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EMF Finale

July 26, 2001 - Greensboro, NC:


The final professional chamber music program of the Eastern Music Festival, heard July 24, was certainly eclectic and unhackneyed. Visiting brass ensembles such as the Canadian Brass typically fail to program more than snippets of Renaissance brass works, but members of the EMF did much to redress this long-standing complaint when they filled Dana Auditorium with the resonant sounds of three scintillating Canzoni by Giovanni Gabrieli (ca.1554-1612). Trombonist John Ilika, a former EMF student, described the special spatial qualities of the original Venetian setting for these pieces, the church of San Marco, with choir lofts ideal for antiphonal music. He said that he had hoped to use the balcony of Dana Auditorium to similar effect but it was too far from the stage and the resulting delay and decay nixed the idea, so each canzona was given with different pairings of brass players in two groups on opposite sides of the stage. Ilika was joined by trombonists Gregory Cox and Terry Mizesko (past and present NCS members), trumpeters Mark Neihaus, Anthony Prisk, and Judith Saxton, hornists Leslie Norton, Kevin Kozak and Kevin Reid and tubist Lee Hipp. A variety of non-standard instruments, including several smaller members of the trumpet family, were used too.

Next came a rare treat by Mozart, the Duo No. 1 in G for Violin and Viola, played by Penny Thompson Kruse and Steven Kruse. The violinist had a sweet but somewhat small tone while the violist displayed a full, warm sound that projected unusually well. The opening Allegro was full of nicely contrasted parts with a constantly shifting musical line. Sometimes the parts were closely paired, sometimes they were contrasted, and other times, they were exchanged. In the Adagio, a long soulful solo for the viola was memorable. The concluding Allegro was dominated by a charming theme. The reading was generally fine, absent some suspect intonation from the violinist.

An unusual and surprisingly successful arrangement by Franz Hasenöhrl of Richard Strauss's orchestral showpiece, "Till Eulenspiegel," rounded out the first half. Arranged for a mixed quintet(!) - clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin and doublebass - and entitled "Till Eulenspiegel ein mal Anders!," Op. 28, it was ably played by Shannon Scott, Karla Ekholm, Leslie Norton, John Fadial (the GSO's concertmaster) and Leonid Finkelshteyn (NCS principal). It lived up to Hasenöhrl's wordy title Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks Another Way, arranged as a frolic for five instruments. All the main themes and solos survived and much else was effectively suggested.

After intermission, eight strings took the stage, forming a hollow "U" with the open end toward the audience. At the apex were two seated cellists, Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra Principal Neal Cary and Assistant Principal Amy Frost-Baumgarten. On stage left were Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, violinist Catherine Cary and Principal Violist Barbara Hamilton. On stage right were Associate Concertmaster Lisa Sutton, violinist Courtney LeBauer and violist Amanda Grettie-Koch. They performed a good interpretation of that great crowd-pleaser, Mendelssohn's Octet in E-Flat. Balances were mostly fine and there was generally sensitive use of dynamics. There was particularly exact intonation in some of the higher violin registers, and the pizzicati were distinctly executed.

A nearly sold out crowd was on hand for a special chamber music concert by guest artists on July 26, when the euphonious and highly photogenic Eroica Piano Trio was on hand for a widely eclectic program. Since I last reviewed them at Averette University in Danville, pianist Erika Nickrenz and violinist Adela Peña have become mothers and then returned to their model forms. Cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio handled brief comments from the stage.

The opening work was one of those strange arrangements of a well-known work that left one wondering why they did it. Anne Dudley's version of the great Chaconne, from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Solo Violin, spreads the music over three instruments. My overall impression was that the piece was really slowed down. It started with an extended solo for the cello, joined in turn by the piano and violin. There was quite a range in dynamics with some memorable exposed ppp high notes. Nickrenz played with the Steinway's lid fully up and excelled in balancing with the strings and still projecting a full range of piano color. This work is available on the Trio's "Baroque" CD, which is, I must say, their least interesting release.

The next two works, "Primavera Porteña" and "Ontoño Porteño," are tangos about the seasons from "Las Estaciones porteñas" by Astor Piazzolla, arranged for piano trio by cellist and disciple José Bragato. The seasons allude not only to the time of year but also to the "porteños," literally "port people" but colloquially native Buenos Aires "dandies." The first featured an exchange of a crisp rhythmic figure between the strings. The second opened with piano chords followed by sensuous string cadenzas alternating with fiery outbursts. Both items are available on the group's latest CD, "Pasión."

Martinu's "Cinq pièces brèves" began with an agitated piece; the Adagio featured strings alone followed by the piano and had a soulful cello part; and the third section was again agitated, with three largely independent parts and a pizzicato ending. The cello began the fourth number alone, followed by the violin's repeat with the piano taking it up in turn; a strikingly gentle episode preceded another pizzicato ending. The fifth piece was quite jazzy with a fast piano part featuring lots of crossed hands and rapidly scurrying strings.

The concert ended with a passionate and richly romantic reading of the First Piano Trio in B, Op. 8, by Brahms. The playing was unusually refined and at several points there was some extraordinary quiet playing. With very few parallels among chamber musicians, pianist Nickrenz never ceased to amaze, projecting a full kaleidoscope of piano colors while closely matching the dynamics of her colleagues.

After a well-earned and prolonged standing ovation, the Eroica Trio returned to the stage for two fine encores--a rousing arrangement of an Hungarian Rhapsody of Brahms and, after another prolonged standing ovation, Bragato's arrangement of Piazzolla's "Oblivion," which cellist Sant'Ambrogio said had haunted the Trio's dreams. Her visibly passionate performance of the piece made me question Dr. Samuel Johnson's statement that "music was the only sensual pleasure without vice."

An auto accident on the way to the last two EMF concerts took the "in" out of my "indefatigability." The last EPO concert, featuring the Eroica Piano Trio in Beethoven's Triple Concerto, had been sold out for weeks, and I was looking forward to hearing Guest Conductor JoAnn Falletta in her second season at the festival; she has appeared in the Triangle with the NC Symphony and is currently Music Director of both the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, which has provided the EMF with a number of faculty members. Several veteran concert goers reported a refined Eroica Trio performance of the Beethoven and an especially fine interpretation of Brahms' Second Symphony by Falletta. After her Brahms Fourth with the NCS, I regretted missing the concert. I wished I'd missed the other car instead!