Faculty musicians from the NC School of the Arts and Wake Forest University presented an imaginative program of chamber music by pioneering American composers in Watson Chamber Music Hall on April 4. The focus was music for piano and strings by American Romantic composers – a piano quartet by Daniel Gregory Mason (1873-1953) and a piano quintet by George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931). From WFU came pianist Peter Kairoff, who specializes in and has recorded the music of Chadwick, and, for the quintet, versatile Demon Deacon violinist Jacqui Carrasco, whose repertoire ranges from the classics to jazz and tangos. In both works, the NCSA team consisted of violinist Kevin Lawrence, violist Ulrich Eichenauer, and cellist Zvi Plesser. In a conversation before the concert, Kairoff reported that neither piece has been recorded.
Mason studied with John Knowles Paine at Harvard and, later, with Chadwick, at the New England Conservatory. He was important as a composer, teacher, and writer on music. Often regarded as one of the "Boston classicists," his style was conservative, modeled after the great Austro-German masters. Though he admired both Franck and D'Indy, he was unsympathetic with French impressionism and completely hostile to 20th-century Modernism. Mason's scores eschew excessive sentimentality; according to Grove Music Online, "his writing for instruments is idiomatic and his textures are opulent, at times Brahmsian." While he occasionally tried to incorporate American styles such as spirituals (in his 1918-19 String Quartet on Negro Themes), he explained in a 1930 letter that he had come to believe "for better or worse [that] American music is necessarily eclectic and cosmopolitan, and that the kind of distinctiveness to be looked for in it is individual rather than national."
All of Mason's compositional fingerprints were abundant in the performance of his Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 7 (1909-11). With the piano's lid fully raised, Kairoff balanced perfectly with his string colleagues Lawrence, Eichenauer, and Plesser, never once covering them despite the use of a wide dynamic range.
Grasping the layout of any score at first hearing is always trying. My overall impression, particularly of the long first movement, is that Mason over-loaded his music with too many themes. Pizzicato string accompaniment is unusually widespread in all four movements. The writing for strings is very idiomatic and full of texture. Each player is given ample opportunities for expressive solos. Plesser brought rich tone and a seamless line to the long cello solo in the third movement.
Mason's teacher Chadwick was a leading member of what is often termed the Second School of New England composers. He is sometimes labeled a "Boston classicist." After study in America, he received a thorough grounding in composition at the Leipzig Conservatory and from further study with Joseph Rheinberger in Munich. He was highly regarded as an organist, a composer, and an educator. He led a major reorganization of the New England Conservatory and taught many important 19th-century composers. His works often reflect a Francophile outlook. He took the lead in getting away from the Euro-centric conservatory style. Nine years before Dvorák's Ninth Symphony, Chadwick used "a pentatonic melody resembling black American song" in the scherzo of his own Second Symphony in B-flat Major; in Grove Music Online, Steven Ledbetter notes other features of the composer's style, including "the unique rhythms of Anglo-American psalmody, Afro-Caribbean dance syncopations, (and) parallel voice-leading (4ths and 5ths)."
Chadwick's Piano Quintet in E-flat Major (1888) received a stirring performance that made the best possible case for its revival. Kairoff's playing was again a model of how to balance a piano with a string ensemble – in this case Lawrence, Carrasco, Eichenauer, and Plesser. Much of the scoring calls for very full textures. The themes are attractive, and they were treated imaginatively with contrasted pairings of instruments that were played off each other. The slow movement features heart-felt melodies while there is something vaguely Russian about the Intermezzo third movement. Emphatic rhythms and swirling strings kept the listener's interest in the finale.