Programming for the Foothills Chamber Music Festival is nothing if not enterprising, and for the last Reynolda House concert, on August 23, three more or less conventional works were sandwiched between two very different modern works that make unusual or considerable demands on listeners.

The focus of the final weeks’ concerts was sound itself. One reaction after “hearing” the first piece “played” would have been to steal a line from the character Sergeant Schultz in the TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes : “I heard nothzing!” The program notes described John Cage’s 4’33” as his most notorious composition, which is saying something when one considers all those prepared piano pieces, electronic music and rhythmic experiments. The composer visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1951. “He expected to hear nothing at all. Instead of silence, however, Cage noted a sound, which he was told was his own blood circulating through his body. This experience reshaped Cage’s entire musical philosophy. He wrote, ‘Try as we may to make a silence, we cannot…. One need not fear for the future of music.'” Festival co-founder Rachel Matthews sat down at the piano and opened a score of blank lined music, empty but for indications of movements I-III. Reynolda House is not an anechoic chamber. Its very loud forced air conditioning was ever present as were a sneezing fit and whispers from a few people who had not read the program notes. Applause greeted her “performance” after four minutes and thirty-three seconds had elapsed. It was certainly thought provoking on a number of levels and I am grateful for having experienced it – once.

Debussy’s colorful Trio, for flute, viola and harp, had been scheduled but in its place, Rebecca Troxler essayed the composer’s rare “Syrinx,” for solo flute. With fine intonation, breath control and phrasing, she fully explored the range of the score’s colors and timbres. The musical line was beautifully maintained.

As given, Ravel’s Duo, for violin and cello, was a miracle of precise timing and exact intonation. Wake Forest University Assistant Professor Jacqui Carrasco brought a very high standard of virtuosity to the violin part and was well matched by cellist Andrew Kolb, now at Wichita State University where he teaches cello, plays in the Fairmont String Quartet and is principal cellist of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. It was hard to believe that such tight ensemble had been achieved in barely a week of preparation. I have heard a number of great performances of this favorite work. The first was at the EMF in 1979 with their concertmaster and a rising young cellist named Yo-Yo Ma. The latest was at the 2003 Spoleto Festival USA with violinist Chee Yun and cellist Andrés Díaz. The Foothills performance was fully equal to those and was further enhanced by the intimacy of the space.

Violinist Carrasco was joined by pianist Byron Schenkman and cellist Benjamin Wolff for a dramatic reading of Beethoven’s Trio in D, Op. 70/1 (“Ghost”). Again, the ensemble was extraordinary: it was what might have been expected from trios that had worked and toured together for a long time. The interpretation was well within standard practice but was intensely involving. The Foothills Festival ought to consider preserving some of its best efforts for issue on CDs that could be used for both promotion and fund raising.

The concert ended with George Crumb’s complicated and perplexing Vox Balaenae (“The Voice of the Whale”) (1971). In New Grove II , Richard Steinitz discusses this work as well as the striking string quartet Black Angels (1970) and the widely acclaimed Ancient Voices of Children . He points out that “to serve… powerful imagery, Crumb developed extended performance techniques, some of which acquired considerable notoriety: forces for ‘Ancient Voices’ include a paper treaded harp (and) a chisel slid along piano strings to bend their pitch…. ‘Vox balaenae’ requires a flautist to sing and play simultaneously and a cellist to play glissandos of artificial harmonics to mimic the cries of seagulls. Crumb’s scores abound in such delightful ingenuities, the delicate effect of which is frequently enhanced by amplification.”

This reviewer has heard at least two other performances of this work, one with Paula Robinson at the Spoleto USA Festival in the 1980s and another at Duke University much later. Perceiving the piece as a whole is still illusive but some parts have grown in estimation. Amplification has been the most off-putting component, but in this Foothills performance it was successful because, while noticeable, it was not intrusive. “Implicit or real theatricalism” is a characteristic of many of Crumb’s works; it is manifest here as all three musicians wear black cloth masks. Perhaps our musicians were “safe-cracking” the secrets of this knotty score. The program notes quote Crumb: “The masks, by effacing the sense of human projection, are intended to represent, symbolically, the powerful impersonal forces of nature (i.e. nature dehumanized).” Troxler and Kolb were joined by pianist David Shimoni. All three instruments had microphones connected to an amplifier and speakers that were very close by. Perhaps this was why this was less disconcerting than usual. Tuned metal discs on a rope were struck from time to time by the cellist and, in the last bars, by the flutist. At times one or more players whistled on pitch while striking the discs. Most of the time, Shimoni spent standing, one foot on a pedal while he dampened and plucked strings, slid a chisel along three strings or used a specially bent paper clip upon them. Vocalizing while fingering the flute’s keys is still disconcerting but certainly creates unusual effects. The cello glissandos have always been the most immediately appealing and effective portion of the score. There are eight parts to the work – an opening vocalise that features a long solo for the flute, a “Sea Theme” followed by five variations named after the major geological eras (Archeozoic through Cenozoic), and a concluding nocturne. The last two movements are surpassingly lovely while much of the rest is a worthy challenge. The work is by no means a clear as the typical theme-and-variations score, so visual clues or perhaps the playing of excerpts might help guide lay listeners.