Two Contrasting Concerts

Friday evening Shirley and I attended a Bluegrass and Old Time Music concert featuring Richard Greene, Peter Feldmann and Joti Rockwell. Last night we attended “Music for Two Pianos” with Karl and Margaret Kohn. My guess is that Pomona College’s family weekend motivated the back-to-back concerts. The demographics alone told me that something was up. College students and retirees generally dominate the audience for most of these concerts. There’s kind of an excluded middle. But the 40 to 55 age group dominated Friday and Saturday’s concert audience.

Friday night’s concert was wonderful in every way. Greene and Feldmann are well known, seasoned, gray headed, dare I say old, performers who freely interact with each other and the audience. These guys have known each other for a long time and it shows. In contrast, Rockwell is a relatively young, rather reserved but obviously talented, assistant professor of music. As Greene told us, it was Rockwell’s “fault” that the other two were there. Greene further pointed out that if you put an instrument in Rockwell’s hands “all hell breaks loose.” It did. All Rockwell’s solo guitar riffs were great; his longest one was fabulous. The audience, which included many of his students, even broke proper decorum with hoots and foot stomping and rightly so. It’s hard to say what I enjoyed the most. Feldmann was the lead vocalist with Rockwell singing harmony on occasion. Feldmann also played the mandolin, the guitar, and the banjo, but not all at the same time. I worry he lacks versatility. I might have enjoyed a little more banjo. Rockwell occasional put his guitar down and played the violin. Not only did Greene fiddle with a conventional violin, he favored us with three great pieces played on a Violin D’amore. He called it a band in a box. This exceptional instrument had the usual four strings, G, D, A, E, on top of nine sympathetic bottom strings. Fabulous. For one number, Black Jack Grove, Greene’s wife (her name is not in the program and I can’t remember it or find it elsewhere) joined the group as a third violin. There was more than a little issue with her entrance and at one point Feldmann turned to the audience and asked, “Is anyone out there married to Richard?” Despite a couple jokes (“Marry a Texas girl. No matter how bad it gets, she’s seen worse.”), I’m very sure visiting parents were positively impressed with this concert as a most favorable example of their children’s cultural development under the guidance of the Pomona College music department.
I’m not quite so sure what they might have thought of Saturday night’s performance by Karl and Margaret Kohn. If they heard the performance through the ears of happily married couples on the eve of Valentines Day, then hearing the work of a married couple who have been making music together since 1950 was a wonderful thing. If they heard the performance through the ears of someone who thought the previous night’s performance was the apex of musical virtuosity, there might have been some disappointment. This exceedingly energetic program was all contemporary music. Like most new music, like all music, I found some parts of it more enjoyable than other parts.
The first piece was Steven Reich’s piano phase (1967) for two pianos. The piece consists of repetitions of a couple of similar patterns. The first pattern, for example, involves a short five pitch theme with one piano taking the lead and the other periodical advancing the phase in one-sixteenth note steps and continuing until the two pianos were back in phase. At the five minute mark, piano phase had thoroughly captivated me. At ten minutes, it became clear that I my imprisonment would not soon end. At fifteen minutes, I began to worry it was life sentence. At twenty minutes, the music ended and the audience erupted in joyful applause at our unexpected release. Others may have seen it differently.
Karl Kohn wrote the second set, Dream Pieces for two pianos (1983) himself. Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard enough of Kohn’s work to know that I am without a fixed opinion of his work as a composer. Some things I like more than I like others. Dream Pieces, mostly joyful and upbeat (if beat is the right word), I liked. For the third set, the Kohns played György Ligeti’s Three Pieces for Two Pianos (1976). Of the three, I enjoyed the nearly visual Monument the best. The last work of the evening was John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction. This is an amazing piece of great energy. As the program described the final part, “The ghost of Conlon Nancarrow goes head to head with a Nevada cathouse pianola.” Thoroughly enjoyable!
Karl and Margaret Kohn’s performance was a masterpiece not because he is in his 80’s and she is in that neighborhood but despite him being in his 80’s and she being the neighborhood. They remain wonderful musicians who command and deserve the respect and adulation of their audience. I do wonder why they can’t keep the hands out of their pianos. But perhaps that is the way it is with contemporary piano music; the piano strings cannot be individually muted, strummed, or plucked without reaching inside the piano.