Music Review: From Bach to electronic music, Blair flutist Philip Dikeman does it all

dikemanFlutist Philip Dikeman and several of his faculty colleagues from the Blair School of Music presented a varied program of chamber music Friday evening at Turner Recital Hall. Dikeman, a member of the Detroit Symphony for nearly 20 years before coming to Blair, has the technique to make even the most difficult passages sound effortless and a beautiful tone quality, clear and with a judicious amount of vibrato.

The concert opened with J. S. Bach’s masterful Sonata in B minor for Flute and Harpsichord, BWV 1030. The first of the three movements is an intricate imitative interplay between the flute, the right hand in the harpsichord (equal in melodic importance) and an active bass line in the left hand. Ensuring that all these parts are balanced can be problematic when using a modern flute, rather than the softer, wooden Baroque flute, but Dikeman was sensitive to the problem and held his volume back appropriately. The second movement is an ornamented aria for flute, with the harpsichord in more of an accompanying role, and the third movement is a spirited gigue, introduced by a short fugal passage that recalls the contrapuntal texture of the first movement. The challenging harpsichord part was played admirably by Polly Brecht.

mroseErnst von Dohnanyi’s Aria for Flute and Piano (Melissa Rose, piano) was composed in 1958, near the end of the Hungarian composer’s life. A merely pleasant piece (Bach is a hard act to follow), it sounded of another time and place; one could imagine it having been written by a French composer fifty years earlier. Jumping ahead in the program, the first piece after intermission was Argentine-American Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 1 for Flute and Electronic Sounds. Astonishingly, this was written only five years after the Dohnanyi. It was a ground-breaking piece in its use of a live flute with prerecorded sounds. The flute part, played with authority by Dikeman, is atonal, given to leaps of dissonant intervals, and rhythmically complex. The electronic sounds are widely varied in timbre, pitch, range and speed, and, like the flute part, totally unpredictable. It must have sounded rather shocking when first written, but now, after 50 years, it seems surprisingly tame – entertaining, but lacking in heart.

bretonThe piece that closed the first half was not lacking in heart. Charles Rochester Young, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, was on hand to introduce his The Song of the Lark. Scored for flute and harp (two instruments made for each other) it was written in 1989 while Young was still a master’s degree student. It was inspired by the eponymous 1884 painting by the French realist Jules Breton that shows a solitary young peasant woman, standing barefoot in a field, sickle in hand, enraptured by the lark’s song. The three movements of the work roughly correspond to the lark at morning, midday and evening. It begins with the flutist imitating the sound of wind by breathing into the flute without pitch and moves on to melodies evoking bird calls, with a rippling accompaniment in the harp that later becomes wispy glissandi.

The second movement is the most striking of the three, a quick and rhythmic moto perpetuo. For this movement, harpist Marian Shaffer wound a long strip of paper through some of the strings, giving the instrument a drier sound. The “prepared” harp was particularly effective when the strings were strummed aggressively. The third movement returns to the gentler mood of the first. It begins soliloquy-like and ends as the whole piece began, with the sound of the flute imitating the wind. Young employs some of the flute’s extended techniques, but for the most part the writing is melodic and accessible. To its credit, the piece has a timeless quality to it, sounding neither old-fashioned nor au courant. It was a nice discovery.

wangThe high point of the program was its concluding work, Bohuslav Martinů’s Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano. Dikeman was joined by cellist Felix Wang and the return of Melissa Rose. Written in 1944, when Martinů was living in the U.S. as a WWII refugee, this engaging three-movement trio, constructed with simple melodic materials, alternates between sections of child-like joy and those that are somewhat melancholy. Martinů is hardly an unknown composer, but still deserves to be heard more often. Special kudos should be given to Rose, who handled Martinů’s idiosyncratic piano writing very well.

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About Michael Harrison

Michael Harrison lived in Nashville from 2006 to 2009 and has recently returned. He holds degrees in music theory from the University at Albany and choral conducting from the University of Iowa and has done doctoral work in historical performance practice and choral music at Washington University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, respectively. He founded the Palestrina Choir of Washington, D.C. and directed it for twenty years. His choral compositions have been performed by a variety of church and community choirs, including three in Nashville.