The Ciompi Quartet invited pianist Ray Kilburn and his wife, soprano Yoko Shimazaki-Kilburn, to join them in an unusual program featuring music by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Earl Kim, and Clara and Robert Schumann. The Ciompi’s new Summer Festival Chamber Music venue is the Kirby Horton Hall at the Doris Duke Center in Duke Gardens, a somewhat live and overly resonant location but definitely worth it for the ambience. The place was mobbed and the concert briefly delayed while ushers hauled out dozens more chairs for the overflow crowd.
The evening began with Griffes’s Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes composed in 1919. The first of the Sketches, marked Lento e mesto (slow and sad) set the tempo for the first part of the concert. These two Sketches are far less sentimental and hokey than one would expect of the period and the title. Both are based on easily recognizable American Indian themes that have now become cliché, but they are both sensitively written and were sensitively played.
Before the next two sets, Three Poems in French by Earl Kim and Six Songs Op.13, treating various aspects of love, by Clara Schumann, violist Jonathan Bagg rather sheepishly apologized for not providing texts and translations on the grounds that this was a summer program. Come on now! Music with text is supposed to be an integrated entity. All nine of these numbers were pretty much in the same tempo and mood, and we were unable to share Shimazaki’s artistry and the subtle variations in the songs with her performance hobbled by the absence of texts and translation.
California-born composer and pianist Earl Kim (1920-1998) studied with Arnold Schoenberg and Walter Piston to become the James Edward Ditson Professor (later Emeritus Professor) of Music at Harvard. His Three Poems in French for soprano and string quartet was composed in 1989 for soprano Dawn Upshaw. He explained the genesis of the work: “Ever since the two years I spent in France, I have had the desire to set to music poems in French. My French is not great, but I wanted to use the sound and cadence of the language as part of the music. That sound, in addition to the text itself, gave me the feeling about the kind of music I wanted to write for these poems.”
Shimazaki-Kilburn’s small voice and limited range suited the delicate songs, but with the lively acoustics of the hall, her voice was frequently drowned out by the Quartet. In the higher range her voice became unsteady and the overall effect of the three songs was a bit monotonous.
Clara Schumann was decidedly more successful as pianist than as composer. There is a sentimentality and sameness and lack of drama in her Songs, Op.13 and Shimazaki did not succeed in raising much interest in them.
The only well known work of the evening was the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 that came after intermission. This boisterous work, beautifully played and balanced, ended the concert on an energetic note with the audience cheering and on their feet.
Unfortunately, the piano was in sad shape. One of the notes talked back, a pedal squeaked and the voicing was uneven, from hard and metallic at the top to a bit mushy at the low end. Summer venue or not, Kiriby Horton needs to be treated as a real concert hall. Casual dress may be in order for performers and audience alike, but casual instrument maintenance and casual printed programs are not.