Monday, September 26, 2011

Review: Atlantic Chamber Ensemble

Sept. 26, Virginia Commonwealth University

The Atlantic Chamber Ensemble, a new chamber-music collective composed largely of Richmond Symphony and Virginia Commonwealth University musicians, made an impressive debut before a pretty large and very appreciative crowd at VCU’s Singleton Arts Center.

The full ensemble for this performance – violinists Susanna Klein and Ross Monroe Winter, violist Kimberly Sparr, cellist Jason McComb, double-bassist Fred Dole, oboist Shawn Welk, clarinetist Ralph Skiano, bassoonist Martin Gordon, French horn player Deborah Fialek and flutist Jenn Lawson – played the too rarely heard Nonet of Bohuslav Martinů as the program’s finale. The wind players were featured in another infrequently played piece, Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music.” Winter, Klein, Sparr and McComb took on the program’s greatest interpretive challenge in Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8.

The Shostakovich quartet, ostensibly dedicated to the victims of fascism in World War II, is in fact a wrenchingly soul-baring self-portrait of the composer, looking back on his struggle to maintain artistic integrity and sanity without falling prey to Josef Stalin and the minions of this most murderous and paranoid of Soviet dictators.

Shostakovich’s score is austere yet intensely expressive, and requires a high level of string technique with carefully timed descents into roughness. Some excellent ensembles have failed to strike those balances; many of the great quartets, wisely, have left this piece out of their repertories.

This foursome delivered a very credible and deeply moving reading, never slackening or losing emotional focus in the slow music, bringing out the profound dread of the “knocks on the door” in the second of the the three largos, and playing the allegro and allegretto movements with darkly hued animation if not the full measure of giddy desperation. A few intonational lapses could be forgiven in a performance of productive incaution.

The Barber and Martinů are much lighter and more cheerful works, each in their way fine examples of
mid-20th-century classicism, and were treated as such by these performers.

Some solo lines were over-projected in the Barber; overall, though, the composer’s assemblage of seven themes (several recurring) evoking summer atmospherics and moods received a well-balanced and finely detailed reading.

The Martinů Nonet, one of the Czech composer’s last works, conspicuously lacks the rarified, shimmering tonal devices and harmonic techniques of much of his mature music, sounding more like the French-accented neoclassical pieces he wrote in Paris in the 1920s. (In a blind listening test, the Nonet might easily be mistaken for something by Poulenc.)

The nine musicians gave the Martinů a suitably high-spirited run, with the substantial bonus of consistently refined playing.

ACE has made part of its mission a determination to talk to and otherwise interact with its audiences and involve listeners in the process of preparing and giving performances. That proved to be a work-in-progress in this debut.

A screen identifying Barber’s themes by letters A through G was unobtrusively useful, as was a printed “play-by-play” of the quintet’s movements. Spoken introductions to the concert and its selections see-sawed between the informative and gimmicky, conversational and stiff. The red stage lighting for the Shostakovich was a bit obvious, although the piece is better experienced in dimmer light. The claim that the gulags were shut down after Stalin’s death in 1953 was flat wrong: Prisoners would continue to languish and die in Soviet slave-labor camps for many more decades.

ACE is ensemble-in-residence of WCVE (88.9 FM), Richmond’s public-radio station. So, if you missed this program, you may catch some or all of it on the air.