in: Reviews

August 20, 2010

Portland Opens Chamber Music Festival With Flute-Harp Focus

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The 17th season of the Portland Chamber Music Festival began on August 12 at its home for the past four years, the Abromson Center at Southern Maine University’s Portland campus. This venue, new to your correspondent, features an attractive lecture and concert hall, wide and shallow with an ample stage and decent acoustics for chamber music. We managed to arrive in time for the pre-concert talk by composer and Bowdoin College professor Elliott Schwartz, who elaborated on and supplemented the official program notes and introduced composer Daniel Sonenberg of the USM faculty, whose Whistlesparks for flute and harp was on the program. Sonenberg began an engaging series of reflections on writing for these instruments but was mercilessly cut off by the hall management, illustrating another aspect of harp performance by commandeering the stage for tuning the instrument before the concert. Such, alas, is the common fate of the mere composer.

The program itself was an attractive one, with a first half featuring this characteristically French combination of instruments, though by themselves only in Sonenberg’s piece. The evening began with a pair of Interludes for flute, violin and harp by Jacques Ibert, a near contemporary of Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud but whose elegant and witty music, although it somewhat echoes the sound of Les Six, was never himself one of them. Ibert’s two pieces, one stately and the other sprightly, were derived from incidental music he wrote for Suzanne Lilar’s Le Burlador, a play based on the Don Juan story. The music therefore — and also because of the composer’s genealogy — evinces a Spanish cast, especially in the second piece, with dancing rhythms and characteristically Spanish melodic and harmonic tropes. It is unclear whether the version with harp was made or authorized by the composer; Will Hertz’s program note says that Ibert wrote them originally with harpsichord. In any event, the harp part was commendably free of the clichés of harp writing that have turned some composers away from writing for it as a chamber instrument. These engaging, transparent, and light-footed pieces received compatibly simpatico and elegant performances from Elizabeth Mann, flute, Miranda Cuckson, violin, and Bridget Kibbey, harp.

Mr. Sonenberg’s Whistlesparks was up next, and he got a second bite at the apple in introducing it from the stage. He said that when he began writing — it dates from 2006— he had in mind to fight the stereotypical French flute-harp sound by treating the instruments more angularly and percussively, but as he worked on it he simply could not resist the urge to make it prettier. The audience was gratified by his lack of willpower, as the work as it stands is a perfect balance between these two modes of discourse. Despite the forceful dynamism of some of the writing (though nothing in the technique used was more extended than flutter-tonguing on the flute— no key-clicks, plosives, spitting or heavy breathing), it is a fundamentally lyrical work. There were no movements designated as such, but it broke down into three clearly delineated sections, fast-slow-fast. There were, in the slow section, some apparent allusions to Afternoon of a Faun and other homages to Debussy, but it comes across as genially American. It’s a work we hope performers will look into. Mann and Kibbey once again brought out all the work’s best qualities.

The first half of the program ended with the largest ensemble of the evening performing the Ravel Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet. In his introductory remarks before the concert, Prof. Schwartz mentioned the work’s origins in a commission from a harp manufacturer and Ravel’s subsequent failure even to acknowledge the work in his autobiography. Nevertheless, this 1905 piece is among the composer’s most popular, as skillfully crafted as any other from this master’s hand, and with a palpable beauty even he seldom matched. So, was Ravel afraid of this sensuous piece? The strings shimmer, the winds float, and the harp weaves a seductive web around the whole (not, it must be admitted, without some of those tropes of arpeggiation–but that’s where arpeggio gets its name!) We are pleased to report that the performance by the ensemble —Kibbey and Mann, Jo-Ann Sternberg, clarinet, PCMF co-artistic director Jennifer Elowitch and Sunghae Anna Lim, violins, Carol Rodland, viola, and Claire Bryant, cello —was top-rate, and that Kibbey, especially in her cadenza, gave a highly nuanced and shaded reading.

The program’s second half was something completely different, with French sounds giving way to German in the Schumann (this year’s bicentenary boy) Piano Quartet in E-flat, op. 47. The quartet, written together with the Piano Quintet in the same key, has never been as popular as the latter. In contrast to the ebullience of the quintet, the quartet is more pensive in mood and more obsessed with its own formal unity: a key idea of a pull to the subdominant, characterized by the semitone rise from third to fourth scale degree (as transposed and modulated), permeates the first three movements and is expressed in the fourth by the more energetic whole-step rise from the fifth to the sixth. Despite a truly beautiful tune in the slow movement, the quartet’s self-conscious scholasticism, with its fugati, inversions, and other learned techniques and the pseudo-Mendelssohnian scherzo, itself comes across as a miscalculation. The best performances of it are those that infuse it with taut, passionate intensity, impeccable precision of execution and propulsive force. That is exactly what lacked on this occasion. Sadly, the performers, PCMF co-artistic director Dena Levine, piano, Lim, violin, Jonathan Vinocour, viola, and Marc Johnson, cello, were guilty of some ensemble lapses, rushed notes (in the scherzo especially), smudged articulations, and weak and sometimes sloppy phrase endings, but more importantly of emotional distance. This was not, let us hasten to add, an affirmatively bad performance; it was, we would say, fair average professional summer-circuit work. However, this being music that does not, as they say, play itself (despite coming from the pen of a master), this quartet on the whole let it down. There were, though, some notable moments that should not go un-commended. The slow movement on the whole was very well done, and when it came time for Vinocour to carry the tune, he did it exactly as it should be done, with heartfelt intensity.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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