On Sunday evening, May 15, the Chamber Music Society of Wilmington presented the final concert of its 2004-05 season, featuring works by Dvorák, Reinecke, Britten, and Brahms. First on the program was Dvorák's Sonatina in G, Op. 100, piano and violin, performed by CMSW Artistic Director Barbara McKenzie and Janet Orenstein, of UNC Greensboro. The piece was composed during the composer's three-year tenure at the short-lived National Conservatory in New York and was completed just before the premiere of his Ninth Symphony ("From the New World") in December of 1893. It was a pleasure to hear how Dvorák approaches a smaller genre, although the diminutive title is rather deceptive in terms of the Sonatina's difficulty.
That the work originally hails from this country may lead us to find American flavors in it, and indeed there are many, but, to my ears, Dvorák alternates these sections with passages reminiscent of an indigenously Czech style. For example, the first movement begins with a theme that sounds characteristically American, yet upon a shift to minor (concomitant with the secondary thematic material), the listener is transported to a Slavic musical world, replete with aggressive accents and a few bars of hemiola. Confirmation of this "Czechness" comes as the second theme is heard, ostensibly in G major, in the recapitulation, but retaining an element of minor, which gives the listener a real sense of a Slavic tune. Similar in stylistic juxtaposition, the second movement begins like a Czech folksong, but a contrasting center section sounds like a mid-western ballad. When the opening motive returns, it is even more Slavic, elaborated with double-stops that paint a Moravian village scene.
Orenstein brought out the folk character of the work very well, often sliding between notes in short glissandi that made her sound more like a fiddle player than a concert violinist. McKenzie astutely kept the piano in balance with Orenstein throughout the Sonatina – no small task on a Steinway that has canon-like lower registers. It was satisfying that when one instrument had a passage less interesting than the other, the performers remained sensitive about what material deserved the spotlight.
Second on the program was Carl Reinecke's Trio in A Minor, Op. 188, for oboe, horn and piano. Oboist Petrea Warneck, CMSW's Executive Director, joined McKenzie, along with Robert Campbell, horn, of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra. The trio dates from 1887 and follows a traditional four-movement form. Particularly enjoyable is the scherzo, during which the performers hastily tossed a three-note stutter back and forth. By and large, the motive was clear each time, a critical factor for the movement's success. The third movement, doleful yet pastoral, is constructed around long melodic lines that highlight the wind and brass instruments. Warneck's arching phrases sounded effortless, and her lyrical playing kept the movement from dragging.
After intermission, Warneck and McKenzie performed a remarkable piece by Benjamin Britten for oboe and piano titled "Temporal Variations." The composer begins with a simple theme, based on a rising semitone, and puts it through a number of astonishing transformations. Composed in 1936 when Britten was in his early 20s, the work is steeped in modernist harmonies and rhythms with occasional moments inspired by dance ("Polka" and "Waltz"). Warneck and McKenzie brought out the diverse moods of the work, from its thoughtful moments in the "Chorale" variation to its vigorous passages in a subsection of "Exercises." The performers merit our congratulations for choosing such refreshing repertoire.
The concert concluded with Brahms's Trio in E-flat, Op. 40, for violin, horn and piano, with Campbell and Orenstein again joining McKenzie. Composed in 1865 when the composer entered his so-called "first maturity," the work begins with a slow-tempo rondo that must have caught 19th-century audiences completely off guard: Brahms, the musical heir of Beethoven, eschewing traditional sonata form in the first movement! The second movement, Scherzo, is an agitated frolic. Expressing the character of a Brahms scherzo is difficult, as these movements sometimes vacillate between playful and aggressive. On this occasion, however, the Scherzo had neither quality and was altogether too slow. After the Andante, the second movement seems designed to jolt the listener, but the sluggish tempo prevented this from happening. The third movement, Adagio, texturally sparse and emotionally somber until an intense climax near the end, contains some of the richest violin passages in the entire opus. A particularly memorable moment was when the instruments enter in imitation, as in a Renaissance motet; this passage reminded the listener of how fresh those old techniques sound in the hands of Brahms.
I sensed during the finale that the ensemble had begun to run out of steam, yet the music itself allowed them to finish the work with élan. Certainly the audience left looking forward to next season, during which the Society celebrates the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth in 2006. If quality of performances heard this year is equaled, it will surely be a remarkable series of concerts.