Clarinet soloist shares the stage

Music review

March 01, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Ego plays a part in all music-making. It can be such a dominant trait that the ego seems to walk on-stage before the musician. In other cases, it's kept under such control you hardly notice the musician and experience only the music.

Edward Palanker suggested that more self-effacing type Tuesday evening at Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Concert Hall. Ostensibly, the event was a recital for the clarinetist, a valued teacher at Peabody and member of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. But instead of hogging the program with solo pieces or sonatas, he invited a slew of colleagues to join him. And, there was even something humble about his playing; it was as if he didn't want to draw attention to himself.

That reserve had its drawbacks - in Bartok's spicy "Contrasts," a trio commissioned by Benny Goodman, Palanker's work was often hard to hear over the more outgoing efforts of violinist Martin Beaver and pianist Ann Schein. The clarinet should slice through more vividly in this score, with its fusion of Hungarian folk music and jam session, but Palanker certainly demonstrated a stylish flair for the material.

Schein provided a solid, colorful foundation for the performance; Beaver's riff in the finale was delivered with particular elan.

Matters of balance were much smoother in Beethoven's B-flat major Trio, Op. 11. Palanker's seamless tone, effortless articulation and warm-hearted phrasing could be readily appreciated, especially in the slow movement; the finale found clarinetist, cellist Alan Stepansky and Schein reveling in Beethoven's cheeky wit.

Palanker did get the stage to himself at one point, offering the "Capriccio" for solo clarinet by 20th-century Swiss composer Heinrich Sutermeister. It's a witty diversion, unified by a jaunty tune that brings to mind the merry prankster of German folk lore immortalized in Richard Strauss' symphonic poem. The clarinetist's assured performance was attentive to every shift in dynamics, every good-humored turn of phrase.

The second half of the program gave Palanker another chance to blend into the musical framework. His willingness to share the spotlight, to become just another member of a chamber ensemble, resulted in a welcome opportunity to hear William Walton's ingenious "Facade."

Well, to hear some of it.

This is a tricky piece to perform live. It calls for the recitation of deliciously saucy, silly poems by Edith Sitwell, timed to Walton's deliciously saucy, silly music. The reciters have to be superb enunciators - there is many a tongue-twister ("Trampling and sampling mazurkas, cachucas and turkas, Cracoviaks hid in the shade") - and they have to be heard over the instruments.

There was frustration on both counts in Friedberg Hall. The amplification did not always do the job; both reciters (Phyllis Bryn-Julson and John Shirley-Quirk) were swamped whenever the score's marvelous send-ups of fox trots, tangos and other dance-hall sounds burst from the ensemble.

And when the ensemble was lying low, enabling the voices to come through nicely, only one generally did so. Except in such a slow-paced number as "By the Lake," Shirley-Quirk's surprisingly mushy diction left many a word in the dust. (The texts were thoughtfully distributed to the audience, but the house lights were thoughtlessly left off, so reading along with the performance proved a challenge.)

Still, it was fun to hear Walton's score, one of the great aural souvenirs of the 1920s. And, despite the loss in clarity, Bryn-Julson and Shirley-Quirk were terrifically accomplished at creating sing-song inflections, mimicking posh and working-class accents and maintaining rhythmic tautness.

Peabody director Robert Sirota conducted with great verve and concern for the smallest details in the instrumentation. And coordination could not have been tighter between reciters and ensemble, and within the ensemble itself. Within the group, Gary Louie's sax work was especially vibrant. Palanker received an extra round of applause at the end, as much for the quality of his playing, perhaps, as for his demonstration of the art of collaboration.

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