Sunday, July 31, 2011

Summerfest KC: Finale

The last day of July, another 100 degree day, brings the SummerFest concert series to a close. Three short contrasting works comprised the first half, the Muzio Clementi Trio in D op 31 # 2 for Piano, Violin and Cello, "Three Character Pieces" for viola and bassoon by Tunsian born Iraqi-American Karim Al-Zand and "Petroushskates" by Joan Tower. The last half consisted of a grand finale of sorts, using many of the Summerfest instrumentalists in a single work, the Brahms Serenade # 1 op 11 in the original chamber version.

Fitting Clementi's title of "father of the piano", his trio was dominated by the piano with the strings as accompaniment, almost a piano concerto with a tiny orchestra. Charming, bubbly and full of skittering melodies, the piece was a delightful and audience pleasing opener. Pianist Dan Velicer chose to emulate a period pianoforte with his crisp and somewhat brittle tone, perfect for the piece. The string parts were a bit thankless, but Mary Grant, violin and Susie Yang, Cello made the best of it, contributing to a finely wrought performance.

I was prepared to not like the Al-Zand work, written in 2006 apparently for two friends, since I could not imagine a more unappealing paring of viola and bassoon. I didn't hate it, but it just didn't quite always work. The composer describes the work as "short vignettes mostly light-hearted and cheerful". The first vignette fared best with the two instruments, similar in tone and range, weaving a wandering melodic line between them. It went nowhere, but that was part of the point. The second piece "Moderate Groove" was more like "Moderate Dyspepsia". The bassoon's burping leaps from belch to squeek accompanied by groans and moans from the viola just left me queasy. The brisk last piece "Buoyant, lively" skittered along merrily to a comic end, eliciting twitters (non-electronic) from the audience.

Joan Tower's music has often left me feeling it is more contrived than genuine, relying on catchy titles or programs to disguise some rather ordinary music. "Petroushskates" fit that bill nicely. A realization of Stravinsky's harlequin tale on ice skates scored for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano, the piece vaguely takes the chords from the Shrovetide Fair scene and creates a manic perpetuum mobile of sliding chords and phrases. Probably fun to play but, as was my only attempt at ice skating, more of an ordeal than a pleasure to hear.

The origins of Brahms' Serenade #1 are shrouded in a bit of mystery and musicological controversy. Some say it began as an octet, then a nonet, or for small orchestra before emerging in the orchestral version most known today. It may have began as a 5 or maybe 4 movement work before Brahms added a second scherzo to make it a 6 movement symphonic serenade; we don't know for sure since Brahms apparently discarded the original chamber manuscripts. Several arrangements and reconstructions exist; this afternoon's was a 6 movement version for 10 players (basically the nonet with a second violin: violins, viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn). Regardless of all the details, the end really justifies the means, for the music is delightful in this reduced scoring, lightening the texture and bringing out (as reduced scorings do) the inner voices and harmonies. When the playing is as precise and enthusiastic as this performance, it is doubly satisfying.

Especially noteworthy was the outstanding horn of Kelly Cornell, which never overwhelmed but took every advantage of Brahms' prominent use of the insrument for both melodic and harmonic effect. The ensemble was usually spot on and well rehearsed yet flowing and flexible. The tempi were a bit on the quick side, not a bad thing at all with Brahms in my opinion. The central adagio worked well in the quicker mode (it is an Adagio non troppo after all) but the two interlocked Minuetti could have been more graceful. The short second scherzo and following Rondo didn't outlast their welcome in a rather long piece and brought the work to a fitting and joyous close.

Yes, I actually said something nice about Brahms. I have made a habit of telling prominent music figures here in KC and elsewhere that I do not care for Brahms. In return I usually receive looks of pity and bewilderment. I tend to like my Brahms in the more obscure forms, such as the wonderful Alto Rhapsody and the Schoenberg arrangement of the Piano Quartet, so this chamber-ized Serenade worked just fine for me.

Again great thanks to the musicians, Summerfest staff and St Mary's for the venue and the fabulous reception afterwards.

No comments: