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Keowee CMF: Pretty Place

by Roger A. Cope

June 15, 2008, Cedar Mountain, NC: There are several notable points to make about this particular concert. First, it was the last of this year's series, the 8th annual Keowee Chamber Music Festival, and it yielded yet another unique and interesting program. It was also the final concert for a critical cog of the organization. Elizabeth Austin, a KCMF co-founder (with Kate Steinbeck), who will be moving to Albuquerque, NM, in the next month. While she will remain "involved" with the organization in some constructive but distant way, it is safe to say her cello won't be heard as easily.

This concert was presented at Pretty Place, the open-air chapel for the Greenville YMCA's Camp Greenville. "Pretty Place" is a staggeringly inept name for this venue: it is a wood- and stone-covered amphitheater perched on the side of the Blue Ridge escarpment affording 50-mile views east and southeast. From our vantage point at about 3,000 ft. MSL, scattered cumulus clouds danced between the blue sky and green carpeted foothills while a lone hawk worked thermals in ever widening spirals. "Pretty" just doesn't quite cut it for such a spectacularly beautiful site.

On first sight, the place does not invite a good impression of how live music might be heard. The sides are open to the woods, and generally there is an awful lot of open space for frequencies to escape. Happily, the proscenium and wood produced a sound that was just fine, and it was only the obstreperous intrusion of humans that clogged the arterial flow of mirth. More about that later.

First up was a flute, violin, and viola Serenade, Op. 141a, by Max Reger, written in 1915. Kate Steinbeck, Dan Skidmore, and Simon Értz did the work; the piece is another enigmatic opening that produces more contemplation than outright pleasure. Reger is working in the three-movement sonata-allegro form, but the sounds and motives are just slightly displaced from what you expect.

Next was the five movement Serenade, Op. 10, of Ernst von (Ernö) Dohnányi. It is said this piece is Dohnányi's second most famous work, with the first being his Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 1. There are similarities between the two – a recap of first-movement themes in the final movement coda, for example. Here, the somewhere pedestrian movement titles – Marcia, Romanza, Scherzo, Tema con variazioni, Rondo – mask high craftsmanship and exploration of Hungarian folk modes. Cellist Elizabeth Austin joined to make a quartet, and the players clearly relished such substantive and lively music making. Less welcome were big-block motorcycles cycling through the parking lot, auto alarms, slamming doors at the rear of venue, and other distracting noises that might have been better controlled. Humans! Go figure.

After intermission, we heard a most interesting "lost" piece of music that clearly had the stamp of its composer. The Six Epigraphes Antiques by Claude Debussy is a little-known work in this format – flute, violin, viola, and cello. It has a bit of a checkered past in that it was originally scored as a song, then became expanded for two flutes, two harps and celesta. In the '50s, after the celesta part was lost, Pierre Boulez made an arrangement; later, a setting by Debussy for piano four hands was found. Amid all this chaotic background came Bernard Chapron with a quartet transcription that makes excellent use of all the timbral possibilities. Everything you ever learned about Impressionism is present, and the titles alone tell a story: Pour invoquer Pan, dieu vent d’été; Pour un Tombeau sans nom; Pour que la nuit soit propice; Pour la danseuse aux Crotales; Pour L’Egyptienne; and Pour remercier la pluie au matin.

The program ended with Mozart's Quartet in D, K.285, a tasty three-movement gem to complete a delightful afternoon in the woods. The middle Adagio featured pizzicato accompaniment by the strings while the flute flew the melody around the sky and then, attacca, straight into the concluding Rondo.

The KCMF is supported with matching grant funds from the arts councils of both North Carolina and South Carolina. This is good news, as is the growing list of benefactors, sustainers, and donors. The loss of Austin will reshape the organization but is not likely to change the programming, which to date is the organization's unique signature. There will be time to recruit additional help and enlist volunteers for the coming year. If you are in the western part of the state and would like to help, contact them through the KCMF website.

Camp Greenville is located about half way between Brevard, NC, and Greenville, SC, on Rt. 276, right at the state line. Nearby is Caesars Head State Park, where another breath-taking southern view of the foothills and distant piedmont can be had, in addition to hiking. The circling hawk has a piece of that action too, from his own perch at nearly 3,300 feet above sea level.

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