Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: Chamber Music Society

May 18, Richmond Public Library
May 20, Bon Air Presbyterian Church
May 22, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, whose programs are devised and rotating casts recruited by cellist James Wilson, ventured chronologically and stylistically throughout the repertory in this spring's outing, "Revolutionary and Banned."

The banned mostly were works suppressed by the Nazis in Central Europe because their composers were Jewish or politically or aesthetically "degenerate." The revolutionary ranged from proto-operatic works by Handel to Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony (No. 3) and "Great Fugue" to John Cage's "4'33"."

Some of the performances were rough – notably, of the "Eroica" arranged as a piano quartet by Beethoven's not very gifted pupil, Ferdinand Ries; others were ready. Most were played with an urgency and sonic punch that one craves in live performances of any music, but especially chamber music.

In the three (of six) programs that I sampled, the standout performance was the closing selection of the festival, Mendelssohn's Octet (precocious, written at age 16, if not revolutionary), which had the very dickens played out of it by violinists Diane Pascal, Jesse Mills, June Huang and Nurit Pacht; violists Mark Holloway and Max Mandel; and cellists Wilson and Raman Ramakrishnan.

In the same final program, mezzo-soprano Tracy Cowart was the voice of a fiery rendition of Handel's cantata "Il Delirio amoroso," supported by the dramatically charged mini-orchestra of Huang, Pacht, Holloway, Wilson, recorder player Anne Timberlake and harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt.

Pascal, Mills, Holloway and Ramakrishnan gave a memorably angular and energetic account of the "Great Fugue," and flutist Mary Boodell was an atmospherically attuned and technically sophisticated protagonist in Benjamin Broening's "Twilight Shift," an electro-acoustic piece in which Boodell played along with manipulated recordings of her flute.

The potentially most crowd-pleasing of the programs – if only there had been more of a crowd to please – was "Renegades," the first half of which positioned 1920s and '30s Berlin German cabaret songs alongside contemporaneous instrumental works, most notably Erwin Schulhoff's Concertino for piano (Reiko Aizawa), flute (Boodell), viola (Holloway) and double-bass (Anthony Manzo).

Singing Kurt Weill's "Berlin im Licht," Friedrich Hollaender's "Falling in Love Again," Alexander von Zemlinsky's "Herr Bombardil" and Stepan Wolpe's "Hitler," Cowart was under some strain to maintain balance with Aizawa's piano accompaniment.

Pascal, Aizawa, Manzo and three wind players from the Richmond Symphony – clarinetist Jared Davis, bassoonist Thomas Schneider and French horn player James Ferree – gave a spirited and sonorous account of a reduction and truncation of Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," arranged by Franz Hasenohrl.

In the first of a pair of free "Ear Concerts" in the Gellman Room of the Richmond Public Library, Pacht played the Saraband from Bach's Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, with fine technique and style on a period fiddle, while Mills dug into a quasi-minimalist Partita for solo violin by the contemporary Russian Valentin Martynovic.

Schmidt presided over the piano for "4'33"," Cage's (in)famous play on silence and ambient sound, and the trio of Pascal, Wilson and Aizawa got in the listener's face with "Revolucionario" from Astor Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires."