The spirit of artistic cooperation continues between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University as they celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth year of composers Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin. This Chopin and Schumann Festival will continue for four days and six concerts at various venues at both campuses with performances by students, faculty and guest artists from throughout the state. The opening gala took place at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus as part of both the William S. Newman Series and Music on the Hill.
It was a good-sized crowd that showed up, but it was disappointing to see right away that the powers that control Memorial Hall still have not got the message regarding chamber music at this wonderful auditorium: the stage is too big and deep for intimate groups and you need to put up acoustical shells behind the performer(s). This is the aural equivalent of watching a ping pong game at the Rose Bowl: even the acoustically coveted seats in the lower balcony had a distant and dispersed sound.
Schumann is an equal opportunity composer, and many of his smaller chamber compositions have alternate versions for several instruments. His Opus 70 Adagio and Allegro has versions for either horn, violin, or cello (plus piano) and tonight we heard Andrew McAfee playing horn and Derison Duarte, piano faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and NCCU, at the keyboard. Since vacating his fifteen-year tenure as principal horn with the North Carolina Symphony in 2007, McAfee has devoted most of his musical energy to conducting, but he has not lost one pucker of his prodigious horn chops. This work is a showcase of the two extremes: long, expressive lines demanding remarkable breath control and fast, virtuosic playing in the finale. It was great to see and hear a solo woodwind performance as most chamber music series have a definite bias towards piano and strings.
Susan Dunn, head of the vocal program at Duke, and her longtime colleague and accompanist David Heid, performed a set of three French love songs with texts by Pauline Viardot and music by Chopin. The first two, "Love’s Complaint" and "Weak Heart" were of the basic "love hurts, I want to die" variety but you couldn't really tell since it was delivered with a beautifully sung, albeit neutral demeanor. Heid, with years of impressive experience as both accompanist and vocal coach, was eloquent and poetic in his playing and supported but did not intrude on the vocalist.
There was a misprint in the program as the next, and final piece of the half, was actually Märchenerzählungen, Schumann's Op.132, played in a version for clarinet, viola, and piano with Donald Oehler, Jonathan Bagg, and Jane Hawkins on those respective instruments. The clarinet replaces the violin, so this already dark piece is made even more so, especially in combination with the viola. This four-movement work, translated as "fairy pictures" or "fairy tale narrations," has the feeling of taking place in a deep and dark forest complete with all of the more frightening aspects of Grimms. It was a pleasure to hear this wonderful and rarely heard combination, and the three musicians wove a captivating, lyrical and almost literary spell.
The piano quartet (violin, viola, cello and piano) would seem like the perfect combination, yet if not on one hand, you can certainly count on both hands the number of works of this genre that are regularly performed. The concert wrapped up with Schumann's contribution to one of these rare gems: the Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47. Even within his own oeuvre, his piano quintet in the same key is the more celebrated of the two. One half of the Ciompi Quartet – cellist Fred Raimi and violist Jonathan Bagg – were joined by fellow Dukie Jane Hawkins at the piano and violinist Richard Luby, the sole Tarheel. This work has an enormous variety of moods and styles from the lyrical opening to the frighteningly fast scales of the Scherzo to the brilliant coda of the final movement. A unique feature of the third movement comes when the cellist must tune his C string down to a B-flat to serve as the pedal tone of the other instruments. These four familiar players have performed literally hundreds of times together and their intuition and musical mind reading was apparent as they breathed, phrased, and emoted as one, providing a wonderful finale to the start of another great musical collaboration among alleged rivals.