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Notes Beyond Merrie Old England

New York
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
09/18/2023 -  
Henry Purcell: Chacony in G Minor (Arranged by Benjamin Britten)
Sir Edward Elgar: Chanson de nuit et chanson de matin, opus 15
Thomas Dunhill: Phantasy Trio
Gustav Holst: Sextet in E Minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Piano Quintet in C Minor

Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players: Roni Gal‑Ed (Oboe), Vadim Lando (Clarinet), Gina Suffari (Bassoon), Danbi Um, Ariel Horowitz (Violins), Natalie Loughran (Viola), Christine Lee (Cello), Nina Bernat (Double Bass), Michael Stephen Brown (Piano)

D. Um/G. Suffari

The English do not love music. They respect it.
Antonín Dvorák

The British may not like music. But they absolutely love the noise it makes.
Sir Thomas Beecham

However one considers a chamber program of early 20th Century English music, or a visit to any of their monthly concerts, the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players gives an expansive meaning to the term “pick‑up orchestra.”

Space limitations preclude detailed biographies, but the string, wind and piano players yesterday included work with Boston Symphony, Orpheus, Carnegie Hall solo recitals, and First Prize winners in their instrumental specialties, from clarinet to double bass.

Equally important, the unusual repertoires and the elite audiences in Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church give them the challenges which they apparently relish.

Still, one looks with hesitation at the music for a program called (yuck) “Quite English.” On a personal note, I attended as a replacement from the wars, fascism, tsunamis, earthquakes ad nauseam from the outside world. Happy for two hours of musical hedgerows, country gardens, Alice-in-Wonderland elysiums. Even–as Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players co‑founder Mei Ying wrote on this rainy day–“British weather.”

The results were mixed. And I couldn’t refrain from realizing that 1900 was the year of Schoenberg’s composing his Gurrelieder and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. We don’t even think about Scriabin.

Still, outside of Sir Arthur Sullivan, the Edwardians did have their talents.

The one “ancient” work, Henry Purcell’s Chacony, had been transcribed for string quartet. Benjamin Britten showed his usual reverence for Purcell and the 17th Century form became vibrant enough for our own century, As for the name, the old couplet says it best:

“Chacony? Chaconne? The spell’s up to you.
“As they say in Paree, Chacun à son goût.”

Back to 1900 and one Thomas Dunhill, who wrote a Phantasy Trio, one movement which moved from the sedate to a typically little dance tune. The best‑known works were two Chansons by Sir Edward Elgar. Were they mere bagatelles? Works for British salons and manorial chambers? Perhaps. But Sir Edward, even in these tiny pieces gave room for extremely stylish playing by violinist Danbi Um and a volcano of a pianist, Michael Stephen Brown. Everything he played sounded like it would erupt into a Rachmaninoff concerto. Yes, his taste, like his colleagues, was unerring. But his energy transcended mere accompaniment.

The final work was unexpected. Who would believe that Ralph Vaughan Williams could write a chamber piece? He was the stormy north England symphonist, the master of grand orchestration.

Nor would Sir Ralph dispute this. He withdrew his early Piano Quintet, and wouldn’t allow it to be played during his lifetime. That was obviously a mistake. The first movement was passionate, ferocious, and he could have orchestrated it for a symphonic movement. The slow movement was lyrical. British, folkish, giving way to a final theme and variations.

To this listener, for sheer originality, nothing could touch Gustav Holst’s Sextet, written for a unique mélange of oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, and cello. Later a master orchestrator, here he gave full opportunities for contrast of winds and strings, offering many a solo opportunity.

The following two movements surpassed “mere” Edwardian music. The scherzo could have been a balletic exercise. And the Adagio, starting with a sepulchral solo by clarinetist Vadim Lando, continued with 16 wind measures which foretold the later Gustav Holst.

Holst may be known worldwide for his Planets, but much of his music was inspired by his beliefs in mystical Hinduism. These 16‑odd measures were an amazing Eastern-style melody, an abrupt but welcome suspension from the afternoon’s well-woven, elegantly knitted notes a world above the pleasant joys of merrie old England.

Harry Rolnick



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