Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 5, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

The Richmond Chamber Players opened their 2012 Interlude series with a program of rarely performed works from the early 20th century. Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Erwin Schulhoff and Charles M. Loeffler made for an enticing mix of styles and instrumental configurations – but not, apparently, enough enticement to attract a large audience.

Tenor Tracey Welborn, who sang Vaughan Williams’ “Ten Blake Songs” in the Chamber Players’ 2010 series, returned to perform the composer’s earlier, better-known song cycle “On Wenlock Edge.” A 1909 setting of six poems from A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad,” a somber collection meditating on the dead of the Boer War – and, from our latter-day perspective, anticipating the much greater carnage of World War I – the set vocally veers between almost whispered nostalgia and near-operatic bursts of passion, pain and yearning.

Welborn’s delivery of the Housman verses was spot-on emotionally, and well-communicated through excellent diction and expressive judgment. His contrast of voices was especially telling in “Is my team ploughing.” The accompanying ensemble – pianist John Walter, violinists Susy Yim and Catherine Cary, violist Stephen Schmidt and cellist Neal Cary – overbalanced Welborn in the early going, but fairly quickly adjusted its projection to complement the singer.

The string players opened the program with “Five Pieces for String Quartet” (1923) by Schulhoff, a Czech-German Jew who was one of the more venturesome young composers of Central Europe in the years between the world wars. After the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia, Schulhoff was interned in a concentration camp, where he died in 1942.

His “Five Pieces” is a set of five dance movements evoking the baroque suite but stylistically and expressively couched in the language of moderns such as Stravinsky and Bartók; like much of the art-music of the 1920s, the set is enlivened by the rhythms and accents of jazz and popular dances such as the tango.

It sounds to be challenging fun for string musicians. These musicians met its challenges and appeared to be enjoying themselves – especially Schmidt, whose viola was the rhythmic driver and the source of a lot of Schulhoff’s more interesting voicings and tone colors.

Pianist Walter (artistic director of the ensemble) was joined by violist Schmidt and oboist Gustav Highstein in “Two Rhapsodies” (1901) by Loeffler, an Alsatian violinist (assistant concertmaster of the Boston Symphony for many years) who became the most prominent American composer influenced by French impressionism.

In these two longish tone poems, inspired by “The Pond” and “The Bagpipe” by the French symbolist poet Maurice Rollinar, the impressions are dark, at times almost claustrophobic, thanks in part to the rather spooky subjects and atmospherics of the poems (read by Walter before the performance), and in part to scoring in which the piano’s lower registers reinforce the dusky hue of the viola.

The form (or formlessness) of the rhapsody, the language of impressionism and the expressive inclinations of composers active around the turn of the 20th century, are an invitation to garrulous, meandering writing. Loeffler’s rhapsodies overwork their materials and moods, and overstay their welcome.

Walter, Schmidt and Highstein played the pieces with concentration and pointed expressiveness. The bagpipe effects produced by the oboe and viola were tangy ear candy.

The Richmond Chamber Players Interlude 2012 series continues, with works by Beethoven, Dvořák and Janáček, at 3 p.m. Aug. 12 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $18. Details: (804) 272-7514.