Friday, July 18, 2014

Chamber Music Northwest goes big with symphonic chamber program

Photo credit: Tom Emerson
Chamber Music Northwest flexed its musical muscles on Monday (July 14) at Kaul Auditorium, presenting three works for ensembles that ranged from twelve to fifteen musicians. So the stage seemed almost crowded for the three big pieces in the program, which was entitled “Heroic Chamber Symphonies.” The beefed up presence, required for works by Richard Wagner, Paul Hindemith, and Arnold Schoenberg, created a chamber orchestra atmosphere that was offset by one slim gem, a sonata for two violins by Sergei Prokofiev.

Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” was written as a birthday present to his second wife, Cosima, after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. According to program notes, the piece “was designed to be played only by the number of musicians who would fit on the stairs of their home near Lake Lucerne, Switzerland.” That number totaled thirteen for the chamber version performed at Kaul. The brass and woodwinds did an excellent job of not overpowering the strings – in particular, first violinist Steven Copes. The playing was rhapsodic and beguiling, but still needed a little more shaping in terms of dynamics and tempo. The problem for most listeners is that we have heard the piece so often in the big orchestral version, which has a lot more strings. Still, the chamber performance was satisfying, and it was terrific to hear Wagner’s symphonic birthday greeting in its purest form.

Hindemith was only 26 years old when he wrote his “Kammermusik” (“Chamber Music”) No. 1 in 1922. A performance of the piece in Munich in 1923 apparently caused an uproar, because after the music ended “Whistles blew, boos resounded, chairs flew through the air — a hellish noise filled the large room.” That reaction certainly helped to mark Hindemith as one of the bad boys of the music scene.

Of course, lots of unusual and challenging music has been composed since the early Twentieth Century. So this Hindemith piece is not as striking as it was back then, but it still had its moments. The first movement, in particular, sounded like a kooky cabaret number that went unhinged. The second continued in a loud and spunky fashion. The musical thread was spiked now and by blips and beeps. The third was completely different. It featured a beautiful, tranquil clarinet solo (Ashley William Smith) that was joined later by the flute (Tara Helen O’Connor), and lovely combinations with clarinet (Smith), bassoon (Julie Feves), flue (O’Connor), and chime (Luanne Warner Katz). The entire ensemble generated a spirited fourth movement that had an array of unusual sounds coming from all corners, such as the murky low chords from the piano (Daniel Schlosberg), and a later a wild combo for piano and flute. Sporadic blasts from the trumpet (Jean Laurenz), wistful lines from the accordion (Samuel Suggs), and glissandos from the strings were halted by a dramatic pause and then followed by a crazy, agitated ride to the finish line with the xylophone (Katz) going helter skelter. That was a breath-taking performance.
Bella Hristova and Stephen Copes - Photo credit: Tom Emerson
After intermission, violinists Bella Hristova and Stephen Copes delivered a mind-boggling performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins. Together they danced through a score that was laced with, double stops, fast pizzicatos, high-wire passages, and fast, tricky phrases. They seamlessly passed lines back and forth, and their dynamics were mostly in agreement. Hristova, who had the first violin part, excelled tremendously in the high register, displaying an incredible agile technique and a singing sound. The head pair made a headlong rush into the finale that brought the piece to a thrilling conclusion.

The final work on the program, Schoenberg’s “Kammersymphonie” (Chamber Symphony”) No. 1 caused a riot when it was first performed in Vienna in 1907, because of its unconventional tonalities. Even later performances caused critics to complain. Nicolas Slonimsky in his “Lexicon of Musical Invective” quoted a critic from Berlin, who, in 1914, stated “Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony – self-torture of a flagellant who whips himself with a cat-o’-nine-tails, while curing himself!”

The performance at Kaul by fifteen musicians didn’t cause a commotion, but the piece needed a lot more definition to make it enjoyable. It had plenty of volume, sweeping big, Wagnerian themes and counter-themes. But the music didn’t go anywhere. The brass and woodwinds overpowered everyone else. Conductor David Fulmer kept everyone together, but that seemed to be it. With more shape, the piece might have done something, but, at least, in this performance, the journey was not satisfying.

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