Saturday, August 1, 2009

Music review: Casella work stands out on chamber fest's challenging final concert

Alfredo Casella (1883-1947).

By Greg Stepanich

The Italian composer Alfredo Casella was a major figure in European music right up until his death in 1947, but his work rarely if ever gets a hearing today, at least on these shores.

All the more reason for a tip of the hat to the organizers of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival, who programmed Casella's Serenata (Op. 46), written in 1927 for a quintet of violin, cello, trumpet, clarinet and bassoon, on the fourth and final concert program of their 18th season.

Friday night at Persson Hall on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University, festival musicians introduced the audience to a composer who mixed the brash neoclassicism of Les Six and Stravinsky with a more conservative Romantic warmth to fashion a music of appealing, persuasive eclecticism. The outer movements of the six-part Serenata -- a brittle, sparkling opening march and a bubbling tarantella at the end -- enclosed four others of widely divergent style in which Casella drew many varieties of color from the five instruments.

The fourth-movement Gavotte, a fleet-footed piece for the wind and brass instruments, was ably navigated by trumpeter Marc Reese, clarinetist Michael Forte and bassoonist Michael Ellert, while the fifth, a Cavatina for violin and cello, was a lesson in how to draw a great deal of sound out of just two instruments. It has a lovely, old-fashioned main theme, and violinist Dina Kostic and cellist Susan Moyer Bergeron played the movement with high emotionalism.

Friday's program was perhaps the most challenging of the festival, with mostly unfamiliar, very difficult music at its heart. Perhaps the most treacherous was the Music for a Low-Budget Epic by Jan Bach, an American composer long resident in northern Illinois whose jocularly named four-movement work is a tour de force for its two players, a piccolo and a bassoon.

Bassonist Ellert was joined by another festival founder, flutist Karen Dixon, for the piece, which sounds monumentally hard to play, so much so that its pictorial intentions (each movement describes a particular kind of scene, from intergalactic Muzak to a chariot race) were almost obscured.

The third movement Romanza, an hommage to Romeo and Juliet in which Dixon left the stage to play bird song on her piccolo behind a closed stage door while Ellert played the dialogue between the star-cross'd lovers, was very effective, but perhaps more for its theatricality and the skill of its performers than its actual music. Bach's idiom is tonal, but it's an anonymous kind of tonality that sounds modern without being memorable, and the ultimate impression it leaves is of its overall arduousness rather than anything particularly distinctive.

Ellert and Dixon did a heroic job with the piece, however, despite minor blemishes such as very high piccolo notes that wouldn't speak, and audible water in the bassoon in its higher registers.

The concert opened with the Fantaisie (in A, Op. 124) of Saint-Saens, a relatively late work for violin and harp. Harpist Kay Kemper gave a lengthy if informative talk about the concert harp before the performance, in which she was joined by violinist Mei-Mei Luo. Saint-Saens wrote a number of very fine chamber works in his later years, and the Fantaisie is one of them, with idiomatic writing for both solo instruments, tight construction, elegant melodies and pungent harmonies that amount to a classicist's selective take on the milieu of Romanticism.

The two women made a good team for the Saint-Saens, and there was much to admire about the fluency and accuracy of their playing. But this is a piece that needed a good bit more work on contrast; Luo tended to play everything big, which was useful in the more florid display moments, but not when it came to giving the piece real shape. Saint-Saens brings back the five-note motif that opens the Fantaisie at the end, and we have to be able to hear the journey the music has gone through before it reaches that point.

The concert closed with the String Quintet No. 2 (in B-flat, Op. 87) of Mendelssohn, a radiant, beautiful work from 1845 that should be much better-known. Violinists Kostic and Luo and cellist Moyer Bergeron were joined by violists Rene Reder and Rebecca Diderrich for the Mendelssohn, which received a passionate, forceful reading.

Here, too, more contrast would have been welcome in the first movement, which had the same sort of one-volume strength as the Saint-Saens. But the charming second movement, with its marked flavor of folk music, was deftly presented, and things really began to jell in the third movement.

That movement, marked Adagio e lento (Slow and sad), has a kind of Beethovenian somberness that the five women were at one with, giving its long lines plenty of room to breathe and nicely managing its fervid emotional arc. Moyer Bergeron was especially good in her solo moments, and in the middle, when lead violinist Luo played a decorative passage on top, the other four players took the handoff and continued with the same kind of intensity, a mark of excellent chamber playing.

The ebullient Finale, which featured well-played bunches of bustling sixteenths from the whole quintet, was a joyous and engaging way to close out another season of the chamber festival. Plans are already in the works for the next two seasons, which will include its 20th anniversary, a most impressive milestone for an endeavor that has brought so much unfamiliar but worthwhile music to local audiences.

This program, the fourth and final concert of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival's 18th season series, will be repeated tonight at the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach Community College in Palm Beach Gardens, and again Sunday afternoon at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach's Old School Square. Tonight's concert begins at 8 p.m., and Sunday's starts at 2 p.m. Tickets: $21. Call 800-330-6874 or visit

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