With a name like ‘Britten’s America’, I would have thought that Adam Sherkin’s concert would have had more music by Britten. Instead, we were treated to a look at the music of composers whose life intersected with Britten’s.I’m not really complaining about this – It was a great concert, filled with lively music.
Britten’s America looked at Britten’s visit 1934 visit to Canada and eventual visit to the United States. While in Canada, he toured Ontario and Quebec, finishing a work for piano: Holiday Diary op. 5 (1934). His trip to the United States in 1939 brought him into contact with Aaron Copland, a man who had a lasting impact on Britten, as well as with Colin McPhee, the Canadian ex-pat who had recently returned from Bali, bringing with him transcriptions of traditional Balinese music.
Sherkin’s concert opened with Britten’s Holiday Diary. A light and enjoyable work, fraught with imagery of his travels in Canada. Sherkin pulled of the work with style. The piece has its moments of virtuosity, and it was impressive to see Sherkin work with the material so well.
Also included in the program were American composer Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata (1939-1941) and Colin McPhee’s Four Balinese Transcriptions (1934), arranged for solo piano by Sherkin.
Written in a standard sonata form, the Piano Sonata work is filled with both Copland’s characteristic wit, and his penchant for more serious fare. The voicing in this piece is particularly difficult. Having heard it in concert a number of times, I can say that much of the piece depends on how much attention you pay to each voice and their individual lines.
The Four Balinese Transcriptions were a surprising pleasure to listen to. As the name suggests, the four movements of the work come from a set of transcriptions McPhee did in Bali during his seven year residency there. If you listen closely and pay attention, you can hear music that leaves no doubt that Colin McPhee was a precursor to the American Minimalists of the 1960’s and 70’s. This music had the repetitive, bright quality that many minimalist pieces have, and, despite the fact that much of the material is reused, it never grew old.
Sherkin also included two of his own works of the program. Northern Frames (2010 rev. 2013) and Ink from the Shield (2013). Both of these were very well written, however my favourite piece of the night was Ink from the Shield. Northern Frames – a companion piece to an earlier set of music for toy piano – was a calm and relaxing look at constellation that only we in the Northern Hemisphere are able to see. It was calm, at least, until the final movement (Draco – The Dragon), when the music burst into bombastic rhythm that jolted me out (perhaps a little too fast), of my previous relaxed feeling.
Ink from the Shield was a virtuosic tribute to Britten’s travels through the Canadian Shield that explored his time here and more. Written in four parts, played consecutively, this piece brought together the harmonic and melodic richness with which we often associate Britten, and Sherkin’s apparent penchant for fast, intense, rhythmic passages. The last few minutes of the work especially, zeroed in my attention on Sherkin’s skill as a pianist and the quality of the piano music he writes.
This was the sort of concert I enjoyed going to. Not just due to the quality of the music, but because this music was never too serious. New music concerts (and often classical music concerts as well) often get a bad reputation by those outside of the community of being too stuffy. This concert was not that. It was a good balance between serious and fun; and that’s what the new music scene needs more of.
– Paolo Griffin