Classical music fans in Central Virginia love September. So do some of the finest classical musicians in the world. For fifteen years now, Charlottesville natives Timothy Summers and Raphael Bell have brought the two together for the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival, two weeks’ worth of stimulating concerts of classical music for small ensembles. The eight 2014 performances (seven ticketed and one free) take place September 7-18, in the city’s most beautiful performance spaces, The Paramount Theater and Old Cabell Hall, and, fittingly, in a nightclub known for contemporary sounds.
The roots of chamber music “reach far from the here and now, into history,” Bell and Summers write, introducing this year’s continuation of that history. “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.”
The two local boys turned world travelers studied music together, first at Charlottesville High School, then at New York City’s Julliard School. Today they enjoy international careers; Summers as second violinist for the celebrated Orpheus String Quartet, and in the first violin section of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Bell as principal cellist of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Once a year, they bring it all back home, inviting a group of colleagues (19 in 2014) to join them for a festival that has become a highlight of the musical year and the vibrant Charlottesville cultural scene.
Charlottesville “was not only a good place to grow up,” Summers says, but “it is a place which seems to continually develop culturally. There is so much music and arts in the area, and there are so many interesting people coming from the University and community, we can depend on an interesting and interested audience. It is also extremely nice to bring people here from all over the world, to visit in a place we know has so much to offer.”
The two old friends and orchestra mates call their 2014 season “one of our most ambitious yet, tracing an historical path from the 18th century the 21st,” an “instrumental path from works for one to works for fifteen,” and “a geographic path through Austria-Hungary, Italy, Charlottesville, New York, and elsewhere. It is both an explosion and a condensation of chamber-musical history.”
The season kicks off in Old Cabell Hall on Sunday, September 7 at 3:00 p.m. with Franz Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A major, D. 574 and Piano Trio in B-flat major, D. 898, and Bohuslav Martinu’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, H. 340. Tickets for Paramount and Old Cabell Hall concerts are $25 and $18 for adults, and $6 for students.
“The opening program this year is the quietest, the homiest,” Summers says. “The music of Schubert has a special place right near the center of chamber music, something surprisingly deep. There follows a group of four concerts together, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It’s hard to describe one without the others, since they make a sort of explosive, exploratory set.”
The first concert of the group, 8:00 p.m. Thursday, September 11 at The Paramount Theater, has “themes of afterlife and of turn-of-the-century Vienna,” with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Glück, das mir verblieb” from Die tote Stadt, W.A. Mozart’s Quintet for Winds in E-flat major, K. 452, and a rare chamber orchestra arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major. The second concert, 8:00 p.m. Friday, September 12 at the Paramount Theater, runs from the baroque to the modern, with works of J.S. Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No.2), Antonio Vivaldi, Luciano Berio, Alexandre Lunsqui, and Gioacchino Rossini.
The third concert of the group, at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, September 13, is the second annual Fresh Squeezed Music program, featuring a wide-ranging selection of work by contemporary composers in a casual environment. This year it’s at The Southern Café and Music Hall. Doors open at 8. The audience will hear new, improvised, “and otherwise recreational” compositions by Luciano Berio, Steve Reich, Jacques Brel, Astor Piazzola, and Sebastian Fagerlund. Trumpeter Jeroen Bal will play a set combining work by 18th century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau and 20th century French singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. General admission tickets are $12.
Bal (“a heckuva trumpet player,” Summers says), will be featured as well in the fourth concert of the set, Sunday, September 14 at 3:00 p.m. at Old Cabell Hall, in a program that includes a chamber orchestra arrangement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op.55, (the “Eroica”), Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat major, Op. 11, Bohuslav Martinů’s La Revue de Cuisine, Georges Enescu’s Légende, and Györgi Ligeti Le Grand Macabre. “The Ligeti and Martinu are quite absurd,” Summers says. “Ligeti’s piece is about the sort-of-end-of-the-world and Martinu’s is a love triangle between pieces of cookware.”
Each year, Festival musicians help foster the next generation of classical music lovers, visiting schools in Charlottesville and surrounding counties. On Thursday, September 18 at 12:30 p.m., the festival welcomes school kids and curious adults alike to its annual free lunch hour concert at The Paramount Theater, with violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Benjamin Hochman, hailed by New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini as “two exciting artists of the new generation (who happen to be married).”
Koh and Hochman join Summers and Bell at the Paramount at 8:00 p.m. that evening for the festival finale, playing three new American works – Yehudi Wyner’s Concordance, John Zorn’s Passagen, David Ludwig’s Aria Fantasy for Piano Quartet – plus a repertory staple from the 19th century, Johannes Brahms Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 1 in G major, Op. 78.
Over its fifteen-year history, the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival has built a loyal – and adventurous – base of subscribers. “We have a very enthusiastic audience,” says festival board chair Henry M. Peskin, “which is interesting, because we have had quite an eclectic program over the years. Some things are very familiar and some things are very unfamiliar, and they support it.”
Even mayors support it! “I love classical music, although I have limited knowledge of Western classical music,” says Charlottesville mayor Satyendra Huja. “But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying it. I am looking forward to the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival. The festival contributes significantly to our cultural vibrancy and economic wellbeing. I encourage residents and visitors to participate.”
By Ken Wilson