The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival is finishing up its 29th season tonight with the release of the third program in its series of short virtual concerts.
Forced by the coronavirus pandemic to cancel its live shows, the festival has moved online for three abbreviated concerts filmed at Old School Square’s Crest Theatre, and made available for $10 apiece on Vimeo. The rental period lasts about a month.
Tonight’s closing concert, which will be available over the festival website at 7:30 p.m., features single movements from major piano trios by Beethoven (Ghost, Op. 70, No. 1) and Brahms (No. 2 in C, Op. 87), along with an early (Op. 6) Tarantella for flute, clarinet and piano by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the Johan Halverson virtuoso arrangement for violin and cello of a passacaglia by George Frideric Handel.
The festival has maintained its modest style of presentation on video, keeping the tradition of oral program notes given by one of the players before the pieces, and presenting the music in a no-frills style, but with performers keeping a safe social distance apart, which probably presented some ensemble problems in rehearsal.
The concerts, mounted in partnership with Old School Square, have been filmed admirably well by Joey Aliberto, and the sound recording by Larry DeCarmine keeps a good balance and allows the music to be front-and-center, which is the only real way for it to work on video. The repertoire thankfully keeps to the festival’s long tradition of the familiar and the exotic, with some discoveries even in this abbreviated summer season.
The first program opened with Robert Muczyinski’s Fragments (1958) for woodwind trio, a fine example of the kind of American neoclassicism so many mainstream composers in the United States practiced for much of the century, and in which this Chicago-based composer excelled.
This carefully crafted short work is well-played on the video by the festival’s three founders, flutist Karen Fuller, clarinetist Michael Forte and bassoonist Michael Ellert. This mini-suite is familiar ground for these three musicians, and they render its coolness and wit with aplomb; this is precisely the kind of piece that is emblematic of this festival’s approach, having been founded by three woodwind players.
The slow movement of Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 (in F minor, Op. 65) followed the Mucyzinski, and featured violinist Dina Kostic, cellist Susan Bergeron and pianist Lisa Leonard. This movement, too, receives an excellent performance from the three musicians, with sensitive attention to instrumental dialogue from Kostic and Bergeron, and a passionate anchor in pianist Leonard. All three rise to the occasion when the music grows more intense, but the musicians don’t overdo it, leaving Dvořák’s lyricism to the fore.
The music of the Les Six eminence Darius Milhaud has largely disappeared from concert programs since the composer’s death in 1974, but in a time of unlimited musical selection at the fingertips perhaps his work will make a comeback. It’s always a pleasure to hear it, and the first concert closes with his Suite for clarinet, violin and piano (Op. 157b), drawn from his music for Jean Anouilh’s 1937 play Le Voyageur sans Bagage. Played by Forte, Kostic and pianist Joseph Kingma, head of the keyboard division at Palm Beach Atlantic University, this four-movement suite makes a delicious impression, sweet, charming and with a taste in the final movement of boulevardier swagger.
Particularly notable here is the mastery with which Milhaud writes for just clarinet and violin, making full use of motif and color. Kingma also proved an admirable partner, with a good feel for this music’s profile.
Concert No. 2, which was released July 24, is slightly longer, and somewhat less polished. First up is the Trio for flute, cello and piano (in G minor) by Carl Maria von Weber, a relative rarity written in 1818. Kingma, Fuller and Bergeron played two of the trio’s movements, its melancholy opener and the charming third movement, subtitled “The Shepherd’s Lament.”
Overall, this was an elegant performance, with the darkly toned main theme played beautifully by Bergeron in the first movement, and the three musicians uniting in expert ensemble. Kingma did a fine job, too, of bringing out Weber’s figurations while at the same time making them cohere in the whole. The “Shepherd’s Lament,” a slow siciliano, has a shifting, quasi-operatic style that was brought out very effectively.
Second on the program was the first movement from American composer Paul Schonfield’s Café Music (1985), surely his most popular piece. Kostic, Bergeron and Leonard were the performers, and while they clearly enjoyed playing this ode to ancient 20th-century popular music styles, the energy of the three was not uniform — Leonard was much more aggressive than the other two. I point the finger at social distancing for this; this is the kind of piece that needs the three players to be sitting closer together to enter into the cheesy spirit of things.
Violinist Mei Mei Luo appeared next with Leonard for the “Méditation” from Thaïs, the goopy chestnut from Jules Massenet’s dreary 1893 opera of a monk’s lust for a courtesan who converts to a saintly life. Luo played this in full-on late Romantic style, with in-your-face vibrato and swoops.
The program closed with another rarity, one that was featured on a festival program some years back. This was the Trio for clarinet, bassoon and piano (1832) by Mikhail Glinka, composed shortly before his opera Life for the Tsar became the founding work of the Russian art music tradition. The trio is mainstream European music of its time, and has a strong debt to the music of Bellini and Donizetti, contemporary operatic masters Glinka had met during his three years of study in Italy.
Forte, Ellert and Kingma played the last two movements of the trio, a slow aria and a bustling finale. Both Forte and Ellert sounded a bit tired in this reading, which may again be attributable to the seating required for social distancing; Kingma played his part with scrupulousness and fire.
Concert No. 3 will be released at 7:30 pm today. For tickets, click here.
Editor’s note: The author of this critique is a teaching colleague of one of the festival musicians, and has had his music played by two others.