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The Secrest Artists Series at Wake Forest University saw a large and enthusiastic audience (with an impressive number of students attending) greet the fine program, including a world premiere, by Strata, the trio of James Stern, violin/viola, Nathan Williams, clarinet, and Audrey Andrist, piano. Andrist and Stern are based in Maryland; Williams in Texas. Such an ensemble has more of a focus on recent music than others of older lineage such as the string quartet, given that the clarinet as member of a chamber music group dates, with a few exceptions, to the nineteenth century, and indeed on the program they presented all of the four pieces were from the twentieth century or later.
William Bolcom’s activities as a composer (he is emeritus professor of composition at Michigan, and won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for music) are informed by his activities as a performing pianist, notably in duo with his wife, soprano Joan Morris, with whom he has an extensive discography. Strata opened their program with four of the six rags comprising Afternoon Cakewalk, a set of arrangements made by Bolcom. A generation ago rags were briefly popular even among classical musicians, with two highly successful LPs of Joplin recorded by musicologist Joshua Rifkin, and it was good to hear such skilled and sympathetic reading of the rags of Joplin and Scott by Strata, who played with virtuoso flair. “Frog Legs Rag” featured the E-flat soprano clarinet, a tiny-looking thing whose high voice seems to eliminate any thought of gravitas and to be especially suited for high jinks. Williams’ playing was high-spirited. The final two rags are by Bolcom himself, with suave violin from Stern in the “Graceful Ghost.” It all was over too soon – a pity that they didn’t offer the whole set.
Max Bruch is one of those composers from the Romantic era that loiters on the edges of being well-known to general audiences, and not just music nerds, and the Eight Pieces, Op. 83 for clarinet, viola and piano are among his most familiar. These are late works (the composer lived to 1920; these are from 1910) and my concert notes say “Brahmsian” (Brahms had already passed on in 1897), “elegiac,” and “innig,” a highly German quality (“inward,” in contrast to the extroverted Italians). Stern produces a lovely tone on his viola, and the whole effect was autumnal, reflections by the fireside by one whose active life is behind him….or, to put it another, the ultimate contrast to the rags that had gone before.
After intermission, there was the rare treat of a world premiere – the Trio: A Book of Days by Kenneth Frazelle, who teaches at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. The work, in five movements, is inspired by images from an extended poem by the late A.R. Ammons (1926-2001), a native of North Carolina. The harmonic vocabulary of the work is modern (no functional harmony here) but at the same time relatively diatonic. The first two movements are active, reflections on the ephemerality of things (particularly the “skittering” and very short second movement). The third movement is a sort of nocturne that begins spare, slow, and simple, and gradually develops to a beautiful lyricism, with Strata allowing the final sonority to ring in the air until it disappeared. Some dance gestures, with irregular rhythms evolving to a sort of waltz, shape the fourth movement, and the fifth movement returns to the tranquility of motion of the third. As it became evident that the movement was drawing to a close, I was astounded to hear that Frazelle had the courage to write a root position tonic for the piano, clearly the final arrival, although decorated with some higher members of the overtone series from the clarinet and violin. This music, and that of the third movement, was simply sublime, in the deepest sense of the word, a sublimity that one rarely experiences in concert. Indeed, I think the word “masterpiece” is not too strong for this work. It was beautifully and sensitively rendered by Strata. I hope they will soon record and release it on CD. It deserves to join the core repertoire of the chamber literature.
After this, it was hard to believe that more could be said (Andrist brightly said from the stage, “But wait, there’s more!), and the program concluded with the 1992 Suite for violin, clarinet and piano by Alexander Arutiunian, a compelling piece reflecting his Armenian surroundings (a modal opening with Eastern inflections, and a finale with Romany elements). After several bows, Strata asked listeners to once more thank Frazelle, and played a Bach encore in honor of the Master’s birthday.