Festival Chamber Music in Review

Festival Chamber Music in Review
David Oei, Heléne Jeanney, piano, Eriko Sato, violin, Calvin Wiersma, viola, Ruth Sommers, cello/director, Frank Morelli, bassoon
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
May 12, 2011

Festival Chamber Music has been presenting five annual chamber music programs in New York for 18 season; it has become a pillar of the city’s musical life. The rotating members are all top-flight freelance musicians, busy as soloists, orchestra players and teachers; the group has built up a large, loyal following, which always fills the hall to overflowing.

For their final concert of the 2010-2011 season, the players had selected familiar favorites by Mozart and Brahms, and an unfamiliar novelty: a Quartet for Bassoon and Strings by Bernard Garfield, a name well-known only to listeners of “a certain age.”  Born in 1924, he was one of the most famous and esteemed bassoonists of the mid- and late 19-hundreds: founder of the New York Woodwind Quintet in 1946; principal bassoonist of the New York Little Orchestra Society and the New York City Ballet from 1949 to 1957; principal bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1957 to 2000. He has written numerous chamber music works featuring his instrument; the Quartet on this program dated from about 50 years ago and seemed most strongly influenced by Béla Bartók. Naturally written very idiomatically for the bassoon, it is a real bravura piece, vividly illustrating both its serious and its humorous characteristics. The slow middle movement sang in long melodic lines; the two corner movements, “Allegro con spirito” and “Allegro scherzando” were indeed full of spirit and drollery. Frank Morelli played the virtuoso bassoon part brilliantly and with great aplomb, no mean feat with the composer sitting in the first row. At 87, Garfield has the spryness of a man half his age; he had come to New York from Philadelphia, where he still lives, to hear his piece and bask in its enthusiastic reception. During Intermission, he struck up animated conversations with other members of the audience, who, having recognized his name from his years on the stage, were inquiring whether he was really the same person? “Yes,” he answered, grinning,” I’m Bernie.” The string players partnered Morelli splendidly, with obvious admiration for his virtuosity and enjoyment of the music.

The program opened with Mozart’s Sonata in F major K.497 for Piano Four Hands, played with unanimity, elegance and style by Heléne Jeanney on the upper and David Oei on the lower part. It closed with Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, played by Eriko Sato, Calvin Wiersma, Ruth Sommers, and David Oei. They brought out the ardor of the first movement, the wistfulness of the Intermezzo, the warmth of the Andante, and the gypsy abandon of the Rondo alla Zingarese, making it a rousing finale to the concert and the season. The group’s concerts for next season are already set: October 26, December 8, 2011, February 9, March 29, May 12, 2012.

Festival Chamber Music in Review

 Festival Chamber Music in Review
 Ayako Oshima, clarinet
David Jolley, horn
Yuri Funahashi, piano
Calvin Wiersma, violin
Theodore Arm, violin/viola
Ruth Sommers, cello/director
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
February 2, 2011

 Festival Chamber Music is a rotating group of enterprising top-notch New York musicians. They like to take time out from their busy lives as performers and teachers to present new and unfamiliar works in a variety of instrumental combinations, as well as staples of the standard repertoire. Founded in 1988 by its director, cellist Ruth Sommers, in Dobbs Ferry, the group moved in 1992 to New York City, where it performs an annual series of five concerts to sell-out audiences.

Its most recent program was of particular interest. It featured Beethoven’s popular Piano Quartet, Op. 16 in E-flat major in an excellent performance, and works by two virtually unknown Czech composers: the Quintet for piano, violin, cello , clarinet and horn, Op. 42 by Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900), written in 1893, and the String Trio by Gideon Klein (l9l9-l045), one of the so-called Holocaust composers, written in 1944. Fibich, though born in Prague, did not follow in the footsteps of his compatriots Smetana and Dvorak, the fathers of the Czech nationalist movement; rather, his music–though never openly derivative–is steeped in the Romantic German tradition. In the Quintet, Fibich’s compositional skill shows in his modulations (which use a lot of deceptive cadences), and in his ability to exploit and combine the instruments’ colors and timbres to best effect. The first and last of the Quintet’s four movements are in sonata form; the Scherzo, marked “with wild humor,” foreshadows Shostakovich in its acerbic sarcasm, but this is relieved by two cheerful Trios, a waltz and a polka. A solo piano passage leads back to the da capos. The Quintet’s centerpiece is the slow movement, a truly beautiful, long-breathing melody, stated first by the piano in solid and arpeggiated chords, then repeated with a florid violin obbligato. The work’s most pervasive characteristics are its democratic distribution of the solos, its unabashed romanticism, and its surging, soaring melodies; but the heart-on-sleeve quality of the music is so genuine that sentiment never lapses into sentimentality.

Gideon Klein already had several compositions to his credit when he was sent to Terezin in 1941. At 20, he must have been one of the youngest of the composers who perished in the Nazi death-camps, and, if this String Trio is any indication, also one of the most talented. A brilliant pianist, his ability to use the string instruments’ resources was remarkable. Though naturally still under the influence of contemporary stylistic trends, the Trio displays a personal voice and an astoundingly mature emotional range. Its three movements are all based on Moravian folksongs. The first and last are fast, skittish, jumpy, abrasive, and dissonant, often punctuated with Slavic and Hungarian off-beat rhythms; the last one ends in a Bartokian dance and a crash. The Trio’s core is the much longer, slow, middle movement: a set of variations of contrasting tempos, textures and characters that encompass defiance, grief and despair, leaving the listener shaken and heart-broken. Klein became one of Terezin’s heroes, organizing its musical and cultural activities. The Trio was written nine days before Klein’s deportation to Auschwitz; he died there a year later.

Heard at two rehearsals, the playing of this demanding program was excellent. Pianist Funahashi alternated imperceptibly between leading and supporting, always sensitive, never too loud; hornist Jolley and clarinetist Oshima were outstanding in their prominent roles. The Quintet had an almost orchestral sonority at times. The string players negotiated their often stratospheric parts with aplomb; cellist Sommers provided a firm foundation, violinist Wiersma was a strong leader in the Beethoven and Klein; Arm, doubling on violin and viola, had the courage to play the bigger instrument first, but kept his intonation intact – no mean feat.

These fine, adventuresome musicians deserve our admiration and gratitude for bringing these unjustly neglected works to our attention in such committed, persuasive performances.