Music has tones of French

Review: American Chamber Players offer a masterful, if somewhat detached, program.

January 07, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Except for their inexplicable embrace of Jerry Lewis, the French can be counted on for extraordinarily refined tastes in the arts.

French composers, for example, have for centuries produced work of exquisite craftsmanship and intrinsic beauty. There may be layers of darkness and trouble beneath the surface of the notes at times, but the angst, overwhelming tragedy or just plain bleakness that underlies a lot of German material is all but impossible to find.

Three distinctive styles of French music, each with its own elegant approach to expression, were addressed by the American Chamber Players Saturday evening for the Candlelight Concerts series at Howard Community College in Columbia.

The D.C.-based ensemble brought a top-notch roster of musicians and a solid program that covered about a five-decade span of French repertoire.

The most satisfying performance was of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, a masterpiece of form and content that can speak as poignantly to our own troubled time as to the catastrophic world of 1941, when it was written (in a German camp for French prisoners of war).

Messiaen poured into this score his mystical ideas about religion, his obsession with the sound and potential meaning of bird-calls. At once abstract and deeply affecting, the music has the capability of transporting the listener into another level of consciousness.

Violinist Elisabeth Adkins, cellist Michael Mermagen, clarinetist Loren Kitt and pianist Edward Newman made it easy to take that mental journey as they explored this unique sonic landscape with admirable sensitivity.

Kitt was particularly impressive in the Abyss of the Birds solo, achieving an uncanny softness to start each of the movement's slow crescendos.

Mermagen and Adkins excelled at sustaining the long lines and tapping into the spirituality of their respective solo movements, each player backed by the superbly controlled keyboard work of Newman.

Gabriel Faure's G minor Piano Quartet, a case of gently restrained romanticism, found Adkins, Mermagen, Newman and violist Miles Hoffman in admirable form technically; their playing was consistently polished and finely detailed.

The only thing missing was a large dollop of personality. An oddly metronomic and often bloodless character kept much of the music from breathing deeply, freely.

Kitt explored Claude Debussy's subtly virtuosic First Rhapsody in confident style, with expert support from Newman.

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