Chamber Music Review



Spoleto Festival USA Overview: Chamber Music Series

June 8, 2004 - Charleston, SC:


Since the midday Chamber Music series was first organized by Charles Wadsworth, at the Italian Festival, at Spoleto founder Gian-Carlo Menotti's behest, it has been a major anchor around which many visitors organize their stay. I missed the first week of the Spoleto USA Festival, which featured a special concert honoring Wadsworth's 75th birthday, highlighted by the return of violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Carter Brey, and most provocatively, flutist Paula Robison. Robison had not at the Charleston based festival since she and her husband, violist Scott Nickrenz, left with Menotti as a result of the Great Schism of 1993. The Post and Courier featured an interview and story that was interesting for what it did not say or imply about the possible future of the two festivals. Both Robison and new "hit" pianist Jeremy Denk had left before my first concert of the second week.

Program VI, heard June 6 in a packed Dock Street Theatre, was a good crowd-pleaser. Those familiar with Stravinsky's Pulcinella or his arrangement of the ballet score for violin or cello and piano found some familiar themes in the Sonata in G for two violins and continuo by Giovanni Pergolesi. It featured the stunning Chee-Yun and the astonishing Corey Cerovsek, both extraordinary violinists with technique to burn, augmented by substantial musical taste. Their give-and-take as they played off each other and blended as needed was a constant delight. The continuo was played by Andrés Díaz, cello, and harpsichordist Wadsworth. The slow movement featured a gorgeous lute stop supporting rich melodies and contrasted violin colors.

Two sets of Lieder found soprano Courtenay Budd in top form, with perfect high notes, an even vocal register, and clear diction. Three songs by Mahler were apt in view of his Ninth Symphony being on the schedule, while "Nacht" and "Cäcilie" by Strauss made their usual impression. Wadsworth was her model accompanist at the Steinway.

A vital performance of the Octet in E-flat, Op. 20, by Mendelssohn sent the audience away in high spirits. Balances were unusually good, and there was close co-ordination of phrasing with ideally chosen tempos. The resident St. Lawrence String Quartet was joined by violinists Chee-Yun and Cerovsek, violist Daniel Phillips, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

More modern fare sandwiched Brahms on Program VII, heard June 7. The irrepressible clarinetist Todd Palmer gave his own arrangement of five pieces from Stravinsky's tart L'Histoire du Soldat . He was joined by violinist Cerovsek and pianist Wendy Chen. Chen had quite a workout since her part tried to capture the lines of five of the seven instruments of the original suite. Cerovsek and Palmer reveled in the spiky score.

Chee-Yun and Chen took my breath away with a fine performance of Brahms' Third Violin Sonata in D Minor, Op. 108. Balances were perfect, even with the piano lid fully up, as is usual in the Dock Street Theatre. Chee-Yun's violin tone was a marvel throughout a wide dynamic range, as was her broad palette of color and her ability to play seamless lines of melody. Chen brought similar qualities to the keyboard part, displaying why she has become a mainstay of the series.

Chee-Yun and Chen were joined by cellist Díaz for "Café Music" (1996) by Paul Schoenfield. This is a really fun piece that has been taken up by a number of trios. The program notes for the Eroica Trio's EMI recording quote the composer: "The idea to compose Café Music... came... after sitting in one night for the pianist at (a restaurant). My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner-music which could be played in a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall." Each player in turn has a chance to "let his or her hair down," as the three movements present a smorgasbord of the best American musical idioms, encompassing blues, ragtime, African-American spirituals, and Broadway melodies. It is a sure crowd-pleaser.

Chamber Music Program VIII, heard June 8, was wide ranging. Since Wadsworth studied with Poulenc's companion Pierre Bernac, he brought authoritative flair to the composer's piquant Flute Sonata, in which Tara Helen O'Conner played the rapid flurry of notes with exemplary clarity and color.

Wendy Chen, a keyboard mainstay during the second week, brought considerable virtuosity and musical insight to her performance of Chopin's Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1, which the Chopin Society's website says "is unrivaled among its companions... in (its) grandeur of conception."

Cerovsek's sweet violin singing over the bass line of Wadsworth's piano introduced the aria "L'Amero costante" from Mozart's opera Il Re Pastore . Soprano Budd's singing was a model of sensitive phrasing, precise intonation, and equality of tone throughout her range. Most memorable were trills rendered concurrently by Budd and Cerovsek.

Cellist Weilerstein's body language threatened to get out of hand in her passionate reading of Beethoven's Third Sonata in A, Op. 69. (Colleague Marvin Ward had reproved this propensity in his CVNC review of her appearance with the NC Symphony.) Chen, with great economy of movement, conjured up comparable fire in the keyboard part. The cellist rivals St. Lawrence Quartet leader Geoff Nuttall as a "whirling dervish-style" player. Despite considerable virtuosity and "theatre," a friend thought she failed fully to connect with the audience, but she is clearly engaged with her fellow musicians on stage!

