For the past three years, as summer festivals recede and the fall music season slowly emerges out of hibernation, one event has stood alone as a unique link and kickoff to the triangle arts season. September Prelude is a 3-day chamber music festival that occurs over the first post-Labor Day weekend – a collaboration among the biggest chamber music presenters, music faculty and guest artists, presented in the best venues in this area.
The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild (RCMG), Nancy Lambert, executive director, Duke Performances, Kathy Silbiger, director, and the William S. Newman Artist Series based at UNC-Chapel are the three main players in this wonderfully conceived and executed event. Each one is the host for a concert on their home turf. In addition to three world-class chamber music concerts, there is also a one-day workshop where all of the performers put on their coaching hats and lend their expertise to amateur musicians from all over North Carolina. For the first time, Meredith College joined the September Prelude family as they loaned both faculty and their Wainwright Music Building as the host for the chamber music workshop. I was fortunate to experience the entire festival – witnessing, learning and hearing music at its best.

The weekend began on Friday evening September 8 at the atmospheric Doris Duke building at Duke Gardens, appropriately named “Mozart in the Garden.” The word certainly got out, as many people approaching the entrance were chagrined to see a “Concert Sold Out” sign posted on the door – “D’OH!” Even more than other venues, “arrive early” is the mantra for concerts in this lovely room. A spectacular space in a verdant and relaxing setting, it does have some drawbacks as far as seating and sight lines. As in past concerts, the door to the patio, behind the players, was kept open as the overflow audience was seated outside.

Although you don’t usually expect any significant variation of instrumentation in Mozart’s chamber output, this program was the exception. French horn(s) were the featured addition to the strings as two works that are not that familiar to the run-of-the-mill non-horn-playing listener. David Jolley, an erudite and engaging speaker as well as a phenomenal horn virtuoso, introduced Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E-flat Major. The unusual aspect of this work is that instead of the usual string quartet configuration, there are two violas, violin and cello. Richard Luby, professor of violin at UNC-Chapel Hill was the sole violinist. Joining him was Jennifer Curtis on viola, a musician who I first heard this weekend and was totally overtaken by her virtuosity and passion – more on her later. Yoram Youngerman was the other violist. He played in nearly every work in all three concerts and demonstrated an incredible range, and just plain endurance. Rounding out the strings was cellist Susan Babini.

Mr. Jolley explained in his opening remarks that while Mozart wrote four horn concertos, this quintet is generally considered the most technically demanding work for the horn written by Mozart. You wouldn’t know it from listening and watching Jolley play. Every note was clear and precise – no splats or swooping. The many fast scales were light, clean and fleet. Most amazing was the fact that Jolley appeared as relaxed as if he were reading a novel – his face did not redden in the slightest. The typical slow-fast-slow scheme of this work is filled with typical Mozartean grace, lyricism and show-off technique which was given a playful and energetic performance.

Since program notes were regrettably omitted, Richard Luby introduced the second work on the program (performed without intermission). A second horn, Benjamin Weber, joined the group, Jennifer Curtis switched to second violin and Robbie Link played the bass on what is an interchangeable cello/bass part. The Divertimento in D Major lives up to its name. It is a diversion, not unlike an 18th century lounge band where it was meant to be a pleasant background while eating rather than a work to sit and attentively listen.

That is not to say there are not some wonderfully inventive and interesting moments, but, as concert fare, it is decidedly inferior to the previous quintet. Since there was a lovely reception after the concert, a reasonable “experiment” would be to combine the two and have the audience graze while the divertimento is being played – we’d even save some food and drink for the musicians.

Saturday was the long day, beginning at 0830 at Meredith College. Chamber music workshops are often a hit-or-miss proposition. Quite often you have never played with the other member of your group, sometimes you have no choice in what you are playing, and the coaches assigned to mentor the ensemble may have never played the work in question. Such is the nature of the beast, but there is almost always something to learn and a memorable experience as well.

Don Oehler, professor of clarinet at UNC-Chapel Hill, was in charge of the workshop and did a great job of organizing the groups and insuring a good balance of ensembles and works performed. There were approximately 24 active participants spread over 6 ensembles and about 10 faculty coaches. The morning session consisted of two separate coaching sessions followed by a concert where all of the groups played a movement of their workshop composition. After a break for lunch, we all returned for a third coaching session. The workshop then broke off into two separate groups for master classes with the musicians who would be playing the Sunday afternoon concert at the North Carolina Museum of Art. One of my colleagues in my piano quartet (we performed the first and third movements of the Mozart g minor piano quartet) expressed some disappointment that we were getting differing views of the same piece by our different coaches. I found that this was indeed illuminating as it just reinforces the idea that interpretations, ideas and approaches to these great works is a bottomless well and that is why we continue to play and listen to them for hundreds of years. My one complaint is that perhaps the coaches could have been more judiciously used across all the groups. All of our sessions had a keyboard player as a coach, and although they were all quite insightful, it would have been a more well-rounded experience if at least one was a string player. 

