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On a gorgeous day when there was truly "not a cloud in the sky," two large audiences gathered (the program was played twice, at 1:00 and 3:00 pm) to hear musicians of the Mallarmé Chamber Players play music in loving memory of Elizabeth Affelder Kahn, whose death on September 24, 2021 was not only a loss to her family, but to Chamber Music Raleigh, where she served as President of its Board of Directors.
The featured musicians were violinist Jeanine Wynton, violist Suzanne Rousso, cellist David Meyer, harpsichordist Jennifer Streeter, and oboist Jaren Atherholt, playing J.S. Bach's Sonata in C minor for violin and continuo, BWV 1017; Joseph Bologne a.k.a. the Chevalier de Saint George's Quartet in G minor for harpsichord and strings; W.A. Mozart's Divertimento in E-flat for string trio, K. 563 (movements I, II, and VI); and Benjamin Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe, Op. 49.
The afternoon event began with remembrances of Elizabeth Kahn by her husband, Joseph Kahn, including their conversations about what music might be included in this program. "She wanted some Bach, she wanted some Mozart," he said. As for the Britten, it was a work they both loved and listened to often, and which they both felt conveyed a sense of loneliness.
Bach's violin sonatas are scored for "violin and continuo," the term "continuo" referring to a keyboard instrument plus a violoncello or other bass stringed instrument that doubles the keyboard player's bass line. This afternoon's performance was by Wynton and Streeter, with the ensemble's cellist serving as Streeter's page-turner. If leaving out the cello made the bass line less prominent, it also let us more easily hear Streeter's digital perfection as she gracefully negotiated the perpetual-motion lines of Bach's counterpoint. Wynton's Baroque-music technique was equally on display: using less vibrato than she would in the rest of the program, and often using only a few inches of bow when appropriate, she brought an interpretation that was both refined and vigorous.
The two-movement quartet by Bologne was played well, but it served to show why many composers choose to let their earliest works stay hidden. The interminably boring cadences of this Opus No.1-related work do not reveal the musical gifts which later brought St. George public acclaim as a composer, adding to his already-famous reputations as a swordsman and a violinist. The history of this multi-talented man would likely have fascinated Elizabeth Kahn's musicology-trained and facile mind.
Mozart's E-flat Divertimento brought the trio of string players to center stage for a superb performance. Wynton's violin joined Rousso's viola and Meyer's cello in intensity as the three combined in a bravura reading of three of this work's six movements. Mozart himself played viola in the premiere of this work, his only completed string trio; he would have been pleased with Rousso's playing, as she made that "inner voice" vital, especially in the three-notes-against-two passages common to Mozart's piano sonatas, and also in those passages where violin and viola exchange melodic places. The players made the most of the second movement's pre-Romantic-era romanticism and brought a brilliant verve to the concluding Allegro, making it an incendiary allegro molto as well as a brilliant foil to the program's final work.
While there are more compositions for unaccompanied oboe than we might realize, many of them remain little known to the average concert-goer. Britten's Metamorphoses, however, because of the composer's place in the musical pantheon, is (fortunately!) more frequently performed.
Oboist Atherholt stood on stage right, in front of a tall partition that hid the stage-right entrance. I first thought that this positioning was for acoustic purposes, placing a more reflective surface behind the performer rather than the more sound-absorbent curtains which framed the rear of the stage; however, while the sound of Atherholt's oboe may have been well-served by her onstage position, that position's purpose was revealed in the closing movement as the curtains opened to provide a center-stage screen showing images of Elizabeth Kahn from her earliest years through 2021. The images were timed to conclude with the final notes of Britten's evocative and occasionally melancholy music as Atherholt's total command of her instrument hinted at how fortunate oboe students at the NC School of the Arts are to have her as their professor. She captured every nuance of Britten's musical painting of Ovid's god-like mythological figures, from the three-note thunderbolt that struck Phaeton through the mountain peak that closes Niobe's lament to the petals of sound representing the flower into which Narcissus was turned.
Elizabeth Affelder Kahn loved music, serving it well as enabler, co-author of program notes along with Joseph Kahn, administrator, and even as an impresario (she curated a December 2019 Handelian tribute from his oratorio Saul as the NC Art Museum celebrated its acquisition of William Wetmore Story's monumental sculpture of King Saul). Music was always a part of her life; it was fitting that this memorial tribute to her life was made through music and musicians. Thanks to Chamber Music Raleigh for letting us remember her in such a wonderful way.