Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
Aug. 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
Composer Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947) wonders if his “Café Music,” (1985) played Wednesday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall, rises to the level of classical music that might be performed on its own, rather than as background in Murray’s Restaurant.
The answer, according to Janet Sung, violin, Ahrim Kim, cello and Tao Lin, piano, is a resounding yes. In fact, were it to be played at Murray’s, it would harsh everyone’s mellow. and render conversation impossible.
The three-movement work is a pastiche of cocktail lounge standards, pushed to their limits and well beyond. It is art, the way Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day paintings are art, deconstructing works everyone knows and re-assembling them with fresh meanings. The result, in Café Music, is pure excitement, and a sense of wonder that the transformations can be played at all. There is even sustained melody, as the strings imitate singers in the “andante.”
A vastly entertaining mix of guilty pleasures, but pleasures nevertheless.
“Café Music,” as is customary in concert programming, was sandwiched between two better-known classics—the opening Debussy Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and Richard Strauss’ late “Metamorphosen” as it was originally written for string septet.
The Debussy, played by Julie Nah Kyung Lee, flute, Kirsten Docter, viola, and June Han, harp, made one wish that he had been able to complete the proposed set of six, based on ancient French forms, with various, sometimes unusual, combinations of instruments.
The flute-harp-viola combination seems somehow feminine, harking back to “Sirenes” but with greater delicacy. The harp, under Han’s fingers, was the first among equals, often taking the lead. She sometimes over-did the muting, when one hoped for a bit more resonance behind the strings.
The “Metamorphosen” works better as a septet (two cellos, violins and violas, one double bass) than the more familiar version for string orchestra. The texture of interwoven voices is so dense that it is hard to follow even with the smaller number of players.
When it is done right, as it was on Wednesday night, the result is a tightly woven tapestry of gold, silver and crimson threads stretching all the way back to some of the composer’s most notable works—and to Beethoven. As if the characteristic sound did not identify the composer beyond a doubt, the help-mate violin from “Ein Heldenleben” also makes a cameo appearance, complementing the deep bass of the introduction and finale.
The highly intense performance drew a prolonged standing ovation from Bowdoin Festival students, faculty and subscribers.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.