Amy Beach's 19th century work is symphony concert's highlight

October 14, 1994|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

It was one of those concerts where the show's real star wasn't there.

Gisele Ben-Dor and her Annapolis Symphony players ushered in the orchestra's 1994-1995 season with a delightful pair of Brahms Hungarian Dances, a strong, vigorous reading of the Sixth Symphony of Antonin Dvorak, and the Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor of Amy Beach (1867-1944).

Boston-based Virginia Eskin, our foremost proponent of turn-of-the-century American music for the piano, served as soloist in the concerto.

jTC But the evening's true sensation was dear old Amy Marcy Cheney Beach herself.

A New Hampshire-born child prodigy, Amy Cheney moved to Boston as a precocious 6-year-old and began giving recitals there a year later. She made her debut with the Boston Symphony at 17 and -- still in her teens -- married a Boston physician who urged her to give up the concert stage and devote her talents to composing.

The concerto, which she performed twice with the Boston Symphony, dates from the 1890s. And what a delightful piece of music it is.

Strikingly original? Well, no. Allusions to Chopin and Schumann abound in the alternately brooding then dreamy interludes of Movement I.

But it just won't do to sniff that the concerto is "derivative" and leave it at that. Yes, it may sound like Chopin and Mendelssohn in spots, but by no means does it sound like bad Chopin or Mendelssohn.

For heaven's sake, the Dvorak Sixth, performed so competently by the orchestra Saturday evening, is an obvious clone of the Brahms Second Symphony, but who cares? It's a charmer, whatever its inspiration. The same with the concerto, I'd say.

As the work's foremost exponent, Virginia Eskin has brought Mrs. Beach's handiwork to the orchestras of Buffalo, N.Y., Rochester, N.Y., San Francisco and Utah among others. It is no wonder she continues to be in demand. She owns the piece, from the Schumannesque reveries of the first movement to the knuckle-busting final Allegro.

On Saturday evening, there were a few thunderous double octaves in Movement IV she'd probably like to have back, but otherwise the Maryland Hall audience saw her in top form.

Usually, it's the orchestra that collaborates with the pianist, but Ms. Eskin returns the favor, seeking out instrumental soloists -- a cello here, a clarinet there -- and accompanying them with chamber-like intimacy. When you love and respect the music, you serve it as best you can.

Alas, there is but one recording of the Beach concerto to be found, an unsatisfactory effort on a double VoxBox album that no one need rush out and buy.

Surely, the concerto deserves a front-line modern recording, preferably with Ms. Eskin at the keyboard. Perhaps the piece might catch the eye of a Gerard Schwartz, who is busy recording scads of American music with his Seattle Symphony, or of a Neemi Jarvi, who seems never to have met an out-of-the-mainstream composer he didn't like.

Ironic, isn't it, that in an age of progress for women in many fields, America's niftiest female piano concerto can't get itself recorded?

As Saturday's concert makes clear, the piece certainly merits our attention, not out of a sense of egalitarian duty but in admiration for a pioneering American artist who composed attractive, worthwhile music that deserves to be better known.

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