Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Review: Richmond Festival of Music

April 29, Second Presbyterian Church

Charles Ives commonly is described as a "maverick" American composer, but in truth he was an even more American character: a cuss. Not just an old cuss, either – he started young as a contrarian who made a study of going against the grain, complicating the issue for the joy of it or the hell of it. His cussedness can be fascinating or endearing, but sometimes he just tests your limits.

Ives’ Piano Trio (1904-11) see-saws between endearment and aggravation. He wrote it as a reminiscence of his student years at Yale; the listener can hear it as a riotous memoir or as a dense jumble of memories. A spoof of earnest Socratic dialogue is followed by "Tsiaj" – "this scherzo is a joke" – a medley-in-bedlam of 19th-century folk songs and popular tunes, which is followed by an outrageously florid prelude leading into a harmonically warped rendition of "Rock of Ages."

This fiendishly difficult score demands a go-for-broke performance, and that’s what it got from pianist Carsten Schmidt, violinist Diane Pascal and cellist James Wilson in the third installment of this year’s Richmond Festival of Music.

The three musicians projected Brahmsian expression and rhetorical effect, but with a crazed urgency, as if Brahms had ingested amphetamines. Their idiomatic singing of the old tunes sounded like miraculous outgrowths from Ives’ thicket of harmonies and sonorities. Against the odds, they usually managed to keep their voices in balance. Schmidt even cut through the fog of the piano part – no mean feat.

A less manic but no less eventful Ives emerged in a set of songs from mezzo-soprano Leslie Mutchler and pianist Gabriel Dobner. Mutchler’s rich, operatic voice was best employed in the bittersweet reverie of "Tom Sails Away" and the shimmering impressionism of "The Housatonic at Stockbridge." She had the enthusiasm, but not the boyish voice, for "The Circus Parade," and allowed tone to overcome style and diction in Ives’ wistful early ballad "Waltz."

In a set of five songs by Stephen Foster, Mutchler sounded most attuned to the Celtic-styled "Hard Times Come Again No More" and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."

Dobner, an accompanist of long experience, supported the singer admirably and was masterful in conveying Ives’ energy and reproducing the composer’s tone-painting.

Flutist Mary Boodell, clarinetist Laura DeLuca and Schmidt were tightly integrated and highly animated in "Barn Dances" (2004) by Libby Larsen. These updatings of hoedown and fiddle tunes frequently recall the treatments of American style produced by European composers of the 1920s – imagine Poulenc strolling along the Chisholm Trail. Boodell made especially fine work of the fluttering effects in "Rattlesnake Twist."

Pianist Lori Piitz opened the program with a brittle rendition of Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s showpiece "The Banjo." She was in more fluent form by the time she joined Pascal and DeLuca in the evening’s finale, four pieces from "Afternoon Cakewalk," a suite that William Bolcom arranged from ragtime tunes by Scott Joplin, Louis Chauvin and himself, highlighted by Bolcom’s best-known rag, "Graceful Ghost."

The Richmond Festival of Music continues with concerts at 8 p.m. May 2 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church and 8 p.m. May 3 at the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Tickets: $25. A free "Ear Project" lecture-recital will be staged at 11 a.m. May 3 at the Richmond Public Library’s downtown Main Branch. Details: (804) 519-2098;