Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: Paley Music Festival

Alexander Paley & Pei-Wen Chen, piano
Rebecca Zimmerman, cello
Charles West, clarinet
Sept. 27-28, St. Luke Lutheran Church

This year’s Paley Music Festival concluded with another near-marathon performance, this time of Beethoven and Brahms: two sonatas for cello and piano and two trios for clarinet, cello and piano – altogether, nearly three hours of music. As with the opening-night concert, a near-capacity audience turned out, but with a good deal of attrition during intermission.

The Richmond-bred cellist Rebecca Zimmerman, now based in Chicago, joined clarinetist Charles West and Paley in the Sept. 28 finale. Zimmerman’s instrument, which has rich bass tone but much less presence in its high register, was not ideally combined with the bright-sounding Cristofori piano that Paley played. The cellist also proved to be less assertive a player than Paley (not many performers match him on that score).

In Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 69, and Brahms’ Sonata in F major, Op. 99, their most complementary work came in the slow movements, especially the adagio cantabile of the Beethoven, in which both Zimmerman and Paley captured the music’s wistful lyricism. Their treatment of the Brahms adagio, while lyrical and nuanced, did not quite live up to the composer’s modifier, affettuoso.

Zimmerman’s full-bodied bass lines enhanced both Beethoven’s Trio in E flat major, Op. 38, and Brahms’ Trio in A minor, Op. 114. West’s technique was faultless in both works; his slightly reticent expressiveness in the Brahms suited this music’s unique character – intimate and soulful, but at a certain emotional distance. Paley moderated his projection nicely in the Brahms trio.

The threesome played with liveliness and engagement in the Beethoven, a six-movement work that is a hybrid of the classical-period serenade and the weightier but more concise chamber works for which this composer is better-known.

The program of Sept. 27 was given over entirely to Arnold Schoenberg’s piano-four hands transcription of the overture and key arias and ensembles from Rossini’s opera “The Barber of Seville,” played by Paley and his spouse, Pei-Wen Chen.

Most four-hands scores of the 19th and early 20th centuries (this one dates from 1903) were made for amateur pianists to play at home. It’s hard to imagine this one appealing to that clientele. Most of it requires not just professional, but virtuosic, technical ability, and it’s so speedy and note-heavy that two players at the same keyboard seem to risk elbowing each other to the point of bruising. (Four-hands piano as rugby – another novel idea from Schoenberg?)

A larger problem, from a public-performance standpoint, is that most of the tunes are played in the high register, with just a few melody lines in ensemble numbers given to the lower keys. So it’s as if the opera is sung almost entirely by sopranos and mezzos. And, of course, without words.

The no-words issue was only partially addressed by a synopsis printed in the program book and brief summaries of the action spoken between numbers by Paley.

The festival’s first season at St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church was successful in drawing crowds (mid-point attrition notwithstanding), also in showcasing the church sanctuary’s excellent acoustic, which I find comparable to that of Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center. String players, especially, should take note of a fine venue that has not been widely used to date.