The 30th anniversary season concerts of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival, which arrive this week, amount to a statement of survival.
The series returns for one week and six concerts over three days from this Friday through Sunday, and will be presented, as always, in three different parts of the county. One of the venues will be wide open, the two others less so, with limited seating.
But that’s a welcome break from the recent COVID-19 past, and the founders of the concert series say they’re ready to see live audiences once again.
“People want to go to concerts. They don’t want to sit and watch videos anymore,” said Michael Forte, the clarinetist who co-founded the festival in 1992 with flutist Karen Fuller and bassoonist Michael Ellert.
In the COVID summer of 2020, the festival transformed itself into a video concert series in which the festival musicians streamed performances they had recorded at Delray Beach’s Old School Square. While the playing was credible and constituted much-needed refreshment in a local music drought, Fuller and Forte said it wasn’t something they wanted to continue.
Among the added costs was video editing.
“We spent a fortune on that last summer. It was our biggest expense by far,” Fuller said, adding that while the videos were excellent, “it killed us financially.”
As usual with the PBCMF, repertoire digs deep into the library, with well-known works such as Dvořák’s Dumky Trio alongside lesser-known works such as the Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Serenata in vano. And there are also “absolutely charming” salon works such as a group of duos by César Cui, the least-known member of Russia’s Mighty Five, and the humorous but very skillful Two-Bit Contraptions of the American composer Jan Bach, who died in October.
Most years, the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival season covers four three-day weekends in July and offers each program in a northern, central or southern county venue. This year, there is half the number of concerts, all presented on one weekend.
On Friday and Saturday, the concerts will be presented at 5 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m. On Sunday, concerts will be heard at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Friday’s concerts take place at Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Persson Recital Hall; Saturday’s are planned for the First Presbyterian Church of North Palm Beach in that city.
Sunday’s concerts will be given at the Unity Church of Delray in Delray Beach. Seating is limited to 50 people at each concert in West Palm Beach and Delray Beach, while in North Palm Beach seating expands to 150 people for each concert.
Safety protocols differ for each venue. First Presbyterian, for example, “is a very large space – we’re going to be in the sanctuary and not the chapel – so I think people will be able to naturally distance themselves,” Fuller said.
Unity Church, on the other hand, will provide masks for people and thermometers to run temperature checks. The coronavirus, after all, has not been eradicated, and some audience members may be wary of returning completely to a pre-COVID normal.
“So we’re kind of running the gamut from middle of the road on Friday, totally open on Saturday, and the most restrictive on Sunday,” Fuller said.
Much of this festival’s appeal lies in its modest approach, as if good friends were gathering to leaf through some scores and see what they could find there. That extends to the post-concert receptions, which always feature cookies and punch. This year, for COVID safety reasons, there will be no refreshments, but there will be a meet-and-greet with the musicians afterward.
The festival was founded by three woodwind players, which makes the repertoire very different than the string quartet-heavy lineup of a typical chamber music festival. The programs are shorter, too, only running about an hour, so the musicians this summer are playing excerpts rather than full-scale works.
“By doing these shorter programs, with an hour or a little more than a hour, then we’re able to do two performances and maximize the number of tickets that we sell,” Fuller said.
“We spent a lot more money than we normally do on those virtual concerts, and it just left us in a more precarious position,” she said. “We really had to think not just of COVID precautions, but what could we honestly afford to do here. We just had to step that back.”
The Friday concert has works by Telemann — a rare Baroque outing for the festival — the aforementioned Cui, a piano trio by Spain’s Joaquin Turina, and a work by the 19th-century German Romantic composer Carl Reinecke.
The second concerts on Saturday feature a movement from the Dvořák trio, a duo for bassoon and bass by the early 20th-century French modernist Albert Roussel, a nocturne for flute, violin, horn and piano by the 19th-century German flute virtuoso Karl Doppler, a wind quartet by a pre-teen Gioachino Rossini, and movements from a quartet for clarinet and strings by the Swedish clarinetist Bernhard Crusell, a contemporary of Beethoven.
“He was a clarinet player, and you can tell,” Forte said.
Sunday’s concerts wrap up the festival with the Nielsen and Jan Bach works, a duo for violin and cello by Paganini, three of Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces for clarinet, viola and piano, and the first and fourth movements of the Violin Sonata of César Franck, probably the best-known work in the festival.
The Nielsen work, a short quintet from 1914 for clarinet, horn bassoon, cello and double bass, was featured on the first of six recordings the festival issued on the Klavier label in its earlier years. Collectively, they are an impressive document of superlative music-making and rewarding, lesser-known repertoire.
Fuller and Forte are looking forward to interacting again with their audiences, some of whom have been coming to the concerts each summer for the past 29 years. Forte said the festival sent out postcards to its subscribers about this summer’s concerts, and have been pleased by the response.
“They say ‘We’re so glad you’re having concerts; whatever it is, we’re going to it. We’re excited that you’re doing what you’re doing,’” Forte said.
The pandemic disrupted more elaborate plans for the festival’s 30th anniversary season, and no plans are in the works for the 31st season. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be one.
Forte said the group tends to be worn out after the effort of putting on the concerts, and revisits the festival each May to see whether the musical flesh and spirits are willing.
“We just put one foot in front of the other,” Fuller said.
A fitting metaphor for COVID recovery, that, and an apt guide to the return of the area’s concert life in a still-uncertain time.
IF YOU GO
Tickets are available by calling 547-0170. Although tickets will be available at the door, all venues have limited seating, so festival organizers recommend ordering tickets beforehand. Each concert is $20; a two-concert subscription is $35; all three concerts can be had for $50. For more information, visit pbcmf.org.