Wednesday, July 30, 2008

French finale winds up Chamber Music Northwest’s summer festival

Chamber Music Northwest closed its 38th summer festival with a program of French music from Poulenc, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Fauré. The selection had undergone a few changes because a serious writs injury forced pianist André Watts to cancel his participation. Fortunately, Shai Wosner, was able to take the place of Watts and offered to perform pieces by Poulenc and Faure in place of the Frank Quintet in F minor for piano and string, with which he was unfamiliar. This was a wise choice, and the performance I heard at Kaul Auditorium on Sunday afternoon (July 27) sparkled like champagne.

Wosner and David Shifrin, CMNW’s artistic director and clarinetist par excellence performed Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Poulenc wrote this piece in 1962 and finished his Oboe Sonata before he died a year later. Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein premiered the Clarinet Sonata in Carnegie Hall after Poulenc’s death.

In the space of three movements, Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata covers a lot of ground and a life-time of emotions. The expressivity that Shifrin can attain from his clarinet is awesome. In the first movement, Siciliano: Largo, he takes us to a place that is light-hearted. I think that I heard the mocking tone of school children (nah-nah) at one point. The slow and somber second movement, Allegro, created a sense of suspension and timelessness, that made me forget about everything around me, and that’s when someone’s cell phone went off. Gads! (Oh well, at least this shows how great of an artist Shifrin is because he can make the sound of his clarinet completely spellbinding.) The final movement, Adagio, had lots of mad dashes and leaps. That mocking, schoolyard passage returned briefly, and there were plenty of soft and smooth spaces as well. No matter, Shifrin made it all come alive. Wosner played expertly as well, and the piece was terrific.

Violinist Carmit Zori and harpist Heidi Lehwalder played the “Fantaisie” for violin and Harp (Op. 124) by Camille Saint-Saëns, which he finished in 1907 while on vacation on the Italia Riviera. Writing music was as natural as breathing for Saint-Saëns, who was said to have written his first composition at the age of six. The complimentary color in the tone of the violin and harp in his “Fantaisie” were wonderfully realized by Zori and Lehwalder. Their beautiful combination of sounds created an ethereal atmosphere that was sumptuous and satisfying.

Lehwalder really showed her superior talent in the performance of Maurice Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” for Harp with the Accompaniment of Flute, Clarinet, and Strings (1907). Lehwalder’s fingers seemed to be everywhere on the harp and in endless combinations, but, of course, most gorgeous were the big waves of sound that she created while strumming over all of the strings.

Joining Lehwalder in this piece was flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, violinists Steven Copes and Zori, violist Toby Appel, cellist Sophie Shao, and clarinetist Shifrin. Together they mesmerized everyone with outstanding control of the rhythm and dynamics, especially when they softened up the sound.

The concert ended with Gabriel Fauré’s Quartet No. 1 in C minor for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello (Op. 15), which Fauré wrote in 1877 during a time when his fiancée broke off their engagement. Wosner, Shao, Appel, and Copies teamed up to give this work a sparkling performance. I especially enjoyed the silky smooth sound that the strings achieved in the second movement – it even bordered on sounding slithery. That was when Wosner accompanied them with some deft, pointillist-like playing, and the combination was marvelous. I also loved the part in the third movement when the violin and cello were playing the same notes an octave apart. The ensemble finished the piece in thrilling fashion with a dash to the finale, and the audience responded with a standing ovation.

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