Chamber Music Review

EMF on the Road: Faculty Chamber Players at Reynolda House

July 5, 2006 - Winston-Salem, NC:

Eastern Music Festival CEO Thomas Philion is running a full-court press in order to broaden audiences and to increase the festival's statewide exposure. Two of the professional orchestra (Eastern Philharmonic) concerts are being repeated at Appalachian State University. An all-Mozart piano gala has already taken place at Elon University. New this season is a series of three Eastern Chamber Players (faculty) concerts at Reynolda House in Winston-Salem. The program selections heard July 5 in the intimate Charles and Mary Babcock Hall gave a good sample of the depth of musicianship and technique that are common at the festival.

We owe Mozart's wonderful concertos and chamber music for horn to musician-turned-cheese-merchant Ignaz Leutgeb. While there is every indication that he was an excellent horn player, Mozart made him the butt of endless childish jokes and pranks. This spirit can be found in the last movement of the Quintet in E-flat, K.407, for horn, violin, two violas, and cello. To offset the bright sound of the horn, the composer emphasized a fuller, richer sound from lower strings. In his Guide to Chamber Music, Melvin Berger calls the first movement "a study in contrasts – loud-soft, staccato-legato, lyrical-rhythmic, and horn-strings." The second subject is "one long cantabile line introduced by the horn and repeated by the violin." In the second movement, the horn's dynamics are scaled back, allowing for an intimate give-and-take between the string ensemble and the brass. The joke in the last movement is ambiguity. Does the principal theme start on the downbeat, or not? Thomas Jöstlein is a superb horn player; he was sensitive to both dynamics and timbre, he executed fine trills, and he played with great agility. Violinist Yuka Kadota often shared the horn's main themes. Her sound was bright and focused. Violists Jamie Hoffman and Sarah Coté blended well with cellist Marc Moskovitz to create a darker, warm sound to set against the brass. Balance was excellent throughout all three movements.

Composer David Maslanka was born in Massachusetts in 1943, attended Oberlin College, and did graduate work in composition at Michigan State University with H. Owen Reed. While he is best known for his compositions for winds and percussion, his "Montana Music: Fantasy on a Chorale Tune," for violin and viola (1993), is idiomatically scored for strings alone. Maslanka evokes the mood of the land in Montana where he resides. Violinist Penny Thompson Kruse and violist Steve Kruse gave a beautiful and engaging performance. In brief remarks, Kruse explained that Maslanka utilizes a chorale ("Herr Gott, dich loben wir," S.328) that was harmonized by Bach. It was not identified at the concert, but his violinist-wife played the chorale. He said that the composer's use of old church modes as well as B-flat episodes contributed to the overall mood of pathos. Both players projected full, warm sound that blended well. They easily adjusted timbre to provide contrasts. At one point in the second of the two movements, the violin takes the lower range while the viola soars above in its highest register. Rhythmic episodes alternate with somber melodies.

Ravel's Piano Trio in A Minor is irresistible to anyone who values instrumental colors and harmonies. Pianist James Giles, violinist Shawn Weil, and cellist Anthony Arnone played with tight ensemble and care for style that more permanent ensembles could envy. The balance was superb, the attacks were exact, and the exposed high string harmonics were precisely in tune. The only flaw – perhaps reflecting limited rehearsal time – occurred in the slowly-bowed pp string harmonics at the end of the first movement, where the phrasing was slightly out of phase. (Not every touring piano trio gets it to match, either!) The fast second movement, marked "Pantoum" (a Malayan verse form), sparkled, thanks to brilliant keyboard work from Giles. The buildup of the passacaglia in the third movement was carefully gauged, leading to a sense of inevitability. The conclusion was as kaleidoscopic as it was spectacular with every effect exactly executed. Bravo!