Without denigrating the two other concerts or the workshop, the gem of the 2006 September Prelude was the Saturday evening concert at Memorial Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, a program that highlighted the great masterpieces of French musical impressionism. This concert was an astounding assemblage of early 20th century musical benchmarks, combined with my first exposure to a spectacular young talent. The newly renovated Memorial Hall is a huge space that even big-name string quartets might have trouble filling, so it was not a surprise that there was a respectable, but smallish audience in comparison to the size of the venue.

In response to one of my first reviews as a writer for CVNC I was eviscerated by a reader for my review of a performance of the Fauré Piano Quintet. I stand by that opinion and much of what I said applies to his D minor piano trio. Duke faculty member and pianist Jane Hawkins made her appearance in the festival along with veterans from the previous evening, Luby on violin and Babini playing cello. Hawkins and Luby have played together many times and also have a piano trio recital along with her husband, cellist Fred Raimi at Duke this fall. Fauré has a gift for lush, sensual, achingly beautiful melodies that almost define the “French” sound. This, combined with the early awakenings of impressionist harmonies, draws the listener into a dreamlike world that, for a while, is a very nice place to live. Living and writing in the heyday of Romanticism, Fauré, at times, was unable to curb the excess of length that plagues many composers of that time. The Andantino movement is a perfect example. It begins with a melodic sweep that is so passionate and moving that it should almost be rated “X.” The movement eventually disintegrates into a meandering, lengthy morass that nearly makes you forget the beginning beauty and its potential.

Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, was one of his last works, written in 1915 before the onset of cancer and his last declining years.  It is a work of complete individuality of sound and concept, combining these three instruments in a way that has not been matched before or since. Anita Burroughs-Price, principal harp of the North Carolina Symphony, was flanked by flutist Christine Gustafson and violist Yoram Youngerman for this rare treat. This composition is a perfect example of why some music defies description – that is why it is music and any other modes used to elaborate fails miserably. What can be talked about is the beautifully wrought performance. The seamless and ethereal quality belies the monumental rhythmic complexities, and that is how it should be. The performers had you hanging on every inflection and subtlety and transported the audience to another plane.

After intermission, two very different works of Maurice Ravel were featured. His only sonata for violin and piano is an eclectic work that is a pastiche of different styles and effects. Violinist Jennifer Curtis gave a performance so electrifying and powerful that the audience erupted in a rare mid-concert standing ovation when she was done. The middle movement (Blues) is just that, although not like the Mississippi delta type. Ravel employs almost savage pizzicatti, and a moto perpetuo final movement left the audience totally enthralled with Curtis’s impeccable technique and maturity. Pianist Hawkins, as always, was a model of beautiful phrasing and enviable virtuosity, but this is definitely a violin showpiece and it would be hard to imagine a finer player for this work – bar none.

Forget Bolero, Mother Goose Suite, or any other of Ravel’s other “big hits” – for my money nothing else comes even close to his Introduction and Allegro for Flute, Clarinet, Strings and Harp. It is his consummate masterpiece, and distillation of his style and musical language. Add to this the fact that it was written in eight days and you have a minor miracle and perhaps as perfect a work of art ever created. This may as well be called a chamber concerto for harp, complete with cadenza, and Burroughs-Price gave a stylish and exciting reading. Michael Votta made his first performance in the festival on clarinet which tinged the texture with just that extra flavor that makes this such a delicious sound.

Economy of development and lapsed time leaves you wanting more, and the languid impressionistic atmosphere hung in the Carolina night as the evening closed on one of the finest concerts that this celebrated auditorium has heard.

For the final concert of September Prelude 2006, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild was the presenter as the second of their Sights and Sounds on Sundays series. The theme was Jewish composers who had fled Nazi occupied Europe and whose works were, at least in part, supposed to reflect the horror of that time. The workhorse of the weekend, violist Yoram Youngerman, was back after the previous night’s triumph, joined by several friends from Israel. The first work was a string quartet by Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) and this was a discovery that made you wonder why this has not found a place in the standard repertory. Although some of it can be labeled as derivative of Ravel, it has enough of a unique voice and sound that it deserves a much broader appeal. It also has a Shostakovich-like angst and pathos as it attempts to transfer the events of the day into sound. Only in the final Rondo do we get a “Jewish” sound in a lighthearted folk style, yet still tinged with profound sadness. Emanuel Gruber, professor at East Carolina University, was the cellist along with guest artists Erez Ofer and Sergiu Schwartz, violins. The quartet was expanded by one to include pianist Alon Goldstein as they introduced most of us to the Piano Quintet No. 1 by Ernest Bloch. Except for the sublime richness and lyricism of the third movement Largo, this is a work brimming with manic energy, exhilarating momentum and even palpable anger. Much of it harkens back to the barbaric and primitive feeling of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. These two works would make a nice pairing for a commercial recording, and these are the guys to do it. This wonderful weekend had a delicious ending as the audience and artists gathered in the lobby for an incredible reception, generously catered by 518 Italian Café.

September Prelude 06 succeeded not only by presenting a wide variety of chamber works in beautiful settings, but also in educating amateurs and bringing together musicians from all over the state, country and the world! By supporting local chamber music series, we will help insure that this wonderful event will continue for many years.

See you in September 07.