Friday, July 8, 2011

Music feature: Camaraderie keeps PB Chamber Music Festival going, 20 summers on

Members of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival,‭ ‬pictured
this week at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach.‭ ‬From left:
‭ ‬Ellen Tomasiewicz,‭ ‬Rebecca Diderrich,‭ ‬Beth Larsen,‭
‬Michael Ellert, ‭ ‬Roberta Rust,‭ ‬Julia McAlister,‭ ‬
Rene‭ ‬Reder and Sherie Aguirre.‭
(‬Photo by Michael Price Photography‭)

By Greg Stepanich

It all began at Chuck and Harold‭’‬s.

On a long-ago day at the popular Palm Beach restaurant,‭ ‬bassoonist Michael Ellert noticed something right away about‭ ‬Michael Forte,‭ ‬a‭ ‬clarinetist and fellow New Yorker‭ ‬who had‭ ‬just moved to Florida,‭ ‬and‭ ‬with whom he was playing as part of a trio.

‭“‬I‭ ‬looked at Michael and I said,‭ ‬‘Man,‭ ‬you and I must have learned how to play out of tune the same way,‭ ‬because‭ ‬we play amazingly well together,‭’”‬ Ellert said,‭ ‬laughing.‭ ‬“It was just a lock,‭ ‬the first time.‭”

That‭ ‬sense of‭ ‬camaraderie is one of the things that‭ ‬led Forte,‭ ‬Ellert and flutist Karen Dixon,‭ ‬all members of the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra,‭ ‬to found a summer festival of chamber music‭ ‬in Palm Beach County,‭ ‬a concert series that‭ ‬begins its‭ ‬20th anniversary season tonight in West Palm Beach.‭ ‬And it is that collegiality that keeps the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival going,‭ ‬keeps its core players coming back each year,‭ ‬and keeps winning over audiences.‭

“The mission has stayed the same:‭ ‬Focus on the music,‭ ‬with South Florida musicians,‭”‬ Forte said of the festival,‭ ‬which debuted July‭ ‬10,‭ ‬1992,‭ ‬at the Duncan Theater at what was then Palm Beach Community College in Lake Worth.‭ “‬Rather than traipsing off somewhere to play chamber music or do something else at a summer festival,‭ ‬they can do it here.‭”

One‭ ‬not-incidental‭ ‬goal of the effort was to show audiences that the making of classical music wasn‭’‬t restricted to the season or to snowbirds.‭ “‬We were trying to dispel that myth that there‭’‬s nobody in South Florida in the summer,‭”‬ Forte said.‭

Michael Forte.

The festival started small,‭ ‬with just three concerts,‭ ‬but by‭ ‬1996,‭ ‬it had grown to‭ ‬12‭ ‬concerts,‭ ‬given over four weeks and in three different venues.‭ ‬About‭ ‬3,000‭ ‬people turn out each July for the concerts,‭ ‬and Ellert,‭ ‬the group‭’‬s repertoire master,‭ ‬said the musicians have presented about‭ ‬250‭ ‬pieces in the course of its existence.

In so doing,‭ ‬they have created a South Florida summer cultural institution.‭ ‬But there is another legacy of the‭ ‬festival that is at least as important:‭ ‬The six discs it has recorded‭ ‬for Boca Raton‭’‬s Klavier label.‭ ‬The first,‭ ‬Buried Treasure,‭ ‬was released in‭ ‬2000,‭ ‬the most recent,‭ ‬Ever Changing,‭ ‬in‭ ‬2010,‭ ‬and the discs are exceptional for one overriding reason:‭ ‬The freshness of the repertory.

