Sunday, August 2, 2009

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 2, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

Music of Felix Mendelssohn, whose bicentennial is being celebrated this year, runs through this year’s Interlude concerts by the Richmond Chamber Players. Mendelssohn, however, was the 19th-century outlier of the series’ opening program, otherwise devoted to 20th-century works by Central European Jewish composers.

Two of those represented, the Czech-German Erwin Schulhoff and the Dutchman Leo Smit, were victims of the Holocaust. A third, the Hungarian György Ligeti, endured forced labor under the pro-Nazi Hungarian regime during World War II and lost most of his family in the death camps; fleeing his country after the communists crushed the Hungarian revolt of 1956, he became one of the leading voices of the mid-century European avant-garde.

Ligeti’s “Six Bagatelles” (1953) for wind quintet only hints at the direction his later works would take, in a few bits of chromatic harmony that might be likened to clouds of tone. Otherwise, this set of contrasting short pieces are characteristic of the neoclassical style that prevailed at the time. The performers – flutist Mary Boodell, oboist Sandra Lisicky, clarinetist David Niethamer, bassoonist Jonathan Friedman and French horn player Paul LaFollette – delivered an animated, nicely balanced account that peaked in the frenetic opening and closing pieces and a lyrical Rubato lamentoso.

Schulhoff’s Concertino (1925) for the uncommon ensemble of flute alternating with piccolo (Boodell), viola (Molly Sharp) and double-bass (Fred Dole) is often cited as an example of the composer’s jazz-influenced work; but in fact its heart beats to the rhythms of Czech folk melody and dance. The ensemble played up that lineage, most explicitly in the rustic Furiant movement.

Smit’s “Sextour” (1928) for wind quintet with piano (played by John Walter, the group’s artistic director) is, as its title suggests, an example of the urbane modernist style developed by French composers between the world wars, with a central slow movement whose main theme echoes the Gershwin of “An American in Paris.” This performance was more American than Parisian, though, with assertive wind-playing that at its loudest made Smit’s sound textures sound congested.

The program opened with Mendelssohn’s Sonata in F major for violin and piano, a piece from 1838-39 that went unperformed until Yehudi Menuhin unearthed it in the early 1950s. The sonata’s late-classical structure and tunefulness are clearly Mendelssohnian, as is the skittish energy of its finale; but its real attraction is the way it seamlessly blends echoes of Beethoven and pre-echoes of Brahms. Violinist Susy Yim and pianist Walter gave it a straightforward, rather lean-sounding reading.

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series continues with concerts at 3 p.m. Aug. 9, 16 and 23 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $16. Details: (804) 340-1405 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts event desk);