Festival offers full program

MUSIC

Three days in June devoted to chamber music

April 16, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

From the seductive rhythms of a tango to the sounds of speech-generated melodies, the New Chamber Festival Baltimore promises to pack a lot of exceptional music into three days in June.

When the venture was first announced last fall, it was clear this would not be a routine festival. Now, with programming details filled in, it looks even more exceptional - not to mention sonically, intellectually and emotionally stimulating.

The festival, made possible by a collaboration among the Shriver Hall Concert Series, Peabody Institute, the Evergreen House Foundation and members of the late Chamber Music Society of Baltimore, will offer seven concerts, along with panel discussions and lectures. The focus of all the activity will be on post-1900 repertoire, providing a remarkable overview of one of music's most productive and innovative periods.

Festival organizers have singled out several "cornerstone" composers and/or works that helped to define chamber music in the 20th century. Complementing these will be pieces by composers active today.

Three top-notch ensembles will do the performing - the Endellion String Quartet from England, the St. Lawrence String Quartet from Canada and the Flux Quartet from the United States. Each will be heard in two programs; the Endellion and St. Lawrence quartets will also join forces for an additional concert.

The Endellion players will offer Samuel Barber's String Quartet (the source of the popular Adagio for Strings), Bela Bartok's Quartet No. 4 and Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, along with quartets by two British composers - one from the past (Benjamin Britten), one from the present (Judith Weir).

Another very much alive British composer, the ever-provocative Thomas Ades, will be on the Endellion schedule, represented by his prize-winning Arcadiana. Rounding things off will be Tango by colorful Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.

This bold sampling of music would be almost enough for a festival by itself, but there's much more.

The St. Lawrence ensemble will explore Maurice Ravel's String Quartet, Anton Webern's Six Bagatelles, Leos Janacek's Kreutzer Quartet, Berg's Quartet No. 3, Bartok's Quartet No. 3 and Dmitri Shostakovich's Quartet No. 3. To round things off, the ensemble will also play the Yiddishbuk by Osvaldo Golijov, the Jewish-Argentine composer whose works have been notably championed by the Kronos Quartet.

Together, the Endellion and St. Lawrence quartets will play pieces for string octet by Shostakovich.

Things will stray even farther from the norm when the Flux Quartet takes the stage. One program will offer music by an eclectic mix of contemporary figures - Renaud Gagneux, Anthony Brandt, Tom Chiu (a violinist in the group) and John Zorn (his wild Cat O' Nine Tails). In such company, the remaining work, Anton Webern's String Quartet, might sound positively old-fashioned.

The second Flux presentation provides another intriguing cross-section of styles. There will be quartets by Kurt Weill and Alfred Schnittke, along with Structures by U.S. maverick composer Morton Feldman (a Flux specialty is Feldman's six-hour String Quartet No. 2) and Steve Reich's Different Trains. The latter is one of the most profound compositions to come out of the genre known as minimalism, with starkly contrasting reminiscences of train travel generating the score's melodic and rhythmic patterns.

There will be two concerts June 20 at Evergreen House, two June 21 at Peabody's Friedberg Hall, three (each with a pre-concert lecture) on June 22 at Shriver Hall. A panel discussion with composers, performers and others will be held June 21 at Peabody.

Festival passes are $99, $49 for students. Individual tickets (most $16, $8 for students) also are on sale. Call 410-516-7164.

A rare sound

Jewish choral music does not enjoy the widespread concert exposure that other forms do. The Zamir Chorale of Boston has been addressing that imbalance since 1969.

The ensemble made its Baltimore debut Sunday afternoon at Beth Am Synagogue with a long, thoughtful lecture-concert devoted to "Jewish Composers in America" narrated and conducted by Joshua Jacobson.

The program ranged from Ernest Bloch and Leonard Bernstein to Yiddish theater songs and contemporary, pop-style liturgical music (which tended to sound about as substantive as a typical folk Mass), along with such novelties as Kurt Weill's Kiddush and a work by longtime Bernstein assistant Jack Gottlieb. In this context, It Ain't Necessarily So from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess revealed its musical Jewishness as it rarely does on Catfish Row.

The chorale was at its best in works of a popular vein, especially the mournful, a cappella Main Ruhe Plats and the Andrews Sisters hit Ba Mir Bist du Sheyn (here sung in its original Yiddish version as well as its Top-40 manifestation).

Jacobson drew sensitive phrasing from his forces, most admirably in Alice Parker's An American Kedushah and an excerpt from Bloch's Sacred Service. But assorted technical weaknesses could also be heard. The men often sang flat (the tenors, in particular, sounded thin and strained); the women did not always produce a smooth blend. Rhythmic imprecision, as in a selection from Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, also took a toll.

Among the soloists, Louise Treitman and Charles Claus excelled.

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