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Whitley Auditorium, the architectural and acoustical jewel of the Elon University campus, was hidden behind huge mounds of dirt and new construction, but despite this and dreary nonstop rain, there was a good turnout of appreciative music lovers for an imaginative program of music by The American Chamber Players. The ensemble, here consisting of six members, was formed in 1985 by violist Miles Hoffman. Its other members are flutist Sara Stern, violinist Joanna Maurer, cellist Stephen Balderston, and pianist Anna Stoytcheva.
The configuration of the American Chamber Players (like Durham's Mallarmé Chamber Players) gives great scope for diverse programming that can mix great, if sometimes less often performed, masterworks along with new commissions and worthy works that have fallen into the cracks in the historic repertoire.
You would never know from the delightful melodies and lively interplay among and between instruments that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart disliked the flute! In addition to the two flute concertos and the heavenly one for flute and harp, he composed three flute quartets for the amateur flutist Ferdinand De Jean. The American Chamber Players opened their concert with Quartet in C, K.285b. It exists in two versions, both sharing the same charming opening allegro. K.285b has a marvelous second movement marked Andantino-Adagio-Allegro. It is a reworking of the sixth movement from the composer's splendid Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, K.361 (Grand Partita). In K.285b, Mozart omits the third of six variations on an andante theme that appears in the Grand Partita.
Purity of intonation is absolutely essential for the performance of any work by Mozart, and the American Chamber Players were precise throughout. Stern's breath control was excellent and her dialogue with violinist Mauer in the pleasant opening movement was delightful. They and violist Hoffman and cellist Balderston had extensive give-and-take over the course of the five variations in the second movement. Balance was fine and their stylish phasing was excellent.
The Trio in E Minor for Flute, Cello, and Piano, Op. 45 (1857), by Louise Farrenc (1804-75) more than repaid the ensemble's resurrection of the piece from obscurity. Nineteenth-century France's preoccupation with opera was part of the reason for the neglect of composer/piano virtuoso Farrenc. Born Jeanne-Louise Dumont in Paris on May 31, 1804, she studied piano with Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. In the early nineteenth century, the Paris Conservatoire admitted only men to composition classes, but Louise studied composition with Anton Reicha, who taught there. (Perhaps she audited the class or worked with him privately?) Three symphonies aside, the bulk of her compositions are for piano, along with chamber music. She married music publisher and flutist Aristide Farrenc. Her Flute Trio, Op. 45 was probably her last composition. After her husband's death, she took over the editing of a 23-volume anthology of 300 years of harpsichord and piano music. (I strongly recommend the article about Farrenc by Bea Friedland in The New Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (1995) (pp. 164-6).)
The Flute Trio is in four movements: Allegro deciso, Andante, Scherzo: Vivace, and Finale: Presto. The opening movement is emphatic and has a memorable sharing of a melody by the flute and cello. The winning second movement begins and ends with sweet, lyric melodies sandwiching an assertive pairing of cello with piano. The lively and spirited third movement has a fleet pairing of the flute with the piano's treble end and a fine sharing of a melody by cello and flute. The rousing finale gives full scope to all three players.
Stoytcheva proved to be a superb pianist possessing a radiant palette of dynamics and tone. She, Stern, and Balderston played with great verve and brought out the many charms and imaginative scoring in this very worthwhile musical excavation.
The substantial anchor for this concert was Piano Quartet in A, Op. 26 (1861), by Johannes Brahms (1833-97). The rousing Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25, is more often heard in concerts, so the ACP's choice of the second and longest of the composer's three piano quartets was most welcome. Many commentators believe Schubert's melodic inventiveness influenced Brahms' composition of this work, which abounds in lyricism. It is in four movements. Brahms toys with rhythm in the first movement. The solo piano floats gentle triplets and groups of three quavers while omitting the underlying pulse for the first four measures. These meet with the cello playing an important scale figure leading to an explosive main theme by the keyboard. The second movement features muted strings and mysterious piano arpeggios as seamless melodies are spun. The scherzo sandwiches gentle episodes around a vigorous trio section that is a strict canon between piano and strings. The finale is a powerful and rousing romp with a Gypsy flavor.
Stoytcheva, Maurer, and Balderston played the socks off this masterful piano trio. The refinement and subtlety of the piano playing was remarkable. Balance and intonation were excellent. The deep, resonant sepulchral cello in the slow movement was memorable. This was chamber music playing of the first quality.