Music Review: Atlantic Ensemble brings Beethoven and Bolcom to Blair’s Turner Hall

atlantic2.jpgThe Atlantic Ensemble, formed in 2003 in Provincetown, Massachusetts at the tip of Cape Cod, is now based in landlocked Nashville. Its four members – Wei Tsun Chang, violin; Seanad Dunigan Chang, viola; Kirsten Cassel Greer, cello; Jennifer McGuire, piano – are all currently faculty members at the Blair School of Music. Wednesday evening they presented a program of chamber music by Beethoven and three American composers at Blair’s Turner Recital Hall.

String trios are much less common than string quartets, but there is still a significant repertoire, from the 18th century to the present, for the combination of violin, viola and cello. All five of Beethoven’s works for string trio were written in the 1790s, when the composer was still in his twenties. The strings of the Atlantic Ensemble played the last of these, Op. 9, No. 3 in C minor. In spite of its light scoring, the opening movement is often brooding and weighty. The Ensemble didn’t sound entirely comfortable with it and the individual timbres of the three “voices” prevailed at the expense of a coherent and unified sound. The lovely second movement was much improved, played sensitively and with a nice blend. The third movement, a spirited scherzo with a cheerful middle section, was played with appropriate verve and gracefulness. Both it and the often anxious and nervous sounding (the music, not the performers) fourth movement ended with soft, wistful musical gestures.

Wei Tsun Chang returned with Jennifer McGuire for a graceful performance of William Bolcom’s delightful Graceful Ghost Rag – Concert Variation for Violin and Piano (1990), the composer’s own arrangement of his most popular work. In what sounds like a slightly expanded version of the original piece, Bolcom gives the violin a chance to play the melody in different ways, including in double-stops and in a tiptoeing, ghostly pizzicato passage. When the piano takes over the tune, the violin brings out counter-melodies that were presumably taken from inner voices of the piano solo version. This arrangement is a welcome addition to the catalog of similar kinds of pieces that have long been a staple of the violin repertoire (the Heifetz arrangements of Gershwin are well known example of this type).

After a brief intermission, the program continued with a piece written for the Atlantic Ensemble, Charles Ruggiero’s Intimate Recollections for Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano (2008). Ruggiero is a long-time professor of composition and music theory at Michigan State University. This interesting piece displays a variety of contrasting ideas, but one that appears at different times throughout is characterized by insistent rhythmic patterns in the piano overlaid with long, sustained melodies in the strings. One particularly striking moment was a cadenza-like passage for solo piano followed by slow, solemn music in the strings over which the piano added a simple, contrasting counterpoint. The Atlantic Ensemble presented the many moods of this challenging work with authority. Since it was literally made for them it seemed to fit their collective spirit and musical strengths more than the Beethoven had.

They also gave a fine performance of the closing work on the program, Aaron Copland’s Quartet for Piano and Strings (1950). This piece is a rarity in Copland’s output by virtue of being based on a twelve-tone row, but that is about as far as the connection to German Expressionism goes. Much of Copland’s row is built on ascending and descending bits of the whole-tone scale, so it is less angular and dissonant than rows typical of Schoenberg and his followers. The three movements of the Quartet are in the order of slow-fast-slow, which turns the usual pattern inside out. The solemn first movement is largely built through a process of imitation, similar to a fugue. It has more animated sections as well but dies away quietly at the end. The second movement is fast and energetic, with irregular rhythms and nervous, jumpy passages. In that respect it is reminiscent of certain parts of Copland’s famous ballet scores. The beautiful final movement begins with the strings alone and sounds, more than most of the piece, like what you might expect to hear from Copland. This is followed by a theme in the piano, repeated toward the end of the movement, that can’t help but remind the listener of “Three Blind Mice.” Like the other movements, this one ends quietly. The Atlantic Ensemble’s approach to Copland’s Quartet emphasized the gentleness and lyricism of the piece and it worked well for them. The occasional crashing chords in the piano were well-modulated by McGuire and the overall balance was very good. All in all, it was a very effective reading of the piece.

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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.