Music Review

Eastern Music Festival 2002: Second Weekly Overview

July 13, 2002 - Greensboro, NC:

Parking was surprisingly dear near Dana Auditorium on the bucolic Guilford College Campus on July 9 for the second concert of the Eastern Chamber Players. Perhaps the attraction was the post-intermission performance of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring in its original version for thirteen instruments. The piece was commissioned by Martha Graham, who also gave him the scenario. Only thirteen instruments (flute, clarinet, bassoon, four violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass and piano) could be fitted into the pit at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress. Copland originally called it Ballet for Martha, but a few days before the October 1944 debut, Graham suggested "Appalachian Spring" because she liked the phrase from a Hart Crane poem. It has become one of his most popular works. Pleasing as the full orchestra version he later prepared is, the initial version is the best way to fully savor the original qualities of this American masterpiece - and doubly so, when it receives as fine a performance as the EMF delivered. The second week's guest conductor, George Manahan, led an alert and rhythmically aware realization. The attacks were precise and the rhythms, well sprung. Great care was lavished upon instrumental color and blending. Space doesn't permit praise of each individual player but clarinetist Shannon Scott and pianist Jennifer Hayghe were first among equals. Watching the meticulous conducting of Manahan was fascinating in itself. Not since browsing Max Rudolf's The Grammar of Conducting or observing Pierre Boulez direct the New York Philharmonic in 1973 on the Duke University campus have I seen so many detailed gestures. The results earned a standing ovation.

The opening work on the concert, George Crumb's Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), for "Three Masked Players," was not as audience-friendly and is unlikely as a candidate for the basic repertory. Flutist Brian Gordon, cellist Christopher Hutton and pianist Gideon Rubin gave it their all, wearing black masks and playing in a darkened hall. It is hard to tell whether this is a theater piece with music or music with theatrics. Crumb creates a unique sound world. Some portions of the players' parts were miked. The flutist used many unusual techniques: fluttering the tongue and singing into the mouthpiece, which produced a sort of moaning. The pianist used a wide variety of plucking of the strings, some barely audible. Several of the cello bowings with wide sliding of the fingers on the strings came close to simulating the sound of a humpbacked whale's song. Paula Robison played this on the Spoleto USA Chamber Music series in 1979 and Ensemble 27514 played it in Hill Hall in 1985. Thrice hearing it in three decades was more than adequate. Perhaps his Ancient Voices of Children ought to be considered in the future.

The two briefer works played were pleasant studies in the contrast and color of unusual instrumental pairings. Jeffery Hoover had composed Into the Night for the EMF's brass player, Judith Saxon, who wove the subtle contrasts of flugelhorn and rotary trumpet with the wooden sounds of an unusual five-octave marimba, played by Christopher Norton. Contrasting string sounds were on display in Lou Harrison's Duo for Cello and Harp played by Anna Kate Mackle and Paige Riggs, respectively. Both were more pleasing than memorable.

A good house was on hand July 10 for a richly satisfying performance by this season's guest chamber music ensemble, the Shanghai String Quartet. This fine ensemble has been heard twice in the Triangle on the Newman Series in Chapel Hill and garnered glowing reviews from CVNC writers in earlier publications. At that time the group's cellist was James Wilson. The qualities that dominated their performances in Dana Auditorium were near perfection of phrasing and a rare skill in allowing time for the music to breathe. The players carefully matched each other, and intonation and balance were excellent. Both the cello, played by Nicholas Tzavaras, and the viola, played by Honggang Li, were unusually rich sounding. Although I was told by someone who attended the quartet's masterclass that the viola was a modern one, the little "baroque" extra curves on its top made it look like it had been converted from a viola da braccio. The full cello sound made Mozart's Quartet in B-Flat, K.589 a delight. This was one of the last three quartets Mozart composed for King Friedrich Wilhelm II, an able cellist. Next, the Shanghai Players made a strong case for the original version of Samuel Barber's Quartet. Only the famous Adagio movement is well known, usually inflated for full or chamber orchestra. This was the second time in thirty years that I had heard the full quartet version. Early in their career, the defunct Cleveland Quartet played it in the Nelson Music Room as part of the Chamber Arts Society's season. The Shanghai's fresh approach fully justified the programming of that old war-horse, Schubert's Death and the Maiden . With two major chamber music series in the Triangle, hardly a season passes without at least one performance. In response to a prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation, a Chinese folksong arranged by second violinist Yiwen Jiang was played. Ironically, first violinist Weigang Li had most of the singing line, set against a lovely accompaniment.

Few empty seats were to be seen in Dana Auditorium for the July 13 Eastern Philharmonic concert. The only sign of flash in noted guitarist Sharon Isbin's performance was her brightly colored blouse, which reminded me of Christmas tinsel. She frequently fiddled with adjusting a volume control on a device attached to her chair. A friend in the balcony was able to see a speaker placed a few feet behind her. This miking was very discrete, picking up no unpleasant sounds such as slides across frets; the sound, from orchestra right seating, seemed to come from the artist. In the well-known Vivaldi Concerto in D Major, RV.93, she managed to evoke the sound of a lute. Her subtle and understated slow movement was lovely. Conductor Manahan balanced the orchestra ideally with his soloist. The opening movement of Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez had plenty of Spanish verve. Slower-than-usual tempos seemed to drain this by the last movement. With no empty theatrical show to the galleries, Isbin displayed refined and involved musicianship throughout, providing a marked contrast to some well-known artists who perform on auto-pilot. Fine solos were had from Principal Cello Neal Cary and Principal English Horn Terry Maskin. Isbin's dialog with the latter was a highlight of the slow movement. Warm audience response was rewarded with an elegant "Recuerdas de la Alhambra" by Tárrega.

Manahan directed a carefully phrased and vital early Mozart Symphony No. 26 in E-Flat, K.184. As in sinfonias that served to open operas, the reduced orchestra had nice string detailing and fine work by the horns. Dynamics were used expressively in this opening work.

Stravinsky would have probably approved the dynamic and vital performance of his 1947 version of Petrouchka that Manahan and the alert musicians delivered. Every section of the orchestra had its moment in the sun. Stravinsky gave the brass and percussion a full workout and gave the woodwinds, especially the bassoons and contrabassoon, plenty to do. Distinguished solos were executed by Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, trumpeter Mark Niehaus and clarinetist Shannon Scott. The extensive part for the piano was played by Gideon Rubin, who bought out its full percussive qualities brilliantly. A very wide dynamic range was employed expressively.