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The juxtaposition of pending late-March appearances by Charles Wadsworth and the stimulating program of music presented by the Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta in UNC's Hill Hall as part of the Newman series on March 2 made me reflect on the shift in the nature of chamber music series that began in mid-20th century. Before Charles Wadsworth was selected by Gian Carlo Menotti to establish a chamber music series at his Spoleto Festival, such concerts had been, typically, string quartets, with the occasional piano trio or duo. Wadsworth's imaginative expansion to an ensemble that could draw upon instruments beyond strings and piano led to a dramatic broadening of repertory. This continued when William Schuman had him create the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. This model has been successfully taken up by many groups nationally - our local Mallarmé Chamber Players are a good example, as is the visiting group. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Emory Chamber Music Society consists of a core of seven musicians - members of the Atlanta Symphony and Emory University faculty - to which other local musicians are added as needed. It was disappointing that only a small audience was on hand for the splendidly-played program. The only Newman series event well attended this season was the bizarre Ahn Piano Trio concert, which I fled at intermission.
Hill Hall has challenging acoustics, and after decades of trying to find a decent location to hear concerts, I believe I have found the answer - the very back rows. From my aisle seat on the second row from the back, the various ensembles were perfectly balanced. Friends who sat in the front third of the hall reported difficulty hearing the clarinet in the last piece played. Those seated midway also mentioned balance problems.
The Emory Chamber Music Society fielded two equally superb pianists - Keiko Yamashita for music by Beethoven and Schumann and Janice Wong in the concluding Dohnányi Sextet. Both played with the Steinway lid fully up while perfectly balancing their volume with that of their colleagues and, concurrently, phrasing stylishly. These qualities are not commonplace.
Both Mozart and Beethoven were inspired by the Bohemian horn virtuoso, Jan Václav Stich - better known as Giovanni Punto. Punto revealed the possibilities of the horn to Beethoven, and the composer's delight is evident throughout his entertaining Sonata in F, Op. 17. Bruce Andrus fully conveyed the joy of this unabashed showpiece. His control was excellent - the performance was marked by clean, rapid notes, easy projection throughout a wide dynamic range, and fine phrasing. His quietest playing and his execution of trills were memorable.
Balances and musical lines were outstandingly clear in a performance of Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47. The interpretation was well within the standard but one seldom encounters such clarity within an ensemble. Since the composer wrote this for Count Marvei Wielhorsky, an accomplished amateur cellist, Daniel Laufer had plenty of opportunities to project his full, warm sound in numerous solos. Paul Murphy's burnished viola sound was welcome in his solo lines and in his splendid blending with violinist Jun-Ching Lin.
Before he fled the Nazis, Ernö von Dohnányi was an important cultural force in Hungary as a composer, conductor and pianist. Often considered post-Brahmsian because of his conservative musical style, he was a master at composing well-balanced, tonal scores, idiomatically written for the instruments. Only someone with supreme skill would have attempted and succeeded in a piece such as his Sextet in C, Op. 37, for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano. The sonic "oil-and-water" mix often works because the composer treats the violins and piano or the winds and piano separately while specifying that the dynamics of the winds are to be carefully kept low when blending with the strings as a whole or, more often, in pairings. From the back of the hall, balances were ideal. The first movement was full of memorable instrumental pairings - cello and horn, horn and viola - presenting a complex blend of colors and textures. More than once I sensed that this ought to be a favorite work for violists since that soulful instrument has so many chances to shine. The second movement begins gently with the piano and strings until loud piano notes are joined by assertive ones from the clarinet and horn, eventually settling in with a finely blended section, gently played by the whole ensemble. The last two movements are played without a noticeable break; they begin with pizzicato strings and horn calls leading to some fine cascading notes, played by pianist Wong, and a glowing cello solo, given by Laufer. Notes for a Decca recording of the Sextet allude to a late development of musical humor in the "jazz-like" portion of the last movement, but to this listener the rapid interplay that begins with a duet between violin and viola, taken up by the clarinet and others in turn, had more than a little touch of Viennese dance.