One of the most eagerlysought tickets in Winston-Salem is for any concert held in the gallery of Jon Kuhn Studios. The internationally known art glass sculptor is a public-spirited patron of the arts who generously opens his gallery for the Carolina Summer Music Festival. A strictly-limited number of music lovers and the performers are surrounded by many glass works from Kuhn's personal collection as well as items for sale. Large works, hanging as well as mounted, and all skillfully lighted, fill the space with a kaleidoscope of colors and sparkling effects. A choice program, Debussy and Friends: A 150th Birthday Celebration, was apt and featured flutist Elizabeth Ransom and pianist Dmitri Shteinberg as soloists and as a duo.
The program, played without intermission, was dominated by solo works for piano with the flute featured in only two works near the end of the concert. Shteinberg, in his second season as an Artist Teacher of Piano at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, spoke briefly about the composers and their works. He stressed how much Claude Debussy (1862-1918) rejected the "founder of Impressionist music" label. The composer was concerned with breaking away from established music and trying to bring forward "events" that had been omitted from music as well as trying to recreate the sounds of nature in abstract music. In contrast, Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) focused upon the self, specifically himself! Shteinberg said Scriabin was a megalomaniac who had come to believe he was the messiah at his death. He was obsessed with creating the perfect dance that would save mankind.
Shteinberg opened with two Debussy works. The composer had planned to incorporate "Masques" (1904) as part of his Suite Bergamasque. It evokes the atmosphere of Italian commedia dell'Arte with its world of Harlequin, Pulcinella, and other comic types. This was followed by "Poissons d'or" from Images Book II. Oscar Thompson, in Debussy Man and Artist, reports Debussy was inspired more by a piece of oriental lacquer or embroidery than real goldfish. Ripples and the flash of sunlight on water are suggested. Two of Scriabin's Poèmes, Op. 32 (1903), are strongly contrasted. The gentle, lyrical "Andante cantabile" was followed by the intense, percussive "Allegro con eleganza con fiducia."
Both of Debussy's books of Préludes were sampled next. "Minstrels," from Book I, is not about troubadours serenading under castle windows but rather the world of the American music hall with characters in blackface. From Book II, "Feux d'artifice" abounds with brilliant virtuosity. Shteinberg said a fragment of the "Marseillaise" strongly suggests a Bastille Day celebration to native Frenchmen. After two selections for flute, the keyboard program ended with the imposing, monumental "La cathèdrale engloutie" from Préludes, Book I, and the vivacious "L'isle joyeuse" (1904). The first conjures an old Brêton legend of a drowned cathedral with Gregorian melodies and medieval harmonies. "L'Île joyeux" (1904) had been intended for Suite Bergamasque, and Thompson describes it as "one of the more carefree and most sensual of Debussy's" works. Shteinberg alluded to the double meaning of "island." The composer was cheating on his wife with a lover with whom he got away to the Isle of Jersey. He was also inspired by Watteau's painting, "Boarding to Citerea," the Ionian island where the goddess of love Aphrodite conducted her revels.
There seemed to be no limit to the magic Shteinberg could conjure from the stunning Bösendorfer piano, inlaid with Kuhn sculptures. The clarity of his articulation in the fastest passages was amazing as his dynamic range. His palette of tonal color was extensive. His way of dealing with transitions was delightful while passages with rapid crossed hands or with elaborate, rapid fingerings were spell-binding.
Elizabeth Ransom, a founding co-director of the Carolina Summer Music Festival, is an active flutist throughout the region. Debussy's "Syrinx" for flute solo (1913) was a fine showcase for her mastery of technique and musicianship. Her breath control was superb, as was her ability to spin out a seamless line. Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941) was the most prominent French musician between WWI and WWII. He was not an innovator but was a superb craftsman. His Nocturne et allegro scherzando (1906) was an examination piece for the Paris Conservatoire. The opening is elegiac and lyrical before pulling out the virtuosic stops. Ransom played the socks off it, dashing precisely through every challenge of the score. This was a delightful evening for all the senses. Wine was served to accompany networking with music lovers and enjoyment of sculptures after the concert.