Every so often there appears on the chamber music scene an ensemble with a theme: the all-female Eroica Trio, the all-in-the-family Ying Quartet, the Miró Quartet playing brand new matched instruments, etc. The Ritz Chamber Players are an all-African-American ensemble. Their name is derived from the renovated Ritz Theater in Jacksonville, Florida, which was a traditional venue for Gospel singers, jazz and other entertainment in the La Villa black community, known once as the "Harlem of the South." They were here under the auspices of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.
The five musicians: violinist Tai Murray, violist Amadi Hummings, cellist Troy Kenneth Stuart, clarinetist Terrance Patterson and pianist Terrence Wilson. Patterson, who hails from Jacksonville, organized the group four years ago. He also helped raise the money to renovate the old Ritz Theater which is their home venue. All of the musicians have stunning credentials, working their Ritz gigs into a busy roster of solo and guest chamber artist appearances. Although these five musicians make up the Ritz's core ensemble, they have several regulars who expand the group for specific works. Since outreach is an important part of their mission, as well as that of RCMG, the Ritz Players held performance discussions for children on Friday and Saturday at the Raleigh Housing Authority's Heritage Park Center and Capitol Park Community Center, as well as for the Community Music School at Bösendorfer Hall in North Raleigh.
The Ritz presented a fresh and diverse program, most of it unfamiliar to the audience. They opened with the Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.2, No.1 for clarinet, violin, viola and cello by Bernhard Crusell (1775-1838), a Finnish-Swedish clarinetist, composer and translator, who spent 40 years as clarinetist in the Swedish Court Orchestra. This Quartet, bundled with three companion pieces for the same group of instruments, comes from the early history of the clarinet – sometime between when Mozart was promoting Anton Stadler and when Weber and his acrobatic quintet concertino and concertos toured Europe with clarinetist Heinrich Baermann. Patterson has a beautiful tone and a flair for dynamic nuances that made this somewhat bland composition pleasing and enjoyable, if not riveting. The final movement contains enough rapid noodling to suggest that either Weber or Baermann might have heard of this guy.
Next on the program was another unknown. Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), an African-American composer, conductor and artistic director who was the Ritz Players' first composer-in-residence. In 2004, suffering from cancer, he began working on a Trio for violin, viola and cello, finishing only the slow movement before he died. Murray, Hummings and Stuart put their collective heart into the performance of this lovely fragment.
The program became increasingly familiar with a stunning performance of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola. Like many others of Europe's displaced intelligentsia, Martinu escaped Nazi Germany and came to the US in 1941. He lived in New York, composing and commuting to Princeton to teach. His stay here turned into an extremely creative period with many major commissions, in addition to which he wrote many smaller works for his friends and colleagues, including the Three Madrigals, composed in 1947 for the husband-and-wife team of Joseph and Lillian Fuchs. Murray, a lively violinist, and Hummings, a more sober violist, created a wonderful give-and-take, especially in the Allegro third madrigal, with its folk dance character. By the way, Martinu also composed Five Madrigal Stanzas for violin and piano, written for violinist Albert Einstein and his friend, the pianist Robert Casadesus.
The program ended with the familiar, a fiery performance of Johannes Brahms, Piano Quartet in g minor, Op.25. This performance gets mixed reviews. In the second movement Intermezzo Murray used too heavy a mute on her instrument, making the violin nearly inaudible and disturbing the balance between the instruments. This was a shame since pianist Terrence Wilson was exhibiting exemplary control of dynamics. On the other hand, the group took the alla Zingarese finale at a breakneck speed with precision and panache.