Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Atlantic Chamber Ensemble

Sept. 21, St. Matthias’ Episcopal Church

The Atlantic Chamber Ensemble, the collective composed of musicians from the Richmond Symphony, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond and the College of William and Mary, likes to build its programs on themes. In this case, it chose a fruitful one: “Metamorphosis.”

Oboist Shawn Welk, the chief discusser of this program, noted that music is full of examples of one thing – a tune, figuration, rhythm or other element – evolving into something else. The 11-member ensemble chose several of the most obvious vehicles for musical metamorphosis, the theme and variations, garnished with a variety of other forms in which the process literally or figuratively occurs.

The most familiar of the T&Vs was the slow movement of Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, nicknamed the “Trout” after the art-song whose tune is the subject of variations in the movement. Soprano Antonio FD Vassar and pianist Maria Yefimova began with the song, after which Yefimova, violinist Alana Carithers, violist Stephen Schmidt, cellist Jason McComb and double-bassist Kelly Ali gave a graceful and sonorous performance of the movement.

It reinforced the point of the program, but it also whetted the appetite for the rest of the quintet. The same was true of the T&V andante from Jean Françaix’s Wind Quintet No. 1. That’s the risk you run when playing excerpts.

Usually, anyway: The piece that Welk chose to open the program, “Pan” from Benjamin Britten’s “Six Metamorphoses after Ovid” for solo oboe, stood nicely on its own. Yefimova’s surprisingly lyrical treatment of Philip Glass’ “Metamorphosis One,” from a full work that goes on for something like three hours (!), probably did not make many listeners yearn to hear the rest. (It did make me wonder whether the pianist might be a fan of “Downtown Abbey,” whose main theme is strikingly similar to this bit of Glass.)

Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which metamorphosed in the composer’s hands from a six-movement work for solo piano to a four-movement orchestration, was played in a further variant, the orchestrated four movements arranged for wind quintet by Mason Jones, principal French horn player of the Philadelphia Orchestra during the Eugene Ormandy era.

Not suprisingly, Jones’ arrangement has an unusually prominent horn part, played here to strong effect by James Ferree. He and his colleagues – flutist Jennifer Lawson, oboist Welk, clarinetist Jared Davis and bassoonist Martin Gordon – paced Ravel’s fast movements a little too briskly for my taste; but their treatment of the central fugue and minuet sections of the Ravel, as well as the earlier Françaix, resonated nicely.

Cellist McComb and pianist Yefimova proved highly sensitized to the idioms of Anton Webern in his Mahleresque “Langsam” (slow) movement, written at the turn of the 20th century, and his “Drei kleine Stücke” (“Three Little Pieces”) of 1914, couched in his austere and telegraphic mature style. McComb directed the audience’s attention to the role of silence in Webern’s later music, but that element may not have registered as coughs and other extra-musical noises broke the silences.

The program ended on more upbeat and tuneful notes, as pianist Yefimova, flutist Lawson, oboist Welk and clarinetist Davis played Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs,” a blending of musical source matter that sounds more complementary than cultural geographers might expect.