‭“‬One of the things important about the festival is performing pieces that have not earned their obscurity,‭”‬ said Clark McAlister,‭ ‬a vice president at Edwin Kalmus,‭ ‬which owns‭ ‬Klavier,‭ ‬and the festival‭’‬s composer in residence.‭ “‬A lot of them don‭’‬t.‭ ‬We‭’‬re rooting out the pieces that need to be heard.‭”

Each of the festival‭’‬s four programs is performed three times,‭ ‬in the south,‭ ‬central and northern parts of Palm Beach County.‭ ‬The concerts are set for‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Fridays‭ (‬July‭ ‬8,‭ ‬15,‭ ‬22‭ ‬and‭ ‬29‭) ‬at Persson Hall on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach‭; ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturdays‭ (‬July‭ ‬9,‭ ‬16,‭ ‬23‭ ‬and‭ ‬30‭) ‬at the Eissey Campus Theatre on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens‭; ‬and at‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sundays‭ (‬July‭ ‬10,‭ ‬17,‭ ‬24,‭ ‬and‭ ‬31‭) ‬in the Crest Theatre at Old School Square in Delray Beach.

As they have in past seasons,‭ ‬the musicians revisit some pieces that have worked well in the past,‭ ‬and chief among them this year is‭ ‬L‭’‬Histoire du Soldat,‭ ‬Igor Stravinsky‭’‬s‭ ‬1918‭ ‬tale of a soldier and the Devil,‭ ‬which will end the festival in Week‭ ‬4.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a‭ ‬20th-century masterwork,‭ ‬and organizers have retained the services of the three actors who performed it with them in a previous season:‭ ‬Joe Gillie,‭ ‬Barbara Bradshaw and Randolph Dellago.

Karen Dixon.

Another seminal work of modernism,‭ ‬Arnold Schoenberg‭’‬s‭ ‬Verklärte Nacht,‭ ‬is heard in Week‭ ‬1‭ ‬along with the great Serenade No.‭ ‬10‭ (‬in B-flat,‭ ‬K.‭ ‬361‭) ‬of Mozart,‭ ‬also known as the‭ ‬Gran Partita or the‭ ‬Serenade for‭ ‬13‭ ‬Winds.‭ ‬Schubert‭’‬s beloved‭ ‬Death and the Maiden‭ ‬Quartet‭ (‬No.‭ ‬14‭ ‬in D minor,‭ ‬D.‭ ‬810‭) ‬is scheduled for Week‭ ‬2,‭ ‬and Mozart‭’‬s Clarinet Quintet‭ (‬in A,‭ ‬K.‭ ‬581‭) ‬is set for Week‭ ‬3.‭ ‬Forte is featured in that work,‭ ‬and Dixon takes the solo spotlight in Week‭ ‬4‭ ‬with a septet version of the Orchestral Suite No.‭ ‬2‭ (‬in B minor,‭ ‬BWV‭ ‬1067‭) ‬of J.S.‭ ‬Bach.

Each summer‭’‬s programs always feature one work for the three founders,‭ ‬and this year it‭’‬s‭ ‬Fragments,‭ ‬by the American composer Robert Muczynski,‭ ‬who died last year.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a brief,‭ ‬charming work that appears on the festival‭’‬s‭ ‬Buried Treasure disc and in Week‭ ‬4.‭ ‬There‭’‬s always a wind quintet each season,‭ ‬and this time around it‭’‬s a John McDonough arrangement of the‭ ‬Capriol Suite,‭ ‬by the English composer Peter Warlock‭ (‬Week‭ ‬2‭)‬.‭

The programs also feature less well-known music by Eugene Bozza,‭ ‬Philippe Gaubert,‭ ‬Bohuslav Martinu and a trio for flute,‭ ‬bassoon and marimba,‭ ‬called‭ ‬Mosaics,‭ ‬by the contemporary American composer Eric Ewazen.

Each piece in the festival gets from six to‭ ‬12‭ ‬hours of rehearsal,‭ ‬which is substantial,‭ ‬and all players regardless of their duties are paid festival-style:‭ ‬A flat rate of‭ ‬$500‭ ‬a week.‭ ‬Dixon,‭ ‬49,‭ ‬said it makes for a busy run-up to the concerts.

