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classical review: Professor Peter Child Premieres New Works

Quartet and Orchestra Delight Crowds in Newton and Kresge

By Jonathan Richmond

Peter Child Premieres

Lydian String Quartet

Maggie Cole, Harpsichord

March 5, 2006

All Newton Music School

New England Philharmonic

Richard Pittman, director

March 4, 2006

Kresge Auditorium

Professor Peter Child received the call from his patron Peter Gombosi with dread. Gombosi had already commissioned three works from Child — one for each of his children, and one for his wife. Now, he phoned Child to tell him that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and would like to commission a final work, for himself.

Gombosi was quite specific about what he wanted: a piece for harpsichord and string quartet to be performed by Maggie Cole and the Lydian Quartet; a movement modeled after the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and a movement of playful cat-and-mouse, incorporating the Gombosi “family whistle.”

The result, premiered at the All Newton Music School last Sunday, is wonderful. The composition is full of inventiveness, but with passages of transcendent beauty — as befits such a work. By reminding us of the merits of a life, Child’s piece mitigates the sorrow surrounding a death.

The two outer movements are gentle. The opening is a berceuse, and a rocking motion is felt in the strings. There is not much modern music written for the harpsichord, with its percussive sonorities, but Child has written penetrating music for the instrument. Though the sounds are strikingly different in effect, the harpsichord balances happily with the strings. Thus, in the berceuse, the percussive sounds heightened the pathos of the soft currents in the strings.

The second movement, the chorale after the Lutheran hymn, has a concentrated depth, culminating in an organ-like fugal release of sound as the string players draw and release their bows together with a deep gesture. The cat-and-mouse third movement has virtuoso harpsichord writing; its piquancy is enhanced by the quick-decay sounds of an instrument whose limitations are exploited in this colorful composition. The closing movement brings us back to contemplative gentleness, in memory of the now-deceased man who commissioned the work.

Maggie Cole played the harpsichord with agility and precision, and was well-matched with the Lydian Quartet, making for a natural interplay of musical ideas. The strings met the impishness of the harpsichord in the third movement, yet — even during the most lyrical of passages — kept in close connection with the more direct sounds coming from Cole.

Child’s work was well-placed, sandwiched between Haydn and Schubert quartets in a balanced program. The afternoon began with Haydn’s Quartet in D, Op. 71. No. 2, given an exuberant performance by the Lydian Quartet. The playing was full of Haydenesque humor, if perhaps a little strident at times.

The afternoon ended with Schubert’s great “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, dramatically-delivered in an intense performance. Joshua Gordon’s cello work was notable for its intensity and songlike sonorities, while Daniel Stepner’s violin virtuosity painted fantastic colors and Judith Essenberg contributed powerful second violin playing. The ensemble as a whole did not quite provide the concentrated darkness demanded for the most powerful of moments; violist Mary Ruth Ray was generally restrained, lacking the energy of the other musicians.

After such a tender and passionate performance, Saturday evening’s concert in Kresge Auditorium was harder to digest. The program presented by the New England Philharmonic, conducted by Richard Pittman, consisted entirely of demanding contemporary works — these were a little too taxing on audience concentration, if all brilliantly performed.

The highlight of the evening was the performance of Gunther Schuller’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a work that ventures into the world of jazz while keeping in the realm of serious classical composition. Soloist Danielle Maddon played her complex violin part with aplomb, making for a highly-focused sonic presence. The orchestra was thrilling in its accuracy, with each orchestral voice having its say with great clarity. The final movement, with its vigorous jazz elements, presented a riot of sounds, which came together naturally with a violin that remained serious in its intensity.

Charles Ives’ “Three Places in New England” also made for a strong presence on the program. The opening movement is placed at the St. Gaudens Memorial to a black Civil War regiment at Boston Common, and its mournful pace, produced to chilling effect by the orchestra, evoked the painful marching of the soldiers. The middle movement reflects the sounds of competing bands in a park in Connecticut, near where Ives grew up. It was performed with a festive spirit, the oompah-oompah sounds of amateur brass brought across with gentle tongue-in-cheek warmth. The finale represents the Housatonic River at Stockbridge, and brought the performance to a doleful conclusion.

The World Premiere of Peter Child’s “The Sifting: Three Songs of Longfellow” followed the intermission. Singing by the Simmons College Chorale and the Boston Conservatory Women’s Chorus was unclear and lacking in variety. This did not seem to be the most inventive of Child’s works, but it could be transformed by higher-quality singing, and I would like to hear it again, given a stronger performance.

The concert ended with Elliott Carter’s Variations for Orchestra, a complex work that is demanding on the intellect. Pittman has obviously studied the piece closely, and the performance of his well-rehearsed orchestra was outstanding, but it would have been nicer if the evening had ended with some spirited Souza or Gottschalk — great American composers like the others in the program, but with a lighter touch. Ending with Elliott Carter creates the same effect as playing a Mozart slow movement and leaving off the finale: something spirited is needed to bring the listener out of a trance and back to the real world for the journey out of the auditorium and homewards.