ChamberFEST Cleveland 2012 opens
at the Cleveland Institute of Music (June 27)
by Timothy Robson
ChamberFEST Cleveland opened its “Big Bang” 2012 inaugural Season on Wednesday, June 27, at the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Mixon Hall to a sell-out audience. Chamberfest is the brainchild of Cleveland Orchestra principal clarinet Franklin Cohen and his daughter, Richmond Symphony concertmaster Diana Cohen, both of whom serve as the series’s artistic directors.
It is clearly a labor of love; indeed, Mr. Cohen was at the entrance of Mixon Hall greeting friends and supporters before the concert. The concerts in the series are spread over five consecutive days in venues as varied as Mixon Hall, The Wine Spot on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, CWRU's Harkness Chapel and the Dunham Tavern in Midtown Cleveland. The performers on the roster—widely-based geographically—were hand-picked by the Cohens; thus all were attuned to the festival’s aesthetic of exploration. In the performers there was an interesting mix of well-known, seasoned musicians, as well as quite a number of younger professionals more at the beginning of their careers. The repertoire for the concerts is equally varied, from traditional chamber music to an improvised score accompanying silent film.
Each of the concerts in the series has a theme. For the opening concert it was “Explosive Beginnings,” exploring works by composers early in their careers. Each half of the program featured a work for two pianos and a work for string octet; the second half opened with a recent work for violin and piano. Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos in D major, K. 448 (K375a)” and Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings, which opened and closed the program respectively, are acknowledged masterpieces in the mainstream repertoire; Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for four violins, two violas and two cellos, op. 11, and Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini for two pianos are youthful rarities by composers whose style had not yet matured. Pianist Matan Porat’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano (2001) was composed when he was nineteen; it seems unlikely to enter the mainstream, but that, of course, remains to be seen.
The performances were all expert, especially considering that it is unlikely that the various combinations of performers had played together prior to a few days before the concert. The Mozart Sonata was especially elegant in its performance by American Orion Weiss and Israeli Matan Porat. There was remarkable unity and sensitive interplay between the two pianos, which are treated as equals. The thematic material was traded seamlessly back and forth. This was collaboration in its best sense. The central aria-like Andante movement was achingly beautiful, and the closing Rondo was filled with humor.
Shostakovich’s 1924-25 Two Pieces, were written after the Russian Revolution, but prior to Stalin’s repressive regime; they are austere and modernist, only vaguely tonal, full of strident dissonances and drama. The seeds of Shostakovich’s greatness are there; they had not yet coalesced. The pieces seems experimental, as if he was trying out techniques that would come to fruition later. The committed performers were Yehonatan Berick, Diana Cohen, Noah Bendix-Balgley and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violins, Dimitri Murrath and Eliesha Nelson, violas, and Julie Albers and Jacob Braun, cellos.
Following intermission there was a short discussion between lecturer Patrick Castillo, who was scheduled to give pre-concert talks at the remaining events, and Matan Porat, whose Fantasy opened the second half. Mr. Porat wrote the work for his piano teacher in Jerusalem and had not performed it himself prior to this concert, which was the United States premiere. The composer’s own description was accurate: the Fantasy has an explosive beginning and ending, with expanding complexity in the middle. It has minimalist rhythms, Messiaen-like harmonies and sonorities, combined with such techniques as slow scraping of the bow across the violin strings, rhythmic tapping on the body of the violin, finally ending with the pianist tapping rhythms on the keys as if he were playing, but not depressing the keys so that the hammers would strike the strings. Violinist Yehonatan Berick joined the composer for the performance.
As a means to survive financially during World War II, Polish composer Witold Lutosławski joined with fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik to form a piano duo that played in Warsaw’s cafés. They created over 200 arrangements, including the Paganini variations of 1941. It is based on the last of the Caprices, op. 1, for unaccompanied violin of 1815. That solo violin work has inspired numerous other works, including Rachmaninoff’s famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra. Lutosławski’s variations are a bravura showpiece for the two pianists, in this case Mr. Porat and Mr. Weiss. For those listeners used to Rachmaninoff’s romanticism, Lutosławski’s work is bracing, with polytonal harmonies, complex rhythms and intricate trading of musical material from player to player. Should they choose to pursue it, these two performers could have a successful career as a duo; their rapport as performers was evident in both the Mozart and Lutosławski works on this program.
This first concert of the ChamberFEST Cleveland “Big Bang” ended with Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings, which received a passionate reading, especially as led by first violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, who had much of the melodic material of Mendelssohn’s youthful (but simultaneously mature) masterpiece. The other performers were Noah Bendix-Balgley, Ms. Cohen, and Mr. Berick, violins, Mr. Murrath and Ms. Nelson, violas, and Ralph Kirshbaum and Ms. Albers, cellos. At times it seemed that the players were working too hard; there was an ongoing sense of tension, but there was little repose, even in the lovely Andante movement.
After the concert there was a festive party for the audience and performers that featured a Brazilian band. The concert was on the long-ish side; this listener opted to head for home.
The musical and production values for this first ChamberFEST Cleveland concert were high, including a lavish color program book for all four concerts with informative program notes and biographies of the performers and a specially commissioned “Big Bang” graphic by Cleveland artist Seth Chwast that served as the centerfold for the booklet. Mr. Chwast, a young man with autism who rarely speaks, describes the world in vibrant colors. He was present to sign prints of his painting.
In this musical and artistic celebration of friends and musical artistry, one was put in mind of Britain’s Aldeburgh Festival, founded in 1948 by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears as “a few concerts with friends.” Still going strong, Aldeburgh survives its founders; may ChamberFEST Cleveland and its own founders Franklin and Diana Cohen have ongoing success as a vital part of Cleveland’s summer culture.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com July 3, 2012
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