I was under the mistaken impression this concert in the intimate Person Hall was to have been performed by members of the faculty of the Department of Music. The names of Brahms, Fauré, and Shostakovich are irresistible bait. I rarely attend student chamber music performances because, in order to give exposure to a maximum number of players, only select movements from works are performed. That was the case for this concert which featured fourteen promising students in a wide-ranging repertoire. The venue has a lot of hard surfaces which can make for some glaring ff if the audience is small, which was the case for this program.
Robert Schumann (1810-1845) waited until late in life to compose any serious chamber music. Beginning in 1842, he composed six substantial works beginning with Fantasiestücke for violin, cello, and piano, Op. 88. It consists of four movements with German character designations. Both Clara Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn thought this first effort was “too far-fetched” so the composer laid it aside. He eventually brought it out in 1849 when he learned of Chopin’s death, and it was published in 1850. Meanwhile, Schumann had composed two piano trios, Trio in D minor, Op. 63 and Trio in F, Op. 80. The earlier Op. 88 features intensely concentrated melodies.
Only the second movement “Humoreske-Lebhaft” and the fourth movement “Finale-Im Marsch-Tempo” of Op. 88 were played. The piano lid was fully raised for all the works on the program that required keyboard. However this was problematic in Op. 88 leading to too much forced loud string playing not mellowed by the hall. Otherwise, violinist Ina Liu, cellist Audrey Cook, and pianist Christina Lai gave a good account of this seldom heard work. Intonation and phrasing was generally good.
English composer and pianist John McCabe (b.1939) is probably better known for his 1974-76 Decca recordings performing the complete piano sonatas of Joseph Haydn. His Three Folk Songs (1963) was a delightful chance to sample his compositional style. According to McCabe on Chester Novello website, he treats the first song, “Johnny has gone for a soldier,” like an art song but with “a few slight rhythmic dislocations.” At one point in the second song “Hush-a-ba, Birdie, croon, croon,” there is “a canonic treatment of the tune between the voice and clarinet.” About the clarinet and piano making references to several nautical songs between verses in the third song, “John Peel,” McCabe says “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” The folksong is about a Scottish gentleman-farmer who hunts. Balance was better between the keyboard, clarinet, and singer than in the Schumann Op. 88. Soprano Maria Palombo displayed fine diction and an evenly supported voice. The hall tended to emphasize its brightness. Clarinetist Schuyler Tracey’s breath-control, articulation, and phrasing were delightful and pianist Crystal Wu's support was excellent.
To play chamber music by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is an immense challenge demanding solid technique and considerable depth of understanding of the hidden meanings of works designed to escape censors’ notice. Quartet No. 6 in G, Op. 101 (1956) dates past Stalin’s death and was written while the composer was on his honeymoon with his second wife Margarita Kainova. The unlikely pairing ended in 1959. The cheerful mode of this work, in strong contrast to earlier and later works, is suitable for students. The first movement, “Allegretto,” creates a carefree mood using nursery tunes. The key tunes were well brought out by first violinist Laura Pianowski, second violinist Kendra Griffin, violist Stephanie Zimmermann, and cellist Katie Brvnik. Balance, intonation, and phrasing were good.
I have never found any profound depths in the works of Jean Francaix (1912-1997). The prolific neoclassical French composer just turned out oodles of immaculately scored pieces stamped with the French love of color and élan. Quartet for flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon was a perfect choice for student musicians, and its brevity allowed for a complete performance of all four movements. Flutist Philip Snyder, oboist Beau Emory, clarinetist Betsey Unger, and bassoonist Erin Lundsford met every demand of this work displaying superb individual skill as well as excellent ensemble. This was the most entirely satisfying performance of the evening.
There was much to enjoy in the liveliest sections from two major works of the piano quartet repertoire which ended the concert. The second movement, “Scherzo, allegro vivo,” from Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15 by Gabriel Fauré was followed by the rousing “Finale: Rondo alla zingarese” from Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 by Johannes Brahms. First violinist Christin Danchi, second violinist Margaret Neville, cellist John Reardon, and pianist Suzanne Crabtree gave both selections their considerable all and made up in heart for any lack of polish. The episode with muted strings in the Fauré was very successful. The group was sensitive to the different composer’s unique tonal palette.