Saturday, May 26, 2007

Review: Hampden-Sydney Music Festival

May 25, Hampden-Sydney College

The Hampden-Sydney Music Festival, staged for 26 years on the rural campus of this Southside Virginia men’s college, is a lot like a family reunion.

Much of the audience is long acquainted with fellow patrons and with the musicians. Many performers return repeatedly for the festival’s two weekends of concerts, capping two weeks spent coaching student artists and ensembles, who perform in preview concerts, then turn into a highly vocal cheering section for their mentors. The size and layout of the venue, Crawley Forum, puts performers in close proximity to listeners, onstage and off.

The Shanghai Quartet, regulars at the festival in recent seasons, returned with a brisk and sharply accented yet expressively probing reading of Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6. Its finest moments came in the scherzo, with syncopated playing of unusual fluidity, and the finale, with a nice contrast between the "Malincolia" theme and its sprightly foil and with its musical surprises well-sprung.

The quartet was joined by the veteran Russian-American pianist Paul Ostrovsky in Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. This has been one of the Shanghai’s showpieces for years – the ensemble frequently performed and recorded it with the late Ruth Laredo – and the string players showed their customary command of its technical and expressive demands.

Ostrovsky, however, made hard labor of the piece, with often sluggish rhythms, more than a few dropped notes and generally woolly tone.

Pianist James Kidd of Hampden-Sydney, the festival’s executive director, and clarinetist Ethan Sloane, its artistic director, launched the opening-night program with "Cantilene" by the clarinetist-composer Louis Cahuzac and arrangements of Debussy’s "Petite Pièce" and "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair" from Book 1 of the piano preludes. Sloane and Kidd played these minatures of French impressionism without the belabored applications of pastel tone color that many artists feel compelled to add; judiciously phrased and well-balanced between the two instruments, the pieces spoke for themselves quite adequately.

The festival’s May 26 concert is sold out. Limited ticket availability for concerts at 8 p.m. June 1 and 2, with miniconcerts by Artist Fellowship Program participants at 7 p.m. Tickets: $18 Information: (434) 223-6273 or