The “Masterworks Series” at Bargemusic, featuring such diverse composers as Bach, Stephen Foster, Tan Dun and Gunther Schuller, gave audiences a welcome break from the oppressive New York humidity Sunday afternoon. Placed alongside the “Here & Now” (contemporary selections), “There & Then” (early music programs) and other series titles, this concert’s broad selection of pieces belied even the conservatism of placing Beethoven and Brahms in the most prominent slots on the program.

Bargemusic © Etienne Frossard
© Etienne Frossard

In many ways, this particular concert experience was an examination of the idea of canon and canonization. Of course, this is in addition to the exceptional level of execution by Alex Fiterstein, Nicholas Canellakis and Steven Beck. While Beck’s edge seemed slightly dulled by the acoustics of the space, perhaps because of the deep rafters in the ceiling, both the clarinet and cello sounds were impeccable. Canellakis’ vibrant, hungry tone cut through the deadening effect of the close space, and Fiterstein’s round tone suffered not at all. Perhaps Beck was simply downplaying his presence in order to better serve the works, but there were certain moments, for example the opening of the Lutosławski duet, when the extreme low register of the piano part was unfortunately not able to resonate correctly.

The indoor performance space on the barge is quite unique – wood-paneled and brick-floored, there was room enough for the 60 or 70 audience members to sit cozily. Behind the stage and through tinted windows, water taxis and the ferry to Manhattan came and went, bobbing gently on the East River. Paralleling the rocking under my chair, the car and boat traffic soon ceased to be visual distractions and became a part of the music, a sort of extramusical counterpoint entirely within the bounds of the first work on the program, Beethoven’s Op. 11.

I personally have never found Milhaud’s work especially compelling, although Fiterstein’s and Beck’s performance of his Sonatine (Op. 100) eliminates the possibility that I simply haven’t heard it realized well enough. The clarinetist’s tone was at its best here, in a solo context which allowed the more subtle variations in his sound to air without the accompaniment of Canellakis’ more intensely sculpted cello timbre. Beck’s light touch on the piano was also well-considered, as the shortcomings in Milhaud I have come away with before usually had something to do with clunky phrasing and a lack of momentum. Finally, the luxuriously paced concert ended with a performance of Brahms’ late Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114. Once more, every player performed the music excellently and with subtle skill, though the piano’s sound lost some urgency in the space.

A number of composers, anonymous for the purposes of this review, have commented skeptically on the particular atmosphere at Bargemusic. Specifically mentioned is the slight rocking and occasional background noise, the very things that make the barge unique as a musical venue! This seems to be something of a theme in discussions around new or unorthodox venues for the performance of contemporary classical music – specifically, these venues are judged by the distractions or technical shortfalls that make them different, something other than a sufficiently neutral medium for musical sublimity to take place. This must change. The cult of abstraction and the truly obsessive censure some audience members inflict on others is a historically transmitted neurosis. Further, it only hurts the cause of making classical music engaging and interesting; perish the thought of an experience that is communally enjoyable. Finally, if some slight sonic adulteration of one’s musical experience does occur, we seem to assume that the problem lies with the venue, and not with one’s powers of concentration.

All of these comments are, of course, specific to the types of venue under consideration – I am not haranguing the barbaric hordes at the gates of High Culture. There simply needs to be more flexibility in expectation, on the part of performers and composers, but also of audiences. In a city with as much energy directed towards outreach and expanding audiences, we need to have this conversation more than most music communities do.

On the other side of the question of canonization, the performance included Cantillations, a 1997 duet for cello and clarinet by the living composer Ofer Ben-Amots. The soft klezmer breaks by Fiterstein perfectly offset Canellakis’ flowing melodic lines, and both gave this work a gentle and judicious realization. I will reluctantly leave aside the clear political ramifications of having a (necessarily) contemporary Israeli composer on a program themed as masterpieces. I will not engage with whatever arguments from geographical coverage, cultural representation, or historical justice underlie this choice. I will simply note that the politics of representation present in these choices have permeated even the nominally shielded cloister of the “Masterwork”, and that this as much as any of the preceding arguments should prompt those unwilling to allow impurities (sonic or ideological) into their musical experience to rethink their position.