By Ted AYALA
2014, the centennial of the opening shots of the “War to End All Wars,” has been a year of somber remembrance and reflection, widely observed in Europe, but barely registering in the consciousness of the average American. In the United States, World War I was quickly superseded by the legacy of the even larger, bloodier war that it would also be pulled into less than a quarter century after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. But in Europe the revenant of the Great War lingers still today, via the ethnic separatism that has surged to the fore in the recent European Union elections, the current borders demarcating the Old World’s nations, and right down to the unexploded ordinance that still litters the French and Belgian countrysides to this day.
World War I also left an indelible mark on music, leaving a particularly profound imprint on composers whose lives spanned the divide of the conflict.
The three composers on Le Salon de Musiques’ opening concert of its season – the Bristish composers John Ireland and Frank Bridge, and the youngest of the three, the American Howard Hanson – shared much in common, not least of which was a musical language rooted in the late 19th century, as well as a sense of crisis when that foundation was obliterated by war. Ireland and Hanson buckled down and held fast to their convictions, the latter embracing a taut neo-Sibelian idiom with which he would make his greatest mark.
Hanson’s lean, agitated “Concerto da camera, Op. 7” for piano trio pointed forward to the composer that would later pen the “Nordic Symphony” and “Elegy for Beowulf.” It also possesses a restless, angry character that seems to be painfully aware of events happening across the Atlantic during its composition in 1916 and 1917.
Sounding an even more prescient tone was Frank Bridge’s mighty “Piano Quintet in D minor” from 1912, its opening rumbling in the bass of the piano – which courses in one way or another throughout the first movement – a seeming harbinger of the war looming just two years away.
The best work on the program, it was also a vivid reminder of how deeply the war affected Bridge, who in the postwar era would abandon his long-breathed (and sometimes long-winded) Brahmsian idiom for a more concise and profoundly original style, to say nothing of more grotesque and disturbing.
Ireland’s 1902 “Phantasie for Piano Trio, Op. 40” opened the program; its salon charm setting the scene for a world that was still unaware of the knife edge it balanced on.
The Le Salon musicians (violinists Jessica Guideri and Serena McKinney, violist Yi Zhou, and cellist John Walz) played superbly, revealing the deep emotional depths of the Hanson and Bridge pieces in particular without distorting the scores. Pianist Adam Nieman was in every way a remarkable chamber partner: flexible and yielding, them taking the reigns and surging ahead as the music needed. His bronzen touch, too, lent a further Old World polish to these pieces, augmenting their (retrospective) air of poignant notalgia.
It was a concert that proved to be yet another triumph for Le Salon de Musiques. Its thoughtfully assembled program of neglected music and composers, coupled with its scintillating performances put it at the head of a very rich chamber music scene.