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (Op. 47), styled as an “Adagio on Two Hebrew Melodies,” is about as well known in a version for cello and piano, which is how I first encountered it both as listener and as pianist.
In Sunday’s concert we got to hear yet a different arrangement for cello, harp and organ played by Charae Krueger, Elisabeth Remy Johnson and Jens Korndoerfer. The concept is good with the organ emulating the orchestra’s capacity for sustained sounds, and the harp taking arpeggiations that begin partway through (pickup bars to rehearsal letter “E”) as in the full orchestral score, and modifying the organ part (as arranged by Heinrich Reimann for Bruch’s publisher Simrock) enough to accommodate the harp, which takes some weight of an already weighty organ part.
The curiosity and perhaps logistical necessity in this performance is that both Krueger and Johnson were positioned in the lower left corner of the raised chancel just in front of the wall, with Korndoerfer at the organ console up in the choir loft. (Best guess for this is likely the difficulty of getting the harp up into the loft safely.) From the live audience’s visual perspective, it seemed that would have necessitated some careful listening on the part of all three musicians, under the assumption they could not a;; see each other. But the concert as also being live-streamed at the same time and was available afterward on demand. From one camera’s perspective in the choir loft, it became clear that Krueger and Johnson could see Korndoerfer directly up a staircase, so visual communication between them was there.
The other observable thing about the video presentation is that the organ part felt more colorful than in person, and the performance in more equitable balance, richer and more “present” overall..
The ever-popular George Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue (1924) has made itself known in multiple versions. Not the least are the original for piano and jazz band for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, a 1926 version for theater orchestra, for concert band (without piano) and the now commonly heard 1942 version for piano and traditional symphony orchestra – all orchestrated by Ferde Grofé rather than Gershwin himself. Gershwin did, however, himself create versions of piano solo and two pianos. Aside from the instrumental forces involved, it is notable that among these the basic music even differs in some sections being re-ordered or even left out, complicating the choices available for performers and even other potential arrangers.
It was from Gershwin’s two piano version, not Grofé’s orchestrations, that mostly self-taught musician, composer and now retired engineer Louis Sauter created and arrangement for piano and string quintet in 2016. This is the version which was the featured closer to Sunday’s concert, performed by Pridgen as soloist with Kim and Krueger joined by Kenn Wagner, Catherine Lynn and Daniel Tosky as the string quintet.
The premise of having a chamber version of Rhapsody in Blue that doesn’t require a second piano is a good one. But honestly, I’m not entirely convinced by this arrangement – at least as rendered in this concert. Missing in particular was a feeling of narrative continuity in the performance, which is so critical in preventing it from sounding like a series of episodes that are loosely stacked together. Some transitions from one section to another felt uncertain (which is a very different feeling from surprise).
As with the Bruch, the video stream captured a different balance and feeling of presence which helped some. But frankly I think (with Sauter’s score in hand) the problems lay much more with shortcomings the arrangement than with the performers, whose acumen are well known to local audiences. Likewise, it’s not so much problematic due to Sauter’s skills as an arranger, as much as that maybe string quintet isn’t really the best combination to fully render well all of Gershwin’s musical ideas in the Rhapsody, however logistically convenient the quintet of strings may be. Maybe someone will flesh out a version for slightly larger and more diverse chamber ensemble that can address some of the shortcomings. ■