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Chamber works spanning three centuries and from three countries provided a nice overview of differing times and aesthetics in the Eastern Music Festival's Eastern Chamber Players concert on the campus of Guilford College on Tuesday. All three works were quintets, performed by members of EMF's Artist Faculty.
The evening began with the Divertissement, Op. 6 by Frenchman Albert Roussel (1869-1937). This bubbly, perky, sophisticated, and urbane miniature provided a study in contrast against the lushly romantic Beach later in the program. The Divertissement's seven minutes form a single movement with rhythmically vital passages giving way to slower middle and closing sections. The five musicians were Ann Choomack (flute), Karen Birch Blundell (oboe), Anthony Taylor (clarinet), Karla Ekholm (bassoon), Kelly Hofman (horn), and Marika Bournaki (piano). This really is a composition for five equal contributors, each musician providing their characteristic licks, from dreamy flute lines, to muted horn sounds and gentle piano undulations, to bubbly clarinet and oboe threads. A well-balanced piano part helped hold everything together.
The centerpiece of the evening was the Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581 (1789) by Austro-German Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), which was written for one clarinet and a string quartet. The musicians were Shannon Scott (clarinet), Adelya Nartadjieva and Dan Skidmore (violins), Sarah Coté (viola), and Marta Simidtchieva (cello). The work is in four movements: Allegro, Larghetto, Menuetto, and Allegretto con variazioni. This is a marvelous, beloved composition, written specifically for a famous Viennese clarinetist and friend of the composer, Anton Stadler; the work is considered to be one of the first of the genre.
The warm and inviting opening reveals that Mozart is treating all five musicians as equal, independent members of the ensemble; all three themes are presented by the string quartet before the clarinet responds. One thing that stood out in this performance was how each musician took the lead when he/she had the main idea while the others stepped back, allowing the important tune to be clearly heard.
The lovely second movement highlights the clarinet accompanied by muted strings. The dance movement, surprisingly, contains two trios that contrast with the minuet. The first is for strings only; the second features the clarinet. Through the minuets, the audience heard a blend of all five instruments.
The finale begins with the main tune, somewhat humorous with its two-note repetitions. Each variation then embroiders the tune and features different instruments; the first, for example, gives the clarinet a tune under which the theme is heard. The third, in a minor mode, featured the fine playing of violist Coté. The fourth movement featured faster notes and displayed the virtuoso playing of the entire ensemble. The last variation is slow and moves directly into the coda, which incorporates a lot of starts and stops before the work ends in a burst of energy.
A couple of words about the wonderful playing by clarinetist Scott. Her lovely tone was always exquisite, always present during her time in the spotlight. First violinist Nartadjieva displayed a silvery tone, spinning out gossamer threads; occasionally I could have asked for her to bring out her wonderful sound a bit more. Cellist Simidtchieva provided a solid foundation, taking her "solos" with energy and commitment. The ensemble between all five was superb, as was intonation.
The evening closed with the Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op. 67 (1907) by American composer Amy (Mrs. H.H.A.) Beach (1867-1944), written only one year after the Roussel quintet. Performers were Randall Weiss and Catherine Cary (violins), Daniel Reinker (viola), Beth Vanderborgh (cello), and William Wolfram (piano).
To this listener, the composition is in many ways an homage to the Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, which was featured in last Tuesday's chamber music concert. Both are in a minor key, the mysterious introduction with its unison strings is a nod to the Brahms' intro, and the opening Allegro theme's structure is a clear allusion to the Brahms. And, as described in the excellent program notes by Dr. Cat Keen Hock, another reference in the last movement to Brahms takes place in the coda: "by orchestrating the main theme in octaves within the strings, like Brahms did in the coda of his quintet."
The outer movements alternate between unbridled passion accompanied by luxurious harmonies (with heart-on-the-sleeve grandiosity) and beautiful lyricism, exquisitely caught by the five players. The slower middle movement proved to be a feast for the strings.
The piano part (which Beach played at the premiere) put Wolfram front and center, with Lisztian figures, all played with appropriate flair and finesse. His gentle playing, too, was expressive. First-chair violinist Weiss played with a clear and clean sound with good intonation; he led the ensemble with authority while keeping an eye on Wolfram as well. Violist Reinker had a turn in the spotlight in the third movement, with a lovely theme that led into a fugal passage, with all five instruments picking up the imitative theme. Ensemble was terrific, with the players reveling in making this hyper-romantic music with colleagues.
What a treat it is to hear some seldom-heard pieces (Roussel and Beach), which certainly deserve more attention. The crowning glory was the marvelously played, incomparable Mozart quintet.