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[Concer Review] CEWM blends Mozart, Schoenfield, in brilliant juxtaposition

May 27, 2006
First united Methodist Church
Pittsfield, Mass.
Works by Mozart plus new work by Paul Schoenfield

James Tocco, piano; Yehonatan Berick, violin; Cornelius Dufallo, violin; Toby Appel, viola; Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet; Lucy Shelton, soprano; Yehuda Hanani, cello

Review by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass.) -- The Close Encounters with Music chamber series concluded its 2005-2006 season with a terrific concert celebrating the legacy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in two of the best possible ways: by performing works by the composer himself, and by premiering a new work inspired by the legacy and the music of the legend.

The concert, playing to a packed church in the gritty, post-industrial downtown of this city, opened with Mozart's Sonata for Violin and Piano in C major, K. 296, the perfect work to open such a concert, as its jaunty, allegro theme could well be the quintessential incarnation of Mozart as he is popularly imagined: playful, impetuous, always with rhythms strongly tied to dance, and utterly logical and sensible to the point of seeming almost preordained. Violinist Yehonatan Berick and pianist James Tocco seemed biologically twinned in their phrasing, which in this lively piece seemed almost like a jazz duet, with each trading phrases, echoing each other, swapping melody and counterpoint.

In a group of five songs, soprano Lucy Shelton displayed the art of Mozart's vocal music. Shelton is equally adept at contemporary music, but her approach to Mozart seemed a perfect fit -- she avoided histrionics, sang with a pleasant and straightforward musicality but always with a deep understanding of the meaning of the lyrics. Her well-controlled tone could have been put forth by an expressive violinist. The choice of songs was adept, showing a range of moods and emotions, from the almost Broadway-like musicality of "An Chloe" to the dark melancholy of "On Louise's Burning Her Faithless Lover's Letters" to the lighter "Komm, Liebe Zither," one of several numbers that demonstrated in Mozart's music and texts a very post-modern awareness or self-consciousness of themselves as songs, or more properly perhaps, meta-songs.

The third number of the first half of the concert (the only part I was able to attend, as reviewing duties elsewhere called me away at intermission) was "Refractions for Clarinet, Cello and Piano," the newly commissioned work by Paul Schoenfield. it was a brilliant bit of programming, to firmly establish the Mozartean sound and vocabulary before venturing into contemporary territory, and the brilliance was only matched by Schoenfield's explosive, commanding work.

As lively and fresh as the Mozart sounded beforehand, the Schoenfield left those pieces in the dust -- suddenly they were transformed into musty, fussy relics in comparison with Schoenfield's dazzling work that ingested the basic Mozartean vocabulary and transformed it into something astonishingly new and, even more remarkably, incredibly universal and personal at the same time.

In the tense, mournful cello lines that opened the piece you could hear "refractions" of Mozart's jaunty piano, almost as if Schoenfield converted the music into light and put it through a prism. When the piano and clarinet joined in you heard quintessential Schoenfield -- back in the territory of his Cafe Music, where Eastern European cadences meet jazzy tonality.

In the opening Toccata of the four-part work, Schoenfield dragged Mozartean phrases -- literal and figurative ones -- kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, bending them and "refracting" them through his unique vocabulary, that pays homage to Gershwin, Bernstein, and Brubeck, among others, in almost Cubist-like fashion. Rather than hearing Mozart as a period piece, it took Mozart's signatures -- those quick, playful, jaunty phrases; the recklessness of his geometry -- and recast them for Times Square. Some might find this to be a violation, or unpleasant -- but some, hopefully only a few, still don't get Picasso, either.

The third movement, Intermezzo, opened with a haunting clarinet solo, which was picked up by the piano and wrought lusher, then taken by the cello and made even more mournful. The movement concluded with the cello and piano playing in their highest registers; the music became celestial, music of the spheres, perhaps finding common ground between Schoenfield's and Mozart's spirituality.

Schoenfield's REFRACTIONS concluded with a movement called "Tarantella," which opened in a frenzied burst of nearly free-jazz-like trio playing, the cello even being plucked like a walking bass as the clarinet and piano traded fours. Then the trio parts all came together in a more typically Mozartean dance, but always through a modal scrim of haunting Eastern European and klezmer-influenced scales. The piece built to a fevered pitch as Yehuda Hanani sawed out rock-like guitar riffs on his cello, before Fiterstein brought the piece to a rousing close in a furious burst of clarinet.

It's hard to digest fully an entirely new work in only one sitting. A familiarity with Schoenfield's vocabulary undoubtedly helped, but one definitely needs to hear it several times to grasp fully the composer's intentions and the emotional impact of this modern, cosmopolitan composition.

In all, the first half the CEWM AMADEUS! program was beautiful and provocative, showcasing Mozart at his best in his chamber works -- perhaps the most authentic, workmanlike Mozart, the one-man Beatles of his time, the hitmaker of his era -- and, in the Schoenfield, putting those beautiful works in an entirely new but much needed perspective, as part of a living continuum of vital music that needs and does speak to our lives.

Just as no one reads Shakespeare or the work of 18th century novelists to the exclusion of contemporary novelists, or few immerse themselves solely in the visual arts of the Renaissance to the exclusion of anything since then (what, you don't watch movies?), so too is it absolutely necessary that intelligent listeners tune into the best of what living composers, such as Paul Schoenfield, have to offer. Otherwise, to mix the metaphor, you're not fully living life in the present, but merely turning the pages of old photo albums and waxing nostalgic for a past that probably wasn't even as you remember.

--Seth Rogovoy, May 28, 2006

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