Encores & Curtain Calls: Mohawk Trail Concerts opens new season
“For me, singing sad songs often has a way of healing a situation. It gets the hurt out in the open into the light, out of the darkness.”
— Reba McEntire
The rich harvest of early summer is already dropping, like eager fruit, into our midst. One which you may wish to breeze up the Mohawk Trail to Charlemont to pluck while ripe and ready is the opening of the Mohawk Trail Concerts’ official Federated Church season, Saturday, June 27 and 28, for “Music Now and Then,” which harbors both disturbing and consoling offerings; among the consoling trio sonatas for flute, gamba and harpsichord by C.P.E. Bach, a harpsichord piece by Rameau and a madrigal by Henri Pousseur.
Less consoling or, perhaps, more accurately, alternately horrifying and ultimately consoling, is regional composer Lewis Spratlan’s Horn Quartet honoring victims of the 2012 Newtown tragedy. This summer marks the 45th season of the home-grown hilltown concert venue, first conceived and nurtured by Arnold Black and his wife, Ruth, who just recently passed the mantle of directorship to cellist Mark Fraser of Montague.
The overall theme for the summer is “Tales Told,” storytelling in music and special anniversaries. There will be free admission to the Friday open dress rehearsal, a great opportunity for a cost-free, high-quality arts experience; take note!
Performing will be Elizabeth Chang, violin, Alice Robbins, viola da gamba, Volcy Pelletier, cello, Christopher Krueger, flute, Laura Klock, horn, and Gregory Hayes, harpsichord.
As it is the Spratlan work that is least known and yet which — by virtue of its place in time and social immediacy — deserves to be most known, I highlight it here, through a recent dialogue with its composer:
JM: Like myself, you were moved to write a piece in memory of the Sandy Hook tragedy.
LS: Oh you wrote one?
JM: Just for solo voice and piano for a local church performance. It was to the biblical text of “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” I was moved to create a response of some kind to the clearly felt helplessness we were all experiencing. What forces comprise your own work?
LS: There are no voices at all involved, it’s for a horn quartet — horn, violin, cello and piano.
JM: And it’s been done before?
LS: Yes, it was premiered at the third annual Five College Music Festival in September.
JM: Do you, as I, observe audiences not merely at the end of but during performances of your work for their reactions?
LS: Well, yes, I think any composer does, it’s inevitable. It was, I would say, extremely well received. There was a kind of stunned silence at the end, particularly with the way the piece ends, which is sort of watching these souls make their way up into heaven, these little children.
JM: So is there a program (a detailed narrative infrastructure) to the piece?
LS: Nothing beyond simply that’s in honor, in memory, of the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy. There’s only one other line beyond that, “it is in 3 sections played without pause.” I’m sure you’re aware of the double-edged sword quality of programs, how it can get them on firmer ground by helping them to make sense of the piece; but the negative side of that is that it binds them into listening as if “Oh this is the place where ‘x’ happens or this is the place where ‘y’ happens,” which can interfere with a more spontaneous (experience) of the piece. The piece is a great mixture of things which are very explicit and other things which are not particularly explicit. You could say the degree of “illustration,” or depiction in the piece, so to speak, varies highly.
JM: But you have every confidence, in spite of the lack of that program, that by the closure of the piece, the minds of the listeners are going to understand that they are “hearing” the ascension of the human soul?
LS: I think it’s very hard to miss.
JM: So it sounds like a fairly sustained, substantial piece.
LS: Yeah, it’s pretty substantial.
JM: While I don’t have a great database of your music in my memory, my sense is that it tends to be pretty dense in general, doesn’t it?
LS: Yes, yes it does. It’s pretty much my lingo that you’re hearing.
JM: Any reason for that particular choice of instruments, other than that you had those instruments available at the time?
LS: That’s a particularly interesting question. The tragedy occurred on Dec. 14 of 2012, and about a week before that, I had pretty much decided I wanted to write a horn quartet. Like many of us, I wanted to make a farewell gesture to Laura Klock, the horn professor at UMass and one of my favorite works is Brahms’ horn trio. And to this combination, I had decided to add a cello for texture, with the Brahms as a reference, a piece which has a sort of “farewell quality” to it, anyway, a sort of autumnal piece ...
JM: (laughing) ... like all Brahms!
LS: You could say that, almost; I mean, there’s some wonderful exceptions, but right, yeah ... I agree with you (chuckling). But I didn’t have a single note down on the page, just daydreaming about it. And then the massacre occurred and it really knocked me off my props. I’m sure I had the same reactions as everyone else “Here we go again!” Gun control, ‘shmun’ control, nobody cares to do anything about it and we’re sitting here, victims of this insanity. I think part of what got to (me) was its nearness in neighboring Connecticut. So it occurred to me to turn this horn quartet into a memorial piece and as soon as I did that, a big “Yes” came up in me. And I thought, “Is this the really the scoring (instrument profile) I want or do I want percussion?’ So that I can have rim shots (striking the metal drum edge for a hard, explosive sonority) for the gunshots and so on. I decided not to, I decided there was plenty to accomplish what I wanted to do. While the horn can be a rambunctious, brassy instrument, it can also be an incredibly consoling instrument and the piano will also give me lots of resources. So, I decided that I didn’t want to mess with the (original) concept.
JM: My last question: what, if anything, do you “expect” when you write a piece such as this? Do you expect that it will serve the human cause or remedy the situation is some way?
LS: No, I’m too cynical to give a “yes” to that question; I don’t see myself as remedial here. What I do entertain is the possibility that my musical observations are going to help the listener integrate the situation, to ...
JM: ... process ... ?
LS ... yes, process it, right, and make ... I guess ... a degree of soothing ... is entailed.
JM: Thank you that’s a wonderful answer.
Friday & Saturday concerts
The Saturday concert begins at 7:30 p.m. The air-conditioned Federated Church is on Route 2 in Charlemont. Tickets are $20, $18 for students and seniors. On Friday, the open rehearsal at 7 p.m. is free. Tickets may be ordered by phone at 413-625-9511, or toll-free at 888-MTC-MUSE, online at www.mohawktrailconcerts.org, as well as at Boswell’s Books, Shelburne Falls; World Eye Bookshop, Greenfield; Broadside Books, Northampton; and Amherst Copy & Designworks, Amherst.
If you have questions, contact Denese Gurley, 413-525-9511. Info@mohawktrailconcerts.org.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.