Chamber II: A Tasty Haydn-American Sandwich

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Sunday afternoon’s outing of the second chamber program brought further homage to String Quartet inventor Josef Haydn, sandwiched in between the music of two of America’s finest tunesmiths of the early 20th century: Arthur Foote and Amy Beach. As host Geoff Nuttall pointed out, they were both part of a group of composers known as “The Boston Six” — probably the most influential group of American composers in their day.

The afternoon’s music began with Arthur Foote’s A Night Piece, a lush and smoothly rapturous number for flute and string quartet. Joining the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) to bring it to life was flutist extraordinaire Tara Helen O’Connor, whose fab flutism has been stupefying Spoleto audiences for quite a few festivals now. Amid the music’s serene strains were a few gentle whiffs of the French impressionist style; the central section, for muted strings, was to die for — especially in the hands of these stellar musicians.

Turn back the time machine a couple of centuries to the 1790’s, when “Papa” Haydn was at the peak of both his powers and his fame, having taken England by storm with a series of 12 symphonies written specifically for big London orchestras. He had recently reached the milestone of his hundredth symphony — but he still had a few more left in him — to include this one, No. 101, nicknamed “The Clock,” for the suggestive “ticking” rhythm of its second movement.

With no boob tube, computers, or other electronic gadgetry to benumb their brains back then, cultured European households often filled their leisure hours with chamber music played by ensembles made up of musical friends and family — and among the most frequently played works were chamber arrangements of the popular symphonic works of the day. J. P. Salomon, the impresario who had brought Haydn to London (twice), had “The Clock” reworked into the chamber arrangement we heard here. Doing the honors for this one were Nuttall and his trusty SLSQ, plus pianist Inon Barnatan, double-bassist Tony Manzo, and, again, O’Connor and her magic flute.

As I did in my review of the series opener, let me again emphasize the near-constant presence of humor and wit in Haydn’s music. Until recent decades, the stuffy purists who ruled the classical roost considered it near sacrilege to characterize the music of such a musical “god” as “funny.” And it’s a good thing they don’t anymore, ‘cause Nuttall and company clearly had a BALL hamming this one up as they negotiated the music’s supremely witty stops, starts, pregnant pauses and (third movement) a spoof of a bunch of pretty bad London street musicians. I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow account; suffice it to say that you should’ve been there.

From there, fast-forward back to the steamy late romanticism of post-Victorian-era Boston, as manifested in a rich and rosy piano quintet by Amy Beach: the first American woman to achieve fame as a composer. As Nuttall told us, she was an astounding prodigy: able to sing in tune at age one, and she could harmonize spontaneously by the time she was two. She was first known as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach — the initials belonging to her much older husband, a “Boston aristocrat” who forbade her to pursue music professionally — hardly surprising, given the fact that the creative and intellectual abilities of women were largely scorned back then. Fortunately for her (at least professionally) and for posterity, she outlived him by many years, and went on to become quite well known, as both a composer and pianist.

If you like your music with unfettered, heart-on-sleeve emotional passion, rich romantic sentiment, and more than a touch of womanly intuition (sorry, guys — we can’t go there), Amy Beach is for you. And she has all the compositional skills she needs to express her feelings convincingly in music, and more. The SLSQ, the day’s workhorse, took good care of this one, joined by versatile keyboard whiz Pedja Muzijevic (also a noted harpsichord player), who took over at the piano. In the course of the work’s three movements, they were in perfect tune with their composer, realizing everything from her tender wistfulness and yearning romance to her elfin playfulness and crashing drama.

Leave it to Geoff and company to turn us on to rare masterpieces that most of us never knew existed. Trust me, there are many more to come this year. And, after all (to a great extent), isn’t that what Spoleto is all about?

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