"Ferocious Beauty" offers Powerful Discoveries

Chamber Orchestra of Boston, directed by David Feltner, with Virginia Eskin, piano
Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston

February 6, 2009

It was an event of very rare importance – the first performance on the east coast of a remarkable work composed in 1939. Czech composer Viteslava Kapralova died at the age of 25 barely a year after completing the work. Her Partita for Piano and Strings should place her in the musical firmament near Bartok and Stravinsky.

The first movement, Allegro energetico, is full of neo-classical drive and ceaseless motion. Soloist Virginia Eskin pulled spiky tones from the piano in the brusque ritornello that frames and supports the work, with the piano and strings exchanging jabs. In the central section the piano brought warmth and luscious waves of sound, painting a wash over the orchestra’s ongoing rhythmic energy.

The Andantino opens with a theme of striking simplicity and intense tenderness. The warmth and intensity of the harmonies of this movement are evocative, and the musical language could be that of a highly popular contemporary film score. The long sequence of gestures that descend in pitch give a feeling of ethereal floating, suspended and timeless. A gentle cascade of chords closes that passage, and brings us back to the original simple melody. It is all of such heart-wrenching and sincere emotion that once word of this piece gets out, I see it as becoming a classical “greatest hit.” The Presto, of course, is sparkling and playful, with interior sections of grace and delicacy, and ending with bold and majestic flourishes.

Feltner, on the orchestra’s web-site, writes how it his collaboration with Eksin came about accidentally, as he ran into her at the farmers market and she told him about the new CD she had just brought out, of Kapralova’s music. She mentioned the Partita, and that happy synergy brought about this remarkable and historic concert. Their adventurous spirits are to be commended and their musicality is to be applauded (and it was, with great enthusiasm!). In the Boston Globe, David Weininger offered restrained praise of the work as “eminently worth hearing again;” but reviews from the one recording of the piece (a 1998 Czech release that was never distributed in the US) share more of my enthusiasm, noting “the medium is consummately handled” and that this is “a classic worthy any crack chamber orchestra’s attention.”

Libby Larsen‘s Symphony No. 4 (for string orchestra, composed in 1998) drew an exciting range of tone colors from the ensemble, as Feltner pointed out, “using every crayon in the box” — including the techniques of sul ponticello, harmonics, pizzicato and more — but these colors served to highlight the motivic development and exploration of larger ideas. Larsen’s work is thoughtful, introspective, full of intelligence and insight. The first movement “Elegance” was followed by “Beauty Alone,” a pensive conversation in richly figured counterpoint. “Ferocious Rhythm” was also full of ideas, but gathering momentum in a bracing drive forward – the focus on motive and development circled and spun into an incandescent violin solo. Concertmaster Danielle Maddon was electrifying. The orchestra sparkled with intensity, responding with real verve to Feltner’s graceful gestures. While one could wish for a larger ensemble, the playing was polished and sensitive.

The “Ferocious Beauty” of the concert’s title was drawn from the names of those two last movements, but was also an apt theme for the evening – the amazing and still little-known genius of 
Kapralova; Larsen, one of today’s most performed and respected American composers; and Eskin herself, radiant with musicality, and ever-determined in her work to bring women composers the recognition they deserve.

In his personable opening remarks to the final work, Feltner observed that Franz Liszt is often thought of as something of a rock star, but that the older Liszt was deeply religious, and even spent time in a monastery. Well, religious or not, he was still a rock star, and his rarely performed “Malediction” (which again featured Eskin) offered exaggerated gestures of sinisterness juxtaposed with handkerchief twisting interior agony. Lizst got older but he was still an “adult-lescent” who brought thrills, chills, and predictable pyrotechnics to the concert stage. Eskin was ablaze as she channeled Liszt’s whims and passions.

We had a palate-cleansing encore, the sparking “Pickes and Peppers Rag,” an Eskin discovery composed by one Adeline Sheppard in 1906.  I overheard someone remark that every concert should end with a rag, and as we left the hall with big smiles and toes tapping, I thought that was a pretty good idea.