The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild's "Sights and Sounds on Sundays" series at the North Carolina Museum of Art has brought us some outstanding, innovative and varied programs in the past that celebrate the unique charms and intimate pleasures of chamber music. The programs are often related in some way to the art on display in the museum and usually are preceded by a docent-led tour of related art works. The concert, "Sounds of Monet's Normandy," had the tour bumped by the overwhelming popularity of the current Monet exhibit which is sold out through its end on January 14. The museum was crowded; the theater was full. Slides of some Monet masterpieces were projected on the wall behind and to the right of the performing artists. Some in the audience found this helpful. Some found it distracting.
There were four featured artists for the concert. June Burbage is a very active piano accompanist in local music activities and was a major part of the program, playing beautifully in various combinations in all the selections performed. Jonathan Kramer is widely known as a performing cellist, an educator and an ethnomusicologist. His cello sang with warmth and playfulness, and his introductions had just the right balance of information and whimsy. Mezzo-soprano Ellen Williams has performed extensively throughout the US and Europe and has appeared with the Winston-Salem, Greensboro and NC Symphonies. She demonstrated the beauty and charm of a French chanson. Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky joined the NC Symphony as Assistant Principal Second Violin in 2003. Her violin wove silken webs and provided glimmering nuances for the impressionist adventures of the afternoon.
The program opened with three songs from Gabriel Fauré's Op. 61, a setting of nine poems from La Bonne Chanson, love poems of Paul Verlaine. They trace the lover's course from the awakening of hope to obsession to consoling communion. After the introductory song, Williams informed us that these songs were composed when Fauré was still a relatively young man and were probably performed first in a salon or chamber where other musicians were trying out new works. They were first written for piano and voice, later for string quartet and voice. This performance was done with piano, violin and cello, especially arranged by Kramer to provide a halo of sound around the singer, and it was most effectively accomplished.
Following the first three songs, Kramer and Burbage performed Debussy's Sonata for Cello and Piano. This is an absolutely unique piece in the chamber music repertoire depicting the amorous attempts of the classic sad-clown, the French equivalent of Pagliacci or Punch. He gazes at the moon and dreams of love. He tunes his "guitar" and serenades the object of his affection. She comes to the window, sees him, and slams it shut. Along comes a heroic troubadour; he serenades the lady and wins her affection. The sad buffoon curses the moon. All this was accomplished in Debussy's masterful composition through the partnership of the cello and piano in a virtuoso performance.
Next came three more of the songs from La Bonne Chanson, the second of which — "Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d'été" ("So it will be, on a clear day of summer") — worked a magical picture through the mastery of the poet, the composer and the performing artists.
The program closed with the Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano by Maurice Ravel. Composed in 1914 while he was a volunteer truck driver in WW I, this work highlights key elements of the impressionist movement. It wanders dreamily at times like a Monet painting without a straight line in sight; Ravel uses a variety of devices to obscure the rigidity of regular measures. The second movement is marked Pantoum, which is a form of Malaysian poetry that repeats motifs in varying contexts. It dances, it plays, it complains, undoubtedly perturbed by the war. It was a spellbinding and gratifying performance.
This was one of those concerts that verified chamber music is "where it's at, baby." Not just a workout for bigger things, but an intimate and delightful experience in its own right.