Jewish World Review
March 28, 2014 / 26 Adar II, 5774
The appetizer can be the best part of a festive meal, as violinist Meredith Maddox Hicks and pianist Tatiana Roitman demonstrated Thursday evening at the Clinton Library in Little Rock.
They were opening another concert of chamber music, this evening with Beethoven's Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 5 in F Major, informally titled Spring, and spring arrived with their first notes, even before the first purple martins this year.
Ms. Hicks performed as usual -- superbly -- with sensitivity and restraint alternating, never, never getting in the way of the music but letting it lift and enlighten and soothe and exhilarate by turns. An exercise in clarity in its various facets. Like someone turning a rare jewel around and around in the light.
And what's this? Pianist Tatiana Roitman, the Arkansas Symphony's own T-Rex, has been transformed into a playful puppy dog -- exploring and inquisitive but measured. Emphatic when the spirit moved her but wary, even delicate, where the music dictated. Admirable, even adorable, tender with strength.
Whatever can account for the change since we heard her last? Had someone tuned the old piano at the Clinton Library just right so we could hear it anew in this airy, glass-walled hall? Was it the moisture in the air this evening in the early Arkansas spring? The less crowded room this time? Or is it all my pretentious imagination? It would take a sound engineer to explain it scientifically, but even then the art might remain inexplicable. But it was clear enough to the ear.
The day's busy irrelevancies and layers of trivia are wafted away by the artists' precision, the way a game of chess concentrates the mind's focus by shifting it completely away, substituting geometric form and force for random dither and detritus. Music hath charms that soothe not just the savage breast but the Average Joe who's spent the day plowing a furrow -- or through the profit-and-loss statements on his cluttered desk.
Imagine, if you can, Beethoven without bombast. For those few of us who always preferred his chamber music to his grandly Romantic symphonies, it is a moment to savor, a taste of his early work, the first blossoms of a born genius and master when he was still a young man on the make in old Vienna. Maybe even before he had changed that Flemish "van" in his name to the German title of nobility, "von," the way every third Russian claims some connection to the Romanovs.
In those few precious years in Vienna, the young composer was showing his stuff, all right, but not showing it off. He was still firmly rooted in the classical even if he was not just following the New Wave of his time but creating it.
A vision of the old Vienna he would enchant floats through the air tonight a couple of centuries and continents removed from Beethoven's time there, arriving well before Napoleon and his deafening cannons.
We listen to the brilliant young composer's early, untouched music on a night when another army is on the march, again shattering illusions of peace and harmony. The sonata is titled Spring but it could just as well be called Crimea Before the Cossacks. The scherzo has to be one of the shortest yet most penetrating ever composed, a preview of Beethoven's greatness to come, or maybe a review of Vienna's greatness already passed, and about to be shattered on the jagged shards of modernity. But greatness in any case, like the spirit of a proud people that may be chained but never subdued. No matter how many divisions, or how many empty speeches, a Bonaparte or Putin may bring to bear.
How describe this sonata? Think of the sweetest yet most appropriate wedding music you've ever heard, full of tremulous anticipation and sweet dread. There is no goose-stepping here, only grace and strength in succession. The piano's chords echo, then anticipate, the violin's, not overwhelm them. One mind-picture follows another: All is order, yet change, like a finely wrought constitution of a new republic that would surprisingly endure. These are the kind of revolutionaries who take care not to walk on the grass.
The old chivalry still reigned in Vienna when Beethoven got there, freeing rather than oppressing. Edmund Burke made mention of that chivalry, that "generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom." He called it "the unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise," and mourned its passing: "It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness."
By the time Beethoven reached Vienna, the lengthening shadow of tyranny approached. It would come, as it regularly does, in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity. What an enticing vision it was, too, this Enlightenment with bayonets, as entrancing as Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, before she rips off her mask and reveals herself as mesmerizing Medusa, hissing and stinging, poisonous and paralyzing.
The rest of the evening may come as anti-climax after the Beethoven, but after a brief intermission the glory will return with the redoubtable music of Amy Beach. In the meantime, in between time, ennui. That is, a piece by Fauré. It is French. Like one of those unnoticeable pastel prints that fade into the wall even as it's put up, and becomes just a slightly different shade of blankness. What a waste of the time and talent of a fine violinist like Geoff Robson, who gives the piece a lot more than it deserves. What else is there to be said while suppressing a yawn? Fauré's sonata is neither fast nor slow but hovering in some indistinct place between them, like a young girl who would like to be a tease but can't quite summon the energy or personality, if she has one.
After the intermission comes the formidable Amy Beach, entering slowly, deliberately, impressive but never ponderous, bringing with her something of the iron New England soul into this early spring in Arkansas. Her music proceeds like a hymn.
Both predecessor to the moderns and a summation of the old masters, Mrs. Beach advances like an armada with vessels great and small, some light and swift, others with the heft of winter afternoons and cathedral tunes. It is hard to sit there, listening to her ringing the changes from top to bottom, and not think of Emily Dickinson. It is a reviving thought, like remembering that America once had a backbone, and will again.
Mrs. Beach goes on, oblivious to our petty contemporary concerns. Is her "Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor" a grand dawn or a lingering dusk? It is both. In this sonata, Past and Future salute each other. The muses of music and history, Euterpe and Clio, curtsy and bow, whisper and thunder, as they perform their elaborate pas de deux.
The evening would not be complete, unfortunately, without one of those overlong introductions that are the bane of such concerts. Musicians really should leave Music Appreciation 101 to the professors and their young graduate assistants, who make quite enough of a botch of it, thank you. How many generations of entering freshmen have been turned off great music by such ministrations?
This evening we hear Amy Beach described as a great female composer, as one would speak of Faulkner as a great regional writer. In our era we don't so much recognize greatness as patronize it. ("Oh, she was pretty sharp for a woman/Southerner/bourgeois...." Pick your stereotype.) But all that is only a minor irritant, brushed away by Mrs. Beach's music, like a piece of lint on a lady's jacket.
Then we walk into the unquiet night, fortified by Amy Beach's largo con dolore -- stately but sorrowfully. Thanks to Julia Cheek on piano and Andrew Irvin on violin, Amy Beach was here.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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