Mr. Smith plays in Washington 

(published first at ionarts)

Edward MacDowell's Sonata no. 3 ("Norse"), from 1899, opened a program with pianist Joseph Smith at the National Gallery of Art, on May 23, that was held in honor of the exhibition American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection. A collection of eight American composers with works spanning the first 60 years of the 20th century (1899–1960) paralleled the collection in roughly the time span it covers, though the music is a good deal younger than are the paintings.

The 105-year-young MacDowell sonata, meanwhile, has aged very well. To be played in three movements—Impressively; at times with impetuous vigor, Mournfully, yet with great tenderness, and With much character and fire—it is just one of many examples of MacDowell's outstanding writing for the piano. I suppose that the emotions could have been brought out more vividly than Mr. Smith did, and his pedaling could have been more judicious, given that the acoustics of the West Garden Court already provide a perpetual "pedal down," but that grumbling aside, the piece was remarkably well played. More impeccable than enthusiastic perhaps, but enjoyably throughout.

Joseph Smith, whom my favorite newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, called a “richly sensitive interpreter,” also wrote the remarks on the music of that evening upon which Stephen Ackert based his program notes. This is not terribly surprising since Joseph Smith writes regularly for publications such as Piano Today and Piano (UK).

In editing music, such as Four Early Twentieth-Century Piano Suites by Black Composers (G. Schirmer), he also brought back to light From the Southland, the 1907 series of suites by Harry T. Burleigh, which was the piece to follow the strongly American, rolling Harold Arlen 1960 Bonbon and Ode (which, due to a mistake in the program was billed as Bonbon Ode, which was but the beginning of confusion for my fallible ears). Bonbon has a generous southern drawl and is entirely cherishable. The joy it gave Mr. Smith to play was evident, and the music is lighthearted and charming in the best sense, with plenty of rhythm and jostling even at its graver moments. Given my confusion about the dual nature of the piece, I thought for some time, though, that given that it was an Ode to the Bonbon it really was, it was surprisingly long and substantial. Not aware of my error until closer examination of the program notes, I pondered just how many licks it would take to get to the center of it.

Joseph Schein, Harrey T. Burleigh: From The Southland

Burleigh's suite (nos. 2, The Frolic, and 6, A New Hiding-Place), with titles that could have leapt from the diary of a puppy dog, was a surprising, strangely modern type of frolicking that came so utterly unexpected with its sounds and rhythms that it took the better part of the first work to "get with it" and appreciate the rambunctious nature. Given how odd I thought the Burleigh, entirely unknown to me, was, it only got odder. Confusion settled firmly in when Mr. Smith chose to play Aaron Copland's 1930 Piano Variations without a break. Telling and embarrassingly in equal parts, I listened to the Copland, just heard a fortnight earlier by Mme. Schein in her energetic performance at the NGA (see my review on May 12), with Burleigh on my mind. While I then thought that the Piano Variations (championed by Mme. Schein as they were) were a "beautiful (medium-thorny) piece," "impossible to dismiss [...] as a flashy intellectual exercise by some modernist composer," this time I very much felt like dismissing them. My notes, still under the mistaken impression of hearing oddly familiar Burleigh works, yielded the following: "For the sonorities it offered, it lacked rhythm (!) and the bird that would have made it work, had it been Debussy. The Hiding-Place was perhaps even less satisfying. It seems that several audience members sought a new hiding-place themselves after hearing it." But even when I caught on to my deception my opinion was oddly differing from just fourteen days before: "Copland, who doesn't deserve to be represented by that turgid piece was perhaps best served if people thought it not to be his."

The explanations for this difference in hearing are likely to be manifold. Mood and disposition when listening to a given piece are hugely important, as the conductor Günter Wand never tired of pointing out. The difference in expectations, too, has much to do with it – and finally, it must also have had something to do with Mr. Smith’s playing which could not have been more contrasting to Mme. Schein’s. While the latter utilized all the piece's energy and emphasized its vertical elements, Mr. Smith played much more subtly, underscoring its (few) horizontal lines. To some, the latter approach was more rewarding and delightful, but I found it (evidently) rather lacking.

After the intermission, Scott Joplin's Bethena: A Concert Waltz (1905), with its reminiscences of The Entertainer, was cute and easy on the ears, refreshing without any false claims of being more substantial than it is. (Not very.) Billy Strayhorn followed with another waltz, his 1933 Valse, from his pre-jazz, high-school times. A beautifully melancholic piece, this juvenile work was easily as enjoyable, if not more so.

The next course, Charles Tomlinson Griffes's 1918 Sonata was more of a full meal again. It sounded as though it could only have been written in America, displaying a musical naîveté that never even knew there had been a war. It is difficult to imagine that 1918 Europe could have brought forth such an upward-moving, gently and sometimes wildly affirmative and positive piece of music. In the hands of Mr. Smith, this became one continuous moment of musical enjoyment, even if the pedal-heavy approach still muddled some passages unnecessarily.

Appropriately, Washington, D.C., native Ethelbert Nevin finished the night off, even more appropriately with a piece that depicted a June night in Washington. Given the 90-some degrees and high humidity, that 23rd of May was not even the eight days away from a June night as the calendar would insist. Nevin inoculated himself and his music (very lovely music) against criticism by stating that "while I am doing nothing great, I am doing the best I can, and I'm going to leave a stream of sunshine, if it is possible." A charmingly humble (not modest) and accurate way to describe his sweet and unpretentious music, as Joseph Smith points out in his commentary.

A little old-fashioned, but most endearing and lovely to hear. Quite exactly like the performer himself.♫

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