Menotti and more at Music Northwest’s final recital of the season

Gian Carlo Menotti

As the fates would have it, a volcano burping and spewing ash over continental Europe, prevented Xavier Philips (the Seattle Symphony’s scheduled soloist for the past weekend’s concerts) from performing a recital on Friday evening of French cello works. Even as one recital came apart, another, at Olympic Hall in West Seattle came together.

Music Northwest’s 2009/2010 chamber series came to a close on April 23rd with a recital for combinations of cellos and piano. Music Northwest’s chamber series is a gem in Seattle’s growing classical music community. The series distinguishes itself for the quality and diversity of repertory Jane Harty (Music Northwest’s artistic director) chooses and the quality of the musicians who perform each concert.

Both were in abundance Friday. At the center of the program were two seldom heard, little known, but enjoyable works: Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Suite for Two Cellos and Piano and Alexandre Tansman’s Two Movements for Cello Quartet. Also on the program were short pieces – Tempo Di Marcia and Requiem – by composer and cello legend David Popper, and Emanuel Moor’s Suite for Four Cellos. Jane Harty provided the piano accompaniment for the first half of the concert. She was aided by two local (Mara Finkelstein and Walter Gray) and two Chicago based (Stephen Balderston and Ruth Marshall) cellists.

This year concert halls have been filled with Samuel Barber’s singular musical voice as orchestras and ensembles celebrate the composer’s 100th birthday.  Barber’s birthday isn’t getting the same attention as Leonard Bernstein – it is the anniversary year for Bernstein’s death– that is why it was such a pleasure to hear Menotti’s suite. It’s inclusion was a welcome (and maybe unintentional) tribute to another aspect of Barber’s musical legacy. As Barber’s partner for more than 30 years, Menotti was as much an essential creative partner to Barber as he was a soul mate. Among others, he contributed the libretto for Barber’s opera Vanessa.   But, Menotti was also a fine composer in his own right. His operas, almost never heard today – with an exception for Amhal and Night Visitors – were valuable contributions to America’s unsettled musical identity in the last century.  With the Menotti centenary next year I hope at least a few local groups pay tribute to his contributions.

The suite is set in four contrasting movements: two fast and two slow. The piece begins with a slow movement that relegates the piano to a tertiary role. In the second movement, Harty’s role was more prominent. She joined Balderston and Marshall as a more forceful partner with the cellists for the movement’s endless bursts of energy and swaggering rhythms that bounced off the sound boards of both cellos. The first and third movements – both slow movements – were sumptuous contrasts, with the third movement more amorous in tone than the first.

All four cellists were on stage for the second half and Alexandre Tansman’s Two Movements forCello Quartet. Like so many composers and artists, Tansman came to the United States to avoid persecution. We’ll never know how Europe’s musical trajectory might have developed had so many composers not come to America to avoid persecution only to have their talents swallowed by the artistic claustrophobia of Los Angeles, film, and American cultural populism. In Tansman’s piece, each cello is given an opportunity to stand out from the others. Out of the sweeping first movement adagio comes a rowdier second movement. A culminating fugue breaks the mood and returns the listener back to the material at the start of the piece.

Though short, Tansman’s two movements are emblematic of Twentieth Century music. The piece’s musical language connected the past – Romantic melodies, lyricism, and lush textures – with the leaner musical contours of the middle part of the previous century. Sounds and colors lingered, not quite concrete, often cloaked in a hazy quality. All of this reminded me of French impressionists.  Jazzy rhythms signaling a popular influence on the classical music of the time.

East Europeans were the focus of the rest of the concert. Two short works by the bohemian cellist/composer David Popper opened the concert. Of the two, the Requiem – for three cellos and piano – captured my attention the most. Jane Harty and cellists Finkelstein, Gray, and Balderston demonstrated through their playing that they understood the sullen grief and personal mourning Popper seemed to be conveying. Emanuel Moor’s Suite for Four Cellos surprised me. So much music has been forgotten, filed away, that rediscovering a piece like the Suite for Four Cellos is a welcome experience.

An ash cloud foiled Friday’s “marquee” cello recital, but it hardly seemed like a loss after hearing Music Northwest’s recital. Even as classical music fans tend to cast a gaze toward Benaroya Hall for their musical fulfillment, a volcano, half a world away, reminded us that beyond Union and University, even in far flung places like West Seattle and Bellevue, music is thriving if we take the time to look.

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4 thoughts on “Menotti and more at Music Northwest’s final recital of the season

  1. Menotti’s “The Saint of Bleecker Street”, although certainly not standard repertoire, is fairly well know and still occasionally performed. Interestingly enough, Marseilles opera performed it just last month.

  2. Then there’s The Medium, The Telephone, and The Consul. Not to mention a favorite of mine, the madrigal comedy called “The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore.” Menotti was practically run out of this country for having the temerity to write lyrically. And too bad. He simply wrote with a language that was an extension of the past, rather than a complete break with it.

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