Kandinsky Trio, Regan-Blake Prove Enchanting
By Joseph Youngblood
Effective storytelling is married to solid technique on piano, cello’s warm tones and violin’s sweetness.
The Society of the Four Arts hosted an absolutely enchanting Sunday afternoon of chamber music and storytelling.
The Kandinsky Trio — violinist Benedict Goodfriend, cellist Alan Weinstein and pianist Elizabeth Bachelder — performed trios by Hayden and Mendelssohn, and were joined by storyteller Connie Regan-Blake in The Cantankerous Blacksmith by Mike Reid.
Combining words and music is as old as music itself — very little independent instrumental music predates the late 16th century. Words inspire composers and help to shape their music. This collaboration usually results in works that are sung: songs, oratorios, operas and the like. It rarely results in works that are spoken. Such a work is The Cantankerous Blacksmith, also known as “Wicked John,” from Tales of Appalachia.
This is the story of a man given three wishes; though his choices — a rocker, a hammer, and a thorn bush — seem ill-considered, they succeed in frustrating the devil’s efforts to take the man and even afford him a measure of immortality.
Regan-Blake tells the story with voice inflections, hand motions, and a small amount of moving about. Everything is done with artistry and with restraint. Some of the passages are spoken without music and some are underscored by the instruments. There also are some instrumental interludes. The musical style is lightly dissonant and highly rhythmic, suggesting Stravinsky and, perhaps, Poulenc. Some of the music is descriptive — the hammer, the rocker — and some of the music is mood inducing. An Appalachian folk song feeling is established at the very beginning with a four-note motif that serves to unify the work musically throughout.
All in all, The Cantankerous Blacksmith was a delightfully engaging experience.
Whether chamber music with a speaker is a new trend is another question. Even though Regan-Blake’s voice was amplified, some phrases were incomprehensible. This is less of a problem in a song, where the text can be printed in the program, or in an opera, where the words can be projected. The alternative to the dramatic presentation, namely, reciting the story from a podium, is not at all attractive. Regardless of what the future holds for this medium, this performance was effective and the audience loved it.
The concert opened with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trio in A Flat, Hob. XV:14. This is a late work, coming at a time when Haydn was preparing for his first trip to England. The work as a whole is dominated by the piano, a feature that was changing at that time in favor of a greater equality among the instruments.
The pianist’s technique was solid and her control was complete. Most impressive is the middle section of the adagio; the notes seemed to be running straight out of the pianist’s fingers, while the strings accompanied her with guitar-like pizzicato. This passage looks ahead to Beethoven and also looks back to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
The program closed with the Trio in D Minor, Op. 49, by Felix Mendelssohn, surely one of the most beloved of all piano trios.
The warm tone of the cello was apparent here, as was the sweet tone of the violin. The pianist was assertive or supportive, depending on the role of her music. Her singing tone dominated the andante. The ever-popular scherzo, though taken at a brisk clip, was executed flawlessly. In this movement, the group employed some risky phrasing, which was totally successful. Efforts such as these are what keep these pieces alive performance after performance. The finale had a very spacious sound. The tempo was not pushed, but rather the grand scope of the movement was allowed to come through.
The enthusiastic audience was treated to an encore entitled No News or What Killed the Dog? Regan-Blake and violinist Goodfriend engaged in a dialogue, while the cellist and the pianist supported them with their own adaptation of the fiddle tune Cincinnati.
It was the perfect conclusion to a wonderful afternoon.