Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival: Reflection and Connection

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Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival: Reflection and Connection

By Ken Wilson –

Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956 is one of the greatest works of the art form called chamber music, sorrowful but sublime, “a stirring paean to the indomitability of the human spirit” composed shortly before the Austrian master’s death in 1828.

John Adams’ whimsically titled Road Movies for piano and violin is a rare composition for chamber ensemble by one of contemporary classical music’s leading composers, capped by “a big perpetual motion machine for four wheel drives only.”

Chamber music: “Instrumental ensemble music performed by one player for each part, as opposed to orchestral music in which there are several players for each part.” The Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival: “A world-class annual festival of old favorites and soon-to-be favorites put on by two globetrotting native sons.”

From the celebrated to the cutting edge, from the sumptuous to the astringent—that’s the 19th annual Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival, seven concerts from September 6 through September 23 featuring an international cast of 17 musicians plus the University of Virginia Chamber Singers.

Violinist Johnny Gandelsman of the acclaimed Brooklyn Rider string quartet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble will be back, as will other Festival favorites including pianists Mimi Solomon and Judith Gordon and percussionists I-Jen Fang and Matthew Gold.  

“This season we will continue our tradition of building bridges between sounds, lands, styles,  and cultures, presenting some of the world’s finest music and musicians in our home town in Central Virginia,” write cellist Raphael Bell and violinist Timothy Summers, Charlottesville High School and Julliard School classmates with international careers and cross-cultural tastes who founded the Festival in 2000.

The roots of chamber music “reach far from the here and now, into history,” Bell and Summers note. “What we call ‘chamber music’ arises from a long and literary tradition. We have books of sheet music in front of us which we read aloud, proceeding at a literary pace. Over spans of an hour or an evening, we give stories, sounds, and sequences which were written down and which are meant to be read. Much of it has travelled a long way.”

Stories, sounds, and sequences, sometimes mistakenly characterized as difficult and forbidding, classical music is accessible to anyone with an open heart and curious ears, as demonstrated by the delighted school groups often seen at the Festival’s free Community Concert at the Paramount Theater.

This year’s one-hour Community Concert, sponsored by the Bama Works Fund of Dave Matthews Band at the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, will kick off the Festival on Thursday, September 6 at 12:30 p.m. at the Paramount. As always, the content of the program will be a surprise. No tickets are necessary—or available.

Like every Festival program, the first ticketed concert, Sunday, September 9 at 3:00 p.m. at the University of Virginia’s Old Cabell Hall, balances the comforting and familiar with the recent and bracing. It leads off with works by two late 20th century composers and music theorists, the American John Cage and the Japanese Toru Takemitsu, who counted Cage as one of his influences. 

“The history of our being in Asia with this music is long and mutual,” write Bell and Summers. “A natural touchstone for this exchange with Asia is the music of Toru Takemitsu, who is perhaps best known for scoring Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 film Ran.

The most prominent Japanese composer in his lifetime, Takemitsu drew inspiration from  Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen and other Europeans as well as from his native culture. His Voice, for Solo Flute (1971) employs a mixture of amplified and unamplified flute sounds and unusual playing techniques.   

His 1981 piece Rain Tree is “quintessential Takemitsu,” says Chicago-based percussionist Gregory Beyer: “ethereal, spiritual, misty, pointillistic. As I am preparing my part for performance, I feel as though every note I play on marimba and crotales is like a water drop within a complex matrix woven into the fabric of the musical texture with the other two percussionists.

“Together, our playing creates a thick cloud of mist, of rain, of dew drops being shaken gently from the boughs of the tree of life. Rain Tree indeed. There is something poignant, touching, deeply human about Takemitsu’s musical works, and I look forward to sharing it with the Charlottesville community.”

Sandwiched in between will be J.C. Bach’s Flute Quartet in C major, W.B 58, and John Cage’s Amores, a “multi-movement love poem from the pages of the mid-twentieth century American avant garde,” as Beyer describes it.

“The rarified and crystalline sounds of wooden and skin percussion instruments are the perfect foil to Cage’s complex percussion orchestra—the prepared piano. His love affair with that instrument alone created work upon work upon work of the most striking musical gestures of his life and of his times. It is exquisite music.”

Ludwig van Beethoven’s relatively neglected Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60—“a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants” Robert Schumann called it, in reference to Beethoven’s monumental third and fifth symphonies—will close the program in an arrangement for chamber ensemble.

On Monday, September 10 at 7:30 p.m. in the night club-like setting of ​Live Arts, it’s time for Music Fresh Squeezed, a “collective exploration of new currents in music” in which “Festival musicians from far and near bring the best of what they’ve recently found.”

