Review: Chamber Music Society

Johnny Gandelsman & Njioma Grevious, violins
Jordan Bak, viola
James Wilson, cello
Mary Boodell, flute
Oct. 17, Trinity Lutheran Church

Antonín Dvořák’s advice to American composers – develop a distinctively native style by drawing from Black and American Indian songs and dances – was taken most faithfully and successfully by Black composers working in the first third of the 20th century, as a Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia ensemble demonstrated in a program featuring Dvořák’s “American” Quartet (in F major, Op. 96), written in 1893, and Florence Price’s Quartet No. 2 in A minor, published in 1935.

Many White American composers of the post-Dvořák generation followed a different course, as the ensemble demonstrated in Amy Beach’s Theme and Variations, Op. 80, for flute and string quartet, published in 1920.

Price and Beach both worked in compositional forms that would have been familiar to Dvořák and his Central European contemporaries, but only Price evoked American vernacular music, chiefly spirituals and the rhythmic creative movement of African origin known as juba dance or hambone. Beach, like most American musicians schooled in the 19th century, received a purely European-oriented education and reflected few if any identifiably American traits in her instrumental music.

In its first movement and finale, Price’s quartet hinges on a reverie-like theme recalling one of the more mournful spirituals (e.g., “Go Down, Moses”), with a brief juba dance as its contrasting central movement. Beach, by contrast, works off a dreamy, rather somber theme resembling one of the nostalgic tunes in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” with variations that contrast Viennese and French-impressionist accents.

This performance of the Dvořák was marked by a first violin part, played by Johnny Gandelsman, employing the old romantic expressive technique of portamento – slides from one note to the next – and by rustic (or “folksy”) voicings of the prominent viola part, played by Jordan Bak. Also notable was a highly transparent texture in which no string player sounded recessed or covered, even at the unusually speedy tempo adopted in the finale.

Moody atmospherics and rich instrumental blends prevailed in both the Price and Beach works, no mean feat in the latter, as flutist Mary Boodell kept her instrument, which can easily stand out from strings, securely within the ensemble’s tonescape and texture thanks to subtle phrasing and dynamic control. All five musicians brought out a wealth of tone color in Beach’s more impressionistic variations.

The string players, with Njioma Grevious as first violin, ably clarified the sometimes dense voicings and formal complexities of the first movement of the Price quartet, without straying too far from its spiritual theme, and gave the juba dance and finale a nice balance of rhythmic animation and tunefulness.

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia presents violinist Johnny Gandelsman in the premiere of Angélica Negrón’s “A través del manto luminoso” and solo-violin pieces by Rhiannon Giddens, Tyshawn Sorey, Conrad Tao and Christina Courtin at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at Historic Mankin Mansion, 4200 Oakleys Lane in Highland Springs. Tickets: $30. Details: (804) 304-6312;

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: