Meredith's in the news again – and the news is not just about the greenway. No, Meredith's in the news – and is making news – because of music. Long-time Meredith watchers must be amazed at the many worthwhile events taking place on the West Raleigh campus. Not that there hasn't been music at Meredith for a long time.... This writer has been hanging around the place for over 50 years, and there've been lots of fine concerts there. At mid-century, visiting artists from all over played at Meredith; one of my standing jokes is that, as a child, I slept through more chamber music concerts – at Meredith – than most wide-awake music lovers have attended... – because the sizzling steam heat in the darkened auditorium was, for me, the perfect cure for insomnia. Later, when yours truly thought he was destined to be the next great basso after Pinza, Meredith's Ed Blanchard provided vocal instruction; this didn't make me an alumna, and please don't tell the fundraisers there, lest they add me to their lists..., but I am proud to have "attended" Meredith, in a manner of speaking – for this experience and, I must 'fess, for the memory of a beautiful Turkish exchange student who was there at that time. Meredith and its music department subsequently experienced several growth spurts and, alas, some problems associated with both growth and funding. In one of those spurts, long-time Meredith watchers sometimes observed that everybody and his brother (and his sister, too) was teaching at Meredith, and indeed the music roster became so large it seemed almost unmanageable. But in the wake of some belt-tightening in recent years, things have begun to come around again. There's fresh leadership in several key sub-departments. And there are some younger artists at Meredith who are making lots of noise – in the form of music – that is in turn attracting more and more attention to the good work being done at the school.
Among the most prominent of the "new generation" of Meredith artist-teachers are pianist Frank Pittman and violinist Carol Chung, who seem to perform there "all the time." That's not completely true, but it's been a long while since faculty artists at Meredith – or anywhere else, for that matter – did as much in the way of public performances as these two. They're hardly alone, at Meredith, which in the early years concentrated on church music and thus has always had excellent organ teachers. There's also strength in the piano department beyond Pittman, in other instrumental music beyond Chung, in solo vocal and choral music, etc. And no offense is intended or implied insofar as their predecessors are concerned, for sure. But Pittman and Chung and their current colleagues are doing things a bit differently, and it's paying handsome dividends for the college and for the community of which it is a part. And for sure, it's no longer smart to take Meredith for granted – or to shrug off the concerts given there as just more fluff. Pittman and Chung and Co. are doing some serious and outstanding work, and that work merits being taken seriously.
On the evening of November 28, this "grand duo" – the artists are also offering a series of all-Mozart evenings this year – presented a short but totally captivating recital of music by Bach and Brahms, dedicated to the memory of Chung's maternal grandfather, Shu-Fan Li, who clearly had a profound effect on her musical upbringing. She began the program with Bach. She'd played Bach at his funeral in Hong Kong, last November, and she'd tucked the bulletin of that service into her copy of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, in the music of the Chaconne, so it was perhaps preordained that the Partita No. 2 in d minor, S.1004, would figure in this memorial concert. As it happens, Grandfather (or Gung-gung, in Cantonese, as she wrote in the program) Li (and Chung's grandmother, too) had provided the instrument she uses now – a 1780 Vincenzo Panormo violin.
The performance was breathtaking on many levels – technically, artistically, and emotionally. This is an atypical partita, since the first four sections, all together, are shorter than the finale, which is one of the largest and most complex (and demanding) single movements written by Bach. The best fiddlers – be they HIP (historically-informed performance) partisans or modern instrument folks – make this music sound completely natural, inevitable, and – again with no negative connotations intended or implied – easy. Chung delivered.
The second part of the program featured Brahms' Sonata No. 3, also in d minor, for piano and violin. The appearance of the keyboard instrument ahead of the string instrument is important because, like Beethoven's "violin" sonatas, this one is really a duo in sonata form for two equal players. In Frank Pittman, Chung has a truly magnificent partner, one who manages to work on wave-lengths comparable with hers – and with artists', in other settings, too. On paper, it looked a mite strange, of course – music for solo violin by Bach and a big ol' Romantic sonata by Brahms (although it's about a minute shorter than the Bach) – and both of 'em in the same minor key. Bach died in 1750, a full 83 years before Brahms drew breath – and when Brahms died, it had been 212 years since Bach's birth – a vast amount of time by any standard but especially in music. So it may be worth noting, as Albert Schweitzer reminds us in his two-volume study of J.S. Bach, that Brahms was big on Bach – he helped fund the publications of the Bachgesellschaft, and he said that "the two greatest events of his lifetime [emphasis added] were the founding of the German Empire and the completion of the Bach edition."
Pittman and Chung had this Brahms piece totally under their fingers – all 20 of them – and together they made it sing in ways that even big-name touring artists don't invariably manage. Look for these performers in future CVNC calendars and take a little trip to Meredith for music sometime. You'll be glad you did.