The Ritz Chamber Players, a very classy group of talented young musicians, enlivened a Sunday afternoon in Fletcher Opera Theatre with an excellent performance of a mixture of chamber music chosen from the works of mid-twentieth-century African-American composers as well as from the standard Classical and Romantic repertoires. The members of this ensemble — Kelly Hall-Tompkins, violin, Amadi Hummings, viola, Troy Stuart, cello, Kevin Sharpe, piano, and Terrance Patterson, clarinet — represent as high a level of technical accomplishment and musicianship as Raleigh audiences have been privileged to hear in recent chamber music performances. The program and the musicians' other activities during their visit —appearances at two retirement communities, one of which centered on a master class, and an "informance" for the Community Music School —were sponsored by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.
Hall-Tompkins, Hummings, and Stuart began the concert with two brief contemporary works which clearly revealed their thorough understanding of the musical language, compositional techniques, and intellectual meaning of this music. Helga, the opening piece, composed by Alvin Singleton in honor of the wife of Charles Siegel on the occasion of her seventieth birthday, is a beautiful, contemplative work made up of long, primarily consonant chords in progressions bespeaking their twentieth-century origins but lacking the expected dissonances an audience might expect to hear in such contemporary music. The voices of the violin, viola and cello express the composer's deep emotional involvement with his subject in the long, sustained chords, the firmness and pure sound of which were a tribute to the players' skills. The second contemporary piece, Paquito D'Rivera's "Habanera," the second movement of the composer's Aires Tropicales, combines the rhythms of this well-known Latin dance with modern counterpoint for an exciting musical experience. Hall-Tompkins and Hummings played their contrapuntal lines admirably, making each note and phrase crystal-clear in sharp contrast to the cello's Latin rhythms.
The last three works on the program consisted of repertoire well-known to a majority of classical music lovers, and thoroughly delighted the large responsive audience. Mozart's Trio for clarinet, viola and piano, K.498, "Kegelstatt," is typical of the composer's great skill as a melodist as well as a creator of exciting contrasts in dynamics and stylistic elements. "Kegelstatt" is a reference to a game similar to bowling which Mozart enjoyed playing with his friend, clarinetist Anton Stadler, and which doubtless accounts for the light-hearted nature of thematic material in a number of places in the three movements. Much of Mozart's writing throughout the work demanded the best playing of clarinetist Terrance Patterson, violist Amadi Hummings, and pianist Kevin Sharpe, whose light classical touch was exactly right for most of the music Mozart assigns to the piano. The theme of the Andante movement required and received beautiful, legato treatment from Patterson and Hummings, and all three players enjoyed displaying their technical skills in the movement's development section, which offered as much challenge as they could wish. The following Menuetto again allowed Patterson to demonstrate his ability to play long, beautiful lines and, a bit later, to engage in spirited musical by-play with Hummings, whose skill as a violist shined through more clearly than at any other passage in the trio. The last movement, Rondeaux: Allegretto, is a brilliant test of the virtuosity of all three players. They met all difficulties with success, and brought the trio to a successful conclusion.
The first half of the program ended with the Passacaglia Duo for violin and viola. This is a set of inventions which came to life as George Friedrich Handel's keyboard Suite No. 7 but which Norwegian composer John Halvorsen arranged in 1948 as a dazzling string duet. In their performance of this work, Hall-Tompkins, violin, and Hummings, viola, demonstrated to a delighted audience all the technical abilities they possess. Both are asked to play extremely difficult allegros, andantes characterized by long lines and lovely harmonies, inventions in which the violin's plucked strings articulate a melody in contrast to the legato lines of the viola, and several other musical scenarios in which the two instruments face off against each other.
Perhaps the most satisfying music of the afternoon, however, was the second half of the concert, a performance of Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 40. In this work Mendelssohn gave all three players a chance to offer their best playing to their listeners. No one went away disappointed. The opening Allegro revealed that pianist Kevin Sharpe has a great passion for Romantic music in general and the work of Mendelssohn in particular. Sharpe's awe-inspiring technique is very obvious throughout the work, whether in the incredibly rapid allegro passages or in the slow, contemplative articulation of Mendelssohn's unforgettable melodies, such as the theme of the Andante movement which seems to project the essence of Romanticism. Hall-Tompkins, too, shone brightly in this work, especially in the highly demanding Scherzo, which calls for every bit of energy and technique the violinist can draw upon. The Finale is one long, uninterrupted flash of brilliance, as all three players gave to their performance the full measure of their virtuosity and musicianship.