Concert debuts student work

On Saturday, the Williams Chamber Players gave a concert of exclusively American music, all of which had some connection to Mass. The program included several works that were quite close to home, including a work for piano by Michael Johanson, visiting assistant professor of music, and the premiere of a work by Katherine Saxon ’03.

The program opened with a duet from an opera written in 1959 by Gerald Kechley, father of David Kechley, professor of music and chairman of the department at the College. The piece, entitled “North Wind, South Wind,” comes from the opera “The Golden Lion,” which is set in Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire, and based on historical events in the year 800. The singers were Kerry Ryer-Parke and Keith Kibler, and they were accompanied by Jerilee Kechley on flute, Douglas Moore on cello and Doris Stevenson on piano. The duet opened with a beautiful, plaintive melody sung by Casia, a “beautiful and spirited young woman new to the court,” who describes her “soft and foaming” garments that are intended to attract the attention of the Emperor Theophilus. This same music is then transformed into a duet and is followed by a brighter, heroic-sounding middle section, as the two characters profess their love for each other. The singers then return to the original music, and the duet ends on a soft note. This piece was a showcase for the singers; the reduced orchestra provided background textures and harmonies. Both singers produced wonderful tones, and graced the music with beautiful phrasing and expression. I wish that we could have heard them in a larger venue because their operatic voices seemed to overpower the small space of Brooks-Rogers.

The next piece on the program was Michael Johanson’s “Variations for Piano,” which was written in 1993 for his wife, Lourdes Diaz-Johanson, who performed it on Saturday. The piece begins with an energetic, descending figure in both hands, which provides the material for the rest of the piece. The variations experimented with different gradations of tempo and energy. One variation featured many arpeggiated chords, using all registers of the piano that built up to a powerful high point with one repeated chord. Another variation featured the opening figure alternating between the hands, while the sustain pedal was kept down, creating many intriguing harmonies. This was one of the most confident and exciting performances of the evening, no doubt due to the close connection between the composer and the performer.

Following the Johanson was Walter Piston’s “Duo for Viola and Violoncello,” written in 1949, and performed by Ronald Feldman on cello with visiting guest artist Patricia McCarty on viola. The piece employed an American folk sound. The first movement was polyphonic in texture, featuring much interplay between the two instruments and ending with pizzicato chords. The second movement began with a cello solo accompanied by haunting moving notes in the viola, gradually winding down to a pianissimo ending. The third movement was a high-energy jig-like dance, which both opened and ended with much excitement. With only two instruments on stage, the performers managed to create a very full sound and explored the many different moods and colors in the piece. McCarty then performed a solo piece, David Schiff’s “Joysketch II.” She gave a brief introduction to the piece, saying that she had always enjoyed the sounds of the Irish fiddle, and that this piece gave her a chance to make her viola sound like one. She also noted that in this piece she had discovered markings that she had never seen before, including “spiky” and “rough.” The opening section of the piece evoked the sounds of a solitary fiddler, with passages in the lowest register of the instrument punctuated by quick harmonics on the upper strings. The music then moved into fast arpeggios, drones and slides associated with Irish fiddle music. This music provided wonderful stylistic variety to the program and McCarty played it with a lot of energy.

The last piece before the interval was the premiere of “Four Landscapes” by Katherine Saxon ’03. The text was taken from a Wallace Stevens poem entitled “Six Significant Landscapes” (in Saxon’s work, one landscape was omitted, and two were combined into one movement). The piece was written for a bass/baritone accompanied by an instrumental sextet. The vocalist was Keith Kibler and the instrumentalists were Joanna Kurkowicz on violin, McCarty on viola, Susan Libby on cello, Jerilee Kechley on flute, Matthew Lipson ’04 on clarinet and Sam Minnich on French horn. The first movement, “A Wind in China,” employed muted strings and moving, intertwining lines, under a broad simple melody that described an old man in sitting under a pine tree and looking over the Chinese landscape. “Reaching,” the second movement, began with a vibrant pizzicato section in the strings and a bubbly, excited melody about finding how far one can reach, as the winds joined in to add to the energy of the music. The third movement, “Dreams, Towers, Moon and Stars” began with legato moving lines in the strings, punctuated by figures in the winds. The music gradually grew louder and more involved, before winding down to a quiet ending. The final movement, “Rationalists,” was based on amusing lines about Rationalists who “wear square hats, think in square rooms,” and “confine themselves to right angled triangles.” The music was buoyant and folk-like, mirroring the humorous nature of the text it was depicting. The moods of the poem were well evoked by the music and Saxon made good use of all instrumental parts, frequently playing off the strings and the winds to create interesting textures.

The second half of the program began with John Harbison’s “Twilight Music,” written in 1984. Scored for violin, horn and piano, and performed by Kurkowicz, Minnich and Stevenson, the piece featured a wide range of moods, from a muted violin and horn melody with a simple chordal accompaniment in the piano, to a more energetic section with a jazzy theme on the violin, and stopped, brassy notes on the horn. The final piece on the program was Arthur Foote’s “Trio No. 2 in B-flat Major,” performed by Kurkowicz, Stevenson and Moore. The most traditional classical piece on the program, composed in 1907-1908, this work harkened back to the Romantic era of Brahms and Wagner. The second movement, “Tranquillo,” was especially beautiful, opening with a lyrical theme in the cello and moving to a violin theme in the middle section, echoed in the highest register of the piano and accompanied by pizzicato chords in the cello. The finale, marked “Allegro molto,” was agitated and exciting, bringing the piece full circle with the return of thematic material from the first movement. The performers were all in their element, bringing a beautiful, warm tone to the performance.