Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Commemorating the First World War: A multi-dimensional centennial concert by Ronen Chamber Ensemble

Co-artistic directors Gregory Martin, David Bellman, Ingrid Fischer-Bellman
Overshadowed by the even greater level of carnage and atrocity of World War II, the "Great War" — which began a century ago this year — probably defined the modern era in Western Civilization more crucially than the cataclysm that followed a generation later.

The 1914-18 conflict certainly disrupted or destroyed millions of lives, upset a long-lasting sense of security and values, and set the arts on several new courses — redefining, and sometimes casting aside, definitions of "masterpiece."

For "In Memoriam: The Great War," the Ronen Chamber Ensemble played two outright masterpieces by composers deeply affected by World War I. Maurice Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" (in an arrangement for woodwind quintet) and Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9 (arranged by the composer's illustrious student Anton Webern) represented the program's peaks.

What also must be placed near the top of the season-opener at the Indiana History Center is the well-written, comprehensive commentary delivered by pianist Gregory Martin, who now is also Ronen co-artistic director, joining the 30-year-old ensemble's founders, David Bellman and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman.

At numerous points, Martin talked about the two master composers, both of whom saw service (which scarred Ravel permanently) as well as lesser-known figures, especially a generation of English composers including W. Denis Browne, George Butterworth, Ivor Gurney and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Slides of the featured composers as they looked then were projected in a series that also sketched in aspects of the scene not involving music, such as Tsar Nicholas II on horseback reviewing Russian troops while carrying a religious icon.

The program opened  with a work written  and conducted by visiting British composer John Traill. "Memento" for piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinet set the elegiac tone for the evening. Traill returned at the end of the program to conduct the Schoenberg work.

World War I directly affected Russian composer Nikolai Miaskovsky, but the first movement of his second cello sonata was mainly selected because it represents the war's long-term effect on him and his countrymen artists. Imperial Russia's war-engendered weakness allowed Communism to triumph, and this score of 30 years later was among a host of pieces composed to turn aside government criticism of modernism or "formalism" in new music.

Fischer-Bellman's tidy account of the folk-influenced long lines for cello was supported by Martin, who could have brought forward the piano part a  bit more, even though the keyboard role consists largely of accompaniment patterns. He certainly proved himself a sensitive accompanist in a set of English songs, sung feelingly by tenor Kerry Jennings. The piano took advantage of Vaughan Williams' stronger profile as a composer in his "Whither Must I Wander."

Jennings returned to open the second half with two songs by Indianapolis WWI soldier Albert von Tilzer. The composer of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" also made his mark with rally-round-the-flag songs such as "Au Revoir, But Not Goodbye, Soldier Boy" and "I May Be Gone For a Long, Long Time." With subdued lighting setting the stage for a poignant encore, Jennings and Martin returned to perform Gerald Finzi's setting of a valedictory Thomas Hardy poem.

Before that calming farewell came the turbulence of the Schoenberg piece. Martin blossomed even more at the piano, with a demanding part filling out the harmonic and rhythmic activity otherwise distributed among flute, clarinet, violin and cello.

 I find Schoenberg's atonal works (before he systemized composition free of key relationships) generally have more personality and expressive elan than his agenda-setting serialism.  The Chamber Symphony is brisk, maudlin, frenetic and tangled by turns. The arrangement in this performance drew a high degree of unanimity and zest from (in addition to Martin), Bellman, Fischer-Bellman, violinist Jayna Park, and flutist Tamara Thweatt.

Similar excitement was generated by the Ravel, with oboist Jennifer Christen, hornist Julie Beckel Yager, bassoonist Oleksiy Zakharov, Thweatt, and Bellman.  The most successful of the four movements Tuesday, with the kind of warmth rarely associated with the composer but definitely a factor here, was the Menuet: Allegro moderato. The piece's frequent buoyancy of mood, counterintuitive to the atmosphere surrounding its composition, could be said to represent the victors' chin-up  resolve — soon to be dashed — to make the Great War "the war to end all wars."