Spectrum Concerts Berlin visits New York
Last week, I met with cellist Frank Dodge at Lincoln Center to discuss the upcoming concert his ensemble Spectrum Concerts Berlin is giving in New York.
At 8 PM on December 7th at Weill Recital Hall, Dodge and his colleagues, in collaboration with the Abby Whiteside Foundation, will present a program that celebrates the works of composer/pianist Robert Helps (1928-2001).
Helps was a virtuoso performer adept at both contemporary repertoire and warhorses from the classical music canon. He also relished championing works that had been overlooked and crafting (often fiendishly challenging) transcriptions for the piano. More than once, I heard Milton Babbitt suggest that Helps “made the unplayable playable.”
Born in the United States, Dodge relocated to Berlin in the 1980s. But he didn’t forget about his first encounters with Helps: in the late 1960s in Boston as a student at the New England Conservatory of Music.
He says, “Bob (Helps) liked to champion pieces that needed looking after. His performances of the music of John Ireland, Felix Mendelssohn, and Poulenc and, of course, his own music were truly very special to hear. We were fortunate to have him visit and perform with us in Berlin twice. I only wish that, before his passing in 2001, we could have collaborated more frequently.”
Dodge’s stewardship has cultivated a group of champions of underrepresented repertoire. Spectrum Concerts Berlin is currently giving its twenty-fourth season of concerts. They have recently released their second recording devoted to Helps’ music: Robert Helps in Berlin (also featuring the ATOS Trio and Helps; Naxos 8.559696-97). A double CD set, it features a number of Helps’s important chamber works, including one of his first mature pieces, the 1957 Piano Trio, as well as one of his last, Piano Trio No. 2, written shortly before his passing. It’s interesting to note his return to the genre after forty years’ absence. My initial impression of the piece is one of leave-taking. I hear its angular lines, brittle articulation, and acerbic harmonies as a defiant kind of valedictory statement. Dodge, on the hand hears the trio showing evidence of new potential directions in Helps’s music; alas, unrealized.
He says, “The second Piano Trio and some of the other late pieces, such as Shall We Dance (1994) and the Piano Quartet and Quintet (both 1997), provide glimpses of Bob considering his compositional approach afresh. I find the discoveries he makes in these works to provide some of his most exciting music.”
The CD also includes a live recording of Helps at the piano; performing a recital that includes some of his aforementioned favorites: Mendelssohn, Ireland, Poulenc, Shall We Dance, and Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin’s Etudes (or, as one of my professors used to like to call them, Chopin on steroids!). One is struck by his exquisite touch and seemingly effortless virtuosity of Helps’ playing.
The impressive array of compositions and music-making displayed on the Naxos disc raises a question. Why isn’t Helps a household name here? Why don’t American-based ensembles perform more Helps and why don’t more composers know him as an important figure?
When I pose this question to Dodge, he says, “Bob did zero self-promotion: none. Even though he taught all over and was very well respected, he had a difficult time with the conventional ‘career building’ activities that many musicians take for granted as part of the business. And he also had considerable personal struggles during his lifetime, with illnesses and other challenges. There were long periods of silence, where he didn’t play or compose at all. Fortunately, these gave way to great bursts of creativity.”
“So, Helps isn’t a household name … yet! Things will change. Sometimes, when a figure is hyped during his or her lifetime, but their work is nothing special, they fade away rather quickly. With Helps, the opposite can be true. It is durable work, and its legacy will only grow. The strength of his music is what will bring performers and listeners to it over time.”
My take: if you’re in the New York area, don’t miss out on this chance to hear Spectrum Concerts Berlin on 12/7. They will make you a convert to Helps’s music in nothing flat.
In a very generous gesture, the ensemble is offering 20 FREE tickets to S21 readers. If you’re interested in attending the show, email Paula Mlyn at: firstname.lastname@example.org with your name. She will put aside a ticket for you for the December 7 performance.