Rockport Chamber Music Festival jazzes it up in season opener

June 15, 2019 at 4:54 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Violinist Blake Pouliot and pianist Stephen Prutsman performed at the opening concert of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival Friday night. Photo; Michael Lutch

Violinist Blake Pouliot and pianist Stephen Prutsman performed at the opening concert of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival Friday night. Photo; Michael Lutch

American jazz was a revelation for Darius Milhaud. After witnessing pianists Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson in Harlem nightclubs, he planned to incorporate its syncopations and sensuous harmonies into a chamber work. 

What followed was La Création du Monde, a ballet that premiered in Paris in 1923. Popular today as a stand-alone piece, the work seemed to capture the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, the unifying theme of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s opening concert at the Shalin Liu Performance Center Friday night.

When heard in the composer’s piano quintet arrangement, as it was Friday night, the score casts just as much of an eye towards the past. Jazz riffs spin out from a tightly woven fugue, and the outer movements flow in smooth, high-minded strains that recall some of Bach’s chorale settings.

Played by pianist Stephen Prutsman and the Parker String Quartet, La Création du Monde took on a lush, romantic quality that linked contemporary jazz elements to Classical tradition. The quartet brought Brahmsian weight to the Prelude and Finale, the musicians shaping their phrases with subtle rubato. The Romance went with a Gershwinesque sweep as Prutsman sprinkled the texture with bluesy harmonies. Only in the Fugue and Scherzo did the players navigate Milhaud’s cross rhythms and brash dissonances with the vitality of a Dixieland band.

A similar mix of old and new marks Ravel’s Violin Sonata. Known particularly for its “Blues” movement, Ravel’s score recasts jazz elements through serene, impressionistic textures.

In the hands of Prutsman and young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot, Ravel’s “Blues” flowed with the freedom of a popular jazz standard. Pouliot’s silvery tone carried weight even in the softest passages of the music, as he floated his melodies with the grace of a blues singer. Prutsman was a more delicate presence at the keyboard, though the duo brought surging intensity to the movement’s closing measures.

Though not inspired by jazz per se, the rest of Ravel’s sonata took on a similar zest. In the first movement, Pouliot sculpted each phrase precisely to bring out the colors of Prutsman’s supple harmonies. In the finale, the duo tore through the driving figures with apt gypsy fire to bring the work to a rousing conclusion.

The second half of Friday’s program featured Prutsman’s original score to College, a classic Buster Keaton film from 1927. Keaton stars as Ronald, a nerdy valedictorian who follows his beloved Mary to Clayton College, where he attempts to win her hand by trying—and failing—at various sports.

Prutsman scored the film with piano, string quartet, and various noisemakers, including drum set, toy saxophone and trumpet, and slide whistle. Thoroughly tuneful, the music captures all the action onscreen. The composer underscored the sweeping string melodies with stride piano figures, and in other places ragtime and boogie-woogie blues accompany Keaton’s physical feats. 

Quotations of Pomp and Circumstance, a scratchy rendition of Chopin’s Funeral March, and the Chariots of Fire Title Theme add humorous touches as Ronald graduates from high school, gets in trouble with the Dean, and runs to Mary to save the day. Through it all, Prutsman and the Vera String Quartet told Ronald’s story with playing of conviction.

Rounding out the program was a selection of jazz standards from the 1920s. Soprano Cristina Zavalloni, wearing shiny dress complete with flapper-style headband, transformed this mini recital into a theatrical experience. 

After tripping on purpose, Keaton style, when she came on stage, Zavalloni performed each selection with the coy, humorous charm of a flighty and flirtatious lounge singer. Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was even performed as a mock cell phone call to her husband.

Zavalloni possesses a colorful and dexterous voice with a ringing vibrato that recalls Édith Piaf. Singing with smoky tone, she delivered Jimmy Hanley’s “Second Hand Rose” with a comical twist befitting an opera buffa role. 

Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” was meltingly lyrical as Prutsman supported her with gentle, free-flowing accompaniment. Though jazz had a transformative effect on classical music of the era, Zavalloni and Prutsman reminded listeners that there is nothing quite like the genuine article.

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival continues with the Parker Quartet, clarinetist Anthony McGill, violist Barry Shiffman, and cellist Ani Aznavoorian in music by Mozart and Brahms 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center.; 978-546-7391

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment