Student chamber music at the Eastern Music Festival

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Somehow I stumbled on to the Eastern Music Festival’s free student chamber music recitals for the first time this year. I wish I had known about them earlier. Five recitals took place over the last two weeks of the festival. They featured standard ensembles (string quartets, brass quintets, piano trios, etc.) and non-standard ones (four violins; horn, violin, and piano; flute, viola, and double bass, and others.)

Very few of the groups played every movement of a multi-movement work, and there were seldom two pieces in a row with the same instrumentation. I confess to listening with no little jealousy. It seems that no one except students ever get the chance to participate in that kind of a chamber music event. I certainly haven’t played any non-standard chamber music since my student days. Nor have I heard about concerts where various groups get to play a number or two and leave the rest of the program to others–and sit and listen.

Keep in mind that all the students are between 14 and 22 years old. They come from all over for a five-week festival that includes private lessons, orchestral concerts, and master classes. Preparation to play a chamber piece or part of one is only a fairly small part of their work. Where members of professional chamber groups develop close working relationships with each other over a period of years, these students were assigned to a group of people that perhaps they were meeting for the first time one day and three or four weeks later performing the piece in public. Sure there were spots of questionable intonation, skittish ensemble or balance problems. But I have heard plenty of professional groups (including university faculty ensembles) that do not attain the standard of performance that I heard so consistently.

. . . bought the tee shirt

Most of the music was standard repertoire. Composers included Beethoven, Boccherini, Brahms, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Poulenc, Saint Saëns–the usual suspects. Composers of the brass quintets–Arnold, Bozza, Dahl, Ewald–are hardly household names, but their music is the foundation of the brass quintet repertoire. The top touring professional and recording groups all seem to have abandoned it entirely in favor of showy transcriptions, so I was very glad to hear these pieces. A trombone quartet played two transcriptions and a short piece by Eric Ewazen.

Some of the more ad hoc ensembles have literature by major composers, so we heard the Brahms Horn Trio and the Poulenc Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano. Some of the other ensembles required going off the beaten path to find repertoire, and I think that’s always a good thing.

A quartet of violins played a piece by Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz. She was the leading woman composer of her generation and perhaps the leading Polish composer. The twenty or so years of her most mature work coincided with the division of Europe into NATO and the Soviet bloc, and most Eastern European composers remained relatively unknown in the West. Bacewicz was a concert violinist until she quit to concentrate on composing in the 1950s, so naturally she wrote many string quartets. I intend to add some to my record collection.

Her somewhat older Czech contemporary Ervin Schulhoff wrote a Concertino for flute (doubling on piccolo), viola, and double bass. Schulhoff, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, had a much wider range of influences than Bacewicz. I liked this piece very much and will be looking for his music, too.

I confess I don’t understand the fascination with Mozart’s juvenilia. Certainly it’s remarkable that a young boy could compose so well, but there’s nothing really remarkable about the music itself. I gather that two of his early string quartets made it onto the program for the sake of fairly easy music for inexperienced players and to give more opportunity for bass players. Surely some of Haydn’s op. 9 quartets or some of Boccherini’s music could have accomplished the same purpose and given the audience more interesting music to listen to.

Speaking of the audience, there were lots of older people there. Students stopped in to hear their friends. There were also several children in every audience, listening with rapt attention most of the way through the concerts. I was sitting right in front of one family when the little preschool girl kept whispering to her mother that she wanted to go home. There were still two pieces left. She stayed quiet, but hardly still.

I must confess that my sympathy was with the little girl. Four of the concerts started at 1:30 and the other at 4:00. The program booklet says, “Take a late lunch break (or early dinner). . .”  Who could have guessed that any of the four early concerts would almost do double duty for both meals? All of the concerts lasted two hours or more!

Why not schedule 10 one-hour concerts instead of 5 two-hour concerts? The little girl was not the only one who had had enough after an hour and a half without intermission. I found it very hard to pay proper attention to the last couple of numbers, so the schedule not only wearied the audience, but deprived the last couple of groups of an attentive hearing.

These minor quibbles aside, I’m glad I went to these concerts, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s edition. I have always enjoyed chamber music even more than orchestral music, and to hear such consistently excellent performances of such a wide variety of music and ensembles was a real joy.

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