Four instrumentalists give irresistible show

Review: Fessenden Ensemble balances one well-established work with three rarer, yet charming, pieces.

November 20, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

"Music in the Great Hall" might not be the most accurate description for the long-running concert series at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church. After all, the hall in question is actually an intimate, friendly space. Considering that great music is regularly played there, as it was Sunday by the Fessenden Ensemble, maybe the series should be called "Great Music in the Hall."

Based in Washington, the Fessenden Ensemble has the flexibility to do everything from concerts for chamber orchestra to programs for small groups. For this program, four instrumentalists offered an imaginative mix of repertoire that balanced one well-established work against three much rarer pieces.

The music of 20th century English composer Gerald Finzi, with its elegant melodies and warm harmonies, is absurdly under-appreciated in this country. His Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano from the 1920s represents the folksy side of Finzi's craft; there are more than a few hints of Vaughan Williams. The brief pieces are like wordless songs, full of charm and sentiment, but never cloying.

Clarinetist Suzanne Myers Gekker produced an admirably mellow sound; her articulate phrasing was smoothly matched by pianist Amy Klosterman. The performance proved irresistible.

Vincent Persichetti ought to be better known to American audiences, too, especially since he was one of our own. His style combined a keen ear for modern idioms and an appreciation for classical balance and structure. His 1972 Parable VIII for horn epitomizes that combination. It's a taut, fascinating work that doesn't merely exploit the dynamic and tonal range of the instrument, though it does that brilliantly - there is remarkable substance and expressive force in the long, sometimes angular lines. Emil George, founding director of the Fessenden Ensemble, approached the work with confidence, style and technical polish.

Gekker, Klosterman and violinist Claudia Chudacoff next collaborated on Aram Khachaturian's Trio from 1932, a score steeped in Armenian and Russian idioms of melody, harmony and rhythm. But, like Finzi's Bagatelles, the music doesn't seek merely to imitate; the resonances are used as starting, not ending, points.

The players caught the Trio's cool, colorful demeanor and effectively highlighted the tinge of melancholy underneath.

There is melancholy, too, in the E-flat major Trio for horn, violin and piano by Brahms, as there is in so much of his output. But that can't keep the high spirits from breaking out, first in the scherzo, then, more emphatically still, in the finale. Even at its most reflective, the music seems to say there's no reason to worry, good times are right around the corner.

A couple of cloudy moments aside, George delivered that horn part with aplomb. Chudacoff's tone sometimes took on a wiry edge, but there was a strong lyrical pulse in her phrasing. Klosterman's poised, vivid playing was a solid foundation for the outgoing performance.

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