Taking part along with Bell and Summers will be violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Mayuko Ishigami, flutist Sooyun Kim, clarinetist Keith Lipson, pipa player Lin Ma, and percussionists Gregory Beyer, I-Jen Fang, and Matthew Gold.

Twentieth century South Korean composer Isang Yun spent much of his adult life in Germany, where he wrote music for Western instruments bridging the East Asian tradition and the Western avant-garde. Dedicated to the reunification of North and South Korea, and claimed as the national composer by both countries, he was abducted from Germany by the South in 1967, charged with espionage and imprisoned for 20 months before protests from some 200 musical artists won his release.

Festival audiences will hear two of Yun’s compositions on Thursday, September 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Old Cabell Hall, the Clarinet Quintet No. 1 and the Garak for Flute and Piano. Sweet Air, for flute, violin, clarinet, cello and piano by Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang and the Piano Trio No. 3, Op. 110 by Robert Schumann will round out the program.

“Nothing so ideally perfect has been written for strings as this inexpressibly lovely work” is how one prominent musicologist described Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956. Often referred to as Schubert’s Cello Quintet because it adds an extra cello to the standard string quartet lineup, the piece was composed in 1828, only two months before his death, but was neglected by his publisher and didn’t receive its first performance until 1850.

The Quintet will be heard on Sunday, September 16 at 3:00 p.m. at PVCC’s Dickinson Theatre. Preceding it will be the Ghost Opera for String Quartet and Pipa by Tan Dun, perhaps the world’s most celebrated Chinese composer. Playing the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese folk music instrument made to be plucked, will be Lin Ma, a Chinese pipa artist residing in New York City who has been named one of the top ten pipa masters by China Central Television.

“The works of Tan Dun have been some of the most influential Asian music of recent times,” Bell and Summers write. “His soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brought him worldwide reach, and his concert work continues to resonate across the globe.”

Carl Maria von Weber’s sparkling Clarinet Quintet in B flat major, Op. 34 and Flow 1, for violin, cello and pipa by Chinese avant-garde composer and conductor Huang Ruo will open the program.

Duets dominate the program on Thursday, September 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Dickinson Theatre, beginning with J.S. Bach’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, then leaping almost three centuries forward for John Adams’s Road Movies for violin and piano, written in 1995. “The title Road Movies is total whimsy,” Adams wrote on his blog, “probably suggested by the ‘groove’ in the piano part, all of which is required to be played in a ‘swing’ mode.”

Japan’s preeminent living composer Toshio Hosokawa describes himself as “searching for a new form of Japanese spiritual culture and music, one through which I can remain true to myself as well as to my origins.” Hosokawa’s Water of Lethe is scored for piano quartet. Johannes Brahms’ Sonata for Viola and Piano In F minor, Op. 120 No. 1, one of the cornerstones of the viola repertoire, will close the program.   

This year’s final program, Sunday, September 23 at 3:00 p.m. at the Paramount Theater, will open with Bach Preludes, Fugues and Chorales and close with W.A. Mozart’s Piano Trio in G major, K. 496.

Three modernist works will be heard in between: Elliott Carter’s Figment No. 1 is scored for cello. Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII for violin is a “love-letter . . . to the repertoires and possibilities of [the] instrument.”

The UVA Chamber Singers conducted by Michael Slon will close this year’s Festival with a choral work by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, “a Baltic mystic whose Plainscapes is an invitation into the natural landscape and to the world of voice” in Bell and Summers’s words.

“This year we have a bit more Asian music” Summers says, “though we don’t really have a theme. As we both work more and more, we find Asia as a whole—Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore—more and more on our itineraries. And we find music from there coming to us in Europe and America.  So it seemed rather natural to acknowledge a classical style in America which looks across both oceans.”

“There is something poignant about bringing these focused international styles to Charlottesville, which has long been connected to central questions of what it means to be of a place and also of the world at large. A lot of this centers around Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, of course—but it also revolves around the broad influence of the University, of its writers and doctors, its engineers and lawyers. And it revolves around our own families and friends and neighborhoods.”

“Every year is a bit of a search to see what American music can be: how does music from afar or from long ago resonate? How does the close and new resonate? Every year is an experiment on the meaning of new and old, and what can be remembered.”

Memory, reflection, acknowledgement and connection—at a time when the Charlottesville-Albemarle community has been soul-searching, the Festival provides a welcome opportunity for meditation and reflection.

“Chamber music allows a small number of musicians to perform in conditions of friendly and intimate peace and quiet,” Summers says. ‘It lives on the border of public and private, sometimes going strongly in one direction or the other, but always centering itself in-between.”

“We’ve got a lot of friends by now with whom we perform the world over, from Switzerland to Australia,” Summers says, “and there’s a lot we have to show them about how fine Charlottesville can be. They have something for us; we have something for them.”

And they all have something important for us.

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