Chamber Music Review Print



Brahms is Highlight of Swannanoa Chamber Concert

July 7, 2009 - Swannanoa, NC:


Many chamber music concerts bring together star players with busy solo careers. While these concerts can be satisfying, there is nothing quite like hearing chamber ensembles who live and breathe their repertoire week after week. The resident string quartet for the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival is such a group, and so is the resident woodwind quintet. George Pope on flute, Cynthia Watson on oboe, David Bell on clarinet and William Hoyt on French horn (all from the University of Akron, Ohio) are joined by John Keheyas (University of South Florida) on bassoon.

The Parker String Quartet's members (Daniel Chong, Karen Kim, Jessica Bodner and Kee-Hyun Kim) met as graduate students in the New England Conservatory of Music, where they were twice named the Honors Ensemble. They are now in the early years of a promising professional career.

J. Michael Haydn (1737-1806) wrote a small body of music that is pleasing, although not as deep as the compositions of his elder brother Franz Joseph Haydn. The July 7 program began with a Divertimento in D major, a suite of six dance-like movements probably (like Telemann’s Tafelmusik) intended as background music for dining and partying. For this performance, the instrumentation was flute, oboe, bassoon and French horn. The second movement Allegro had some lovely oboe moments and the Prestissimo finale showed some excellent coordination and an occasional knowing smile passed among the wind players.

George Gershwin (1898-1936) took his early lessons in theory and composition seriously. His student work “Lullaby for String Quartet (1919)” had been lost, except in piano transcription, until arranged and premiered in 1967 by the Juilliard String Quartet. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in the hands of the Parker String Quartet, this is an enchanting small gem. They brought out nuances of bowing and dynamics that gave the work new meaning.

Inessa Zaretsky, composer and pianist, then joined the wind quintet for the world premiere of her work entitled Elementals. The composer described the four movements as operatic ("Tale"), in repose ("Intermezzo"), an energetic joke ("Scherzo") and homage to Sergei Rachmaninoff ("Variations"). It is always difficult to judge a first hearing, but I don’t want a second hearing unless the composition is intensively reworked. The piano writing emphasizes virtuosic technique at the expense of any integration with the ensemble. Except for fleeting passages, the woodwinds do not complement nor do they contrast with the piano writing in any meaningful manner. “Variations” had more compositional coherence than the other movements, but the movement was not just homage to Rachmaninoff, it was written as though 1930 were still on our calendar pages. Zaretsky, who teaches at the Mannes School of Music in New York, performed feats of wizardry on the piano in realizing her score, and the woodwind quintet bravely tried to make sense of a piece that lacks coherence.

Following intermission, one of the high points of the romantic chamber music literature was ably presented. David Bell joined the Parker String Quartet in Johannes Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115. Written at the twilight of Brahms’ career and demonstrating that master’s ability to write inner parts that become essential to the woven fabric of the piece, this exalted work received a highly sensitive treatment by five fine musicians. The Adagio was exceptional, with the first violin managing to drop to a pianissimo cry that always remained audible while willing the listener to strain to hear his part, even though at times it is subordinate to the clarinet. The other movements were finely performed, but the Adagio will resonate in my mind for days of satisfaction.

The summer abounds in music festivals, and the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival continues to draw good audiences in its fortieth season. About 160 attended Tuesday’s concert. The influence of General Director Paul Nitsch (from Charlotte) and Music Director William Hoyt is now being felt. This year there are no concerts in Hendersonville, but Charlotte has been added to Swannanoa and Waynesville as regular performance venues. Still to come are performances in Charlotte on July 18, in Waynesville on July 12 and July 19, and in Swannanoa on July 14 and July 21. The Schubert “Trout” Quintet will be on the program for the final week.

See our Western calendar for details.