There are certain annual events on the Outer Banks that I find myself looking forward to. The Bryan Cultural Series Surf & Sounds Chamber Music Series is certainly one of those events.
Here is what is so special about it. The music, the musicians and in the case of the outdoor performance at the Duck Amphitheater, the setting. Not that there is anything wrong with the other locations, but listening to truly world-class musician perform Shostakovich’s or Grieg with the wind in the surrounding pine trees as a backdrop is magical.
The Surf & Sounds always begins the series with a piano quintet at All Saints. Playing this year to a packed house the performance was everything and more that we’ve come to expect from this ensemble.
Under the direction of music director and cellist Jake Fowler, the evening began with Beethoven’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major.
It is a wonderful piece of music, filled with the elements that make Beethoven such an absorbing composer. The second movement, Andante cantabile, is particularly evocative. Beautiful, the tempo is not particularly fast, yet the movement seems filled with joy.
It then shifts to the almost march-like tempo of the final movement, the Allegro ma non troppo, The interplay among the instruments of Beethoven’s score is fascinating as each member of the quartet trades melodic lines.
And throughout the piece, the theme is never lost, a hallmark of many of Beethoven’s works.
As marvelous as the Quartet in E-flat Major was, a work by Amy Beach, an American pianist and composer of the last 19th to mid 20th century stole the show. Or at least it stole the show for me.
Pianist Amanda Halstead introduced the piece, noting that compositions by American women were notable by their absence in the repertoire of many of the larger and better known orchestras.
Born in 1867, Beach was probably a musical prodigy, performing on piano at age16 with the Boston Pops. Married at 18 and forbidden by the norms of the day and her husband from pursuing music as a career, she was limited to two recitals a year and was not allowed to give lessons or take any courses in musical composition. Nonetheless, she was aware of the current trends in the music of her day and when her husband died in 1910—he was 24 years older—she revived her career in performance and composition.
Written in 1907, her Piano Quintet in F-Sharp Minor is a remarkable, exciting and dynamic work of art. Based loosely on a Brahms composition, the piece stands as an amazing testament to creativity.
Beginning slowly and lyrically, it builds quickly in intensity and complexity. It then returns to an apparently simple theme and melody, to build once again in power with layers of music seeming to want to come forward to be heard.
The second movement, Adagio espressivo, is particularly expressive, appearing at times to be a voice calling out to heard through the harmonies and rhythms of the movement. It begins so beautifully that it is almost heartbreaking and then, as in the first movement, it builds in complexity, yet there is a consistent theme that runs throughout the piece.
There is much about the Beach’s Quintet in F-Sharp Minor that is recognizably modern in the use of varying rhythms and atonality. Even though those are now commonplace in modern composition, at the time it was very much cutting edge. Interestingly the reviews when she premiered the work noted how modern her music sounded, writing that many of her contemporaries were not yet composing what she was creating musically.
As great as the first night quintet performance invariably has been, I have to admit a particular fondness for the quartet performance at the Duck Amphitheater. Wednesday night was particularly wonderful, with a storm that has passed through drying the air and bringing the temperature to tolerable levels.
Admittedly if I was on stage with the wind blowing and my sheet music held in place with clothes pins, I might take a different view, but from an audience perspective, it’s pure beauty.
The two selections were Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 1 in C Major and Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet No.1 in G Minor. Both were wonderful. In choosing one over the other, it’s a bit like deciding which of your children is the favorite.
Grieg is a bit more accessible, more easily defined. and certainly more tuneful than Shostakovich. Both. however, were wonderful selections for an outdoor setting.
Violist Luke Fleming was assigned the task of talking to the audience between the Shostakovich and Grieg selections as the sliding doors of the Amphitheater were closed—ostensibly to help with the wind, although ti also helped to project the sound better.
He did a great job of explaining about how memorable Grieg’s music is at times, playing snippets of the Peer Gynt Suite and In the Hall of the Mountain King—and yes, both are part of our everyday music.
Grieg’s String Quartet No.1 in G Minor is very much in that tradition, with tuneful melodies that seem to float over the orchestration.
The melodies are not quite as memorable as his better known compositions, but by using that strong melody line in the manner that he does, Grieg creates a very well-defined thematic core to the piece—so strong that it is almost like a series of short stories linked together into a novelette.
This is really what classical music should be all about. Challenging, evocative and thought-provoking.
A special thanks truly needs to go out to the musicians who have come back every year. Katie Huan, violin; Elizabeth Vonderheide, violin; Luke Fleming, viola; Jacob Fowler, cello; and Amanda Halstead, piano.