Festival Miami puts on the Ritz

By Lawrence A. Johnson

by Alan Becker

The Ritz Chamber Players, founded in 2002, is a group of African-American musicians dedicated to the exploration of the black heritage in classical music. Beyond the obvious jazz influences, few are familiar with the many composers who studied classical composition and contributed to the growth of an art form almost entirely identified with white creativity.

Friday’s Festival Miami program at Gusman Concert Hall on the University of Miami campus started us down this path of discovery. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in England in 1875 to an African father and an English mother. His father soon returned to Africa, leaving the raising of his son to his wife, though it is doubtful whether his father even knew of his son’s existence. Young Samuel’s love for music led him to studies at the Royal College of Music and to considerable success as a composer. He died of pneumonia at the absurdly early age of 37.

Coleridge-Taylor’s Variations for Cello and Piano, from 1907, is a gorgeous piece of heartbreaking lyricism, typical of the late flowering of Romanticism in music. Cellist Kenneth Law has a beautiful, well-sustained tone and is capable of handling difficult virtuoso passages with unassuming ease. He was well matched by Terrence Wilson’s ardent pianism.

Named for the earlier composer, Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson was composer-in-residence for the Jacksonville based Ritz players, but passed away in 2004 before he could complete a commissioned work for violin, viola and cello. What is left, simply called Movement, is a short fragment of lyrical expression not unlike Barber’s famed Adagio, but leavened with a layer of polytonal harmonic grit. While it ended all too soon, it was a fine tribute to the late composer.

Bernhard Crusell’s Clarinet Quartet, Op. 2, no. 1, moved back into the sphere of Caucasian composers in fine style. The composer was born in Finland in 1775 and died in 1838, thus spanning the lifetimes of many of the era’s greats. If you start with Beethoven and add some Mozart to the mix one gets a pretty good idea of Crusell’s musical world.

The four-movement quartet is an absolute delight, and Patterson, clarinetist and artistic director of the Ritz, spun pure liquid gold from his instrument. From almost imperceptible attacks to fully capturing the joy of the writing, this was artistry of the highest attainment. Crusell’s writing for the instrument reflected his renown as a clarinetist and his sure hand in exploring all facets of his instrument. Since there are three more Crusell clarinet quartets, a world of discovery awaits.

Dvorak’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat is a favorite and has seen many outings in the Miami area. Infused with the Czech spirit, the work’s passions have rarely been revealed with such force and dynamism as here. While there have been more performances with playing of more refinement and charm, none have surpassed the Ritz for sheer verve and sweep, with special note of the superlative artistry of violinist Tai Murray and the resonant viola of Amadi Hummings. May the Ritz return—and soon.

Posted in concert review, Performances

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Sat Oct 11, 2008
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