By Kevin Wilt
The Palm Beach Chamber Music Summer Festival recently ended its 25th season with an afternoon concert July 31 at the Crest Theater in Delray Beach.
The program consisted of chamber works by composers associated with larger, often grander forms: Ottorino Respighi with his colorful orchestral tone poems, Gaetano Donizetti and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari with their Italian operas. At times it felt like an interesting museum exhibit, at others it felt like a letdown.
The opening piece on the concert was Respighi’s Wind Quintet in G minor, written when the composer was only 17. The quintet consisted of flutist Karen Fuller Dixon, oboist Erika Yamada, clarinetist Michael Forte, with Maria Serkin on horn, and Michael Ellert on bassoon. Although the performance showed a little disagreement on tone and intonation, it still showed signs of energy and life.
The composition itself was solid and clear, but did not have a great deal if interest. It was precisely what one might expect from an early student work of a talented composer.
The second piece was String Quartet No. 3 in C minor by Gaetano Donizetti, also a student composition. This quartet was performed by violinists Mei Mei Luo and Dina Kostic, violist René Reder, and cellist Susan Moyer Bergeron. Despite another well-put-together performance, the piece was all but conventional, with only glimpses of the melodic writing that lay ahead for Donezetti. The second movement in particular felt quite predictable despite a performance that often showed some sparkle.
The second half of the concert assembled both groups and added bassist Janet Clippard and pianist José R. López in a performance of Wolf-Ferrari’s Sinfonia da camera (in B-flat major, Op. 8). The piece began with an almost pop-like harmonic language more representative of the 1970s or 1980s, as opposed to 1901, which was a nice change from the other earlier, more conservative works on the program.
With this larger ensemble, some lack of precision started to show a bit, with the first movement closing on a chord that was not quite together, and some woodwind runs in the third movement not in agreement. The balance among the ensemble tended to favor the piano, while most performers seemed to linger in the middle dynamic range, rarely taking a chance at whispers or shouts that could have added a little needed drama to another conventional composition by a soon-to-be established composer.
The fourth movement of the chamber symphony had Wolf-Ferrari aiming for a larger, more grand orchestral sound and scope, which never quite took off. Like many works by young composers, the piece ran out of steam with its multiple endings. As Igor Stravinsky once said, “Too many pieces of music finish too long after they end,” and this was one of them.
There is value in visiting lesser-known works by composers who achieved greatness in other genres, especially if those works provide insight and clarity to the pieces we already know so well, or open our ears to new things we may miss out on if we only stick to the warhorses.
I am not sure that was the case in any of the pieces on this concert. Despite the mostly solid performances, these works never transcended the barrier of standing alone from the recognizable name of their composer. Had the concert program been blank, would the audience still have enjoyed these pieces?