Over the 30 years that the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival has been presenting summer concerts, its musicians have presented more than 500 pieces, the majority of which have been pieces from worthy but infrequently visited corners of the repertoire.
It’s a remarkable legacy, and its mix of adventurousness and first-rate playing can be explored on the six recordings its musicians have made for the Klavier label.
And yet, the best-selling concert program in this series’ history, which began in July 1992 in the Duncan Theatre’s small recital hall, was one devoted exclusively to the work of classical music’s most familiar name.
“The best-selling program we ever played was all-Beethoven,” said flutist Karen Fuller, who with clarinetist Michael Forte and bassoonist Michael Ellert founded the festival as a way to keep playing during the off-season, and bring music to year-round residents in the depths of summer.
Fuller said that’s one reason, when the musicians began to plan this summer’s concerts, they turned to Beethoven, specifically the piano trio known as the Archduke Trio.
“Everyone is going to know it. It’s such an iconic piece,” she said.
As with so many arts organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic was an upheaval event for the festival. Putting on a virtual summer series in 2020 turned out to be very expensive from the standpoint of video creation and reduced ticket revenue.
“COVID was a problem for everyone, and that first summer we did the virtual festival, and because it was a virtual festival, we charged almost nothing,” Fuller said. “But it cost a good bit of money to produce, and consequently we were in the hole.”
Last year, what had been a four-week series of 12 concerts was reduced to one week of concerts, with three different one-hour programs played twice. This, too, was a concession to COVID, and the desire to keep audiences small and assembled for a relatively brief period.
Subsequent audience surveys showed that patrons were not enamored of that approach, and preferred the festival return to full-length programs, Fuller said.
“We talked about what our options were, but in the end, our financial situation really dictated that we just do the one weekend of concerts,” she said.
And so next month, the festival returns, with one program presented three times in three different venues in north, central and south county. The program consists of two meaty chamber works: The Nonet (Op. 139) of the Liechtenstein-born Romantic composer Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901), and the Archduke Trio of Beethoven (Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat, Op. 97).
The concerts will be presented Friday night, July 15, at Persson Recital Hall on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach; Saturday night, July 16, at First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach; and Sunday afternoon, July 17, at the Unity Church of Delray in Delray Beach.
Fuller said the festival has always been about a mix of different ensembles and repertoire, and even with just one concert, organizers wanted to stay in that spirit. That meant finding a chamber work for large forces. Past concerts have featured a nonet by the 19th-century French pianist Louise Farrenc, the Serenade for Winds of Dvorak, and the Petite Symphonie of Charles Gounod.
“We knew we wanted a nonet, and we wanted something that was not too far out there,” Fuller said. “And we decided we wanted to do one that we haven’t done before.”
The Rheinberger Nonet is scored for woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon) and string trio (violin, viola and cello) plus double bass. Best-known today for his organ music, Rheinberger was a prolific composer who had a remarkable career as a teacher in Munich, counting among his students some of the best-known composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Richard Strauss, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Engelbert Humperdinck and the American composer George Whitefield Chadwick.
Published in 1885, the nonet is a four-movement work full of agreeable, attractive melodies and vivid ensemble textures. It is expertly written, and its musical language is non-problematic and congruent with a German Romantic style rooted in Mendelssohn and extending to Brahms.
“The Rheinberger will be very pleasing for the audience; it’s very pleasant for everyone,” Fuller said.
The Archduke Trio, written in 1811 and dedicated to the Austrian Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven’s student and patron, is widely considered the greatest of Beethoven’s piano trios. Violinist Dina Kostic, cellist Susan Bergeron and pianist Lisa Leonard will perform the work, which is a prime example of Beethoven’s “middle period,” which produced some of the composer’s most celebrated pieces, including his Fifth Symphony.
Having reached its three-decade anniversary, the festival now stands at something of a crossroads. The pandemic’s impact on its finances has been substantial, and Fuller said the founders have begun to discuss what the future looks like for the institution.
“I hope that we’re going to be emerging from this — not just us, not just the featival — but all of us, that we will be able to go forward from here,” she said.
But money to keep the series running is a critical issue.
“We don’t have reserves and we don’t have an endowment. We’re a mom-and-pop kind of organization,” Fuller said. “We’re not businesspeople; we’re freelance musicians … We’ve always been on such a shoestring budget.”
Fuller said she and her co-founders are proud of what they’ve accomplished, and have lived up to the tenets of their mission statement.
“We’ve had a really good run. Our mission was very clear …. We wanted to provide high-quality concerts for South Florida residents who don’t go away during the summer. We wanted them to have something of quality to look forward to. The second part was equally important: To provide performance opportunities for our local South Florida musicians.”
It may be time now, Fuller said, for other parties to take up the mantle of this unique series, which began almost as a whim, with minimal publicity, and yet played its first program in that summer of 1992 to a packed house. That showed Fuller, Forte and Ellert that their idea was satisfying a real need in the area’s cultural life.
“We saw that people wanted something, and they were hungry for something,” Fuller said.
IF YOU GO
The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival runs from July 15 to July 17. Concerts are at 7:30 pm Friday at Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Persson Recital Hall, 326 Acacia Road, West Palm Beach; 7:30 pm Saturday at First Presbyterian Church of North Palm, 717 Prosperity Farms Road, North Palm Beach; and 4 pm Sunday at Unity Church of Delray, 101 NW 22nd St., Delray Beach. Tickets: $35. Call 561-547-1070 or visit www.pbcmf.org.