This summer, the EMF’s professional/faculty chamber music series is being presented under the moniker “A Little Night Music.” The opening concert, presented on July 5 in Dana Auditorium on the bucolic Guilford College campus, was eclectic, featuring seldom-heard works by American composers, living and dead.

During the cutting-and-pasting for the EMF program book, notes about the music of Chicago-based percussionist Jeffrey Smith – and his bio – were lost, so Christopher Norton gave a few brief verbal comments. Smith’s “Tiger Dance” calls for a large variety of percussion instruments. Without reference to a score, Norton held forth on a huge marimba that he aptly described as a “behemoth”; its tone was mellow and richly resonant. Joining him were faculty members Kris Keeton and Todd Quinlan along with student interns Matt Jordan and Sam Schmetterer. Using scores, they played vibraphones and xylophones and various rattles, sometimes attaching rattles to their ankles. The ensemble was precise as various complex and contrasting rhythmic patterns were executed. Even for rhythmically-impaired music lovers, the piece is a fine study of blends of timbre. It was warmly applauded.

“Bye Bye Medley” for xylophone and marimbas by Robert Becker (b.1947) was inspired by music from the “golden age” of the xylophone, the 1920s and ’30s, when it was featured in dance bands, concert bands, broadcasts, and sound tracks for cartoons. Becker arranged this piece, featuring two great Tin Pan Alley songs, in 2000. Ray Henderson’s “Bye Bye Blackbird” (lyrics by Mort Dixon) is a famous stop-time melody that has never lost its popularity as a jazz standard. The second, “Bye Bye Blues” by Fred Hamm, Dave Bennett, Bert Lown, and Chauncy Gray, was immediately recognizable as one of the most common showpieces for the banjo. Kris Keaton wowed the audience with his breathtaking virtuosity. The give-and-take among Keaton and his four colleagues was delightful, and his rapid playing and arpeggios as he evoked the fast strumming of a banjo had to be seen to be believed.

Before playing David Diamond’s early Quintet in b minor, violinist Randy Weiss recalled his experiences with the composer, who recently passed away. The score was composed while Diamond was studying with Nadia Boulanger at Fontainebleau in 1937 and is dedicated to Aaron Copland. The opening allegro is dominated by reiteration of an eighth-note pulse from beginning to end. The ensuing “Romanza” begins with a gentle, lyrical melody in the piano, followed by passages that contrast the keyboard against the rest of the players. The finale is a fast and vivacious dance. Pianist Gideon Rubin was joined by flutist Les Rosettges, violinist Weiss, violist Diane Phoenix-Neal, and cellist Anthony Arnone. Balance among the instruments was excellent, the dynamics were carefully nuanced, and the phrasing was idiomatic. The composer’s mature style is only hinted at in this youthful effort.

A string quartet made up of violinists Penny Kruse and Ioana Galu, violist Steven Kruse, and cellist Christopher Hutton took the stage next for Two Pieces for String Quartet by Aaron Copland. These were composed in homage to Gabriel Fauré. According to Steven Ledbetter’s fine program notes, the theme of the “Rondino” is derived “from the letters of the composer’s name – the pitch names and solmization syllables as necessary.” The slow opening movement, added in 1928, features a repeated figure played by the violins and viola contrasted against a melody played in the higher range of the cello.

Featured guest pianist Anthony Molinnaro, who won the 1997 Naumburg Piano Competition, has a powerhouse technique, considerable upper body strength, and digits seemingly made of steel. In addition to the traditional classical repertory, he is also a gifted composer and jazz artist. The last works on the program drew on his skills as an improviser, starting with three short selections – a moody prelude derived from Gershwin’s beloved “Summertime,” Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” and Molinnaro’s own “19A.” The latter, opening “lento,” is dominated by compelling rhythms and the pianist’s own version of counterpoint. These served as appetizers for the main course, Molinnaro’s own solo version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Rather than playing it literally, he makes wide use of improvisation and special techniques. Seeking to evoke a rhythm guitar, he plays the melody with his left hand and block chords with his right. At points, the stride piano style of Art Tatum is suggested. High voices are sometimes played by one hand while the other executes improvisations. He made a slight cut in Gershwin’s cadenza, but some of the flights of improvisation retained tenuous connections with the original. This was a stimulating “cross-over” concert that highlighted the art of improvisation.

For a list of the EMF’s concerts, click here [inactive 11/05].