Friday, April 4, 2014

Dominique-René de Lerma: The second in a series of ten NPR broadcasts of Bill McGlaughlin's 'Exploring Music' had Joseph White's wonderful violin concerto

[José Silvestre White (1835-1918), Afro-Cuban violinist and composer, is profiled at, which features a comprehensive Works List by Dr. 
Dominique-René de Lerma, Shown here after he received the 1st prize for violin at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1856. Bibliothèque Nationale de France]

Dominique-René de Lerma writes:


            The second in a series of ten NPR broadcasts of Bill McLaughlin's Exploring Music had Joseph White's wonderful violin concerto as the program's central work.  This splendid composition had remained unknown in manuscript until it was uncovered by Kermit Moore.  In the four decades since that discovery it would seem it has been in the repertoires only of Aaron Rosand, Sanford Allen, and Rachel Barton Pine (whose Cedille recording was heard).  Audiences are given repeated performances and recordings of the concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tschaikowsky, and company, but the contribution of this Afro-Cuban seems to attract notice only for special remedial events.  It is more than just historically important: it is a valid and splendid addition to the literature.  The second theme of the first movement is wonderfully expansive and, before it has ended, White plays with a chromatic alteration (such as we find with Mozart and Schubert) that opens the harmonic door to yet more delights.  The composer seems to have enjoyed this process, which also connects the first two movements without pause.  And then comes the vivacious bi-thematic finale-rondo, an exciting romp through virtuosic passages that Rachel travels with such ease.
            There is nothing ethnic in this concerto, but that cannot be said about the rest of this broadcast. 
            The matter of additive rhythm was present with the two Joplin works.  The first was arranged from the piano original for the Boston Pops (a concept imported by Francis Johnson after his trip to England).  Joplin, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle -- they all regarded their music as syncopated, which it is not.  The European concept of syncopation, so well exemplified in Beethoven's third Leonora overture, moves the strong beat away from the start of a measure.  That first beat is strong for two reasons, both historically and linguistically related.  In texted music, this is where the preposition's noun falls, and secondly, this is where the previous harmonic motion comes to at least a momentary solution.  That is not the situation with Joplin, but the result does reflect on a linguistic origin.  In so many sub-Saharan languages, the regularity of metric pulses is replaced by rhythmic units of variant pulses.  In place of a progression of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, we may have a pattern of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, or 3+3+2.  That is the pattern of the Charleston dance, the inception of the Southern American clave, and the pervasive rhythm of the first movement of Gershwin's piano concerto.  It is also the defining pattern of rag.  Joplin's Maple Leaf serves as an example. 
            That takes us to the second Joplin work our host offered; Solace, a Mexican rag.  This is a sensitive work of painful nostalgia, particularly in the final strain.  But why Mexican?  It is not just that.  The stride-piano bass line (let us forget the anachronism of the term) has that "Spanish tinge" of the habanera, so popular with much of the music in that period.  And that rhythm is a version of 3+3+2.  Joplin would hardly have duplicated that rhythm in the treble but instead he layered a different rhythm by giving 3+2+3 to the upper voice. He certainly did not articulate all this beforehand, but atavistically created a work that bears a relationship to Africa, and not to the European concept of syncopation.
            Leadbelly's chain of spirituals, which began with Every time I feel the spirit, prompted reference to Billy Bank's setting with Harlem's Christian Tabernacle Church Choir.  Originally issued on LP (Murray Hill 927042), it is now available on the internet --
            For starts, the text itself calls on additive rhythm:
         Every time I    feel the spir- it
         3+        2+    3+  3+        2+   2+
            Simultaneously layered on that rhythm is after-beat clapping of the chorus, thereby democratizing the rhythmic texture.  And the tambourine and organ only add to the rhythmic counterpoint.  It is like a dancer whose every body part has its own rhythm.
            This performance, so filled with information on the culture, also raises the matter of Klangideal, or the sonority ideal.  The very sound of Baroque music identifies its historical era with the polarity of the outer voices and the comparative emphasis on the higher ranges of the trumpet, the recorder, 4-foot organ pipes rather that the 64-foot bombard, and the castrato.  Hearing the lush mid-range sound of the cellos, violas, horn, clarinets, and mezzo-sopranos suggests Brahms, while the mellow chorus of saxophones with bright brassy riffs calls Ellington to mind.  Here we have the open-voice sonority of the singers, a counterpart of the immediate speaking of the Hammond organ.  And that, with its raspy sound, reminds us of that same quality found in the voice of Louis Armstrong or the down-home exhortation of the preacher.  Even an instrument that could produce clear sounds is modified so the kora has resonating metal discs added to its strings and the mbira is played within an amplifying gourd whose body is covered with beads that resonate in sympathy.
            Listening to Exploring music not only offers a change from the ubiquitous monotony of audience-friendly chestnuts (and Bill is shameless with works that might offend ears so dulled), his programming and commentary activate the receptive mind, and he always encourages us to let him know of our reactions.

Dominique-René de Lerma

No comments: