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Rachel Barton Pine and Maud Powell

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is a dynamic place, which regularly offers interesting exhibits, film screenings (like the Agnès Varda film I saw last year with an introduction by the filmmaker herself), and other events. They host only a small number of concerts, but these often showcase musicians well worth hearing, as was the case with the recital by Christine Brewer I reviewed last spring. So, I was not surprised last night to find myself in the audience with some high-profile Washingtonians like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Leonard Slatkin (conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra), and Neale Perl (president of Washington Performing Arts Society). Slatkin has a family connection, since his wife, Linda Hohenfeld Slatkin -- who is a soprano, heard recently on the recording of William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience -- is one of the artistic directors of this series, the Shenson Chamber Music Concerts. The reservation list was full, but everyone who was waiting on stand-by, myself included, got in to the little concert hall on the museum's fifth floor.

Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu 'ex-Soldat' violin, Cremona, 1742, with Rachel Barton PineAmerican violinist Rachel Barton Pine was in town for the first of those concerts this season. Here was a prominent woman violinist playing an ingenious concert in tribute to the first great violinist in the United States, Maud Powell, who also happened to be a woman. If you have never heard Powell's name before, you should get familiar with the piles of information now available from the Maud Powell Society in North Carolina. For the latter part of her career, she was regarded around the world as the best female violin player anywhere and the best American master of the instrument, man or woman. Karen A. Shaffer, the society's president and founder, was also in the audience last night, clearly thrilled that Rachel Barton Pine was drawing attention to the subject of her life's work.

As an example of Maud Powell's prominence, she gave the American premieres of violin concerti by Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius, with the first of those composers working with Powell directly to prepare the score. Barton Pine began her fascinating program with one movement from each of these three concerti, to show off the range of technical demands that Powell confidently took onto her shoulders. The broad bowstrokes and roaring melismas up and down in the first movement of Dvořák's A minor concerto, op. 53 ("Allegro, ma non troppo"), quickly stripped strands of horsehair off Barton Pine's bow. It's a fiercely difficult movement, with lots of passages in octaves and other multiple stops. Often the movement featured the raw, throaty low register of Barton Pine's instrument, the "ex-Soldat" violin made by Giuseppe del Gesù Guarneri in Cremona in 1742. Tchaikovsky's D major concerto, op. 35, offered its slow movement ("Canzonetta: Andante"), a gorgeous gypsy-flavored melody, in which Barton Pine was at her lyrical, long-lined best. The final movement came from Sibelius's D minor concerto, op. 47 ("Allegro, ma non tanto"), which is a sort of mad dash full of exciting syncopations, a few short parts of which slipped ever so slightly out of Barton Pine's control.

Maud Powell, 1867-1920Powell championed her own countrymen's music as much as she could, and several American composers dedicated works to her. Barton Pine gave us two examples, the second of which was a pretty but fairly unremarkable Romance for Violin and Piano, op. 23, that Amy Beach wrote for Maud Powell and herself to play at a Women's Congress. Far more interesting to me was a piece by Marion Bauer called Up the Ocklawaha, Tone Picture for Violin, op. 6. It began on one of Powell's concert tours in Florida, during which she played in a small town accessible only by an overnight boat trip up a small river. Powell wrote a poem about the experience, which describes the efforts of the "dusky crew" to keep the frightening night at bay. (For someone who was apparently quite forward-thinking about race, she also called the black boatmen the "Trusting darkies guiding the boat / With stealthy instinct, true, unerring.") Barton Pine brought a most evocative sound to this short work of program music: "The arrowed flames / Trick and cheat the eye: / Wanton shapes infest the trees / (Hanks of poisonous moss in the air)."

Powell was the first white soloist to program arrangements of black spirituals, and Barton Pine played a few of Maud Powell's arrangements of these tunes, beginning with her version of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Deep River. Powell often played these arrangements for American troops during World War I, because the familiar melodies mean home. As an encore, Powell sometimes played her own arrangement of four plantation melodies, all of which began life in minstrel shows, the infamous blackface vaudeville acts that grotesquely sentimentalized American plantation life. (uTopianTurtleTop had a couple of great posts about the familiar melody "Jimmy Crack Corn" and the gradual, insidious process by which racist minstrel tunes like it become children's songs. In the same vein, I wrote this post about what Debussy's piece Golliwog's Cakewalk really means.)

Other Reviews:

Gail Wein, A History of Violins (Washington Post, February 25)
The final set were pieces that Maud Powell played on her tours with John Philip Sousa's band, including Max Liebling's Fantasia on Sousa Themes, which used melodies mostly from Sousa's operas. (Yes, he wrote operas. Liebling studied with Franz Liszt.) This was some of the most difficult playing for Barton Pine's partner at the piano, Matthew Hagle, whose playing was sensitive, if somewhat understated, all evening. Herman Bellstedt, Jr., one of Sousa's cornet players, composed the Caprice on Dixie for Unaccompanied Violin as a virtuosic tour-de-force, which it certainly was in Barton Pine's hands. (I don't have a problem with her playing a piece based on that controversial tune, but Barton Pine's explanation of the tune's origin -- named for a kind slave owner in Manhattan named Dixie -- does not have any historical basis, as far as I can determine. The original minstrel lyrics clearly seem to depict -- perversely, as so much about minstrel shows -- a freed slave longing to return to the life of his plantation.) The encore was another Maud Powell arrangement, of Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, which Powell was playing when she had a heart attack on stage, not long before she died. Rachel Barton Pine offered a most fitting tribute to her memory.

If you missed this excellent concert, you will have the chance to hear Rachel Barton Pine next month, also for free, at one of the Sunday concerts (March 26, 6:30 pm) at the National Gallery of Art. The program will be different, with music by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, John Corigliano, Mozart, and Schumann, but the team of Rachel Barton Pine and Matthew Hagle will be the same. Ionarts, of course, will be there.


Mark Barry said...

I like the Goth look.

Charles T. Downey said...

She is apparently also a metalhead, but she plays classical.

Mark Barry said...

You know Maud would have been too.