It’s been quiet, musically speaking, at the Flagler Museum over the past year as COVID-19 silenced the annual chamber music programs at Whitehall.
Since 1999, the mansion-museum in Palm Beach has welcomed some of the leading chamber music groups on the world scene, especially young string quartets such as the Dover, Calidore, and New Orford, all of whom have played the Flagler Hotel Addition in the winter season.
This season, the music returns in a slightly different form, and in a different space, with six ensembles from the University of Miami, including classical and jazz groups, playing in the museum’s Grand Ballroom.
The programs — sponsored, as they have been for years, by philanthropist Roe Green — opened Feb. 1 with three string players who teach at UM, styled as the Frost Faculty String Trio: violinist Bettina Mussumeli, violist Jodi Levitz and cellist Ross Harbaugh. The concert was preceded by a cocktail reception, also a change from years past, when the concert would be followed by a Champagne meet-and-greet with the musicians.
On hand Tuesday night was Shelly Berg, the jazz pianist who has been dean of UM’s Frost School of Music since 2007. In his remarks before the music, he touted his school’s emphasis on entrepreneurship and its innovative approach to training musicians in a variety of disciplines from classical to jazz, pop and film.
The trio, whose members are veteran musicians familiar to South Florida audiences, programmed two works: The String Trio No. 5 (in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3) of Beethoven, and the Serenade (Op. 10) of Ernst von Dohnányi, the Hungarian pianist-composer who capped his career with an important teaching stint at Florida State University in the 1950s.
This was a compact, intermissionless program of under an hour, and it benefited by the Grand Ballroom’s acoustic, which is much drier than that of the Hotel Addition, whose reverb often made it difficult to hear the music clearly from the back of the hall. It was good to hear details in the music Tuesday that might have been overshadowed or drowned out by echo in the Addition.
The Beethoven trio, an early work that was also the last string trio he would write, dates from 1797. Its key, C minor, is one that Beethoven saved for his most serious, urgent statements — the Third Piano Concerto, the Pathétique Sonata and the Fifth Symphony are all in C minor. And this trio stretches the boundary of the form as it was known on the cusp of the Romantic era.
The Frost trio’s performance of the Beethoven trio was vigorous and energetic overall, but it also lacked subtlety and clarity of detail. In particular, there was too little of the dynamic contrast that is such an integral part of Beethoven’s dramatic style. This was most evident in the turmoil of the second movement, which seemed to overmaster the group, and the third, a skittish scherzo that needs to be spotlessly clean to make its proper effect.
The Dohnányi Serenade, written in 1902, is one of this composer’s most frequently performed pieces, along with his first Piano Quintet. It’s a five-movement work that leaves the composer’s youthful Brahmsian style behind for a more contemporary harmonic idiom that is inflected with Hungarian melodic touches.
It’s also very difficult, and its variety, which includes a quicksilver fugal third movement, demands the same kind of polish and detail that was in short supply for the Beethoven, and was also missing here. There were plenty of fine moments, particularly the playing of Levitz, whose contributions were always soulful and distinctive, notably in the second movement Romance and the theme-and-variations fourth movement.
Mussumeli had intonation problems throughout the Serenade, which in an exposed format of only three string players can take the whole ensemble in an uncertain direction. That’s not to say these are not fine, expert musicians; they are. But a very challenging work like this one, and the Beethoven, could probably have used some more rehearsal time.
The Flagler Museum Music Series continues at 7 p.m. Tuesday with the Khaos Wind Quintet, an all-female group of young musicians who have scheduled a program including music by Rossini, Amy Beach and Valerie Coleman, among others. Tickets are $70, and preceded by a pre-concert reception at 6:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, call (561) 655-2833, ext. 10, or visit www.flaglermuseum.us.