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The American Music Festival has grown into one of the neatest, most together, most musical series in the area. Their venue, First Presbyterian Church, has a freshness and immediacy of sound that makes it perfect for the AMF typical audience of 100 to 150.
The music direction of Oskar Espina Ruiz is delightful for its two extremes, one the absolute center of the high-brow 1790 to 1850 string quartet oeuvre, the other a rather far-out venture into avant-garde high-brow music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Tonight's musicians were the Penderecki String Quartet and Espina Ruiz, clarinet. The Ontario-based quartet consists of Jeremy Bell and Jerzy Kapłanek, violins; Christine Vlajk, viola; and Katie Schlaikjer, cello.
The first piece on the program was Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 581. I have known and loved this piece since I first heard it live with the Smithsonian Chamber Players decades ago. It was love at first hearing. So I settled in to listen and was totally satisfied with all that I heard. Once again I reveled in the juxtaposition (first movement, Allegro) of the clarinet part against the strings. There are two totally different styles of writing here, and Espina Ruiz and the strings each did what they were supposed to do perfectly. The second movement (Larghetto) was an obbligato for first violin and clarinet, with a continuo offered by second violin, viola, and cello, and with Mozart's great originality. The Menuetto was appropriately gliding, with its implication of six-time overlaid on three/four. The way the ensemble handled it, with nothing forced, nothing strained, emphasized the grace of the composition. It was wonderful to watch the players watching each other and dancing together. The clarinet melody blew away the quartet and then brought them all back together again. The Allegretto con variazioni began sedately enough, but was soon speeding along at a rate of knots. The dolorous center section was a little slower, but then the performers returned to an exciting major, with Espina Ruiz's clarinet bubbling up through the strings like champagne bubbles in a narrow glass.
Next came Erwin Schulhof's Five Pieces for String Quartet of 1923. They were rather free form dances. The first, Alla Valse Viennese, had a tambourin-like sound similar in effect to a bit of Fauré I had heard the previous evening. There was some complication in the writing, with Schulhof managing to write a waltz in 2/4. The Alla Serenata (Allegro con moto) was mysterious and seductive. The Alla Czeca (molto allegro) had a frenetic viola against the other strings. This demanding playing was infectious; the other players caught it, and then it was over. Alla Tango (Andante) saw the players bringing out delicious sonorities. It was told that when the quartet had played earlier in the day for a school group, the students had been told that the Alla Tarantella (Prestissimo con fuoco) was a spider dance, and the children loved that idea. You must do your own research about the tarantella.
The Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op. 10 (1895), is by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). The first movement, Allegro energico, starts out a little humpty, like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, but soon becomes more lyrical. The clarinet is written as just one of the gang, a role among equals. That doesn't mean it was an easy part, and Espina Ruiz handled it with aplomb. This is an early date to hear such interesting jazz-type themes in the cello part. The Larghetto affetuoso was very tranquil; there was beautiful tone color from all, with interesting dialog between the clarinet and strings. The Scherzo: Allegro leggiero was played with pep and enthusiasm. The sound swelled and diminished very evenly; everyone was together on dynamics, as well as tempo and intonation. The Allegro agitato–Un poco più moderato–Vivace was definitely agitato, but these fine musicians made it seem effortless.
The concert brought the audience to its feet in a well-deserved standing ovation. I would have loved to hear the Mozart all over again.