Saturday, July 24, 2010

Music review: French-accented chamber program brings vigor to Ibert trio

Jacques Ibert‭ (‬1890-1962‭)‬.

By Greg Stepanich

At its most important,‭ ‬the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival‭ ‬is about discovery,‭ ‬in hearing something worthwhile that its musicians have brought out of the libraries or fresh off the stocks for its loyal audience of nearly two decades.

In the first‭ ‬installment Friday of its third week of concerts,‭ ‬the musicians returned in a largely French program to the work of Jacques Ibert,‭ ‬whose‭ ‬Deux Mouvements of‭ ‬1922‭ ‬the group performed and recorded‭ ‬10‭ ‬years ago.‭ ‬That work,‭ ‬for two flutes,‭ ‬clarinet and bassoon,‭ ‬got an encore performance Friday night at‭ ‬Palm Beach Atlantic University‭’‬s‭ ‬Persson Hall,‭ ‬but it was another composition‭ ‬by Ibert that really raised the temperature in the room.

The Trio for violin,‭ ‬cello and harp,‭ ‬written by Ibert in the dark year of‭ ‬1944‭ ‬for his harpist daughter,‭ ‬is an exemplary piece in whose second movement the ghost of Gabriel Fauré looms large,‭ ‬but which overall is a quintessentially French,‭ ‬marvelously colorful exploration of the timbres and‭ ‬capabilities of its three instruments.‭ ‬Harpist Kay Kemper was joined by violinist Mei-Mei Luo and cellist Christopher Glansdorp for this three-movement piece,‭ ‬which differs from the‭ ‬earlier Ibert work and much other of its ilk in its red-bloodedness,‭ ‬fire and drive.

The opening movement,‭ ‬marked‭ ‬Allegro tranquillo,‭ ‬was‭ ‬anything but laid-back in this performance‭; ‬the first chordal snap in the harp was followed by a fierce athleticism from Luo and Glansdorp‭ ‬for the sinuous opening‭ ‬theme,‭ ‬giving the movement a headlong feel that the three players were happy to feed with‭ ‬plenty of fuel.‭ ‬Kemper‭ ‬provided strong rhythmic backing for her string partners,‭ ‬and offered impressive power in the fountains of glissandi that burst out in the middle of the movement.

Glansdorp demonstrated beautiful tone quality in the lovely second movement,‭ ‬a Fauré-style chanson from its harp ostinato to its melancholy harmonies and‭ ‬long-limbed‭ ‬melody,‭ ‬and Luo answered him in the same open-hearted fashion.‭ ‬The brusque energy‭ ‬of the opening was evident again in the closing‭ ‬Scherzando con moto,‭ ‬in which a chattering five-note motif was prominent and was effectively contrasted with a gentler secondary theme in the harp.‭ ‬The three musicians worked admirably well together,‭ ‬and their high-octane reading of this fine Trio made it stand out.

The Ibert‭ ‬Deux Mouvements‭ ‬that followed featured the same musicians that assembled for it a decade ago:‭ ‬flutists Karen Dixon and Beth Larsen,‭ ‬clarinetist Michael Forte and bassoonist Michael Ellert.‭ ‬This is a slighter piece than the Trio,‭ ‬and gains its attractiveness in its sly humor,‭ ‬exemplified by the two smirking-bassoon codas.‭ ‬This was an expert performance,‭ ‬distinguished by the fat,‭ ‬rich‭ ‬flute tone of Dixon and Larsen and its ensemble control,‭ ‬such as the skillful group diminuendo in the first of the movements.

Larsen and Dixon opened the second half with an old-fashioned Romantic-era display piece,‭ ‬a fantasy on themes from Verdi‭’‬s opera‭ ‬Rigoletto by the flutist-composer team of brothers Karl and Franz Doppler.‭ ‬It was designed to show off flute virtuosos,‭ ‬and in Larsen and Dixon it had two excellent players who gave us a good idea of why this kind of piece was so popular in its day.‭

Although this piece featured,‭ ‬briefly,‭ ‬La donna è mobile and‭ ‬Bella figlia dell‭’‬amore,‭ ‬much of it was built on the Act I aria for Gilda,‭ ‬Caro nome.‭ ‬The Dopplers surrounded these tunes with plenty of rapid chromatic scales in duet,‭ ‬or let one flute play difficult accompaniment figures while the other‭ ‬sang sweetly above it.‭ ‬There was no hint of any squeaks,‭ ‬honks or flubs in any of this,‭ ‬just two veteran players spinning out yards of silky smooth scales and dazzling filigree.‭ ‬Pianist Michael Yannette accompanied skillfully,‭ ‬and stayed well in the background.

Yannette,‭ ‬Forte and Ellert opened the concert with the other German work on the program,‭ ‬Mendelssohn‭’‬s early‭ ‬Concertpiece No.‭ ‬2‭ ‬for clarinet,‭ ‬bassoon and piano,‭ ‬written in‭ ‬1832‭ ‬but with the misleadingly high posthumous opus number of‭ ‬114.‭ ‬The bassoon part of this work was originally composed for‭ ‬the now obsolete‭ ‬basset horn,‭ ‬and Forte hinted in remarks before the piece that real basset horns might show up on the festival‭’‬s concerts in its upcoming‭ ‬20th anniversary season.

This is a modest but very attractive work,‭ ‬a chamber concerto for the two wind instruments‭ ‬that‭’‬s light on its feet.‭ ‬Both Ellert‭ ‬and Forte played with charm and suavity,‭ ‬with Ellert tackling a slightly more difficult part in that the second of the three movements required him to play the wide-ranging arpeggios supporting the clarinet tune,‭ ‬an Italian opera aria in everything but name.‭ ‬Both musicians were nicely in synch for the bubbling third movement,‭ ‬and they had good support from Yannette.

Like the second concert in the festival,‭ ‬the third ended with a major work from the string quartet repertoire,‭ ‬this time‭ ‬the String Quartet in‭ ‬F of Maurice Ravel.‭ ‬This sublime masterpiece contains not just wonderful music but also an object lesson in Ravel‭’‬s genius at orchestration‭; ‬few composers before or since have been able to draw so much color and sound from only four instruments.

Violinists Dina Kostic and Rebecca Didderich‭ (‬more familiar as a violist‭)‬,‭ ‬violist Rene Reder and cellist Susan Bergeron joined forces for the Ravel,‭ ‬and did a more than respectable job.‭ ‬They were at their best in the most straightforward parts of the quartet,‭ ‬such‭ ‬as the tricky five-beat fourth movement,‭ ‬which sounded carefully and thoroughly rehearsed,‭ ‬and in the second movement,‭ ‬with its frequent time shifts and pizzicato punctuation.‭

And while this was a good presentation of the quartet in that it allowed listeners to appreciate the warmth of Ravel‭’‬s melodic writing and the richness of his sonic fabric,‭ ‬something subtle about the music seemed to elude this foursome.‭ ‬The closing bars of the third movement,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬were deliberate where they might have been mysterious and dramatic,‭ ‬and the delicate,‭ ‬frequent harmonic changes in the first movement could have been played with a greater sense of surprise and mood.

What‭’‬s needed here is a little more of what makes Ravel,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬Ravel:‭ ‬An illusion of spontaneity and‭ ‬naked emotion carried out by means of an almost fearful precision.‭

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 ‬

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