The next chamber music concert by the Music Academy of the West faculty — at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Hahn Hall on the academy campus — will be a mostly pianistic soirée. Of the five musicians participating, four play the piano and only violist Richard O’Neill, of Camerata Pacifica fame and now an academy faculty artist, will not touch a keyboard.
Pianists Natasha Kislenko and Margaret McDonald will perform Darius Milhaud’s energetic and amusing Scaramouche — Suite for Two Pianos, Opus 165b (1937); O’Neill will have the priceless collaboration of pianist Warren Jones in playing Rebecca Clarke’s stirring Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919); and pianist Jeremy Denk will offer his latest thoughts on Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60 (1915-19).
Denk’s interpretation will be welcome, as I confess the Ives sonata baffles me even more than the same composer’s Fourth Symphony, written in the same years. To be sure, only a great composer could have written the sonata, but naming it what he did can’t help but lead the music lover to listen for some recognizable echo of New England’s glorious literary and intellectual history, and we listen in vain.
The best way to approach the work, I think, is to think of it as absolute music, with no literary associations whatever. Then we will finally hear it for what it is — the forcefully characteristic outpouring of a cranky, eccentric genius.
By now, it ought to be possible to hear Clarke’s sonata for the moving masterpiece it is, rather than remind everyone of its attendant injustices. Yet, it is an interesting story. She wrote it as an entry in a competition, and she would have won it — had she been a man. At first, the judges had her sonata tied with a similar one by Ernest Bloch. Ultimately, although all the judges favored Clarke’s work, one of them happened to be one of her teachers, so they agreed to give the award to Bloch to avoid charges of favoritism. Then there was the contemporary rumor, widely circulated and believed, that “Rebecca Clarke” was a pseudonym for a male composer. It’s always been an uphill battle for a woman who wants to compose classical music.
Nowadays, I suppose most people know the name “Scaramouche” from the “Bohemian Rhapsody” song by the rock group Queen (“Scaramouche, Scaramouche, can you do the Fandango?”).
Until recently, however, the name belonged to the romantic adventure novelist Rafael Sabatini, whose 1921 novel of that name sold and sold and made the author a fortune. Milhaud’s Scaramouche does not reference anything but the Théâtre Scaramouche, headed by Henri Pascar, which specialized in productions for children. In May 1937, accordingly, Milhaud wrote some incidental music for a Scaramouche production of Moliere’s The Flying Doctor. Two of the Moliere pieces formed the outer movements of the suite.
Later that summer, pestered to write a piano duo for Marguerite Long and Marcelle Meyer, Milhaud took a piece he had written for Jules Supervielle’s 1936 play Bolivar, transcribed it for two pianos and stuck it between the two Moliere movements. The Scaramouche Suite was born.
The composer didn’t rate the work very highly in his extensive oeuvre, and was surprised — not to say embarrassed — by its popularity. He was bombarded with requests to transcribe it for yet another combination of instruments, and he almost always obliged. It was a gold mine and a millstone both. For Milhaud, the suite was nothing but work. “It gave me enormous trouble,” he said. Trouble for him, maybe; pure fun for us.
Tickets to this concert are $40. For tickets and information, call 805.969.8787. Free parking is available on the Music Academy campus at 1070 Fairway Road in Santa Barbara. Information is also available online by clicking here.