Saturday, May 19, 2012

Review: Chamber Music Society

May 18, First Unitarian Universalist Church

Chamber music is rarely heard today in chambers, the large-parlor- or small-ballroom-sized spaces in which chamber works from the 18th and 19th centuries were heard. Even more rarely is chamber music heard these days in “parlor” proximity, with musicians playing on the same level as, and just a few feet away from, their audience.

That was the physical musical encounter set up by the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia for the performance of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet that concluded the first concert of a weekend series. The four string players came down from the platform altar of First Unitarian Universalist Church and positioned themselves around the piano in a snug grouping; they were separated by about two paces from front-row listeners, and performed within 15 feet of most of the audience.

This “Trout” inhabited a different stream, with stronger currents and more sizeable splashes than one would hear in a typically mellow and cheerful performance of this work, at typical concert distance. Punchy accents and enveloping sound were a product of close proximity. A curious by-product, at least from my third-row vantage, was the inside-out sensation of hearing with vivid clarity string figures that are usually covered by piano sound.

Pianist Carsten Schmidt gave an energetic account of the piano part, without neglecting the shades of tonality and timbre that Schubert entrusts to the instrument. Violinist Diane Pascal, violist Max Mandel, cellist James Wilson and double-bassist Jason Phillips produced a collective sound that was both bright and full-bodied. They took a while to find Schubert’s rhythmic wavelength – only the final movement boasted true Viennese lilt; but the impact and clarity of the performance more than compensated for its small imperfections.

Preceding the Schubert were three stretches of water music from different eras and fairly radical changes of musical perspective from one to another.

Wilson, artistic director of the group, provided an arrangement of Smetana’s “Vltava” (“The Moldau”) for two pianos, flute and string quintet. Except in its subtlest string effects – nicely handled by Pascal, Mandel and Wilson – this orchestral tone poem does not downsize well. In this performance, the two pianos, played by Schmidt and Rieko Aizawa, seriously overbalanced the strings and took on a hard, harsh quality when impersonating Smetana’s brass writing.

Pianist Aizawa securely negotiated the manual demands of Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau” (“Fountains”), but with more edge than sparkle and with less rhythmic fluidity than this piece needs.

A set of four dances from Handel’s “Water Music” wisely steered clear of the big, brassy movements in these suites. In the rather intimate sarabande, rigaudon and menuet, the ensemble of flute/piccolo (played by Mary Boodell), violin, viola, cello, double-bass and harpsichord (played by Schmidt) had just the right degree of heft and deft animation. They sounded a bit pushed in the closing gigue.

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia continues its “Water Music” series with concerts at 7:30 p.m. May 19 and 21 at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 1000 Blanton Ave. at the Carillon. Tickets: $25. The society also will present a free concert at noon May 19 in the Gellman Room of the Richmond Public Library, First and Franklin streets. (Seating is limited at the library.) Details:
(804) 519-2098;