by Laura McDowell
June 18, 2009 Asheville, NC: The second program of
Chamber Music concerts features the unusual
of flute, viola and harp, heard first here at the chapel of the First
Presbyterian Church. On June 19th the program will repeat at First
United Methodist Church, Waynesville, and again on June 21st, at Pretty
Place Chapel at the YMCA Camp Greenville. Featured musicians are Kate
Steinbeck, flute/artistic director, Jacquelyn Bartlett, harp, and
Simon Értz, viola. Joining them for the concert’s final
piece are Corine Brouwer, violin, Philip von Maltzahn, cello, and
Keowee Chamber co-founder Elizabeth Austin, cello.
In its ninth festival, Keowee’s mission to “present world-class
music accessible to all” has taken it in interesting directions,
including a separate series for the young, “Keowee for Kids!” The
exploration of eclectic and musically challenging repertoire performed
by stellar artists is what one comes to expect from their concerts.
Two perform on custom instruments. Steinbeck performs on a modern wooden
flute created by her husband, Chris Abell. Hearing her play is a revelation
in what range of beautiful tones are possible on the instrument. Violist Értz
performs on an instrument built by his brother, Neil.
The program opened with Sir Arnold Bax’s "Elegiac Trio," for
flute, viola and harp. Composed in 1916 in response to the Easter uprisings
in Ireland, events that deeply affected the composer, the work is suffused
with romantic melody and timbers of transcendent beauty. Because the
music didn’t follow a predictable trajectory, it allowed this
listener simply to revel in the beauty of the passing moments. The
harp part, front and center, was the glue to the ensemble, deftly weaving
its variegated figurations as both foreground and background materials.
Bartlett is a marvelous player, and her technical command of this difficult
instrument is so impressive. The ensemble was flawless, and the gradations
of dynamics, sparing at the beginning, widened as the piece progressed.
Next was Debussy’s Sonata, for flute, viola and harp, composed
in 1915. Debussy had planned to write a series of six sonatas for various
instrumental combinations modeled after Baroque works, but due to ill
health was able to complete only three, the Sonata for cello and piano
that summer, the Sonata for flute, viola, and harp in October, and
the Sonata for violin and piano in 1917. Acute distress about the World
War and his mother’s death paralyzed his creativity for a period,
traumas from which he only slowly recovered. The work begins with a
movement marked "Pastorale Lento, dolce rubato," a movement with several
formal segments determined by melody, tempo, and mood. Wisps of melodies
were traded seamlessly between flute and viola; an arresting slower
section of drone-like double stops in the viola against the harp, and
sections of changing meter, added to the interest of the piece. The
second movement, "Interlude Tempo di minuetto," is a vintage Debussian
mix of old (minuet) and new (modal melodies, parallel chords, special
instrumental effects, jazz inflections), and the playing here was exquisitely
balanced and nuanced. The Finale, Allegro moderato ma risoluto, sounded
the most “experimental” and difficult to coordinate with
its snapped viola pizzicatos, ostinati, and collage of melodies unfolding
at warp speed.
After intermission came Camille Saint-Saëns’ Romance, Op.
37, for flute and harp. Written in 1874 for piano and flute,
was arranged for harp by Bartlett. Stylistically, this was the most
conservative piece on the program, as Saint-Saëns’ fight
against the more progressive Debussy and Ravel played out. The ensemble
was beautifully coordinated and marvelously executed, the harp only
occasionally overpowering the flute in the low register.
The final piece on the program was Albert Roussel’s three-movement
Serenade, Op. 30, for flute, violin, viola, cello, and harp, from 1925.
Steinbeck pointed out that Roussel had been a mariner before he turned
to composing, and it was not a stretch to hear the sea in his works.
He later taught Edgar Varèse, among other important musical
figures of the 20th century. His style, characterized by Steinbeck
as “quirky, bubbly and light” was charming in its inventive
dissonance and collage of unexpected turns and twists. This expansive
and joy-filled work was performed with relish and panache. For an encore,
this same ensemble played Andrew Levin’s “Black Mountain
Farewell,” a lovely, lyrical ballade.