Beach's piano concerto will take center stage

October 07, 1994|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

A true American original will be on display at Maryland Hall this weekend.

Not a sculpture or a painting, however, but a piano concerto written by Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944), the first American woman ever to compose such a work.

The concerto will be the centerpiece of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's season opening concerts at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow at Maryland Hall. Boston-based pianist Virginia Eskin will serve as soloist, with Gisele Ben-Dor on the podium.

The program also includes "Hungarian Dances" by Brahms and the much underrated 6th Symphony of Antonin Dvorak.

Born Amy Marcy Cheney in New Hampshire, Amy Beach was a true child prodigy, demonstrating immense gifts as both pianist and composer by the age of 4.

After her family moved to Boston in 1875, she gave numerous concerts and made her debut with the Boston Symphony at the age of 18. Unlike the other great talents of her era, Ms. Beach declined to study in Europe, electing to stay in Boston to study piano and school herself further in the art of composing.

She all but gave up the concert stage at the urging of her husband, Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, limiting herself to one concert recital a year, turning her energies to composing. With the completion of her "Gaelic Symphony" in 1896, she became the first American woman to compose a complete symphony.

She composed all across the musical spectrum: songs, a Mass, orchestral works, and a multitude of pieces for the piano, many created for her own use.

Pianist Virginia Eskin has become the foremost champion of Amy Beach's music recently, having performed her concerto with the orchestras of San Francisco, Buffalo, Rochester and Utah, among others. It was Ms. Eskin who led the campaign to place a commemorative plaque in front of Amy Beach's Commonwealth Avenue house this year, the 50th anniversary of the composer's death.

Ms. Eskin said she became involved with Amy Beach's music in the 1970s, after she married Jules Eskin, principal cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "You don't fall in love with a BSO member without falling in love with the BSO itself," she explained. "And then you can't help falling in love with its history."

And Amy Beach, who performed with and composed for the orchestra, was part of that history.

"With all the accompanying I was doing at that time, I kept running across her music in libraries," Ms. Eskin recalled. "And the more I saw of it, the more I realized how remarkable she was. This wasn't a lady who sat down and wrote a few pretty songs. She could do so many things, we just have to consider her today. She's a contender!"

The Beach concerto, which Ms. Eskin characterizes as a mix of Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Mendelssohn, is a colorful, dashing work that might become extremely popular if enough people get a chance to hear it.

Alas, no satisfactory modern recording exists and Ms. Eskin has tried -- so far without success -- find a label willing to record it.

"A lot of people in the music business just don't realize that audiences want different flavors," she said. "That's why concerts like these in Annapolis are so important. It takes a pistol like Gisele to give it to them."

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