Thursday, July 14, 2011

Music review: Chamber fest's Schoenberg falls short of transfiguration

Arnold Schoenberg‭ (‬1874-1951‭)‬.

By Greg Stepanich

As one of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival‭’‬s performers rightly said in her remarks from the stage,‭ ‬the name of Arnold Schoenberg is‭ “‬box office poison‭”‬ for a lot of people,‭ ‬but that really shouldn‭’‬t apply to his early string sextet,‭ ‬Verklärte Nacht.

This important,‭ ‬beautiful work was one of the major events of the programs in the first weekend of concerts presented in the chamber festival‭’‬s‭ ‬20th anniversary summer,‭ ‬along with the most well-known of Mozart‭’‬s wind serenades and an attractive trifle by a French master‭ ‬of the flute.

The‭ ‬Schoenberg sextet,‭ ‬a moody evocation of a poem about‭ ‬two lovers walking in the moonlight,‭ ‬and the confession by the woman that she is pregnant with another man‭’‬s child,‭ ‬was set by the composer in a Wagnerian,‭ ‬shape-shifting style,‭ ‬with a simple falling minor scale setting the stage for music of emotional tumult that ends in major-key radiance.

In performance Sunday afternoon at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach,‭ ‬the sextet came off rather drily,‭ ‬though clearly the players on stage were trying to emote as best they could.‭ ‬Intonation in the numerous unison octave passages was not what it should have been,‭ ‬which is problematic in music written in the thick,‭ ‬always-doubled fashion of late Romanticism.‭

And while the players handled their parts ably enough,‭ ‬the music didn‭’‬t have enough febrility,‭ ‬enough nervous emotion.‭ ‬Even the very beginning,‭ ‬with its deep,‭ ‬quiet octaves in the tonic,‭ ‬was‭ ‬too precise and pointed:‭ ‬Those low D‭’‬s beat time rather than summoned mystery.‭ ‬The beauty of this piece in addition to the quality of the themes and harmonies is its sense of feelings in near-manic flux‭; ‬it needs to shimmer along with the dark landscape,‭ ‬lit now by the moon,‭ ‬then by nobility of action as the man of the couple‭ ‬accepts the child-to-be as his own.‭

Each change of mood needs to be starkly underlined,‭ ‬brought out in clear contrast to the one that came before,‭ ‬so that the journey to the major key at the end sounds like arrival.‭ ‬But this reading,‭ ‬while pleasant and competently played,‭ ‬was too careful and prosaic‭ ‬to be magical,‭ ‬and by doing so it fell short of the music‭’‬s point.‭ ‬

The concert opened with‭ ‬Médailles Antiques,‭ ‬a two-movement work by the French flutist and conductor Philippe Gaubert‭ (‬1879-1941‭)‬.‭ ‬The flutist‭ ‬was Beth Larsen,‭ ‬substituting for an absent Karen Dixon‭; ‬she was joined by pianist Roberta Rust and violinist Mei-Mei Luo.‭ ‬This is expertly made,‭ ‬if not particularly distinctive,‭ ‬music,‭ ‬but it shows off each instrument well.

Rust played with force and bigness‭ ‬throughout,‭ ‬and Larsen‭’‬s tone was full and sweet.‭ ‬Luo played with her usual intensity,‭ ‬and while on the surface that might seem the wrong prescription for lighthearted French music,‭ ‬it actually worked rather well,‭ ‬bringing out the slippery harmonies and energy of the piece to good effect.‭ ‬The second of the two movements,‭ ‬Danses,‭ ‬was‭ ‬somewhat‭ ‬reminiscent of Chabrier,‭ ‬and the three musicians played it with high spirits and engaging athleticism.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Mozart‭’‬s Serenade‭ (‬No.‭ ‬10‭ ‬in B-flat,‭ ‬K.‭ ‬361‭) ‬for‭ ‬13‭ ‬winds,‭ ‬known as the‭ ‬Gran Partita.‭ ‬The festival took the trouble to bring in two basset horns for the‭ ‬performance,‭ ‬a laudable gesture of fealty to the score,‭ ‬which an old tradition assigns to celebratory music for Mozart‭’‬s wedding in‭ ‬1782.‭ ‬

All‭ ‬14‭ ‬musicians‭ (‬including double bassist Jason Lindsay‭) ‬blended nicely,‭ ‬playing with a fat,‭ ‬round sound,‭ ‬but not one that was overwhelming.‭ ‬It was,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬an approach overall that was‭ ‬somewhat too dynamically limited,‭ ‬and that may have been because the musicians played the piece without a conductor.

The famed third movement‭ (‬beloved from the scene in the movie‭ ‬Amadeus‭ ‬when Salieri first learns who Mozart is‭)‬,‭ ‬for instance,‭ ‬was‭ ‬a shade too heavy and too fast,‭ ‬which cost it some of the beauty of the Handelian solo oboe gesture with which it opens.‭ ‬Similarly,‭ ‬in the fourth movement Minuetto,‭ ‬with its two trios,‭ ‬there was much to admire in the spiffy solo work‭ (‬particularly the bassoon in the second trio‭)‬,‭ ‬but the music also had a‭ ‬sameness‭ ‬to its dynamic level that could have been easily altered with a good conductorial hand.

‭ ‬The bravura ending,‭ ‬which always brings cheers,‭ ‬did so Sunday afternoon as well,‭ ‬and in the important respects of technique,‭ ‬blend and harmony with Classical style,‭ ‬this was a strong,‭ ‬enjoyable reading of a monument of wind literature.‭ ‬It could have used more subtlety,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬to bring out all of Mozart‭’‬s light and shade,‭ ‬and for that it would have needed a director.

The‭ ‬Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival‭offers its second concert of the summer‭ ‬at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Friday at Persson Hall on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach,‭ ‬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 Peter Warlock’s‭ ‬Capriol Suite,‭ ‬arranged for woodwind quintet by John McDonough,‭ ‬Eugene Bozza’s‭ ‬Four Movements for Wind Septet,‭ ‬and the Schubert String Quartet No.‭ ‬14‭ ‬in D minor,‭ ‬D.‭ ‬810,‭ ‬known as the‭ ‬Death and the Maiden Quartet.‭ ‬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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