Palm Beach Chamber Fest opens with adventurous, wide-ranging mix

By Alan Becker

The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival has been providing South Floridians with a respite from the summer doldrums for 19 years. With innovative programming and superb musicianship, those who investigate will find ample musical rewards.

Opening Friday night’s concert at the Helen K. Persson Recital Hall at Palm Beach Atlantic University was Schubert’s Trio in B-flat for violin, viola and cello. The Trio is not frequently performed, and it’s also not what we usually think of as Schubertian. Despite its D. 581 number, the twenty-year old composer is looking backwards to Haydn and Mozart rather than forward towards the new romanticism. It’s an elegant composition in four traditional movements that stick with light textures and avoidance of Sonata-Allegro entanglements. The players performed it well, although the violin tended to dominate the balance of instruments.

Randall Thompson’s Suite for oboe, clarinet and viola was quite a change from this composer’s frequently performed choral music. It is beautifully written for the instruments, impeccably crafted with love and the joy of music-making, and stands as an enriching discovery of yet another piece that takes an honored place in the world of Americana.

Sherie Aguirre’s oboe playing embraced the folksy writing and rhythmic √©lan with great surety, and Michael Forte’s clarinet playing was assured in all registers. This was playing of great subtlety, with just the right amount of blend and directness to make the music speak with seeming simplicity. The genius of Thompson was well realized by the viola of Rene Reder. Not only was the choice of instrument perfect in recreating the composer’s ideas, but the trio’s sound was able to take on an orchestral dimension at times.

North Carolinian Kenneth Frazelle (b. 1955) wrote his Gee’s Bend Pieces in 2009, at the request for a composition from his student, pianist Lisa Leonard. The work has its premiere at nearby Lynn University, and this was its second performance.

Gee’s Bend is a small Alabama town mostly famous for its quilting. The music, which includes trumpet, marimba, and cymbals, pits folk elements against dissonant piano chords, perhaps to contrast the impoverished nature of much of the community. In any case, there is also a lengthy Hymn Fade central movement that seems to scream out a protest to God. With its intricate marimba part, trumpet declamations, and pounding piano, the work does not “go gentle into that good night.” Percussionist Michael Launius had his hands full quite literally in negotiating the almost unceasing marimba part, and Marc Reese did his best with the brutally exposed trumpet rantings.

Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) produced a tremendous virtuoso vehicle when he took a Handel motif and expanded it into his Passacaglia for violin and cello. A violinist himself, Halvorsen’s variations on the theme is up there with the best of them, and exploits, in Paganini-like fashion, an almost full spectrum of string writing. Violinist Mei Mei Luo and cellist Susan Moyer Bergeron were well up to their tasks and received vociferous applause for their jaw-dropping efforts.

Martinu’s joyous Nonet (for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and bass) dates from 1959, the last year of the composer’s life. It seems astonishing that a work so positive in outlook, and so bubbling over with ideas was produced at a time so close to life’s end—that is until one realizes that the work is a paean to his love of Czechoslovakia, a country he had been away from for so long.

All the composer’s traits are there, from the halting jagged rhythms, to the spiky harmonies that resolve into consonance, to the well-sprung melodies that avoid any mawkishness. It was all splendidly played by the large ensemble and continued the festival’s enthusiasm for the still-underperformed Martinu, with one work of the Czech composer included every year.

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach and 8 p.m. Monday at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens.

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Sat Jul 10, 2010
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