Extrême Expressions
Notes on the Program

June 30, 2022

Raise your hand if you disagree with what Claude Debussy wrote to the conductor Bernardo Molinari in 1915 as World War I was raging nearby: “The emotional satisfaction one gets from music can’t be equaled, can it, in any of the other arts?” No takers? Not surprising. As this program, “Extréme Expressions,” proudly proclaims, music speaks to us with incomparable and often inexplicable potency, whether the aura is light, ominous, or invoked by so many other feelings and colors. The four works being performed here comprise a kaleidoscope of styles providing satisfaction on so many levels that Debussy likely would be heartened by the musical menu.

He is among the program’s master chefs. The second of the sonatas Debussy wrote toward the end of his life presented during ChamberFest is a feast of contrasting moods. The Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor (1915) fills an extraordinary amount of activity and technical challenge into its three movements, which run a total of 11 minutes. The “Prologue” harks back to the Baroque use of one theme transformed through all sorts of decorative elements, which in Debussy’s case means a range of statements for the instruments at the composer’s most fanciful and refined. The swift changes of mood in the second movement, “Sérénade,” reflect the title the composer originally intended for the sonata, “Pierrot is angry at the moon,” which can be heard in the cello’s puppet-like strummed and plucked passages amid saucy piano interjections. Without interruption, the players immerse themselves in the finale, a cavalcade of fleet and sentimental adventures leading to a closing exclamation point.

Adventures abound in Kate Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say, a duo for flutes and soprano set to texts by Lydia Davis in which the performers engage in a panoply of deadpan musical histrionics. According to the American soprano-composer, “I wrote Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say out of a determination to test my limits as a vocalist and performer and an itch to make something out of Lydia Davis’ fabulously quirky, slyly profound texts. Writing as a composer/performer opens up the pre-compositional realm to lots of useful improvisatory tangents and fresh timbral discoveries, and working closely with flutist Erin Lesser led to many happy surprises that eventually made their way into the final score. Lydia Davis’ words suggested an unhinged virtuosity and idiosyncratic, multi-layered musical reading that took me from screwball comedy to paired musical gymnastics: the flute becomes a kind of Iron Man suit for the voice, amplifying it to new planes of expressivity, intensity, and insanity as the two players struggle, with a single addled brain, to navigate the treacherous labyrinth of simple logic.”

The piece is in three sections of emotional provocation marked “Go Away,” “Head, Heart,” and “Getting to Know Your Body.” Each of these episodes calls for a different flute — concert flute, bass flute, piccolo — all of which team with the soprano in both musical and verbal contexts. The flutist speaks while producing tones or other effects. The soprano faces her own set of technical tests, from singing and chatter to inward inhaling and picking off notes in the stratosphere. The performers often conspire in unison. It’s theater of the absurd by way of a bright, eccentric score.

We next come to what might be considered a mini-competition between Debussy and Ravel — or at least two French harp firms who created the rivalry as a merchandising gimmick. In 1904, the Pleyel company commissioned Debussy to write Danse sacrée et danse profane for harp and orchestra to showcase a new chromatic harp. Whereupon the Érard company did the same, a year later, with its double-action pedal harp by engaging Ravel to compose what would become Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet, and String Quartet. No need to take sides. Both pieces are examples of their composers’ genius for creating seductive worlds in which color and light are ravishingly balanced.

Ravel’s score is something of a prelude to a series of immortal works that would come to be associated with the composer’s style. The sonic witchcraft found in the suite Ma mère L’Oye (“Mother Goose”) and the ballet Daphnis et Chloé is already present in Introduction and Allegro. Ravel’s singular skill in the realm of the waltz — to be crystallized in Valses nobles et sentimentales and La valse — is also in radiant bloom in the septet, which opens in a hazy world of tender sighs and leads to the harp introducing a delectable dance. The motion ebbs and flows, the ensemble sweeping along and the harp offering an expansive cadenza that basks in the instrument’s lavish tonal possibilities.

The program’s third French composer — or, to be precise, Belgian-French composer — would build a reputation based on several works, chief among them the Symphony in D minor, the Sonata in A minor for Violin and Piano, and the tone poem Le Chasseur maudit, as well as a voluminous amount of organ music. Cesar Franck (1822-1890) spent the better part of his career as organist at the Basilica of St. Clotilde in Paris and a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. The Franck piece being performed at ChamberFest has the humble catalogue number Op. 1, No. 1, which might suggest it is the product of an unseasoned composer. But while Franck may have been an 18-year-old student at the Paris Conservatoire in 1840, when he wrote the Piano Trio No. 1 in F-sharp minor, the score reveals a distinctive artistic personality.

The trio introduces one of Franck’s distinguishing characteristics — his use of cyclical form, in which thematic material is used in many guises throughout a work (Liszt and many others also employed this technique). In the first movement (curiously, a slow movement), the piano introduces an ominous figure in the left hand and the cello answers with a chorale-like melody. The dramatic tension increases, with tender interludes coming as relief until a canonic section leads to a massive buildup of passion and anxiety. Tranquility returns, as does the ominous opening figure and an emphatic final chord.

The Allegro molto second movement is at turns a weighty, nimble, and gentle scherzo with particularly intricate eighth-note passagework for the piano and more than a little suspense. It jumps without interruption into the expansive Finale, which is full of charismatic octave and sixth demands for the piano and lyrical and vibrant string writing. Franck’s cyclical predilection can be heard in the return of the first-movement’s principal theme. And just when you thought the music couldn’t be more Romantic, it becomes so without reserve, showing Franck to be a gifted young composer on a fervent mission.

© 2022 Donald Rosenberg

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