Chamber Music Review Print



Spoleto Festival USA 2008: Chamber Music Programs VI-XI

June 7, 2008 - Charleston, SC:


Chamber Music Concert VI, given in Memminger Auditorium, featured only two works. Charles Wadsworth said the Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 23, by Lowell Lieberman (b.1961) had been commissioned by the Festival's chamber music series and was premiered by Paula Robinson and Jean-Yves Thibaudet in the Dock Street Theater in 1988. He said the composer wrote in a Romantic style similar to Samuel Barber. A challenging, vigorous first movement is followed by a lovely, lyrical Lento. The incredibly fast final movement severely tests the flutist's breath control. Flutist Tara Helen O'Connor and pianist Pedja Muzijevic played the socks off the piece. Muzijevic was new to the Festival. He has been a successful guest soloist and chamber musician in the Triad with the Greensboro Symphony and in the Triangle, on the Chamber Arts Society at Duke.

Count Ferdinand von Troyer commissioned Franz Schubert (1797-1828) to compose the Octet in F, D.803, in 1824. The Count wanted a companion work for Beethoven's wildly popular Septet, Op. 20, using the same instrumentation and including von Troyer's instrument, the clarinet. The players were clarinetist Todd Palmer, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, French hornist Eric Ruske, violinist Scott St. John, violist Geoff Nuttall, cellist Leslie Robertson, and Charleston Symphony Principal Bassist Ed Allman. Their transcendent performance combined virtuosity with ideal, unrushed tempos and seamless phrasing to weave Schubert's magical melodic tapestry. This performance should have been preserved on a CD for all music lovers!

June 2, 2008: Cellist Edward Arron, new to the main Festival, was featured in three short works on Chamber Music Concert VII. Wadsworth accompanied Arron on piano as the cellist spun out the somber melodies of an arrangement of the "Vocalise" by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943). Next, considering the brilliance of their performance, it was too bad that Scott St. John and Arron only played the third movement from the Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, by Zoltá Kodály. Mozart's Sonata in B-flat, K.282, for bassoon and cello, is too rarely played, and bassoonist Peter Kolkay and Arron brought out all its pungent wit.

One of the finest chamber works for the French horn is Brahms' Trio in E-flat, Op. 40, for horn, violin, and piano. It received a bucolic and hearty performance from Eric Rusk, Yoon Kwon, and Pedja Muzijevic. Ruske's playing was flawless with not a single clinker. Violinist Kwon was new to the Festival. She is the youngest person to ever join the first violin section of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

June 3, 2008: Chamber Music Program VIII sandwiched works by popular composers around a significant revival of a contemporary work. Wadsworth and violinist Geoff Nuttall took host duties in turn. Wadsworth said an orchestra could not drown the sound of a piccolo! The famous Piccolo Concerto in C, RV.443, received a buoyant performance from soloist Tara Helen O'Connor with Nuttall, violist Daniel Phillips, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, double-bassist Ed Allan, and harpsichordist Charles Wadsworth.

Members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet have always been strong advocates for composers of their native Canada. Nuttall said the quartet had first played the Third String Quartet of R. Murray Shafer in Dock Street Theater in 1981, a performance I attended. The quartet leader said Shafer's work depended on the spatial qualities of each venue and that the composer had intended audience laughter. The three-movement work began with the cellist alone on stage. Then each player in turn entered Memminger Auditorium from a different corner, each bowing his own unique part until all were seated on stage. The second movement was violent, with each player digging into the strings harshly. Various loud shouts between players were intended to satirize late 1950-60s "serious" music. The calm and mystical third movement conjured an eerie sound-world by using quarter tones.

The concert ended with a glowing, warm performance of the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63, by Robert Schumann. The fervent first movement has some eerie string harmonies. The dazzling second movement scherzo is followed by a beautiful but desolate slow movement, leading directly to the fiery finale. Pianist Pedja Muzijevic performed miracles in keeping the keyboard from covering the strings. His splendid phrasing supported the refined string playing of violinist Nuttall and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who brought memorable passion to the slow movement.

