Music that stretches geographical boundaries played a big part in two delightful concerts at Harris Hall this week. On Monday, Lise de la Salle’s recital covered dance-inspired music by composers from three continents, and on Thursday conductor Nicholas McGegan sold out the 550-seat concert hall on a tour. flash of baroque music winking at exotic places in China. in Mississippi.
McGegan always injects a bit of fun into his beloved Baroque music, and for the second half of this year’s Baroque concert he has assembled a suite of 14 short pieces of dizzying variety, none exceeding four minutes. Little-known composers rub shoulders with Rameau and Telemann. And even they were represented by music referencing places as far apart as Ireland, China and Mississippi.
Notice, a small part of this music was what we would today call authentic. Instead, it was a delight to hear what Rameau, for example, conjured up as Chinese melodies in excerpts from his Paladins and Inca airs in Les Indes galantes. Bird’s idea for “Oriental Miscellany” resulted in a short but juicy virtuoso suite played with panache by harpsichordist Jacob Dassa.
An ad hoc orchestra of 29 musicians, conducted by Robert Chen (concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), delivered a bag of sounds. Some used a full set of strings, harpsichord, winds and brass on modern instruments. Others have created more intimate ensembles, including a delightful interlude of flute, violin, cello and harpsichord.
The highlight of the first half of the concert was to be Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Oboes in D Minor played by saxophonists Steven Banks and Jess Gillam, but a visa delay stranded Gillam in England. Banks ensured her soprano saxophone blended smoothly with Elaine Douvas’ ever-lyrical oboe in a beautifully rendered performance that topped terrific frolics through Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins and Handel’s “Water Music.” Chen and three proficient student violinists performed the concerto with virtuosity and beautifully phrased style, and in the Handel Quincy Erickson and Linh Him Jerry Mak performed the high trumpet lines with clarity and precision.
If anything, Monday’s piano recital by pianist de la Salle was even more delightful, a nonstop thrill ride of sensitive playing, breathtaking virtuosity and, yes, rhythmic vitality. It is as it should be, because the music was all about dance, a staple for classical composers from Bach to Gershwin. What seems to have piqued de la Salle’s interest the most was the creative, uplifting music that occurs when creative composers elevate the vernacular dance music of their own culture to higher levels.
So his 2021 album titled after Gershwin’s “When Do We Dance” kicked off with jazz-infused works, including two transcriptions of improvised performances by pioneering jazz pianists. Fats Waller’s piano stride “Viper’s Drag” and Art Tatum’s elaborations on the foxtrot in “Tea for Two” required colossal technique and an ability to swing the music. She did both, which few classical pianists can achieve.
She put this very American music at the end of the recital as a kind of summons. The program began in his native France with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, eight short waltzes that intentionally modernized and reimagined familiar waltz tropes, ending in wistful sadness. For comparison, she followed this with a study in the form of a waltz by another French composer, Saint-Saëns, a study in the layering of pianism over dance.
From there it was Hungary and a collection of short Romanian folk dances by Bartók, their brusque style contrasting with the French complexity.
The level of difficulty has increased with Skryabin’s Waltz in A-flat major and Rachmaninoff’s Italian Polka. Unfazed, she made them both feel like dances, no matter how intricate the elaborations.
The second half got off to a flying start, starting in Spain with the Danza ritual del fuego de Falla d’El amor brujo, in which the absence of a back-up orchestra did not prevent this pianist from getting all multi-layered music pointed in the right direction. A concise arrangement of Piazzolla’s seminal nuevo tango “Libertango” might have lasted twice its four-minute length, in my opinion, but it achieved the necessary rise to a climax.
His greatest triumph, to these ears, was the last of three dances by another Argentinian genius, Ginastera. Gaucho-inspired music rumbles like an earthquake before erupting into blazingly fast beats; de la Salle made us hear every note as she lifted us from our seats.
After all that came Gershwin’s “When Do We Dance” from the almost forgotten 1925 show “Tip-Toes.” Even better was the contrast with Bolcom’s incomparably elegant “Graceful Ghost Rag”, rendered with a touch of tenderness.
After the shower of notes in Waller and Tatum’s transcriptions, it seemed fitting to return to JS Bach for the encore – not a dance move from the sonatas but the balm from Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of the choral fantasy “Ich ruf zu director, Herr Jesù Christ. It was sublime.
NOT TO BE MISSED IN THE DAYS TO COME
In a classic Aspen twist, the festival has found an intriguing replacement when saxophonist Jess Willan couldn’t make it to Aspen for her recital tonight: violinist Gil Shaham, who will play Bach and Brahms with the assistance of musical director Robert Spano on the piano. Shaham is in town to perform Brahms’ double concerto on Sunday’s Festival Orchestra program with Sterling Elliott on cello.