Intimate Conversations, Bach and Beyond:
Bach, Kabalevsky, Stravinsky, Mendelssohn, and Telemann
Saturday, October 15, 2016, 3pm
G. Ph. Telemann – Trio Sonata in C minor
J. S. Bach – Flute Sonata in B minor, BWV 1030
Dmitri Kabalevsky – Children’s Pieces
J. S. Bach – Violin Sonata in A Major BWV 1015
Mendelssohn – Songs without Words
Mendelssohn – Intermezzo from Symphony No. 1
Stravinsky – Galop
Kenneth Cooper, Harpsichord
Judith Mendenhall, Flute
Joel Pitchon, Violin
Lucy Bardo, Cello
Gili Melamed-Lev, Piano
It is perhaps best to begin this review with a word of practical advice. This concert was sold out. The hall at Camphill Ghent is rather small. Seating is general. So for future events, you would do well to buy your tickets early and to arrive early. But that should be no hardship. It will give you all the more opportunity to meet members of the Camphill Ghent community and others who live in the area, and that can only add to the pleasure of the concert. As far as seating goes, all the instruments in this program, with their wide but compatible range of color and dynamics came through with clarity, warmth, and strength, and I got the impression that that obtains in every part of this intimate space. The architect of Camphill Ghent on principle avoided parallel walls throughout the complex, especially in the performing arts space, and that is all for the better. A window in the back wall opens on the entrance to the main building and its front garden, and I must confess a predilection for concert halls which, like Bard’s Olin Auditorium, give us a view of the outdoors from our seats.
This Bach-centric concert was obviously a great success, since it was sold out and the audience responded with such warm applause. I enjoyed it hugely, because the intelligence and musicianship of the players informed every measure of the great and entertaining music on the program, and this program in fact showed the very best conception of a program that was both serious and entertaining for a general audience. It was really a marvel of combining substance with fun.
The concert began with dramatic Trio Sonata in c minor by Georg Philipp Telemann, a humorous work in both senses of the word. Kenneth Cooper’s interpretation of the piece as a conversation of two people who are prone to argue with one another. He presented this after the lively performance, which set the mood for the rest of the concert, and gave us the pleasant feeling of the music we had heard falling into place. No matter what our relationship to a Baroque work may be, it’s a good thing to be reminded that the Baroque is not permeated with absolute music in the sense we address when we discuss the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, or Mahler. In fact, Mr. Cooper, by chatting with us in this monodirectional, but relaxed way, initiated a sort of conversation with us. We, the audience, were not in a position to voice our thoughts, since we remained silent in the traditional way to hear the music, but the response to his words, and the playing of his superb group of musicians was alive in us.
On the serious side were Bach’s sonatas for flute and keyboard and violin and keyboard, both among his very great works. On the light side we had selections from Kabalevsky’s Children’s Pieces and a circus piece, the Galop, from Stravinsky. I’m not sure if the Mendelssohn Songs without Words and Scherzo from Symphony No. 1 should be classified with the light or the serious, nor Telemann’s Trio Sonata. This can only show how little the distinction matters. The “serious” works of J. S. Bach have an elegance and courtly poise which narrows the gap between his generation at that of his sons—and the players at this concert fully appreciated this quality. The works showed J. S. both at his most intellectual and at his most galant. Fortunately, if in fact he did write the Flute and Violin Sonatas while he was at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, he had in Prince Leopold a patron who could appreciate both qualities. The performances will stay with me for a long time to come. Mr. Cooper focused his usual vitality on Bach’s score, knowing that in music like the strict canon in the third movement, the listener wants to savor the brilliance of Bach’s writing. His playing was, as always, robust and energetic. Judith Mendenhall played the flute part with an energy that was richly sympathetic to Cooper’s playing, but she also showed admirable restraint, articulating her lines with an eloquent control which illustrated perfectly the interest of Bach and his contemporaries in classical rhetoric. She avoided extremes of color and expression—and of vibrato in particular—to concentrate on the shape and construction of Bach’s melodic line. It is hard to imagine how anyone could improve on this performance. Joel Pitchon played the violin part of the A Major Sonata with warmth and a full, resonant modern sound. Kenneth Cooper appropriately joined him on Camphill Ghent’s beautifully balanced Steinway.
Dmitri Kabalevsky was likewise a composer of great brain and wit, who, like Paul Hindemith, could compose simple, amusing pieces of sophisticated craft and intellect. And, like Schumann and Debussy, he wrote pieces that could intrigue a learned and tasteful music-lover that were also accessible to young students of limited technique. Who could not be charmed by these learned, sophisticated essays in classical and romantic genres, composed so economically and with technical simplicity for piano students? But this was not the familiar piano work so many young piano students have learned. Mr. Cooper played his own arrangement of a selection of the pieces for harpsichord. This proved to be both convincing and fun, without creating the illusion that they were actually written for the harpsichord.
Gili Melamed-Lev took over from Mr. Cooper to accompany cellist Lucy Bardo in three Songs without Words by Felix Mendelssohn. These were not the more familiar pieces for solo piano. The composer wrote one Song without Words for cello and piano in 1845, that is, late in his short life. That was performed here, along with two pieces arranged from piano solo works in the 1890s by the cellist Friedrich Grützmacher. Ms. Melamed-Lev accompanied Ms. Bardo with expression, color, and discretion, and it was a pleasure to here Bardo venture into the Romantic repertoire. I for one am more familiar with her Baroque playing, on the viola d gamba as well as on the cello. The concert approached its end with an arrangement of the scherzo from Mendelsohn’s First Symphony, which he himself lifted from his beloved Octet. The composer did make a chamber arrangement himself, but here, a prominent part was added for the flute, which Ms. Mendenhall executed with terrific panache. By this point the musicians were just having fun, and so was everyone else in the hall. They followed this with a rumbustious session of some splendid circus music, Stravinsky’s Galop. These high spirits were not wasted on the residents of Camphill Ghent, nor on the visitors either. We all went our ways refreshed and invigorated by this wild conclusion to our musical conversation, and this was entirely in keeping with the philosophy behind the venue, which considers conversation to be an art form, and a highly esteemed one at that.