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Chamber Music Review

Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival: Serial Music at New Plane

June 19, 2006 - Hendersonville, NC:

Based at Warren Wilson College, the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival takes a series of programs across the summer season, each performed at different locations. Program I of the 37th season, played in Waynesville, Hendersonville, and Swannanoa at WWC, offered a Haydn trio, a new gut-wrenching string quartet by Stacy Garrop, and the Op. 115 quintet of Johannes Brahms.

SCMF is basically a repertory group performing a variety of chamber music works and occasionally bringing in guests. The Director is Frank Ell, Professor Emeritus of Clarinet from Michigan State University. The core players are Ell, Tyra Gilb, flute, William Hoyt, horn, Jeff Keesecker, bassoon, Roger Rehm, oboe, Keve Wilson, oboe, and Insessa Zaretsky, piano. On June 19, Ell and Zaretsky appeared and the Biava String Quartet – with Austin Hartman and Hyunso Ko, violins, Mary Persin, viola, and Jacob Braun, cello – served as the anchor.

Henderson County programs were formerly performed in Patton Auditorium of Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, but SCMF is now playing in the cavernous and sonorous Trinity Presbyterian Church on Blythe Street. It is a wondrous space for music and other potential forms of spiritual motivation. The design follows recent trends promoting an open, airy space enabled by wide chevron-array seating (c. 400) with an elevated central pulpit and the choir located against the forward wall. This makes for convenient multi-access and can offer good sound, but performers walk a long distance for on/off stage transitions.

Zaretsky, Ko and Braun opened this program with the Trio in E, No 26, by Franz Joseph Haydn. It is a breezy yet traditional three-movement work of conventional form and not too adventurous. The piano had one minor finger slip during the first movement thus revealing what Haydn would have written had he been influenced by blues composers of the Mississippi Delta. The ensemble was wonderful, and intonation was spot-on. This space favors sustained tones, especially from the piano, yet also requires the rest or period of silence be precise and slightly lengthened. Full marks for smart playing.

Next the Biava Quartet took the stage to perform a riveting aural saga by Stacy Garrop (b.1969) titled Quartet No. 2 "Demons and Angels." You should know I do not read music program notes until after I have heard a performance. This keeps fresh the instincts and reactions of the moment. Yet the movement titles displayed a trend: Demonic Spirits, Songs of the Angels, Inner Demons and Broken Spirit. Now, if you recall music during the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho, you have an idea how this piece begins. The tessitura is not as high but the density of intervals and effect are the same. Right away I thought we were headed for another hackneyed modern piece full of gadget devices, clever end-arounds and the omni-present repeated note accelerando.

Not so! This music – apart from issues of form, style or content – is coming from a very deep emotional space aided by a well-trained and skilled composer. It is driven by an energy set well apart from conventional concepts of tempo, and the resulting distance we travel is vast. Amid glissandi, flutter tones, harmonics and ponticello we heard a folk tune at one point, a waltz at another, and finally an almighty cadence exactly like placing your thumb on an Lp to stop the turntable or putting resistance onto a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The fourth movement has a four-note motif based on three ascending notes, then moving down to the flatted leading tone – all very sneaky and suspicious.

The work is a commission by the Biava Quartet, a band well versed in modern interpretations; recall their March 3 performance in Asheville of Ainsi la Nuit by Henri Dutilleux. When the Garrop piece was finished I was shaken, disturbed and intrigued, just as when I heard Francis Kleynjan's A L'aube du Dernier Jour, about a prisoner's march to the guillotine. Then I looked at the notes. Apparently just before starting this work, Garrop Googled an old boyfriend's name and discovered he was a serial killer.

All righty then.

The second half was Brahms' five-movement Quintet in B minor, Op. 115, for clarinet and strings, with Frank Ell and BSQ. It was written in the spring of 1891 after Brahms heard clarinetist Richard Muhlfield, who inspired in turn a group of pieces with clarinet as the focal point. Ell is clearly a virtuoso in every department of musicianship, and his tone quality reminded me of David Kirby. The magic in this kind of ensemble is blending all the instruments in plane or common, and then at distinct moments featuring each unique part. There was superb playing by all, and the performance was a welcome aural pallet after that journey with Garrop's "Demons and Angels."

Note: The SCMF continues through July 18. For the remaining concerts, see our calendar.