Chamber Music Review



Eastern Chamber Players: Devilishly Hot Fiddling

July 10, 2006 - Greensboro, NC:


It was a hot time in more than one way at the July 10 concert in the baronial Carnegie Room of Guilford College's Hege Library. As an experiment, the EMF's faculty chamber music series has moved from Dana Auditorium to the Carnegie Room, switched from Tuesday to Monday, and is starting later (at 8:30 p.m.) to allow patrons to attend this series and the popular student piano recitals in nearby Sternberger Auditorium.

With its high ceilings, curved cornices, and much smaller seating capacity (roughly 200), it is easy to imagine that the Carnegie Room is the ballroom of an 18th-century baronial palace. The acoustics are ideal for an intimate chamber music experience. While this series never filled Dana Auditorium, it almost always exceeded 200, and an overflow audience taxed the air-conditioning system. In addition, the folding chairs lack every element of physical comfort. On the plus side, the EMF faculty has much more control of programming now. This concert explored the parameters of early 20th-century European composers – the continuation of 19th century Romanticism (Rachmaninov and Dohnányi) and the avant-garde (Bartók and Stravinsky), for example.

The Holocaust devastated a whole generation of composers that would have linked their predecessors from the early 20th twentieth century to those of the middle. A good example of the high standards of this lost generation is the Duo for Violin and Cello (1925) by Czech composer Ervin Schulhoff (1894-1942). Dvorák recommended that Schulhoff follow a career in music. After study at the Prague Conservatory, Schulhoff explored compositional extremes, continuing his studies with the master contrapuntalist Max Reger (from 1908-10) and with Debussy (briefly, in 1913). His style began as late Romantic, became torn between elements of Expressionism and Dadaism, and then settled into what Josef Bek, writing in Grove Music Online, calls "the synthesis of avant-garde and the continuing European mainstream tradition." These elements and the composer's debt to Janácek are obvious in the Duo. The piquant score mixes razor-edged high string harmonics, varied pizzicato techniques, and folk-elements that suggest gypsy style along with mellow-toned melody. Both instruments exploit these elements. Most immediately memorable is the second movement, "Zingaresca," in which the strummed cello evokes the gentle percussive sound of the cimbalom. (Remember the opening to Orson Welles' film The Third Man?)

Schulhoff's Duo gives the players no cover! The precise intonation displayed by violinist Annemeike Milks and cellist Rebecca Zimmerman was astonishing. All those eerie high harmonics were rendered cleanly and, from time to time, closely matched. When called for, both played with a full and rich sound. The composer's penchant for the violin's middle register sometimes suggested the sound of a viola. Zimmerman's cello has a gorgeously dark lower range. Their performance was breathtakingly brilliant.

Hungarian composer, conductor and pianist Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960) resisted expelling Jewish players from his orchestra until the Nazis occupied Hungary, at which point he disbanded the ensemble. While he supported cutting edge composers such as Bartók, Dohnányi's own style was a continuation of late German Romanticism.

His charming and tune-filled Serenade in C Major, Op. 10 (1904), has been performed often in the Triangle and the Triad. Fine works for string trios have been rare since Mozart and Beethoven. Dohnányi's Serenade has five movements, beginning and ending with a lively march. The Scherzo third movement's infectious music sweetens the presence of both a fugue and a double fugue! Unfolding gently, the fourth movement's set of variations is most winning. All three players – violinist Randy Weiss, violist Dan Reinker, and cellist Hannah Homan – produced sumptuous tone and played with excellent intonation. The composer gave extensive opportunities for violist Reinker to shine, and his dusky color was delightful.

Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" (1918) was composed in Switzerland where the composer was in exile from both the Russian Revolution and World War I. With no access to his royalties or revenues from his family's Russian estates, Stravinsky was in dire straits. The original version involved dancers, four speakers, and a chamber orchestra of seven instruments. The composer and librettist C.F. Ramuz hoped this ensemble could tour the Swiss cantons. The plot is a variant on the Faust myth, based upon Alexander Afanasyev's tale of a naïve solder outwitted by the Devil. The score bursts with raw energy, and its pungent and tart timbres are bracing. Steven Ledbetter's fine program note recounted Stravinsky's comment that the work "has a characteristic 'sound' – 'the scrape of the violin and the punctuation of the drums,' the former representing the Soldier's soul and the latter the diablerie."

The EMF presented what may have been the festival's premiere of the composer's concert suite version, although conductor Mark Niehaus alluded to an unconfirmed "L'Histoire" performance more than thirty years ago.... Before each movement, he gave a succinct summary of the action. It would be difficult to imagine a more strongly characterized performance than that of the Eastern Chamber Players. Jeff Multer's trenchant violin playing suggested the travails of the Soldier, closely shadowed by the sepulchral low notes of Leonid Finkelshteyn's double bass. Crisp attacks and hair-trigger changes in rhythms were supplied by percussionist Christopher Norton. Shannon Scott's clarinet provided shrill timbres paired with the lower range of Kristen Jensen's bassoon. Robert White's sassy trumpet, often muted, was set against the brash slides of John Ilika's trombone.