Monday, May 25, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival set for 18th summer

The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival logo.

By Greg Stepanich

There is some debate, even now, among the founders of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival as to just what the three of them had in mind when they decided to get together and play music one day back in the faraway summer of 1992.

Michael Ellert, a bassoonist, said he thought it was just orchestral players meeting to kill some time in the months before season brought their livelihoods back. But Ellert says clarinetist Michael Forte insists that he was hoping to put on a concert, and when Forte was offered what is now called Stage West at Palm Beach Community College for free to host it, Ellert, Forte and flutist Karen Dixon went ahead, even though they didn't quite know what to expect when they got on stage that first time.

"We were standing backstage waiting to go on, and I looked at Michael and I said, 'You think anybody's out there?'" Ellert said. "We walked out on stage and there were 100 people there, in this little theater that seats only 125. And the three of us kind of looked at each other across the stage as we were sitting down, saying, 'How did this happen?' "

Whatever their original intention, Ellert, Forte and Dixon (at right) did end up putting on a show, and for nearly 20 years their annual chamber music series has been one of the only summer classical music events available locally during the hot months of July and August.

"It's bigger than we ever imagined it would be," Ellert said last week.

The four-program, 12-concert series begins July 10 and concludes four weekends later on Aug. 2. Each program is given three times, once each at different venues in the central, north and south parts of the county, on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. This 18th annual festival boasts 23 musicians and features its usual mix of discoveries and canonical fare, with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, the Dvorak Serenade for Winds, and the Beethoven Septet perhaps the most well-known pieces on the programs.

But the real joy of this durable series has been the rarities it has brought to eager ears, and this summer that includes works by Florent Schmitt, Alfredo Casella, and Joseph Rheinberger, as well as a piece for three bassoons by the French composer Eugene Bozza (1905-1991). There also are major works by Mendelssohn (the String Quintet in B-flat, Op. 87) and Stravinsky (his Octet), as well as shorter works by Beethoven, Ravel and Saint-Saens.

"(Our audiences) really like the programming. One of the things I hear more than anything is: 'I've never heard of this composer. How come I've never heard of this composer? This is great music,' " Ellert said.

The festival has also built up an impressive catalog of recordings on the Boca Raton-based Klavier label, which specializes in music for winds and brass. The label's artistic director is composer Clark McAlister, whose work has been featured on festival concerts. The group's sixth disc is due out this summer.

This version of the festival will not include chamber music with piano; the festival's staff pianist, Lynn University's Lisa Leonard, is concentrating on her duties as a new mother this summer, though her husband, trumpeter Marc Reese, will be part of the series.

The series always features guest artists, many of whom return year after year. Fourteen guest musicians, several of them members of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, are on the roster this time around, adding to the festival's permanent membership of 10 people.

"People are really excited about playing," Ellert said. "The core group of musicians has remained the same for years."

Although the current economic downturn has been brutal on arts organizations, so far the festival, which operates at a modest deficit each year, hasn't felt much of a pinch.

"We won't know until we see what the ticket sales are. Last year we had the best summer ever for ticket sales," he said, adding that the group's two biggest donors already have given $5,000 each for this summer's concerts. Ellert credits the positive response in grim fiscal times to the idea that people are sticking close to home.

"I think the economy has helped us in the sense that people are doing this 'staycation' thing," he said. "They're not going away."

Ellert said one of the most satisfying things about the festival is that it originated with working musicians, even though they have to wear administrative hats as well.

"It's hard when you're doing both roles, but I wouldn't give it up for anything," he said. "Because one of the things that makes the festival what it is, is that musicians are running it. Not somebody with money telling us we have to play this piece, or we can't do this, or we have to do this.

"It's all us, for us, and for the audience."

Here is the schedule for this year's Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival:

Concert I (July 10-12)

Beethoven: Serenade in D for flute, violin and viola, Op. 25
Bohuslav Martinu: Serenade for two clarinets, violin, viola and cello, H. 334
Eugene Bozza: Divertissements for three bassoons
Dvorak: Serenade for winds in D minor, Op. 44

Concert II (July 17-19)

Joseph Rheinberger: Octet in E-flat major, Op. 132
Florent Schmitt: Suite en rocaille, for flute, violin, viola, cello and harp, Op. 84
Beethoven: Septet in E-flat, Op. 20

Concert III (July 24-26)

Ravel: Sonatine en Trio (arr. Salzedo), for flute, cello and harp
Stravinsky: Octet
Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115

Concert IV (July 31-Aug. 2)

Saint-Saens: Fantaisie in A major for violin and harp, Op. 124
Alfredo Casella: Serenata for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin and cello
Mendelssohn: String Quintet in B-flat, Op. 87


Fridays, 8 pm: Helen K. Persson Recital Hall, Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach
Saturdays, 8 pm: Eissey Campus Theatre, Palm Beach Community College, Palm Beach Gardens
Sundays, 2 pm: Crest Theatre, Old School Square, Delray Beach

Tickets: $21 apiece, $72 for the series of four. For more information, call 1-800-330-6874 or visit

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