MUSIC REVIEWS : Sharp Sound but a Weak ‘Connection’

Titles can be dangerous and/or misleading. When clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and composer-pianist Lukas Foss brought a program called “The American Connection” to Veterans Wadsworth Theater on Sunday afternoon, expectations ran high for some kind of sweeping cultural portrait. Instead, it was a concert in which the details--fine playing from both musicians--were sharp, but the general outline fuzzy.

With this consciously designed, theme-driven program, the pair managed to comment on the American musical grain of the 20th Century without ever straying from pleasant, tonal terrain. As such, this American landscape was a fairly bland, or at least low-key, place. The musicians’ obvious skills and witty onstage banter aside, the concert threatened to bow under the weight of excessive politeness.

Something of an identity crisis crept in. Two brief, uncharacteristically straightforward hymn-based works by Charles Ives were distinctly non-Ives-ian, while Foss’ own folklore-juiced “Composer’s Holiday” was more Copland-esque than the concert’s Copland offering, “Piano Blues"--with the blues shading serving more as underpainting than a prominent feature.

Foss is one of our prized composers, whose middle name is eclecticism, but his early work “Fantasy Rondo"--a pianistic workout neatly maneuvered--rambles in search of a voice. A segment from his teacher Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano provided some sprightly interplay, as did Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, an intriguing sentimental streak of a piece.


That left the business of all-American experimentation to Steve Reich, whose “New York Counterpoint,” written for Stoltzman a decade ago, is an exciting adventure in time-shifting and textural imagination. Stoltzman played the live, human part against a taped backdrop of 10 clarinets, an effect at once surreal and sensuous. Reich’s signature, rich-yet-cool chordal sense and mosaic of thrumming phrases, all nudged by a sense of swing, proved him to be the afternoon’s American hero.