Saturday, July 10, 2010

Music review: First PB chamber festival concert shows group building canon

A quilt from Gee's Bend.


By Greg Stepanich

Pieces of music come and go,‭ ‬sometimes just once before disappearing,‭ ‬sometimes aired out only every once in a while like an unfashionable sweater found in the depths of Grandfather‭’‬s closet.

But many of these works are pieces of real merit,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s up to performing organizations to start turning old and new rarities into repertory.‭ ‬The musicians of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival began that process in earnest Friday night at‭ ‬Palm Beach Atlantic University‭’‬s‭ ‬Persson Hall with the first program of their current‭ ‬19th season of summer concerts.

Friday‭’‬s program‭ (‬which repeats Sunday and Monday‭) ‬was a challenging,‭ ‬demanding assemblage‭ ‬that included‭ ‬brand-new music and two older pieces that the group has recorded on its series of six discs for Boca Raton‭’‬s Klavier Records.‭ ‬What the audience heard was the formation of the festival‭’‬s own canon,‭ ‬its own discoveries,‭ ‬and if the wider musical world pays more attention to pieces such as the Suite for oboe,‭ ‬clarinet and viola of Randall Thompson,‭ ‬or the Nonet of Bohuslav Martinů,‭ ‬it will have this durable South Florida event to thank.

The same goes for‭ ‬Gee‭’‬s Bend Pieces,‭ ‬which had its world premiere in January at Lynn University during a weeklong new music happening featuring its composer,‭ ‬Kenneth Frazelle.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a trio for marimba,‭ ‬piano and trumpet,‭ ‬and pianist Lisa Leonard,‭ ‬who asked Frazelle to write the piece,‭ ‬helped make a strong case for it Friday night when she brought it back for this week of festival programs.‭ ‬Whereas the debut performance by a talented Lynn student‭ ‬ensemble had an almost raucous energy,‭ ‬this reading of the four-movement work had more shape,‭ ‬with Leonard,‭ ‬trumpeter Marc Reese and percussionist Michael Launius‭ ‬making the most of Frazelle‭’‬s prominent motifs and abundance of instrumental color.

This is a well-crafted,‭ ‬big-boned,‭ ‬forceful composition,‭ ‬strongly tonal‭ ‬and brashly harmonized,‭ ‬that is meant to evoke the celebrated African-American folk-quilting community of Gee‭’‬s Bend,‭ ‬Ala.‭ ‬Its two outer movements are powerfully rhythmic,‭ ‬particularly the finale‭ (‬Dances‭)‬,‭ ‬which goes through several different styles including a section that has the flavor of early jazz.

The second movement,‭ ‬Hymn Fade,‭ ‬makes a moving impression,‭ ‬as amid an almost constant blur of marimba tremolando chords a simple hymn tune in the piano makes its appearance,‭ ‬a melody that is then seconded by the trumpet.‭ ‬It is a lovely,‭ ‬ecstatic movement,‭ ‬and it serves as the emotional heart of this fine‭ ‬new‭ ‬piece of very American music.‭ ‬Aside from a minor flub in the first measures,‭ ‬Reese played with command and beauty,‭ ‬and Launius was excellence personified,‭ ‬building up huge heads of rolling-chord steam and dashing off the climbing scales of the fourth movement with admirable precision.

And Leonard remains one of the best pianists to be heard in this region,‭ ‬a player of consistently high quality whose musical intent can be understood immediately as she plays‭; ‬she knows what message she wants to get across,‭ ‬and conveys it with absolute clarity.

Gee‭’‬s Bend Pieces followed the Thompson Suite,‭ ‬written in‭ ‬1940‭ ‬by the Harvard academic (at right) best-known for his‭ ‬Alleluia,‭ ‬a short choral work beloved by school and professional singing groups.‭ ‬The five-movement suite‭ ‬– played by oboist Sherie Aguirre,‭ ‬violist Rene Reder and clarinetist Michael Forte‭ ‬– is a little masterpiece of homespun Americana,‭ ‬cannily written for an‭ ‬unusual‭ ‬but pleasing‭ ‬combination‭ ‬of instruments whose mid-range warmth should recommend it to other writers.‭ ‬The most affecting of the movements here was the fourth,‭ ‬a‭ ‬Lento religioso‭ ‬that‭ ‬suggested in its minor-tonality modal way an ancient hymnody of severe devotion,‭ ‬the gorgeousness of its primary melody notwithstanding.‭

Aguirre played with a large,‭ ‬fat sound that lost none of its roundness even in the highest registers,‭ ‬for which Forte‭’‬s somewhat softer,‭ ‬breathier sound made a good match.‭ ‬Reder provided expert‭ ‬harmonic‭ ‬support for her two partners,‭ ‬and in the solo passages of the second movement,‭ ‬played with a grave kind of elegance that was most appealing.

The Thompson was one of two works on the program that the festival musicians have performed in past seasons and then recorded,‭ ‬the other being the Martinů Nonet,‭ ‬which is for string trio,‭ ‬wind quintet and bass.‭ ‬Written in‭ ‬1959,‭ ‬this three-movement work is classic Martinů in its‭ ‬lightheartedness,‭ ‬quirky harmonies,‭ ‬and catchy rhythms,‭ ‬and like the Thompson deserves to be regularly programmed on chamber music concerts.‭

The nine musicians blended with skill‭; ‬there was no sense here of mismatch,‭ ‬of too many winds to too few strings,‭ ‬or of two different sound qualities colliding.‭ ‬Rather,‭ ‬it had a rough-and-ready unity that served the music well.‭ ‬Hornist Ellen Tomasiewicz was particularly good,‭ ‬bringing an impressively big sonic presence to the first and second movements.

The concert opened with an early work of Schubert,‭ ‬the String Trio in B-flat,‭ ‬D.‭ ‬581.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬is a neglected but worthy work,‭ ‬in which the‭ ‬20-year-old composer writes in the spirit of Haydn,‭ ‬but with a melodic distinction‭ ‬all his own.‭ ‬Violinist Mei-Mei Luo,‭ ‬violist Rebecca Didderich and cellist‭ ‬Christopher Glansdorp gave a fine account of it,‭ ‬collaborating well and effectively bringing out the‭ ‬work‭’‬s variety.

Luo‭’‬s intonation in the first movement was somewhat imprecise,‭ ‬especially because of the wry,‭ ‬accidental-heavy nature of the opening theme,‭ ‬which sneaks around the notes of the tonic scale and has to be right on the money in order to make musical sense.‭ ‬Things were much better in this regard in the charming second movement and‭ ‬the lyrical third‭; ‬Didderich‭’‬s solo work in the minor-key section of the second and the trio of the third was excellent.

The second half began with Luo and cellist‭ ‬Susan‭ ‬Bergeron in‭ ‬Passacaglia,‭ ‬a theme-and-variations duet showpiece by Norwegian composer and conductor Johan Halvorsen‭ (‬1864-1935‭)‬,‭ ‬based on a‭ ‬passacaglia from a keyboard work by Handel.‭ ‬This is an exciting,‭ ‬sparkling piece that shows what a composer with imagination and resource can do with some very basic material.

Here again there were intonation problems at the beginning‭ ‬from Luo,‭ ‬but she recovered and was able to show off her considerable digital prowess in these variations,‭ ‬notably at one point where she played a high-floating variation entirely in harmonics.‭ ‬Bergeron was terrific throughout,‭ ‬rapidly scaling some broken diminished chords in one passage and yet able to make them speak as harmonies,‭ ‬and matching Luo run for run as they tossed off this light but entertaining morsel.

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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