An Enchanting House Concert
– by Lee Greene
Imagine, if you can, a large country estate, isolated, surrounded by vineyards, orchards and agrarian fields. Having a great room, with a vaulted ceiling and walls lined with original paintings, able to hold over 50 seated guests, and of course, featuring a classic baby grand piano. A venue much like the chamber room of a medieval manor house, the ceremonial center of the era in which “chamber music” (“the music of friends”) was born. [The expression “music of friends” to describe chamber music was first used by Richard Walthew in a lecture published in South Place Institute, London, in 1909.] That was the setting on the outskirts of Ashland for an enchanted house concert by pianist Daniel Swayze and violist Morgan O’Shaughnessy for a “great room” full of “friends” on the evening of January 2, 2015.
The evening began with the entrance of Mr. O’Shaughnessy playing a nyckelharpa, a traditional Swedish instrument that has been played, in one form or another for more than 600 years. A nyckelharpa is similar to a viola, but structurally more closely related to a hurdy-gurdy. It is a keyed string instrument, played with a short bow. And Mr. O’Shaughnessy commenced the evening’s performances by playing a lively 300 year old polska (a polska is a music and dance form shared by the Nordic countries, usually in the form of a partner dance in ¾ beat) on the nyckelharpa.
That was followed by Mr. Swayze at the piano rendering a crisp and impressive performance of J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G minor. Next, Mr. Swayze offered a very sprightly performance of Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude, Op. 10, No. 12. Chopin poured his emotions into the Revolutionary Étude, which was composed after Poland’s failed 1831 revolution against Russia and about which Chopin said, “All this has caused me much pain. Who could have foreseen it!” The opening bars of the piece consist of “long, loud descending runs extremely fast in mainly the left hand, which forms a dominant seventh chord introductory build-up to the main theme. The length and the repetition of these rapid passages distinguishes the Revolutionary from other Études. Although the greatest challenge lies with the relentless left hand semiquavers, the right hand is also challenged by the cross-rhythms which are used with increasing sophistication to handle the same theme in various successive parallel passages.” [from Wikipedia, Étude Op. 10, No. 12 (Chopin), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89tude_Op._10,_No._12_%28Chopin%29] The piece begins at a very quick pace, and accelerates to the denouement, like a ball running downhill. Mr. Swayze was in good form and up to the task of interpreting this fast and challenging piece.
The “heaviest” piece on the evening’s program was next, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 28, Op. 101. It was written by Beethoven in 1816 at the beginning of Beethoven’s “Late Period”, when his compositions became more complex, expressing more wide ranging ideas, polyphonic textures and more sophisticated themes and motifs than his earlier works. Beethoven characteristically incorporated contrapuntal techniques (e.g. canon and fugue) into the sonata form in these later works, and does so here, incorporating a fugue in the last (4th) movement. This piece is over 20 minutes long and a real challenge for a pianist. Once again, Mr. Swayze was up to the task.
After an intermission, the two musicians then joined together to perform Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Op. 47, a composition originally written for cello and orchestra, but sometimes arranged for viola and piano, as rendered by Mr. O’Shaughnessy and Mr. Swayze. The piece composed by Mr. Bruch, a Protestant, consists of a series of variations on two main themes of Jewish origin. The first is drawn from the Kol Nidre prayer, which is recited during the evening service on Yom Kippur. Bruch uses the string instrument to imitate the rhapsodic voice of the hazzan who chants the liturgy in the synagogue. The second theme incorporated by Bruch is quoted from the middle section of Isaac Nathan’s arrangement of “O Weep for Those that Wept on Babel’s Stream“, a lyric which was penned by Lord Byron in his collection Hebrew Melodies. The performers explained that the piece depicts the bargaining incorporated in the chanting of the Yom Kippur worship service, seeking forgiveness and a fresh start for the New Year, while promising various repentances in return. They also mentioned that this piece was the very first collaboration attempted between them, when they encountered one another at Southern Oregon University. They have obviously had an opportunity to polish the piece, as their performance was lovely, the interplay between them quite wonderful with each feeding off of one another, and the result quite beautiful. The overall effect was rather haunting – one could imagine the hazzan present and bargaining back and forth with the audible but ephemeral spirit of the Lord.
The final piece on the program was Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano. The piece was written by Shubert in 1824 for arpeggione and piano – the arpeggione was essentially a bowed guitar, which quickly went out of fashion. This is the only piece which was ever composed for an arpeggione, and it continues to be performed today, but with the arpeggione replaced by a cello or viola, which is what was employed by Mr. O’Shaughnessy for this performance. Mr. O’Shaughnessy explained that he had studied this piece at university in an advanced course on parsing the structure of music. But he had frankly just not been able to make any sense of the structure of this very disjointed piece, which consists of three movements but does not adhere to any of the common structural forms and instead meanders all over the place. Mr. O’Shaughnessy related that Shubert was essentially a happy, roly-poly fellow, and that his understanding of this piece is that Shubert wrote the music as a reflection of his feelings just “in the moment” – structure be damned, the music just IS. Once again, the musicians played extraordinarily well together on this piece, and Mr. O’Shaughnessy’s playing, in particular, was infused with great joy and energy. Listening to their performance, one could easily imagine the jolly Mr. Shubert smiling as he proceeded to pen this piece.
When the formal concert was over, and the guests had left their seats, Mr. O’Shaughnessy surprised the gathering, by appearing out in the garden, playing bagpipes as he wandered the grounds, like a Scottish piper roaming the Highlands. It was a final touch of enchantment to a completely enchanting evening that harkened back to the original era of chamber music, stirred imagined visions of spirits, and breathed life into departed composers.
Mr. Swayze and Mr. O’Shaughnessy would like to make their house concerts a regularly recurring event, and to enlist other performers in employing that form of performance. Stay tuned for future developments.
This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on January 12, 2015 at http://jacksonvillereview.com/enchanting-house-concert/