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  • S. Lachterman

Cuckson and McMillen in Tempore Belli at PS21 Chatham, N.Y. October 27, 2023

A recital for violin and piano of works in times of war from Beethoven to Finney

Review S. Lachterman

Miranda Cuckson, Violin; Photo John Rogers

Blair McMillen, Piano

Miranda Cuckson and Blair McMillen

Music in Tempore belli at PS21, Chatham, New York


Leoš Janáček

Sonata for Violin and Piano


Ludwig van Beethoven

Violin Sonata in G Major, Opus 30, No. 3

Sergei Prokofiev

Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Opus 80


Ross Lee Finney

Fiddle-doodle-ad: Eight American Folk Tunes


The day-to-day, a fraught-filled procession of shocks, can be unbearable faced with tragic conflict. As it was, it is now, and will ever plague our sensibility. The arts, in particular music, can express the rich complexity of our minds under such travail, and afterwards as we try to heal.


Violinist Miranda Cuckson, who teaches at the Mannes School of Music at New School, is at home with Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s seventeenth-century solo sonatas as she is with Georg Friedrich Haas’s prismatic and microtonal violin concerto no. 2 (written for her in 2017). Blair McMillen, a professor at Bard College, has performed widely diverse works too: William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost,” and Annie Gosfield’s wild “Brooklyn, October 5, 1941,” a work for piano and tennis balls, just to name two. Cuckson and McMillen have performed and recorded several modern American masterpieces. Thus, they are a pair that have remarkably protean tastes and techniques. Any collaboration of these stellar talents defines a “must see” event. Under Elena Siyanko’s tenure as Executive and Artistic Director of PS21, she has made sure to avail herself, and us, of such luminaries.


Tonight, both musicians presented works written during or in the wake of war and gave us a glimpse of how the human spirit coils and recoils.


Janáček’s Sonata for Violin and Piano adequately demonstrates the composer’s musical vocabulary, although on a scale much reduced from his operatic, symphonic, and choral masterpieces. His fragmented and iterative sort of melodic “reflux” was shaped on phonemes of the Czech language. Tremolos, pulsating figurations, and the shrapnel of fragmented phrases (yes, Janáček is one of the few composers to deliberately impart a sense of fragmentation) are cast in a tonal, modal, or pentatonic landscape. Frequently, extremes of tessituras are combined to yield his unique signature sound. Without voices and brass, the mere combination of piano and violin did not satisfy me as the composer’s music usually does. Even though he flourishes with small combinations of sounds, he needs a wider palette of instruments to remain convincing to me. Yet, his expressive expanse here was very impressive. Starting with an impassioned violin dialog against piano tremolos, we then hear an accompanied song sporting alternating major and minor tonalities. Fragmentation in an ultra-high violin tessitura with abrupt phrases prevails in the third movement, closing with longing, lyric ostinatos in the last.


Beethoven’s sonata Opus 30, No. 3 in G Major, historically distant from the Janáček, demonstrated some of the latter’s roots: we hear agitation, percussive-like fragmentation in the first theme, followed by pauses, scales, and rapid figuration later on. Piano and violin traded roles as “soloist” and “accompaniment” in the second movement, which is built on a throaty theme and variation. The last movement, a tour de force of early Romantic wit (yes, Germans can be witty) was a brilliant and playful.


Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Opus 80, was the gravest and richest commentary on the cyclic nature of dread, conflict, overcoming, and ensuing dread of a return. In the first movement, Mr. McMillan applied full force in ponderous and threatening bass octave ruminations. This pianistic leviathan is answered by a threnody on violin. Prokofiev shaped the soundscape of the two instruments into a shuddering and ominous experience. If this was all Prokofiev had, a full-throated tragedy was already fully laid out.


In the second movement, a rhythmic and strident opening is ensued by restive passion. The alternating of these two ideas, clarified to martial rhythm and insistent cries, elucidates the experience of battle and pained conflict. A disorientation of sorts prevailed in the third movement: Bach Prelude-like passages offer recollections of a civilization now smattered with spectral and fading residues of life torn. In the final rondo movement, some joyful and settling music prevails, whether through a victory or mere relief is left open. However, the ominous scale passages from the opening movement return as if to say, “but wait …!”


We hear very little of Ross Lee Finney these days, and that is a shame. Ms. Cuckson wrote her doctoral dissertation on him, and this medley of folk tunes provided relief from the tense ground of the Prokofiev. The music is wonderfully entertaining, and the final bluegrassy country fiddlin’ was infectious. Mr. McMillan and Ms. Cuckson pulled out all the stops to celebrate the possibility of life after adversity, in a celebration of the human spirit.


Ms. Cuckson and Mr. McMillan are a treasure-bearing duo demonstrating that twentieth and twenty-first century music is as rewarding a listen as our esteemed classics of the past.


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