Yesterday afternoon the Ives Quartet (violinists Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier, violist Jodi Levitz, and cellist Stephen Harrison), along with special guest Mack McCray on piano, returned to the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church with a program entitled It’s in the Genes. It could just as easily have been called Teachers and Students, since it presented a chain of influence that spanned from 1879 to 2012. 1879 was the year in which César Franck composed his F minor piano quintet. One of Franck’s most devoted students at the Conservatoire de Paris was Vincent d’Indy, who would later be teaching there in 1909 when Darius Milhaud moved to Paris from Aix-en-Provence, where he would become part of a movement to react against the conservatism of d’Indy and his adulation of Franck. Thus the program included Milhaud’s first string quartet, which was one of his early statements of that reaction. When Milhaud himself became a teacher, he was more encouraging of students who had their own ideas, one of whom, at Mills College, was Elinor Armer, represented on the program by a piano quintet she composed for the 2012 San Francisco-Shanghai International Chamber Music Festival, jointly produced by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
The program was performed in reverse chronological order. It turned out that the expansiveness of the compositions increased as the clock rolled into the past. Armer’s quintet was in three short movements, each with a descriptive title (“Discoveries,” “Industrious Interlude,” and “Celebration”) and played without an interrupting pauses. Milhaud’s quartet consisted of four distinct and more extended movements, but the overall duration was still on the order of a quarter of an hour. This left Franck’s quintet as the only composition after the intermission, which is just as well because, while it had only three movements, the work was epic in scale and, in many ways, is the chamber music parallel of his D minor symphony. Both are in three movements extending for more than half an hour’s duration, both explore the recurrence of thematic material across movements, and the most frequently recurring theme in the piano quintet bears a strong resemblance to one of the themes from the symphony.
Yesterday’s performances did not try to emphasize either positive or negative reactions to influence. Nevertheless, they certainly cultivated an appreciation of how expressiveness had changed. Each of the movements of Armer’s quintet amounted to a tone poem in miniature, using appropriately shaped thematic material, rather than words, to provide a “description” associated with the movement’s title. Milhaud’s structures, on the other hand, were more formal an abstract, establishing expressiveness through a wide palette of rhetorical devices. However, if his quartet had been intended as a reaction against Franck’s tradition, it was interesting to note that the opening theme of Milhaud’s first movement returned for the coda of the last. That older tradition then had to be taken on its own terms and probably benefitted from having the intermission establish some distance from the 20th and 21st centuries.
If rhetoric was the pervasive element that characterized the expressiveness of each piece, then the Ives Quartet was always there with the right rhetorical stance for each occasion. One could readily appreciate the diversity of rhetoric both within and across these three compositions. There was a sense that the most important quality Armer acquired from Milhaud was the ability to take delight in a sense of play. Both compositions were inherently ludic; and, if the games were different, Ives Quartet made the case that it was the spirit of the game that mattered most.
The Franck quintet, on the other hand, was treated as a monument of past tradition. The approach was neither adulatory nor ironic. It simply accepted the nineteenth-century values for what they were; and, when things felt as if the expressiveness was pouring off the stage to wash over the audience, the delivery was still unabashed. This was not the spirit of play but the spirit of how things once were, suggesting that we can still enjoy them however distant their past may be.