Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Music review: New chamber group shows heart, nerve in debut

William Blake's A Poison Tree.

By Greg Stepanich

Starting a chamber music collective isn’t necessarily the easiest thing in the world to do, but in their debut concert Saturday at the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton, the members of Vivre Musicale showed they have a good sense of what it will take for long-term success.

Founded by tenor Jorge Toro and clarinetist Berginald Rash, this five-member iteration of the group offered a varied program of song and instrumental music that took risks right from the outset, with a pair of demanding contemporary American compositions and a sly transition between two selections that tested whether the audience was paying attention.

Vivre Musicale got off to a bold start with Soliloquy, a piece for solo viola by the young American composer Martin Blessinger, who like Toro and Rash studied at Florida State University. Violist David Pedraza was the soloist, and he brought a virile, dark tone quality to this mildly interesting music, which charted a mysterious landscape of moody thematic fragments, abrupt silences, some sustained high-register work, and at the end, three pizzicato notes with which the piece expired rather than concluded.

That was followed by another contemporary American piece, For nothing lesse than thee, a cycle of three songs set by Zachary Wadsworth to texts by John Donne. Like the Blessinger, this is a highly professional composition, imbued with a kind of shadowy elegance that reflected the uncertainty of the poems. Toro has a strong, pleasant voice, quite effective in its lower reaches, though on Saturday it was a little ragged around the edges in parts of his register.

Accompanied by Rash and pianist Nastasa Stojanovska, Toro gave a sober reading of this well-crafted work, with Rash providing delicate support in the unison passages of the first song, The Legacie. A fast, sharply accented four-note motif dominated the second song, The Sunne Rising, and that music contrasted well with the declamatory passages of the tenor. The final song, The Dreame, began and ended with a decadent reminiscence in the piano of Schumann's Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, which Toro and Stojanovska used to propel themselves with only the slightest pause from Wadsworth into the actual Schumann song.

That kicked off a three-song set from Dichterliebe in which Toro's homey, warm voice could be heard to more traditional advantage, and he was at his best in the May-song and the Aus meinen Tränen spriessen that followed. The closing song, the well-known Ich grolle nicht, needed a brassier, more cutting quality than Toro's voice supplied, but he had prepared the songs well and the attentive audience applauded them warmly.

The final song cycle featured Toro and another FSU alum, oboist Evelyn Sedlack, in the Ten Blake Songs of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is an unusual, difficult work, with its two monodic instruments working their way through Blake's otherworldly visions. Sedlack provided the best instrumental performance of the afternoon, playing with a big, fat sound that never thinned out, and in every way providing a real partnership with the tenor. This is particularly important because only with two firmly independent lines can the harmonies Vaughan Williams implies be heard.

And this was a good performance, with Toro doing a fine job of getting the lyrics across and Sedlack providing powerful counterpoint; the impression was of two thinkers ruminating on these remarkable poems, dipping into them repeatedly and coming back with insight and commentary.

The scheduled part of the concert closed with three of the Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, written in 1910 by Max Bruch. Pedraza, Rash and Stojanovska worked well together as an ensemble, with evident unity of interpretive opinion. Rash was most persuasive in the first piece (No. 3, Andante con moto), playing the warm contrasting melody to Pedraza's dramatic opening with a tight, soft, sweet sound, an unexpected but nice choice, given that the writing here is tailor-made for a clarinetist to indulge his or her Romantic heart's desire.

Stojanovska demonstrated decent technique in the arpeggio cascades of the Romanian Melody (No. 5), and in the Night Song (No. 6), the last of the three Bruch selections, the trio played with taste and relative restraint.

As an encore, the three musicians played the final movement of the so-called Kegelstatt trio of Mozart (in E-flat, K. 498) as a tribute to a musician colleague killed in a motorcycle accident. This rondo movement showed signs of being underrehearsed, especially for Stojanovska, who had difficulty with the glittering piano part, a reminder that few composers are so logical on the page and then so treacherous in actual performance.

Still, it was an admirable gesture, and showed that Vivre Musicale is a group with plenty of heart. It also has a laudable attitude toward programming; it could have played its first concert much safer than opening with two 21st-century American pieces right in a row.

That bodes well for the musical adventurousness of the group, and will make them worth paying attention to. It remains now for them to pursue a higher level of performance polish to make their concerts memorable for consistent excellence, not just nerve and soul.

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