In this summer’s version of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival, the music ranges widely from canonical string and piano quartets to rarities for unusual combinations of instruments, as well as major utterances from overlooked composers of the past.
In short, it contains all the elements listeners have come to expect from this festival, whose 28th anniversary season begins July 5 at the Persson Recital Hall on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach.
In an amiable huddle at Howley’s restaurant in West Palm Beach in mid-June, the three founders of the festival – flutist Karen Fuller, clarinetist Michael Forte and bassoonist Michael Ellert — said they were happy to be back for another season, and looking to add audiences to those who have regularly turned out for this series of concerts.
“We’ve got our formula, and we just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Fuller said.
In a nod to the Beethoven 250th birthday celebrations in the coming 2019-20 season, the festival has programmed the composer’s most popular piece in his lifetime, the Septet (in E-flat, Op. 20). Written in 1799 for string trio, clarinet, horn, bassoon and bass, it’s music by a young Beethoven writing with the intent to entertain, but one can hear some of the composer who had already broken new ground the year before in his Pathétique Sonata for piano.
The festival has programmed the work twice before, in 1999 and 2009, and is bringing it back again this summer, in part to feature violinist Mei Mei Luo, a longtime festival participant.
And then there’s the appeal of the piece itself.
“I heard it on the radio in the car the other day when I was heading back from somewhere, and I was thinking … ‘Wow, this is great. We haven’t done this in a while; we should do this,” Forte said.
It also will make a good end to the festival, Fuller said. “We always try to go out with something big and splashy,” she said.
Two other canonical works, the Sunrise Quartet of Haydn, and the Piano Quartet No. 2 of Brahms, are on programs Three and Two respectively, and Program One features the little-appreciated but important Cello Sonata of Chopin, the last major work the Polish composer completed. Pride of place on the first concert goes to the Nonet for winds and strings by the now-forgotten composer Louis Spohr, who was a major celebrity in his lifetime (1784-1859).
Some interest in Spohr was reignited some years ago when the fine American violinist Hilary Hahn issued a recording of the composer’s most popular violin concerto (No. 8 in A minor, subtitled Gesangszene), but it has failed to lead to a Spohr revival.
The Nonet (in F, Op. 31), which the musicians programmed more than a decade ago, is an ingratiating piece from 1813 for woodwind quintet, string trio and bass that makes deft use of the contrasts in sound between the two families of instruments. It’s a charming work, very representative of the kind of music Europe’s emerging middle class was welcoming in the early 19th century as the era of Napoleon came to a close.
“It surfs along, it brings a smile to your face,” Fuller said.
Also on the first program is a sextet for piano and woodwind quintet by Ludwig Thuille, a German composer in the spirit of Brahms who died relatively young at 45; this sextet is the only piece of his that still has any concert currency.
“We just don’t have that much in the Romantic (style)” as flutists, Fuller said. “So it’s nice to have something meaty in that way.”
Forte’s clarinet is featured in the Clarinet Trio of Alexander von Zemlinsky (Program Three), an early, Brahmsian work by this late Romantic Austrian composer (indeed, Brahms himself recommended the work to his publisher, Simrock). Zemlinsky, who studied with Bruckner, was involved in the circles of both Arnold Schoenberg (who married his sister) and Gustav Mahler (he was Alma Schindler’s lover before she married Mahler), and his later music is more forward-looking.
“It’s not what it seems,” Forte says of the trio. “When I listen to it, it sounds like Brahms, and then when I dig into it, it’s more like (Richard) Strauss.”
Perhaps the most unusual piece is a set of miniatures for violin and bass by the Soviet composer Reinhold Glière, best-known for his folk-flavored ballet score The Red Poppy.
“There are eight of them, and most people do three or four of them (on a concert). We’re doing four,” Ellert said.
Music of a more contemporary cast is represented by a concertino for flute, viola and piano by the Swiss-American composer Ernst Bloch, a concertino for violin, trumpet, bassoon and piano by the Austro-American composer Robert Starer (both on Program One), and a trio for oboe, bassoon and piano by the British composer Michael Head, whom choristers know for his beautiful Christmas carol The Little Road to Bethlehem (Program Four).
In addition to putting the spotlight on Luo in the Beethoven, festival organizers are featuring cellist Susan Bergeron in the Chopin sonata (Program One) — long requested by patrons — and oboist Erika Yamada in the Trio Sonata No. 4 of the 18th-century Italian oboist and composer Alessandro Besozzi (Program Three).
“It’s such a sweet piece,” Ellert said.
Fuller will be heard on that same program in an American rarity, a pairing of two pieces (Nocturne and Scherzo) by Arthur Foote (1853-1937) for flute and string quartet. Foote was a member of the so-called Boston School of composers, writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who spoke a conservative musical language. The work’s popularity among flutists today is credited to Carol Wincenc, with whom Fuller studied.
“Last year I didn’t play anything with strings the entire summer,” Fuller said, and wanted to change that this year. Program Four features a work for flute, violin and piano, a trio sonata by C.P.E. Bach, the always surprising son of J.S. Bach.
The festival consists of 12 concerts over four weekends; each program is heard three times, once in the northern, central and southern parts of Palm Beach County. Persson Hall is the Friday night site; on Saturday nights, the concerts are heard at First Presbyterian Church in Palm Beach Gardens. Sunday’s concerts are in the afternoons at Crest Theatre in Delray Beach.
For years, the festival had its north county concerts at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, but moved to First Presbyterian three years ago. And it’s a good place to hear chamber music, the three founders said.
The concert takes place in a smaller room at the church rather than the sanctuary, and the size of that room has been good for the music and the audience, they said.
“We moved from the large sanctuary into the small chapel. And that’s where we’re going to stay,” Forte said, adding that it’s been newly renovated. “It’s worked out great. Instead of being in a big, empty-looking place with 100 people in it, we’re in a place where we have to get extra chairs.”
“It’s very intimate, very small,” said Ellert, and that has brought the audience in closer contact with the performers and this rich repertoire.
Which is all the three were trying to do when they founded this durable festival in 1992, and which has drawn a steady, loyal crowd every time another Palm Beach County July rolls around.
The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival opens July 5-7 with performances at 7:30 pm Friday at the Persson Recital Hall, West Palm Beach; 7:30 pm Saturday at First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach; and 2 pm Sunday at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach. Subsequent concerts are set for July 12-14, 19-21 and 26-28. Tickets are $30 apiece; subscriptions are $100. Call 561-547-1010 or visit www.pbcmf.org.