Dallas — Voices of Change has, in its decades-long history, brought an impressive selection of Texas, American, and world premieres to audiences at Caruth Auditorium on the Southern Methodist University campus. Though Sunday night’s coronavirus-era concert reflected the trials and necessary adjustments of our time, it continued the organization’s mission, with an interesting twist.
Most obviously, the audience was largely online; a total of 10 music-lovers (including press, spouses of performers, key members of the administrative staff, and the composer of the pieces on the program) were scattered across the 490-seat audience section.
The program roamed across three centuries, but with a point in keeping with the ensemble’s purpose of “new” and “change.” Charles Ives’ Variations on America of 1891 for organ opened the evening, representing a sometimes irreverent, sometimes startling, occasionally comical point of origin of American 20th-century music. Dallas-based organist Bradley Hunter Welch, the organist-in-residence of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, presented that particular Ives work for the second time this season, having performed it on concerts of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at Meyerson Symphony Center in September. Once again—and this time on the 51-stop, 3681-pipe C. B. Fisk organ—Welch demonstrated not only a flawless technical command (with both hands and both feet), but a solid instinct for this rambunctious, occasionally delightfully bizarre take on one of our great national songs. (The tune is also, of course, the royal anthem of the British monarchy, in which guise it was the subject of a set of somewhat more tame piano variations by Beethoven.) The humor and intermittent moments of grandiosity demands, above all, a sense of timing, which Welch provided perfectly as he led listeners through a work that manages to be patriotic, old-fashioned, iconoclastic, and forward-looking, all at the same time.
Composer Jonathan Cziner, 29, who studied at New York University and Juilliard, and who recently moved to Dallas, was present for the performance of his Violin Sonata No. 2, and offered comments immediately preceding. Besides mentioning an emotional link to the heritage of Ives, he laid claim to an underlying “American optimism” in the work—an optimism, Cziner said, that seemed natural in 2016, when he composed the work, and more urgent than ever in the midst of overwhelming pessimism in 2020.
Cziner cast this 20-minute-long Sonata in four movements, opening with a glistening ascending piano passage to usher in a movement rich with brilliant timbrel effects and contrasting moments of resonance and delicate fillagree effects in piano and violin. A Scherzo in the form of an enthusiastic waltz (marked “Quirky, playfully” in the score) follows; the third movement, titled “Aria,” opens with a yearning violin melody that melds into ever-richer textures before fading gently. The Finale shows off the violinist with a breathless perpetual motion over a rippling piano part before landing on a broad, Coplandesque climax and a final triumphant exclamation. Violinist Maria Schleuning and pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya skillfully maneuvered the demanding but ultimately gratifying technical demands of a work that deserves broad exposure.
Intermissions have become extinct during the current crisis, so the final work, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Quintet in C minor for strings and piano from 1903, followed immediately; violist Barbara Sudweeks, cellist Gayana Manasjan, and double bass Brian Perry joined violinist Schleuning and pianist Georgievskaya, for a devoted, often radiant performance of this once-lost work. Composed before Vaughan Williams’ immersion in English folk music and the choral music of the Renaissance, the Quintet was withdrawn from circulation by the composer in 1918 but released for publication and performance by his widow in 1999. The composer’s ultimate suppression of the Quintet was, to my ears, very much unwarranted: his characteristic melodic and harmonic gestures are already present, and the work evokes the sense of the broad English landscape as well as the indefinable aura of Britishness at its best that would enrich his output for the ensuing half century. The workmanship of the piece is solid, and command of the instrumental resources is skillful and often intriguing in this work that deserves a place in the chamber repertoire. (The substitution of a double bass for the second violin, in emulation of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, would make it a perfect companion for the Schubert work on a concert.)
Although a bit of a departure repertoire-wise for Voices of Change, with older works outnumbering a new work by two-to-one, the concert proved worthy of the ensemble’s tradition. Ultimately, a concert showcasing a work of the young Ives on one end and the young Vaughan Williams on the other provided a perfect setting to introduce music lovers to a remarkable young composer of our own time.