In the 1920s, American jazz began to fertilize with other styles of music, inspiring many classical composers in Europe and the United States. The final program for Wu Han’s fourth season as Wolf Trap’s art advisor – she’ll be back in the fall – was heard Sunday afternoon at the Barns, examining this interaction on both sides of the exchange.
Maurice Ravel approaches the blues in the middle movement of his Violin Sonata No. 2, composed from 1923 to 1927. Daniel Phillips, one of the two violinist brothers of the Orion String Quartet, and Wu Han give the first movement, rather Austere Allegretto, a relaxed interpretation, calmly recombining the various motifs, including the one that the composer likens to the clucking of a hen.
The second movement “Blues” went without haste. Some performers liven up the written score a bit, as Phillips did by adding bends here and there. Its dry passages in pizzicato recall the banjo, the flagship instrument of American jazz at the time when Ravel heard it. Phillips upped the energy for the final movement, a neatly ordered mobile perpetuum, with Wu Han’s precise accompaniment helping to emphasize the meter changes.
Although most of the program dealt with jazz-inspired classical composers, the Orion String Quartet then presented the last four movements of Wynton Marsalis’ String Quartet No. 1 (“At the Octoroon Balls”). Marsalis composed the work in 1995 for these musicians, premiered in a concert co-presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center, which Marsalis has conducted since 1987.
The process was the reverse of what Ravel was doing, as Marsalis used the “foreign” string quartet to produce music he was familiar with in his native New Orleans. In “Many Gone,” cellist Timothy Eddy railed about his solo parts, declared by Marsalis to represent a minister’s fiery preaching. Daniel Phillips, on first violin, led the section identified by the composer as a “field holler”, the quartet even tapping their feet rhythmically on the ground towards the end.
Inspired by Duke Ellington’s musical depiction of trains, “Hellbound Highball” was a locomotive scherzo, with the lower three instruments mimicking the slapping of the rails and the first violin honking in loud clusters. A few glissando howls and other bizarre effects revealed the influence of Bartók’s string quartets, which Marsalis had been studying at the time.
In “Blue Lights on the Bayou,” which Marsalis likened to a New Orleans funeral procession, the three upper instruments hovered together on glassy clusters over a taut cello pizzicato. Marsalis infused Scott Joplin’s style into the final movement (“Rampart Street Row House Rag”), with a few hints of Joplin’s common ragtime gestures. Overall, the piece sounded looser than in the 1999 Sony recording of the quartet.
The highlight of the concert was the piano quintet version of Darius Milhaud’s music for the 1923 ballet The creation of the world. Based on a story by Blaise Cendrars about the beginning of the world according to African folk mythology, Milhaud’s score draws on elements of jazz he had heard during visits to London and the United States. Young pianist Zhu Wang anchored the piece with a subtlety of dynamic control and an overall sensibility.
Wang took up the melancholy tune of the first movement, given on alto saxophone in the original score for eighteen musicians, which was answered by violinist Todd Phillips, now on first violin. The group grooves on the theme of the second movement, a jazzy subject treated fleetingly. At the bottom, the strings release a magnificent sonic explosion. In the third movement (“Romance”), Wang’s smoky touch on the keyboard gave the piece a seductive rhythmic weariness.
Wang again maintained the lively tempo of the fourth movement (“Scherzo”), overwhelming the demanding piano part. The strings revisited the score’s various themes in the slow introduction to the final movement, Wang’s unflappable presence driving the faster syncopated section. Although the alto saxophone took the place of the alto in the original score, violist Steven Tenenbom took over this part at the end, leading to a warm conclusion sparkling with dissonance.
Wu Han assisted Wang with the first part of the final work, a delightful arrangement of Gershwin’s work. Rhapsody in blue for piano, four hands, by Henry Levine. Wang began the piece with a piano approximation of the bawling clarinet solo. In fact, he had to start it twice, after a problem with the score not appearing on one of the two electronic devices used by the musicians. Unfortunately, this was only the first of these technical mishaps, which inevitably dampened the overall effect of the play.
The tablet’s page-turning duel complicated the interaction of the two musicians’ arms, part of the fun of dancing in four-handed performance. Despite the technical problems, all covered almost imperceptibly by the performers, the relationship between the two pianists formed an endearing whole. Rising or falling figures transitioned seamlessly from one to the other, and joint syncopated attacks struck with impressive unity. Wu Han, as Martha Argerich did at her Lugano Festival, continues to present promising young pianists in this challenging repertoire.
Subscriptions are on sale for Chamber Music at the Barns’ 2022-2023 season, which will include concerts by violinist Paul Huang, the Emerson String Quartet and the Escher String Quartet with pianist Gilbert Kalish, among others. wolftrap.org