Carol Woods Retirement Community, with its acoustically fine hall, is a very popular venue for musicians. Ann Witherspoon, co-chair of the music committee, always has a waiting list of artists from which replacements can be drawn. The Central String Quartet was unable to perform this concert date. Violist Simon Ertz and pianist Christy Wisuthseriwong were able to perform in their place. Ertz is principal violist of the Winston-Salem Symphony and a member of the Greensboro Symphony's viola section. He toured nationally from 2002-12 as violist in the Degas Quartet. Christy Wisuthseriwong is Master Teacher and Chair of the Piano Department at the Music Academy of North Carolina. She received her Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance and pedagogy at Meredith College in Raleigh and received her Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2001 and 2011 respectively.
Ertz opened the concert with the Suite III in C, S. 1009 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) which was composed for the cello. Among a plethora of transcriptions are ones for guitar, lute, and a number for viola. He used a performing edition prepared by his teacher Simon Roland-Jones (b. 1950), widely praised as one of the best scholarly editions for viola. The viola is tuned an octave higher than a cello, but both share C, G, D, and A strings thereby simplifying transcription. The six movements are Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Bourée I & II, and Gigue. While I missed the lower range of the cello, Ertz brought out the rhythmic character and vitality of each of the dances. Multiple stops were well executed. Ertz's phrasing of the Sarabande balanced tempo and expression nicely.
The original version of the Andante and Hungarian Rondo, J. 79 (1809) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) came next. More often heard in the version for bassoon from 1813, Weber composed the work for his brother Fridolin, a violist. Ertz spun out the evocative folk elements with panache while conjuring a wide palette of tone. Intonation was excellent as his viola's highest range was exploited. Wisuthseriwong proved to be an ideal accompanist, carefully balancing the Yamaha piano's sound while having its lid fully raised.
The Sonata for Viola and Piano by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) is a significant work by a pioneering British woman composer and professional player. This sonata brought Clarke considerable celebrity at an international competition for chamber music run by Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at her 1919 festival in Berkshire, Massachusetts. Her sonata was submitted anonymously and tied for first place with Bloch's Suite which ultimately was awarded the prize. The fact a woman had composed the sonata brought widespread publicity. Some had speculated that Ravel had been the unnamed composer!
The Sonata consists of two expansive movements separated by a slighter-sized scherzo. The movements are Impetuoso, Vivace, and Adagio. Passionate rhapsodizing dominates the first movement which constantly plays with chromatic changes, and an Impressionist feel comes from frequent pentatonic passages. The violist's pizzicato, high harmonics, and eerie glissandi give the scherzo the feel of a haunted jig. Quiet reflection is juxtaposed with smoldering intensity in the unusual finale. Most remarkable is a passage in which a sustained ppp tremolando on the viola's C string hovers above a hypnotic keyboard song. Eventual return of the opening movement's music in the finale leads to an unresolved impression.
Ertz and Wisuthseriwong made the strongest possible case for this masterful sonata. They both brought out the Impressionist qualities in the first movement. Ertz's playing of the remarkable spectral effects of the middle movement was breathtaking. Both were superb in conjuring a rich tapestry of sound haunted by hints of the folksong movement so dominant among English composers of the period.