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There was a heartening turnout for a faculty chamber music recital in Hill Hall on March 23. In addition to the regular stalwarts, there was an above average turnout of students (who stayed for the whole concert) as well as some very distinguished visitors. Eight members of the faculty participated, including pianist Thomas Otten, who anchored every item on the program.
Gaetano Donizetti's Sonata for Flute and Piano opened the program. This item fails to turn up on the work list in New Grove II . From the bravura writing, I suspect it was commissioned by a virtuoso pianist. It is often like an opera duet; flutist Brooks de Wetter-Smith's lines were answered by Otten, and sometimes they joined together in the same material. More than once, the piano stated Beethoven's "Fate motive," from the Fifth Symphony; Otten's fiery solo run make me look forward to his interpretation of Beethoven's own piano works. Although Wetter-Smith played with great elegance, displaying fine singing lines, the composer gave too much that was interesting to the piano.
Boris Blacher's seven-movement Divertimento, for trumpet, trombone, and piano, with its contrasting and blending of the colors of the two brass instruments, was delightful. Some movements allowed each brass a turn with the piano, and there was even a single movement for the piano alone. The music was often jazzy and certainly entertaining. James Ketch was the trumpeter, and the trombonist was Michael Kris. Both brought an easy virtuosity to their parts as well as a great sense of fun. All the works by Blacher that I have heard have been rewarding. I hope Brent Wissick and his cello ensemble will eventually present Blacher's "Blues-Espagnola-Rumba philharmonica," written for the twelve cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic.
No doubt many came to the concert to hear Ned Rorem's Ariel (Five Poems of Sylvia Plath) , for soprano, clarinet, and piano, featuring Terry Rhodes, Donald Oehler, and Otten. Like the late Benjamin Britten, Rorem is a master of the art song in the English language, and this year, his 80th, he seems at last to be receiving his due, with many groups and festivals featuring his compositions. Rhodes' diction was excellent throughout and her voice, evenly produced; her sensitive use of dynamic expression - sometimes quite extreme - was consistently matched by Oehler's clarinet. As might be anticipated, Plath's texts were not cheery; images of death are never far away. Harsh chords opened "Words"; "Poppies in July" was plaintive, with a long-held clarinet note; and, after a shrill clarinet opened "The Hanging Man," a spare accompaniment backed the cadaverous imagery. An extended clarinet solo opened "Poppies in October," the most immediately appealing piece; and the concluding "Lady Lazurus" was almost a melodrama, with Rhodes speaking as well as singing the longest text of the cycle.
Since I heard Robert White do a selection of Beethoven's Scottish Folk Songs on the first Spoleto Festival USA that I attended, in 1979, I have had an insatiable appetite for them. After the gloom of the Rorem group, tenor Stafford Wing joined Otten to lift our hearts with three songs from Op. 108. "Again My Lyre," with its allusions to sadness, made a nice transition to the light-hearted "Could This Ill World Have Been Contrived," which bemoaned the weakness of man for "a sweet bewitching face." This section ended with the comic "Oh Sweet Were the Hours," with its repeated chorus "Wine! Wine! Wine!," a lively scherzo first given by the singer, then repeated, and then played by the chamber ensemble alone. Wing was in fine form, adding a Scottish tinge to the texts; his diction was excellent and his voice, firmly placed. Violinist Richard Luby and cellist Brent Wissick filled out the ensemble.
Otten and Luby ended the concert with an austere performance of Sergei Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2, in D, Op. 94bis. This also exists as a Flute Sonata, which has often been played in our region. The players fully brought out the mercurial character of the work. The first movement was serene while the third was more pastoral in tone. The scherzo featured displaced accents and fast, brilliant passagework. The showy finale was not without the composer's humorous touches relating to keys. Luby sometimes skirted the cutting edge of intonation but he made the work seem newly minted.