Saturday, March 8, 2008

Chamber Music Winter Festival

Last night, the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music demonstrated why they are such a vital part of classical music programming here in Tucson, with a superb concert, with all works by 20th century composers. The concert was part of their week-long winter chamber music festival, so each work on the program has a different instrumentation. It's a very successful formula, and provides a much more varied evening than the more typical concert which has the same four or five players for the whole evening.

The opener was an early work for baritone and string quartet by Samuel Barber, Dover Beach, based on a poem by Mathew Arnold. The Borealis String Quartet provided an ethereal and elegiac setting to Arnold's anti-war poem. Baritone Christopheren Nomura prefaced his beautiful performance with a few words about the poem, as relevant today as it was when it was written 150 years ago.

One of this year's festival themes is music from Australia. They have commissioned a piece by Ross Edwards, and several pieces by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe are on various programs. To go along with the Australian theme, one of the more unusual performers this year is didgeridoo player William Barton, who has performed a fair amount of Sculthorpe's work (including a work for didgeridoo and orchestra, Earth Cry, which has been recorded and released on Naxos). Last night, he joined the Borealis String Quartet for Sculthorpe's 12th string quartet, which was originally written for the Kronos Quartet and who specifically requested the addition of a didgeridoo part. The piece started with the cellist bounding onto the stage and starting to play small noises, almost like sound effects. Then the other members of the quartet came toward the stage from the lobby, first violin playing glissandi, second violin playing hoarse croaking, the whole thing sounded like morning in a swamp. When the didgeridoo played with the quartet, the whole group made a fabulous and full textured drone sound, but there were times when either the quartet or the didgeridoo would play by themselves. Although there were some melodic parts, overall the piece was more textured and odd. I wish I could hear it again, although the piece was based on the music from the aforementioned Earth Cry.

The first half closed with a work for violin, piano and percussion by Paul Dresher. Dresher is a west coast composer who mostly writes for the theater and dance, often in a style similar to minimalism. Double Ikon was originally written for the Winant-Abel-Steinberg trio, who have recorded the piece on the New Albion label. The piece, with its interlocking patterns between the three instruments, was great to hear live. Bree van Reyk, from the Synergy Percussion Group (also from Australia), played a variety of instruments, from a glockenspiel, marimba, vibes, a drum and a couple of cymbals. The colors combined wonderfully with the piano, played by Kevin Fitz-Gerald, and Ian Swensen's violin. Swensen also gave a brief introduction to the piece while van Reyk was setting up her kit, and included a heartfelt thanks to the audience for supporting the chamber music festival. The piece was energizing, and you could tell from the little glances between the performers how good a time they were having.

After the intermission was an intense late romantic piano quintet by Ernst Bloch. His Quintet No. 1 was composed in the early 1920s, expanded from a cello sonata. It's the first time I've ever heard quarter tones played with the piano, with extended passages where the piano played a tremolo and the strings were able to depart from the rigid even tempered scale that the piano so often enforces. The work, in three movements, never let up its intensity, even in the slow movement, and it was full of the same kind of late romantic melodies in late Brahms or Alban Berg's piano sonata, stretching tonality to the limit. The first violinist was Lara St. John, who more commonly appears as soloists for orchestral concertos, and she spoke briefly and glowingly about the piece during an introductory comments. The moderator asked why the quintet wasn't played more often, and she said, "Because it's hard." The group looked exhausted and exhilarated when they were done, a superb accomplishment.

One of the questions from the audience (okay, it was from me) to Ms. St. John was for repertoire that she played that was written in her lifetime. In addition to the Shostakovich concerto, she is releasing a world premiere recording in the near future of a concerto by Magnus Fiennes (if I caught the name correctly). She also intends to commission other new works for violin and orchestra. One of the real strengths of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music is their commissioning program, where new works are included in the annual winter festival. I love the commitment to new music, and as last night's program demonstrates, the commissions are not simply bolted on to a collection of nineteenth century German works.

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