Chamber Music Review



A Special Mother's Day at the NC Museum of Art

May 11, 2003 - Raleigh, NC:


The penultimate offering in an extraordinary year for the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild (RCMG) was an additional "bonus" program at the North Carolina Museum of Art, presented on Mother's Day (May 11). This concert, featuring the Ciompi Quartet and presented in memory of Dorothy Wiseman Lambert, was donated by Nancy and John Lambert and served as a joint fundraising effort for the Guild and the website where you are currently reading this review.*

Even before the music began there were several surprises and guests. Reflecting on this event, it is quite remarkable to think about some of the people in attendance and the critical roles they played in the growth of music in this area. This was indeed a day in which mothers were remembered, and it began when Dr. Assad Meymandi stepped onto the stage for a special presentation. If his name looks familiar it is because the new home of the North Carolina Symphony, Meymandi Concert Hall, was named in honor of his mother (whose birthday happened to be May 11 - as is Dr. Meymandi's). He asked that Maxine Swalin be escorted to the stage. She is affectionately known as the "Mother of the North Carolina Symphony," and it was a special treat to meet this legendary woman. On the occasion of her 100th birthday (celebrated in Chapel Hill on May 7; see our news column for details) and in recognition of her remarkable achievements, she was presented with a letter from President and Mrs. Bush. Distinguished composers Roger Hannay and Robert Ward were also present. No locally-based group spreads music-making of the highest caliber all over the world like the Ciompi Quartet does. Having recently returned from a successful tour of Italy, it was appropriate that they were the guest artists for this special day.

The quartet's members, all faculty members of the Duke University Department of Music, are Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violins, Jonathan Bagg, viola, and Fred Raimi, cello. They began with String Quartet in F, K.590, by Mozart. Written in 1790, this was the last string quartet left to us as the composer was to die the following year at the age of 35. Like many "what if?" questions throughout musical history, hearing this work makes you wonder what would have happened next had Mozart lived for even five more years. This is a wonderfully complex work, yet it is still grounded in the basic principles of classical style. It was played in a manner that combined the seemingly opposite traits of complete mastery and familiarity with a sense of spontaneity and the uncovering of nuances as if it were being played for the first time.

Roger Hannay, Professor Emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill, was in the audience for a reading of his String Quartet No. 2 ("Lyric"). Written in 1962, this is a work that, according to the program notes, was written, in part, to explore "the melodies and sonorities of American Impressionism...." The first two movements were greatly influenced by the splendid F Major Quartet by Ravel, including the characteristic ascending cello line at the start of the work. The final two movements have more of an original voice, with a greater driving, rhythmic orientation, combining elements of neoclassicism with popular American dance. This accessible, user-friendly work effectively incorporates many of the great 20th century styles and made me want to hear more of Dr. Hannay's compositions.

The air conditioning in the hall wasn't cooperating, so the second half began with the quartet without their jackets, playing a lovely, short work by Dorothy Martin Wiseman (Lambert). "Pockets" was originally a song, with a text by Susan Adger Williams. It was arranged for string quartet by J. Mark Scearce, in 1998, and this performance was the world premiere of Scearce's transcription. There is a lovely Hebraic-sounding melody whose only problem is that it is over too quickly. This was remedied by cellist Raimi announcing that they were so taken by this charming piece and this special occasion that the only thing to do was to play it again - and so they did.

Earlier in this season I reviewed another RCMG concert that featured the First Piano Quintet by Gabriel Fauré. Basically I found it to be a lethargic, languid, overlong work, and subsequent listenings to recordings have reinforced that opinion. I got several angry letters in response to my dislike of the Quintet, one suggesting that I should take music appreciation 101. Listening to the afternoon's performance of Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1, in C Minor, Op. 15, produced a totally opposite experience. Jane Hawkins, Professor of Piano at Duke University, joined the Ciompi Quartet (minus Ku) in what was one of the finest chamber music performances of this season. There are many works whose greatness can survive even the most wretched performances, but much of Fauré's chamber music puts the burden on the performers effectively to communicate the composer's ideas and feelings. This quartet was written early in his career yet already shows a master's sense of combining piano and strings. The writing is lush without being overly dense, and the work presents a wide range of emotions, from lighthearted scherzos to almost obscenely passionate climaxes. Great performances like this are palpable and have their own physical presence - at times, in certain sections, you could almost feel a collective tingle down your spine.

Finally, the RCMG provided a very lovely and generous reception after the program. This was one of the more enjoyable afternoons of music I have experienced for quite some time. We are lucky to have such talented musicians, patrons, and administrators in our community.

RCMG's Sights and Sounds on Sunday Series for 2002-3 ends with a concert by guitarist Elliot Frank on June 1. For details, see our calendar. And for information on next season's offerings, see our 2003-4 series tab, linked from the top of our main calendar.

*For the record, Nancy Lambert is Executive Director of the RCMG, and John Lambert is one of the founders of CVNC . Dorothy Lambert was his mother.