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A( )live Music: Ann Schein at the National Gallery of Art

Ann Schein, a 20-year veteran faculty member at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, has had an outstanding career that is perhaps less recognized than it should be. From her Carnegie Hall debut to working with the Who's Who of great conductors (George Szell, Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, David Zinman, Stanislaw Skrowacewski, Sir Colin Davis—to name just a few) to playing the complete major Chopin repertoire at Lincoln Center in 1980 (a feat also accomplished by one of her teachers, Arthur Rubinstein), Ann Schein has always shone brightly.

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R.Schumann, Davidsbündlertänze, Arabeske, Humoreske,
Ann Schein

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Alban Berg, Altenberglieder,
Ann Schein/Jessye Norman

She did again, on a hot, gorgeous Sunday, in the half-empty, half-full West Garden Court in the National Gallery of Art. The ominous audience absence was understandable due to the weather, but a true shame—all the more so because the program on offering was the most exciting I have seen and heard in Washington since the Zehetmair Quartet presented Schumann, Bartók, and Cage in January 2003, also at the National Gallery of Art. Nay—make that the most exciting program ever! An all-20th-century composer program featuring Aaron Copland (1900–1990), Elliot Carter (b. 1908), Sydney Hodkinson (b. 1934) and Richard Danielpour (b. 1956)! (Truth be told, it was perhaps in part the program and not just the weather that kept people away, though I would loath to admit that.)

Unassuming, perhaps like a young, still noble grandmother (of the charming type), Ann Schein came on stage. She rang the first Copland notes out like an assertion of self. So much gusto went into the first chord that a hairclip of hers was flung to the ground. Mechanically, steadily, and yet with a continuous line, she started to assemble the Piano Variations (1930) like an ever-growing Fisher-Price construction kit. As she added notes to this musical building, the structure, the building became more and more visible to the ears, while only the individual building blocks were actually audible at any given time. Fine pianissimos were executed clearly and so delicately that the scratching of my soft pencil seemed obstrusive. Spirited flocks of notes shot all over the piano, like hundreds of ascending flamingos running across the New York Steinway & Sons of the National Gallery.

When someone like Mme. Schein champions a piece like the seldom-heard Piano Variations by Copland (not generally a composer suffering from neglect in this country), it puts the work almost beyond reproach. In this very concentrated, determined performance, still with communicated joy, it would be impossible to dismiss the beautiful (medium-thorny) piece as a flashy intellectual exercise by some modernist composer or deliberately difficult hotshot performer. The only composer no longer alive on the night's program was well served.

Well served, too, were the audience members with Richard Danielpour's The Enchanted Garden from his Preludes, Book 1. These five pieces, 12 years old, are most delightful American impressionist vignettes, and while it may be unsophisticated or at least "too easy" to speak of an "American latter-day Debussy," the association comes necessarily, and not just because of the titles of the work.

Promenade is very much cast in this musical light, if perhaps without the delicate inward structure and tone colors of Debussy. Mardi Gras is more distinctly Danielpour, and the jostling, jazzy rhythms and brassy sections are always present, underlying the music—a visceral audio postcard from New Orleans that should have had everyone's rear moving in their seats. (Admittedly, save mine, I saw no evidence of this.)

Childhood Memory is a more laid-back "dreamery," a sound-weaving of lazy, hot reminiscences, of a different substance than Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 but a similar taste. From the Underground has a comparatively unsettling murmur to it, though I thought that the individual notes took over from the painted mood after a while. Despite the brisker tempo, it is wholly within the vernacular of the other pieces, as is Night, a Whistler-like nocturne: small, nebulous, hard to define, but with distinct moods and calling cards of chords that suggested comfort to my ears. The more vivacious lead-up to the once again soft ending wrapped it up nicely: a most worthy musical discovery for me, indeed.

After the intermission, the few Washingtonians who had not been kept away by the sun were scared away after Copland and Danielpour were finished with them. Only a hard core of a few dozen listeners (a fairly even mix of old and young) stuck around to hear the Sydney Hodkinson 1981 Minor Incidents: Four Character Pieces for Solo Piano, which started out in a somewhat typical modernist way—Lee Hoiby without the bounce—but recovered quickly. Con energia e audace sounded more promising from the title than it was; enjoyable though, still. Con leggierezza, muted and in darker hues, was a fair note-assembly but not one that I could relate to at once or detect structure within, though I would more likely blame myself for this shortcoming than the piece or the composer. The piece, as did the following movement, Con duolo, still had enough to offer on their sonic terms alone that made them more than just bearable: enjoyable (if only just). Con violenza becomes true to its name only at the very end, but has by then fully justified itself.

Elliot Carter, the grand-daddy of American 20th-century composers and his raucous Piano Sonata (1945–46) came next. It often rubs traditionalists the wrong way that the modernist, experimental composer Carter is the predominant living composer in the U.S., at the expense of many very fine, more traditional composers such as David Diamond, Roy Harris, Morton Gould, Stephen Gerber, or Paul Moravec. But while all the latter certainly deserve more attention—Terry Teachout, for example, has always championed Moravec and rightly so, support crowned by Moravec being awarded the Pulitzer Prize last April for his Tempest Fantasy—pieces like the Piano Sonata show why Elliot Carter has the standing that he enjoys. Far more accessible (though no less wild) than his time-experiments (a.k.a. string quartets), this is great music of its time and for all times. The Piano Sonata, as will his Piano Concertos, I am convinced, shall have a place in the repertoire of future generations as firm (if less often performed) as any Beethoven piece of that sort. (All that said without making a direct qualitative comparison of the two, which could only get me into trouble.)

The Carter, it will not surprise, was marvelously played—with all the necessary flexibility and power, at times raw, at times held back. The usual bad acoustics of the West Garden Court that so particularly mar piano recitals seemed to matter little or not at all the entire evening. While the cynic may suggest that these pieces could not be harmed by bad acoustics as one would not be able to tell the difference, and while I may grant him the chuckle, admitting that they may well be more robust than say the Waldstein or Appassionata sonatas by the aforementioned Beethoven, there was also some simply awfully good playing involved. That, and more importantly, intelligent, appropriate playing.

A concert among the very finest for the very few. A refreshing treat of music that screams of being alive, not part of the classical-music-museum-cult that would have classical music end with late Beethoven or, more radically, Ravel. As I overheard a lady say on her way out: "I don't understand the music, but it's excellent." Right on, madam! Excellent indeed. Fabulous. F-ing Fabulous, to be precise.

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