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Three members of the Keowee Chamber Players performed a delightfully eclectic concert at historic St. Matthias Episcopal Church, the group’s first concert of the season, and the first appearance with them by pianist Fabio Parrini. Joining him were Kate Steinbeck (flute) and Elizabeth Austin (cello), co-founders of the non-profit organization Keowee Chamber Music. On the National Register of Historic Places, the church is host to numerous musical events, many of them benefit concerts for the upkeep of the building. Built c.1894-98 under the supervision of former slave James Vester Miller for a community of newly-freed slaves, the Gothic-style church stands in one of the oldest neighborhoods developed by African Americans in Asheville. Billed as an “around-the-world expedition of music,” the concert featured music spanning nearly 200 years, embracing musical traditions from Europe, Brazil, the Caucasus region of Eurasia, Korea, Israel, and America. Each member of the ensemble spoke in turn about the program.
The opening work was Israeli composer Ronn Yedidia’s "The Song on the Land" (1996). Popularized by the Ahn Trio, this unabashedly sentimental ode was inspired by the composer’s travels throughout Israel and captures its recollected beauty. Though originally written for bassoon and piano, the piece worked well in this transcription for flute, piano, and cello. Though Ms. Steinbeck plays on a modern wooden flute, her tone is large and silvery, nonetheless, and her interpretive approach throughout the concert was stylistically sensitive and well informed.
Following this was Heitor Villa-Lobos’s "Assobio a Játo" (“The Jet Whistle”) for flute and cello from 1950. Commissioned by wealthy pianist and philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the work consists of three short character sketches crafted to reflect the glamour and sheer novelty of air travel. The contrasts in the two media enabled a clear hearing of the composition’s exploration of range and counterpoint, its clever and supple changeup of leader to follower, and, alas, a few out-of-tune cello notes in the chromatic phrases of the second, slow movement. The flute made some surprising roars in the third movement with its glissandi simulating a take-off into flight.
The last piece before intermission was the Sonata for Flute and Piano (1974) by Soviet composer Otar Taktakishvili (1924-1987), whose rise to fame began at age 19 with his composition of the first national anthem of Georgia. Ms. Steinbeck had contacted the composer’s grandson who lives in Iowa, requesting some recollections he might have of his famous grandfather. The news gleaned from Iowa that the composer had been “musically obsessive,” added to Parrini’s stylistic assessment of his music as “domesticated Prokofiev” got good laughs from the audience. I found the sonata to be neither as profound nor as colorful as Prokofiev’s style, but was engaged and charmed by its folksy character. The performance of the third movement was exceptionally well executed and its shifting character — from allegro romp to understated march to the accelerated conclusion — wonderfully defined.
After intermission came the afternoon’s heavyweight, the Sonata in E minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 38 (1862-65) by Johannes Brahms. Infamous for destroying his own work (including most of his string quartets), the composer likewise cut this work down from its original four movements to three. Even so, the work lasts 22 minutes and encompasses an emotional and expressive range so profound it challenges both performer and listener alike. The first movement, ephemeral in mode and mood, opened with a beautiful solo placed low in the cello. Due to the superb acoustics of the church, balance was never a problem here or anywhere else. In this movement and throughout the third which begins with a difficult fugal section, both musicians played cleanly and carefully. What I wanted more of was intensity, dynamic shaping, and real acknowledgement of the work’s big moments. Their best performance came in the second movement, when their voices matched this demure, classically styled minuet and trio.
The final piece was Three Bagatelles by Detroit native Paul Schoenfield, a commission by the Durham-based Mallarmé Chamber Players and Keowee Chamber Music. The popular appeal of this work stems from its vernacular language of jazz, ragtime, and blues. The third movement contained some wicked licks in each part, gathering momentum toward the end, like an unstoppable frenzied dance. For a soothing encore, the players performed the arioso Largo from Bach’s Sonata for Flute in B minor.
The program will be repeated in Greenville, SC on Thursday January 17 at 8 p.m. at Furman University’s Daniel Recital Hall.