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Carolina Chamber Music Festival: Calyx and Friends

September 12, 2009 - New Bern, NC:

There was a respectable house, over a hundred people, gathered in the First Baptist Church to hear Calyx and Friends in the second of the five concerts of this season’s Carolina Chamber Music Festival. The evening began with a 25-minute warm-up lecture by Co-Director Anna Reinersman. Billed as a “pre-concert discussion,” it was really a delivery of a stand-up monolog of program notes ranging from "compare and contrast Poulenc, Ravel, and Bartók" to "why we chose the pieces." I found the sound system to be only marginally better than last year, but easier on the listener because the microphone was not being passed around from speaker to speaker. My companion particularly mentioned how helpful these notes were. The monolog format offered no interactive opportunity for Reinersman’s undeniably charming personality to warm up a stolid crowd.

Aficionados of Poulenc know that the Allegro that opens the Clarinet Sonata Op. 184 starts off with a bang. After a suitably fiery start, the clarinet playing of Scott Andrews was delightfully singing, incredibly beautiful. Had it not been so beautiful, one would have easily parodied his strong and varied body movements. Dalcroze would have been proud; I kept waiting for the snake to come out of the basket. But the important point is that his playing is masterful. With my eyes closed and focusing on the music, all was excellent. The Andante cantabile was hard-edged and very expressive. The companion piano part (it would be a complete injustice to call it an accompaniment) came to life under the able fingers of Nina Ferringo, with strong rhythm and a driving tempo.

Maintaining the somewhat blues-y sound of the Poulenc, Ferrigno and Catherine French, violin, performed the middle movement, "Blues," from Maurice Ravel’s second violin sonata (1923-27). French has a fine violin intonation, with crisp and intelligent phrasing, well-complimented by Ferrigno’s long waves of piano sound, enhanced by very skillful pedaling. This long piece gave a strong feeling that this was real chamber music; that we were sitting with them in their living room, placed as they were right in front of the front pews and seated in almost convincing domestic chairs.

The other bookend to the Ravel besides the Poulenc was Béla Bartók’s Contrasts, for clarinet, violin, and piano (1938). This is shockingly modern music compared to the “long-hair” concert fare of our youth; this piece is younger than several acquaintances I recognized in the hall. The dotted rhythm and clarinet cadenza of "Verbunkos" is right on target with Peter and the Wolf, composed two years later. "Pihenö" (with scordatura violin) starts like a simple hoedown with open strings, but soon progresses to a much more complicated but apparently fun-to-play flight of virtuosity. "Sebes" doesn’t really wind down; it just stops.

After intermission we were all abruptly whisked back 60 years by Brahms’s Piano Trio, Opus 87, soothingly old fashioned after the Bartók. What was not soothing was the serious balance problems in this acoustically complicated room. Although Ferrigno’s playing is always precise, with superb accentuation and warmth of feeling, it came off in this concert as far too loud for the other instruments. In the opening Allegro, the lovely cello playing of Jennifer Lucht shone through in the solo lines. In the Andante con moto, the strong marching rhythm carried the piece. The trio played the often nervous music of the Scherzo with precision. The Allegro, more lush than loud, was an excellent exception to the too-loud piano problem, and was a totally satisfying end to a fine evening.

There are further concerts in the Carolina Chamber Music Festival, at 6:00 pm on Thursday (Fauré After Work) and the Festival Finale Concert at 7:30 pm on Saturday. See our Eastern Calendar for details. Judging from the après concert parties on the porch next door to my house, the performers are thoroughly enjoying their vacation in New Bern; New Bern returns the favor, taking equal delight in the presence of the Festival!