Monday, August 9, 2010

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 8, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

The Richmond Chamber Players launched their 32th season with a program devoted entirely to music of English composers, which is to say obscure music.

Anglophilia is widespread among Americans who listen to classical music; but their tastes in neckties and interior d├ęcor haven’t extended to English music. There’s no good reason for this. I suspect it’s just habit on the part of programmers.

So, all hail John Walter and friends for picking fruit from the English tree, even if some of it wasn’t fully ripe.

The program contrasted one of the last works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, "Ten Blake Songs" (1957), with one of his earliest surviving pieces, the Piano Quintet in C minor (1903-05). Between them, there was the Viola Sonata (1919) by Rebecca Clarke, one of the first prominent female composers in Britain (although she wrote the sonata during an extended stay in America).

Vaughan Williams pared musical materials, texture and instrumentation to the essentials in "Ten Blake Songs." This setting of poems by William Blake is scored minimally, for voice and oboe; yet those two voices produce the same melodic and harmonic currents, the same pastoral atmospherics and spatial qualities, as his most lavishly orchestrated music.

Tenor Tracey Welborn and oboist Gustav Highstein captured just the right balance between the intimacy of Blake’s poems and the expansiveness of Vaughan Williams’ settings. Welborn effectively conveyed the introspection and sense of wonder in these verses, and Highstein phrased and colored the oboe’s micro-orchestration masterfully. They treated "Ten Blake Songs" as a neglected masterpiece, which it is.

(By happy coincidence, if you missed this performance, there's another chance to hear the song cycle, performed by soprano Ilana Davidson, tenor Derek Chester and oboist Roger Roe in an Aug. 25 Staunton Music Festival program.)

The Vaughan Williams piano quintet is not a neglected masterpiece. Its string instrumentation (violin, viola, cello, double-bass) is modeled after that of Schubert’s "Trout" Quintet; but Vaughan Williams’ texture is much thinker and his timbres much darker. The piano’s hard, bright chords flash rather aggressively through the fiddle murk. The concluding theme-and-variations Fantasia, the lightest-textured section of the piece, is the most successful.

Walter, playing piano, and violinist Susy Yim, violist Stephen Schmidt, cellist Neal Cary and double-bassist Fred Dole played gamely, and with rich expressiveness in solo passages.

The Clarke sonata is a reminder of how effectively British composers can balance modernity and antiquity, intellect and sensuality. The three-movement piece is impressionistic in its colors, verging on jazzy in its rhythmic character, and a very fine showcase for the range and tonal character of the viola. Violist Schmidt played it expertly and lovingly, with sonorous and stylish accompaniment by Walter.

(And what do you know, Clarke’s Viola Sonata will be played on Aug. 22 at the Garth Newel Music Center in Bath County.)

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series continues with concerts at 3 p.m. Aug. 15, 22 and 29 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $18. Details: (804) 272-7514, ext. 312.