Ken Maiuri's Clubland: Afternoon delight

  • Judith Gordan MATT DINE

Published: 11/23/2016 4:11:15 PM

On this Thanksgiving day, here’s something for which I’m thankful — a happening that’s also a hideaway, a respite from the tumult, a place to simply go and relax and listen: the “Music in the Noon Hour” concert series at Smith College.

Each semester on selected Wednesdays, faculty members from the school’s music department (and sometimes special guests) take to the beautiful stage inside Sweeney Concert Hall for diverse, half-hour concerts that are free, open to the public, and one of the Valley’s best-kept secrets.

The next “Music In the Noon Hour” event features violist Ron Gorevic and pianist Judith Gordon performing pieces by Elliott Carter and Paul Hindemith, and it takes place on Wednesday at 12:30 p.m.

The “Noon Hour” concerts are under-the-radar enough that even though I’ve lived in the Valley for decades, I wasn’t aware of the series until spring 2011, when my new-to-Northampton friend Stephen somehow heard about it and we hoofed it over to the Smith campus.

Sweeney Hall felt like a sanctuary, a warm, calm and grand spot hidden away from traffic and chaos. The program that day was a “four hands” concert, in which two pianists play one piano together, a sight I’d never seen. The music (Debussy and Mozart) was a joy to hear, and beyond the sounds, the varied body language of each performer told its own exciting story. Even the necessary page-turns of the sheet music — quick gasps in the graceful flow — felt electric and action-packed. I loved the experience so much I held onto the program as a keepsake.

Gordon, an associate professor of music at Smith, was one of the pianists onstage that day and is a frequent participant in the “Noon Hour” concerts. Earlier this week I stopped by her office for an interview.

“Please, knock firmly!” read a little laminated handwritten note on her shut-tight door; it took me some moments to get up the nerve to interrupt the angular runs up the piano keys I could hear from out in the hall.

Inside were two grand pianos, side by side, with a red toy piano nearby, dwarfed by comparison (Gordon put together a toy piano recital last December). The old-school radiator rustled up some heat with a metallic hiss and before I could ready my recorder, Gordon and I were already in agreement as she described the “Noon Hour” concerts as an “unplugged oasis.”

Every time I attend one of the 12:30 p.m. shows, I feel like I’m playing hooky and sneaking into a secret spot. You leave behind the bustle and step into the quiet, taking a program from the foyer and finding a seat.

There’s always a devoted audience in attendance — Smith students, employees and faculty on lunch break, local classical music aficionados, a group of seniors visiting from an area retirement home, elementary school students on a field trip, random folks in the know.

Sweeney Hall was carefully built to naturally and perfectly amplify acoustic sounds, so there’s no need for microphones or other messy technology. It’s special to see musicians simply walk out on stage, perform with concentration and joy, bow with a smile, and head back out the door. It’s a magic spell that lasts for 30 minutes and then it’s gone, though the healthy effects stay with you.

Musical snapshots

Gordon joined the Smith faculty in 2006 and was originally bewildered by the idea of preparing a brief performance — a typical full-length classical concert might last as long as two hours — though she came to find it refreshing to work with colleagues to present what she called “snapshots of the repertory.”

The classical pieces span the centuries, and they’re selected by music department faculty as a deejay might prepare a set — part random inspiration, part recent obsession. Maybe a musician is excited about a recently discovered composer, or maybe the choice is a long-loved and much-performed piece he or she wants to share again.

The upcoming “Noon Hour” concert showcases 20th-century works by Carter (the haunting and harmonically rich “Elegy”) and Hindemith (Sonata, Op. 11 No. 4). For those not familiar with the composers, Gordon offered up a thumbnail description of the two pieces: the Carter composition channels Copland, while the “very rhapsodic” Hindemith sonata is reminiscent of Debussy.

Much like the phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” Gordon spoke about how the very names of composers can often color one’s opinion before they’ve heard the music.

“ ‘Beethoven’ makes people expect a certain thing. Bach. Bartok,” she said, hitting the consonants. “Hindemith, people might either draw a blank or think ‘kind of academic.’ But it’s not like that at all. Hindemith is so muscular and funny and really deeply poetic. It’s hard to get that across in a newspaper listing.”

For any curious reader on the fence about attending, Gordon said with a smile, “Trust us, we’re not going to come onstage and alienate you. We’re listening with you when we’re playing this stuff and we want to hear it, too. We’re thrilled to be doing it.”

After Wednesday’s concert, there is one remaining “Noon Hour” event this semester, featuring pianist Henry Kramer and cellist Edward Arron performing pieces by Bach and Piazzolla, on Dec. 14 at 12:30 p.m. As always, it’s free and open to the public.

And for another free classical concert featuring Gordon, the Sage Chamber Music Society will present soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Gordon performing “works reflecting and celebrating the natural world,” including Schoenberg’s “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” Ravel’s “Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé” and Stravinsky’s “Three Japanese Lyrics,” as well as songs by Debussy, Richard Strauss and Earl Kim. That’s also at Sweeney Concert Hall, Dec. 10 at 8 p.m.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com.




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