Music Review: Violinist Carolyn Huebl and friends soar in music from the ’30s

hueblIt comes as no surprise that a musician as remarkable as the violinist Carolyn Huebl would present the most thoughtful and adventurous recital heard in Nashville in recent memory. That she accomplished this feat with a program of 1930s-era ephemera was unexpected.

Huebl was at Turner Hall on Monday night, presenting one of the Blair School of Music’s Nightcap Series concerts. The program included three chamber works from the 1930s – Martinů’s Promenades (1939), Britten’s Phantasy Quartet, Op. 2 (1932) and Bartók’s Contrasts (1938). These works are seldom heard together on the same program, no doubt because they require such a motley assortment of instruments to perform. Martinů’s piece features the improbable mid-20th-century mix of flute, violin and harpsichord; Britten wrote his piece for oboe, violin, viola and cello; and Bartók arranged his work for clarinet, violin and piano.

Huebl, an associate professor of violin at Blair, was the only musician to perform in all three pieces, and as such she was the program’s linchpin. The success of her concert, though, stemmed from the remarkably diverse and exceptional talent she was able to assemble for the performance.

martinuThat was apparent at the outset, when she joined flutist Philip Dikeman and harpsichordist Polly Brecht to perform Martinů’s Promenades. Arranged in four movements and lasting only about nine minutes, Promenades proved to be both a strange and beautiful little piece. The work’s complex rhythms and harmonies clearly seemed to be of the 20th century, but the anachronistic presence of the harpsichord lent it a kind of evergreen timelessness. Most of the tempos were brisk and featured intricate, overlapping flute and violin melodies. Huebl and Dikeman played this music with energy and precision. But I was most taken with Huebl’s melting tone and Dikeman’s mellifluous playing in the slow second movement. Brecht provided sensitive support throughout.

brittenBritten’s Phantasy Quartet is surely one of the most unusual pieces in the entire chamber repertoire. At first blush, the piece seems like a string quartet with the oboe substituting for first violin; it is a work that features all four instruments dovetailing one another in intimate musical conversation. On another level, the piece is like a concerto for oboe and three strings players, with the oboist offering reflective commentary on the strings’ often frenetic exclamations.

Certainly, one could not have hoped for a better performance. Oboist Jared Hauser’s playing was so melodious and spontaneous that he seemed to be making the music up on the spot. It was as if he had simply found this wonderful oboe lying on the stage, and on a whim had decided to play beautiful music for all who were within earshot. Meanwhile, Huebl and her fellow string players, violist Kathryn Plummer and cellist Felix Wang, played with rhythmic vitality and dramatic flair. Blair musicologist Jim Lovensheimer, who provided erudite pre-concert commentary, noted with awe that Britten was just 19 when he wrote this piece. I would have expected nothing less from the future composer of Peter Grimes.

bartokBartók composed Contrasts, the final work on the program, for jazz great Benny Goodman, and it was the only time that the 20th century’s greatest chamber music composer included a wind instrument in a chamber work. There are moments when the music does seem jazzy, but it’s jazz spoken with a musical accent that’s as thick as Hungarian goulash. Mostly, the piece comes across as pure Bartók. The melodies are folksy, the rhythms are off-kilter and the harmonies are deliciously pungent.

Appropriately enough, clarinetist Bil Jackson played his part with the sort of joyous freedom you’d expect from an improvisation. Huebl truly shined in this piece, which required her to play on both a normally tuned violin and a retuned one (a Bartók specialty). She played the work’s difficult passagework as if it was child’s play – her playing in the third-movement cadenza was breathtaking. Pianist Melissa Rose was equally impressive, effortlessly tossing off big chords and glissandi.

One is tempted to think of European classical music of the 1930s as consisting primarily of works of gloomy expressionism. Huebl’s Nightcap Series concert proved that the best composers of this era left no sound or emotion unexplored.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.