Saturday, July 31, 2010

Music review: Chamber festival's closer features effective Dahl and premiere

Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970).


By Greg Stepanich

In the years just before and after World War II,‭ ‬Southern California became an oasis of sun,‭ ‬refuge and economic opportunity for several of the era’s most important European composers,‭ ‬Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schonberg chief among them.

Ingolf Dahl was another one of those composers,‭ ‬and in the fourth and final program of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival,‭ ‬his lively and clever‭ ‬Concerto a Tre‭ ‬was the intellectual and musical high point.‭ ‬Written in‭ ‬1946,‭ ‬this piece for clarinet,‭ ‬violin and cello has a lot of the flavor of Stravinsky,‭ ‬with whom Dahl closely worked,‭ ‬but it comes across as less calculated,‭ ‬more naturally musical.

Friday night at Palm Beach Atlantic’s Persson Hall,‭ ‬violinist Dina Kostic,‭ ‬clarinetist Michael Forte and cellist Susan Bergeron gave a deft and engaging performance of this work,‭ ‬which has neoclassicism in its veins but also takes in some of the popular musical language of its time.‭ ‬Although each of the players has very difficult,‭ ‬challenging music to play,‭ ‬it’s the sound of the clarinet that drives the piece more than any other,‭ ‬and Forte gave the enterprise fluid fingers and a large,‭ ‬pleasing tone.‭

He ran into trouble in the highest reaches of the florid cadenza that ends the second movement,‭ ‬a piece with a slow-stepping kind of archaic grace‭ (‬it’s marked‭ ‬esitando‭) ‬in which the violin carefully sets out steadily rising single notes as it climbs,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬into the instrumental stratosphere.‭ ‬But most of the piece has a slangy,‭ ‬vivid swing in which odd rhythms and bright colors dominate,‭ ‬and in the conclusion,‭ ‬where the rhythmic complexity reaches its apex,‭ ‬the three musicians dispatched it handily.

Another trio on Friday’s program had its world premiere:‭ ‬Odyssey,‭ ‬for flute,‭ ‬clarinet and bassoon by composer Clark McAlister,‭ ‬who has been the festival’s producer for each of its six recordings.‭ ‬McAlister,‭ ‬whose‭ ‬Lou’s Mountain Bread remains my personal favorite of the works he’s written for this company of musicians,‭ ‬has crafted here a modest,‭ ‬sober‭ ‬6-minute work for the three musicians‭ – ‬Forte,‭ ‬flutist Karen Dixon and bassoonist Michael Ellert‭ – ‬who founded the festival in‭ ‬1992.

Beginning with a moody solo motif down around the chalumeau register of the clarinet,‭ ‬Odyssey opens up into a tapestry of long-lined,‭ ‬slowly moving themes,‭ ‬with a recurring waltz-like motif and an overall aspect of almost Bachian gravity.‭ ‬McAlister knows his way around the tonal possibilities of the three instruments,‭ ‬which gave this interesting,‭ ‬worthwhile piece added breadth despite the inherent limits of flute,‭ ‬clarinet and bassoon.‭

Modesty also was the watchword for two other works on the program,‭ ‬beginning with a curious Duo for bassoon and double bass by the French composer Albert Roussel.‭ ‬This‭ ‬1925‭ ‬duet already is on one of the festival’s discs,‭ ‬and was one of the works chosen for revisitation in the event’s‭ ‬19th season.‭ ‬This is not the Roussel of the Third Symphony or the ballet score‭ ‬Bacchus et Ariane‭; ‬rather,‭ ‬this work is more of a sport,‭ ‬an exploration of how to write for two low-voiced instruments.‭

Roussel leaves the bassoon to do most of the work,‭ ‬and much of that is a march-like chattering for the wind instrument over spooky harmonics in the bass.‭ ‬Ellert and bassist Jason Lindsay played it well,‭ ‬and with the right whimsical touch.

The concert opened with a rarity by Donizetti,‭ ‬a Trio for flute,‭ ‬bassoon and piano featuring Dixon,‭ ‬Ellert and pianist Michael Yannette.‭ ‬Best-known for his operas,‭ ‬Donizetti also wrote a great deal of other music,‭ ‬including‭ ‬19‭ ‬string quartets,‭ ‬and this work probably dates from the early part of his career around‭ ‬1820,‭ ‬when he was concentrating on instrumental music.‭

Again,‭ ‬the three players here did a good job with this light-as-a-feather piece,‭ ‬which was distinguished by attractive melodies and a thoroughly conventional harmonic format.‭ ‬Dixon and Ellert had plenty of straightforward tune to play,‭ ‬and they made a good case for this composer’s fondness for both of these instruments.

The final work on the program was the little-known String Quintet in G,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬77,‭ ‬of Dvořák,‭ ‬which despite the late opus number is a relatively early composition,‭ ‬written about the time of his Fifth Symphony.‭ ‬Composed for string quartet and double bass,‭ ‬it has a ravishing slow movement,‭ ‬a folk-flavored scherzo and finale,‭ ‬and a somewhat fussy,‭ ‬academic opening movement.

Kostic and Lindsay were joined by violinist Mei-Mei Luo,‭ ‬violist Rene Reder and cellist Christopher Glansdorp for the quintet.‭ ‬There were moments of fine playing here,‭ ‬especially in the slow third movement,‭ ‬in which all five musicians maintained a beautiful intensity that served the music well,‭ ‬and in the trio of the Scherzo,‭ ‬which was somewhat more successful than the main section.

But there were frequent intonation problems throughout the piece,‭ ‬and in general,‭ ‬the musicians didn’t sound quite in control of the material,‭ ‬to the point that little of the lilt and joy of Dvořák’s writing came through.‭ ‬As sometimes happens in this festival,‭ ‬this could be an example of opening-night unease,‭ ‬and I would wager that matters will improve by the final performance Monday night.

The‭ ‬Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival‭ ‬repeats this program at‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday at the Crest Theatre,‭ ‬Delray Beach,‭ ‬and at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Monday at the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$22.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬800-330-6874‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬www.pbcmf.org.

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