I was quite excited to be able to attend 3 out of the 6 concerts for the 2011 Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival. The first two of those were at UVA's Old Cabell Hall, and the last at The Paramount Theater.
There was much pleasure to be had with the first group of performers, which included Matthew Hunt and Alasdair Beatson. The piece by Peteris Vasks, Episodi e Canto perpetuo was quite athletic, for both performers and audience. In his opening remarks Mr. Beatson seemed to want to "caution" the audience as to its intensity, but it left me breathless and intrigued, and in a good way. The piece, in eight movements performed attacca (that is, without pause), was not difficult for difficulty's sake, as some modern music can seem to be. Certainly the performers were challenged, but the music held it's arc, and appealed with portions of beautiful legato to balance the more stark moments.
Mr. Hunt featured prominently in Weber's Duo Concertant and Brahms' Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. A technically exciting performer, there were times his breathy lead-ins to pianissimo were distracting, but they diminished as the concert moved along. At times unashamedly flamboyant visually, Mr. Hunt shone brightly in the Weber, but could hold a languid line in the more moody Brahms.
The next concert, also at Old Cabell Hall, began with Mozart's delicate Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, K. 423. Steven Copes and Timothy Summers were careful not to over-dramatize the piece, lest it become sentimental. Instead, each proved the simple task of listening to the other player is a critical component in mature performance of art. The music stood on its own.
Aki Sauliere, Alasdair Beatson, and Raphael Bell joined the performers in the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor. One of the chamber pieces from Shostakovich's middle, less turbulent years, it has moments of pure acidity, but also humor, which the performers conveyed beautifully.
The last piece, Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2, written during the composer's travel to England, was, at once, poignant and crystalline.
The final concert I was to attend was on September 22 at The Paramount Theater. Joan Tower's Island Prelude was a fitting start to the performance, but I felt strangely disconnected from the performers, but it wasn't until later in the evening that I realized why.
Soprano Roberta Alexander set out on an American Song expedition, bringing out some charmers (Samuel Barber, Alec Wilder, Charles Ives), along with the tried and true of Copland and Gershwin. The pieces were of medium difficulty, but there were quite a few moments of vocal instability, particularly in the middle register. Andre Previn'sVocalise was marked by some rather unfortunate sounds from Ms. Alexander, and compared to Mr. Bell's sensual performance, they bordered on ugly.
The intermission was moved around so that the American pieces were concluded in the first half, and the French in the second, beginning with two of Satie's Gymnopedies (as per the composer's request), haltingly lovely in their string form. Chausson's carefully woven Chanson perpetuelle followed, and again, I felt a distinct separation from the performers. Several times I could not hear the cellist, and the pianist's notes were lost. It only became clear to me during the Faure that it was the venue itself that was the difference.
While The Paramount Theater is a lovely hall, it did not do service to the chamber music. Old Cabell Hall provided a much more intimate setting, cordial to the music itself. The Paramount sucked the intimacy away, and I missed it very much.
Please do not mistake my meaning: The Paramount has had some lovely performances for which I have been in attendance, but it cannot match Old Cabell Hall for warmth and nurturing of small ensembles.
I do hope that the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival continues on a long and prosperous life here in Central Virginia. Hearing chamber music, well-played, from modern composers, along with the more traditional pieces, is a great boon to Charlottesville.