Effete, Do Your Stuff 

Or, effete don't fail me now

Or, effete don't fail me now

It is not true that chamber music is an effete entertainment performed by players in formal clothing for audiences in gowns and brocade smoking jackets, sipping sherry and cognac. At the recent Belmont Camerata Musicale concert in the Belmont Mansion, not the first square inch of brocade was to be seen. Perish the thought that anything so ardent as brandy should even be considered. And, if you consider David Amram and the late Lee Gannon as composers of “effete” music, may I suggest you phone the lexicographers at the OED so they can update their file on “effete.”

Violinists Elizabeth Small and Gerald Greer, accompanied by harpsichordist Richard Shadinger and cellist Philip Hansen, opened the evening with Albinoni’s Trio Sonata #2 in A Major. Baroque trio sonatas are often catatonically dull, but the music here was as refreshing as the performance was winning. After a very staid slow opening movement, the performance erupted with the second movement allegro. It went like the wind and bubbled with the obvious pleasure of the performers. Ornaments deserved particular applause here, and if there was the occasional tendency to scoop up to a high note, it was all part of the ebullient mood. Albinoni, the composer of more than 50 operas, came to the fore in the lovely third-movement larghetto. The beauty of the soloists’ stately interweaving and vocal phrasing was perfected by their unerring accuracy of pitch. Only in the finale did I feel that the melodic line and articulation of some individual notes needed to be rendered a mite cleaner, but, even here, the playing was marked by infectious good fun that obscured any picayune deficiencies.

Many of the same comments that I made concerning Lee Gannon’s Nashville, Lower Broad when it was performed last year at the Scarritt-Bennett Center could be repeated here. The performers were the same in each case—Lee Levine, clarinet; Judith Ablon Vann, viola; and Tim Gmeiner, piano. Gmeiner’s reading of a piano part that could easily turn to mud in other hands was a study in impressionistic clarity. Levine’s clarinet was the chief actor in the many moods Gannon sought to portray, and her performance more than did justice to the composer’s intentions. Vann’s viola work provided the moodier moments in the reading. There were a few pitch problems here, and some of Vann’s pizzicatti were all but inaudible, but the latter problem is most likely a problem with the piece.

David Amram’s new percussion concerto will receive its premiere with the Nashville Symphony this season, and the Belmont Camerata Musicale players provided an introduction to his music with a performance of his three Native American Portraits. Percussionist Sam Bacco, violinist Elisabeth Small, and pianist Robert Marler did their best by this score, but I fear it has problems that no one can fix—indeed, Native American Portraits feels like more of a study than a finished piece. Ostensibly a work that gives a percussionist the chance to play chamber music, this Amram score sounds all too often as if that percussion part were added as decoration rather than integrated into the music. Another glaring fault of Native American Portraits is its too frequent doubling of the piano and violin parts. I even question the use of the violin as the principal melody instrument here. Amram, a composer who is very familiar with indigenous musics of the Western Hemisphere, as well as a noted player of Native American wind instruments, seems to have stumbled in trying to give this wind music to the violin. He manages to make the violin sound right in the lovely opening of the second movement, entitled “Seneca,” but it just doesn’t work for the more discursive finale, “Zuñi,” or the opening movement, “Cheyenne.” Nor has Amram allowed his better materials a chance to develop.

Given these reservations, it was hard to judge the technical merits of the performance. I did notice what I thought was a problem with note values in the first movement piano part, but I’m not at all sure that Marler wasn’t accurately playing what was written. Likewise, I noticed the sound of the violin developing a harshness throughout the second movement before a very long and unsteady note at the end. Again, I’m not at all sure that this too wasn’t a failed attempt by the composer to create unusual sound textures. Amram is well known for his ability to combine classical forms with ethnic materials into audience-pleasing pieces. If you can find a performance of his triple concerto, you will be convinced very quickly, but Native American Portraits is not the composer at his best.

If much of the Belmont Camerata Musicale’s programming for this concert was nonstandard, the final work of the evening was a cornerstone of the repertoire—Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat Major. To borrow a phrase from record reviewing, this reading had “presence.” And why not? The Belmont Mansion concert space is the ultimate in performance intimacy. You hear every note, and with this kind of performance, the hearing was a pleasure. Kudos to cellist Philip Hansen for some of the most forthright playing of the evening. He did well all evening long, always playing on pitch, but his part in the lovely cello/viola duet in the first movement was exceptional. This is not to slight violist Monisa Angell, who also did herself proud with a fine star turn over tremolo strings in the second movement.

Elisabeth Small’s weepy statement of the first theme in the second movement was the “epitome of crocodility.” And the third-movement scherzo was a wonder of Mendelssohnian lightness that fully deserved the scattered applause it got. (Yes, folks, you can applaud after movements to show appreciation for particularly fine work!) Robert Marler, who had some problems with phrasing throughout the performance, nailed the tricky syncopations in this movement. If I’ve failed to praise anyone in the ensemble for this performance, let my commendation for the finale rectify that. All of the players kept up the splendid flow, right up to the treat of a Hungarian-style finale.

The next mansion concerts will feature the Classical Voice Faculty on Oct. 22 and the Belmont Camerata Musicale on Oct. 28. In the meantime, I’m looking for a brocade smoking jacket.

Pièces brèves: I know it’s in Cookeville, and I know it sounds corny, but do not miss the 30th annual Fall Tubafest at Tennessee Tech beginning this Sunday and continuing through next Friday. It is one of the premiere events in the entire country for tuba and euphonium players. All the top brass will be there.


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