Returning for a second consecutive Saturday to the top of Morris Museum’s parking lot, I found again a space full of spectators with their folding chairs, wine glasses and food baskets that reminded me of the ambience on the Tanglewood Festival’s lawn on a sunny afternoon. People were dressed for cool weather, the floor was grim asphalt rather than groomed grass, but the sunset as seen through the branches of a huge pine, was as spectacular. For the event, a different but overlapping set of members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra proposed two short and poignant American works for string quartet followed by an undisputed late Brahms masterpiece: the Clarinet Quintet.

Orpheus members play Brahms © Jack Grassa
Orpheus members play Brahms
© Jack Grassa

Irrespective of how much the works of Jessie Montgomery and Florence Price are introducing and playing with jazz or spirituals inflexions, their music is still very much anchored in the 19th-century European tradition and, hence, the overall evening’s soundscape had indeed a certain common air.

Premiered in 2006 and revised several times since, Jessie Montgomery’s Strum has quickly met with success, hopefully due to its own merits and not because there is a trend promoting works by women and ethnic minorities. A brief work, it starts miraculously with a shimmering and delicate pizzicato played by the viola, followed by a warm melody intoned by the cello. One of the most charming attributes of the score – an elegant arch structure – is the way different individual, full-of-life voices rise from and fall back into a seductively colored sound canopy. Perceivable references to Bartók or John Adams’ idioms were part of a wholesome entity that the young violinist and composer inventively crafted. The cohesiveness of the string quartet members was essential for this rendition’s success.

Better known today since the spectacular discovery of a trove of her manuscripts in a dilapidated dwelling in 2009, the music composed by Florence Price – the first African-American female composer to gain national attention – is still more discussed than interpreted in public spaces. Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes is the central movement of a string quartet entitled Five Folksongs in Counterpoint that might have been composed as early as 1927, despite the final manuscript being inscribed with a 1951 date. Like the other segments, this is music rooted in Price’s Deep South origins, in the tradition of African-American spirituals. The evening’s string players drew attention not only to the contrapuntal treatment of voices, but also to the rich texture tinged with impressionistic embroideries of an apparently monotonous, hymn-like musical structure. Unfortunately, it was easy for listeners to lose interest in a work programmed after the full-of-imagination Strum.

Clarinetist Alan Kay joined the string quartet for the Brahms. A former Artistic Director of the Orpheus and a teacher of renown, he gave an eloquent introductory note on the genesis of Brahms’ late work featuring his instrument. His sound was clean, and melodious throughout the performance, while his conversations with Abigail Fayette (who took over the first violin chair for the piece) and violist Dov Scheindlin were truly collaborative. In his interventions, Jonathan Spitz pointed out that the cello was still Brahms’ most expressive instrument. Thematic connections were clearly underlined, but not so much the contrasts between the two themes of the first movement or between the variations in the last. More, the interpreters were reluctant to fully embrace the Romantic character of the opus, the overall sense of nostalgia and sadness expressed by a composer contemplating – at the end of his career – fading memories.

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