Wadsworth's introduction to Chamber Music Program IX sounded a bit like a mother trying to coax a child to take bitter medicine. Czech-born Karel Husa wrote his "Evocations of Slovakia" during his exile in Paris. Scored for a typical folk dance ensemble of clarinet, viola, and cello, it weaves folk dance material with effects that are percussive, rhythmically complex, dense, and prickly at the same time. The opening "Mountain" was ecstatic, "Night" was soothing and tranquil, and the concluding "Dance" was anything but tranquil! The unflappable Palmer was joined by violist Daniel Phillips and new St. Lawrence cellist Christopher Constanza.

Soothing balm in the form of Brahms autumnal Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op. 114, followed, dispersed by Palmer with cellist Weilerstein and pianist Chen.

Really old-fashioned programming came next in the form of unabashed violin fireworks. Cerovsek's beaming delight matched his seemingly effortless tossing off of Wieniawski's "Polonaise de Concert" and Kreisler's "Caprice Viennois," accompanied by pianist Chen. About every stop, pizzicato and bowing trick imaginable were in his final solo, Kreisler's "Recitative and Allegro," which brought the house to its feet for prolonged applause. It was a sugarcoated finish.

For the only time I can recall, the piano lid was on its short stick for the opening vocal selections on Chamber Music X. Wadsworth provided perfect keyboard support for the pure soprano line of Budd, whose clear diction and smooth-flowing vocal lines were well displayed in "Chère Nuit" by the little known opera composer Alfred Bachelet. After rising and falling dynamics, it built to a hall filling forte. After a false start, Fauré's "Nocturne," was a gorgeous slow evocation of night. Délibes' "Les Filles de Cadix" found Budd flirtatious, making full use of body language in a lively piece with stirring rhythms. Todd Palmer played an unusual clarinet arrangement of the mezzo-soprano line from the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' opera Lakmé . Budd's almost instrumental soprano was perfect for the pure high line while Palmer's secondary role kept him uncharacteristically restrained.

Flutist O'Conner joined Wadsworth to give a "master class" in technique with Fauré's "Fantaisie," composed as an entrance exam test piece for the Paris Conservatory. The work has far more substance than its origin would suggest.

Wadsworth said that Mendelssohn's First Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49, always placed high in audience surveys when he directed the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It would be hard to imagine a better performance that the one given by star soloists as Chen, Cerovsek and Weilerstein. Clearly delighting in their virtuosity and the challenge of the give-and-take, the players and audience were on the edges of their seats. It is too bad that it was not preserved on CD and/or DVD.

For Program XI, the last of the series, Wadsworth returned to a time-honored tradition he and Menotti started at the original Italian festival, ending the concert with the great Quintet in C, D.956, by Schubert. The St. Lawrence String Quartet was joined by cellist Weilerstein. This performance was very well prepared with unusually clear and balanced musical lines, very tight ensemble, and richly satisfying phrasing.

Since 1995, CBS reporter Martha Teichner has moderated a popular series, "Conversations with...," featuring leading festival artists and directors. This year's interview with the entire St. Lawrence String Quartet was the first I had been able to attend. It was rushed due to the need to set up the stage for a later concert in the hall in Simons Center for the Arts on the College of Charleston campus. The members told how they came to form the quartet after playing with each other in chamber music festivals or at school. Second violinist Shiffman explained the vital role of a Canadian government grant in allowing them to rehearse extensively and work on repertory. Leader Nuttall stressed the massive effort that it takes to work out basic elements of ensemble, intonation, phrasing, balance, etc.

Touching on the issue of aging audiences, Shiffman drew attention to the importance of Wadsworth's efforts to demystify the concert experience and to lower various social barriers that keep away younger audiences. He mentioned the program book of a major Texas orchestra that had five pages of advertising for upscale retirement communities. He stressed that there are no significant differences between audiences' ages and how the quartet's performances are received by them. Instead, his focus is on bridging barriers.

The history of their musical instruments was interesting. They are in residence at Stanford, and the University furnishes instruments to two of the players. Robertson's fine sounding viola, "worth the price of a used car," was made by a friend who is a Canadian luthier. In due time, CBS will broadcast a story Teichner has been working on over the past year. The quartet commissioned a violin from the famed Brooklyn-based luthier Samuel Zygmuntowicz, whose bench copies of several of Isaac Stern's violins fetched record prices on auction. The story will follow the whole process of making the SLSQ's instrument.