‭“‬The way our schedule is,‭ ‬we don‭’‬t have a day off,‭”‬ she said.‭

Dixon said the planning meeting that the festival musicians always promise each other they‭’‬ll have after the festival ends never seems to happen,‭ ‬but dates at the venues are secured as soon as feasible.‭ ‬Musicians suggest wish lists of works they‭’‬d like to play in the concerts,‭ ‬and Ellert,‭ ‬a self-confessed addict of the far reaches of publisher catalogs,‭ ‬makes a point of seeking out underappreciated repertoire for possible inclusion.‭

This year‭’‬s selection of the Ewazen trio,‭ ‬for instance,‭ ‬came about as a result of a serendipitous late-night search on YouTube,‭ ‬he said,‭ ‬and the Bozza‭ (‬Four Movements for Wind Septet,‭ ‬in Week‭ ‬2‭)‬,‭ ‬is completely new to the musicians.‭

The three founders say they‭’‬ve often received suggestions for expanding the festival to another week,‭ ‬perhaps by bringing in outside ensembles and giving the home team a rest.‭ ‬But the four weeks of concerts push the musicians to their limit.

‭“‬To do anything else,‭ ‬someone would have to do it for us,‭”‬ said Ellert,‭ ‬61.‭ ‬And doing concerts during the regular,‭ ‬event-crammed season isn‭’‬t workable either,‭ ‬they said.

Michael Ellert.

The‭ ‬20‭ ‬seasons have provided the expected collection of high and low points.‭ ‬The three founders look to the previous‭ ‬L‭’‬Histoire,‭ ‬the recordings,‭ ‬and a conductor-less reading of the suite from Aaron Copland‭’‬s‭ ‬Applachian Spring ballet score as musical peaks.‭

One of the low points was‭ ‬offered by a disgruntled patron of the series in the early years.‭ ‬Dixon had worked up the‭ ‬Duettino Concertante‭ ‬for flute and percussion of the‭ ‬20th-century German-American composer Ingolf Dahl.‭ “‬It was a really cool piece,‭ ‬and we really worked hard on it,‭”‬ she said.‭ “‬And I remember feeling that we did a really good job.‭”

But the audience member disagreed.‭

“I had someone at the Crest Theatre come up to me after the concert,‭ ‬at the reception,‭ ‬and say,‭ ‬‘How could you subject me to that‭? ‬That was the worst thing I‭’‬ve ever heard.‭ ‬I would have left but I was in the middle of the row and I couldn‭’‬t get out,‭’”‬ she said.‭ “‬I was so taken aback,‭ ‬I was speechless.‭”‬

Those kinds of experiences,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬have been rare.‭ ‬For the most part,‭ ‬this has been a festival with a steady,‭ ‬loyal following,‭ ‬summer after summer.

‭“‬People say to us,‭ ‬‘I really love coming to these concerts.‭ ‬It just looks like you guys are having a really good time out there,‭’”‬ said Forte,‭ ‬59.‭ “‬And that means a lot.‭”

The three say they‭’‬re planning to keep the series going as long as they can,‭ ‬and say the festivals have become an extension of what the original concert was:‭ ‬A gathering of friends.

‭“‬That‭’‬s one of the great things about this,‭”‬ Ellert said,‭ ‬pointing out that the core group of players has been with the series for more than‭ ‬10‭ ‬years.‭ “‬Even though it‭’‬s just once a year,‭ ‬we all get back together on day one,‭ ‬and we go,‭ ‬‘Oh,‭ ‬this works.‭’”

The‭Palm Beach Chamber Music‭ ‬Festival begins tonight at‭ ‬8,‭ ‬at Persson Hall on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach,‭ ‬and repeats at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens and at‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach.‭ ‬The program features Médailles Antiques for flute,‭ ‬violin and piano by the French composer Philippe Gaubert‭; ‬Schoenberg‭’‬s Verklärte Nacht‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬4‭)‬,‭ ‬for string sextet‭; ‬and the Gran Partita‭ (‬in B-flat,‭ ‬K.‭ ‬361‭) ‬for‭ ‬13‭ ‬winds and double bass,‭ ‬by Mozart.‭ ‬Tickets‭ ‬are‭ ‬$25,‭ ‬and a four-weekend ticket can be had for‭ ‬$85.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬330-6874,‭ ‬visit‭ ‬,‭ ‬or buy them at the door.

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