Music Monday: Schoenfield: Café Music

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Chances are, if you see a lot of live music, that you’ve been to one or two concerts that you described as “literally unforgettable” as you walked out the auditorium doors. Chances are, also, that you’ve forgotten more than a few that you said that about. Certainly that was the case for me with this week’s piece. I first heard it back in the summer of 2009 at the Kinhaven summer music festival, and was totally blown away by it. I then proceeded to not think about it at all until about a month ago, when I was researching the composition faculty at various grad schools I’m looking into applying to. I was on the second or third Spotify album of Paul Schoenfield’s music when I scrolled down the track listing and saw Café Music as the last offering on the disk.

“Huh,” I thought, “That title seems awfully familiar.” At first I thought I might be confusing it with something by Astor Piazzolla (an Argentinian composer famous for revolutionizing the tango, among other legacies), but as soon as I heard the opening bars, the memory of that Kinhaven concert came rushing back to me, leaving me utterly boggled as to how I could have forgotten about it so completely over the intervening half-decade.

OK, so who is Paul Schoenfield? Born in Detroit in 1947, Schoenfield began studying piano at the age of six, and wrote his first compositions about a year later. He did his undergraduate work at Carnegie Mellon, but majored in math instead of music, and subsequently went on to earn a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the University of Arizona. Thruout this entire period, he kept up his piano playing, and had an impressive performing career: He toured internationally, recorded several albums with numerous collaborators, and held several prestigious positions, including a stint at the Marlboro festival up in Vermont. Altho he no longer performs actively, he still maintains an eclectic array of interests, including not only mathematics but Talmudic studies as well. (Like many great American composers, Schoenfield is Jewish, and that heritage is one of many influences on his music.) He currently teaches on the composition faculty of the University of Michigan.

Every program note I’ve found about this piece includes the anecdote of its creation, and this post is to be no exception: In 1985, Schoenfield was hired to sub for a pianist at Maurry’s, a restaurant in Minneapolis that had an in-house piano-violin-cello trio, and he was so taken in by their ability to switch styles on a dime that he wanted to write a piece that somehow captured the experience. By blending in various popular idioms, he intended to create “a kind of high-class dinner music — . . . [music that] might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall”. (To be perfectly frank: If your concert hall thinks this music is too ~lowbrow~ to comfortably include, your concerts are probably hella boring and I’m not going to go to them.) The result is a delightfully virtuosic piece for the very same combo that was playing at Maurry’s.

Not a piece to stand on ceremony, the first movement lurches into action with a briskly snapped out theme that’s tinged with sardonic darkness for all its upbeat rhythms. There’s a brief feint towards sunnier realms, but this this keeps being disrupted by a nauseatingly lurching piano interjection. The dance rollicks on in much the same vein, finding islands of untroubled light that disintegrate rapidly into rather more alarmed and contrapuntal interludes. Finally, about four minutes in, the original theme returns, gloriously fleshed out, in what amounts to a recapitulation of the opening material, and the movement ends with a crunchy, but still recognizable cadence.

Fluid piano lines start the second movement. Altho it’s undoubtedly indebted to ragtime and early jazz sensibilities, the main melody is a paraphrase of a traditional Hassidic melody. There are moments of delicate solo writing for each of the instruments, but also tender interludes where the strings twine together in intimate harmony. Towards the middle of the movement, the mood once again darkens, but the flowing, songful energy remains, and the music soon finds its way back to warmer, almost neo-romantic waters. There are hints of “Bali Ha’i”, a showtune from South Pacific, before the Hassidic melody returns to close the movement.

It’s pedal to the metal for the riotous finale. After a spirited piano introduction, the cello and violin introduce the main theme, quickly spinning out into dazzling elaboration. Rhapsodic violin arpeggios lead to a relentlessly syncopated piano theme, tho echoes of the opening volley are lurking in the accompanimental figures. At several points as the movement progresses, the string players interrupt each other with sawing chords that sound like nothing so much as the scratch of a record needle, as tho the player in question was unhappy with the course of events and is unilaterally changing it to something else. Writing on one of Schoenfield’s other pieces, critic Raymond Tuttle described the vibe as “wild silliness in the face of existential dread”, and that’s very much the mood at play as the music whirls towards its frenetic close. There’s no attempt to hide the darkness, but the music is equally determined not to get in the way. If I imagine myself kicking back in a bar at the end of the world, this is exactly the music I’d want played.