Over the past 30 years, the world of contemporary classical composition has moved, like so many things in our digital culture, into niches.
There are hardcore atonalists, minimalists, New Romantics, and eclectics of every description vying for the ears of a busy audience. But in the United States, this flowering of different styles comes after the establishment in the mid-20th century of a distinctive American tonal style, harmonically demanding but melodically strong, and structured along Germanic lines in keeping with centuries of tradition before it.
Many eminent American composers in this category come to mind, such as Walter Piston, Vincent Persichetti, Wallingford Riegger and many others, and during this past week of concerts, the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival series introduced a new work that was recognizably part of the tradition.
Clark McAlister, a Boca Raton-based composer and music executive who was responsible for the festival’s six recordings on the Klavier label, unveiled his new Canzona, a short work for wind quintet and trumpet, at the three concerts. As usual with McAlister, this was a well-crafted, expertly scored piece, with distinct melodic phrases, a mildly spiky harmonic language and a rhythmic tattoo that worked to bind the one-movement piece together.
Although it is not as elaborate as other McAlister pieces the festival has premiered such as Agreste and my personal favorite, Lou’s Mountain Bread, it is a fine little work, akin perhaps to the music of William Schuman, and one that fit quite well on this program.
The concert opened with the largest ensemble that has ever been assembled for the festival, a 16-piece chamber group playing the Siegfried Idyll of Richard Wagner. On Sunday at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach, this came off very nicely, starting gently and quietly and slowly unfolding. The balance was well-handled, even in the absence of a conductor, and you could hear how Wagner’s expert scoring made the size of the group perfectly suited to this tender music.
Leoš Janáček’s wind sextet Mládi, one of the many inspired works of the Czech composer’s late years, came next. Janáček’s constant shifting of rhythms, tempos and textures makes this piece a challenge to put together, but the six musicians handled it well, though some of the individual moments — the slower sections of the first movement, for instance — could have been smoother.
Hornist Chris Jackson, who played admirably well in the Wagner, stood out in the Janáček. This music requires a very nimble player (as in the first-movement mini-cadenza) and Jackson was more than up tot the task.
After the McAlister work, the concert closed with a true rarity, an octet for strings by the German composer Max Bruch, written just before his death in 1920, and therefore the work of a man in his early 80s. To say that it was out of step with its time is also to say that it was completely consistent with the music of his earlier life, such as his best-known piece, the G minor Violin Concerto of 1866.
This octet is rich and Romantic, but not really autumnal, as you might expect. Scored for four violins, two violas, cello and bass, its spiritual grandfather is the Mendelssohn Octet, and it has in common with that piece a confident vigor in the first movement that speaks of a compositional craft with all its elements in balance. The movement has a lovely, memorable tune that weaves its way through the movement and thick, warm scoring, thanks in part to its primary key of B-flat major.
The eight players (all of them women) dug strongly into the intense, passionate slow movement, which is dominated by a yearning, climbing motif and some echt-Romantic minor-key climaxes. The spirit of Mendelssohn, more particularly his string quartets, is even stronger in the final movement, with its syncopated theme and its buzzing, energetic tremolos.
This a fine piece, well worth hearing again on any chamber music program, and the musicians brought out its contours with verve, style and beauty.
The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival continues tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon with Program 3, which includes a nonet by Nino Rota, a string trio by Beethoven, and a trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon by Rosy Wertheim. Performances are at 7:30 tonight at the Persson Recital Hall at Palm Beach Atlantic University; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Eissey Campus Theatre; and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach. Call 561-547-1070 or visit pbcmf.org for more information.