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Token Creek: Haydn, Lerdahl, Schmidt

Haydn: Piano Trio in A Major, Hob. XV:9
Haydn: Piano Trio in A Major, Hob. XV:18
Fred Lerdahl (b. 1943): Waltzes (1981)
Franz Schmidt (1874-1939): Piano Quintet in G Major (1925)

Rose Mary Harbison, violin
Danielle Maddon, violin
Mary Ruth Ray, viola
Parry Karp, cello
Rhonda Rider, cello
Gregory Koeller, bass
Bill Lutes, piano
Judith Gordon, piano


"Looking Back at Vienna," the first of three concerts in this year's Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, was remarkable for interesting program content and mostly problematic performances. Two Haydn piano trios in A major, Hob. XV:9 (1785) and Hob. XV:18 (1794) were played by Rose Mary Harbison, violin, Parry Karp, cello and Bill Lutes, piano. The works are absolutely delightful, full of the kind of musical humor for which Haydn has no peer, yet touching and lyrical as well. But all three players were far too reticent, emphasizing early classical delicacy instead of Beethoven-period boldness. One thing Haydn is not is dainty.

The most fascinating piece on the whole program, Waltzes (1981) by Fred Lerdahl (b. 1943), who grew up in Madison, is a set of 12 extremely varied pieces scored for violin (Danielle Maddon), viola (Mary Ruth Ray), cello (Rhonda Rider) and bass (Gregory Koeller). According to John Harbison's spoken notes, Lerdahl's goal was to provide music for summer festivals and to challenge the players. Some of the pieces develop new dress for familiar shapes from the past, quoting Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikowsky and Ravel in varying degrees of indirection. The forms Lerdahl's score articulates, as far as I could tell from this first hearing, cover an immense range of technical and expressive devices. I found it challenging but fascinating and am determined to learn more about Lerdahl's music. Here I thought the performance was pretty good; the pieces are anything but easy.

Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) is a composer whose historical importance is arguably greater than his musical interest. His Piano Quintet in G Major (1925) might be styled as 20th-century Brahms onto which aspects of Strauss, Stravinski and Schoenberg have in very differing degrees been grafted, but the end result is a kind of post-Romantic pastiche, pleasant but not very nourishing fare. Pianist Judith Gordon joined R. M. Harbison, Maddon, Ray, and Rider for this performance. When I've heard Gordon in the past, she was extremely dynamic, but here, perhaps in part because the piano part was conceived for the one-handed Paul Wittgenstein and later expanded by two Schmidt students, much of the performance sounded like it was underwater.

With the first half lasting an hour and a quarter, followed by intermission and the 35-minute quintet, this program was an endurance test for the audience, and probably for the musicians as well. As the performance problems likely could have been cleaned up by more rehearsal, perhaps it would be good to do more by doing less.

Isthmus, August, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson

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