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The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, now in its 62nd season, making it one of the nation's oldest chamber music presenters, snared the Czech Nonet (http://czech.nonet.cz/ ) to appear on its Masters Series on this its second US tour following a 25-year lapse (the first having been in 2002). The performance took place in the Long View Center on February 29. The group celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, making it one of the world's oldest continuously functioning chamber music organizations, having survived WWII and Communist rule. It was founded by a group of musicians at the Prague Conservatory who soon discovered that virtually the only work scored for their instruments was Louis Spohr's 1820s Grand Nonetto in F, Op. 31. They played it in their first performance (and of necessity frequently thereafter) and actually chose their group name on the model of its title. They played it again for us on the second half of the program, and a recording of it (which this writer already owned) was available at intermission. It sounded as fresh, crisp, and clean as if they were trying it out for the first time rather than trotting it out for the nth performance. This statement characterizes in a nutshell the quality of the entire performance, which was marked by precision and nuance, energy and accuracy, and excellent ensemble playing.
Obviously, none of the original personnel are still members of the group. Indeed, the youngest of the crew, the cellist and double-bassist, who appeared to be in their late 20s, could well be the grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren, depending on circumstances, of the founders. The musicians' ages ranged from them up to the oboist, the eldest member, who appeared to be in his 60s. Clearly the group seeks the musicians who play and blend best rather than aiming for a homogeneous appearance. The repertoire has expanded somewhat since that original performance as well, often thanks to commissions from the group and to the attraction to it by composers who heard it or its recordings, which are fairly numerous.
The program opened with Witold Lutoslawski's Dance Preludes, originally composed in 1954 for clarinet and piano but reworked several times by the composer for several different instrumentations, including this one, commissioned by the Nonet in 1959 - obviously when most of its current members were not yet playing with it. It is a carefully crafted and structurally balanced group of five movements with a sprightly Allegro giocoso at its center. It made for a good albeit a bit serious opener.
This was followed by Raleigh Divertimento, originally composed by local composer Robert Ward (no relation to the writer) in 1986 for the Aspen Wind Quintet for a performance at NCSU in the RCMG's series that year. It was arranged by composer and conductor Scott Tilley for nonet, again on commission by the RCMG, making it the first work in the Czech Nonet's repertoire by an American composer. This was not the premiere performance, but it did premiere on this tour. The addition of the strings gives this light (though by no means lightweight) and charming work a lovely texture not present in the original version, making it a most successful and enjoyable adaptation. We hope the Nonet will record it at some point, perhaps when they have enough American works for a complete CD. The work made a most effective contrast with its predecessor and its successor on the first half, Josef Bohuslav Foerster's Nonet, Op. 147, dating from 1931.
Foerster was likely unknown to vast majority of the audience; indeed his name is hardly a household word in his native land, where he is best known for his vocal and choral music. This work resembles a Baroque suite of dance movements in its seven-movement structure, some of which flowed together without a pause, and in each of which a different instrument was allowed to shine, giving each player a chance to show off his solo abilities, all of which were impressive. Some of the melodies suggest folk inspiration, as is so common with Czech composers even when the melody is not authentically folk in origin.
The audience's enthusiasm encouraged the Nonet to offer a brief encore, the first movement Allegro moderato of Jiri Jaroch's three-movement Detska Suita or Children's Suite, composed in the '50s after the death of one of his children. It was a charming piece that left us wanting to hear the rest.
The venue, used for the first time by the RCMG for this performance, which drew a larger-than-usual audience, proved to be perfect for the music. With the hall's carpet and the pews' cushions, the sound was not too bright or overpowering, but neither was it muddy. The blend was excellent, yet each instrument's voice could readily be picked out with focused attention. Extraneous audience noise was suppressed rather than magnified as it is in so many halls. The excellent but uncredited printed program notes were concise and informative. A delightful reception featuring Czech finger food (both salt and sugar) was offered to the public following the performance by Hanna Ridgeway and members of the local Czech community. It was all in all a most agreeable afternoon.
CVNC writers are known for being willing to drive considerable distances to hear good music. Most notorious for this is William Thomas Walker, but we are all inclined to do this on occasion. This writer thinks, nonetheless, that his 1500-mile round trip drive from his new residence in northern climes to hear this performance probably sets the record. It was worth every mile! The Nonet is scheduled to appear in his area next fall and he hopes to catch them again if the repertory is different.