Monday, August 6, 2007

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

with tenor Tracey Welborn
Aug. 5, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

Some musicologists and cultural historians suggest that much of what went wrong with modern Europe could be traced to 19th-century romanticism, with its cult of the individual and its celebration of largely fatalistic emotion. Whatever this notion’s merits on the historical grand scale (Wagner + Nietzsche = Hitler?), moderns certainly seem to have inherited their emotional fragility from the romantics.

Consider the precarious love triangle of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, which produced a great deal of sexual tension and about as much music saturated with yearning, nostalgia and unrealized fantasy.

Three potent samples of this creative output formed the first program of the Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude 2007 series.

Violinist Suzy Yim and pianist John Walter started with Clara Schumann’s "Three Romances," a set of bittersweet reveries written in 1855, as her husband was committed to an asylum and his 22-year-old protégé, Brahms, was developing a romantic fixation with her. These pieces don’t need a hard sell interpretively – their passions are on the page; but they do require warmer tone and more sensitive phrasing than Yim provided.

The Richmond-based tenor Tracey Welborn was far more engaged in "Dichterliebe," Robert Schumann’s cycle of 16 songs on poems of Heinrich Heine. Welborn summoned a usefully dark tone for Lieder that dwell on darker emotions and fatalistic sentiments. Emotionally, though, he was unmasked, almost operatic in expressiveness and dynamism. Walter was comparably assertive in Schumann’s highly pianistic accompaniment.

The program concluded with Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, a product of the composer’s last years, when his expression became more subtle, often quizzical, and his musical structures became more skeletal. Clarinetist David Niethamer, cellist Neal Cary and pianist Walter gave a carefully measured reading of the piece, Niethamer especially playing with introverted sensitivity.

The Interlude series is sponsored by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, lacking a venue during its expansion. This summer's site, the sanctuary of Bon Air Presbyterian Church, is an airy but intimate setting for chamber music, with a clear acoustic, comfortable chairs and – what Richmonders really yearn for in August – well-tuned climate control.

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series continues with concerts at 3 p.m. Aug. 12, 19 and 26 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Hugunot Road. Tickets: $16. Information: (804) 340-1405 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts events desk).