Chamber Music, Instrumental Ensemble Review Print



Spoleto USA 2007: Chamber Music Programs VII-IX and Intermezzo Series at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church

June 2, 2007 - Charleston, SC:


Over the two-week course of the Spoleto USA Festival, Charles Wadsworth’s Dock Street Theatre team of virtuosi changes as one group of players leave town and others take their places. Soprano Courtenay Budd, harpist Catrin Finch, violinist Chee-Yun, cellist Andrés Díaz, and pianist Wendy Chen, reviewed by my colleague John Lambert, left after Program V.

Newly-arrived cellist Edward Arron opened Program VII. Many long-time Spoleto attendees may remember Arron from his leadership of the Caramoor Virtuosi during the 2000 and 2001 seasons of the Piccolo Spoleto Spotlight Chamber Music series. Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, was originally composed for horn and piano but was also arranged for violin or for cello, as Arron played it. Wadsworth recalled suffering through cracked horn notes which led him to favor the smoother and more secure cello version. Hearing Arron and his fiancée, pianist Jee Wan Park, play impromptu at a party inspired Wadsworth to add Park to the series roster, but it was too late to include her biography in the festival program. Arron played with precise intonation, warm full tone, and appropriately Romantic phrasing. Park kept the keyboard in perfect balance as she actively supported Arron’s cello line.

This concert marked the welcome return after several seasons' absence of one of the Chamber Music Series’ most popular pianists from the post-Menotti-split era, Stephen Prutsman. He is multi-talented, currently serving the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra as composer, arranger, conductor, program host, and pianist. Most of these talents have been heard by past Spoleto USA audiences. Prutsman’s extraordinary ear for color and his refined sense of dynamics were on brilliant display as he performed a selection of three of Debussy’s Préludes: "Ondine" (from Book II), "Des pas sur la neige" (Book I), and "Feux d’artifice" (Book II).

In recent years, the St. Lawrence String Quartet has had personnel changes for cello twice, settling with Christopher Costanza. In addition, Scott St. John replaced founding second violinist Barry Shiffman last year. The chemistry among the players seems to have settled, and the ensemble now plays with a new, more mature depth of insight. The St. Lawrence players have never lacked for technique but they now communicate a more profound view of the repertoire. This was evident in every measure and phrase of Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127, the first of the composer’s six Late String Quartets.

Chamber Music Program VIII, which featured a more adventuresome and eclectic program than usual, was heard June 5. Any time a composition is remotely “modern,” host Charles Wadsworth hastens to calm his wary audience. He promised that none of the four selections from the Glogauer Liederbüch by Charles Wuorinen (born 1938) would last over two minutes. While much of Wuorinen’s music is steeped in serialism and reflects the influence of Milton Babbitt, these Glogauer pieces evoke the world of violas da gamba and crumhorns, using modern instruments. They are lovely arrangements of Medieval polyphony, and the concert featured Tara Helen O’Connor playing flutes and piccolo and Todd Palmer playing clarinet and bass clarinet, accompanied by violist Daniel Phillips and cellist Edward Arron.

Composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), the illegitimate son of a doctor who was a native of Sierra Leone and of an Englishwoman, was graduated from the Royal College of Music. He was a composition student of Sanford, who so admired Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet in F Minor (1897) that he showed it to Joachim. The Quintet combines Stanford’s Brahmsian approach to composition with color and rhythmic influences of Dvorák. Coleridge-Taylor wanted to emulate the Czech composer by adapting African influences to Western music. The Clarinet Quintet is not a lost masterpiece, but it is lovely. Clarinetist Todd Palmer, joined by the St. Lawrence String Quartet (with a rare outing by St. John as leader), made the best possible case for it.

Mozart increased his chances to make money from scores by arranging three of his piano concertos (Nos. 11-13) for piano and string quartet. They are delightful in this format and deserve wider exposure. Wadsworth chose to feature pianist Stephen Prutsman in Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K.414, ably supported by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Prutsman’s performance perfectly balanced emotion with a refined aristocratic touch. The players richly deserved the audience’s prolonged standing ovation.

To sugar-coat Schönberg’s sextet version of Verklärte Nacht that opened Chamber Music Program IX, heard June 6, Wadsworth noted “it was composed before he started using the twelve-tone system.” An unusual touch was to import actor Stephen Brennan (appearing in the Gate Theatre, Dublin’s, production of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife), to give a dramatic reading of the English translation of Richard Dehmel’s poem "Transfigured Night" (1886), which inspired Schönberg’s composition. It received an impassioned reading from the St. Lawrence String Quartet joined by Daniel Phillips, viola, and Edward Arron. cello. The delicate filigree sounds of the strings suggested the moonlight, and the very wide dynamic range traced every changing emotion.

High spirits and showmanship infused the four-hand piano performances by Wadsworth and Prutsman of three well-known Hungarian Rhapsodies by Brahms.

Mendelssohn’s too-rarely-heard Second Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 66, received a passionate performance from pianist Prutsman, violinist Phillips, and cellist Arron. The broadly singing first movement is considered one of the composer’s strongest sonata-form allegros. Melvin Berger, in his Guide to Chamber Music, says the “Andante espressivo is one extended glorious song.” The scherzo is typical of Mendelssohn’s fairyland magic. A Bach-like chorale, traced by Eric Werner back to “Vor Deinen Thron,” from the 1551 Geneva Psalter, appears twice in the course of the finale.


Intermezzo Series

Programs for the six concerts of the Intermezzo Series, held this year at 5:00 p.m. in St. Matthew's Lutheran Church on King Street, opposite Marion Square, ranged from a recital of songs by Kurt Weill to several concerts utilizing chamber ensembles and orchestras drawn from the main Festival Orchestra. Principal players' duties are rotated for each event. A common theme among the stars of the Gluck opera who shared my table at the press brunch was how fast this large body of top-rate musicians came together to form an orchestra in the fullest sense of the word.

Intermezzo No. II, "High Jinks and Virtuosity," was heard May 30 in St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, a terrific space for organ recitals but one where the enriching resonance calls for special attention from the conductor for orchestral concerts. Anthony Barrese did this by slowing the tempi in the Overture to Gioachino Rossini's opera L'Italiana in Algeri just enough to offset most of the destructive interference. The episodes for strings or winds and brass alone came through with crystal-clear lines although there was some blurring when combined. The original version with piccolo was used, and there was some fine work from the oboe. Ensemble was crisp, and the balances were excellent.

Giovanni Bottesini (1821-89), a noted double-bass virtuoso, may not have been a great composer, but he surely wrote some fun pieces for players with technique and showmanship to burn. Double-bassist Gary Karr used to bring a Harpo Marx quality to his performances of such works at the Eastern Music Festival, and Barrese's soloists, violinist Melissa Ann Ussery and double-bassist Aaron John Baird, played Bottesini's Grand Duo Concertante with tongue-in-cheek flair. String fireworks and one-upmanship were delivered with great panache. The high level of the Festival Orchestra musicians can be inferred from the fact both soloists were drawn from within the larger orchestra.

Tchaikovsky's melodically rich "Serenade for Strings" served as the ideal dessert for this concert. The slower tempos allowed the hall to help fatten the string sound, but each musical line was clear as each string section, — violins, violas, cellos, and basses — played as one.