Monday, July 18, 2011

Music review: Recent American brass trio proves smart switch at chamber fest

American composer Lauren Bernofsky.‭

By Greg Stepanich

The second concert of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival‭’‬s‭ ‬20th season underwent a programming change,‭ ‬but its tried-and-true finale,‭ ‬which didn‭’‬t change,‭ ‬worked its customary magic.

A large audience at the Crest Theatre on Sunday afternoon warmly applauded that last work,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Death and the Maiden Quartet‭ (‬String Quartet No.‭ ‬14‭ ‬in D minor,‭ ‬D.‭ ‬810‭) ‬of Franz Schubert.‭ ‬In one sense,‭ ‬the two pieces that came before it were warm-up acts,‭ ‬but‭ ‬to say that is to shortchange a deft‭ ‬swap-out on the musical menu.‭

Faced with having to jettison a wind septet by Eugène Bozza that had been planned,‭ ‬organizers of the festival could have gone for something twice-familiar or easy to put together.‭ ‬But to their credit,‭ ‬they chose a relatively new piece‭ (‬2002‭) ‬by a contemporary American composer.‭ ‬The‭ ‬Trio for Brass by Lauren‭ ‬Bernofsky,‭ ‬written for Del Mar College in Texas,‭ ‬is a clever,‭ ‬well-designed piece of writing for trumpet,‭ ‬horn and trombone,‭ ‬and with its Stravinsky-and-jazz harmonic flavorings it made a good case for Bernofsky‭’‬s belief that music should‭ ‬be enjoyable to‭ ‬listen to as well as play.

That‭’‬s not to say it was easy to perform.‭ ‬Trumpeter‭ ‬Brian Stanley,‭ ‬hornist Ellen Tomasiewicz,‭ ‬and trombonist Anthony McFarlane each had substantial solo lines in a piece that was more contrapuntal than not.‭ ‬The first movement,‭ ‬a martial,‭ ‬forthright piece,‭ ‬was especially tricky for Tomasiewicz,‭ ‬who had to play wide-ranging,‭ ‬snaky lines that topped out in the‭ ‬highest reaches of the instrument.‭

In the second,‭ ‬the horn set up‭ ‬a smooth ostinato pattern while Stanley played a melancholy modal tune that wandered over a lyrical landscape before ending with trumpet on top‭ ‬in a good old-fashioned Picardy third,‭ ‬and horn and‭ ‬trombone skittering away to‭ ‬support it with a widely spaced chord,‭ ‬evidence of how you can make big music with small forces.‭

The finale,‭ ‬more insistently march-like than the first,‭ ‬also had a bluesy feel throughout that caused Tomasiewicz some trouble when it came to a solo moment,‭ ‬but that overall gave the music a modern feel without being cheesy.

Again,‭ ‬a smart piece of programming,‭ ‬and it was followed by another,‭ ‬with a John McDonough arrangement for woodwind quintet of the best-known piece by the English composer Peter Warlock.‭ ‬The‭ ‬Capriol Suite,‭ ‬written in‭ ‬1926,‭ ‬pays homage to Warlock‭’‬s‭ ‬love of Renaissance music,‭ ‬and in this version,‭ ‬unlike Warlock‭’‬s original for string orchestra,‭ ‬the archaism of the‭ ‬French‭ ‬sources comes through even more strongly‭; ‬all that was missing were the drums.

The five players‭ ‬– flutist Beth Larsen,‭ ‬oboist Sherie Aguirre,‭ ‬bassoonist Michael Ellert,‭ ‬clarinetist Michael Forte and Tomasiewicz again on horn‭ ‬– performed this‭ ‬charming work with wit,‭ ‬aplomb and a high degree of‭ ‬delicacy.‭

The best‭ ‬performance‭ ‬of the‭ ‬suite‭’‬s‭ ‬six dances was the fourth,‭ ‬Bransles,‭ ‬in which the quintet played with an engaging sense of unity,‭ ‬bolstered by the muscle of Ellert‭’‬s race-to-the-bottom figures.‭ ‬The fifth movement‭ (‬Pieds en l‭’‬air‭) ‬was especially soft and gentle,‭ ‬and the sixth‭ (‬Mattachins‭) ‬had a full-on rusticity that made the suddenly daring harmonies at the very end even more surprising.

The second half of the program was devoted to the Schubert,‭ ‬and featured violinists Mei-Mei Luo and Dina Kostic,‭ ‬violist Rene Reder and cellist Susan Bergeron.‭ ‬ This was a very fine performance of this repertoire staple,‭ ‬particularly in the second movement and the last pages of the finale.‭ ‬These four musicians are longtime friends and colleagues,‭ ‬and they clearly know each other‭’‬s styles thoroughly.

In general,‭ ‬this was a reading of the quartet that was conservative and clean‭; ‬there was no room here for an outburst of ferocity at the beginning of the work or later on when the opening motif returned.‭ ‬Rather,‭ ‬what you had was a straightforward presentation of the first bars that made the next part of the music sound like a logical extension rather than an anticlimax.‭ ‬In other words,‭ ‬it paid due respect to Schubert‭’‬s Beethoven fixation by showing that the rest of the movement‭’‬s material truly was made‭ ‬out of those first‭ ‬10‭ ‬notes.

Ensemble was very solid throughout the entire piece,‭ ‬and the first movement had some especially fine playing with the smoothness of Luo and Kostic‭’‬s beguiling rendition of the secondary theme.‭ ‬But it was the second movement that impressed most,‭ ‬with a beautifully whispered‭ ‬opening‭ (‬the song for which the quartet is named‭) ‬that also avoided the tempting staginess of the drawn-out slowness to which some foursomes fall victim.‭ ‬This version kept the music moving,‭ ‬and the variations flowered naturally out of them.

Bergeron was particularly good in the‭ ‬solo of the second variation,‭ ‬playing with a lovely,‭ ‬burnished sound that her three partners carefully let float into the spotlight.‭ ‬Luo had the occasional difficulty in the very highest E-string theatrics here,‭ ‬but for the most part she handled her work expertly,‭ ‬and that‭’‬s always extra-tough in quartets of this period of composition,‭ ‬which treat the first violin much like a soloist.

If the Scherzo was attractive without being compelling,‭ ‬the tarantella finale had evidently been carefully rehearsed and polished,‭ ‬and it was thrilling to hear all four musicians spring along in this exciting music right in lock-step.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬the triplet motif that began the quartet could be heard as the pulse of the last‭ ‬movement,‭ ‬tribute to the intelligent way in which these fine players met Schubert on his own terms and let him speak.

The‭Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival‭offers its third 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 ‬Martinu’s‭ ‬Serenata II for two violins and viola,‭ ‬Eric Ewazen’s‭ ‬Mosaics,‭ ‬for flute,‭ ‬bassoon and marimba,‭ ‬and the Clarinet Quintet‭ (‬in A,‭ ‬K.‭ ‬581‭) ‬of 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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