By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO — When one takes a break from old habits — say, goes for a drink in an unfamiliar bar across town — there’s a chance one might make a new friend.
In early celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8), the Olmos Ensemble, one of several troupes staffed by San Antonio Symphony players on off weeks, broke an old habit by presenting music of four composers who did not carry around a spare Y chromosome, too often the price of admission to concert programs. The March 6 concert in Laurel Heights United Methodist Church held chamber works works by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) of France, Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) of Germany, Amy Beach (1867-1944) of the United States, and Katherine Hoover (born 1937) of the United States.
With the possible exception of Beach’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1896), which couldn’t assemble a consistent voice from the diverse ideas circulating in the fin-de-siècle air, no special pleading was required for the music on this program.
Mendelssohn remains in the shadow of her celebrated brother, Felix, but her Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano (1847) makes a strong bid to upend the sibling pecking order. Her music is as songful as her brother’s, but more daring. Of its four movements, only the third, an allegretto titled “Lied” (Song), could be counted as slight. The roiling, stormy drama of the opening Allegro anticipates the harmonic advances of Brahms, when Brahms himself was still in knickers. The Andante fascinates with its spare textures. The Finale hints of the Scottish country dance rhythms previously essayed by Felix, but Fanny treats them more freely. The piece was given a muscular, red-blooded performance by violinist Eric Gratz (the San Antonio Symphony’s extraordinary young concertmaster), cellist Ryan Murphy, and pianist Dianne Frazer, visiting from Louisiana as a guest artist.
Chaminade’s Concertino for Flute and Piano begins innocently enough with a fairly straightforward flute melody, more English than French in cut, but then all hell breaks loose with some of the flashiest virtuoso demands in the flute repertoire. Mark Teplitsky, the San Antonio Symphony’s rookie principal flute, gave a jaw-droppingly brilliant performance, delivering the roller-coaster runs and protean rhythms with accuracy, confidence, and natural shapeliness.
Hoover’s Lyric Trio (1983) for flute, cello, and piano is the soul of wit. Each of its four movements is an eventful and coherent narrative, bristling with strong ideas. The music is modernist, not anchored to a tonal center but also not entirely adrift. Its propensity for arresting rhythms, serpentine melodies, and comedic asides gives it a distinctive voice.
Frazer, the pianist, had struck up a friendship with Hoover in New York years ago. She told the audience that she’d called Hoover while preparing for this concert to ask if she had any new thoughts about the music. “In the slow movement, she just wishes she’d written more notes for all of us,” Frazer said. Actually, the relative calm of that Largo (with its curious whimpers on flute and cello) served as an excellent platform for launching the exhilarating high-speed chase of the Finale. Teplitsky, Murphy, and Frazer delivered the whole with infectious energy and complete unity.
If Beach’s sonata was too much like a whirlwind tour — stops at the stylistic haunts of Richard Strauss, Debussy, and César Franck — Gratz and Frazer didn’t get the memo. The performance was fully engaged.
Mendelssohn, Chaminade, and, to a lesser extent, Beach were admirable denizens of that unfamiliar bar across town, but Hoover was something more. She was a friend you’d want to knock back a few cold ones with before going off into the night arm in arm, singing bawdy songs.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.