The Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival is in its fourteenth year, and we attended the final concert of the festival this afternoon. It featured music from four different centuries, and the first half (featuring the two most recent centuries) was music by Czech composers, which seems to be a popular motif for the local chamber music group (they featured a Czech pianist playing all Czech repertoire in the fall, and the commission this year was from a Czech composer). The chamber music series works very well because each piece in the program is for a different set of instruments, which provides more variety than would be available in an orchestral or solo program.
For me, the first half of the program was by far the more interesting. The opening work was a string sextet by Ervin Schulhoff, a composer from Prague whose main body of work is from the 1920s and 1930s (he died in a concentration camp in 1942). Written in the early 1920s for pairs of violins, violas, and cellos, the sextet uses the expressive chromatic harmonic language associated with early Schoenberg. The first movement, marked "Allegro risoluto" but much more subtle than the risoluto implies, contained beautiful but tortured melodies, passed around from one set of instruments to the next. The two slow movements were exquisite, especially the second with its slowly descending six-note motif that ran all the way through. Marked "Tranquillo," the second movement contains many very quiet passages and made very expressive use of silence, and closes with an ethereal chord held by all six instruments. The third movement was a brisk burlesca in 5/8, very virtuosic. Then, starting in the low instruments with dark and muted tones, the last movement, marked "Molto Adagio," was another beautiful and ethereal work. This was my first introduction to Schulhoff's music, and I look forward to hearing more of it. The sextet is available on the Chamber Music's CD series, which is unfortunately not available in iTunes or emusic.
The second work on the program was a repeat performance of the series' commission from 2003, a Piano Quintet in two movements by Czech composer Jiri Gemrot (Gemrot's Clarinet Quintet received its world premiere this year). This was also the kind of work that I'd like to hear again. The first movement, marked "Allegro Vivo," was a strong rhythmic work, reminding me of the best music of Stravinsky and Bartok. The passion among the players was evident, especially the first violinist in the Prazak Quartet (who premiered the work back in 2003). The second movement started slowly, and was a combination of a slow and fast movement, but returned to the original slow material before a brief, fast coda. An excellent work, and the composer was in the audience. It was especially gratifying to see that the contemporary works get repeat performances — sometimes composers comment that it's harder to get second performances than premieres.
The second half of the concert included works by Mozart and Mendelssohn. The Mozart was a chamber arrangement of the aria "Parto Parto" from La Clemenza di Tito, featuring soprano Jennifer Foster with Richard Stoltzman on obbligato clarinet. I'm not an ardent opera fan, so this work did fairly little for me, although it was nice to hear Stoltzman again. The Mendelssohn was a youthful work published posthumously, the Sextet for Piano and Strings in D Major. Written when he was only 15, it is scored for a complete string section with an extra viola. Although the work was very pleasant and excellently performed, I would have been hard pressed to identify the work as Mendelssohn except for some passages in the Minuet. I did enjoy the way he divided the players into three groups: violin/viola, cello/bass, and piano, and the sound was very full (probably due to the inclusion of the bass).
The sponsoring organization records all of the concerts and releases a single CD containing highlights of the festival. The CD from the 2003 session includes Gimrot's Piano Quintet, and the CD from 1998 includes the Schulhoff Sextet. The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music does a superb job at promoting new music and puts on very interesting and successful concerts. Since this afternoon's performance was the last of the series, the director, Jean-Paul Bierny, thanked all of the festival musicians, and commented how difficult the rehearsels were for this festival because of the large number of new works. The hard work paid off well, and I look forward to next year's festival and the regular concerts from this organization.