The Oberlin Conservatory’s reputation for virtuosic faculty was thoroughly upheld Saturday night, when Associate Professor of Flute Alexa Still and pianist Allie Su performed three 20th century pieces in Kulas Recital Hall.
The recital opened with Sonata in A Minor, Op. 34, by the late Romantic American composer Amy Beach. Beach was the first American woman to reach widespread compositional acclaim, and her Gaelic Symphony was the first symphony composed and published by an American woman. Her Sonata in A Minor was originally for violin and piano, but Still transcribed it for flute and piano during her graduate studies.
“I was in a chamber music class with an old professor who was a double bass player,” Still said. “When I played flute pieces … he didn’t know the repertoire, and … he didn’t like where I breathed all the time. So I started playing violin pieces, and I knew Amy Beach’s name and I was kind of interested in women composers.”
Despite being well-respected in her era, Beach’s music is not frequently performed today.
“I figure, since violinists never play [the sonata], I might as well,” Still said.
Still’s performance highlighted the long phrases characteristic to Beach’s Romantic string music. It was frequently difficult to tell if Still breathed at all, as each phrase bled seamlessly into the next in a sonata reminiscent of Brahms.
The next piece on the program was by an even more obscure composer, Paul Ben-Haim. Ben-Haim was born in Germany, but moved to Mandatory Palestine in 1933. He advocated a specifically Jewish style of music, and in this regard is sometimes compared to his better-known contemporary Ernest Bloch. He won one of the state’s highest cultural honors, the Israel Prize for Music, in 1957. Among Ben-Haim’s students was Shulamit Ran, whose violin concerto was performed by the Oberlin Orchestra last spring.
Still performed Ben-Haim’s Songs without Words, which is written for “voice or instrument and piano,” and can therefore be played on many different instruments. Since the piece is not written specifically for flute, there is one section which goes down to an A sharp, lower than the normal register of the flute. Though most performers would take the passage up into a higher range, Still chose to demonstrate her prowess and play the note as written, bending over and placing the end of the flute against her leg, which elongated the instrument, in order to hit the low note.
Still played each note tenderly, giving the piece a sense of overwhelming reverence. Members of the audience were visibly struck by the emotional depth achieved in the final movement, titled Sephardic Melody. A student beside me circled the piece in the program to remember later.
“It’s kind of like a slightly more modern Bartók, going after [Hebrew] music,” Still said about the piece. “I think it’s really stunningly beautiful.”
The program closed with Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 23. The sonata is among the noted contemporary American composer’s most recorded pieces. On the composer’s website, Still’s 2003 recording is listed prominently.
“I corresponded with Liebermann a little bit when I was preparing the recording,” Still said. “He’s interested in gothic stuff; he’s sort of a dark guy.”
Liebermann’s music is in many ways neo-Romantic, combining elements of traditional tonal works with polytonal harmonies. Still’s interpretation emphasized the Sonata’s constant momentum, and maintained a sense of pulse and direction even in moments of relative stasis. The long slow section seemed contemplative, yet yearning, which was met with rising emotion in the subsequent fast section. Still said this is part of what she finds charming about the piece.
“I’m just so impressed that it goes through such a wide variety of colors and emotions, and you definitely have a feeling of structure,” she said.
For an encore, Still concluded the evening with Morceau de concours — piece for a competition — by French Romantic composer Gabriel Fauré, wrapping up her showcase of a wide breadth of technical, moving 20th century music.