Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 11 & 25, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

In their first season under the artistic direction of Stephen Schmidt, the Richmond Chamber Players’ summer Interlude series branched out in several new or unexpected directions – an all-Poulenc program, the first appearance in the series by an organist (Bon Air Presbyterian’s Stephen Henley), chamber music of Bruckner and Mahler.

The ensemble also offered continuity and rekindling of old friendships, with the premiere of the Piano Quartet of Allan Blank, the Richmond composer who has introduced a number of pieces in the series over the years, and with the return of Karen Johnson, the former Richmond Symphony concertmaster, now a violinist in the chamber orchestra of the U.S. Marine Band (“the President’s Own”).

Blank’s quartet, completed in 2008, is intended to “refresh the ear” constantly, positioning “many smaller [musical] units next to one another” to produce “sounds in unexpected ways,” the composer said in introducing the work, the finale of the Aug. 11 program.

The most immediate challenge in any chamber work for piano and strings is to prevent the piano from over-balancing the strings. That issue never really arises, thanks to Blank’s “small units” approach and tight (at times, dense) integration of parts – the piano never plays a truly dominant role. Its principal contributions are to enrich the color pallette (pretty substantially) and to undergird rhythmic passages.

On first hearing, Blank’s Piano Quartet often reminded me of the music of Bohuslav Martinů, the early 20th-century Czech composer who combined brilliant colors with motor rhythms. That combination is most evident in the fast second subject of the central movement, but also in the medium-fast first and third movements.

The third (and final) movement is the most audible evidence of Blank’s small-units construct, producing something like a sonic mosaic.

Johnson, also featured in the Aug. 11 program, played Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata in D minor, Op. 27, No. 3 (“Ballade”), for solo violin, and with pianist John Walter, Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” one of the best-known works by the contemporary Estonian composer.

The Ysaÿe, in addition to providing a showcase for the rich lyricism and sonic brilliance of Johnson’s violin technique, was an acknowledgment of the violinist’s pedagogic heritage: Her principal teacher, Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil, was a student of a student of Ysaÿe.

Johnson and Walter nicely captured the chant-driven meditative moodiness and skeletal sound profile of the Pärt. The piece served as a useful ear-cleanser prior to the premiere of the Blank Piano Quartet.

Offsetting the contemporary second half of the Aug. 11 program was Brahms’ Horn Trio, Op. 40, given warmly autumnal treatment by French horn player James Ferree, violinist Catherine Cary and pianist Walter. Brisker tempos were needed, especially in the adagio, where the melodic thread seemed in danger of unraveling.

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The Aug. 25 finale of this year’s Interlude series was titled “Famous Last Wor(k)s,” a cute play on words if not an entirely accurate description of the music presented.

Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, the composer’s last major work, certainly qualifies as famous. So, to a lesser degree, do at least a couple of pieces in Brahms’ Op. 119 set of Intermezzi and Rhapsody. Much less so Brahms’ Op. 122 chorale preludes on “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (aka “Lo, how a Rose e’re Blooming”) and “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” (“O World, I Now Must Leave Thee”), or the String Quartet in E minor of Gabriel Fauré.

The musical mix was engaging, at times challenging. The Fauré and Brahms pieces reflected the tendency of composers in old age to adopt a more austere and technically sophisticated musical language; and, especially with Brahms’ late piano music, to echo enthusiasms and passions of his youth.

The Fauré quartet, alas, is not one of the French composer’s better works. Much of it sounds like a patchwork of small figures put through predictable developments. Its final movement shows the influence of Ravel, but without Ravel’s inventiveness or lyrical sensibility. Violinists Catherine Cary and Suzy Yim, violist Stephen Schmidt and cellist Neal Cary played the piece with attention to detail and a good sense of forward momentum. Tempo was an issue: The first movement (allegro moderato) was not much faster than the andante that followed.

Pianist John Walter, who has often displayed his mastery of Brahms’ style and rhetorical qualities in these concerts, did so again in the Op. 119 pieces. Stephen Henley played up the tonal contrasts between the two chorale preludes on the Bon Air Presbyterian organ, which was refurbished in the spring.

For the Aug. 25 concert, the string ensemble moved back to where the church altar is normally placed. The relocation produced more “live” or resonant string sound, at the cost of some brittleness in upper-string sound. That didn’t have much negative effect on the Fauré (which is rather brittle-sounding anyway), but gave an unwelcome hard edge to louder passages of the Schubert.

Yim, Schmidt, the Carys and second cellist Ryan Lannan gave a stylish, if at times overly blunt, account of the Schubert. The harmonium effect created by second violin, viola and first cello brought unusually atmospheric depth to the great adagio.