Arizona Friends of Chamber Music opens 63rd season quietly
Czech group brings Euro-cool to classical music premiere
The Czech Nonet brought sophistication, precision and playfulness to the first concert of the 2010-11 season for the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. However, they didn't bring in a full house.
The chamber music group, which has historically filled its events with long-established season-ticket holders, had seats available Wednesday night. In prior, more robust years, buying season tickets involved getting on a waiting list and scoring walk-up tickets at the door could be dicey.
This year, the recession and aging demographics have thinned the ranks of concert-goers. This, however, could be a boon for students who can buy walk-up tickets for $10, compared to the full price of $25. Last minute attendance will be more feasible with tickets in reliable supply.
The Czech Nonet was founded at the Prague Conservatory in 1924, initially to perform an under-appreciated nonet by Beethoven contemporary Louis Spohr. The present group continues that instrumental combination of four strings (violin, viola, cello and double-bass) and five winds (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and French horn). Through their efforts, they have added more than 300 works to the nonet repertoire by 20th Century composers from Martinu to Prokofiev.
They opened the concert with a Divertimento by neo-classical Czech composer Iša Krejči. The work was gently humorous, the opening Introduction; Presto offering an almost cartoonish military theme that lampooned any sentimental notions. In contrast, the Aria of the second movement was shimmering and pastoral, with a glow reminiscent of the works of Frederick Delius. The comic discord of the Scherzine slide seamlessly into a more agitated Presto. The Lento non troppo passed the melody from instrument to instrument, supported by a deep, dark tonality anchored in cello and double bass. The Presto was jolly and energetic, jumping to double time for the ending.
Next came the premiere of University of Arizona composer Daniel Asia's Mixed Nonet.
The first movement, Impetuous, contemplative, though very brief and angular, supplied the theme for variations in the subsequent movements. The second movement, Moderato, developed the modernistic theme into long phrases, allowing Asia and the ensemble to explore various instrument combinations. Its dissonance was ear-catching, but not abrasive.
The third movement, Allegro, molto ritmico, was blaring, mischievous and brief. The Adagio again opened up the theme for exploration, first by the winds, then by the strings as the winds provided a hushed descant. The movement ended with dark colors and a hint of Gershwin.
After a brief Allegro, the final movement fragmented the melody for more development, occasionally rising in volume. After a change in meter, the work concluded with genial restatements of the theme. Asia joined the ensemble on stage for two ovations.
The Nonet stripped down to a modified string quartet (double bass instead of second violin), featuring Jiři Špaček on French horn for Mozart's Quintet for Horn and Strings in E-flat Major, K. 407.
The outstanding musicianship of Špaček was unfortunately undercut by the acoustics. Now seated with his bell facing back into the baffle panels on stage, the horn a muffled sound rather than a bright focus. His mastery of the part's rapid passages, written for Mozart's good friend, Ignaz Leutgeb, was nonetheless a cause for appreciation.
After the intermission, the full Nonet returned for a version of Claude Debussy's popular Suite Bergamasque. Originally written for piano, they performed a particularly colorful and sensitive arrangement by Thomas Widlar. Here their ensemble playing glowed, as they elegantly managed the shifting tempos of the Prelude, broadening the simplicity of the piano work in a chamber orchestra pastoral. They added a Slavic feel to the second movement's Menuet,
For many, the highlight of the evening was their evocative handling of Debussy's famous Claire de Lune, at first restrained, then vaguely menacing, and finally projecting a tonal richness and magnificence that the piano version could never achieve. The final movement, Passepied, was stately, its melody dancing over pizzicato cello and bass.
The Nonet closed their set with a work that was clearly their favorite: an arrangement of Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, a symphonic poem for chamber orchestra. The Nonet played the work, in an arrangement by Czech musician Tomas Ille, with great love, concentration and restraint, rarely rising above forte in tight crescendo.
Based on a German lullaby, it was perhaps mellow to a fault, quietly joyful and ever so proper, with the kind of well-controlled passion that Europeans delight in but Americans find vaguely confusing. It failed to ignite the audience, whose applause was restrained despite the excellence of the performance.
However, the Nonet had the last laugh. As an encore, they applied the same Euro-cool, combined with prodigiously effortless musicianship, to a frenetic and stunning version of Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee that left the audience gasping with delight.