Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Peak Experience...

The Atlanta Chamber Players performed its "Grande Finale" at the Shakespeare Tavern last evening.  this annual tradition has for the past several years been the place to be as the classical  music season gets a bit long- in- the- tooth.

The program began with the String Quartet No. 5 of Philip Glass, played by Helen Hwaya Kim (violin), Anastasi Agapove (violin), Catherine Lynn (viola), and Brad Ritchies (cello).The piece began a bit tentatively with a certain lack of precision but everything got quickly on track.  Yet, in the end, for AMC (a Glass aficionado) the performance seemed underwhelming, with diminished dynamics that are essential to adding tension and excitement to the work.  The performers are technically skilled but they seemed to hold back from giving a "full out" performance.  In addition there were a few intonation issues, an errant bad bowing, and a certain lack of blending of the tone of the two violins.  Ms. Agapova's was more subdued and Ms. Kim's was rather bright and forward.

The ACP is noted for its support of new music and this concert provided the opportunity to premier Mark Gresham's VocalEasy.  This work was co-commissioned by the ACP and Laura Ardan, who was also the clarinet soloist.  The vocalist was Ann Marie McPhail, with Elizabeth Pridgen on the piano.   The work is described as a "not entirely serious rhapsody"  (as opposed to a series of songs), and the name itself is a play on the term Vocalise.  the work began as if Villa Lobos" Bachianas Brasileiras" had been reborn with a tango beat.  The piece went on to be humorous, serious, and nostalgic as it paid homage to various vocal trio styles.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable work that AMC hopes gets a wider audience.  But with these three outstanding performers, Gresham lucked out. Ardan is one of the top two or three players in the Atlanta Symphony.  She rarely if ever makes a mistake, she thoroughly enjoys the music around her, and her playing is expressive and precise.  She is a joy to watch on stage as the music seemingly inhabits her body.  Ms. McPhail has a strong and beautiful voice, which meshed nicely with the sound of the clarinet.  Ms Pridgen was, well, Ms. Pridgen and more of that later.

The next piece was Debussy's Premiere Rhapsodie, which was written in 1910 as one of a set of two works for clarinet to be used as demonstration pieces for those graduating from the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris.  This Rhapsodie is not simply a piece for students however.  It shows Debussy's skills as a technically accomplished composer who could spin out lovely melodies and chords that are the hallmark of his craft.  There is no mistaking this music as anything other than having been composed by the Master at the peak of his skills.  Again Ardan and Pridgen were the performers.  They were nothing short of breathtaking in their music making.  They nailed it.

 But then came Ravel's Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello. Joining Pridgen were Amy Schwartz Moretti, and Julie Albers, cello.  From the very first measures of this work, which highlight Ravel's exoticism, it was clear that fireworks were just being ignited.  Once the first movement was underway, each of these three very talented and confident musicians let loose a powerhouse of sound and musicality that made this the very finest performance AMC heard in Atlanta this year.  Pridgen's ability in the lowest registers of the piano are startling.  She understands her instrument and the environment in which she was playing so that those low notes were crystal clear and precise. She is a master technician as well as top-flight music interpreter.  For her part, Schwartz Moretti is a strong player with a grand sound that never overwhelms the other parts.  It is as if she is helping to coax similarly large yet sensitive sounds from her colleagues.  She puts her entire body into performing and the audience was spellbound.  And Ms. Albers matched her colleagues in terms of technical skill and musicality.  For AMC, she is the very best cellist that has been heard in the Atlanta area this yea.  Her tone is magnificent and her interpretations are right on target.  The eery and difficult harmonies at the end of the first movement were played to a tee by Schwartz Moretti and Albers.  All three of these musicians work at the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University.  AMC's advice is to walk- no-run, to any performance that one or more of these three amazing artists are playing.  This was one overwhelmingly fine performance heard this year- or in any year for that matter. AMC hopes he is not understating that!

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