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Members of the Durham Symphony Orchestra and some of their musical pals offered an evening of chamber music in the Durham Arts Council's PSI Theatre on the last day of September. It had been a while since we visited this venue, long used by chamber groups, theatres, vocalists, and even a few opera companies but pretty much abandoned recently. The space wasn't as dim and problematic as we'd remembered. The lighting is a bit harsh and uneven, and the grand piano, a Yamaha, doesn't speak with particular eloquence, but overall the sound was fine and the ventilation system didn't intrude, which is more than one can say about many places that set renters back a good deal more.
The program got underway with two movements of Ravel's String Quartet. As it happens, we'd heard the players being coached during the chamber music workshop associated with September Prelude, so we know they'd been working on the music for a while. Alas, the performance was not quite ready for prime time, due to several problems. Faulty intonation was a recurring problem, especially from the viola, and the ensemble wasn't flawless. The playing was not sufficiently incisive or animated, and the tempi were often too slow. This is such a great piece, one that sings aloud the glory of France and all that implies, but it's also one of the best-known works of 20th-century chamber literature, and that alone should probably have been a warning to the players.
Fortunately things picked up a lot with a reading of Madeleine Dring's attractive Trio for flute, oboe, and piano, played by Anne Aitchison, Judy Konanc, and Scott Schlesinger, respectively. The multi-talented English composer apparently enjoyed great success and, as the anonymous author of the DSO's program note states, deserves to be better known. The pairing of flute and oboe allows for some wonderful and close harmonyies, supported in this case by the piano. The Trio is tuneful, melodic and immediately attractive, and its lovely slow movement, in particular, lingers in the memory long after being heard.
After a short intermission, the Standard Time Brass Quintet (Hank vanDeventer and Andrew Ginsberg, trumpets, Mary Lynn vanDeventer, horn, Brendan Ward, trombone, and Jack Denniston, tuba) performed an admirable arrangement of the opening chorus of Monteverdi's Vespers (1610), a great piece of music whether sung, plucked, or tooted. The ensemble was even saucier and more engaging in a set of variations arranged (presumably) by William D. Pardus.* Brass quintets are not uncommon, thanks to showmen like the Canadian Brass, but this one did quite nicely, although the members may feel more comfortable at the back of the orchestra than in the spotlight out front.
The concert ended with the evening's pièce de résistance, the premiere of an appealing string quintet by DSO violist Gary L. Powell called "The Harmony of My Existence." The players were violinists Rolanda L. Allison and Tonya N. Suggs, Powell, cellist Marcus A. Hunt, and bassist Edward C. Moon. The ensemble was strong and nicely unified, and portions of the music made very favorable impressions, although the work, apparently a student composition from long ago, is somewhat uneven. The movement titles are as unusual and distinctive as some of the music itself; they are, in order, "Running," "Walking," "Chorale," and "Hurry." There's a good deal of distinctive scoring including some licks that are probably lifted from classic jazz, but the writing is idiomatic for strings, too. There was alas some pitch instability in the "Chorale," but the second movement and the finale went especially well, and the work was warmly received by the small crowd.
More and more chamber concerts are being programmed by orchestras. In some cases, chamber groups take key leadership roles in orchestras, as is the case in Hickory, where the Western Piedmont Symphony has hosted string quartets for a number of years. Elsewhere, orchestral musicians keep their skills sharp with large doses of chamber music; an example of this may be found in Charlotte, where key members of the CSO, headed by cellist Alan Black, play every month on a fine series, Chamber Music at St. Peter's. In the capital, the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra has a regular chamber group, the Free Spirits Ensemble. Generally speaking, players who work together regularly enjoy greater success than ad hoc groups, as heard in Durham. Chamber concerts can clearly stretch a season for not too large an investment, and doing the music has many artistic benefits for the players, but the mixed results of the September 30 Durham program make one think that more careful preparation should be given to subsequent concerts in this series, especially if admission is charged.
*Updated 1/12/07, based on an email note from the composer: "The work is titled: 'The Krakowiak Variants.' It is an original work – a set of variations using the melody of a krakowiak (a Polish folk dance from c.1600's in the region around Krakow) as the theme to be 'varied.' The work was composed for and premiered several years ago by the faculty brass quintet of Keene State College (University System of New Hampshire) where I hold the rank of 'Professor Emeritus.' In addition to being a composer/arranger, I now publish some of my own music and that of several other New England composers from my publishing company Creation Station."