Sunday, August 3, 2008

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 3, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

The Richmond Chamber Players launched their 2008 Interlude series with a program of French early modern works that didn’t always conform to the usual notions of their time and place.

The best-known offering was Claude Debussy’s last major composition, the Sonata in G minor (1917) for violin and piano, a piece in which impressionistic tone colors serve mainly to underline emotional and expressive ambivalence. The sonata requires substantial technique on the part of the violinist, but also demands an important interpretive decision: Whether to show off technique or delve into its musicality.

Violinist Susy Yim chose the latter course. While her technical command was never in doubt, her qualities that stood out in her performance were introspection and exploration. Each gesture, each venture into rarified tonality, sounded within a deeper context. She played the sonata not as a musical argument or essay, but as an act of contemplation.

Pianist John Walter, artistic director of the ensemble’s summer series, stayed expressively in tune with Yim – as he would with other collaborators throughout the program.

Bracketing the Debussy were lesser-known works from two composers of "Les Six," leading lights of the generation that followed Debussy: Darius Milhaud’s Suite (1936) for violin, clarinet and piano and Francis Poulenc’s Sextet (1939) for winds and piano.

Yim, Walter and clarinetist David Niethamer played the Milhaud with a collective ear cocked for its jazzy and Brazilian undertones, but made more of its neoclassicism à la Stravinsky, a quality most pronounced in its "Jeu: Vif" movement. Niethamer’s clarinet overbalanced Yim’s violin in the early going, but they achieved better sonic balance as the performance progressed.

If Poulenc was the most Mozartian of French moderns – "content to follow the gentle neoclassical formation of Ravel’s piano music and songs," as Nicolas Slonimsky put it – then this sextet is one of the gaudiest outliers of his output. The piece is densely scored, often aggressive in its rhythmic language and abrupt in its dynamism, and largely romantic, even Wagnerian, in its melodies and the way they are expressed. It’s also notably short on Poulenc’s trademark humor, unless you hear the piece as a sendup of romantic style.

Flutist Mary Boodell, oboist Sandra Lisicky, bassoonist Jonathan Friedman, French horn player Paul LaFollette, clarinetist Niethamer and pianist Walter gave an outsized performance of the Poulenc. In louder passages, they came close to producing more sound than the Bon Air Presbyterian Church sanctuary could comfortably accommodate.

The ensemble maintained good balance within the music’s thick textures, and solos – notably by Lisicky, LaFollette and Friedman – were sensitively played. Walter reveled in the work’s assertive piano part.

The six musicians were on more characteristically light-hearted French woodwind turf in an encore, Jean Françaix’s "The Little Nervous One."

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series continues with concerts at 3 p.m. Aug. 10, 17 and 24 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $14-$16. Details: (804) 340-1405 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts ticket desk).