It wasn’t exactly a gooey, layered Blizzard Cake from Dairy Queen, but the debut concert of the Houston Chamber Music Society had many levels of musical treats, not the least of which was the visit of American fiddler/violinist/composer Mark O’Connor. Melissa Marse, the pianist in his trio, is now a faculty member at Houston Baptist University. With HBU composer Ann Gebuhr, she has founded the latest of the growing number of small and medium-sized musical organizations here.
Certainly, one concert is not enough to define the character of a group but if future events near the relaxed but committed mood of Tuesday’s, the society can offer a distinct slant on chamber music. The acoustics drew listeners to the precise spots where the musicians were playing – without sacrificing one iota of clarity and richness in the sound. Other excellent halls here offer a more general sense of well-blended sound; HBU’s focused and channeled attention. I liked that very much. (The effect reminded me of Galveston’s Grand 1894 Opera House, which has unusually specific but much dryer clarity.) That environment made the interaction of the musicians all the more delightful. As duos, then a trio, they were able to share with the audience their enjoyment of making music on a more intimate level (including the now mandatory introductory remarks about pieces). They conveyed no sense of pretense. They sat, or stood, and played. Hopefully, the audience enjoyed every note. Then the repertoire offered three slants on American classical music. Aaron Copland’s Duo for flute and piano, with flutist Eveline Kuhn sounded a bit like a recycling of his famous ballet Appalachian Spring. Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata, performed with elegant passion by cellist Arash Amini, was a sometimes voluptuous, sometimes astringent reworking of Romanticism.
In both pieces Marse accompanied with forceful but unobtrusive authority. O’Connor’s pieces were, well, pure hybrid Americana. He opened the second half with two of his caprices for unaccompanied violin. The basic idea was a fast figuration hinting at a combination of Phillip Glass’ early repetitive music and bluegrass improvisation (O’Connor’s first fame came as a fiddler and jazz musician). O’Connor added slower, contrasting secondary thoughts for variety but the essence was a test of virtuosity, which he passed, but not quite with the unrelenting reliability of a crackerjack whiz from a conservatory. O’Connor wrote his trio Poets and Prophets for the Eroica Tria and based the music on the life of Johnny Cash, a friend and colleague from Nashville days. O’Connor did not study classical composition so the trio for piano, violin and cello lacked the formal rigor and clarity many similar works have. Instead, he relied on instinct to shape variety and re-use of basic themes. Some music worked better. The slow third movement, a tribute to the love of Cash and his wife, June, was a lovely lyrical flowering that would fit right in as music for a period film about Appalachia. The last movement, which O’Connor described as a “gospel hoedown,” was an outburst of the fervor and frenzy of southern, rural white gospel music. O’Connor, Amini and Marse closed the announced program with his Appalachian Waltz, which first attracted cellist Yo-Yo Ma to O’Connor’s music. The slow, touching tune and chord progressions repeated over and over with the same magnetic quality many listeners know from Pachelbel’s Canon. It worked. I can still hear the eerie plaintiveness of O’Connor’s violin even with inconsequential music in the background.
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