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For their final concert of the 2006 season, given on July 24, the Eastern Chamber Players chose a heterogeneous program that mixed brass, piano, strings, and a single woodwind – the clarinet. A full audience in the capacious Carnegie Room in Guilford College's Hege Library suffered through both heat and humidity in some of the most uncomfortable folding chairs to listen to riveting performances of two 20th-century masterpieces.
With its high ceiling and its ballroom size, the Carnegie Room proved to be a good venue for two all-brass works. According to Steven Ledbetter's program notes, Benjamin Britten's "Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury," for three trumpets, was composed in 1959 as "a short fanfare for a 'Magna Carta Pageant' to be held at the Cathedral of Bury St. Edmonds." It transcends its occasional-piece status. Seeking the sound of medieval brass, the composer scored for the natural overtones of "three trumpets in different keys (F, C, and D)." While one trumpeter holds the stage, two others are stationed in the back corners of the hall. In turn, each plays a solo passage, a mellow tune, followed by a fast and snappy one and ending with a measured and stately tune. Then all three play their individual tunes at the same time. The chaos soon seems to settle as "some of their long notes gather together and form brilliant chordal effects." The fine trumpeters were Mark Niehaus, Judith Saxon, and Robert White, and the culminating effect was truly magical.
Three other brass players then performed John Stevens' Triangles (1978), for horn, trombone, and tuba. Short solo cadenzas link each of the four sections, which are based on jazz rhythms and styles; each instrument takes its role as solo or accompaniment in turn. The tempos range from slow and mournful to fast and playful. With mutes and contrasted attacks, a kaleidoscope of brass colors and timbres was presented. The strongest possible case for the piece was made by Leslie Norton, horn, Gregory Cox, trombone, and Lee Hipp, tuba.
Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933) has written very little chamber music. His Quartet (1993), for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello, proved to be a major discovery that might well be an ideal companion to Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. Both works feature meaty solos for the clarinet that emerge from silence. Penderecki's Quartet opens with a slow nocturne dominated by the clarinet while the strings contribute "atmosphere." The scherzo is fast and wild: pugnacious strings are answered by harsh sounds from the clarinet. A brief serenade suggests a waltz. The finale, as long as the first three movements combined, is marked "Abschied: Larghetto." The clarinet spins its melodic line within the harmonic web woven by the strings. The superb players were clarinetist Shannon Scott, violinist Jennifer Rickard, violist Suzanne Rousso, and cellist Lawrence Stomberg. Wide extremes and dynamics were handled with aplomb.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75), with 15 string quartets, separate sonatas for both viola and cello with piano, and a significant quintet and trio with keyboard, joins the ranks of the greatest composers along with Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók. His Piano Quintet in g minor, Op. 57, shares some of the dark mood of his great Second Piano Trio. It has five movements, and the piano writing is spare. A long piano solo opens the slow prelude. The slow build-up of voices is one of the delights of the following fugal adagio. A Yiddish-sounding theme is played by the first violin in the course of the driven and relentless scherzo. A somber intermezzo is followed by a whimsical allegretto. The emotional range of this work is draining, and the EMF faculty, pianist Yoshikazu Nagai, and violinists Bonnie Lin and Courtney LeBauer, violist Daniel Reinker, and cellist Neal Cary gave a no-holds-barred performance that was rewarded with prolonged curtain calls. Balance between the keyboard and strings could not have been better. This was the perfect finish for the series.