After having attended the Jupiter Players' first recital of the season only last week, I went on Monday to hear the company's next performance, this one featuring twentieth century music by George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky, Bohuslav Martinů, Francis Poulenc, and Nikolaï Kapustin. The program's title, Jazzing It Up, was highly appropriate considering the works performed, almost all of which blurred the line between jazz and progressive classical music.
The program opened with Gershwin's Three Preludes (1926). Though Gershwin's original score was for solo piano, the version performed here was an arrangement by Charles Neidich for clarinet and piano. The work refelcts Gershwin's ambition to be taken seriously as a classical composer. Though he had gained international recognition with Rhapsody in Blue, written two years earlier, he was still viewed primarily as a composer of Broadway show tunes. Accordingly, he came up with the idea of a complete set of 24 preludes in the grand manner Chopin, but the number was gradually reduced, first to seven, then to five, and finally to three. It is the second movement in C-sharp minor, marked andante con moto e poco rubato, that is the longest and most interesting. Gershwin himself described it as “a sort of blues lullaby.”
The next work was Stravinsky's L’histoire du soldat (“The Soldier’s Tale”) (1919) for for violin, clarinet, and piano. The piece started as "a theatrical work 'to be read, played, and danced' (lue, jouée et dansée) by three actors and one or several dancers, accompanied by a septet of instruments." The present suite, also from 1919, represents an abridgement not only of content but of instrumentation as well. Although Stravinsky later claimed to have been influenced by jazz when composing the piece, it's doubtful that he had actually had an opportunity to hear any real jazz in post-World War I Europe. His knowledge came instead from reading sheet music. The piece is therefore more what Stravinsky thought jazz should sound like than what it actually did. This gives the music an even more idiosyncratic character than it might otherwise have.
The first half of the program concluded with one of my favorite twentieth century chamber pieces, Martinů's delightful La revue de cuisine (1927) for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello and piano. The work was actually written as a ballet, one of three Martinů composed that year. Even without the dancers, the suite that was adapted from the ballet is a witty sophisticated piece whose instrumenation allows it to mimic the sound of the great 1920's Paris jazz/ragtime bands. The use of a clarinet is particularly effective in the Charleston segment.
After intermission, the musicians returned to perform Poulenc's incidental music for Jean Anouilh's 1940 stage play Léocadia. When first staged in Paris, the play was a critical success but is now largely forgotten. It was a actually a play within a play in which the protagonist's aunt sought to recreate the past (shades of Proust) for him in order to demonstrate its illusory quality when compared to real life. For the premiere, Poulenc wrote one of his most famous songs, Les Chemins de l’amour, which he dedicated to the show's star Yvonne Printemps. It was given an excellent cabaret-like rendition at this performance by ensemble member Gina Cuffari.
The final piece on the program was Kapustin's Piano Quintet, Op. 89 (1998). The Russian composer, who's now in his 80's, has become increasingly popular over the past few years, especially among those with an interest in "third stream" music. Kapustin does not quite fit the mould for this genre, however, since he deliberately eschews all forms of improvisation in his work. As he himself put it:
"I was never a jazz musician. I never tried to be a real jazz pianist, but I had to do it because of the composing. I’m not interested in improvisation–and what is a jazz musician without improvisation? All my improvisation is written, of course, and they become much better; it improved them."
In spite of this, Kapustin spent a great deal of his career, most notably in the 1950's, as a pianist touring the Soviet Union with jazz bands. As a composer, he has sought to implement the jazz idiom in classical forms such as the present quintet and has been remarkably successful in doing so. As far as technique is concerned, one pianist, Leslie De'Ath, has commented that: "... everything Kapustin writes feels technically like an etude – such are the demands made upon the body and the intellect." The composer is also a virtuoso pianist, though he no longer performs in public, and his music is a challenge to the abilities of any musician.
Though not so well attended as last week's recital, this was one of the company's most successful programs. It was helped a great deal in this regard by the high caliber of the musicianship, both that of the ensemble players and the two guest artists, pianist Qi Kong and Israeli violinist Kobi Malkin, both of whom faced extraordinary technical difficulties in the material performed.