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Tuesday night’s Chamber Music at Guilford College provided an opportunity to explore three very different examples of intimate music written in the last century and a half. The chamber music series features faculty members from the Eastern Music Festival, which is housed on the campus of Guilford College in Greensboro. The venue is the Carnegie Room of the Hege Library, a beautiful space with a high ceiling and exposed wood resulting in excellent acoustics.
Strange but beautiful flora grows off the beaten path, and summer music festivals are the perfect place for exploring such music flowers. One such composition performed was Edwin Schulhoff’s 1925 Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Bass. The instrumentation itself is enough to make one stop and wonder — two “low” instruments and one “high,” although as it turned out the viola was middle ground between the high and the low.
Schulhoff (1894-1942) was a Czech composer whose life was cut short, dying in a Nazi concentration camp. The Concertino reveals a great deal of folk influence with its pentatonic scales and dance rhythms, and one can easily hear influences from both Dvórak and Bartók. Performers were Ann Choomack (flute), Jamie Hofman (viola), and R. Meredith Johnson (bass), who gave a convincing and strong reading of this four-movement work.
The opening Andante often paired two instruments playing a repeated pattern over which the third presented the main lyrical melody. The second movement is a Furiant, a Bohemian dance, which never stops until the end. Here and in the finale, a piccolo substituted for the flute, which added even more distance between the high and the low sounds. The third movement is a lovely Andante, and the Rondino finale brings the piece to a rousing conclusion. The ensemble among the musicians was top-notch, with each instrumentalist sensitive to the phrasing of the other two. Intonation was right on as well.
Another bonus of summer festivals is that seldom-heard works by famous composers can be presented. Such was Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade for String Quartet in G major. The arch-Wagnerian Wolf is justly famous for his gift for song writing, which forms the major portion of his musical output. However this fine instrumental work needs to be heard more frequently.
Violinists Jenny Grégoire and Diana Tsaliovich, violist Jennifer Puckett, and cellist Marta Simidtchieva turned in a sterling performance. Although the 10-minute work opens as a sprightly scherzo, there are several more lyric sections as well, all bathed in a mock-serious attitude that the performers caught perfectly.
The second half was given over to a single work that provided a type of ballast for the first half: Brahms’ Piano Trio in B, Op. 8. Shawn Weil (violin), Neal Cary (cello) and Yoshikazu Nagai (piano) grabbed for all the gusto that this solid work has to offer in a hearty and energetic performance.
The opening of the first-movement Allegro is a luxuriant unfolding of a wonderful tune, leading to a great climax; it was clear from the opening measures that all three musicians were invested in making this a powerful performance. Indeed, one felt like applauding after the first movement — certainly Brahms would not have objected.
The Scherzo second movement, with its elfin-like character, reminds one of Mendelssohn — the pizzicato from the strings are answered (a bit too loudly) by the piano. A more lyric center section provides contrast. The Adagio is Beethovenesque, with its hymn-like theme presented by the piano and then commented on by the strings. The finale has a nervous quality to it, a feeling that the performers brought to the fore.
Much of the work pits the strings against the piano, which allows for a massive texture, the strings often doubling each other or playing in sixths. The piano was often too loud, thus detracting from the equality of the three players; in the worst passages, the string tunes were buried.
Having said this, all three musicians played with an intensity that was palpable. Nagai’s playing was clean, solid, and forceful. Weil made the most out of his soaring tunes, and Cary provided the solid underpinning that grounded the entire ensemble. Intonation and ensemble among the musicians was superb, indicating a deep level of communication between all three.