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Gerald Carpenter: Festival Artists Put One Foote in Front of the Elgar

The next concert in the Music Academy of the West’s Festival Artists Series takes place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 19, 2016, at the Lobero Theatre.

The program will consist of Arthur Foote’s Piano Trio No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 65 (1907-08), with Kathleen Winkler (violin), David Geber (cello) and Martin Katz (piano); the West Coast premiere of Justin Merritt’s Ithaka, with Jorja Fleezanis (violin), Conor Hanick (piano) and selected academy fellows; and Sir Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A Minor, Op. 84 (1918-19), with the Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violins; Geraldine Walther, viola; András Fejér cello) and Margaret McDonald, piano.

Go online looking for Justin Merritt and the first thing you’ll do is waste some time scrolling down through links to information about the country band of the same name.

When you manage to bring up a page of links to the composer, chances are the first thing that you’ll learn about him is that he is “the youngest-ever winner of the ASCAP Foundation/Rudolph Nissim Award.” 

Nothing you read about him, however, will give you the least sense of what his music sounds like — all music being indescribable, although some great writers (Thomas Mann, Romain Rolland and so on) have tried their damdest.

Fortunately, for curious music lovers, we now have YouTube, where several (presumably) representative compositions by Justin Merritt (b. 1975) can be summoned for your consideration by the click of a mouse.

He seems to prefer small-scale works for solo instruments or chamber ensembles. From what I have heard, nostalgia forms no part of his musical goals, but neither does the urge to shock.

Arthur Foote (1853-1937) and Edward Elgar (1857-1934) were, as you can see, almost exact contemporaries. That is not to say that they knew, or were aware of, each other’s works, but, listening to them, it is obvious that they inhabited the same musical universe.

Religion played rather a larger part in both their lives than many of their contemporaries: for Elgar, Roman Catholicism; for Foote, Unitarianism (a small but influential offshoot of New England Calvinism that conflated the Trinity into a single divine being — hence the name — and dispensed with Predestination).

For 32 years, Foote served as organist for First Church, Unitarian, in Boston, and wrote many anthems and short organ pieces for the church.

He also co-edited hymnals with his brother, a Unitarian minister who had married the sister of Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, and his sister, who was an editor of inspirational anthologies.

Foote produced, as well, a substantial body of religious choral music — oratorios, odes and so forth — yet it is his secular, instrumental music that has made him a tentative survivor on modern American concert programs.

Foote earned a bachelor’s at Harvard and then went on to earn the first Master of Music degree ever awarded in America, but he never became an academic. He made his living teaching piano and organ and from the hymnals he edited.

Music historians usually place Foote among the “Boston Six,” a group of classical composers active in Boston when that city was the most important music center in America.

The other five were John Knowles PaineGeorge Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell and Horatio Parker.

On several recordings I own, a work by Foote is paired with a work by Beach.

The Six, romantic in spirit, were generally conservative in form. They exalted Brahms and were suspicious of Wagner (not Foote, however, who championed the music of both Brahms and Wagner with equal conviction, and whose music reflects the influence of both — as well as, later on, of Claude Debussy).

Those who insist that Foote and his colleagues were European in their sound — not blatantly relying on recognizable American folk songs — generally fail to take into account the importance of Protestant hymnns to the formation of homegrown American music.

Foote wrote very little for orchestra, no symphonies, no operas. He wrote only one concerto for cello, of which only the slow movement is extent, as a cello-piano “Romance”; three oratorios based on poems of Longfellow; a couple of tone poems; and that’s about it.

You’re not likely to hear any of it in the normal course of concert-going, and if you seek it out, you are likely to find very little that is brilliant or memorable.

His chamber music on the other hand — a string quartet, a piano quartet, a piano quintet, several sonatas, two piano trios, plus various unclassifiable works like the “Night Piece for Flute and Strings,” his best-known work, or “At Dusk, for Violin, Flute, and Harp.” 

The lovely Piano Trio No. 2 makes a delicate and tuneful introduction to this often-overlooked master.

Tickets to this concert are $42 and can be purchased at the Lobero box office (33 East Canon Perdido Street), by phone at 805.963.0761 or 805.899.2222 or online at

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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