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Nearly every seat in the house - except the broken ones - was filled with Triangle music lovers already anticipating the summer drought. Duke's annual summer mini-chamber music festival has primarily been a vehicle for the resident Ciompi Quartet to expand their offerings by mixing and matching with visiting colleagues - at least once in combination with violinist Nicholas Kitchen and his wife, cellist Yee-Sun Kim of the Borromeo String Quartet. In this, the last of the summer series, three of the Ciompi, violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku and violist Jonathan Bagg, were joined in Griffith Theater by Kitchen and Kim for an evening of seldom-heard music. This kind of programming is frequently a mixed bag, bringing to life languishing masterpieces, on the one hand, and confirming why other works are indeed seldom heard. Yet, it is important that audiences hear even the less successful works if, for no other reason, as a way to broaden and hone their musical taste. The evening's program included a Duo for Violin and Cello by Bohuslav Martinu, the Trio opus 34 for Violin, Viola and Cello by Paul Hindemith and the Quintet in G major, Opus 111 for two violins, two violas, and cello by Johannes Brahms.
A Czech composer who spent most of his creative life wandering through Western Europe and, during W.W.II, the USA, Martinu (1890-1959) loved to compose small, quirky pieces for friends, teachers, and colleagues. In 1927 he composed the Duo for Violin and Cello for his friends violinist Stanislas Novák and cellist Mauritz Frank of the Frank Quartet (In 1943 he composed five Madrigal Stanzas for violin and piano for the unlikely duo of Albert Einstein and Robert Casadesus, neighbors and colleagues-in-exile.) Kitchen and Kim attacked this fiendishly difficult work with brio and precision. The first of the two movements, "Praeludium: Andante moderato" starts with a deceptively simple modal theme on the cello that is immediately challenged by the violin. The second movement, "Rondo: Allegro con brio" also starts out with a deceptively simple tonal melody, but quickly becoming a high-spirited romp through nearly all the musical conventions of the then still young twentieth century. A highlight was Kim's performance of the demanding cello cadenza. We would have loved to hear it repeated.
As for the Hindemith Trio, we were reminded of Emperor Joseph II's comment on Mozart in the play Amadeus: "Too many notes." Hindemith (1895-1960) was enormously prolific - he wrote sonatas for every instrument in the standard orchestra - but he is known for only a few works that have made it into the standard repertory. At times, his music achieves depth of feeling or piquant humor, at others it comes off as academic pedantry - sometimes in the same composition. The String Trio No.1 of 1924 is an example of the latter, although with a touch of welcome humor in the pizzicato third movement. Kitchen, Bagg and Kim did their utmost for the piece, and in the gentle second movement and pizzicato scherzo made the music soar. But even their best could not bring to life the first and fourth movements. When Hindemith starts his atonal counterpoint, every instrument flies off in its own direction as if unconnected musically or emotionally to the others. Too many notes.
It is hard to think of a chamber work of Johannes Brahms as seldom-performed, but his string quintets fall into that category, perhaps because of the demand for a second viola. In this performance, Pritchard played first violin, Ku second, and Kitchen exchanged his violin for a viola. Unfortunately, five players not accustomed to playing together require extra rehearsal time. As a result, entrances and ensemble playing in the first movement were somewhat ragged and the shaping of this longest and grandest movement less nuanced that we have come to expect of any of these musicians in their "home" ensembles.
The slower middle movements came off much better, with better balance and precision. The zingarese last movement, recalling of the last movement of the g minor Piano Quartet, was clearly the performers' favorite. They played with a vigor and élan marred only by some unconscious foot-stomping that echoed off the stage surface of Griffith Theater.