By McKenzie Fetters
On Lawrence’s 25th annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday, Jan. 18, current Lawrentians and faculty members performed at the Riverview Gardens Community Center as a part of the Music for All concert series. This series, directed by Associate Professor of Music Michael Mizrahi and Assistant Professor of Music Erin Lesser and enhanced by a partnership with the chamber ensemble Decoda, offers interactive classical chamber music concerts to the community free of charge.
The concert took place in a lovely open room at the community center, and the audience members sat in chairs set up on three sides of the performers with windows looking out over the setting sun and the Fox Valley River at the performers’ backs. Mizrahi announced at the beginning of the performance that there would be no printed program in order to encourage interaction with the musicians afterwards.
The first performers played two movements of Arthur Berger’s “Woodwind Quartet in C Major,” which featured oboe, clarinet, flute and bassoon. To begin, the oboist of the group stood alone at the front in the circle of chairs reserved for her counterparts and asked everyone in the audience to close their eyes and recall an iconic American landscape.
As she began to describe the landscape she imagined, the piece began from the back of the hall and continued as the other chamber players made their way to the front. It was not hard to imagine a landscape with the calm, soothing melodies of this American composer’s piece washing over one’s ears. To me, it sounded like the beginnings of American discovery on the plains, with the group’s synchronized breathing and movements representative of tall grasses waving in the wind.
Next, a string quartet performed Felix Mendelssohn’s “String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor.” The second violinist introduced the piece by telling the audience to think of a time when someone they had trusted betrayed them and caused them to ask that person the question, “Is it true?” The group then played an excerpt from the piece that represented the question, and the second violinist explained that Mendelssohn would ask this question with his melody again and again in this work.
Sure enough, the piece started out innocently enough, but the melody quickly escalated into asking the question louder and louder with persistent intensity. The ardor present in the players’ vibrato and tone quality translated well to the audience, and one could easily feel the piece’s inherent anguish.
Then, a pianist came forward and performed a piece called “Hungary’s God” by Franz Liszt, which Liszt had arranged to be played with the left hand only for a pianist friend who had injured his right hand in a hunting accident. The piece conveyed all of the weight of its title through its heavy chords and still expressed a more ethereal aspect with some flowing runs, which were majestically performed entirely by the pianist’s left hand while her right hand stayed resolutely at her side.
Following was a modern piece with poetic lyrics that featured a singer, a pianist, a clarinetist and a xylophonist. The singer described feeling the universe expanding, being alone and thinking deep but troubling thoughts. What was particularly interesting about this piece—besides the music, instrumentation, and lyrics—was that it was performed with the lights completely off so that the only light in the room came from the setting sun outside. This left the performers in shadow for the first half of the piece. When the sun finally disappeared on the horizon, the lights in the room slowly illuminated the performers’ faces for the rest of the thoughtful, introspective composition.
Thereafter, a lively flute and percussion duo ensued. During the middle of this performance, the flutist stopped playing and addressed the audience, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Life’s most persistent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’” The flutist invited everyone to take time to meditate on this important question. In the song that followed, the flute seemed to embody uncertainty while the percussion tolled ominously in the background, a reminder of the important question that Martin Luther King, Jr. asked, which, at some point or another, we all must answer.
The night of music concluded with an incredible piano, flute and saxophone trio by Russel Pierce. Mizrahi and Lesser contributed their talents for this piece, which was as turbulent and fast as it was joyful and hopeful. All in all, it was a wonderful night filled with wonderful music played by accomplished and admirable musicians who gave their time and selves to the community.
The next Music for All concert will be on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 5:30 p.m. at the Riverview Gardens Community Center.