Can we re-create the sound world of a previous era? That was the goal of pianist Leslie Amper in a concert hosted by the National Gallery of Art on Sunday evening. In conjunction with the museum’s exhibition of the works of American painter George Bellows, Amper performed American music from the first quarter of the 20th century, when Bellows was active, and Chopin’s music admired by the painter’s pianist wife.
In terms of technical or interpretative accomplishment, there was not much to inspire wonder, but the American selections, rarely heard in concert, proved worthwhile. Amper dived into Henry Cowell’s “Tides of Manaunaun,” creating a vast rumble of waves on the elbow-to-fist left-hand clusters under an almost trite, vaguely Celtic right-hand melody. Amper grouped this daring work with more tonal selections, Edward MacDowell’s “Joy of Autumn” and Amy Beach’s “Honeysuckle” (from her collection “From Grandmother’s Garden”), the latter a sort of Chopinesque polonaise. The more demanding sections of Charles Griffes’s piano sonata were rough around the edges, including a couple of memory slips. But the “Thoreau” movement from Charles Ives’s “Concord” sonata had an idyllic dreaminess, wandering amid half-voiced echoes and wistful rhythmic freedom, albeit without the optional flute part that Ives added, a ghostly evocation of the instrument that Thoreau often played while boating on Walden Pond.
The second half seemed to hit closer to Bellows’s musical taste, at least judging by the lecture on Bellows that Amper had presented earlier in the afternoon. Amper’s playing was too prosaic to make her a great Chopin interpreter: a nocturne too mechanical, a mazurka too clipped and shallow, a selection of preludes with the difficult ones unpolished and the simple ones too straightforward. It was a good illustration of the influence of musical romanticism on the sentimental popular songs Bellows enjoyed, as were the excerpts of Schubert that Amper used to accompany a screening of D. W. Griffith’s “The New York Hat,” a silent short from 1912 starring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, also part of her earlier lecture. Some Gershwin songs concluded the recital, the signature of an era that saw Bellows’s tragically early death at the age of 42.
Downey is a freelance writer.