June 5, 2008: Only two works were featured on Chamber Music Program IX. Brandenburg Concerto No. V in D, S.1050, of J.S. Bach (1685-1750), opened the program. Prominent solo parts were taken by the husband and wife team of flutist Tara Helen O'Connor and violinist Daniel Phillips. The small accompanying ensemble consisted of violinist Yoon Kwon, violist Geoff Nuttall, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and Ed Allman, double-bass. Harpsichordist Pedja Muzijevic turned in a brilliant and soaring performance of the famous sixty-five measure cadenza in the first movement. The tempos were well chosen, allowing the music to breathe, and the ensemble was tight.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet turned in a fabulous performance of the String Quartet in G, Op. 106, of Antonín Dvorák, a work that is full of flowing melodies and engaging rhythms. It was great to hear one of the late quartets get an airing instead of the often-played "American" Quartet, Op. 96!
This was the only occasion I can recall in the quartet repertory in which Nuttall played second violin, yielding the first violin position to Scott St. John.

June 6, 2008: Chamber Music Program X was very eclectic, with four diverse short works combined with an audience favorite. The Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 for Flute and Bassoon by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is a rarity. Tara Helen O'Connor and Peter Kolkay gave it a breathtaking performance. Kolkay was joined by Daniel Phillips on viola for "Au quai" ("OK") by Elliot Carter. It was brief and much less of a Gordian knot than his string quartets.

Pianist Pedja Muzijevic got a solo turn with two selections, "Sclafos! Frage und Antwort" by Franz Liszt, followed by Liszt's transcription of "Isolde's Liebestod," by Richard Wagner. Muzijevic's dazzling virtuosity brought out the composer's prescient anticipation of future musical developments in the first piece while his sensitive phrasing brought out the passion of the second work.

It was hard not to leave the hall whistling the melodies from the ebullient performance of Dvorák's Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87, given by pianist Pedja Muzijevic, violinist Yoon Kwon, violist Daniel Phillips, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein. The balance with the keyboard was perfect and the give-and-take among the players was infectious.

June 7, 2008: Each chamber music program is repeated three times. The musical menu for Chamber Music Program XI harkened back to the founding of the series in Italy. Charles Wadsworth said Menotti's only condition was to end the series with a performance of the great String Quintet in C, D.956, by Franz Schubert. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein joined the members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet for an exultant and ideally-paced interpretation of the work that concluded this concert. Their tight ensemble and idiomatic phrasing made the piece seem shorter than usual, resulting in the listener's sense of time being suspended.

An odd transcription of Marin Marais' "La Basque" by the legendary French horn player Dennis Brain had opened the concert. Eric Ruske tossed off the trifle effortlessly, accompanied by Pedja Muzijevic on the harpsichord. It was difficult to relate it to the sound-world of the great composer and viola da gambist.

Wadsworth said his goal for this last concert was to utilize every one of the Series' musicians still in town. Some players are scheduled for the first week of the festival and are replaced by others who arrive later. The roster's membership has always been fluid.

Alas, the RV number was not given for the colorful and lively Bassoon Concerto in A Minor by Antonio Vivaldi which occupied the middle of the program. There are three in A minor (RV. 498-500) among the composer's 37 or 38 concertos for bassoon alone. The indefatigable bassoonist Peter Kolkay was joined by violinists Yoon Kwon and Daniel Phillips, violist Lesley Robertson, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, double-bassist Ed Allman, with Wadsworth on the harpsichord.


The beloved long-time venue for the series, Dock Street Theater, is closed for extensive rennovations and restorations until the summer of 2010. Newly-rennovated Memminger Auditorium is being used for the 2008 and 2009 festivals. A movable wall, halving the total space, was used for the chamber music series, with comfortable floor seats and collapsible riser seating. Music lovers, who have long suffered the absence of leg room and narrow seating of Dock Street, basked in the wide spaces between rows and the wider seats. Local critics said the piano sounded klanggy and quartets sounded thin. We thought strings sounded fine but did notice some problems with piano sound in loud passages. Less welcome was the less-than-adequate air-conditioning. The hall temperature was much better when the total space was used for the opera Amistad.