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PCMF Strikes Fine Balance


The 20th season of the Portland Chamber Music Festival closed out on August 17th at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center with a program that typified this year’s (and most years’) keen balance of eras and styles. It began with the Mozart Horn Quintet, segued to Thomas Adès’s short suite of Court Studies from his opera The Tempest, and finished with a delightful reading of a neglected masterpiece from Louis Spohr.

The Quintet in E-flat Major, K. 407, is an odd duck in Mozart’s output, a three-movement quasi-concerto in which the outer movements showcase the horn at the expense of most everybody else in the notionally well-balanced ensemble (only one violin, two violas and cello). Mozart wrote it for his long-suffering friend Ignatz Leutgeb, for whom he wrote all four of his wonderful horn concerti. And Patrick Pridemore, who took the horn part on Saturday, delivered a ripe, mellow and liquid sound, just what was needed in a part that was musically less sophisticated than in the concerti and not at all integrated with the other instruments. Violinist Miranda Cuckson had a few well-delivered licks here and there (the slow movement was much more an ensemble piece, the outlier here), while, except in that movement where they all shone brightly, violists Rebecca Albers and Laurie Kennedy, and cellist Elizabeth Anderson, gamely held up their end.

The Adès was a much more brilliantly conceived work for its quartet, consisting of clarinetist Todd Palmer, violinist Jennifer Elowitch, cellist Marc Johnson and pianist Yuri Funahashi. Comprising six short—almost gnomic—movements whose music comes from the opera but is not cut and pasted from it, it depicts characters surrounding the principal ones: The False Duke, The Prince, The King, and The Counsellor (the first and third get repeat entries as particular dramatic moments are presented). Written in 2005, a year after the opera’s premiere, the quartet shows the more accessible side of Adès’s musical personality: its first two movements have a decided Stravinskyan cast (the second maybe filtered through a bit of Poulenc), but eventually it ranges widely in character, with some chillingly spare, soft sections and some gorgeous chord changes in the final stately section. Palmer worked with the composer on a performance of this in New York, and his was (not that the others’ wasn’t) an evocative, well controlled and yet dramatically effective reading.

Following intermission the “big band” emerged for a now-uncommon performance of what was once a rather often played work, the Nonet in F major, op. 31, by Ludwig (a/k/a Louis) Spohr (1784-1859). Spohr, one of the great violinists of his age, was also one of its most famous composers, long considered on a par with Beethoven (we were happy to see Willard Hertz’s program note recite the lines from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado “…Bach, interwoven/With Spohr and Beethoven…” as evidence of the regard in which he was held, even in the late 19th century). He wrote scads of violin concertos and rather a few clarinet concertos, along with just about everything else. What has caused his eclipse? Partly, it was the accident of his coming to maturity at the tail end of the Classical period and the very beginning of the Romantic, and his somewhat reluctant move between the two æsthetics (he wrote some truly lovely early-Romantic chamber music late in his life, such as his Piano Quintet and his two piano trios, but unlike his contemporary Weber, he never really grabbed the moment in any genre as Weber did in opera). And of course there are some musical weaknesses, a few of which surfaced in this otherwise gorgeous early chamber work.

left to right: Miranda Cuckson, violin; Rebecca Albers, viola; Elizabeth Mann, flute; Carl Oswald, oboe; Todd Palmer, clarinet; Adrien Morejon, bassoon; Patrick Pridemore, french horn; Carolyn David Fryer, double bass; Elizabeth Anderson, cello (Russ Burleigh)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Nonet is perhaps the most successful work of its type, scored for wind quintet (here performed by Elizbeth Mann, flute, Carol Oswald, obloe, Palmer, Adrian Morejohn, bassoon, and Pridemore) and a string quartet comprising violin (Cuckson), viola (Albers), cello (Anderson) and bass (Carolyn Davis Fryer). The sound is perfectly balanced, and although Spohr, who would have played the part, wrote some rather fancy arabesques for the violin (dashed off with exquisite aplomb by Cuckson), there is never a time when it sounds like anything other than a true conversation among equals. The compositional structure is also quite progressive for its day, and shows how quickly and profoundly Beethoven’s ideas made their way through the top tiers of the era’s composers: there is a four-note motif that, starting slyly as almost an ornamental figure in the opening theme, comes to dominate not only the first movement but the entire work except for the second-movement scherzo, This latter opens softly, almost ominously, but quickly evolves into a charming and entertaining dance (with double trio, also à la Beethoven) with melodic and harmonic ideas that we can’t help thinking were seminal in Arthur Sullivan’s development. The slow movement shows promise of a Schubertian grace and profundity, until the continuation of its main theme betrays a turn to conventional phrases; the principal motif is there, too, slowed down and rhythmically modified. The finale turns rollicking, with the main motif peeking out of the secondary themes in rhythmic alteration that brings it back to its original ornamental guise. It is a piece worth reviving and hearing regularly, a route to discovering many of the riches in Spohr’s œuvre, and the players of PCMF did it full justice with polish and élan (though we thought the finale could have gone just a bit faster). If PCMF Artistic Director Elowitch wanted to explore more Spohr chamber music, we would certainly not want to dissuade her.

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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