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Chamber Music was originally music composed for performance by small ensembles in the intimate surroundings of a patron's salon. Performers and auditors were in close proximity. Early concerts by the Mallarmé Chamber Players in the Carolina Theatre's Connie Moses Ballroom captured much of this quality of intimacy, as do ongoing presentations in St. Mary's School's Smedes Parlor.
During this remarkably "dead" August concert season in the Triangle, music addicts can bask fully in this experience in the resplendent surroundings of Reynolda House in Winston-Salem. This is the seventh official season of the Foothills Chamber Music Festival, which has three Saturday concerts - built around the concepts of rhythm, melody and sound - in Reynolda House, three Wednesday "Up-Close" concerts in John Kuhn's downtown gallery, a family concert at Reynolda House, and an outing to Mount Airy featuring bluegrass and chamber music. An interview with co-founder cellist Benjamin Wolff, heard on Wake Forest University's excellent public radio station, traced the festival's origins back nine years, when co-founder Rachel Matthews was house-sitting for her (NCSA) parents who were away at music festivals. Bored, she invited musician friends to come in to play chamber music, and things grew from there to today's Foothills series.
The August 9 program, built around exploration of rhythm, was wide-ranging and diverse. Minimalist Steve Reich's brief "Clapping Music" opened both halves of the concert. Pianist Matthews and cellist Benjamin Wolff clapped hands in what the excellent program notes described as "a repeating rhythm, in 12/8 time, stated at the opening by two parts in unison. An eighth-note at a time, one part gradually moves 'out of phase' with the other." The interweaving of the two parts was fascinating, and - unlike Glass - Reich knows when to stop! At intermission, interested audience members were invited to rehearse this piece with the musicians, and the surprisingly successful results were heard after intermission. This would be an effective work for an educational concert for - and with - children.
The first published work of the then 23-year old Leonard Bernstein, the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1942), came next, played by NCSA faculty member and Cleveland Symphony assistant principal clarinetist Daniel McKelway and Matthews. Balances were excellent despite the piano lid being fully up. The first movement is mostly lyrical while the second is jazzy, with a distant hint of Copland. It is a delightful piece with less of the "contrived" quality that some of Bernstein's later works sometimes have.
Pianist Clara Park and violinist John Baldwin joined Wolff for the Trio in D Minor, Op. 35/1, by Joaquin Turina. Unlike most piano trios, this one has frequent extended duos for strings, solos for the piano, etc. After the prelude, consisting of two brief motifs given in an a-b-a-b-a form and followed by a concise, light fugue, the heart of the piece is the central theme and variations. Each variation celebrates a different Spanish dance: "a slow muneira, a quick (and showy) schottische, a zortzico (from the Basque region) for solo piano, and... a flamenco style quejio for violin, (with) the piano accompanying in imitation of a guitar" followed by a very free sonata form with a lot of extremely brief, singable themes with continuous changes of tempo and meter.
Rhythmus , for piano quartet, by Pierre Jalbert (b.1967), was immediately engrossing despite many avant-garde aspects. Matthews, Baldwin, and Wolff were joined by Charlotte Symphony violist Marie Wingate, who was not listed in the program biographies. Brief program notes by the composer mention that the title means rhythm and that the work is "infused with rhythmic vitality" with "sections of rhythmic interplay between piano and strings contrasted by lyrical sections in which the strings play a simple tune using harmonics." The keyboard part was often very mechanical, and occasionally Matthews reached into the piano to dampen notes played with her left hand on the keyboard. On one occasion, the sound of a cimbalom was evoked. The carefully matched extreme high harmonics played by the strings gave clear evidence of precise intonation.
More than once during George Antheil's Sonata No. 2 (1923), I was reminded of Ives... even noting down "Ives without hymns." Andrea Schultz was the fine violinist, joined by Park, playing both piano and - briefly, near the end - snare and bass drums. The work was commissioned by Ezra Pound, who "was a participant in early performances, playing the bass drum part with the composer at the piano and violinist Olga Rudge." I can't remember a work in which the violinist had so many quick, long slides down a string. The piano had some very odd rhythms, no doubt reflecting the composer's fascination with machines. I thought I heard a suggestion of a ragtime piano at one point. Both instruments made quick changes to the next short musical episode.
The program notes recounted how Antheil's fascination with the idea of mechanized synchronicity led him to develop, with Hedy Lamarr, an "invention that used player piano rolls (combined) with a radio transmitter to provide un-jammable guidance for U.S. Navy torpedoes. Their frequency hopping concept, the patent for which Antheil and Lamarr gave to the U.S. government, became in later years one of the key technologies that made the cell-phone possible." Myriad are the roots of that great interrupter of concerts - but none haunted Reynolda House on this occasion!
During the last 30 years, I doubt I have missed over two Triangle area performances of a favorite work, Béla Bartók's Contrasts ,for violin, clarinet and piano. I have never heard a bad performance, and I have heard a number of superb ones to which I will add this one given by Schultz, McKelway, and Matthews. I have never heard the clarinet part near the end of the first movement played better than on this occasion. The violin playing was strongly characterized, with a wide variety of pizzicatos and a delicious rendering of the opening scordatura portion of the third movement, given on Baldwin's retuned violin before Schultz switched back to her normally-tuned instrument. Matthews matched her partners superbly.