The intention of the NCMA’s Sights and Sounds on Sundays concert series, a joint presentation of the museum and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, is to link programs to current exhibitions. The September 25 program of the Bullock/ Whitehouse Duo – unlike some earlier offerings – did not oblige a critic to strain to find a tie-in to the new showing, “Cross Currents: Art, Craft and Design in North Carolina.” Composer-pianist Edmund Barton Bullock has many NC connections. His parents are residents of Beech Mountain, and he is also related to the well-known BBQ dynasty of Durham. The then-15-year-old composer’s first major work, the Sextet (for two violins, viola, cello, flute and piano), was premiered at the Eastern Music Festival. He received a Bachelor of Music with honors in piano performance from UNC Greensboro under the direction of George Kiorpes* and Joseph DiPiazza. Advised by the then-Artist-in-Residence, pianist Daniel Ericourt, to study in Paris in 1978, he racked up impressive degrees and concert and composing experience during the years he resided in France. His recital partner on this occasion was UNC Greensboro’s cellist Brooks Whitehouse.

A critic approaches a program of contemporary music with timorous anticipation – we have all been burned so often before…. Will it be a dreary academic exercise or a musical “root canal”? Almost all hope vanishes when a work is listed as a commemoration of some event. Bullock’s “Elegy Sonata,” for cello and piano, was composed in memory of the 9-11 victims. He writes in the long-established French tradition of works such as Ravel’s “Pavane” and “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and other memorial pieces dating back to the 18th-century clavecinists. Based on this and the other set of works performed, his musical syntax appears to fall within the sphere of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel. His clarity, elegance, and refined use of color appealed to this Francophile. The first movement is a lovely set of variations based on a melancholy waltz theme. The fast and lively scherzo encompasses a tender and lyrical episode. “Elegy,” the largo third movement, is a fine recreation of traditional style featuring stark, dark piano chords and a wrenching slow cry from the cello. In strong contrast to the other three movements, the finale is light and full of melody, and it ends in a cheerful mood. I look forward to hearing this work again – in part so I might better understand how the last movement relates to the first three.

From the stage, Bullock recounted his encounter with tango tradition – in Toulouse. The city claims the famous French-born tango singer Carlos Gardel, who arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the age of two. Known as El Zorzal Criollo or The Songbird of Buenos Aires, the legendary figure died tragically young in a plane crash, in 1935. Bullock’s Three Tango Fantasies are winning but perhaps too elegant for an Argentine cathouse. The first and last are fast allegros while the middle one, “Cancion d’amor,” is a love song dedicated to the composer’s mother. The piano rhythms were clear and distinct, and Bullock made much use of the keyboard’s darker colors.

Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38, received a glowing interpretation that combined warmth with clear textures. Balance between keyboard and cello was excellent, and there was a wonderful sense of give-and-take in the performance. In comments from the stage, Bullock contrasted Brahms’ welding of classical form with Romantic expression to the aesthetic of the Liszt-Wagner axis. He drew attention to the themes of the first and third movements, which share a resemblance to Bach’s Art of Fugue (Contrapunctus 3 and 13 respectively). He brought out this austere quality in his playing. Throughout Whitehouse cultivated a full, rich cello tone that was well projected, had exemplary intonation, and was subtly shaded across its range. I have seldom heard the theme of the first movement so radiantly phrased. Indeed, the first and last movements were incandescent, with robust delivery of the main themes, while the central Allegretto was all elegance and grace.

In response to an enthusiastic reception, the duo played the soulful “Vocalise” by Rachmaninov, displaying rich sonority and seamless melodic lines.

*Kiorpes will present a recital in Cary on October 14 – see our calendar for details.