Dallas — Sunday night’s concert on the Blue Candlelight Music Series, an intimate, limited-member chamber music subscription held in a private house in Preston Hollow, featured names familiar to Dallas area audiences—but in a completely different context.
Alexander Rom is chorus master for the Dallas Opera; Gregory Sullivan Isaacs serves as principal music critic for TheaterJones.com; Stephen Harlos is staff keyboardist and chair of the piano department at the University of North Texas; and Mark Landson, founder of Open Classical DFW—which produces a wide variety of events, from open mics to chamber music concerts to comedy operas—is equally known as violinist and composer.
In the works here represented, all of these composers took a decidedly traditionalist stance. An approach we might (to borrow a phrase from architecture) refer to as mid-century modernism, predominated; harmonic idioms and strategies reminiscent of Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Prokofiev, Hindemith, and others was well evident. And, in several cases, these contemporary Dallas composers even returned to the full-blown romanticism of the late 19th century. In terms of structure, the good old classical-era multi-movement sonata form appeared frequently throughout the evening.
Harlos’ Sonata for Violin and Piano opened the program, with the composer as pianist and Gary Levinson, senior principal associate concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, as violinist. Inspired by Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Harlos melded classical form, romantic pictorialism, and modern harmonic technique to create engaging portraits of Quasimodo, Esmerelda, and the dancing Gypsy Woman. Indeed, traditional first-movement sonata-allegro form lent itself ideally to the representation of Quasimodo, with a grotesque opening theme leading to a second theme insightfully revealing his inner torment, in turn leading to the intermingling of these two elements of Quasimodo’s personality. Not surprisingly, since the composer is a pianist, the entire work demonstrated first-rate understanding of the sonorities of the piano.
Violinist Levinson held the spotlight for Isaacs’ Fantasy on Themes from Henry Faust for solo violin (Henry Faust is a one-man opera by Isaacs.) Here, a plaintive theme introduces a nearly 10-minute-long workout for the violinist, with a harmonic language based on the vocabulary of Hindemith but an overall aesthetic drawn from the 19th-century’s marriage of virtuosity and passion.
Pianist Baya Kakouberi, the artistic director of the Blue Candlelight series, and cellist John Landefeld then joined violinist Levinson for Isaacs’ Piano Trio, cast in traditional three-movement form enriched with a richly textured lyricism reminiscent of Broadway (and that’s a compliment). A crash of chords, scales, and arpeggios opens an unfailingly engaging journey to a Finale of unadulterated joy and celebration; of the varied episodes along the way, one particular high point was the gorgeous berceuse for violin and cello over a gently rocking piano accompaniment in the middle movement.
Ukrainian-born Rom was represented by a set of three short works for piano alone and five short works violin and piano, performed by pianist Kakouberi and violinist Levinson. As chorus master of the Dallas Opera, Rom has worked with a huge array of musical styles; in these works, he displayed mastery as a composer of an equally broad range of inspirations. A one-movement Sonatina for solo piano represented a violent incident Rom witnessed several decades ago in New Orleans; he combined raw dissonance, moments of reflection, and a final fugal passage to represent his own complex reaction to that event.
Also in Rom’s set, Georgian folk dance provided the inspiration for a sparklingly brilliant “Lezginka” for solo piano, while more personal memories emerged in the elegiac “In Memory of Father” for violin and piano, with its heart-rending close. “A la Granados” presented a fascinatingly convincing evocation of late romantic Spanish nationalist composer Enrique Granados for violin and piano.
Landson’s Piano Quartet “Vokante Heroa” (“Heroic Calling,” in Esperanto), the final work on the program, exists in a world in which 20th-century music never happened, with broad gestures reminiscent of the chamber music of Brahms, Dvořák, and Franck; the shadow of Bruckner and the young Richard Strauss likewise linger. The connection to Strauss is further evident in the unabashedly Straussian titles of the three movements: “A Hero’s Life,” “Celestial Calling,” and “Fury of the Living.” Landson’s command of the idiom of romanticism and the possibilities of this ensemble are evident throughout, from the volcanic opening section to the stormy final fugato. Fifty years ago, a chamber work written in this particular neo-romantic style would doubtless have been castigated as reactionary; in our own more eclectic era, it points out the rich possibilities available to composers of our time.
The evening opened with a brief appearance by 17-year-old Dallas violinist Nikki Naghavi, who performed, with impressive technical command and musical presence, two movements from J.S. Bach’s Partita in D minor followed by Paganini’s Caprice No. 20.