Chamber Players turn to the ‘Bad Boys’ of classical music for inspiration

Today, classical music is seen as such a refined and dignified art that the phrase “classical music bad boy” conjures up an image no more shocking than someone wearing blue jeans at the opera house. But during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the romantic and modern eras produced several generations of composers that boldly pushed classical music’s limits. They radically (and often successfully), experimented with harmony, form, instrumentation, ethnic music and avant-garde performance practices that elevated music from its status as aristocratic entertainment to a viable art form, as legitimate as literature or visual art.

To honor this legacy, the Williams Chamber Players opened their 2003-2004 concert season last Friday in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall with a concert entitled “The ‘Bad Boys’ of Classical Music: Romanticism and its Aftermath.”

The concert featured music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Charles Ives, George Antheil, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Robert Schumann, most of whom are known to have rocked the boat of classical music, and all of whom had interesting connections to classical’s romantic era. Beethoven and Schumann helped pave the way into the romantic era from the classical era, while Ives, Antheil and Vaughan Williams each reacted to romanticism’s legacy in quite different ways as classical music entered the 20th century.

The first piece on the program was Beethoven’s Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, performed by Ronald Feldman on cello and Elizabeth Wright on piano. Musically, this piece sounded the most conservative to 21st century ears; however, it fit nicely into the theme of the program, showing Beethoven’s romantic transformation of Mozart’s classical theme.

The different variations brought the music in multifarious emotional directions, from regal and sustained to lyrical and melancholy to mercurial and virtuosic. The performers executed these musical mood swings well, with the cello providing a warm, elegant sound and the piano a rhythmic energy and drive.

Next on the program was a set of songs by the American, Ives, performed by bass-baritone Keith Kibler and pianist Doris Stevenson. Ives was an extremely revolutionary composer who also happened to be a successful insurance salesman. The first two songs were from a set called Memories, written in 1897 when Ives was only 23 years old.

“Very Pleasant” recalls a child’s excitement at visiting the opera house, waiting in eager anticipation for the music to begin. The song featured clever rhymes and whistling from the singer, which, complemented by the piano’s buoyant accompaniment, enhanced the feeling of animated expectation.

The second song, “Rather Sad,” provided a startling contrast to “Very Pleasant,” as the singer described in melancholy tones his sadness at seeing a beggar in the street.

The next song, Like A Sick Eagle, was written much later, during Ives’s wife’s critical illness in 1920. The piece slid from note to note, evoking the sounds of sighing and moaning. The set concluded with 1921’s Two Little Flowers, dedicated to Ives’s daughter Edith, and 1914’s General Williams Booth Enters Into Heaven, a dramatic work that included references to ragtime and marches. Kibler imbued the pieces with operatic-style gestures and expressions that enhanced the emotional impact of each work.

These songs were followed by the work of Antheil, another American, whose autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, provided the program’s title. His “Sonata No.2 for Violin and Piano” was written in 1923 and commissioned by poet Ezra Pound, a personal friend, for Pound’s friend, a violinist.

Of all the pieces on the program, this was the most striking. It demonstrated a total departure from the romantic era, which Antheil dismissed as decadent and sentimental.

Performed by violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and Stevenson, the piece was a wild ride, incorporating many elements of ragtime, jazz and popular music in a brash and outspoken style. In the final section, Stevenson became a percussionist, accompanying the violin’s Arabic-inflected melody. The performers made a strong case for this unconventional music, playing with brio and conviction. Moreover, Stevenson’s ability to keep a straight face as she stepped up to the drums was a feat in and of itself.

The next selections, Vaughan Williams’s “Two English Folk Songs for Soprano and Violin,” were written 12 years after the Antheil sonata, but look back to the romantic era with traces of nostalgia. Performed by Kurkowicz and soprano Marlene Walt, both the sparse scoring of the two songs and their material harkened to a simpler time. The first song, “Searching for Lambs,” produced a melancholy atmosphere reminiscent of the foggy moors of Vaughan Williams’s homeland. “The Lawyer” was more lively and upbeat. Both songs made resourceful use of the unorthodox pairing of instruments; the violin and soprano were well-matched.

The final piece on the program was Schumann’s “Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47,” a fine representation of the German romantic tradition.

The piece gave its ensemble an opportunity to showcase many different techniques, including the virtuosic fugal passages in the scherzo and the buttery melodies of the Andante cantabile. The vivace finale provided an exciting end to the evening, giving the listeners the best of both worlds with fleet passagework and darker lyricism.