Perhaps I should call them crowd-arousers, ‘cause I’ve seen very few programs (out of hundreds over the years) that have gotten this kind of rabid response — and one of the selections was even a (shudder!) modern piece! It didn’t hurt that Geoff was in rare form, either, right from the start. He made good-natured fun of clarinetist Todd Palmer as he came onstage to join the SLSQ for the opening work, implying that Todd had been selected to perform this one only after a bunch of other players had turned it down.
But then he relented: “Don’t worry,” he crooned to a pouty Todd. “We love you,” and then gave him a tender kiss on the cheek.
Then they all got down to business, with Todd sporting both standard B-flat and bass clarinets (you almost never hear the bass clarinet in chamber music). The music was the Clarinet Quintet “Gumboots,” by composer David Bruce, a recent Carnegie Hall commission that the SLSQ (plus Todd) premiered. Gumboots, as Geoff explained, is the term applied to the waterproof boots worn by South African miners forced to labor in flooded mines back in the bad old day, and the term is still associated with a style of dancing that these miners developed over the years as a means of communication, since talking on the job was taboo.
Bruce didn’t seek to copy these dances in his music, in favor of using them loosely as models for his own dances, while capturing their spirit and rhythmic intensity. Such dances are mostly exuberant, but Bruce chose to begin his quintet with a slow, lengthy and yearning (also quite beautiful) passage that gradually turns into a doleful dance of sorts. Here is where the bass clarinet was heard. But then all heck breaks loose, with five shorter and much livelier dances, and the fun begins. Unless I’m crazier than I thought, I’d swear that I heard whiffs of Celtic, Jewish, even Latino influences in the various episodes. The piece brims with strange effects: odd bleeps and yawps and flutters (mostly from the clarinet), some of them a real hoot. But an “incredibly difficult” hoot, as Todd told me later. Even though you couldn’t always hum the tunes, the music stayed warm, witty, and accessible.
The second it ended, their listeners leaped to their feet, screaming and shouting, like they’d been blown out of aircraft ejection seats. So much for the misguided notion that you can’t please a crowd with modern music. This one should be required listening for anybody who’s afraid of the music of today. We trusted Wadsworth’s judgment on such matters … and now we can begin to trust Geoff’s as well.
After the crowd got itself under control again, Geoff and his lovely wife (and fellow violinist) Livia Sohn returned to the stage, where he introduced us to the next selection: Gulliver’s Suite by G. P. Telemann, a prolific (and business-savvy) Baroque-era composer who got rich selling his own music. Knowing that he had to find and feed the public’s fancy to sell his stuff, he latched onto prevailing fads of the day, one of them being the craze over Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1735.
Thinking back to your English lit classes, you’ll recall that Gulliver ran into all kinds of different creatures in the course of his travels. So Telemann wrote a fanciful short suite for two violins, characterizing the various critters in very brief dances, with hilarious results. Among others, he had the giant “Brobdingnagians” doing a plodding jig, usually a lively graceful dance. Then he had the tiny “Lilliputians” doing a busy and skittish chaconne, normally a stately and graceful affair. The final number pitted a noble “whinnum” (Livia) against a nasty and vulgar “Yahoo” (Geoff). The pair (especially Geoff) hammed it up royally, and the net effect was side-splitting. You had to be there.
The program’s finale was a grand one, indeed: the stupendous Piano quintet, Op. 1, by the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi, who was only 18 when he wrote it. It’s strongly influenced by the music of Johannes Brahms, indeed, you’d think it was Brahms, if you didn’t know better. After getting a copy of it, the old master was bowled over, and immediately became a mentor to the boy genius, even inviting him to come and hang out with him in Vienna for a spell.
And small wonder, for this music is a neglected masterpiece. It’s lengthy (35 minutes), lush, beautifully built, and drips passion and pathos like a leaky faucet. But, ah, what drippings! Gorgeous melodies, glowing romantic harmonies, lilting dance episodes, aching intensity — this number has it all.
Doing the honors were the SLSQ, plus wonder-pianist Stephen Prutsman, and I wonder if I’ve ever seen these folks get so carried away with a piece of music before. Geoff did an especially lively version of his patented chairbound body-dance (Scott St. John got pretty carried away, too). I could see his face head-on from where I sat, and it mirrored the music’s emotions to a T: here a grimace of heavy drama, there an open-mouthed mask of unbearable passion, and then maybe a beautific smile of pure ecstasy under closed eyes. I thought to myself, now there’s a man who really loves what he does. Like he told me afterward, “Sometimes I can’t believe they pay me to do this.”
The crowd’s delirious response was, if anything, even more raucous and clamoring than for the earlier Bruce piece. The applause and curtain calls went on forever, and every face I glimpsed reflected radiant joy and wonder. This (at least for me) was definitely the best chamber show of the festival thus far, and we have eight more programs to go!
Hey, Geoff, let’s make a deal: You and your friends just keep playing, and we’ll keep paying.
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