Only in Miami: a poolside program of American chamber rarities

By Lawrence Budmen

Marvin David Levy's String Quartet and "Chassidic Suite" were performed by Orchestra Miami in their professional premieres Sunday at the Vagabond Hotel.

Marvin David Levy’s String Quartet and “Chassidic Suite” were performed by Orchestra Miami in their professional premieres Sunday at the Vagabond Hotel.

Miami may be the only place where an ambitious program of mid-20th century chamber music by American composers would be played poolside at a hotel. That is exactly what was offered on Sunday afternoon by Elaine Rinaldi and musicians from Orchestra Miami at the Vagabond Hotel on North Biscayne Boulevard.

In an area that is in the process of redevelopment, the recently restored hotel  is an example of the distinctive post-World War II architecture that greeted visitors on the gateway highway (pre I-95) on their way to downtown or the beaches.

From a seat across the pool directly facing the improvised performance area, the amplified sound was better than one expected. To be sure there was obtrusive noise from  overhead planes and street traffic as well as the hotel’s maintenance crew. Still the sound was surprisingly clear if lacking in depth or resonance. The chosen music fitted the ambience well and all of the works proved well worth hearing on a sunny afternoon.

Three composers’ scores inevitably stood out. Rarely heard works by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber and the belated professional premieres of two early works by Marvin David Levy were the program’s high points.

Copland’s Quartet for piano and strings (1950) was the composer’s first venture into atonality. The interesting thing about Copland’s late serial scores is that they come out sounding like quintessential Copland. The Quartet’s opening Adagio serio movement sounds like the soaring initial lines of Appalachian Spring clothed in atonal garb. The bouncy rhythms of the Allegro giusto are spiced with touches of acerbic bitters and jazz. Thematic string fragments at the outset of the final Non troppo lento almost form a threnody before the piano enters to raise the music’s temperature.

This 20-minute work is top-drawer Copland and deserves to be heard more frequently. Rinaldi exhibited fine dexterity and crisp articulation at the keyboard and rose to eloquence in the final movement. The well-rehearsed string contingent of violinist Karen Lord Powell, violist Laura Wilcox and cellist Susan Moyer Bergeron capably assayed Copland’s pithy writing.

Like Ned Rorem, Barber was a master of the art song. Two excerpts from his Hermit Songs (1953), based on early poems by Celtic monks, displayed disparate sides of his musical personality. Barber’s melodic gift shines through “The Crucifixion” despite the dark subject matter. “The Monk and His Cat” finds Barber in a humorous mood, particularly with ‘the cat on the keys’ piano part. Soprano Jennifer Tipton displayed an attractive timbre and idiomatic affinity for Barber’s lyric style, capably accompanied by Rinaldi.

Barber’s later works are unfairly neglected. His song cycle Despite and Still (1968-69) was written for the great soprano Leontyne Price. The five songs are melodically and atmospherically rich (three set to poems by Robert Graves). Tipton sounded edgy at the top in the opening “A Last Song” but her lovely middle range was on display for  “In the Wilderness” which Barber adorned with an alluring theme that equaled his most famous creations. The soprano brought drama and passion to the title song and was witty and animated in “My Lizzard” (to a text by Theodore Roethke). The work’s most unique section is “Solitary Hotel,” a moody and restless recitative set to a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Marvin David Levy (1932-2015) is best known for his acclaimed opera Mourning Becomes Elektra and the oratorio Masada. He spent the final decades of his life as a resident of Fort Lauderdale. Two chamber works from his time as a Masters candidate at Columbia University were given in what was likely their professional premieres.

They demonstrated that, even at this early stage, his distinctive voice was already taking shape. In his String Quartet (1955), the darkly lyrical second theme in the astringent Moderato energico could have come from his later operatic or choral works. In the well-crafted Adagio amoroso, melodic paths flow in long strokes and the angular vigor of the final Allegretto is bracing. The performance by violinist Annaliese Kowert, Powell, Wilcox and Bergeron was somewhat rough and ready but found its footing in the beautiful slow movement.

Levy’s Judaic side abounds in his Chassidic Suite (1956) for horn and piano. The horn imitates the sound of the shofar in two of the five movements which mix Middle Eastern coloring with modernist harmonics. Stanley Spinola produced a big sound and firm control in the difficult horn part and Rinaldi was rhythmically precise in the complex piano writing. Rinaldi has done yeoman service for Levy’s music. Her revival of his choral-vocal triptych Atonement was a highlight of last season. Perhaps she can also revisit the two orchestral works he wrote for the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 1980’s.

Alan Hovhaness was a prolific composer whose works were influenced by Armenian folk music. His Khirgiz Suite (1951) for violin and piano runs the gamut from the stillness of mountainous portraits in high harmonics to a kind of gypsy hora that could make a fine recital encore. Kowert brought tonal purity and zest to this appealing compilation.

Brass music opened and closed the afternoon. Trumpeter Jeffrey Kaye dedicated his performance of Hovhaness’ Prayer of St. Gregory (1946) to the victims of the tragic school shooting at Parkland. Originally conceived for trumpet and organ, the composer’s arrangement for string quartet was a fine showcase for Kaye’s clear, peeling trumpet in strokes both long spun and intense.

Leonard Bernstein’s Brass Music (1959) is unabashed lightweight entertainment. As in his late Divertimento for Orchestra, Bernstein was a master of this type of melodically infused, toe-tapping pastiche. Each of the brass score’s movement is dedicated to the pet  dogs of relatives and friends including actress Judy Holiday and conductor Serge Koussevitzky, Bernstein’s mentor. (A final witty quotation of the four note motif from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 caps the score in the fanfare for Koussevitzky’s cocker spaniel Bima.)  Spinola’s beautiful rendition of a melancholy Bernstein tune, Timothy Conner’s wailing trombone slides and particularly Calvin Jenkins assaying a swirling waltz theme on the tuba all brought the right showbizz pizzazz to this fine pops piece.

It is unfortunate that only a very small audience turned out for this fine program. Hopefully Rinaldi will continue to explore the highways and byways of America’s musical heritage in future concerts.

Orchestra Miami presents “Finding Ophelia, songs and scenes from Shakespeare,” with soprano Susana Diaz and pianist Elaine Rinaldi 4 p.m. April 22 at the Lodge Room of Scottish Rite Temple in Miami.

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Mon Feb 26, 2018
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