Washington Square Festival ends on a high note


By Michael Clive

By the time you read this, the unseasonal warmth we enjoyed last Friday will already have receded into memory. But while it lasted, it lent the day a festival air that even the occasional cloudburst couldn’t dampen, enhancing the already cheery proceedings at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church — where a deliciously programmed concert of keyboard, chamber and vocal works concluded the Washington Square Music Festival’s 48th season.

The music ranged from baroque to modern and from staples to the offbeat. The roster of performers was equally diverse, including some artists who looked to be still in their 20s. But the star of the evening — if such well-knit ensemble work can be said to have a star — was harpsichordist and musical elder statesman Kenneth Cooper. Maestro Cooper is well known not only to regulars of the Washington Square Festival, but more widely as longtime music director of the Berkshire Bach Ensemble. The success of his New Year performances of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos makes us miss Alexander Schneider, who used to rock the house at Carnegie with his New Year Brandenburgs, all the more.

An accomplished musicologist and music historian, Cooper opened the concert with his own “reconstruction” of the Concerto in d minor for Harpsichord and Strings, No. 15 by Handel. This is the kind of music that harpsichord addicts live for: a prime two-movement concerto of straightforward, dancing rhythms and highly embroidered melodies, starting and ending with extended chromatic flights of fleet passagework. The rhapsodic, improvisatory quality of these solos and the sheer speed of the notes are sonic fireworks designed to put the harpsichordist’s dexterity and musicianship on display, and Cooper acquitted himself with the best of them. He was ably abetted by violinists Eriko Sato, Mayuki Fukuhara and Theresa Salomon, violist Veronica Salas, cellist Lutz Rath, and bassist Jeffrey Levine.

For the next selection it was fast forward three centuries to the premiere of the witty harpsichord suite “Peculiar Plants” by Victoria Bond. Created for and dedicated to Cooper, the suite presents six musical portraits of colorfully weird, menacing plants — including strangler fig, Venus flytrap, deadly nightshade, blushing violet and ragweed (only five movements were ready at concert time). If you know Saint Saens’s “Carnival of the Animals” in its American version, you know the format: humorous rhyming couplets a la Ogden Nash introduce each tone painting.

Ironically, the very facility of composer and soloist camouflaged the extent of their accomplishment here. For both, the harpsichord’s tonal beauty and crispness cloak expressive limitations: With its plucked strings, the harpsichord offers a very narrow range of dynamic and coloristic possibilities. It takes a composer of Bond’s skill to work them into a vivid picture, and a player of Cooper’s caliber to make the most of it. Together they had the audience laughing out loud.

Going in, I thought that Alfred Schnittke’s “Moz-art” for two violins might provide a serious change of mood. I was wrong. Though the brainy Schnittke wrote some fearsomely rigorous, complex music for strings, “Moz-art” is a sophisticated but light-hearted gloss on classical style generally, and Mozart in particular. It was deftly played — and, at one point, whistled. A scant one-bar quotation from the “Jupiter” symphony brought a collective giggle from the sharp audience.

In two duets from Handel’s “Susanna,” two more Festival favorites — soprano Ulla Westlund and mezzo soprano Laila Maria Salins — earned high marks. Both have satisfyingly full, rich voices that blended attractively in parallel thirds and sixths. Though they sang without the seemingly endless reserves of breath and vocal ornament characteristic of Handel specialists, their phrasing was beautiful and stylistically appropriate.

Johannes Brahms’s ravishing Piano Quintet in f minor, op. 34 rounded off the evening. The playing was of a high order, though the highly resonant acoustics of a church are not ideally suited to this intimate work.