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The featured artists for the February 20 "Sights and Sounds on Sundays" series of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild were two fine North Carolina musicians. Kevin Lawrence, the violinist, was educated at Juilliard, has been widely acclaimed for his wide-ranging performances, and now is based at North Carolina School of the Arts, where he is chair of the string department. Peter Kairoff, the pianist, received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree with highest honors at the University of Southern California, has performed widely, and since 1988 has been Professor of Music at Wake Forest University. The two have performed together in Rome, Prague, Sofia, Bucharest and the United States.
The program opened with "Melody," Op. 44, for violin and piano, by the early-20th-century American composer Arthur Foote. Foote was a leading member of a group of composers known as the Boston Six or the Second New England School. Together, John Knowles Paine, Horatio Parker, George Chadwick, Edward MacDowell, Amy Beach, and Arthur Foote wrote the first substantial body of indigenous concert-hall, or "classical," music in America. Foote is credited as the first American classical composer to have completed his entire musical education on this side of the Atlantic. The title of the first piece proclaims its nature. It starts off with a guileless tune that grows rather heated in the middle, only to return to simplicity at the end. Nothing dramatic, it nevertheless provides winning entertainment
"Legend," Op. 76, a more substantial selection by Foote, opens on a somewhat dramatic recitative-cadenza for the violin, but it quickly settles down to a lyrical melody as if given by a balladic storyteller. Much of the music is built on one short melodic-rhythmic figure. Serenity is preferred over drama. We hear the reverie and meditation of the fully-matured composer in this piece.
Next we heard from William Bolcom, a contemporary American composer just coming into his own in his late 60s. His compositions encompass many idioms, from popular cabaret songs to more traditional classical scores. The Naxos recording of his "Songs of Innocence and Experience" based on poetry of William Blake has received considerable attention and acclaim. He won the Pulitzer for his "12 New Etudes for Piano" and his opera A View from the Bridge, with a libretto by Arthur Miller and Arnold Weinstein, was commissioned by Chicago Lyric Opera and performed at the Met in the 2002-3 season. His concert piece Inventing Flight, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first flight by the Wright Brothers, was premiered by the North Carolina Symphony on April 10, 2003.
Bolcom's Fourth Sonata, for violin and piano, has bite and bounce. It is what I call "music for grown-ups," neither pretty nor nice, and it offers challenges to the performers and the listeners. The first movement (marked "Allegro brillante") is fast and melodic albeit atonal, offering technical challenges for both performers. The second movement, "White Night," is more lyrical, with tonal material from a Danish folk tune that is distorted with violin harmonics. In his introductory remarks, Lawrence referred to it as a lullaby that is conceived as a means of getting to sleep, but it doesn't work because of the intrusion of troubled thoughts. The third movement, entitled "Arabesque", uses a repetitive, displaced octave figure in the piano while the violin soars above the accompaniment. The fourth movement, "Jota", is a very fast dance movement, again demanding virtuosity and flair on the parts of both performers.
This was followed by Bolcom's most popular piece, "Graceful Ghost Rag," originally composed for solo piano and recently published in a version for violin and piano. It is a lilting melody that flows out of the instruments, like milk from a glass when you have already eaten a cookie.
The second half of the concert was given over to Gabriel Fauré's Sonata in A, Op. 13, composed in 1875-6, cast in the usual four movements. In notes for a Pro Musica concert in Montreal, Michael Free writes that the first movement opens with a long passionate theme introduced by the piano and continued by the violin. The second movement (Andante) moves between dark and gentle, rhapsodic passages, going through several chromatic key shifts before ending in D minor, the predominant key of the movement. In the scherzo that follows, the violin and piano toss material back and forth, with offbeat accents providing much of the movement's character. A trio section brings with it a sense of relaxation before the scherzo returns, light as air, to round out the movement. The Allegro quasi presto finale opens with a theme that is gentle in character that seems for some time simply to run in circles around a recurrent C sharp. Syncopated octaves in the piano propel the music toward an intense peak, followed by a coda in which Fauré, for the first time, allows virtuosity to come to the fore.
Lawrence's violin sound was rich, warm and exciting, and Kairoff's piano playing was meticulous and detailed. Together they provided a pleasurable and rewarding music experience. The relaxed and casual introductions of their selections, linking them to art works in the NCMA's collections, enhanced the nice ambiance of the concert.