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One of the relatively unsung gems of the Wilmington cultural scene is the annual Port City Music Festival. A week-long series of chamber concerts, the Port City group has been traveling here from the Philadelphia area every June for the past decade. Perhaps as noteworthy as the top-notch quality of the music making is that every one of the concerts they offer are free to the public, thanks to grant support and the generosity of the Wilmington community. They perform in the premiere concert locales in town, such as the superb Beckwith Recital Hall and First Presbyterian Church. The idea is to make fine music available to a range of areas and audiences, and their itinerary has also included neighborhood locations, bringing the music to people literally where they live.
This year's festival has been featuring the music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) the Viennese genius who, in the extraordinary quantity of his musical output and the sheer greatness of much of it, is akin to Mozart a couple of generations before him.
Tonight's concert, was held at the Cameron Art Museum, another of Wilmington's fine performance spaces. It began with Schubert's ever-popular "Trout" Quintet, D. 667. Written when the composer was just 22, it shows Schubert, the composer of almost 600 songs, at his lyrical greatest. The piece fairly overflows with wonderful melody. Attentive ears might also notice the richness of the part writing and the dynamism of its rhythmic character – something the Port City ensemble brought out especially well.
Right from the start of the first movement, the performance shone. Rhythm was tight, expressive phrases were spun out, and there were lovely changes of color. This listener was happy when the ensemble took the first movement repeat – what's not to love? A particularly excellent moment in the first movement was the long phrase sequences drawn out fully in the development. There were several beautiful pp moments; if one were to notice something which could have been even better in the performance, it would have been more focus on just such soft moments, giving a still wider range to the dynamic palette.
Pianist Daniel Lau, here and in the rest of the work, had full command of his wonderful and sometimes glittering part, and worked effectively with the rich ensemble around him. Double bassist Jim Candido gave full tonal support to the group and made the expressive most of the solos the piece offers.
The second movement was like a song. It also gives the viola a couple of chances to shine. Violist Clark Spencer, with equally lush playing by Stephen Framil, cello, gave these passages lovely lyrical presence. Luigi Mazzocchi, violin, who had some almost intoxicatingly virtuosic passages in the first movement, gave a fine, quiet rhythmic incisiveness to the short-long accompaniment pattern here.
Schubert loved music for the dance. He wrote a whole book of such pieces for the piano, some of which no doubt grew out of all-night parties he went to in Vienna, where he would improvise for hours while people reveled. This love of dance may be the natural outgrowth of Schubert's Viennese origins; he is the only one of the major composers to be born in the city which, not long after Schubert's life, would give rise to the intoxicating, European-wide vogue of the waltz.
The third movement of the quintet is in this spirit. This was a bubbling performance. One would note again the rhythmic cohesion, as particularly heard in the oft-repeated four-note pattern. A change of harmony brought forth another lovely moment here.
An unusual and excellent musical event took place at this point. The quintet gets its "Trout" nickname from the variation set of the fourth movement, based on a song by this same name which Schubert had written a bit over two years earlier. "Die Forelle," written by a song genius barely twenty years old, has long been one of the most popular Lieder in the repertory.
At this moment in the performance, Raya Framil (pronounced RI-ya) stepped forward to perform the song. Raya is the daughter of cellist Stephen Framil – who, one should mention, is also the director of the Port City Music Festival – and his wife Kyle Engler, mezzo-soprano; along with her husband, Engler been one of the leading musicians of the group since its inception. At all of 11 years old, Riya performed the song with confidence. It is challenging to wait for the bulk of a long work, and then have a single short song to sing. But she appears already adapted to the stage. One would reasonably note that the poetic German text still holds challenges for her at this point. But we have much to hope for musically from this young lady who already knows how to rise to the demands of the stage and of sophisticated music making.
Having the song precede the fourth movement of the quintet based on it made the following music unusually rich. To this listener, it is an artistically valid way to perform the quintet. The marvelous variations which grew from the song were beautifully done. From the violin singing the theme, through the piano in the first variation and the viola in the second, this was the song as one would want to hear it. The third variation was the only one which was less successful. The piano writing – as in many other places in this piece – is difficult. The energetic passagework was loud enough that the melody in the cello and the double bass was only faintly heard. After that, the drama of the fourth variation and the lyrical gentleness of the 5th, with more fine cello line, were as well done as the rest. The final variation is the closest one to the song itself. Here the group openly went for the dance spirit which is so much a part of Schubert.
The last movement rollicked. The rhythmic precision was there, just as in the rest of the piece. This listener would have enjoyed hearing the repeat here too. The brilliant ending received a deserved ovation from the audience.
After a generous and energized intermission which gave the audience plenty of opportunity to mingle, the second half of the concert consisted of an unusual contrast: The Telephone, by Gian Carlo Menotti. This comic operetta was written in 1946 and premiered the next year. It has just two singing characters, Ben and Lucy. Arguably the main character is the one who doesn't sing: the telephone itself. This performance updated the rotary phone to a cell phone. But really: has anything changed?
Engler sang Lucy, and Perry Brisbon, tenor, a newcomer this year to the festival, sang Ben. The singing was very fine. Engler has an operatic temperament, and brought a bit of the diva to her character, along with powerful high notes and pathos in a few places. Brisbon has a wonderful rich voice, a tonal palette that makes one savor his sound and want to keep hearing him. The interactions between the two were funny; quite a bit of laughter ensued from the audience. (One would have wished for Brisbon to have more visual contact with the audience, rather than being as focused as much as he was on the score. However, it is in the nature of the festival that music has to be prepared quickly.) Both singers worked up to a passionate peak when poor Ben finally manages to get out his proposal, and – spoiler alert – Lucy says yes.
A chamber orchestra of 13, conducted by Framil, accompanied effectively, if with a few glitches here and there. The group was anchored by Lau, who supported the ensemble strongly from the piano.
The end of this piece was again greeted with audience ovations, this time for the fine singers and the orchestra.
The concert was delightful and artistically gratifying. People certainly come to the Port City performances; extra chairs had to be put out to accommodate attendance for this one. But the group deserves to be playing to packed houses wherever they appear. Wilmington already has a cultivated audience for chamber music. Let us hope for wide publicity, and for many more seasons, perhaps with overflow attendance, for the wonderful chamber music of the Port City Music Festival.
Artists bios may be read here.
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