Cellist Brooks Whitehouse has an expansive and genial personality which embraces a broad spectrum of artistic experiences. At Watson Hall of the University of NC School of the Arts as part of music@watson, he introduced the audience to the Greensboro Youth Chorus, played recently composed works by North Carolina composers and ended with a magnificent performance of the Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67, by Dmitri Shostakovich.
The concert opened with the North Carolina premiere of the "Prelude" movement of the Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello by University of Vermont composition teacher, David Feurzeig. A charming and mostly gentle reverie of a tonal nature, this opener gave us ample time to observe the facial expressivity of the tall Mr. Whitehouse, who bites his lower lip, pouts, peers out from hooded eyelids beneath his towering brow, at times scowling, at times nodding but always deeply immersed in the music. He has a beautiful tone, excellent intonation and a remarkable ability to adjust his style to the peculiarities of the piece at hand.
After a spoken introduction, the pure angelic voices of the Greensboro Youth Chorus, ably led by Ann Doyle, sang three works, starting with Henry Purcell’s “Sound the Trumpet,” while Whitehouse sat onstage, listening.
An a capella work for treble voices by the High Point 12th grade student, Andrés Ballesteros (b. 1991), stood out for its fresh originality and gentle persuasiveness. Entitled “Erin” and starting and ending with the words “A fallen rose…”, this moving piece opened into dissonance and multipart writing with a subtlety and delicacy unusual in such a young composer.
Deanna Mattinson, pianist, joined Whitehouse and the chorus for the world premiere of “Will There Really Be a Morning?” by UNCSA composition student, Leo Hurley (b. 1989). And at the end, Eli Whitehouse sang the soprano solo in a soft, pure and clear tone. Written mostly in unison and two parts, the work augurs well for the future of the young composer.
The longest work on the program was the Quintet for Piano and Strings by Edmund Bullock (b. 1956), a NC expatriate currently living in France. Commissioned by the Catawba Valley United Arts Council, this piano quintet is in four movements and was played by Kevin Lawrence (UNCSA faculty) and Janet Orenstein (UNCG faculty), violins, Sheila Browne (UNCSA faculty), viola, Whitehouse, cello, and composer Bullock at the piano. Bullock is a fine pianist and his quintet reflects this by giving the piano a predominant voice.
Opening with an expressive and somewhat romantic "Theme and Variations" which alternated parts between the string quartet and the piano, the style (but certainly not the mood) is reminiscent of the Janáček second string quartet where harmonic accompaniments are given rapid repeated figures, enlivening the whole textural quality. I imagine it might be what Gabriel Fauré would have sounded like had he used the minimalist style!
The second movement is a Scherzo in a duple (instead of the usual triple) meter, with rapid 16th notes in a sort of perpetual motion, followed by a calmer contrasting section (trio?). The third movement, "Nocturne," evoked the memory of Chopin in the opening rising piano figure. Later in this lush movement, a series of slow trills ushered in a beautiful passage of violins in octaves over a pizzicato accompaniment. Sudden key changes (which Dvořák used in the last movement of his 8th Symphony) down a half-step prepared us for the contrapuntal "Finale," accompanied by the piano playing a Czerny-like figure. Long extended piano solos, centered on single themes with very rhythmic string accompaniment, abound throughout this lush and uplifting work. The audience gave the composer and performers an enthusiastic standing ovation.
After intermission, Janet Orenstein (a.k.a. Mrs. Whitehouse) and Brooks Whitehouse were joined by former UNCSA staff member, Lauren Thayer Winkleman, piano, in Dmitry Shostakovich’s second Trio in E minor, Op. 67, a work as diabolic in tone as the Bullock was uplifting. Written in the darkest moments of World War II, the eerie effects of high cello harmonics and low piano notes with the vibrato-less violin were disturbing from the onset. A section of repeated 5ths and 6ths were almost hypnotic in their repeated soft thudding. The second movement, "Scherzo," is an insistent satanic fast movement in a triple meter, featuring many repeated down-bows from both string players and some particularly fine playing from Mrs. Winkleman at the piano.
I was particularly touched by the simplicity of the elegiac third movement, 'Largo": eight slow chords, repeated half a dozen times, first by piano alone, next with added violin, building to a peaceful coda in which the most dissonant of the eight chords resolves its dissonance. The folk-like finale follows without a break, alternating sections of awkward 5/4 meter with fundamental binary rhythms (Oom-Pah, Oom-Pah).The music spins dizzily when the piano plays a high and fast passage of sextuplets. A great moment occurs when the violin and cello reprise the repeated thudding from the first movement over parallel fifths in the piano, leading to the elegiac chords from the third movement. Details like these reveal the genius of Shostakovich.